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How Senate Hopefuls Keep Donors Secret From Voters Until It’s Too Late

charles schumer
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY).

By Derek Willis and Robert Faturechi, ProPublica

For nearly 15 years, voters have been able to click a mouse to view an up-to-date list of who’s contributed to candidates for the presidency and the U.S. House, and how those funds have been spent.

But the law still allows Senate candidates to file campaign reports on paper, making it nearly impossible to keep up with the flow of money.

Efforts to fix that imbalance have died over and over again in the Senate, regardless of which party controlled the chamber. Whether the latest attempt succeeds before the 2016 election may rest on a political horse trade – one that would loosen the reins on another part of campaign spending.

Since December 2000, presidential and House candidates have had to file campaign reports electronically to the Federal Election Commission, meaning the public, journalists and analysts can see donors and recipients within minutes. The language in the 2000 law, though, didn’t cover Senate candidates.

As a result the Senate uses a paper system that hasn’t changed much since 1972: Filings are mailed, faxed or delivered by hand to the Secretary of the Senate. The paperwork, which can involve thousands of pages in a big race, is then passed to the FEC, which pays to have the documents scanned and posted online. The information in the reports is typed into a computer so the data can be published for researchers and journalists. The whole process costs the FEC up to $500,000 a year, the Congressional Budget Office has said.

The cumbersome process means information about fundraising and spending isn’t available for days or sometimes more than a week after the reports are due – and then in a format that isn’t easily searchable. In the final weeks before an election, voters may have only a few days to look through hundreds of pages of filings in key races. This isn’t new: a Campaign Finance Institute analysis in 2004 showed that “voters preparing to go to the polls last November did not know where a large amount of money to elect their Senators for the next six years was coming from.”

In most cases it’s a matter of delayed information that could be useful to undecided voters, rather than someone trying to hide an improper donation. This pattern has continued in recent elections, although the FEC has reduced the length of time voters would need to wait. For example, the final filing before the November 2014 election was due on Oct. 23. In Colorado, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall was locked in a tight re-election race that he eventually lost to Cory Gardner, a Republican congressman. Udall submitted his campaign filing to the Senate on Oct. 22. But images of the 1,029 pages did not get posted on the FEC site – where the public could examine them – until Oct. 28, six days later, according to the FEC. That filing included maximum contributions from the Steelworker and Teamster labor union PACs, as well as at least $33,000 from donors via the League of Conservation Voters.

The contributions and expenditures in the filing did not get typed into the FEC’s databases, where they could be searched, until Nov. 25, weeks after the election. Udall raised $725,078 and spent $2.1 million during the period covered by that filing, but Colorado’s voters had seven days to look through a thousand pages.

Gardner’s final pre-election report was submitted on Oct. 23 and posted to the web six days later. It included a $1,000 contribution from the Susan B. Anthony List PAC, which supports candidates opposed to abortion rights, and the $4,000 rental of a list of donors from the PAC of Michele Bachmann, the former Minnesota congresswoman and 2012 presidential candidate.

Similarly, all candidates are required to file reports during the final 20 days before an election listing contributions of $1,000 or more. House and presidential candidates file these “48-Hour reports” electronically; Senate candidates fax them to the Senate, which then sends them off to the FEC to be posted. An 11-page filing by Thom Tillis, a Republican who defeated North Carolina Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in 2014, was faxed to the Senate on Oct. 31 but not officially received until Nov. 3, the day before the election. It listed $92,350 in contributions, including $2,600 from Shelly Adelson, the daughter of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, which few North Carolina voters could see before the election – unless they happened to be in Washington the day before the vote.

Of course, nothing stops Senate candidates from voluntarily filing electronic campaign reports. This year, 19 senators have done so – 16 Democrats, two independents and one Republican, as have several Democratic Senate candidates.

Bills that would make this mandatory have failed in the Senate for more than a decade. They died in committee or were defeated by adding so-called poison pill amendments without bipartisan support. The closest one came to passing in the last Congress. That measure, introduced by Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, one of the 16 Democrats who have already gone digital, was approved by a Senate committee and had a majority of the Senate as co-sponsors. But it was never brought to the floor of the chamber, which was controlled by Democrats at the time. That indicates the bill didn’t have the 60 votes needed to overcome any objection to its consideration.

This year’s version is included in a Senate spending bill, which was approved in July by the appropriations committee. The key to the provision’s chances, though, may be a second campaign finance provision in the same bill, an idea that has been pushed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

The proposal by McConnell has been floated before by Republicans as a possible trade for the filing fix. It would remove a ceiling on so-called coordinated political party spending. Proponents of the change say the limit has become outmoded in the increasingly wild world of campaign finance. Opponents say loosening the rule would be one more step toward unregulated politics.

Spending by political parties can be divided into two main categories – independent expenditures, defined as money spent on ads or other communications advocating the election or defeat of a candidate without consulting or cooperating with a candidate’s campaign; and coordinated spending, which means money spent with the candidate’s cooperation.

Parties can put whatever they want into independent expenditures but federal law limits coordinated spending, on the theory that such restrictions reduce the amount of outside money flowing directly to advocacy for a particular candidate. (Those limits vary by state according to population, ranging from $96,000 in Delaware to $2.8 million in California for Senate races.)

With no limits on independent expenditures, that’s where the parties have shifted spending. In the 2014 cycle, national party committees spent eight times as much on independent ads as coordinated ads – $228 million compared with $27.6 million, according to the FEC.

But as coordinated spending has fallen, the rise of super PACS and nonprofits that funnel cash outside of the party apparatus has transformed campaign finance and rendered limits on party spending irrelevant, say analysts including Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“It’s silly for parties to have to set up independent spending operations” in the new world of super PACs and nonprofits, said Mann, who testified before a Senate committee in 2007 in support of removing the coordinated spending limit.

Daniel Weiner, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, who advocates for stricter campaign finance rules, also supports the general notion of eliminating caps on coordinated party spending. He said removing limits would likely divert some outside spending back into the party structure, which he said would be healthier for democracy because it could diminish the influence of super PACs and so-called dark money. Compared to independent groups, he said, parties are more internally democratic and accountable to the public because they’re “repeat players.”

Independent expenditures by parties wouldn’t disappear entirely, Weiner said. In scenarios where candidates want to maintain plausible deniability over an expense – an attack ad, for example – parties would likely still opt to go it alone.

Many Democrats and campaign finance reform groups, though, are already on record against the idea of lifting the restrictions, dimming the chance of a trade. McConnell’s proposal was first included in a spending bill last December. It was withdrawn after opposition from Democrats including Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, who said at the time that the measure would “remove one of the few dams left” on the flood of money from the “ultra-rich” into campaign spending.

During this latest round, the Campaign Legal Center and other advocacy groups sent a letter to senators in July, saying that loosening the party limits would “seriously undermine longstanding campaign finance provisions.” Democrats failed to remove it from the bill in committee on a party-line vote. This week, the groups sent a letter to Obama urging him to veto any bill that included looser campaign finance rules, including the elimination of coordination limits.

