The number of people with IRAs worth $5 million or more has tripled

The number of multimillion-dollar individual retirement accounts has soared in the past decade, as more wealthy Americans use the tax-advantaged vehicles to shield fortunes from income taxes, according to new data released by Congress today.

The data reveals for the first time the staggering amount of money socked away in tax-free mega Roth accounts: more than $15 billion held by just 156 Americans.

The new data also shows that the number of Americans with traditional and Roth IRAs worth over $5 million tripled, to more than 28,000, between 2011 and 2019.

The data was requested by Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., following ProPublica's story last month exploring the rise of mega Roth IRAs. The story, based on confidential IRS data obtained by ProPublica, revealed that tech mogul Peter Thiel has the largest known Roth IRA, worth $5 billion as of 2019.

In a Senate Finance hearing on retirement on Wednesday, Wyden said such massive accounts underscore the country's inequalities. “Individuals at the very top — at the very, very top — are able to game the rules to get ahead and basically abuse taxpayer-subsidized accounts with pricey accountants and lawyers," Wyden said. “This increases the already existing retirement inequality between retirement haves and have-nots to an extreme level."

Roth IRAs were established in 1997 to incentivize middle-class Americans to save for retirement. Congress imposed strict limits, including a cap on how much can be contributed to the accounts each year, which today stands at $6,000 for most Americans. The average Roth account was worth $39,108 at the end of 2018.

But a select set of the ultrawealthy have managed to get around limits set by Congress and transformed the vehicle into a powerful onshore tax shelter. One way they've done that is by buying nonpublic shares of companies with extremely low valuations. That allows them to tuck a huge volume of shares into a retirement account. Congressional investigators have previously found that the IRS has struggled to enforce rules around these investments, including whether the valuations are legitimate.

Once money is deposited into a Roth account, any proceeds from investment gains are tax free. So, for example, a Roth owner who sells a successful tech investment for a $1 million profit gets to keep all of the money, saving a potential $200,000 in federal taxes. The savings can then be reinvested, tax free, as long as the Roth holder waits till he or she is at least 59 and a half before withdrawing the money. Owners of traditional IRAs, by contrast, enjoy tax-free growth but must pay income tax on withdrawals. The Roth is considered the more powerful tax-avoidance tool for the wealthy.

The latest numbers come from analysts at Congress' nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation. They update a widely cited study from the Government Accountability Office that released figures on large IRAs in 2011.

The new figures show that, as of 2019, nearly 3,000 taxpayers held Roth IRAs worth at least $5 million. (The total of more than 28,000 people holding IRAs of that size includes both traditional and Roth IRAs.) The aggregate value of those Roth IRAs was more than $40 billion.

Both Wyden and Neal said in statements that the new figures show the need for reform. Neal said that “IRAs are intended to help Americans achieve long-term financial security, not to enable those who already have extraordinary wealth to avoid paying their fair share in taxes and deepen existing inequalities in our nation." Neal said earlier this month, in the wake of the ProPublica article, that the Ways and Means Committee would draft a bill to “stop IRAs from being exploited."

For his part, Wyden said, “As the Finance Committee continues to develop proposals to make the tax code more fair, closing these loopholes will be a top priority." Wyden first proposed an overhaul of IRA rules to prevent the accounts from being used as large tax shelters several years ago. One reform that is being discussed would prohibit investors from putting assets that are not available to ordinary Americans, such as shares of startup companies, into retirement accounts.

Wyden and Neal's push for reforms comes as Congress is considering bipartisan retirement legislation. The bills are being pitched as helping ordinary Americans save for retirement, including by proposing to automatically enroll workers in employer-sponsored retirement plans. But they also include perks for the retirement and financial industries, such as relaxing rules in ways that are seen as a boon for insurers. And buried deep inside the two complex bills are provisions that could make it harder for the IRS to crack down on the ultrawealthy who dodge tax rules.

Operation Fox Hunt: How China exports repression using a network of secret spies hidden in plain sight

On the hunt again, the cop from Wuhan rolled into New Jersey on a secret reconnaissance mission.

Hu Ji watched the suburban landscape glide past the highway. He was in his early 40s, about 6-foot-1, smooth and confident-looking. His cases had led from Fiji to France to Mexico, making headlines back home. The work was riskier here; in fact, it was illegal. But he knew the turf. He'd identified himself as a Chinese police officer on his tourist visa, and the Americans hadn't given him any trouble. Sometimes, it was best to hide in plain sight.

Hu's driver took an exit into a wooded subdivision, cruising by big homes set back from the two-lane road that wound through one of the country's wealthiest enclaves. The driver was a new recruit, a boyish-looking Chinese immigrant in his late 20s who lived in Queens and called himself Johnny. Johnny's uncle in Houston had been a target of Hu's covert team. Two months earlier, they had "persuaded" the uncle, a former chief accountant for a provincial aviation agency, to return to China to stand trial for alleged crimes. Hu had essentially offered a brutal deal to Johnny and his relatives: If you want to help your family, help us destroy someone else's.

So in September 2016, Johnny became an indentured spy. He'd already done surveillance to prepare for this visit. Stopping the car, Johnny pointed out the location. The cop surveyed the large lawn, the trees flanking a brick path, the two-story house behind bushes.

Don't tell anyone you brought me here, he said.

Locked onto his new target, Hu mobilized his team. It grew to at least 19 American and Chinese operatives: hired muscle, private detectives (including a former New York Police Department sergeant), and undercover repatriation specialists who slipped in and out of U.S. airports with ease. The team did stakeouts while the unsuspecting neighborhood slept. They employed aliases and cover stories to relay money, intelligence and threats. When the stage was set, they brought their target's frail and elderly father from China to New Jersey as human bait — a high-stakes gambit known as an "emotional bomb."

This time, it blew up in their faces. Last October, Hu hit the headlines again, this time in the United States, when federal prosecutors in New York charged him and seven others with conspiracy to act as illegal agents for China. Six of them, including the former NYPD detective, were also charged with conspiracy to engage in interstate stalking.

The three-year investigation revealed for the first time the inner workings of Operation Fox Hunt, a shadowy fugitive-apprehension program that is a pillar of President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign.

But it underscored something more troubling: the extent to which China is brazenly persecuting Chinese people around the world, defying other nations' laws and borders with impunity. And it illuminated a little-known cloak-and-dagger battle between Chinese operatives and American agents on U.S. soil amid growing tensions between the two countries.

Launched in 2014, Operation Fox Hunt and a program called Operation Sky Net claim to have caught more than 8,000 international fugitives. The targets are not murderers or drug lords, but Chinese public officials and businesspeople accused — justifiably and not — of financial crimes. Some of them have set up high-rolling lives overseas with lush mansions and millions in offshore accounts. But others are dissidents, whistleblowers or relatively minor figures swept up in provincial conflicts.

As part of President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign, in 2015 China released a list of its 100 most wanted fugitives sought for economic crimes. The names on the list were targets of Operation Fox Hunt, a global fugitive-apprehension program launched in 2014, and a related program called Operation Sky Net.

In 2019, an immigration judge in New York granted political asylum to a former social security clerk from Beijing. The young clerk had landed on Fox Hunt's most-wanted list, but he argued in U.S. court that his former bosses in China had framed him for embezzling about $100,000 after he denounced their corruption. Despite the judge's ruling, he remains under federal protection because of ongoing harassment by Chinese government operatives.

Former Assistant Attorney General John Demers, who led the National Security Division of the Justice Department until last month, said China sets a dangerous precedent when it pursues expatriates here, violating U.S. laws and abusing human rights in both countries. (Demers declined to discuss the prosecution in New York.)

"If proceeds of corruption are laundered here, from China or any other country, we will investigate and, if we can, prosecute," Demers said. "But some of these people didn't do what they are charged with having done. And we also know that the Chinese government has used the anti-corruption campaign more broadly within the country with a political purpose."

The global Fox Hunt campaign, he said, reflects "the authoritarian nature of the Chinese government and their use of government power to enforce conformity and repress dissent."

China and the United States don't have an extradition treaty, in part because of well-documented problems in China's justice system. But U.S. authorities have tried to work with Chinese authorities to bring fugitives to justice. Some who were in the country illegally have been deported to their homeland. In other cases, China has supplied evidence to help American authorities convict legal immigrants for crimes, such as money laundering, committed in the U.S.

Nonetheless, over the past seven years Chinese fugitive hunters have stalked hundreds of people, including U.S. citizens and permanent residents, according to U.S. national security officials. Undercover repatriation teams enter the country under false pretenses, enlist U.S.-based accomplices and relentlessly hound their targets. To force them into returning, authorities subject their relatives in China to harassment, jail, torture and other mistreatment, sometimes recording hostage-like videos to send to the United States. In countries like Vietnam and Australia, Chinese agents have simply abducted their prey, whether the targets were dissidents or people accused of corruption. But in the United States, where such kidnappings are more difficult, Fox Hunt teams have relied mainly on coercion.

"They use pressure, leverage, threats against family, they use proxies," said FBI Deputy Assistant Director Bradley Benavides, chief of the China branch of the bureau's counterintelligence division. "Certainly, they are good at getting what they want."

Fox Hunt, experts say, is part of a calculated offensive to send a message that no one is beyond the reach of Beijing. As the Chinese Communist Party builds the largest police state in history, it is exporting repression. A report by Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights group, concluded that China conducts "the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world." With the West preoccupied by other threats such as terrorism, Chinese spies have saturated diaspora communities with conscripted agents

"This is the one thing that Chinese dissidents most fear," said Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer and visiting professor at the University of Chicago. "Almost every Chinese overseas has at least one family member living in mainland China. Our fear is that our family will be targeted, they will have trouble. We have to worry about the personal safety of family members in China. That's why we have to practice self-censorship."

Transnational repression is just one front in a wide-ranging offensive. In April, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the FBI has over 2,000 active China-related investigations, with a 1,300% increase in economic espionage cases alone. The FBI opens a new investigation into China every 10 hours, Wray testified.

The Justice Department's China Initiative against spying has resulted in charges against former CIA officers, a U.S.-born professor, Chinese military officials and a China-based executive at Zoom charged with disrupting online commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

"We have seen an acceleration of efforts across the range of malign Chinese government behavior," Demers said. "There is a real change, I think, in the assertiveness and even the brazenness of some of this activity."

In addition to tracking down those accused of economic crimes, Chinese security forces also travel the world in pursuit of others in the regime's crosshairs, including Tibetans, Hong Kongers, followers of the Falun Gong religious movement and, perhaps most visibly, the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group. The United States and others have accused China of committing genocide in the Xinjiang region against the Uyghurs.

Chinese leaders defend their efforts to retrieve fugitives. The lack of an extradition treaty with the United States, they say, makes the country a refuge for runaway criminals. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson dismissed the allegations in the New York case as a "smear."

"When conducting law enforcement cooperation with other countries, the Chinese law enforcement authorities strictly observe international law, fully respect foreign laws and judicial sovereignty, and guarantee the legitimate rights and interests of criminal suspects," said the spokesperson, Wang Wenbin. "Their operations are beyond reproach. Driven by ulterior motives, the United States turns a blind eye to basic facts and smears Chinese efforts to repatriate corrupt fugitives and recover illegal proceeds." (The Chinese embassy did not respond to a request for further comment.)

ProPublica's examination of the New Jersey case, the first prosecution involving a Fox Hunt operation, and of other clandestine Chinese missions in the United States, contradicts the official's statement. For years, covert repatriation squads from China have tracked their targets in all manner of quintessentially American settings, from quiet housing tracts to suburban chain restaurants to immigrant business districts. Hu's trail reveals the ambition of the effort. He is just one officer in one team from Wuhan, part of a swarm of teams from other provinces and Beijing that have been active in the United States.

To reconstruct Hu's trajectory and other Fox Hunt activities, ProPublica interviewed leaders of the FBI and Justice Department, current and former national security officials with expertise on China-related cases, and Chinese dissidents and expatriates. ProPublica also reviewed the federal criminal complaint and other court documents; reports by governments, academic entities and human rights groups; and social media and press archives.

The reporting uncovered evidence that went beyond the New Jersey case, indicating that the Wuhan Fox Hunt team had roamed coast to coast for several years, often without the knowledge of U.S. law enforcement, taking advantage of fear and silence in immigrant communities.

"You have to understand the Chinese intelligence services," said an Asian American former counterintelligence official. "They will tap literally anyone with access in the community where the fugitive may be hiding and working. China has the largest security apparatus in the world."

In the summer of 2016, Johnny got grim news from Wuhan.

The Chinese police had somehow brought his uncle, the former accountant, back from Houston. Newspapers published photos celebrating the success of the secret manhunt. In them, a short, bespectacled, morose-looking man stood on an airport runway flanked by uniformed officers.

The cop who caught your uncle is named Hu Ji, Johnny's relatives told him. He will contact you about another case. Do what he says.

Johnny, whose given name is Zhu Feng, had studied in Guam before moving to Flushing, home to one of America's largest enclaves of Chinese immigrants. His extended family became legal U.S. residents and embraced their new home. His older brother served in the U.S. military and then worked for the Social Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection, according to court documents and public records. (A CBP spokesperson declined to comment, citing the open FBI investigation.)

Johnny, who is now 34, seemed a malleable recruit. He did odd jobs: tour guide, selling used cars. On social media, he sported a Yankees cap and a boyish smile and called himself "Endless Johnny."

Now, he put that life on hold and became a secret agent for the Chinese government, prosecutors said. From Wuhan, Hu laid out the mission. His new target, Xu Jin, had directed Wuhan's development commission before he left for the United States in 2010 with his wife, Liu Fang, a former insurance company executive. Prosecutors had charged them with taking millions of dollars in bribes — crimes for which the maximum punishment is death.

The couple, now both 56, had gotten U.S. green cards through a program that grants residency to foreigners who invest more than $500,000 in the United States. The California consultant who helped them apply later pleaded guilty to immigration fraud, and investigators in that case alleged that the wife's petition for residency contained false information. But they remain legal residents. (The couple declined to be interviewed.)

In 2015, the Chinese government put the couple on its list of 100 most wanted fugitives in Operation Fox Hunt. Chinese authorities have said they made three formal requests for U.S. assistance about the wanted couple, providing evidence about alleged money laundering and immigration crimes that could be prosecuted here. A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on that assertion.

Meanwhile, Hu's team began a slow dance of coercion and harassment. They locked up the former official's sister in Wuhan to pressure him to return to China, court documents said. And they discovered other relatives of the couple living in the upscale New Jersey suburb of Short Hills. Hu's team suspected the targets had supplied illicit funds to buy the relatives' $1.3 million home, and that the couple was living nearby. The house was their best lead.

Scope out the house and take photos, Hu told Johnny.

The cop from Wuhan represents the two faces of Fox Hunt: swashbuckling crime fighter at home, stealthy criminal in the United States.

As a veteran of the police foreign affairs unit in China's ninth-largest city, Hu, who is now 46, was roughly the equivalent of a mid-level detective in Dallas. But his career soared after he joined a Fox Hunt task force. In early 2016, Wuhan media had published glowing profiles about him, describing his imposing height, his travels to 29 countries, his arrests of eight fugitives. In one photo, Hu beamed in a green suit outside the cavernous headquarters of Interpol in Lyon, France.

"Out of the country does not mean out of the legal system," he told the Hubei Daily. "Show your sword and punish even those in faraway lands."

Beijing led the crusade, but many of the traveling apprehension teams came from the provinces. Chinese embassies and consulates overseas helped them while maintaining deniability. If hunters like Hu succeeded, it enhanced their careers and helped spread Xi's message that there were no safe havens. If they failed, the central government was insulated.

In September 2016, Hu flew to New York to meet Johnny and launch the operation. Johnny drove him to New Jersey to check out the house in Short Hills and other locations. Hu soon pressed another relative into service: Johnny's father, Zhu Yong, who also goes by Jason Zhu. Jason, who is now 64, was divorced and suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure. He didn't have a steady job, dividing his time between a home in Connecticut and his older son's place in Queens, and he traveled frequently to China. But he, too, became a covert operative, prosecutors said. (Jason's lawyer and relatives declined to comment.)