McConnell’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on any possible deal. Marnee Banks, a spokeswoman for Tester, said in an e-mail that the fate of the electronic filing requirement “depends on if Republican leadership is willing to start negotiating on [spending] bills.” She added, “As we’ve seen so far this Congress they are refusing to sit down and hash out a deal.”

For now, the prospects don’t seem bright. The Senate spending bill is stalled. Democrats have pledged to filibuster appropriations bills until Republicans renegotiate budget limits. And even if the McConnell measure endures, there’s no guarantee the electronic filing piece won’t be carved out of the bill.

Failing any movement, voters wanting to track how their Senate candidates raise and spend money next year will have the same options as 40 years ago: waiting for a tall stack of documents to arrive.

Related stories: For more coverage of politics and lobbying, read ProPublica’s previous reporting on the ripples from Scott Walker’s legal victory, the insurance lobby’s pivot to Democrats and an imploding super PAC.

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Colleges Flush With Cash Saddle Poorest Students With Debt

By Annie Waldman and Sisi Wei, ProPublica

New York University is among the country’s wealthiest schools. Backed by its $3.5 billion endowment, the school has built campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, invested billions in SoHo real estate, and given its star faculty loans to buy summer homes.

But the university does less than many other schools when it comes to one thing: helping its poor students.

A ProPublica analysis based on new data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that students from low-income families graduate from NYU saddled with huge federal loans. The school’s Pell Grant recipients – students from families that make less than $30,000 a year – owe an average of $23,250 in federal loans after graduation.

That’s more federal loan debt than low-income students take on at for-profit giant University of Phoenix, though NYU graduates have higher earnings and default less on their debt.

NYU is not the only university with a billion-dollar endowment to leave its poorest students with heavy debt loads. More than a quarter of the nation’s 60 wealthiest universities leave their low-income students owing an average of more than $20,000 in federal loans.

At the University of Southern California, which has a $4.6 billion endowment, low-income students graduate with slightly more debt than NYU’s graduates: $23,375. At Boston University ($1.5 billion endowment), it’s $27,000, and at Wake Forest University ($1.1 billion endowment) low-income students graduate with $29,150 in debt.

This new data on student debt is drawn from numbers that the Obama administration assembled as part of a planned effort to create grades for every college. In the face of fierce lobbying from universities, the administration backed away, but has made much of the data public on a new website called College Scorecard. ProPublica has used that material to create Debt By Degrees, an interactive database that allows you to search information for almost 7,000 schools. The data provides an unprecedented level of detail on the financial burden that the poorest college students face, showing for the first time how much federal debt poor students take on compared to their wealthier peers, and how well these students are able to repay their loans. The database also shows how much graduates earn on average after leaving school.

The implications of these numbers can be far-reaching. Studies have shown that even small debts can increase a student’s chances of dropping out, particularly for minorities and low-income students. Also, federal loans, which are typically capped at $27,000 over four years, often don’t cover the full expense of college. Many students also take on private bank loans or work jobs outside school.

“Student debt is not the same to every borrower,” said Mark Huelsman, a senior analyst at Demos, a public policy nonprofit. “It can look a lot different to a first generation student from a very modest economic background than to someone going to graduate school getting a law degree.”

Indeed, undergraduates take a fraction of the loans of graduate students but default at much higher rates. Debt can put low-income young adults at a disadvantage for years to come, limiting a graduate’s ability to save, get a mortgage, or get the job they aspire to.

“At the end of the day, you’re talking about households that don’t have nearly as much wealth to fall back on,” said Huelsman.

Rebecca Arthur wanted nothing more than to study photography at Tisch, NYU’s arts school. Her mother, however, made less than $25,000 a year working at a nursing home, so Arthur knew the school’s four-year price tag of over $250,000 would be a stretch. When Arthur was accepted, she was shocked – not only because she had gotten into her dream school, but also because the school only offered modest financial aid.

“The first bill was $32,000 and it was more than my mom made in a year,” she said. “Why would they accept me if they knew I couldn’t afford it?”

Arthur tried to crowdfund the remaining amount of her tuition, but it was only when her mother died a month before school started that NYU agreed to take a second look at her financial aid package. Although they increased her aid, she works four jobs and expects to graduate with over $24,000 in loans.

“The one downside to NYU is that money is always a big problem,” said Arthur, who is now a sophomore at the university. “People that really want [to go to NYU] and deserve it shouldn’t have to fight for it.”

In response to recent criticism of its financial priorities, NYU says it has more than doubled financial aid in the last decade and that average student debt has decreased significantly in the past five years. The school also enrolls a greater percentage of Pell Grant recipients than other elite schools. Finally, NYU points out that its endowment is actually quite modest on a per-student basis, since NYU has far more students than many other elite universities.

“NYU is deeply concerned about the issues of cost and debt,” John Beckman, NYU’s vice president for public affairs, told ProPublica. “NYU has made tremendous strides in improving financial aid.” NYU’s full response can be found here.

While NYU students average debt from both federal and private loans has gone down in the past five years, it’s about the same as a decade ago. And though NYU’s financial aid has doubled over the past decade, its revenue from tuition and fees has nearly doubled as well. Faculty and students have protested NYU’s $6 billion expansion plan, saying more should be spent on financial aid.

A government report released today along with the data noted just how wide a disparity there can be in the prices poor students pay at competitor schools: Poor students pay an average of $8,086 per year at Columbia University ($8.2 billion endowment) versus $25,441 at NYU.

“Schools talk so much about how they’re about helping low-income students,” said Stephen Burd, a senior policy analyst at New America Foundation. “But their words and actions are so different.”

Overall, students at nonprofit universities fare far better than those at for-profit schools and community colleges. One recent study shows that students at public and nonprofit schools typically have lower default rates and higher earnings.

Out of the nearly 2,000 nonprofit colleges that ProPublica analyzed, a handful of wealthy schools do particularly well in serving the needs of low-income students.

Vassar College, with an endowment of close to $1 billion, charges its poorest students a quarter of what NYU does, and they graduate with less than half the debt.

Only a decade ago, Vassar looked little different than NYU. However, in 2006, the school hired a new president, Catharine Bond Hill, an academic who specializes in college access and affordability. During her first few years, Hill instituted need-blind admissions, accepting students regardless of their financial background. She also created a policy of replacing loans with grants to poorer students. And to bolster low-income applicants to the school, she initiated an aggressive recruiting campaign in poorer neighborhoods, partnering with pre-existing college prep programs.

After 10 years, these changes have made Vassar one of the most affordable colleges in the country for low-income students. Today, over 20 percent of Vassar students receive Pell Grants. That’s double the percentage of low-income students of a decade ago.

“Schools that have the resources should be giving out more in need-based grant aid,” Hill told ProPublica.

Other schools that have helped level the playing field for low-income students include Amherst College and Williams College, both in Western Massachusetts. Nearly 20 percent of students at these schools receive Pell Grants and they graduate with less than $10,000 of federal loans. Berea College in Kentucky charges no tuition and only accepts low-income students.

Vassar’s Hill told ProPublica that other wealthy schools need to do more to recruit low-income students and to make college affordable for them. A White House report that accompanied today’s data release notes that poor kids are often discouraged by schools’ sticker prices, and do not know that they might qualify for financial aid.