This conscription of the families of captured targets is a ruthlessly effective tactic. It ensures loyalty and obedience. It's also tradecraft, using local intermediaries to shield Chinese officers. The teams are often organized in silos so the foot soldiers don't know other players or all the details.

At Hu's direction, the neophyte spies started building a network. First, they needed a local private investigator, preferably an ex-cop with contacts and the skills to track people down.

The Zhus' choice didn't seem like someone who would become entangled in foreign espionage. Michael McMahon, now 53, came from an Irish American family of police officers and firefighters. During his 14 years at the NYPD, he'd worked in narcotics and an elite street crime unit, rising to detective sergeant. He'd won the Police Combat Cross, the department's second-highest honor, for his role in a gunfight in the Bronx. In 2003, he retired on partial disability related to ailments caused by his time at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 attacks. His wife, an actress, had had a long-running part on "As the World Turns," a daytime soap opera.

To contact McMahon, the Fox Hunt team enlisted a woman who presented herself as the New York-based employee of a translation company, according to his lawyer, Lawrence Lustberg. The woman told the detective that she'd found him through a Google search and introduced him to Johnny and Jason Zhu, describing them as representatives of a private Chinese company that was trying to recover assets from a former employee who had stolen money, Lustberg said.

In late October, during a second U.S. trip, Hu sat down with McMahon at a Panera Bread restaurant in Paramus, New Jersey, a suburb about 20 miles from New York City. The Chinese cop posed as Eric Yan, an executive of the company, during that meeting and other interactions, the lawyer said. Jason and Johnny Zhu also participated in meetings with McMahon and were involved in paying him.

Johnny identified himself as the nephew of the owner of the Chinese firm, which he described as a construction company, Lustberg said.

McMahon "believed he was meeting company personnel" and never learned the team's true mission, Lustberg said. "Nothing seemed suspicious at meetings. They never mentioned the Chinese government or that anybody worked in law enforcement in China. They talked about asset recovery. And they came across as employees with a vested interest in locating the money."

Prosecutors would later dispute the idea that McMahon was an innocent pawn.

McMahon gathered information about the targets' property records, bank accounts and travel. He brought in two more investigators to help stake out the house in New Jersey, even alerting local police to the surveillance to prevent any trouble. But the team was unable to find the wanted couple's home.

On Nov. 12, Hu sent the private detective an email, using the Yan alias, to say he had "reported all we found" to his superiors in China.

In December, Hu visited New York again. This time, he brought his boss. Prosecutors have identified Hu's superior only as PRC (People's Republic of China) Official-1, a leader of a Wuhan Fox Hunt task force that includes prosecutors and investigators in the Communist Party's anti-corruption unit. Hu and his boss were part of a group from Wuhan that entered the country with ease as they carried out their illegal mission. Once again, Johnny served as their driver.

Days after that trip, Hu summoned Johnny to Wuhan for a meeting. Next time, Hu told him, they didn't plan to come back from America empty-handed.

China does not have a monopoly on cross-border repression.

Saudi spies have secretly repatriated Saudi college students whom they accused of dissidence or Islamic extremism in the United States. A U.S. rendition program that captured dozens of suspected terrorists worldwide caused backlash in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks. In 2009, an Italian court convicted 23 Americans, most of them CIA officers, of snatching an extremist cleric off a street in Milan and flying him to his native Egypt, where interrogators tortured him. And this month, federal prosecutors charged Iranian intelligence officers with plotting the rendition of an Iranian American journalist, describing an audacious scheme that could have involved kidnapping her in New York, taking her by boat to Venezuela and flying her to Iran.

But Chinese law requires citizens to assist China's all-powerful intelligence agencies, a mentality that extends abroad. Systematic spying in the diaspora dates back decades. During the running of the Olympic torch in San Francisco in 2008, FBI agents watched Chinese spies with walkie-talkies direct platoons of dutiful students — about 7,000 bused in from around the country — disrupting pro-Tibet protests. More recently, the FBI has investigated incidents in which cars painted and equipped like Chinese police vehicles cruised through immigrant communities in California. The rogue patrols are messages from the Chinese government that immigrants should obey the regime in Beijing and watch what they say and do, according to Demers, the former Justice Department official.

"There are so many organizations working for the Chinese government," said Teng, the legal scholar. "In most cases, student and neighborhood associations are actually controlled. The foreign governments and the universities have not realized this urgent and important issue. They don't deeply understand how the Chinese government uses these associations to achieve its own political purposes. The response by Western governments and universities has been far from sufficient."

When Xi became president in 2013, he declared war on graft. He capitalized on resentment of an elite enriching themselves in a rapacious economy. Many of them had sent children to foreign schools, purchased foreign homes and prepared exit strategies. Xi took aim at an exodus of public servants and businesspeople with dubious fortunes who were decamping to countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States.

"That is the genius of the Chinese political system," said Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. "If you're in any position of power, it's highly unlikely you've never engaged in corruption. So that means anyone can be pursued through Fox Hunt."

The moralistic rhetoric highlighted scandalous details, such as the $4.4 million that a former finance director of Jiangxi province allegedly lost in Macau casinos before his deportation from Singapore. China secured Interpol red notices, which are alerts that a country has requested arrest and extradition, for expatriates around the world.

After Operation Fox Hunt started in 2014, U.S. authorities began detecting illegal incursions by fugitive hunters who threatened U.S. targets, showing up at their homes and trying to enlist the help of local police and prosecutors, especially Chinese Americans. In August 2015, as President Xi prepared to visit, Washington warned Beijing to rein in Fox Hunt. FBI agents still found themselves skirmishing with Chinese spies deployed to intimidate dissidents in American cities during the presidential visit.

Weeks after the presidential visit, Beijing seemingly retaliated against a dissident who had criticized Xi's regime during protests in Seattle, obtaining an Interpol red notice on charges of bid-rigging. A U.S. court later granted the dissident political asylum, and Interpol lifted the notice.

The Obama administration spent several years negotiating with China about the Fox Hunt fugitives. During the customary lighthearted exchange of gifts at a meeting, one senior U.S. official gave Chinese counterparts a toy stuffed fox. U.S. prosecutors charged some fugitives and repatriated others, including convicts who had done federal prison time for embezzling $485 million from the Bank of China.

But there was acrimony over Beijing's bargaining chip: about 39,000 illegal immigrants from China, including convicted criminals, in U.S. custody. They had spent years stranded in the United States after deportation proceedings because China refused to take them. Now Chinese diplomats offered to relent — if the U.S. threw in names from the Fox Hunt list. The Americans wanted Beijing to accept the deportees first. And the targets on the list, many of whom had legal status in the U.S., could not simply be shipped back to China.

"We resisted," said a former senior U.S. official. "We said it's apples and oranges. We can't do that. There's no due process. If you have a case, you have to present it."

By 2016, federal agents were infuriated to discover that China had used the talks as cover for additional covert operations on U.S. soil. Chinese police officers in the delegations that had come to Washington to discuss Fox Hunt had secretly peeled off to pressure Fox Hunt targets, three former U.S. officials told ProPublica.

"They used delegations to send officers to go out and try to threaten these people, either their assets or their relatives," the former senior official said.

Most of the stalled deportees remain here today. And not all the Fox Hunt targets turned out to be fat cats.

Liu Xu, a former clerk, was the youngest person on a list of the Fox Hunt 100 most wanted, and the one accused of stealing the smallest amount of money. He was 29 when he fled to Sugar Land, a Houston suburb, in 2013. He told a U.S. immigration judge that he was a whistleblower. Working as a contractor at a social security administration office, he caught his bosses creating fictitious aid recipients and pocketing payments, according to his New York lawyer, Li Jinjin, who also goes by Jim Li. The bosses promptly framed the clerk for stealing about $100,000, Li said.

"He was accused of things that a lower-level official could not do," Li said. "The prosecutors were trying to protect the bosses."

In 2019, the judge granted political asylum to the clerk, who has moved and remains under federal protection because of harassment that has included photos of him and his home, complete with his address, being published in Chinese-language media, Li said.

Li, a tough 65-year-old, once served as a police officer in Wuhan. While studying for a Ph.D. in Beijing, he went to jail for participating in the Tiananmen Square protests. The lawyer said Fox Hunt prosecutions often grow out of regional feuds, snaring relatively minor figures.

"These are products of local political conflicts," Li said. "They pursue them as fugitives because the central government sets a goal. And the provincial government wants to achieve the goal for political needs."

In the spring of 2017, the plan was ready.

Hu stayed in Wuhan, a remote puppet master running the show. But he sent in a closer: a specialist who had the risky task of bringing back the target. U.S. prosecutors identify her as PRC Official-2. She would lead the repatriation team, but because she didn't speak English, Johnny would stick close and be her intermediary with Mike, as the team called the American private detective.

The other specialist on the team was Li Minjun, now 65, a doctor who had worked for the Ministry of Public Security, U.S. officials said. Her assignment: to escort an elderly man across the world against his will in order to ambush his son.

The father's age has not been disclosed, but Hu felt he was frail enough to put a physician at his side for the more than 15-hour flight. The plan was to bring the father unannounced to the house in New Jersey — human bait to lure his son out of hiding, Hu told McMahon in an email in March.

"We just want to recomm[e]nd you trace him to find [his son's] address," Hu wrote to the detective.

Later, the family would accuse Chinese officials of kidnapping the father. Prosecutors say the team forced him to make the trip.

The father had orders to tell his son how much the family would suffer if the son didn't obey. Hu hoped the shock would cause the wanted man, Xu Jin, to surrender on the spot, investigators say.

Cases around the world show that such strong-arm methods are typical. Often, victims accompany captors without a struggle because they fear retaliation against relatives. One businessman on Fox Hunt's list who lived in Canada flew back to surrender in Shandong province in 2016 after police there arrested his ex-wife, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

First, Hu's team had to get the father into the United States. Departing passengers at U.S. airports rarely encounter border enforcement other than TSA personnel. But it's harder to enter the country with a captive in tow. Johnny helped coach the elderly man on responses to standard questions asked by border inspectors at Newark Liberty International Airport, a vulnerable moment of the plan.

"Have you all decided how to beat this questions[?]" Johnny asked his bosses in a text on April 1.

Text messages show Johnny was in Wuhan getting the hang of his newest cloak-and-dagger role: overseeing operatives he had hired in the Chinese community in New York. Johnny deployed an accomplice to beef up the stakeout team with instructions to "conduct surveillance there for 5 days. 12 hours on the first day, 10 hours on the second day, and 8 hours on the last three days. … The compensation is 1800USD."

Johnny ordered a recruit in Queens, a driver and logistics man, to keep his mouth shut around the visiting big shots.

"Do not ask them what they come here for," he wrote. "This thing is carried out secretly. … Just follow instructions when working for the Chinese government."

On April 3, Johnny and the head of the repatriation team, PRC Official-2, landed in Newark and checked into a hotel. Johnny met McMahon at the Panera the next day and gave him a $5,000 cash retainer. Hu emailed the detective photos of the father and the wanted couple.

The moment of truth came on April 5. That evening, Johnny drove back to the airport to pick up the father and the police doctor, who made it through customs without a hitch. Meanwhile, McMahon sat outside the Short Hills house, exchanging texts with Johnny as the plan kicked into action. Less than an hour later, Johnny dropped the human bait at the relatives' front door.

The relatives called the son. The next day, the wanted man did exactly as Hu had envisioned: He picked up his father. The surveillance team followed them back to the wanted man's home about half an hour away. They'd found their target.

But Hu's hopes for a lightning-bolt triumph evaporated. Instead of submitting, the family contacted law enforcement and the FBI got involved, a move the Fox Hunt team quickly detected. On April 7, Johnny sent a text to PRC Official-2 saying Hu wanted her "and the doctor to come back as soon as possible" to "evade actions by U.S. law enforcement," the criminal complaint says. Both women hurriedly caught flights back to China.

The team didn't give up just because FBI agents were onto them. With the specialists safe, Hu continued the stakeout with his U.S. operatives. Joining Hu at the command post back in Wuhan, PRC Official-2 gave orders to stay ready.

"The key is the status of [the father]," she texted Johnny on April 9. "The main purpose is to let him persuade [his son] to surrender."

But two days later, Johnny sent McMahon a text saying he'd been told to return to Wuhan.

"Let me know if I need to go to China lol," McMahon responded.

"They definitely grant u a nice trip if they can get [the target] back to China haha," Johnny replied.

The gambit had failed. The father was allowed to go home. On April 12, Johnny went to Newark Airport separately from the elderly man and checked in on the same flight to Shanghai. His handlers in Wuhan told him to ensure the father met the doctor when he landed, and to treat him "with good intention" because of his age.

Before boarding, though, Johnny had a scare. CBP officers intercepted and questioned him. They showed him photos of PRC Official-2, his traveling companion a week earlier, and asked about her. He claimed she was a friend of his uncle and he had been her tour guide. The inspectors photographed the night vision goggles they found in his luggage, then let him go.

Johnny sent a frantic message to the accomplice who lived in Queens.

"Delete all of our chat record after reading this," he wrote. "There are some problems. Someone in the U.S. will be looking for you. … Be careful of everything. If there is anything, use other phones to call. Your cell phone may be tracked."

McMahon received no such warning, his lawyer said. The detective has kept his emails and texts from the case, a sign that he had no knowledge of the attempted repatriation, Lustberg said. McMahon also didn't know that the family had contacted the FBI, according to his lawyer, who said the texts about China were just "banter."

U.S. officials are skeptical. They noted that McMahon emailed himself a newspaper article on April 6, the day before the team leader fled back to China, with the headline "Interpol Launches Global Dragnet for 100 Chinese Fugitives." The story had photos of the wanted couple and information about the Chinese government's fugitive-apprehension programs.

"Accordingly, I believe that McMahon was aware that" the couple "were Operation Fox Hunt targets," an FBI agent wrote in the criminal complaint.

On April 23, Hu sent McMahon an email thanking him for finding the address of a woman in northern California, Lustberg said. She was the adult daughter of the couple in New Jersey. Instead of giving up, Hu's team was already attacking on a new front.

The federal charges against the cop from Wuhan focus on the operation in New Jersey. But ProPublica has learned that Hu roamed the country for several years, his activities alternately covert and overt, unmolested by law enforcement as he pursued at least two additional targets.

"Xi Jinping has brought a sense of urgency to the process," said Frank Montoya Jr., a former FBI counterintelligence chief. "There is a boldness, a brazenness, in the way they are treating us. They don't think there will be a consequence."

Hu has visited this country at least eight times. In addition to three trips in 2016 described in court papers, he was here in 2015 — nominally to attend a training program at the University of New Haven.

In a photo in Chinese media, Hu holds a certificate next to Henry C. Lee, a Chinese American forensic scientist known for his participation in cases such as the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Until recently, Lee directed an eponymous institute at the university that offers programs for visiting Chinese law enforcement officials and researchers.

The caption did not mention a date or place, but a university spokesperson confirmed that the photo was taken on campus. An organization called the U.S.-China Business Training Center arranged Hu's visit and issued the certificate, said the spokesperson, Doug Whiting, in an email. Whiting had no other information on Hu's visit.

"Rosters are not kept or maintained, nor are any kind of formal or informal records of the programs offered," Whiting wrote. "All visitors presumably had been approved for visas by U.S. Customs and therefore no additional background checks were necessary. ... It's impossible to know specifically what program, or when, Mr. Hu Ji attended."

That is surprising because of the widespread infiltration of U.S. universities by Chinese spies. Officials at the U.S.-China Business Training Center, which lists offices in California and China, did not respond to requests for comment.

U.S. officials told ProPublica that they subsequently determined Hu was in New Haven in 2015. The timing coincides with his Fox Hunt activity.

In a case still cloaked in intrigue, Hu engineered the repatriation of a U.S. legal resident while she was traveling in Mexico in 2015. Chinese press and government accounts withheld the woman's full name and obscured her face in a published photo, describing her as a manager of a Wuhan investment company wanted for fraud.

Hu told Chinese newspapers that he learned she was in the United States, requested an Interpol red notice in 2013, and "started to track her" — activity that was illegal if done on U.S. soil.

"Fugitives who fled to the United States are the most difficult to catch, and it is even more difficult to catch fugitives who hold a U.S. green card," an article in the Chutian Metropolis Daily said.

Chinese accounts claim Hu "miraculously" got a break in September 2015 when he found out the woman had flown to Cancun and Mexican authorities detained her. She requested that Mexican officials deport her to the United States, so Hu and Chinese embassy officials in Mexico "raced against time," fearing U.S. diplomats could intervene, the accounts say. Hu organized a ruse with Mexican officers: They tricked the prisoner onto a plane to Shanghai by telling her it was bound for Houston, the articles say. A published photo shows Hu at an airport with two Mexican immigration officers who transported the prisoner.

Mexico kept the affair unusually quiet. There was no Mexican press coverage, no standard announcement about international cooperation in action.

Asked about the matter, FBI officials said they had not identified the woman and were investigating. But ProPublica has identified her based on information from knowledgeable officials, detailed summaries of Chinese court documents, and other sources.

She is 50-year-old Suying Wang. In 2012, she came to the United States, where she married a U.S. citizen. Records show he is the president of a small business in Houston that has an affiliate in Mexico City. They lived in a condominium complex in Houston. Her former husband, who has since divorced her, declined to comment when reached by telephone.

As for Wang's arrest in 2015, ProPublica confirmed elements of the Chinese accounts, but discovered other details that change the story. In reality, Chinese operatives did surveillance of three fugitives in Merida, Mexico, a city about 190 miles from Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula, according to U.S. and Mexican officials. At the Chinese embassy's request, Mexican immigration officers then arrested Wang and two others wanted for unrelated economic crimes, the officials said. Because Mexico does not have the death penalty, Chinese diplomats signed a pledge stating that Wang did not face execution in China, according to the officials, who requested anonymity.

Mexico deported Wang on Sept. 23, 2015. Photos obtained by ProPublica confirm Hu's involvement. They show the prisoner in transit in the custody of Chinese officers. Those officers also appear in a published photo of Hu and Mexican officers at an airport, and in another in which Wang's face is obscured.

Despite the Interpol notice and her Chinese citizenship, the deportation — and the reported deception used to get her on the plane — raise questions. International refugee law bars governments from returning foreigners to countries where they face a well-founded fear of persecution. China is a notorious violator of human rights. And Mexican authorities had a clear alternative: They could have sent the U.S. resident to the United States, a close ally.

The other two targets were also sent back to China, but it is unclear if they were U.S. residents as well. The episode reflects China's growing clout south of the border. One of Hu's superiors, a Wuhan deputy police chief named Xia Jianzhong, later visited Mexico to thank immigration chiefs for their help.

A spokesperson at the Mexican embassy in Washington declined to comment on the case.

In Wuhan, a court sentenced Wang to five years in prison, a sentence reduced to three years on appeal. The rather light punishment, combined with the scope and expense of the operation, underscores that one of the main goals of Operation Fox Hunt is instilling fear in the diaspora.

Hunters from Wuhan have worked other cases in Houston. While pursuing one man between 2016 and 2018, they caused his brother-in-law in Wuhan to lose his job and forced him to visit a prosecutor's office for months; they made his business partner's wife go to the United States and hire private detectives to investigate him; they tortured and jailed his brother and harassed their elderly mother, according to the wanted man's lawyer, Gao Guang Jun. Parts of the ordeal were also documented in the report by Human Rights Watch in 2017.

"It was a huge attack on the family," Gao said. "The whole family is broken."

Hu's name did not surface in that case, though his team may have been involved. But starting in 2015, he led the attack on the family of the former accountant in Houston. ProPublica has identified him as Zhu Haiping — the uncle and brother, respectively, of Johnny and Jason Zhu in New York.

Zhu Haiping, now 58, spent 18 years on the run, accused of stealing almost $2 million while he was deputy finance director of an aviation agency in Wuhan. Hu's task force located him in Houston, where he was a legal resident, and hounded him. Urged by his family to surrender, he "said he would return many times, but he never finalized a date," according to an article in the magazine of the Communist Party's anti-corruption unit.

Finally, Hu's team unleashed an "emotional bomb," the article says. They sent the wanted man a video of his friends, his former home and Wuhan delicacies set to music.

"He started to tear up, and the mere remaining suspicion at the bottom of his heart had gone," the article says.

In July 2016, Zhu "was returned" to China, according to U.S. court papers. The details of the repatriation are unknown, but it is hard to believe he surrendered because of an appeal to sentiment.

Hu's ability to cross U.S. borders repeatedly during his hunts is startling. Although he kept his mission secret, he identified himself as a police officer for the Wuhan Public Security Bureau on his application for a U.S. tourist visa in the New Jersey case. In March 2016, a Chinese newspaper article even mentioned his investigation of the former Wuhan development official in New Jersey, calling the wanted man one of Fox Hunt's top targets. But Hu had no known problems at U.S. airports when he traveled back and forth.

Asked if that was a breakdown in border security, federal officials said visa screening consists mainly of checking U.S. databases, which in this case apparently did not include information from the Chinese press. The chances of detection were low because of the large number of visa applicants reviewed by U.S. consulates in China, they said, and consular officials and border officers were not as aware of Fox Hunt then as they are today.

Hu's point man in California was Rong Jing.

Rong, a married businessman, lived in Rancho Cucamonga, an arid city south of the San Gabriel Mountains and about 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Like the operatives in New York, he was an immigrant with permanent resident status. But Rong, now 39, described himself as a bounty hunter for the Chinese government, court documents said. He apparently liked the work and liked to talk about it. His bragging would give investigators a primer on the reach and relentlessness of Fox Hunt networks.

Just weeks after aborting the scheme involving the father in New Jersey, Hu turned up the heat on the wanted couple. He zeroed in on their daughter in northern California. She had arrived in the United States as a child, studying at a private boarding school years before her parents fled China. She had earned an advanced degree at Stanford, gotten married and made a life for herself far from her parents and their problems with the Chinese courts.

None of that mattered to the hunters from Wuhan. The daughter became their new weapon.

In May 2017, Rong hired a private investigator to stalk her. Unfortunately for him, the investigator was a confidential informant for the FBI. U.S. officials did not disclose if or how they maneuvered the informant into place. Since starting the investigation in New Jersey in early April, agents had been mapping the travel and contacts of the Fox Hunt team, and Hu had spent time in California, according to interviews and court records.

More generally, the FBI had been watching private investigators — especially in areas with large Asian communities — because of the role they had increasingly played in Fox Hunt. Rong does not speak English, so it is likely that the investigator he hired speaks Mandarin.

The bottom line: The FBI now had a man inside Hu's operation.

On May 22, Rong met for four hours with the investigator-informant at a restaurant in Los Angeles. In a recorded conversation, Rong offered the detective $4,000 to investigate and videotape the daughter. If the team succeeded with the repatriation, he and the detective could split any reward money, Rong said.

Rong said the bosses in Wuhan hadn't told him "what to do with" the daughter. It was possible they could ask him "to catch" her, he said. Rong and the detective might have to act as proxies for Chinese officers who "wouldn't feel comfortable to arrest her" in the United States, he said.

If there are "things they wouldn't feel comfortable to do," Rong said, "we need to be there on their behalf."

Rong asked whether the detective had a problem with removing someone from the country. "Say, if he wants us to bring him/her over, can you bring him/her over? Would this bring about any legal issues?"

Once the detective had shot video of the daughter, his next job would be to contact her parents and persuade them to return to China, Rong said. For the next few weeks, the private investigator went through the motions of shadowing the daughter, supervised by the FBI.

Reporting to Rong on July 14, the detective discussed photos he had provided of the daughter and her home. Then he asked: "You don't think they'll do any harm to her, do you?"

Rong's reply wasn't entirely reassuring. If the detective got in trouble, they would both be in trouble, he said.

"If there was an accident," he said, "in truth you [could claim that you] were just … investigating her."

At other moments, Rong sounded less menacing. She was "simply a daughter," he said, emphasizing that the parents were the main targets.

Unlike the New York operatives, Rong wasn't wary of the detective. His recorded conversations painted an inside picture of Operation Fox Hunt.

The Communist Party footed the bill. Rong did freelance missions exclusively for Wuhan, receiving a fee for each repatriation. He talked about teams of visiting "lobbyists." They were salaried "civil servants" of the Chinese government who traveled on work visas under multiple identities. Their job was "persuading people" to return to China, he said.

The account fits with information uncovered in other cases. The clandestine hunts follow a pattern: Investigators like Hu create networks and swoop into the country at key moments, insulated by layers of forced recruits, hired civilians, private detectives, even street criminals. The pursuits last for years, sometimes even after U.S. law enforcement intervenes.

Rong and the private detective met again, but the project in California fizzled out. The case went quiet until November, when the FBI had another breakthrough.

Although Hu had warned Johnny to stay in China after he flew back with the elderly father, the young man returned to the United States on Nov. 9. FBI agents interviewed Johnny and he confessed, giving up details of the operation during two interviews, court papers say. The agents let him go and he returned to China the next year. FBI officials did not explain their decision, but agents often delay arrests while they build cases.

The pressure on the family in New Jersey continued. In April 2018, Xinba Construction Group, a company based in Wuhan, sued the couple in New Jersey state court. The lawsuit accused the former official of extorting bribes while in powerful posts in Wuhan, delaying projects and causing the company to lose $10 million. In a countersuit denying the allegations, the defendants alleged that the company had teamed up with Chinese authorities to retaliate for the former official's opposition to a contentious toll-collection contract.

Chinese companies and security forces often coordinate criminal and civil actions against Fox Hunt targets, experts said. The Wall Street Journal wrote about the practice, including the Xinba lawsuit against the couple, last year.

Lawyers for both sides did not respond to requests for comment. The lawsuit is still in the discovery phase. In February, federal prosecutors involved in the Fox Hunt criminal case in New York filed a motion to intervene and request a stay in the Xinba suit.

The next salvo from Hu's team was more primitive. Between April and July of 2018, an unknown conspirator harassed the daughter in California, sending derogatory messages about her family to her Facebook friends.

In New Jersey that September, two young men showed up at the wanted couple's house. The intruders banged on one door, tried to open another, peered through windows, and left threatening notes.

"If you are willing to go back to the mainland and spend 10 years in prison, your wife and children will be all right," one note said. "That's the end of this matter!"

Surveillance video and fingerprints led investigators to Zheng Congying, now 25, of Brooklyn. Investigators believe he was hired muscle. He has pleaded not guilty. His attorney declined to comment.

Seven months after the threats, someone sent the wanted couple a package containing a compact disc. It recalled Hu's "emotional bomb" in Houston. Over a song in Mandarin, a video showed images of their relatives in China, including the elderly father whom Hu's team had brought to New Jersey. The father sat next to a desk where a book by President Xi, "The Governance of China," was prominently displayed.

"I believe that this shot was deliberately staged to make [the son] aware that the PRC government played a role in taking this picture and creating this video," an FBI agent wrote in the complaint. He described the photo as a form of implicit coercion demonstrating "the government's control over [the son's] aged parents."

In the video, the wanted man's sister implored him to come back. She said their parents were sick, isolated and distraught.

"When parents are alive, you can still call someplace a home," she said in the video. "When parents are gone, you can only prepare for your own tomb."

The lengthy investigation gave insight into a secret world at a crucial time.

"The timing of the investigation ties nicely with our understanding of when Fox Hunt came to be more broadly understood outside of China," said Benavides, the chief of the FBI's China counterintelligence branch. "This investigation absolutely helped the FBI understand how Fox Hunt operatives work, what the plans and intentions are and how aggressive they would be in this arena."

That aggressiveness has only escalated worldwide. In 2017, an abduction squad descended on a Chinese Canadian billionaire in Hong Kong's Four Seasons Hotel. They allegedly drugged him, rolled him out in a wheelchair, and spirited him to the mainland. When another billionaire living in New York, Guo Wengui, made allegations of high-level corruption, Chinese security chiefs traveled to confront him at his penthouse overlooking Central Park. FBI agents ordered them to back off, saying they had violated the terms of their visas.

And Beijing crossed another line in France. After "two years of unremitting efforts," Chinese authorities announced in March 2017, investigators from the Ningxia region and embassy personnel in Paris had "successfully persuaded" a fugitive to come home. Zheng Ning, a cashmere industry executive, had lived in France for three years before his mysterious disappearance.

Unlike the United States, France has an extradition treaty with China. Yet French officials say they knew nothing about the repatriation. French intelligence chiefs complained to their Chinese counterparts afterward.

"It's shocking," said Paul Charon, a China expert at the French defense ministry's Institute for Strategic Research. "It also shows a bigger phenomenon: the hardening stance of the regime in Beijing, which dares to carry out these operations overseas and mock the sovereignty of other countries."

U.S. officials acknowledge that the government was slow to respond to the threat.

"It did take us a while to catch up and realize what was happening," said Demers, who returned to the Justice Department from private practice in 2018 and was chosen to lead the new China Initiative. "With things like Fox Hunt, we realized it was not going to be enough to change behavior simply through having meetings with the Chinese. We were going to have to be more aggressive."

The FBI has tried to break through a wall of silence in immigrant communities to reach potential and known targets.

Qiu Gengmin, 59, is one of the latter. His name appeared on the Fox Hunt list six years ago as the result of an ill-fated shipbuilding deal and, he says, a vendetta by a security chief in Zhejiang province. Dogged Chinese agents have spied on him even at a Buddhist temple in Queens, he said. He has lost his money, home and wife. Authorities have harassed and jailed his relatives and friends in China.

"As long as I don't go back, they do not have personal freedom," Qiu said, hunched over a table in his lawyer's office. "They will continue to surveil them and there will be no so-called freedom. They are not allowed to take the train, they are not allowed to fly, they are not allowed to go out. They are afraid."

His story has ambiguities, however. U.S. prosecutors felt the evidence was strong enough to charge him with money laundering and conspiracy to transfer stolen property. He spent more than 20 months behind bars, pleading guilty to a federal charge of contempt. He has applied for political asylum.

About a year ago, three FBI agents interviewed Qiu as a victim, not a suspect.

"They say we need to follow up with your safety concerns," he said. "We want to protect you. … They said if there's anything, I should call them."

And last October, federal prosecutors charged eight people, including Hu, in the first U.S. case targeting Fox Hunt.

Rong Jing, the California freelancer, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an illegal foreign agent and to conduct interstate stalking. His lawyer says he went down a hazardous path of agreeing to increasingly ominous requests from the Chinese government.

"You have a number of individuals who have made a new life in America but wind up in this type of situation by doing a benign favor for an old friend from the old country," said the lawyer, Todd Spodek. "Yet over time their participation in the unlawful repatriation effort increases. As it increases, it crosses the line into criminal acts, which was not their original intention."

Another defendant pleaded guilty to the foreign agent and stalking charges. McMahon, Jason Zhu and Zheng await trial on both charges.

Six FBI agents and two police officers arrested McMahon at his home in northern New Jersey at 6 a.m. on Oct. 28. His lawyer said that the Fox Hunt team duped the detective and that there is no evidence he knew he was working for the Chinese government. His total profit for a case that has destroyed him was $5,017.98, the lawyer said.

"He never spoke to someone whom he understood, whom he knew, to be a Chinese official," Lustberg said. "Mike McMahon is a victim in this case."

Johnny Zhu and Dr. Li Minjun are presumed to be in China. So are PRC Officials 1 and 2, and a third implicated official. Prosecutors did not charge or identify them, as often happens in counterintelligence cases for strategic and diplomatic reasons.

As for Hu, the fugitive hunter has become a fugitive. At last word, though, he was still a star. In 2018, his name appeared on the website of the Communist Party's anti-corruption agency. Because of his long experience on the front lines, the organizers of a national training conference had invited him to Beijing as an instructor.

The cop from Wuhan taught a session about international law enforcement cooperation.

Federal committee spending at Trump properties is down -- but not out

The number of federal political committees that have spent money in the first half of 2021 at Trump Organization properties has dropped dramatically from the same period two years ago, Federal Election Commission filings show. Those continuing to spend: a smaller circle of loyal supporters of former President Donald Trump and candidates jockeying for his favor in contested Republican primaries.

During the first six months of 2021, 27 federal committees have reported spending $348,000 at Trump Organization properties, with the Republican National Committee accounting for more than half the total. That's a steep decline from the 177 committees that did so during the 2019-2020 election cycle or the 78 committees that spent more than $1.6 million at Mar-a-Lago, the Trump International Hotel in Washington and other company sites in the first half of 2019, filings show.