“We know there are talented students out there and recent work has shown there are ways to get them into our pools,” Hill said.

Harvard ($35.9 billion endowment), Princeton ($20.9 billion endowment), and Yale ($23.9 billion endowment) all give generous support and even free tuition to low-income students. But they do not enroll many of them. At Harvard, only 10 percent of the students receive Pell Grants.

Asked about their modest number of low-income students, a Harvard official said that school is committed to enrolling the best students, regardless of their financial circumstances.

Co-author Sisi Wei was a paid adjunct professor at NYU in spring 2015.

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Activists Pursue Private Abortion Details Using Public Records Laws

Pro-choice and pro-life activists demonstrate on the steps of the United States Supreme Court building on Nov. 16, 2006 (Wikimedia Commons).

By Charles Ornstein, ProPublica

This story was co-published with the Washington Post.

A few years back, Jonathan Bloedow filed a series of requests under Washington state’s Public Records Act asking for details on pregnancies terminated at abortion clinics around the state.

For every abortion, he wanted information on the woman’s age and race, where she lived, how long she had been pregnant and how past pregnancies had ended. He also wanted to know about any complications, but he didn’t ask for names. This is all information that Washington’s health department, as those in other states, collects to track vital statistics.

What has been your experience with patient privacy? Do you think your medical information was shared by your doctor or health-care provider? Do you think it was involved in a breach? Tell us your story.

Bloedow, 43, isn’t a public health researcher, a traditional journalist or a clinic owner. He’s an anti-abortion activist who had previously sued Planned Parenthood, accusing the group of overcharging the government for contraception.

“There are stories in the data that bring home the reality of what these people do,” Bloedow, a software engineer, said in an email. “Any good investigator knows that when you’re dealing with hard-core criminals, if you ‘keep crawling through their garbage’ some evidence of criminality and corruption will turn up.”

The health department had already given him data for one provider, he said, and was on the verge of turning over more information when Planned Parenthood and other clinics sued, arguing that releasing the records would violate health department rules and privacy laws.

The legal skirmish, and others like it nationwide, reveal a quiet evolution in the nation’s abortion battle. Increasingly, abortion opponents are pursuing personal and medical information on women undergoing abortions and the doctors who perform them. They often file complaints with authorities based on what they learn.

Abortion opponents insist their tactics are generally not aimed at identifying women who have abortions but to uncover incidents involving patients who may have been harmed by poor care or underage girls who may have been sexually abused. They say they are trying to prevent situations such as the one involving Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, who was convicted in 2013 of murdering three babies after botched abortions and of involuntary manslaughter in the death of a woman.

“This is about saving the lives of women,” said Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy adviser for the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, which is based in Wichita, Kansas. “A lot of people don’t understand that. It’s a systemic problem within the abortion industry today for abortion providers to cut corners on patient care.”

But those who support abortion rights say the ultimate aim of these activists is to reduce abortions by intimidating women and their doctors — using the loss of privacy as a weapon. They say their opponents are amassing a wealth of details that could be used to identify patients — turning women, and their doctors, into pariahs or even targets. In a New Mexico case, a woman’s initials and where she lived became public as part of an investigation triggered by a complaint from activists.

“I don’t think there’s any margin for error here,” said Laura Einstein, chief legal counsel of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands, which challenged Bloedow’s request. “These women came to a private health center to have a private health procedure, and that’s just not anybody’s business.”

In recent years, abortion opponents have become experts at accessing public records such as recordings of 911 calls, autopsy reports and documents from state health departments and medical boards, then publishing the information on their websites.

Some activists have dug through clinics’ trash to find privacy violations by abortion providers — such as patient records tossed in dumpsters — and used them to file complaints with regulators.

The fight has landed in courts nationwide as the two sides tussle over which information about abortions should be public and which should remain confidential under privacy laws.

In St. Louis, for example, an Operation Rescue staff member is suing the city’s fire department for 911 call logs and recordings from a Planned Parenthood clinic. The city says releasing the requested information would violate a federal patient privacy law.

In Louisiana, a critic of abortion sued the state last year to get data on abortions performed on minors, their ages and the ages of the listed biological fathers, as well as any complications that occurred. The state said the records were exempt from disclosure, and a judge agreed.

In Bloedow’s case, a Washington court sided with the clinics and prohibited the release of the records he sought. In May, a state appeals court upheld that injunction.

“The public has no legitimate interest in the health care or pregnancy history of any individual woman or where any particular abortion was performed,” the appeals court ruled.

A Tussle Over Privacy

At its core, the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade rested on the right to privacy. The court determined that this right — guaranteed under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment — extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion.

With the 1996 passage of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, additional federal privacy protections took hold for patients.

When Planned Parenthood officials were recently caught on video discussing the sale of donated fetal tissue, the organization invoked the potential violations of patient privacy to protest the surreptitious filming.

Still, the extent of the privacy guaranteed to those who seek abortions has been tested repeatedly.

In 2003, after Congress passed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, abortion providers sued to challenge its constitutionality. The Justice Department, as part of its defense of the law, sought patient records from a Chicago hospital, where a doctor was one of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses.

Though patients’ names would have been redacted, a federal appeals court denied the request, citing privacy concerns.

“Imagine if nude pictures of a woman, uploaded to the Internet without her consent though without identifying her by name, were downloaded in a foreign country by people who will never meet her,” the court wrote. “She would still feel that her privacy had been invaded. The revelation of the intimate details contained in the record of a late-term abortion may inflict a similar wound.”

Around the same time, at least two state attorneys general, both abortion opponents, pressed for similar patient records. The attorney general of Kansas succeeded in part, while his counterpart in Indiana failed.

Digging For Dirt

More recently, it has been activists like Sullenger and Bloedow seeking information about abortion providers and their patients.

Coast to coast, they appear to be drawing from an unofficial playbook: Some wait outside clinics, tracking or taking photos of patients’ and staffers’ license plates and ambulances, if called.

They not only mine public records but also collect information leaked by sympathetic health care workers — for example, emergency-room doctors and ambulance drivers — who are required to keep patient information confidential under HIPAA. The law, however, doesn’t apply to advocacy groups.

Sullenger acknowledges receiving private patient information and said it helps to confirm when patients have suffered complications or died. In most cases, she said, the group does not name patients or publish photographs of them.

(Sullenger served two years in federal prison for conspiring to bomb a California abortion clinic in the 1980s. Today, the Operation Rescue website says, she denounces violence.)

The leaked information is used by activists to bolster complaints they submit to health agencies against abortion providers, sometimes without patients’ knowledge. Operation Rescue estimates that it has 100 complaints currently pending in different states.

Sullenger said it shouldn’t be left solely to patients to bring such matters forward. “If someone else sees that there may be an issue, we have a public duty to report things like that.”

Sometimes, complaints have brought violations to light.

In Indiana, the group Right to Life obtained thousands of pregnancy termination reports from the state health department. The records are nearly identical to those requested by Bloedow in Washington, but Indiana granted the request, redacting only a few fields.

After analyzing the data, the group filed a litany of complaints with the state, alleging that doctors were violating abortion record-keeping laws, including failure to report abortions involving minors in a timely manner. Four physicians now face disciplinary proceedings.