Of course, that spending came in the run-up to a presidential election in which Trump was the incumbent. The biggest spenders in 2019 were the RNC and Trump's own political committees raising money to support his campaign.

While the RNC is the top spender so far in 2021, many of the other PACs that used Trump properties as venues for fundraising events and other activities appear to have stopped their spending. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the fundraising arm of House Republicans, has not reported spending any money at Trump properties through May of this year after spending $32,532 during the previous election cycle. (National party committees will file reports covering activity in June on July 20, which may show some spending at Trump's facilities.)

Those that have spent money at Trump properties this year represent some of the former president's most fervent loyalists, including Reps. Mo Brooks of Alabama, who is running for an open Senate seat, and Ronny Jackson of Texas, who previously was the White House physician. Overall, 13 of the 23 committees spending this year are connected to current members of the House or Senate.

“Republican candidates are in a delicate moment, I think, because of uncertainty surrounding Trump's future power," said Abby Wood, a professor of law, political science and public policy at the University of Southern California, in an email. “Trump's power in the next election is much less certain than it was from the vantage point of folks spending money (and enriching him) at his properties in 2019."

The drop in political spending comes at a precarious time for the Trump Organization, which in early July was hit with 10 felony charges brought by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., as well as additional charges against Allen Weisselberg, the organization's chief financial officer. Both Weisselberg and the company have pleaded not guilty to the charges, but the impact of the investigation and the fallout of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol appear to have damaged the company's business prospects. The Washington Post described the company as at its “lowest point in decades."

The other spenders include congressional candidates advertising their ties to Trump, such as Lynda Blanchard, who is one of Brooks' opponents for the GOP nomination in the Alabama Senate race, and Josh Mandel, who's running for an open Senate seat in Ohio. Brooks, Blanchard and Mandel have each paid to use Mar-a-Lago, Trump's property in Palm Beach, Florida, while Jackson paid for an event at the Trump hotel in Washington.

“It is my intention to do fundraisers at Mar-a-Lago as often as I can, so long as they help generate positive cash flow for my Senate campaign for America First policies," Brooks said in a statement. “I personally thank President Trump for allowing me to use Mar-a-Lago and hope he will continue to be so generous in the future."

The campaigns of Blanchard, Jackson and Mandel, along with the RNC and the Trump Organization, did not respond to requests for comment. The RNC has spent more money for events at other locations this year, including $529,000 for a donor event at the Four Seasons Resort in Palm Beach in April.

Mar-a-Lago, a private club that also doubles as the former president's residence, has been the leading recipient of federal political committee spending among Trump properties, bringing in at least $283,000 this year, much of it for hosting an RNC donor retreat in May. In addition to getting the venue and Florida weather, politicians holding events at the club stand a good chance of having Trump make an appearance.

The Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., and the BLT Prime restaurant located there, have seen a significant drop-off in political spending compared to the first half of 2019. Two years ago, the D.C. hotel and restaurant brought in more than $518,000, according to FEC records. This year, without Trump in the White House nearby, the total is less than $15,000.

“Given Trump is no longer president and there is less need to curry favor with him, congressional incumbents and party committees may choose less expensive venues," said Paul Herrnson, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut.

Federal political committees have significantly scaled back spending at Trump-owned hotels and restaurants

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

The number of federal political committees that have spent money in the first half of 2021 at Trump Organization properties has dropped dramatically from the same period two years ago, Federal Election Commission filings show. Those continuing to spend: a smaller circle of loyal supporters of former President Donald Trump and candidates jockeying for his favor in contested Republican primaries.

During the first six months of 2021, 27 federal committees have reported spending $348,000 at Trump Organization properties, with the Republican National Committee accounting for more than half the total. That's a steep decline from the 177 committees that did so during the 2019-2020 election cycle or the 78 committees that spent more than $1.6 million at Mar-a-Lago, the Trump International Hotel in Washington and other company sites in the first half of 2019, filings show.

Of course, that spending came in the run-up to a presidential election in which Trump was the incumbent. The biggest spenders in 2019 were the RNC and Trump's own political committees raising money to support his campaign.

While the RNC is the top spender so far in 2021, many of the other PACs that used Trump properties as venues for fundraising events and other activities appear to have stopped their spending. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the fundraising arm of House Republicans, has not reported spending any money at Trump properties through May of this year after spending $32,532 during the previous election cycle. (National party committees will file reports covering activity in June on July 20, which may show some spending at Trump's facilities.)

Those that have spent money at Trump properties this year represent some of the former president's most fervent loyalists, including Reps. Mo Brooks of Alabama, who is running for an open Senate seat, and Ronny Jackson of Texas, who previously was the White House physician. Overall, 13 of the 23 committees spending this year are connected to current members of the House or Senate.

“Republican candidates are in a delicate moment, I think, because of uncertainty surrounding Trump's future power," said Abby Wood, a professor of law, political science and public policy at the University of Southern California, in an email. “Trump's power in the next election is much less certain than it was from the vantage point of folks spending money (and enriching him) at his properties in 2019."

The drop in political spending comes at a precarious time for the Trump Organization, which in early July was hit with 10 felony charges brought by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., as well as additional charges against Allen Weisselberg, the organization's chief financial officer. Both Weisselberg and the company have pleaded not guilty to the charges, but the impact of the investigation and the fallout of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol appear to have damaged the company's business prospects. The Washington Post described the company as at its “lowest point in decades."

The other spenders include congressional candidates advertising their ties to Trump, such as Lynda Blanchard, who is one of Brooks' opponents for the GOP nomination in the Alabama Senate race, and Josh Mandel, who's running for an open Senate seat in Ohio. Brooks, Blanchard and Mandel have each paid to use Mar-a-Lago, Trump's property in Palm Beach, Florida, while Jackson paid for an event at the Trump hotel in Washington.

“It is my intention to do fundraisers at Mar-a-Lago as often as I can, so long as they help generate positive cash flow for my Senate campaign for America First policies," Brooks said in a statement. “I personally thank President Trump for allowing me to use Mar-a-Lago and hope he will continue to be so generous in the future."

The campaigns of Blanchard, Jackson and Mandel, along with the RNC and the Trump Organization, did not respond to requests for comment. The RNC has spent more money for events at other locations this year, including $529,000 for a donor event at the Four Seasons Resort in Palm Beach in April.

Mar-a-Lago, a private club that also doubles as the former president's residence, has been the leading recipient of federal political committee spending among Trump properties, bringing in at least $283,000 this year, much of it for hosting an RNC donor retreat in May. In addition to getting the venue and Florida weather, politicians holding events at the club stand a good chance of having Trump make an appearance.

The Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., and the BLT Prime restaurant located there, have seen a significant drop-off in political spending compared to the first half of 2019. Two years ago, the D.C. hotel and restaurant brought in more than $518,000, according to FEC records. This year, without Trump in the White House nearby, the total is less than $15,000.

“Given Trump is no longer president and there is less need to curry favor with him, congressional incumbents and party committees may choose less expensive venues," said Paul Herrnson, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut.

New details suggest senior Trump aides knew Jan. 6 rally could get chaotic


On Dec. 19, President Donald Trump blasted out a tweet to his 88 million followers, inviting supporters to Washington for a “wild" protest.

Earlier that week, one of his senior advisers had released a 36-page report alleging significant evidence of election fraud that could reverse Joe Biden's victory. “A great report," Trump wrote. “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!"

The tweet worked like a starter's pistol, with two pro-Trump factions competing to take control of the “big protest."

On one side stood Women for America First, led by Amy Kremer, a Republican operative who helped found the tea party movement. The group initially wanted to hold a kind of extended oral argument, with multiple speakers making their case for how the election had been stolen.

On the other was Stop the Steal, a new, more radical group that had recruited avowed racists to swell its ranks and wanted the President to share the podium with Alex Jones, the radio host banned from the world's major social media platforms for hate speech, misinformation and glorifying violence. Stop the Steal organizers say their plan was to march on the Capitol and demand that lawmakers give Trump a second term.

ProPublica has obtained new details about the Trump White House's knowledge of the gathering storm, after interviewing more than 50 people involved in the events of Jan. 6 and reviewing months of private correspondence. Taken together, these accounts suggest that senior Trump aides had been warned the Jan. 6 events could turn chaotic, with tens of thousands of people potentially overwhelming ill-prepared law enforcement officials.

Rather than trying to halt the march, Trump and his allies accommodated its leaders, according to text messages and interviews with Republican operatives and officials.

Katrina Pierson, a former Trump campaign official assigned by the White House to take charge of the rally planning, helped arrange a deal where those organizers deemed too extreme to speak at the Ellipse could do so on the night of Jan. 5. That event ended up including incendiary speeches from Jones and Ali Alexander, the leader of Stop the Steal, who fired up his followers with a chant of “Victory or death!"

The record of what White House officials knew about Jan. 6 and when they knew it remains incomplete. Key officials, including White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, declined to be interviewed for this story.

The second impeachment of President Trump focused mostly on his public statements, including his Jan. 6 exhortation that the crowd march on the Capitol and “fight like hell." Trump was acquitted by the Senate, and his lawyers insisted that the attack on the Capitol was both regrettable and unforeseeable.

Rally organizers interviewed by ProPublica said they did not expect Jan. 6 to culminate with the violent sacking of the Capitol. But they acknowledged they were worried about plans by the Stop the Steal movement to organize an unpermitted march that would reach the steps of the building as Congress gathered to certify the election results.

One of the Women for America First organizers told ProPublica he and his group felt they needed to urgently warn the White House of the possible danger.

“A last-minute march, without a permit, without all the metro police that'd usually be there to fortify the perimeter, felt unsafe," Dustin Stockton said in a recent interview.

“And these people aren't there for a fucking flower contest," added Jennifer Lynn Lawrence, Stockton's fiancee and co-organizer. “They're there because they're angry."

Stockton said he and Kremer initially took their concerns to Pierson. Feeling that they weren't gaining enough traction, Stockton said, he and Kremer agreed to call Meadows directly.

Kremer, who has a personal relationship with Meadows dating back to his early days in Congress, said she would handle the matter herself. Soon after, Kremer told Stockton “the White House would take care of it," which he interpreted to mean she had contacted top officials about the march.

Kremer denied that she ever spoke with Meadows or any other White House official about her Jan. 6 concerns. “Also, no one on my team was talking to them that I was aware of," she said in an email to ProPublica. Meadows declined to comment on whether he'd been contacted.

A Dec. 27 text from Kremer obtained by ProPublica casts doubt on her assertion. Written at a time when her group was pressing to control the upcoming Jan. 6 rally, it refers to Alexander and Cindy Chafian, an activist who worked closely with Alex Jones. “The WH and team Trump are aware of the situation with Ali and Cindy," Kremer wrote. “I need to be the one to handle both." Kremer did not answer questions from ProPublica about the text.

So far, congressional and law enforcement reconstructions of Jan. 6 have established failures of preparedness and intelligence sharing by the U.S. Capitol Police, the FBI and the Pentagon, which is responsible for deploying the D.C. National Guard.

But those reports have not addressed the role of White House officials in the unfolding events and whether officials took appropriate action before or during the rally. Legislation that would have authorized an independent commission to investigate further was quashed by Senate Republicans.

Yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she would create a select committee to investigate Jan. 6 that would not require Republican support. It's not certain whether Meadows and other aides would be willing to testify. Internal White House dealings have historically been subject to claims of “executive privilege" by both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Our reporting raises new questions that will not be answered unless Trump insiders tell the story of that day. It remains unclear, for example, precisely what Meadows and other White House officials learned of safety concerns about the march and whether they took those reports seriously.

The former president has a well-established pattern of bolstering far-right groups while he and his aides attempt to maintain some distance. Following the 2017 “Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump at first appeared to tacitly support torch-bearing white supremacists, later backing off. And in one presidential debate, he appeared to offer encouragement to the Proud Boys, a group of street brawlers who claim to protect Trump supporters, his statement triggering a dramatic spike in their recruitment. Trump later disavowed his support.

ProPublica has learned that White House officials worked behind the scenes to prevent the leaders of the march from appearing on stage and embarrassing the president. But Trump then undid those efforts with his speech, urging the crowd to join the march on the Capitol organized by the very people who had been blocked from speaking.

“And if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore," he said.

One Nation Under God

On Nov. 5, as Joe Biden began to emerge as the likely winner of the 2020 presidential election, a far-right provocateur named Ali Alexander assembled a loose collection of right-wing activists to help Trump maintain the presidency.

Alexander approached the cause of overturning the election with an almost messianic fervor. In private text messages, he obsessed over gaining attention from Trump and strategized about how to draw large, angry crowds in support of him.

On Nov. 7, the group held simultaneous protests in all 50 states.

Seven days later, its members traveled to Washington for the Million MAGA March, which drew tens of thousands. The event is now considered by many to be a precursor of Jan. 6.

Alexander united them under the battle cry “Stop the Steal," a phrase originally coined by former Trump adviser Roger Stone, whom Alexander has called a friend. (Stone launched a short-lived organization of the same name in 2016.) To draw such crowds, Alexander made clear Stop the Steal would collaborate with anyone who supported its cause, no matter how extreme their views.

“We're willing to work with racists," he said on one livestream in December. Alexander did not return requests for comment made by email, by voicemail, to his recent attorney or to Stop the Steal PAC's designated agent.

As he worked to expand his influence, Alexander found a valuable ally in Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist at the helm of the popular far-right website InfoWars. Jones, who first gained notoriety for spreading a lie that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax, had once counted more than 2 million YouTube subscribers and 800,000 Twitter followers before being banned from both platforms.

Alexander also collaborated with Nick Fuentes, the 22-year-old leader of the white nationalist “Groyper" movement.

“Thirty percent of that crowd was Alex Jones' crowd," Alexander said on another livestream, referring to the Million MAGA March on Nov. 14. “And there were thousands and thousands of Groypers — America First young white men. … Even if you thought these were bad people, why can't bad people do good tasks? Why can't bad people fight for their country?"

Alexander's willingness to work with such people sparked conflict even within his inner circle.

“Is Nick Fuentes now a prominent figure in Stop the Steal?" asked Brandon Straka, an openly gay conservative activist, in a November text message, obtained exclusively by ProPublica. “I find him disgusting," Straka said, pointing to Fuentes' vehemently anti-LGBT views.

Alexander saw more people and more power. He wrote that Fuentes was “very valuable" at “putting bodies in places," and that both Jones and Fuentes were “willing to push bodies … where we point."

Straka, Fuentes and Jones did not respond to requests for comment.

Right-wing leaders who had once known each other only peripherally were now feeling a deeper sense of camaraderie. In an interview, Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio described how he felt as he walked alongside Jones through the crowds assembled in Washington on Nov. 14, after Jones had asked the Proud Boys to act as his informal bodyguards.

“That was the moment we really united everybody under one banner," he said. “That everyone thought, 'Fuck you, this is what we can do.'" According to Tarrio, the Proud Boys nearly tripled in numbers around this time, bringing in over 20,000 new members. “November was the seed that sparked that flower on Jan. 6," he said.

The crowds impressed people like Tom Van Flein, chief of staff for Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz. Van Flein told ProPublica he kept in regular contact with Alexander while Gosar led the effort in Congress to shoot down the election certification. “Ali was very talented and put on some very good rallies on short notice," Van Flein said. “Great turnout."

But as Jan. 6 drew nearer, the Capitol Police became increasingly concerned by the disparate elements that formed the rank and file of the organization.

“Stop the Steal's propensity to attract white supremacists, militia members, and others who actively promote violence, may lead to a significantly dangerous situation for law enforcement and the general public alike," the Capitol Police wrote in a Jan. 3 intelligence assessment.

Yet the police force, for all its concern, wound up effectively blindsided by what happened on Jan. 6.

An intelligence report from that day obtained by ProPublica shows that the Capitol Police expected a handful of rallies on Capitol grounds, the largest of which would be hosted by a group called One Nation Under God.

Law enforcement anticipated between 50 and 500 people at the gathering, assigning it the lowest possible threat score and predicting a 1% to 5% chance of arrests. The police gave much higher threat scores to two small anti-Trump demonstrations planned elsewhere in the city.

However, One Nation Under God was a fake name used to trick the Capitol Police into giving Stop the Steal a permit, according to Stop the Steal organizer Kimberly Fletcher. Fletcher is president of Moms for America, a grassroots organization founded to combat “radical feminism."

“Everybody was using different names because they didn't want us to be there," Fletcher said, adding that Alexander and his allies experimented with a variety of aliases to secure permits for the east front of the Capitol. Laughing, Fletcher recalled how the police repeatedly called her “trying to find out who was who."

A Senate report on security failures during the Capitol riot released earlier this month suggests that at least one Capitol Police intelligence officer had suspicions about this deceptive strategy, but that leadership failed to appreciate it — yet another example of an intelligence breakdown.

On Dec. 31, the officer sent an email expressing her concerns that the permit requests were “being used as proxies for Stop the Steal" and that those requesting permits “may also be involved with organizations that may be planning trouble" on Jan. 6.

A Capitol Police spokesperson told ProPublica on April 2, “Our intelligence suggested one or more groups were affiliated with Stop the Steal," after we asked for a copy of the One Nation Under God permit, which they declined to provide.

Yet 18 days later, Capitol Police Acting Chief Yogananda Pittman told congressional investigators that she believed the permit requests had been properly vetted and that they were not granted to anyone affiliated with Stop the Steal. Pittman did not respond to ProPublica requests for comment.

Last week, a Capitol Police spokesperson told ProPublica, “The Department knew that Stop the Steal and One Nation Under God organizers were likely associated," but added that the police believed denying a permit based on “assumed associations" would be a First Amendment violation. “The Department did, however, take the likely association into account when making decisions to enhance its security posture."

Kenneth Harrelson, an Oath Keeper who allegedly ran the far-right group's “ground team" in D.C. on Jan. 6, went to Washington to provide security for Alexander, according to Harrelson's wife. Harrelson has pleaded not guilty to felony charges in connection with the riot and is one of the Oath Keepers at the center of a major Department of Justice conspiracy case.

Harrelson's wife, Angel Harrelson, said in an interview with ProPublica that her husband was excited to visit Washington for the first time, especially to provide security for an important person, but that he lost Alexander in the chaos that consumed the Capitol and decided to join the crowd inside.

“Historic Day!"

As the movement hurtled toward Jan. 6, what started as a loosely united coalition quickly splintered, dividing into two competing groups that vied for power and credit.

On one side, Alexander and Jones had emerged as a new, more extreme element within the Republican grassroots ecosystem.

Their chief opposition was the organization Women for America First, helmed by Kremer and other veterans of the tea party movement, itself once viewed as the Republican fringe. Kremer was an early backer of Trump, and her tea party work helped get Mark Meadows elected to the House of Representatives in 2012.

The schism was rooted in an ideological dispute. Kremer felt Alexander's agenda and tactics were too extreme; Alexander wanted to distinguish Stop the Steal by being more directly confrontational than Kremer's group and the tea party. “Our movement is masculine in nature," he said in a livestream.

Trump promoted both groups' events online at various times.

Stop the Steal, through its alias One Nation Under God, obtained a Capitol Police permit to rally on Capitol grounds, while Kremer and Women for America First controlled the National Park Service permit for a large gathering on the White House Ellipse.

Alexander and Jones wanted to speak at the Ellipse rally, but Kremer was opposed. The provocateurs found a powerful ally in Caroline Wren, an elite Republican fundraiser with connections to the Trump family, particularly Donald Trump Jr. and his partner, Kimberly Guilfoyle. Wren had raised money for the Ellipse rally and pushed to get Alexander and Jones on stage, according to six people involved in the Jan. 6 rally and emails reviewed by ProPublica.

Pierson, the Trump campaign official, had initially been asked by Wren to help mediate the conflict. But Pierson shared Kremer's concern that Jones and Alexander were too unpredictable. Pierson and Wren declined to comment.

On Jan. 2, the fighting became so intense that Pierson asked senior White House officials how she should handle the situation, according to a person familiar with White House communications. The officials agreed that Alexander and Jones should not be on the stage and told Pierson to take charge of the event.

The next morning, Trump announced to the world that he would attend the rally at the Ellipse. “I will be there. Historic day!" he tweeted. This came as a surprise to both rally organizers and White House staff, each of whom told ProPublica they hadn't been informed he intended to speak at the rally.

That same day, a website went live promoting a march on Jan. 6. It instructed demonstrators to meet at the Ellipse, then march to the Capitol at 1 p.m. to “let the establishment know we will fight back against this fraudulent election. … The fate of our nation depends on it."

Alexander and his allies fired off these instructions across social media.

While Kremer and her group had held legally permitted marches at previous D.C. rallies and promoted all their events with the hashtag #marchfortrump, this time their permit specifically barred them from holding an “organized march." Rally organizers were concerned that violating their permit could create a legal liability for themselves and pose significant danger to the public, said Stockton, a political consultant with tea party roots who spent weeks with Kremer as they held rallies across the country in support of the president.

Lawrence and Stockton's fellow organizers contacted Pierson to inform her that the march was unpermitted, according to Stockton and three other people familiar with the situation.

While ProPublica has independently confirmed that senior White House officials, including Meadows, were involved in the broader effort to limit Alexander's role on Jan. 6, it remains unclear just how far the rally organizers went to warn officials of their specific fears about the march.

Another source present for communications between Amy Kremer and her daughter and fellow organizer, Kylie Kremer, told ProPublica that on Jan. 3, Kylie Kremer called her mother in desperation about the march.

Kylie Kremer asked her mom to escalate the situation to higher levels of the White House, and her mother said she would work on it, according to the source, who could hear the conversation on speakerphone. “You need to call right now," the source remembered the younger Kremer saying.

The source said that Kylie Kremer suggested Meadows as a person to contact around that time.

The source said that in a subsequent conversation, Amy Kremer told her daughter she would take the matter to Eric Trump's wife, Lara Trump. The source said that Kremer was in frequent contact with Lara Trump at the time.

Stockton said that he was not aware of Kremer talking to the family about Jan. 6, but added that Kremer regularly communicates with the Trump family, including Lara Trump. He also said that Kremer gave him the distinct impression that she had contacted Meadows about the march.

Through his adviser Ben Williamson, Meadows declined to comment on whether the organizers contacted him regarding the march.

Lara Trump, who spoke at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, did not immediately respond to a voicemail and text message asking for comment or to an inquiry left on her website. Eric Trump did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.

Kremer did not answer questions from ProPublica about communications with Lara Trump. Donald Trump's press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The White House, at the time, was scrambling from one crisis to the next. On Jan. 2, Trump and Meadows called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Trump pressed Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes" that would swing the state tally his way. On Jan. 3, the president met with Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller and urged him to do what he could to protect Trump's supporters on the 6th.

Meanwhile, Wren, the Republican fundraiser, was continuing to advocate for Jones and Alexander to play a prominent role at the Ellipse rally, according to emails and multiple sources.

A senior White House official suggested to Pierson that she resolve the dispute by going to the president himself, according to a source familiar with the matter.

On Jan. 4, Pierson met with Trump in the Oval Office. Trump expressed surprise that other people wanted to speak at the Ellipse at all. His request for the day was simple: He wanted lots of music and to limit the speakers to himself, some family members and a few others, according to the source and emails reviewed by ProPublica. The president asked if there was another venue where people like Alexander and Roger Stone could speak.

Pierson assured him there was. She informed the president that there was another rally scheduled the night before the election certification where those who lost their opportunity to speak at the Ellipse could still do so. It was meant as an olive branch extended between the competing factions, according to Stockton and two other sources.

Chafian, a reiki practitioner who'd been working closely with Alex Jones, was put in charge of the evening portion of the Jan. 5 event.

The speakers included Jones, Alexander, Stone, Michael Flynn and Three Percenter militia member Jeremy Liggett, who wore a flak jacket and led a “Fuck antifa!" chant. (Liggett is now running for Congress.) Chafian had invited Proud Boy leader Tarrio to speak as well, but Tarrio was arrested the day before on charges that he had brought prohibited gun magazines to Washington and burned a Black Lives Matter banner stolen from a church.

Tarrio told ProPublica that he did not know the flag was taken from a church and that the gun magazines were a custom-engraved gift for a friend. He has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of property destruction; the gun magazine charge is still pending indictment before a grand jury.

“Thank you, Proud Boys!" Chafian shouted at the end of her speech. “The Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters — all of those guys keep you safe."

Wren, however, would not back down. On the morning of Jan. 6, she arrived at the Ellipse before dawn and began arranging the seats. Jones and Alexander moved toward the front. Organizers were so worried that Jones and Alexander might try to rush the stage that Pierson contacted a senior White House official to see how aggressive she could get in her effort to contain Wren.

After discussing several options, the official suggested she call the United States Park Police and have Wren escorted off the premises.

Pierson relayed this to Kylie Kremer, who contacted the police. Officers arrived, but ultimately took no action.

By 9 a.m.,Trump supporters had arrived in droves: nuns and bikers, men in American flag suits, a line of Oath Keepers. Signs welcomed the crowd with the words “Save America March."

Kylie Kremer greeted them gleefully. “What's up, deplorables!" she said from the stage.

Wren escorted Jones and Alexander out of the event early, as they prepared to lead their march on the Capitol.

At 11:57 a.m, Trump got on stage and, after a rambling speech, gave his now infamous directive. “You'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong," he said. “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard."

Lawrence, Dustin Stockton's fiancee and co-organizer, remembers her shock.

“What the fuck is this motherfucker talking about?" Lawrence, an ardent Trump supporter, said of the former president.

In the coming hours, an angry mob would force its way into the building. Protesters smashed windows with riot shields stolen from cops, ransacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's chambers, and inflicted an estimated $1.5 million of damage. Roughly 140 police officers were injured. One was stabbed with a metal fence stake and another had spinal discs smashed, according to union officials.

The Stop the Steal group chat shows a reckoning with these events in real time.

“They stormed the capital," wrote Stop the Steal national coordinator Michael Coudrey in a text message at 2:33 p.m. “Our event is on delay."

“I'm at the Capitol and just joined the breach!!!" texted Straka, who months earlier had raised concerns about allying with white nationalists. “I just got gassed! Never felt so fucking alive in my life!!!"

Alexander and Coudrey advised the group to leave.

“Everyone get out of there," Alexander wrote. “The FBI is coming hunting."

In the months since, the Department of Justice has charged more than 400 people for their actions at the Capitol, including more than 20 alleged Proud Boys, over a dozen alleged Oath Keepers, and Straka. It's unclear from court records whether Straka has yet entered a plea.

In emails to ProPublica, Coudrey declined to answer questions about Stop the Steal. “I just really don't care about politics anymore," he said. “It's boring."

Meadows, now a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute, a think tank in Washington, appeared on Fox News on Jan. 27, delivering one of the first public remarks on the riot from a former Trump White House official. He encouraged the GOP to “get on" from Jan. 6 and focus on “what's important to the American people." Neither Meadows nor anyone else who worked in the Trump White House at the time has had to answer questions as part of the various inquiries currently proceeding in Congress.

Alexander has kept a low profile since Jan. 6. But in private, texts show, he has encouraged his allies to prepare for “civil war."

“Don't denounce anything," he messaged his inner circle in January regarding the Capitol riot. “You don't want to be on the opposite side of freedom fighters in the coming conflict. Veterans will be looking for civilian political leaders."

How tech mogul Peter Thiel turned a retirement account for the middle class into a $5 billion tax-free piggy bank

Billionaire Peter Thiel, a founder of PayPal, has publicly condemned “confiscatory taxes." He's been a major funder of one of the most prominent anti-tax political action committees in the country. And he's bankrolled a group that promotes building floating nations that would impose no compulsory income taxes.

But Thiel doesn't need a man-made island to avoid paying taxes. He has something just as effective: a Roth individual retirement account.

Over the last 20 years, Thiel has quietly turned his Roth IRA — a humdrum retirement vehicle intended to spur Americans to save for their golden years — into a gargantuan tax-exempt piggy bank, confidential Internal Revenue Service data shows. Using stock deals unavailable to most people, Thiel has taken a retirement account worth less than $2,000 in 1999 and spun it into a $5 billion windfall.

To put that into perspective, here's how much the average Roth was worth at the end of 2018: $39,108.

And here's how much $5 billion is: If every one of the 2.3 million people in Houston, Texas, were to deposit $2,000 into a bank today, those accounts still wouldn't equal what Thiel has in his Roth IRA.

What's more, as long as Thiel waits to withdraw his money until April 2027, when he is six months shy of his 60th birthday, he will never have to pay a penny of tax on those billions.

ProPublica has obtained a trove of IRS tax return data on thousands of the country's wealthiest people, covering more than 15 years. This data provides, for the first time, an inside look at the financial lives of the richest Americans, those whose stratospheric fortunes put them among history's wealthiest individuals.

What this secret information reveals is that while most Americans are dutifully paying taxes — chipping in their part to fund the military, highways and safety-net programs — the country's richest citizens are finding ways to sidestep the tax system.

One of the most surprising of these techniques involves the Roth IRA, which limits most people to contributing just $6,000 each year.

The late Sen. William Roth Jr., a Delaware Republican, pushed through a law establishing the Roth IRA in 1997 to allow “hard-working, middle-class Americans" to stow money away, tax-free, for retirement. The Clinton administration didn't want to give a fat tax break to wealthy people who were likely to save anyway, so it blocked Americans making more than $110,000 ($160,000 for a couple) per year from using them and capped annual contributions back then at $2,000.

Yet, from the start, a small number of entrepreneurs, like Thiel, made an end run around the rules: Open a Roth with $2,000 or less. Get a sweetheart deal to buy a stake in a startup that has a good chance of one day exploding in value. Pay just fractions of a penny per share, a price low enough to buy huge numbers of shares. Watch as all the gains on that stock — no matter how giant — are shielded from taxes forever, as long as the IRA remains untouched until age 59 and a half. Then use the proceeds, still inside the Roth, to make other investments.

About a decade after the creation of the Roth, Congress made it even easier to turn the accounts into mammoth tax shelters. It allowed everyone — including the very richest Americans — to take money they'd stowed in less favorable traditional retirement accounts and, after paying a one-time tax, shift them to a Roth where their money could grow unchecked by Uncle Sam — a Bermuda-style tax haven right here in the U.S.

To identify those who have amassed fortunes in retirement accounts, ProPublica scoured the tax return data of the ultrawealthy for IRA accounts valued at more than $20 million. Reporters also examined Securities and Exchange Commission filings, court documents and other records, including a memo detailing Thiel's wealth that was included in his 2005 application for residency in New Zealand.

Among this rarefied group, ProPublica found, the term “individual retirement account" has become a misnomer. Rather than a way to build a nest egg for old age, the accounts have morphed into supercharged investment vehicles subsidized by American taxpayers. Ted Weschler, a deputy of Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway, had $264.4 million in his Roth account at the end of 2018. Hedge fund manager Randall Smith, whose Alden Global Capital has gutted newspapers around the country, had $252.6 million in his.

Buffett, one of the richest men in the world and a vocal supporter of higher taxes on the rich, also is making use of a Roth. At the end of 2018, Buffett had $20.2 million in it. Former Renaissance Technologies hedge fund manager Robert Mercer had $31.5 million in his Roth, the records show.

Buffett didn't respond to questions sent by email. Mercer couldn't be reached for comment, and his accountants and attorneys didn't respond to requests to accept questions on his behalf. Smith also couldn't be reached for comment, and an employee at his hedge fund repeatedly hung up when ProPublica reporters identified themselves. Other representatives for Smith and his hedge fund didn't respond.

In a written statement, Weschler said his retirement account relied on publicly traded investments and strategies available to all taxpayers. Nevertheless, he said he supports reforming the system.

“Although I have been an enormous beneficiary of the IRA mechanism, I personally do not feel the tax shield afforded me by my IRA is necessarily good tax policy," he wrote. “To this end, I am openly supportive of modifying the benefit afforded to retirement accounts once they exceed a certain threshold."

A spokesman for Thiel accepted detailed questions on Thiel's behalf, then never responded to phone calls or emails. Messages left at Thiel's venture capital fund were not returned.