Such cases can be pursued without violating the privacy of patients, said Cathie Humbarger, vice president of policy enforcement for Indiana Right to Life. “We’re not aware of one situation where someone identified a patient by looking at a termination of pregnancy report after it was released by the state,” Humbarger said in an email sent through a spokeswoman.

One Indiana doctor, who has acknowledged making an “honest mistake” involving paperwork, faces a misdemeanor criminal charge.

His attorneys have argued that he did not knowingly violate the law and unsuccessfully sought to have the medical board case dismissed before a hearing.

But there have been other instances in which anti-abortion groups have filed unfounded complaints, said Janet Crepps, a senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights. The resulting investigations caused additional details about the patients to be made public, she said.

Operation Rescue and another group filed complaints with New Mexico’s medical board against a doctor who works at an Albuquerque clinic after a patient experienced a complication and was taken to a hospital, and they obtained a recording of the 911 call.

Though the board ultimately exonerated the doctor, many details about the patient — her age and her mental state, in addition to her initials and where she lived — came out in a transcript of a hearing.

“The woman clearly did not want her privacy violated,” said Vicki Saporta, chief executive of the National Abortion Federation, a professional association for abortion providers. “She didn’t want to talk to anybody.”

After a Death, All Bets Are Off

Anti-abortion groups typically tread carefully when it comes to living patients.

Operation Rescue’s website in March published a photograph of a woman being wheeled out of a St. Louis clinic on a stretcher but put a black bar over her eyes to obscure her identity.

When a patient dies, however, it can be a different story.

In 2013, a different abortion opponent wrote on her blog that an “impeccable informant” told her the identity of a kindergarten teacher who had died after a late-term abortion at a clinic in Germantown, Maryland. Groups including Operation Rescue quickly got the word out, using the woman’s name and photos from social-media sites.

The doctor who performed the abortion, LeRoy Carhart, has been a target for protesters because he does late-term abortions that most other practitioners won’t. Though abortion opponents blame him for the woman’s death, the Maryland medical board found no deficiencies in his care for her.

Saporta said the woman’s family did not authorize the release of her identity.

Sullenger said she sympathized with the family’s loss but not its demand for privacy. “Look, once a person dies, they don’t have any privacy anymore,” she said. “I think they should have been more concerned about it happening to another person.”

Contacted recently, the woman’s mother declined to comment.

‘All They Cared About Was Judging Me’

For some patients, the grief they already feel with the end of a pregnancy is compounded by the loss of privacy.

Alicia, who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used, had an abortion in November 2013 after her OB/GYN told her and her husband that the fetus had a severe form of spina bifida, a debilitating birth defect.

During the procedure, she began bleeding heavily from a tear in her uterus. The clinic, located in Bellevue, south of Omaha, summoned an ambulance, which took Alicia to the hospital.

Someone protesting outside the clinic took a photo of the ambulance, and Operation Rescue’s website reported the incident, though it did not know Alicia’s identity.

Within weeks, the Nebraska health department subpoenaed Alicia’s records from the clinic. Alicia had not complained, but the agency had received a tip, she later learned.

“All this happened because I was in the clinic having a legal abortion,” she said. “All they cared about was judging me … and building evidence for their case.”

Alicia said while the complication was scary at the time, it had been explained to her in advance as a possibility. She said she didn’t blame her doctor, Carhart, who practices in Nebraska as well as in Maryland.

In an interview, Carhart said that several of his patients have had their privacy violated.

After subpoenaing Alicia’s records, Nebraska’s health department disciplined a nurse at Carhart’s clinic for a pattern of negligence and unprofessional conduct involving a dozen patients, including Alicia.

Alicia said she asked state officials to identify who had filed the complaint that provided her name to state officials. To her amazement, she was told that information was confidential.

Marla Augustine, a health department spokeswoman, said in an email that patients are not notified if their records are examined “to protect the process from being contaminated.” For instance, a patient so notified could tip off a health provider about the existence of an investigation. That said, Augustine added: “The confidentiality of a patient’s medical records is very important to us, and a paramount consideration.”

Her explanation provides little comfort to Alicia.

“I don’t understand why whoever did this gets to be anonymous while I was the one who was supposed to not have my information leaked,” she said. “Why does that person get more rights than me?”

Has your medical privacy been compromised? Help ProPublica investigate by filling out a short questionnaire. You can also read other stories in our Policing Patient Privacy series.

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The Best Defense Is Good Offense: DOJ Challenges Local Public Defense Programs

custody

By Lauren Kirchner, ProPublica

Shortly before Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation last September, he told an interviewer: “Any attorney general who is not an activist is not doing his or her job.” One of Holder’s more activist initiatives received attention last week when The New York Times highlighted how Holder’s Justice Department began the novel practice of filing arguments in state and county courts.

“[N]either career Justice Department officials nor longtime advocates can recall such a concerted effort to insert the federal government into local civil rights cases,” Matt Apuzzo wrote for the Times.

The agency has used so-called “statements of interest” to file arguments in existing court cases—sometimes cases brought by the ACLU, Equal Justice Under Law or other advocacy groups. One issue that’s garnered particular attention from Justice Department lawyers is fair access to legal defense, a right guaranteed by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division has filed four such statements in the past two years, a time in which bipartisan support has emerged for a renewed examination of how local and state governments are providing legal representation to the poor. The department maintains that it does not take a position on the facts of the case, but it argues larger points about civil rights issues with national implications.

“It’s very much like having an amicus brief, but it’s an amicus brief by the United States Department of Justice,” said Norman Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “That carries a lot of weight. No municipality or state wants to be found to be violating Constitutional rights in the eyes of the Justice Department.”

As the Times story shows, local prosecutors and defense attorneys for the cities and states that suddenly come under this national microscope may not appreciate the attention, however. Nor do they necessarily agree with the Justice Department’s premise that it is not taking sides in the cases at hand. Scott G. Thomas, the attorney who defended Burlington, Washington in a suit challenging the city’s indigent defense program, objected to the way the case turned Burlington into a political symbol, telling Apuzzo, “it’s the Department of Justice putting their finger on the scale.”

Joshua Marquis, the elected district attorney in Clatsop County, Oregon, who also serves on the executive committee of the board of directors of the National District Attorneys Association, considers problematic indigent defense systems more episodic than epidemic. “The idea that this is somehow symptomatic of some sort of major civil rights emergency in America is just plain crazy,” he said. Where smaller jurisdictions lack funding for indigent defense, it follows that the prosecutors in those same jurisdictions lack funding, too. “To me, that’s just as dire a problem,” said Marquis, “and since, frankly, most victims are poor people and people of color, I would be really impressed to see the United States Justice Department pick that up.”

The Supreme Court ruled in the 1963 case Gideon v. Wainwright that each state had to establish means of representation for defendants who couldn’t afford it themselves. But the federal government only provides best practices, grants and training; it’s left to the states to decide how to interpret Gideon‘s mandate and how much money to allocate to it. Some states leave the decisions about indigent defense and funding for it entirely to counties. As a result, the quality of one’s counsel heavily depends on the location of the alleged crime.

“It’s very difficult to explain the patchwork quilt that is the right to counsel in America,” said David Carroll, executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center, an advocacy group for indigent defense. “People watch TV cop dramas, where everyone asks for a lawyer in police lockup, and they come back from commercial break, and there’s the lawyer … The difference between what they believe and what’s actually happening is very broad.”

The gap between what many Americans consider to be adequate defense, and the reality on the ground in local courts, is what advocates say these lawsuits seek to close. The potential remains for many more investigations and filings, as well. “The DOJ could almost take a dart, and throw it at a map, and there would be a problem with indigent defense in that particular place,” said Ernie Lewis, executive director of the National Association for Public Defense. “And I don’t think I’m exaggerating.”

Here are the jurisdictions where DOJ lawyers have filed statements of interest in cases addressing indigent defense:

Washington (Cities of Mount Vernon and Burlington)

In an August 2013 statement of interest in Wilbur v. City of Mount Vernon, the Justice Department asked a federal court in Washington to appoint an “independent monitor” to oversee new reforms to the indigent defense system there. This was the first statement of interest of this kind, and advocates say it had a huge impact — in signaling that the Justice Department was going to enforce this issue in a new way, and in tangible changes to the Washington system, as well. The judge in the case “took it and really ran with it, and there’s big changes now happening all across Washington,” said the Sixth Amendment Center’s Carroll.

In the conclusion of his decision, which refers to the 1963 ruling in Gideon, U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik wrote: “The notes of freedom and liberty that emerged from Gideon’s trumpet a half a century ago cannot survive if that trumpet is muted and dented by harsh fiscal measures that reduce the promise to a hollow shell of a hallowed right.”

New York

Back in 2007, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a suit on behalf of 20 defendants against the state of New York, arguing that five counties were denying effective counsel to indigent defendants. Ontario, Onondaga, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington counties did not have a public defense system or standards in place at the time; they had just contracted with private attorneys on an ad-hoc (and apparently inadequate) basis. The Justice Department joined the suit with a statement of interest in September 2014. A settlement followed within weeks, mandating the creation of a new public defense office, standards for defendant eligibility, and more state funding for the attorneys.

Alabama (City of Clanton)

With its statement of interest in February of this year, the Justice Department joined a lawsuit against the city of Clanton for its practice of setting bail without regard for a defendant’s flight risk or ability to pay. Christy Dawn Varden, a plaintiff in the case, was arrested for shoplifting at Walmart, and a judge assigned her a $2,000 bond—$500 for each of Varden’s four misdemeanor charges. Living on $200 a month in food stamps, Varden could not pay the bond, and so stayed in jail. “By taking action in this case, the Justice Department is sending a clear message: that we will not accept criminal justice procedures that have discriminatory effects,” said Holder in a statement. “We will not hesitate to fight institutionalized injustice wherever it is found.” As a result of the case, city officials agreed to reform the way it assigned bail.

Georgia

In March, the Justice Department filed a statement of interest addressing the rights of juveniles accused of delinquency in Georgia. The complaint alleged that officials were denying the juvenile defendants’ right to counsel, by encouraging the children to waive a right that they didn’t really understood they had. It argued that these young defendants were subject to “assembly line justice”; acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta said “The systemic deprivation of counsel for children cannot be tolerated.”

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The FBI Built a Database That Can Catch Rapists—Almost Nobody Uses It

FBI analysts use one of the agency's databases (FBI photo)

This story was co-published with The Atlantic.

QUANTICO, Va. — More than 30 years ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a revolutionary computer system in a bomb shelter two floors beneath the cafeteria of its national academy. Dubbed the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, or ViCAP, it was a database designed to help catch the nation’s most violent offenders by linking together unsolved crimes. A serial rapist wielding a favorite knife in one attack might be identified when he used the same knife elsewhere. The system was rooted in the belief that some criminals’ methods were unique enough to serve as a kind of behavioral DNA — allowing identification based on how a person acted, rather than their genetic make-up.

Equally as important was the idea that local law enforcement agencies needed a way to better communicate with each other. Savvy killers had attacked in different jurisdictions to exploit gaping holes in police cooperation. ViCAP’s “implementation could mean the prevention of countless murders and the prompt apprehension of violent criminals,” the late Sen. Arlen Specter wrote in a letter to the Justice Department endorsing the program’s creation.

In the years since ViCAP was first conceived, data-mining has grown vastly more sophisticated, and computing power has become cheaper and more readily available. Corporations can link the food you purchase, the clothes you buy, and the websites you browse. The FBI can parse your emails, cellphone records and airline itineraries. In a world where everything is measured, data is ubiquitous —from the number of pieces of candy that a Marine hands out on patrol in Kandahar, to your heart rate as you walk up the stairs at work.

That’s what’s striking about ViCAP today: the paucity of information it contains. Only about 1,400 police agencies in the U.S., out of roughly 18,000, participate in the system. The database receives reports from far less than 1 percent of the violent crimes committed annually. It’s not even clear how many crimes the database has helped solve. The FBI does not release any figures. A review in the 1990s found it had linked only 33 crimes in 12 years.

Canadian authorities built on the original ViCAP framework to develop a modern and sophisticated system capable of identifying patterns and linking crimes. It has proven particularly successful at analyzing sexual-assault cases. But three decades and an estimated $30 million later, the FBI’s system remains stuck in the past, the John Henry of data mining. ViCAP was supposed to revolutionize American law enforcement. That revolution never came.

Few law enforcement officials dispute the potential of a system like ViCAP to help solve crimes. But the FBI has never delivered on its promise. In an agency with an $8.2 billion yearly budget, ViCAP receives around $800,000 a year to keep the system going. The ViCAP program has a staff of 12. Travel and training have been cut back in recent years. Last year, the program provided analytical assistance to local cops just 220 times. As a result, the program has done little to close the gap that prompted Congress to create it. Police agencies still don’t talk to each other on many occasions. Killers and rapists continue to escape arrest by exploiting that weakness. “The need is vital,” said Ritchie Martinez, the former president of the International Association of Law Enforcement Intelligence Analysts. “But ViCAP is not filling it.”

Local cops say the system is confusing and cumbersome. Entering a single case into the database can take an hour and hits — where an unsolved crime is connected to a prior incident — are rare. False positives are common. Many also said the FBI does little to teach cops how to use the system. Training has dropped from a high of about 5,500 officers in 2012 to 1,200 last year.

“We don’t really use ViCAP,” said Jeff Jensen, a criminal analyst for the Phoenix Police Department with 15 years of experience. “It really is quite a chore.”

The FBI has contributed to the confusion by misrepresenting the system. On its website, the FBI says cases in its database are “continually compared” for matches as new cases are entered. But in an interview, program officials said that does not happen. “We have plans for that in the future,” said Nathan Graham, a crime analyst for the program. The agency said it would update the information on its website.

The agency’s indifference to the database is particularly noteworthy at a time when emerging research suggests that such a tool could be especially useful in rape investigations.

For years, politicians and women’s advocates have focused on testing the DNA evidence in rape kits, which are administered to sexual assault victims after an attack. Such evidence can be compared against a nationwide database of DNA samples to find possible suspects. Backlogs at police departments across the country have left tens of thousands of kits untested.