While the scope and scale of such accounts has never been publicly documented, Congress has long been aware of their existence — and the ballooning tax breaks they were garnering for the ultrawealthy. The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, for years has warned that the wealthiest Americans were accumulating massive retirement accounts in ways federal lawmakers never intended.

At the same time, Congress has slashed the IRS' budget so severely that the agency's ability to ferret out abuses has been stymied. Money was so tight that at one point in 2015 the agency couldn't afford to enter critical data about IRAs from paper tax filings into its computer system.

Over the years, a few politicians have tried, and failed, to crack down on the tax breaks the ultrarich receive from their giant IRAs.

In 2016, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, floated a detailed reform plan and said, “It's time to face the fact that our tax code needs a dose of fairness when it comes to retirement savings, and that starts with cracking down on massive Roth IRA accounts built on assets from sweetheart, inside deals."

“Tax incentives for retirement savings," he added at the time, “are designed to help people build a nest egg, not a golden egg."

But Wyden soon abandoned his proposal; there was no chance the Republican-controlled Senate would pass it.

Meanwhile, Thiel's Roth grew.

And grew.

At the end of 2019, it hit the $5 billion mark, jumping more than $3 billion in just three years' time — all of it tax-free.

Thiel, a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, by then had brought his Roth under the auspices of a family trust company called Rivendell Trust. In “The Lord of the Rings," Rivendell is a secret valley populated by elves, a misty sanctuary against forces of darkness. Thiel's earthly version resides in a suburban Las Vegas office complex, across from a Cheesecake Factory, and is staffed by a small group of corporate lawyers.

And thanks to the Roth, Thiel's fortune is far more vast than even experts in tallying the wealth of the rich believed. In 2019, Forbes put Thiel's total net worth at just $2.3 billion. That was less than half of what his Roth alone was worth.

The ultrawealthy's hijacking of a tool meant for the middle class becomes especially striking when you consider what the retirement future looks like for many Americans.

There isn't one.

One in four working-age Americans has nothing saved for retirement, a 2020 Federal Reserve study found.

Individual retirement accounts emerged from the ruins of corporate pensions. The traditional IRA had existed since the 1970s for workers who didn't have pensions, but as corporations shifted the burden of saving for retirement to workers, too few Americans were setting up these accounts, condemning many to scrape by on Social Security in old age. By the 1990s, politicians on both sides of the aisle were fretting over the declining savings rates in the U.S.

It was against this backdrop that an idea Sen. Roth had been pushing for years finally found its moment.

One of the fathers of Reaganomics, Roth was determined to slash the federal budget, cut taxes and rein in the IRS. Starting in 1997, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Roth held a series of hearings that portrayed IRS agents as menacing thugs. Roth's investigations sparked legislation that gutted the IRS' collection powers for more than a decade.

But it was his championing of the Roth IRA that would earn the senator posthumous fame and a mention in the American Heritage dictionary. Roth's obsession was a new kind of IRA, which he said would “be a blessing to countless Americans as they prepare for the future."

It would also create an escape hatch from the entire income tax system.

Run-of-the-mill retirement plans — a traditional IRA or 401(k), for instance — defer taxes to a later date. The money that people put into their accounts is deducted from their income, so they aren't taxed up front, nor are the dividends, interest or gains on investments along the way. But when retirees withdraw money, they have to pay income tax on it.

A Roth, by contrast, eliminates tax liability rather than deferring it. People who open a Roth don't get the tax break on the money they initially put in. But once they deposit that money, their investments grow tax-free forever and retirees don't pay a penny of taxes on withdrawals. Even better, unlike a traditional IRA, the Roth doesn't require retirees to deplete the account as they age.

Sen. Roth promised that his new IRA would “provide relief to hard-working, middle-class Americans."

The law creating the Roth IRA passed in 1997 with overwhelming bipartisan support. A few tax wonks predicted that workers who were most likely to struggle financially in old age wouldn't open the accounts because they couldn't afford to save. Roths, they warned, would become a giveaway to mostly well-off taxpayers who would have saved anyway. Investing in a Roth was like locking in a rate on a mortgage when interest rates were low, an attractive proposition for wealthy Americans worried that Congress would raise tax rates in future years.

That's why the Clinton administration insisted on barring people who made too much from stashing money in a Roth. Surely, that would prevent the superrich from gaming the system to use Roths as tax shelters.

1999 Thiel Roth IRA worth:$1,664
1999 S&P 500 Roth IRA worth:$2,421

One day in early 1999, a deputy of Thiel's at the company that would become PayPal walked into the San Francisco office of Pensco Pension Services. It could have been an uneventful appointment. Instead, it changed Thiel's life.

Thiel, a Stanford law graduate, ran a small hedge fund and hadn't yet joined the ranks of the ultrawealthy. But he had outsized ambitions for his months-old tech venture, where he served as both chairman and CEO. He envisioned his company creating “a new world currency, free from all government control."

Influenced by libertarian Ayn Rand and Tolkien's fantasy trilogy, Thiel, then in his early 30s, carried himself like a contrarian philosopher king. A few years earlier, he had co-authored a jeremiad against multiculturalism that accused the administration of then-President Bill Clinton of waging class warfare. “Taxing the rich seems to have become an end in itself," he and his co-author wrote.

Pensco was a small firm that allowed its customers to put nearly any investment they wanted into a tax-advantaged retirement account. Thiel was about to become Pensco's whale.

In an interview with ProPublica, Pensco founder Tom Anderson recalled how Thiel and other PayPal executives had wanted to put startup shares of the company into traditional IRAs.

Anderson dangled something sweeter.

“I said, 'If you really think this is going to be big, you know, you might want to consider this new Roth,'" recalled Anderson, who is now retired. If the investment ballooned, he remembered saying, “'you're not going to pay tax on it when you take it out.' It's a no-brainer."

The math was compelling. Thiel wouldn't get a tax break up front, but he'd avoid an immense tax bill later on if the investment surged in value.

“They immediately grasped that," Anderson said. “And they did it."

What happened next deprived the U.S. government of untold millions in tax revenue. Perhaps billions. Thiel used his new Roth IRA to purchase shares of his startup.

In 1999, single taxpayers were only allowed to contribute to a Roth if they made less than $110,000. Like many startups, PayPal offered its top executives low initial salaries and large stock grants. Thiel's income that year was $73,263, the IRS records show.

Thiel also had an advantage over most Americans with IRAs, who typically use them to purchase publicly traded stocks, bonds, mutual funds and certificates of deposit. Since Thiel used his Roth to buy shares of a private company, the value wasn't set on a public stock exchange.

Although the details of such purchases are not usually public, Thiel's financial assistant later disclosed them in a letter included in the entrepreneur's application for residency in New Zealand: “Mr. Thiel purchased his founders' shares in PayPal through his Roth IRA during PayPal's formation."

While SEC filings describing that time don't mention Thiel's Roth, they show that he bought his first slice of the company in January 1999. Thiel paid $0.001 per share — yes, just a tenth of a penny — for 1.7 million shares. At that price, he was able to buy a large stake for just $1,700.

In 1999, $2,000 was the maximum amount you could put into a Roth in a year.

Thiel's unusual stock purchase risked running afoul of rules designed to prevent IRAs from becoming illegal tax shelters. Investors aren't allowed to buy assets for less than their true value through an IRA. The practice is sometimes known as “stuffing" because it gets around the strict limits imposed by Congress on how much money can be put in a Roth.

PayPal later disclosed details about the early history of the company in an SEC filing before its initial public offering. The filing reveals that Thiel's founders' shares were among those the company sold to employees at “below fair value."

Victor Fleischer, a tax law professor at the University of California, Irvine who has written about the valuation of founders' shares, read the PayPal filings at ProPublica's request. Buying startup shares at a discounted $0.001 price with a Roth, he asserts, would be indefensible.

“That's a huge scandal," Fleischer said, adding, “How greedy can you get?"

Warren Baker, a Seattle tax attorney who specializes in IRAs, said he would advise clients who are top executives working at a startup not to purchase founders' shares with a Roth to avoid accusations by the IRS that they got a special deal and undervalued the shares. Baker was speaking generally, not about Thiel.

“I would be concerned about the fact that you can't support the valuation number as being reasonable," he said.

At the time Thiel bought his founders' shares, his own hedge fund had already loaned the new startup $100,000, California and SEC records show.

And soon after the company sold him the shares, millions of dollars poured in from investors, securities filings show. In just a month's time, the company sold a slice of itself to investors for $500,000. That June and August, another $4.5 million poured in from the venture fund arm of telecom giant Nokia and other investors, those records show.

The dot-com boom was in full swing. “We're definitely on to something big," Thiel told employees in late 1999, predicting that PayPal would become “the Microsoft of payments," according to “The PayPal Wars," a book by a former employee recounting those heady early years.

But when it came time for Pensco, the custodian of Thiel's Roth, to report the value of the account to the IRS at the close of 1999, none of the investor enthusiasm was apparent. Pensco told the IRS that Thiel's Roth was worth just $1,664 at the end of 1999, tax records show.

In an interview, Anderson said Pensco relied on the companies whose shares were in a Roth to say what they were worth. He didn't know how PayPal came up with its market value, but he said Thiel's purchase of those shares was “very legitimate."

From there, nothing would stop Thiel's Roth. In a Silicon Valley equivalent of Tolkien alchemy, his Roth would transform those PayPal shares into a tax-free fortune — one that would be safer than all the gems, gold and silver in the dragon Smaug's mountain.

After 1999, Thiel would never again contribute money to his Roth, tax records show.

He didn't need to. In just a year's time, the value of his Roth jumped from $1,664 to $3.8 million — a 227,490% increase.

Then in 2002, eBay purchased PayPal. That same year, Thiel sold the shares, still inside his Roth, his financial assistant later told New Zealand officials. The tax-free proceeds poured into his account. By the end of 2002, Thiel's Roth was worth $28.5 million, tax records show.

If he had held his shares outside of the Roth in a normal investment account, Thiel would have owed the IRS 20% of his gains and owed another 9% to California tax authorities. Because the shares were in a Roth, he had no tax bill when he sold them, saving him millions.

Suddenly, Thiel had an advantage few investors could claim: His own personal investment bank that wasn't subject to taxation. He could now use the cash inside the Roth to buy and sell nearly any investment he wanted. Thiel used the millions in proceeds from his PayPal windfall to invest in other Silicon Valley startups as well as his own hedge fund, according to his financial assistant's memo. Once again, Thiel's Roth scooped up startup shares at bargain-basement prices.

For instance, Thiel and colleagues in 2003 founded Palantir, a data analytics company, helped by an early investment from a CIA-backed venture fund. The company was named after the “seeing stones" made by elves in the “Lord of the Rings" trilogy, used to detect danger near and far.

Thiel used his Roth to buy shares of Palantir when it was still a private company, years before it was listed on the New York Stock Exchange, according to a ProPublica analysis of tax records, an SEC filing and shareholder records included in a civil suit.

Over the years, Palantir has won federal contracts from the military to hunt terrorists and from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to find undocumented immigrants. Even the IRS has a $99 million contract with Palantir to comb through data to identify tax cheats.

Then, in 2004, Thiel met Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard undergraduate who had come to Silicon Valley for the summer to work on growing the company that would become Facebook. Thiel invested $500,000, Facebook's first large outside infusion of cash. Those Facebook shares ended up — where else? — in Thiel's Roth IRA, an attorney for Facebook later disclosed in a letter filed in federal court. That ensured that Thiel wouldn't owe taxes on his early investment in the company.

As Thiel's Roth and fortune ballooned, he scolded Americans for their financial imprudence. In a 2006 Forbes column, headlined “Warning: Save, Save, Save," Thiel lamented the low household savings in the U.S. and called for most Americans to live within their means.

“Forgo the new kitchen and sundeck," he wrote. “Shoot to put away 15% of the paycheck." His closing advice: “Living modestly and saving well is better than dying broke."

In an interview on the website Big Think, Thiel said the U.S. tax system has “fairness problems" in which “you have super rich people paying a lower rate than people in the middle or upper middle class."

The answer wasn't taxing the rich more, he said, but “taxing the middle class and the upper middle class a lot less" and cutting their dependence on expensive programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

By then, Thiel had purchased a Ferrari and had bought and sold a penthouse in the San Francisco Four Seasons. In 2005, he sought residency in New Zealand, which had become a destination for some ultrawealthy people who saw it as a safe haven should civilization collapse.

“I have long admired the people, culture, business environment and government of New Zealand, as well as the encouragement which is given to investment, business and trade in New Zealand," Thiel later wrote in a letter to the country's government.

Thiel applied as an investor. His application, prepared by his then-financial assistant, Jason Portnoy, touted the size of his Roth. Thiel transferred $749,967 to a bank in New Zealand, keeping it under the umbrella of the Roth.

The country, where the “Lord of the Rings" movies were filmed, approved Thiel's application. The New Zealand Herald later revealed that the country had secretly granted Thiel full citizenship. The newspaper obtained Thiel's application through a public records request, and those documents included Portnoy's letter.

In the next two years, Thiel's Roth reached new heights, reflecting Facebook's meteoric rise. In his bestselling book on startups, “Zero to One," Thiel wrote: “Money makes money." By the end of 2008, the Roth was worth $870 million.

Up to this point, Thiel was one of the few Americans who had managed to amass prodigious Roth accounts. Among the others were at least three additional PayPal alums who eventually built Roths worth more than $80 million each, according to tax records and SEC filings.

Even so, the existing income limits managed to keep most of the superrich out.

Then, in the latter years of the George W. Bush administration, Congress took a wrecking ball to those defenses, and the wealthy stormed in.

The change centered on an unsexy-sounding maneuver known as a Roth conversion. It works like this: If you have money in a traditional IRA, you can transform it into a Roth as long as you pay one-time income tax on the money. By converting the account to a Roth, no additional income taxes are ever due.

Conversions had existed since the Roth's conception, but they had been restricted to Americans making below $100,000 per year.

In 2006, Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress were seeking to slash taxes on capital gains, the type of income that can be generated when stocks or other assets are sold. But they faced a problem. Budget rules required them to find a way to make up for the lost revenue.

Their solution was widely viewed as a gimmick: using one tax cut to pay for another tax cut. A provision was included in the Bush bill that lifted the ban on the wealthy making Roth conversions. Since the maneuver requires a payment of tax up front, it counted in short-term congressional budget models as actually raising revenue. The tax breaks didn't come until later. “It will have large and damaging effects on the federal budget for decades to come," wrote budget expert Len Burman in the specialty publication Tax Notes.

The new backdoor into the Roth opened in 2010 and set off a frenzy of conversions among hedge fund managers, industrialists and heirs, the tax records reviewed by ProPublica show.

Weschler, the Berkshire Hathaway executive, amassed a giant traditional IRA in his years as a private equity partner and hedge fund manager. He converted a whopping $130 million. His boss, Warren Buffett, converted $11.6 million. After paying the one-time tax, both men saw their Roth accounts soar.

In his statement, Weschler said he opened a retirement account as a 22-year-old junior financial analyst in 1983 and began contributing the maximum amount allowed, along with a generous match from his employer. Weschler said his Roth is so large because he chose investments carefully, had “exceptional luck" and had nearly four decades for it to grow.

Weschler said he could envision the late Sen. Roth holding up his experience as “an aspirational example of the power of deferred consumption" that could “hopefully help motivate generations of future savers."

He added that he paid more than $28 million in federal taxes to convert his account to a Roth.

Some of the wealthy managed to avoid even that one-time tax bill.

Three members of the Ebrahimi family, whose patriarch made a fortune at the software firm Quark, collectively converted $65 million into Roths in 2010 and 2011. Farhad Ebrahimi, one of the heirs of the fortune, has supported left-wing causes and became known for walking around the Occupy Boston protest in 2011 wearing a hand-lettered T-shirt that declared he was a member of the 1% and said: “Tax me, I'm good for it."

Kind of.

He converted $19.4 million into a Roth, which would have triggered $6.8 million in income tax. But thanks to losses generated by other investments, he wiped out the tax bill on the conversion. Ebrahimi declined to comment.

In 2009, word of Thiel's secret weapon leaked for the first time.

In a story headlined, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Taxpayer Money," Gawker Media, citing anonymous sources, revealed that Thiel held his Facebook investment in a tax-free Roth.