But DNA is collected in only about half of rape cases, according to recent studies. A nationwide clearinghouse of the unique behaviors, methods, or marks of rapists could help solve those cases lacking genetic evidence, criminal experts said. Other research has shown that rapists are far more likely than killers to be serial offenders. Different studies have found that between one-fourth to two-thirds of rapists have committed multiple sexual assaults. Only about 1 percent of murderers are considered serial killers.

Studies have questioned the assumptions behind behavioral analysis tools like ViCAP. Violent criminals don’t always commit attacks the same way and different analysts can have remarkably different interpretations on whether crimes are linked. And a system that looks for criminal suspects on the basis of how a person acts is bound to raise alarms about Orwellian overreach. But many cops say any help is welcome in the difficult task of solving crimes like rape. A recent investigation by ProPublica and The New Orleans Advocate found that police in four states repeatedly missed chances to arrest the former NFL football star and convicted serial rapist Darren Sharper after failing to contact each other. “We’re always looking for tools,” said Joanne Archambault, the director of End Violence Against Women International, one of the leading police training organizations for the investigation of sexual assaults. “I just don’t think ViCAP was ever promoted enough as being one of them.”

The U.S. need only look north for an example of how such a system can play an important role in solving crimes. Not long after ViCAP was developed in the United States, Canadian law enforcement officials used it as a model to build their own tool, known as the Violent Criminal Linkage Analysis System, or ViCLAS. Today, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police maintains a database containing more than 500,000 criminal case profiles. The agency credits it with linking together some 7,000 unsolved crimes since 1995 — though not all of those linkages resulted in an arrest. If the FBI collected information as consistently as the Mounties, its database would contain more than 4.4 million cases, based on the greater U.S. population.

Instead, the FBI has about 89,000 cases on file.

Over the years, Canada has poured funding and staff into its program, resulting in a powerful analytical tool, said Sgt. Tony Lawlor, a senior ViCLAS analyst. One critical difference: in the U.S., reporting to the system is largely voluntary. In Canada, legislators have made it mandatory. Cops on the street still grumble about the system, which resembles the American version in the time and effort to complete. But “it has information which assists police officers, which is catching bad guys,” Lawlor said. “When police realize there’s a value associated with it, they use it.”

The ViCAP program eventually emerged from the fallout shelter where it began. It set up shop in an unmarked two-story brick office building in a Virginia business park surrounded by a printer’s shop, a dental practice and a Baptist church.

In a lengthy interview there, program officials offered a PowerPoint presentation with case studies of three serial killers who were captured in the past eight years with the help of the ViCAP program. They called the system “successful.”

“We do as good a job as we possibly can given our resources and limitations,” said Timothy Burke, a white-haired, 29-year agency veteran who is the program manager for ViCAP. “As with anything, we could always do better.”

Pierce Brooks was the father of the system.

A legendary cop, he had a square jaw, high forehead and dead serious eyes. During 20 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, he helped send 10 men to death row. He inspired the fictional Sgt. Joe Friday character in Dragnet. And he became famous for tracking down a pair of cop killers, a hunt chronicled in Joseph Wambaugh’s 1973 non-fiction bestseller, “The Onion Field.” “Brooks’ imagination was admired, but his thoroughness was legend,” Wambaugh wrote.

In the late 1950s, Brooks was investigating two murder cases. In each, a female model had been raped, slain and then trussed in rope in a manner that suggested skill with binding. Brooks intuited that the killer might commit other murders. For the next year, he leafed through out-of-town newspapers at a local library. When he read a story about a man arrested while trying to use rope to kidnap a woman, Brooks put the cases together. The man, Harvey Glatman, was sentenced to death, and executed a year later.

The experience convinced Brooks that serial killers often had “signatures” — distinct ways of acting that could help identify them much like a fingerprint. An early adopter of data-driven policing, Brooks realized that a computer database could be populated with details of unsolved murder cases from across the country, then searched for behavioral matches.

After Brooks spent years lobbying for such a system, Congress took interest. In July 1983, Brooks told a rapt Senate Judiciary Committee audience about serial killer Ted Bundy, who confessed to killing 30 women in seven states. The ViCAP system could have prevented many of those deaths, he said. “ViCAP, when implemented, would preclude the age-old, but still continuing problem of critically important information being missed, overlooked, or delayed when several police agencies, hundreds or even thousands of miles apart, are involved,” Brooks said in a written statement.

By the end of the hearing, Brooks had a letter from the committee requesting $1 million for the program. Although the program was endorsed by then-FBI director William Webster, agency managers weren’t particularly thrilled with the new idea.

The FBI grafted ViCAP into a new operation — the Behavioral Analysis Unit. The profilers, as they were known, were later made famous by Thomas Harris’ “The Silence of the Lambs” as brainy crime fighters who combined street smarts and psychology to nab the worst criminals. But at the time, the unproven unit was seen as a kind of skunk works. The FBI housed it in the former fallout shelter — “ten times deeper than dead people” as one agent later recalled. It was a warren of rooms, dark and dank. Others referred to the oddball collection of psychologists, cops and administrators as “rejects of the FBI” or the “leper colony,” according to “Into the Minds of Madmen,” a nonfiction account of the unit. Still, the new program captured the imagination of some. Murder mystery author Michael Newton penned a series of novels which, while not quite bestsellers, featured the heroic exploits of two ViCAP agents “accustomed to the grisly face of death and grueling hours on a job that has no end.”

Brooks was the first manager for the ViCAP program. The agency purchased what was then the “Cadillac” of computers — a VAX 11/785 nicknamed the “Superstar.” It filled up much of the room in the basement headquarters and had 512KB of memory. (An average household computer today has about 4,000 times more memory.) Brooks was “ecstatic” when the system finally came online on May 29, 1985, according to the account. His enthusiasm was not to last.

To get information into the database, local cops and deputies had to fill out by hand a form with 189 questions. The booklet was then sent to Quantico, where analysts hand-coded the information into the computer. It was a laborious process that flummoxed even Brooks. He had a hard time filling out the booklet, according to one account — as did officers in the field. Only a few hundred cases a year were being entered.

Enter Patricia Cornwell, the bestselling crime author, famous for her novels featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta, medical examiner. In the early 1990s, she visited the subterranean unit during a tour of the academy. She recalled being distinctly unimpressed. An analyst told her that ViCAP didn’t contain much information. The police weren’t sending in many cases.

“I remember walking into a room at the FBI and there was one PC on a desk,” said Cornwell, who had once worked as a computer analyst. “That was ViCAP.” A senior FBI official had told Cornwell that the academy, of which ViCAP was a small part, was in a financial crunch. She contacted Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a friend, and told him of the academy’s troubles. In 1993, Hatch shepherded a measure through Congress to put more money into the academy — and ViCAP.

As the money made its way to the bomb shelter, the FBI conducted a “business review.” It found that local cops were sending the agency only 3 to 7 percent of homicides nationwide. The miniscule staff — about 10 people — could not even handle that load, and was not entering the cases on a timely basis. Cops on the street saw the system as a “black hole,” according to “Cold Case Homicide,” a criminal investigation handbook.

The FBI decided to kill the program. They picked Art Meister to be the hit man.

Meister spent much of his career at the FBI busting organized crime, beginning at the New Jersey field office. He rose through the ranks to supervise a national squad of more than 30 agents, investigating mob activities at home and overseas. He had no real experience with behavioral analysis or databases. But he did have an analytical approach that his superiors admired. They gave him instructions: “If it doesn’t work, do away with it. Kill it,” recalled Meister, now a security consultant with the Halle Barry Group.

Meister heard plenty of complaints. At one conference of police officers from across the country, a cop pulled Meister aside to talk about the program. “I’ve used it and all it gives me is bullshit leads,” the officer told him. “The general perception was by and large that the program didn’t work,” Meister said.

But instead of killing ViCAP, Meister became the system’s unlikely champion. Even with its small staff, the program was connecting far-flung law-enforcement agencies. The 189 questions had been slimmed to 95 — making it easier to fill out the form. Meister used the new funding from Hatch’s bill to reach out to 10 large jurisdictions to persuade them to install terminals that could connect with the database. By 1997, the system was receiving 1,500 or so cases per year — a record, though still a fraction of the violent crimes committed.

Meister saw the potential for the database to help solve sexual-assault crimes. He pushed the development of new questions specifically for sexual-assault cases. They weren’t added to the system until after his departure in 2001. “I felt it would really pay off dividends,” Meister said. “There are a lot more serial rapists than serial killers.”

But he found it difficult to make headway. Top officials showed no real interest in the program. After all, it was designed to help local law enforcement, not the agency. Meister called ViCAP “the furthest planet from the sun” — the last in line to get funds from the FBI. His efforts to improve it “were met with skepticism and bureaucratic politics. That’s what drove me nuts,” he said.

By the time he left, the program was muddling along. “ViCAP never got the support that it needs and deserves.” Meister said. “It’s unfortunate.”

On July 13, 2007, at 4 in the morning, a 15-year-old girl was sleeping in her bedroom in Chelmsford, a former factory town in northeastern Massachusetts bisected by Interstate 495.

She was startled awake when a man dressed in black with a ninja mask pressed his hand against her face. He placed a knife to her throat and told her “If you make any noise, I’ll fucking kill you.”

The girl screamed, rousing her mother and father. The parents rushed in, fighting with the man until they subdued him. Adam Leroy Lane, a truck driver from North Carolina, was arrested. In his truck, Massachusetts police found knives, cord and a DVD of “Hunting Humans,” a 2002 horror film.

Analysts for ViCAP, which has a special initiative to track killings along the nation’s highways, determined that the Massachusetts attack was similar to an earlier murder that had been committed in New Jersey. Acting on the tip, New Jersey state police detectives interviewed Lane in his jail cell. Lane confessed to killing Monica Massaro, a 38-year-old woman, in her home in the town of Bloomsbury — just a few blocks off Interstate 78. Lane, dubbed the Highway Killer, was connected via DNA samples to a killing and a violent attack in Pennsylvania; both women lived near interstates. Lane is now serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania.

New Jersey State Police Detective Geoff Noble said his case had been stalled. But once ViCAP connected Noble to Massachusetts police officers, they provided him a receipt that placed Lane at the truck stop in the small town where Massaro was killed. And when Noble confronted Lane, the killer started talking. Under a state attorney general’s directive, all New Jersey law enforcement agencies are supposed to report serial crimes to ViCAP. “The information provided by ViCAP was absolutely critical,” Noble said. “Without ViCAP, that case may have not ever been solved.”

FBI officials said the case, one of three success stories provided to ProPublica, showed the critical role of the database. (The other two: The case of Israel Keyes, a murderer who committed suicide after his arrest in Alaska in 2012 and has been linked to 11 killings; and that of Bruce Mendenhall, a trucker now serving a life sentence in Tennessee who was linked to the murder of four women in 2007.) “Given what we have, it’s a very successful program,” Burke said.

But in a dozen interviews with current and former police investigators and analysts across the country, most said they had not heard of ViCAP, or had seen little benefit from using it. Among sex-crimes detectives, none reported having been rewarded with a result from the system. “I’m not sending stuff off to ViCAP because I don’t even know what that is,” said Sgt. Peter Mahuna of the Portland, Oregon, Police Department. “I have never used ViCAP,” said Sgt. Elizabeth Donegan of Austin, Texas. “We’re not trained on it. I don’t know what it entails of whether it would be useful for us.”

Even Joanne Archambault, the director of the police training organization who sees the potential of ViCAP, didn’t use it when she ran the sex-crimes unit at the San Diego Police Department: “In all the years I worked these crimes, we never submitted information to ViCAP,” she said. “As a sex-crime supervisor, we invested time in effort that had a payout.”

Local authorities’ skepticism is reflected in the FBI’s statistics. In 2013, police submitted 240 cases involving sexual assault to the system. The FBI recorded 79,770 forcible rapes that year. Local agencies entered information on 232 homicides. The FBI recorded 14,196 murders.

“It’s disappointing and embarrassing,” said Greg Cooper, a retired FBI agent who directed the ViCAP unit before becoming the police chief in Provo, Utah. “The FBI has not adequately marketed the program and its services. And local law enforcement has not been committed to participating.”

Not all rapes or murders involved serial offenders, of course. But with ViCAP receiving information on only about 0.5 percent of such violent crimes, it struggles to identify those that do.

“Cops don’t want to do more paperwork,” said Jim Markey, a former Phoenix police detective and now a security consultant. “Anytime you ask for voluntary compliance, it won’t be a priority. It’s not going to happen.”

But at some agencies where ViCAP has been incorporated into policing, commanders have become staunch defenders of its utility. Major J.R. Burton, the commander of special investigations for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Tampa, Florida, said detectives at his agency are mandated to enter information on violent crimes into the database. “I love ViCAP,” said Burton, who served on a board of local law enforcement officials that advises the FBI on the system. “There’s many cases where you don’t have DNA. How do you link them together?”

Burton said he understood the frustration that other police experience when they get no results back from the system. When pressed, Burton could not cite any investigations in his jurisdiction that had benefitted from the database. But he said the time and effort to use the system was worth it. “It allows you to communicate across the nation, whether serial homicide or serial rapist,” Burton said. “That’s awesome in my book.”

FBI officials said they had taken steps to address complaints. In July 2008, the program made the database accessible via the Web. Police can now enter their own searches, without having to rely on an FBI analyst, through any computer with an Internet connection. The program has also whittled down the number of questions. Graham says he tells police that it should take only about 30 minutes to enter the details of a case. “I tell them if they can fill out their taxes, they can fill out the ViCAP form,” Graham said.

In November 1980, children began vanishing across Canada.

Christine Weller, 12, was found dead by a river in British Columbia. A year later, Daryn Johnsrude, 16, was found bludgeoned to death. In July 1981, six children were killed in a month, ages six to 18. They were found strangled and beaten to death.

The killer: Clifford Olson, a career criminal, who eluded capture in part because the different jurisdictions where he committed his crimes had never communicated.