The Great Recession, though, caught up with Thiel. His hedge fund racked up big losses.

Thiel then did something unusual: For five years starting in 2010, he dipped into his Roth for at least $254 million, the IRS tax return data obtained by ProPublica shows. That is almost unheard of among the wealthy, tax advisers say, because it shrinks the pot of money that can be invested tax-free. Because Thiel was still in his 40s, he was too young to pull money from a Roth without paying income tax plus a 10% penalty on these withdrawals.

During the life of his Roth, Thiel also has made money outside it. He took in an additional $687 million of income from 1999 to 2018, largely from gains on investments, tax records show. All told, over that period he paid $206 million in federal taxes, including the taxes on the early Roth withdrawals.

In four of those years, however, Thiel managed to cut his federal income tax bill to zero.

In 2011, Thiel caught the attention of the IRS. The agency launched an audit, tax records show. The records don't spell out what the IRS was looking at or if it involved Thiel's Roth. Whatever the case, the audit was closed years later and Thiel didn't owe any more taxes, tax records show.

By 2012, large IRAs began to attract scrutiny, falling under the klieg lights of presidential politics.

That January, The Wall Street Journal reported that Mitt Romney, the former private equity executive running for the GOP nomination, had listed on a financial disclosure form that he had amassed an IRA worth between $20 million and $102 million. The story ran on the front page and launched waves of coverage in other publications. Romney had a traditional IRA, not a Roth. But how, people wondered, could the account have grown so large, given that the government imposed strict limits on how much money could be put into one of the tax-deferred accounts?

Citing former company insiders and documents, the Journal reported that during Romney's time as CEO at investment giant Bain Capital, executives there had effectively bypassed the contribution limits by putting extremely low-valued shares from private equity deals into their IRAs, then watching them balloon.

ProPublica's analysis of the tax records show that by the end of 2018, at least seven other current or former Bain executives had amassed IRAs worth $25 million or more, with three exceeding $90 million.

Other financiers also found ways to supersize their retirement accounts. Michael Milken, for example, the 1980s junk bond king who went to prison for fraud and was later pardoned by President Donald Trump, had traditional IRAs valued at $509 million.

A senior adviser to Milken declined to answer questions, “since it's not our practice to publish or discuss Mike Milken's private financial information, I can't help you on this one."

Romney lost the 2012 election, but the IRA revelation provoked a lasting backlash. Wyden asked the investigative arm of Congress to look into the matter. In a landmark report issued in 2014, the Government Accountability Office sounded the alarm, finding the mega IRAs stood “in contrast to Congress's aim."

IRS officials told investigators that the federal government was losing more and more money to “IRA abuses." The GAO investigators flagged “aggressive" valuation tactics by private equity. And while it didn't mention Thiel or his PayPal co-founders, the report laid out how startup founders' shares could be used to render IRA contribution limits irrelevant. “Individuals can manipulate contribution limits by grossly undervaluing investments at the time the individual uses an IRA to purchase them," the congressional investigators wrote.

The report estimated that, as of 2011, there were around 300 taxpayers with IRAs worth more than $25 million. That detail reverberated around the media and Capitol Hill. Few knew that most of those accounts were minuscule compared to Thiel's, which that year was valued at nearly $1.6 billion.

A series of reform proposals followed. Wyden, who now holds Roth's old position as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has become the leading proponent of rolling back what he calls “unfair strategies used by the privileged to rake in subsidies and dodge tax bills with so-called 'mega Roth IRAs.'" In 2016, he released a plan that would require owners of Roth IRAs worth more than $5 million to take money out of the accounts. Amid howls of protest from the retirement industry and a Senate and House controlled by Republicans, Wyden's proposal went nowhere.

The IRS, meanwhile, was floundering in its efforts to police retirement accounts. At one point the agency recommended Congress prohibit IRA accounts from buying investments that aren't traded on a public market, such as founders' shares. That went nowhere, too. Instead, Congress began slashing the IRS' budget, kneecapping the agency for more than a decade.

In 2009, an internal team had recommended the agency at least collect data on unorthodox assets held in IRAs. But it took more than five years for the agency to mandate disclosure of those investments. Even then, the agency simply required tax forms to say whether an IRA held stock in a private company, not the name of the company or the price per share.

By 2015, the agency was struggling to handle the paper forms sent in by the companies that administer IRAs. The agency couldn't afford to digitize them. Another two years went by before the IRS started electronically transcribing the forms.

After years of plodding, the agency said it was finally ready in 2019 to use the data to target potential abusers for audits. And that's before the real fighting begins over hotly contested issues such as how to value shares in a startup that aren't publicly traded. IRS officials have complained to congressional investigators that challenging such valuations is costly and time-consuming, and that it requires a small army of experts to go up against deep-pocketed taxpayers.

The IRS did not respond to detailed questions. But as ProPublica has reported, in tax disputes with the superrich, the IRS is completely outmatched.

In his book “Zero to One," Thiel argues that fortunes are built not by luck or unfair advantage, but by discerning investors and founders who are more courageous than their peers, leaders who zig when the crowd zags. Thiel devotes an entire chapter to the importance of keeping secrets, writing that “every great business is built around a secret that's hidden from the outside."

A secret of Thiel's is that his fortune was built not just with brains but also with massive tax breaks. By 2019, Thiel's holdings had grown so vast and diverse that his $5 billion was spread across 96 subaccounts inside his Roth.

As his wealth grew, Thiel showered millions of dollars on Republican politicians and groups with an anti-tax agenda, including Club for Growth Action. In 2016, he became the rare Silicon Valley titan to endorse Donald Trump.

The Trump years, which fueled a market boom, were good for Thiel and his Roth. In 2018, he moved his Roth from Pensco to Rivendell, the family trust company named after Tolkien's elven sanctuary.

In Tolkien's fantasy world, elves can be killed in battle or succumb to grief, but they don't die of old age or disease. Thiel has told people he hopes to live to be 120 years old. That might be a bit optimistic, but he is not taking any chances and is investing in anti-aging technology companies. He's even tucked some of those shares into his Roth, SEC and tax records show.

Assuming a modest 6% annual return and no withdrawals, his tax-free golden egg could be worth about $263 billion in 2087, when Thiel plans to celebrate his 120th birthday. That's larger than the current gross domestic product of New Zealand, his adopted homeland.

“There is good news and bad news," Thiel told The Washington Post when asked about living more than a century. “The bad news is: If you don't believe in the good news, you're not saving enough for retirement and likely to spend much of your old age in poverty."

“The financial planning," Thiel said, “takes on a very different character."

Leading Manhattan DA candidate has repeatedly paid virtually no federal income taxes

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. The Secret IRS Files is an ongoing reporting project. Sign up to be notified when the next installment publishes.

The leading candidate to take over the investigation relating to former President Donald Trump's taxes paid virtually no federal income taxes in four of six recent years.

Tali Farhadian Weinstein, who is married to hedge fund manager Boaz Weinstein, is running for Manhattan district attorney in the Democratic primary, in which early voting has already begun. She and her husband reported income as high as $107 million in 2011, and she recently donated $8.2 million to her campaign — more than her seven Democratic rivals have raised in total.

But in 2017, according to a trove of tax data obtained by ProPublica, she and her husband paid no federal income tax. In 2015 and 2013, they also paid no federal income tax. In 2014, she and her husband paid $6,584.

Farhadian Weinstein provided a statement in response to questions from ProPublica: "In 6 of the last 11 years (the years in which we had income), we paid more than 50% of our income in Federal, State and New York City taxes. In the other years, we earned no net income and, as a result, did not pay income tax. We both benefited from many opportunities in this city and country and are glad to pay taxes at among the very highest tax rates in the entire country." (The IRS records obtained by ProPublica show that from 2010 to 2018, the couple paid 25.9% overall in federal income tax on the money they made during the seven years when they had positive adjusted gross income, which the IRS defines as earnings minus certain items like alimony. On average, the couple paid 12.6% annually from 2010 to 2018. During that time, the top federal marginal tax rate fluctuated between 35% and 39.6%. These figures don't count state and local taxes, which typically are significantly less than federal taxes.)

In two of the years in which the Weinsteins paid no federal income taxes, they reported negative income, losses that appear to be driven by the volatile performance of Boaz Weinstein's hedge fund. They also claimed and received a refundable tax credit — a total of $5,000 over those two years — designed to help middle- and lower-income families with the costs of raising children.

In the other two years in which they paid little or no federal income taxes, they reported adjusted gross income of about a million dollars each year. They were able to reduce their income tax bill in those years by using a variety of deductions.

There's no indication the Weinsteins did anything illegal.

The Weinsteins are among thousands of wealthy people whose tax return data ProPublica has obtained. Last week, ProPublica published its first article using the IRS data, which revealed that the 25 richest Americans paid little or no federal income taxes compared to their immense gains in wealth in recent years. This story was not on our initial list of coverage of the IRS data but a ProPublica reporter came across Farhadian Weinstein's information as part of his ongoing research. With the primary election a week away and the outsized spending by Farhadian Weinstein continuing to draw attention, ProPublica concluded the public interest would be served by letting voters and other taxpayers see her tax history.

She is vying to lead one of the most prestigious prosecutorial offices in the country. If Farhadian Weinstein wins the Democratic primary, she is virtually guaranteed to win the general election later in the year since Democrats dominate the borough. She would take over the office at a pivotal time: Violent crime in New York City is rising, and the office is widely reported to be in the advanced stages of an investigation into the taxes and finances surrounding Trump and his company.

Farhadian Weinstein has made fairness a central principle of her campaign. As she has put it on her campaign website, "Tali believes in a DA's office that is ethical, fair, and advances equity for all New Yorkers." She has presented herself as a centrist in a progressive Democratic field. A former federal prosecutor and general counsel for the Brooklyn DA's office, she has picked up a string of high-profile endorsements, including from former Attorney General Eric Holder, former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, the New York Daily News and the New York Post.

Farhadian Weinstein has received hundreds of thousands in donations from wealthy financiers, including contributions from Citadel's Ken Griffin, PointState Capital's Zach Schreiber and Pershing Square founder William Ackman. That has prompted criticism that she will be soft on white-collar crime as the DA in the nation's financial capital. She has said those donations will not influence her.

Farhadian Weinstein has raised $12.8 million in all (including the $8.2 million she contributed herself), towering over the next closest competitors, Alvin Bragg at $2.3 million and Lucy Lang at $1.6 million.

Boaz Weinstein founded Saba Capital Management. The firm reportedly once managed more than $5 billion, but it has performed unevenly in the past decade.

In two of the years that the Weinsteins paid zero federal income tax, 2017 and 2015, their returns show millions in business losses. In those years, the couple reported a net negative income.

But they avoided virtually all federal income taxes even in two of the years in which they made money. In 2014, their adjusted gross income was almost a million dollars. That year, the couple's deduction for investment interest expense skyrocketed to just under a million dollars, essentially wiping out their taxable income for the year. The tax code allows investors to take a deduction for interest paid on money they borrow to invest. That effectively allows their risk-taking to be subsidized by other taxpayers.

In 2013, the couple reported $1.5 million in adjusted gross income and still paid no federal income tax. That year, the couple reported a deduction of more than $1 million for "miscellaneous expenses" — a catchall deduction, since eliminated, that can include expenses for tax and investment advice and some legal expenses. (The tax records obtained by ProPublica did not enumerate the specifics of those expenses, and Farhadian Weinstein declined to answer questions about them.)

If Farhadian Weinstein ultimately is elected, the status of her most high-profile potential case — the Trump investigation — is unclear. There have been no charges filed, and there may never be. According to The New York Times, investigators have focused on potential financial crimes such as tax and bank fraud, including whether one or more employees of the Trump Organization received certain benefits from the company without paying taxes on them and whether the company possibly lowered the value of properties to pay less in taxes and inflated their value to secure loans. Trump and his company have denied wrongdoing.

Few cops using force on George Floyd protesters are known to have faced discipline

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

Last summer, ProPublica compiled 68 videos that appeared to show police officers using disproportionate force against protesters during the nationwide events following George Floyd's death in police custody.

We had culled the videos from hundreds circulating on social media in the wake of the protests and highlighted the cases that seemed to clearly show officers using disproportionate force. We then reached out to dozens of law enforcement agencies whose officers are in the videos and asked some straightforward questions: Have the officers' police departments investigated the incidents? And what consequences, if any, have the officers in the videos faced?

As time passed, we've been checking in with the departments to get their answers.

After a year, we wanted to give a final update on what we know: Departments have disclosed discipline for 10 officers.

A Seattle Police Department officer received a written reprimand for striking a protester with "six to eight punches over six seconds." In Grand Rapids, Michigan, an officer shot a man in the shoulder at close range with a long-range tear gas round. He received two days without pay. In Salt Lake City, an officer received "coaching and counseling" for using a shield to push an elderly man.

Six officers were initially fired, though two got their jobs back after a review. Criminal charges are also pending against 11 officers, including some who have already faced internal discipline.

In 17 cases that we followed, the departments have decided not to discipline the officers or could not identify them.

Investigations are still ongoing in 25 of the cases. This includes a high-profile case in Buffalo, New York, where two officers pushed a man backward, causing him to hit his head on the pavement. A grand jury dismissed felony assault charges against the officers, but a decision on departmental discipline is still pending.

Finally, in 18 instances, ProPublica could not determine the disciplinary outcome — either because the department did not respond or the department said it could not share the information.

The weaving journey of accountability has played out starkly around one of the cases in Atlanta.

In May 2020, the mayor announced the firing of two officers just a day after they were involved in the violent arrest of two college students who were pulled from a car.

But the officers quickly sued to get their jobs back, citing a lack of due process. In February, Atlanta's Civil Service Board agreed. The two officers are once again employed by the department but remain on administrative leave. The incident remains under investigation. Criminal charges have also been filed against the officers, including assault, though the district attorney who brought them has since been voted out of office.

One reason departments have declined to comment on the status of cases is that the incidents have been subject to litigation. But the back and forth on such suits can be illuminating.

Responding to a lawsuit by a protester who was hitby a Los Angeles Police Department vehicle, the city wrote that the "force used against plaintiff, if any, was caused and necessitated by the actions of plaintiff, and was reasonable and necessary for self-defense."

In about half of the cases we reviewed, including one resulting in discipline, the officer or officers involved have not been publicly identified. Sometimes, it's not even clear which law enforcement agency they worked for.

In Minneapolis, where Floyd's death occurred, sparking outrage across the world, a video captured the moment in May when officers patrolling a neighborhood fired paint rounds at a woman's home while enforcing a curfew.

A Minnesota National Guard spokesperson told ProPublica the agency was "not involved" in the incident. The Minneapolis Police Department said the incident was "not our agency." The Minnesota State Patrol said that it reviewed the video of the incident, and that "the officer who fired the marking round was not a State Patrol trooper." When asked which agency the officers who fired the paint round were from, the spokesperson said it was "unclear."


The inside story of how NY's Bill de Blasio promised, then thwarted police accountability

Years ago, before he was mayor, Bill de Blasio laid out the essence of any effort to reform the country's largest police department. New York City needed true civilian oversight.

Describing the city agency tasked with investigating police misconduct as “more of a lapdog than a watchdog," he proposed in 2009 to give it more independence, authority, and guaranteed funding. A few months later, he again pledged change, saying in a statement, “the NYPD cannot oversee itself."

Then, in 2013, he was elected mayor. And rather than create more independence for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, he ended up asserting ever-more control over the agency, intent on avoiding conflict with the Police Department, according to internal communications obtained by ProPublica and interviews with more than two dozen current and former officials.

The mayor's office edited reports and testimony to soften criticism of the NYPD and roll back proposals for more effective oversight. It maneuvered to block some of the same policies de Blasio had advocated for years before. And when the civilian officials were faced with obstruction by the NYPD, the mayor's office ignored their pleas for support.

When the CCRB in a draft report two years ago noted that police were withholding footage from body-worn cameras, an aide to the mayor ordered the CCRB to take out the direct reference to the department: “Let's simplify and remove the acronym 'NYPD.'"

New Yorkers and others have seen de Blasio's deference to the police play out on the public stage, perhaps most infamously when he defended NYPD's response to last summer's racial justice protests. But the internal accounts show how City Hall worked behind the scenes to protect the NYPD from scrutiny.