The murders prompted Canadian police officials to create a system to track and identify serial killers. After an initial effort failed, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police sent investigators to study the ViCAP program. They returned troubled by some aspects. The FBI system was not being used by many police agencies. Nor did it track sexual assaults. The Mounties decided to improve on the U.S. system by developing their own behavioral crime analysis tool — ViCLAS.

The ViCLAS system has three advantages over its American cousin: people, money and a legal mandate. More than a hundred officers and analysts work for the system, spread across the country. It’s funded at a reported cost of $14 million to $15 million per year. The most important development was that over the years, local legislative bodies passed laws making entry mandatory. All Canadian law enforcement agencies now file reports to the system.

The agency also greatly expanded the list of crimes that can be entered. Any crime that is “behaviorally rich” — usually an incident involving a criminal and a victim — can be entered into the database. It also created stringent quality control. A Canadian analyst who uncovers a link between crimes must submit the findings to a panel for review. Only then can the case be released to local agencies — reducing the chances for bad leads.

Today, Canada’s system has been repeatedly endorsed by senior police officials as an important tool in tracking down killers and rapists. The agency routinely publishes newsletters filled with stories about crimes that the system helped to solve. One study called ViCLAS the “gold standard” of such systems worldwide. The Mounties now license ViCLAS for an annual fee to police forces in Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

The volume of information submitted has made the all the difference, Lawlor said. The system works when enough agencies enter cases to generate results. But agencies are reluctant to enter cases until they see results. “It’s a catch-22 situation,” Lawlor said. “If nothing goes in, then nothing can go out.”

When Burke, ViCAP’s program manager, speaks at national law enforcement conferences, he asks how many people in the audience have heard of his program. Typically only about one-half to two-thirds of the hands go up. A smaller percentage say they actually use it.

“We don’t have a club to force them to sign up with us,” Burke said.

The program’s main goal now is to ensure that the 100 largest police agencies in the country are enrolled. About 80 are. The agency continues to slowly develop its software. Training occurs monthly to encourage more participation.

The FBI doesn’t see the need for major changes to ViCAP, Burke explained. “It’s still supportive,” Burke said. “It’s still viable.”

Ryan Gabrielson contributed to this report.

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New York State of Fracking: A ProPublica Explainer

An opponent of Hydraulic Fracturing speaking to about 200 people protesting the gas drilling technique in Long Beach as part of the "Global Frackdown." (Rashed Mian/Long Island Press)

By Naveena Sadasivam, ProPublica

New York is one of a handful of states around the country that currently has at least temporarily halted fracking. Since 2008, when the state was first confronted with interest in gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing by energy companies, towns have banned the practice, the state has undertaken environmental and health studies, courts have issued rulings on fracking and concerns have been raised about the state’s pristine water supply.

Here’s a rundown of what you need to know about the current status of fracking in New York, the protections available to the state’s major watershed and the implications of the most recent court ruling for local municipalities.

So, does NY have a moratorium on fracking?

Yes, New York currently has a moratorium in place. But the current moratorium, as opposed to a legislative moratorium, is not codified into law and does not have an expiration date. In 2010, former Gov. David Paterson vetoed a bill intended to rein in natural gas drilling and instead issued an executive order instituting a six-month moratorium on high volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it is more commonly known. That moratorium, contingent on the completion of a review of the environmental impacts of fracking by the state environmental agency, is still in place.

In the last six years, two drafts of environmental impact reviews and two sets of draft regulations have been prepared. After the Department of Environmental Conservation released its 2012 report, it asked the Department of Health to review information related to the public health effects from natural gas drilling. That review is currently underway.

Environmental groups have been pushing for a moratorium with a time frame locked in or a moratorium enacted through the legislature, which they say would legally guarantee the moratorium will stay in place and provide time for the additional health studies currently being conducted by researchers around the country to be completed. In the last four years, at least three bills have been proposed to codify the moratorium into law but they have all failed to pass the Senate and reach the Governor’s desk.

When will Gov. Cuomo decide to permit or ban fracking?

Nobody knows.

Recently, Joeseph Martens, the state’s environmental conservation commissioner, indicated that he won’t issue fracking permits before April 2015, delaying the decision until after Cuomo faces re-election. Earlier this year, health commissioner Nirav Shah said that he was “in no hurry” to finish the review as he did not want to “play with any potential risks with the health and safety of New Yorkers.” Cuomo has said that he did not want to put “undue pressure” on Shah. “My timeline is whatever commissioner Shah needs to do it right and feel comfortable,” said Cuomo.

Shah has since resigned and the charge has been handed over to an acting commissioner, which will probably only further delay a decision.

I vaguely remember reading something about a recent court ruling in New York. It made a lot of the anti-fracking activists very happy. What was it about?

Two small towns in upstate New York, Dryden and Middlefield, had banned fracking within their boundaries. Soon after, an energy company in Dryden and a dairy farm that had leased land for drilling in Middlefield sued the municipalities, arguing that the towns did not have the authority to limit drilling activity. The lower courts initially dismissed the lawsuits. On appeal, intermediate level courts upheld the ruling and most recently the state Court of Appeals also upheld the decision.

“The towns both studied the issue and acted within their home rule powers in determining that gas drilling would permanently alter and adversely affect the deliberately-cultivated, small-town character of their communities,” wrote Judge Victoria Graffeo in the majority ruling.

And why is this court ruling so important?

It gives towns the authority to decide whether they’re willing to allow fracking within their town boundaries. Several towns already have bans in place against fracking. This ruling ensures that if those towns were to be met with similar lawsuits, they’d still be able to enforce the ban. Also, if Cuomo lifted the state-wide moratorium, towns can individually take action through local ordinances.

Wait, doesn’t fracking cause your water to light on fire? Should New Yorkers worry about their water supply?

ProPublica’s reporting over the years has shown that fracking can be done safely, and very often is. That said, natural gas drilling and fracking done improperly or recklessly can be a threat to water safety. – Residents of New York City, though, probably don’t have much to worry about. New York City and several upstate communities receive water from the Delaware, Catskill and Croton watersheds, where there is currently no fracking taking place because of the moratorium. If the health review process came to an end and Cuomo made a decision on fracking, there are several scenarios that could play out.

  • Fracking could be banned altogether in the state
  • Fracking could be allowed in the state and additional regulations specifically banning fracking on land overlying the New York City watersheds and their buffer areas could be passed
  • Fracking could be allowed almost anywhere in the state, including over the New York City watersheds

Though considered highly unlikely, if the third scenario were to play out, environmental groups will almost definitely sue the state and try to block drilling over the watersheds. The watersheds are a statewide resource, providing unfiltered drinking water to over 9 million people, and New York City alone has spent hundreds of millions of dollars acquiring land and protecting it. About 37 percent of the land overlying two of the watersheds is protected through land trusts and direct ownership, and the City has an agreement with the state and watershed towns, which gives it some negotiation power with the state.

Finally, the recent court ruling also means that the towns which contain the watersheds could also band together and ban fracking. While it is highly unlikely that it will come to that, the option is now available to towns if needed.

Is there a video I can watch that explains the issues with fracking?

Why, yes. Yes, there is.

For more, read our investigations on how fracking affects public health, causes ground water contamination and the difficulties in disposing the large amounts of waste generated from the process.