De Blasio will leave office at the end of the year, and his administration has defended his efforts to improve police oversight, telling ProPublica that while the CCRB “was left to languish under previous administrations, it's clear this mayor took a different approach." But his record is a warning to the field of candidates vying to succeed him.

They too are facing both calls for racial justice and concerns about crime, which has risen in New York over the past year as it has in other cities. Rather than seeking to slash the size of the police force, many candidates have echoed the promise de Blasio once made to institute genuine civilian oversight of a department that has long chafed at it.

Some of the leading candidates in this month's mayoral primary have seen that resistance up close, including Eric Adams, a former NYPD commander who often criticized the department; Scott Stringer, the city comptroller; and Maya Wiley, the onetime head of the CCRB under de Blasio.

Wiley, who was the mayor's chief legal adviser before joining the CCRB in July 2016, has made police reform a central part of her campaign platform. But after de Blasio chose her to chair the agency, the CCRB shifted toward tighter mayoral control. During Wiley's tenure, the office removed recommendations from a draft report that faulted the NYPD's use of Tasers after City Hall objected to the findings. After The New York Times revealed the changes, Wiley defended them.

City Hall's grip continued after Wiley left in the summer of 2017.

When her successor was scheduled to ask a city commission for more oversight power in late 2018, the mayor's office intervened and canceled the testimony. As one agency official informed a colleague in a text: “City Hall put the kibosh on it."

“Every testimony, every report, every hearing was completely controlled by what City Hall wanted or didn't want," said Nicole Napolitano, who was a senior policy analyst for the agency. The goal was to give a “veneer of accountability."

Napolitano and three others at the agency who pushed for more aggressive oversight were let go last November in what the mayor's office described as a reorganization and a “step forward." (In a lawsuit, Napolitano and the others argue they were fired in retaliation for raising concerns about the agency's independence, which they say was a violation of their free speech; the city is seeking to dismiss the case, arguing the concerns weren't protected speech.)

A statement provided by City Hall spokesperson Avery Cohen noted that a recent administration proposal would consolidate police oversight agencies under the CCRB, and said edits of reports and testimony were just part of the governing process.

“On matters of police accountability, as with any issue that requires the cooperation of multiple agencies, City Hall is always in dialogue with both the NYPD and CCRB," the statement said. “All our work with CCRB has been done to achieve our shared goal of greater police oversight and accountability."

In a statement to ProPublica, current CCRB chair Rev. Frederick Davie said that the agency has repeatedly advocated for strengthening oversight. “We will continue to work together — and disagree with — the NYPD and the Mayor's Office," Davie said. Wiley, through her campaign, declined to be interviewed; a spokesperson pointed to the candidate's recent defense of her tenure at the CCRB.

For decades, the NYPD has been the most powerful fiefdom in city government. With a $5.4 billion budget and a direct line to the mayor, the NYPD operates with far more independence than other city departments.

External oversight has expanded in recent years, with the creation of an inspector general and the appointment of a court-mandated monitor. And prosecutors, working with the FBI and NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau, are responsible for investigating potential criminal conduct by officers. But it's the CCRB that thousands of people turn to every year to lodge complaints against officers for everything from offensive language to police brutality.

Under the city charter, it's an “independent" office charged with conducting “complete, thorough and impartial" investigations of police misconduct.

That mandate, though, belies the agency's limited powers. It is governed by a board that is effectively controlled by the mayor through his appointees and those of his police commissioner. And when the CCRB does substantiate a complaint, it can only recommend discipline to the NYPD. (In a statement to ProPublica, the NYPD said it is committed to oversight: “We fully support the CCRB.")

Through de Blasio's nearly eight years in office, even as public concern about police misconduct mounted, the CCRB has remained on the margins of efforts to investigate and reform policing in New York. While others in city and state government have issued stinging findings about the NYPD's conduct during last summer's protests, the agency tasked with investigating complaints about officers' misconduct has largely stayed silent.

Mina Malik served for two years as the agency's executive director, resigning five months into Wiley's tenure as board chair. She said that during her time there, “it became clear that City Hall has significant influence over the CCRB and its operations." That's not how she thinks it should work. “It is vital for any police oversight agency to be independent and free from political influence or police control."

For many of those who were drawn to a mayor whose campaign had taken off with an ad where his biracial son speaks about racial injustice, de Blasio's increasingly vocal defense of the NYPD has been mystifying.

But long before he was elected mayor, de Blasio had seen up close the political risks of being the boss of the Police Department. De Blasio first worked in City Hall about 30 years ago, under Mayor David Dinkins, who inherited soaring crime rates and deep distrust of the NYPD, especially among Black people.

After Dinkins moved the CCRB out from under the management of the NYPD, thousands of off-duty officers stormed Lower Manhattan, taking over the Brooklyn Bridge and deriding Dinkins, the city's first Black mayor, as a “washroom attendant."

“It was a formative experience" for de Blasio, recalled one former top aide who worked with the mayor over two terms, and who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing their continued connections to him. “I heard him talk about it many times."

Dinkins ended up brushing aside the police riot and implemented his plan to create stronger civilian oversight. But he also ended up a one-term mayor. The lesson de Blasio took from the experience was that a mayor should “keep conflict with cops to a minimum," the former aide said. “The orientation toward CCRB was, 'Don't have them cause problems for the Police Department.'"

After he was elected, de Blasio did deliver on a promise to drop the city's appeal of a federal court ruling against the NYPD over how it used stop-and-frisk" tactics in Black and Latino communities.

But De Blasio also sought to send a signal to those who worried his agenda would threaten the city's progress in reducing crime. The mayor enlisted the country's most well-known cop, William Bratton, to return to New York to lead the department, which he had done two decades earlier under Mayor Rudolph Gulliani.

While Bratton gave the new mayor a measure of credibility on policing, it came with a price, according to several of those who worked with both of them. Bratton ran the department “completely independently," said Richard Emery, who was de Blasio's first chair of the CCRB.

(Bratton, who retired from the NYPD in 2016, declined to be interviewed or to respond to questions from ProPublica. In a recently published memoir, he writes that de Blasio was supportive of the police and backed his efforts as commissioner.)

It was through Bratton that de Blasio picked Emery. He was a high-profile lawyer who routinely sued the city on behalf of people alleging civil rights violations by the NYPD. He was also friendly with Bratton.

When de Blasio held a press conference on July 17, 2014, announcing Emery as head of the board, the mayor underscored the need for change, just as he had a few years before. “This is a chance to get it right," he said. “This is the first time we're actually going to get to see a CCRB function properly. And I think it's going to be a breath of fresh air. "

That same day, NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo tried to arrest Eric Garner in Staten Island and ended up putting him in a chokehold. Garner's friend Ramsey Orta filmed the encounter, leading the world to hear Garner cry, “I can't breathe" 11 times before he died.

While the district attorney's office in Staten Island began to consider criminal charges against Pantaleo, the CCRB also began digging in, and it seemed like the agency might have a moment. “The CCRB had never done anything even remotely as important or high-profile" as the Garner case, Emery recalled. “It would bolster the integrity and reputation of the agency if it were done right."

The agency initially made progress. The NYPD allowed CCRB investigators complete access to internal records in the case, which they'd rarely had in other cases.

But after a grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, de Blasio found himself once again in no-man's land, trying to address residents' pain and anger without losing his grip on the Police Department.

In an emotional address at a press conference about the grand jury's decision, de Blasio talked about how he and wife had had to “literally train" their teenage son Dante to “take special care" with officers.

The police unions excoriated the mayor's comments, which came amid protests following the killing of not only Garner but also Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. De Blasio had thrown officers “under the bus," said Patrick Lynch, the head of the city's largest police union.

Less than two weeks after the mayor's remarks, a 28-year-old man, who had traveled to Brooklyn from Maryland and posted on social media about police killings, walked up to an NYPD car, and shot and killed the two officers inside, and then killed himself minutes later.

“There's blood on many hands tonight," said Lynch.“That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor."

When the mayor later spoke at a memorial service for the two officers, hundreds of officers turned their backs on him. When de Blasio went to pay his respects at a funeral home, officers again turned their backs on him.

“It crushed him," recalled one of the aides who was often with him then. “I remember his whole demeanor changing. It also got to his worst fear. The Dinkins thing, looking like you have lost control."

Indeed, as the fallout from the Garner case intensified, Emery said he sensed that de Blasio had “far more fear of the Police Department."

When Legal Aid lawyers sued to obtain limited disciplinary records for the officer who killed Garner and a judge backed the request. Emery had wanted the CCRB to release at least some of the requested records, which were similar to records the agency had released about other officers. But the city appealed the ruling and prevailed in blocking release of the records.

It was the first of multiple moves under de Blasio in which the city and NYPD blocked access to disciplinary records that had long been available in the past.

De Blasio and others argued that they were simply following a state law, known as 50a, and that the solution lay in changing the statute, which has long been invoked to shield records about policeofficers.

But de Blasio opposed repealing the law. “He was a huge impediment on 50a," said the former aide who worked with de Blasio across two terms. “I don't know how many memos we wrote him about why 50a should be repealed. And we'd talk to him and he'd twist himself into a pretzel."

The summary of Pantaleo's record eventually did come out, after a CCRB staffer leaked it in 2017. The staffer was forced to resign that week.

At the time, Pantaleo was still on the force and had not faced any discipline. The U.S. Justice Department had launched its own investigation, and, as was standard practice, the CCRB put its investigation on hold.

Emery thought he had a workaround. If the CCRB were granted access to the minutes of the Staten Island grand jury, the testimony, which by law is secret, might allow the CCRB to move ahead without interfering with the federal investigation. When CCRB's motion for the minutes was rejected by a judge, Emery issued a statement calling the decision “plainly erroneous" and promising to appeal. Instead, the city's lawyers stepped in and stopped the CCRB from appealing.

As Emery continued to be outspoken, he drew the ire of police unions. When unions complained that he had a conflict of interest, Emery responded that they were “squealing like a stuck pig." That landed him on the cover of the New York Daily News and the editorial page of the New York Post, which called for his ouster: “Cop-hating CCRB Chief Must Go."

De Blasio ended up accepting Emery's resignation two months later, after Emery was sued by Malik and another staffer who alleged he had made sexist remarks. (He denied the allegations and the suit was dropped soon after he quit.)

With Emery gone, the mayor decided to turn to his own inner circle, appointing one of his closest aides, Wiley, to lead an agency whose independence the mayor had said was crucial.

The daughter of civil rights activists, Wiley had spent two and a half years as de Blasio's in-house legal counsel, advising him on what turned out to be controversial decisions regarding fundraising and other issues.

When Wiley had her first senior staff meeting at the CCRB in the summer of 2016, people there remember her as being friendly but far more circumspect than Emery.

“I asked Maya what her plan was on getting NYPD records, because Richard had finally gotten the CCRB to start getting them, and she wouldn't give a clear answer," recalled Winsome Thelwell, who at the time oversaw the agency's investigators. (Thelwell, who worked at the agency for 25 years, is one of the four former staffers suing after being let go in November.)

Wiley soon found herself dealing with a report that City Hall had already objected to.

In early 2016, the CCRB completed a draft report about officers' use of Tasers, which the NYPD was beginning to roll out more widely.

The original report documented a number of troubling findings: The CCRB found that in nearly a third of the roughly 150 cases it looked at, officers used Tasers on people already in custody; it found almost all of the Taser uses involved unarmed civilians, the majority of whom were Black.

As the CCRB was preparing to release the report in March of 2016, the agency followed its practice of sharing the draft with City Hall.

“They were upset right away," recalled Janos Marton, who was an analyst at the CCRB and the primary author of the report. “The mayor's office's response was to shelve it." (The mayor's office said that its review of CCRB's draft reports “in no way compromises the independence of the agency.")

Marton had gotten another job offer and soon quit. But he said the report was “one of my babies," so he kept checking on its progress.

In mid-May, the CCRB's interim chair was asked at a board meeting why the report hadn't been published andreplied that it would be released “in the next couple of weeks." That didn't happen. Instead, a New York Daily News story in June revealed the existence of the report and quoted unnamed NYPD officials criticizing it.

When Wiley became chair of the board in July, the report was still under wraps. She was asked about it at board meetings in September and in October, according to the meeting transcripts.

It was finally published late in October, on a Sunday, and without an accompanying press release. The report also removed recommendations for the NYPD, including one proposal to ban officers from using Tasers on people in handcuffs.

Wiley later said she accepted “full responsibility" for the delay. In a board meeting, she said the report was of limited value because it included relatively few cases. She defended her edits: “I stand by the report that we finalized and got out there."

In response to questions, Julia Savel, a campaign spokesperson, referred ProPublica to Wiley's past defense of her role editing and overseeing the release of the Taser report, including her position that the report didn't contain enough data to justify its conclusions.

Savel also pointed to Wiley's 2017 role in pushing the agency's board to refer the case against Pantaleo, the officer who put Garner in a fatal chokehold, to the NYPD. Pantaleo eventually faced a departmental disciplinary hearing in 2019 and was fired from the force after an NYPD judge found he'd violated department rules.

Many staffers inside the CCRB perceived Wiley and her top aides as being too close to City Hall.

In late September 2016, Malik, a lawyer and the agency's executive director, wrote to board members that Wiley was seeking to hire her former chief of staff at City Hall in a manner that “could compromise the integrity of our agency."

Wiley wanted to hire her ex-aide to a newly created senior position that would give the aide effective day-to-day control of the agency — Malik's role — even though Wiley's former staffer had missed the window to apply, emails show.

Wiley prevailed. And two weeks later she emailed the agency's staff about the hiring. The email noted that Wiley and two other board members formed a subcommittee “to intervene and select the candidate." About a month later, Malik left the CCRB to teach at Harvard Law School.

Later on in Wiley's tenure, another agency staffer raised concerns about the agency's ties to City Hall.

In March 2017, a staffer who had filed a complaint about unrelated wrongdoing by other agency officials told investigators from the city's anti-corruption agency that Wiley and her top aides were taking direction from the mayor's office and improperly sharing media inquiries and public records requests, according to officials and records. The investigators, sent by the Department of Investigation's inspector general for the NYPD, looked into the allegations but ultimately couldn't confirm them, a spokesperson for the agency said.

Wiley left the CCRB after 13 months, explaining that she needed more time to focus on her work in The New School, where she had been teaching and leading a social justice office.

City Hall's influence continued.

Napolitano, the former CCRB policy expert, experienced it firsthand. She joined the agency in the fall of 2017 just a few months after Wiley left.

One of the first subjects she turned to was body-worn cameras. A federal judge had ordered the NYPD to use them as part of a landmark ruling in 2013 that found the department's stop-and-frisk tactics were discriminatory and unconstitutional.

The cameras have become a critical part of police oversight. If CCRB investigators have footage, they are more likely to get to the bottom of a case.

But Napolitano learned that though the NYPD was rolling out the cameras to patrol officers, it was slow to share the footage with the CCRB. Napolitano and others pushed for a solution that some other cities have adopted: civilian investigators should have direct access to recordings.

City Hall and the Police Department rejected the idea. The NYPD, in turn, became even worse at sharing footage.

In August 2019, CCRB officials proposed noting in an annual city report that its investigations were being delayed because the NYPD wasn't turning over body-worn camera footage. The report is meant to give status updates about all agencies. An introduction describes it as an opportunity to “hold ourselves accountable."

An assistant to the mayor kept a reference to the delay but cut out the explanation that the NYPD was the reason for it. She wrote that the report wasn't the place “for one agency to call out or point fingers at the slowness or inaction of other agencies," a policy the mayor's office told ProPublica “is universal to agencies across the board."

That same month, the CCRB finally prosecuted Officer Pantaleo in a departmental tribunal court, leading to his firing. The agency's chair by then was Davie. Like de Blasio's previous picks, he came with civil rights bona fides — and close ties to the mayor. He officiated at de Blasio's wedding.

Davie wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post lauding Pantaleo's firing, concluding that the ruling was “evidence that civilian oversight of police works."

The op-ed prompted a sharp email from the mayor's then press secretary, Freddi Goldstein, with the subject header, “What is this?"

“Don't remember ever giving approval for this let alone being asked," Goldstein wrote. (Goldstein mistakenly CC'd a reporter at the Gotham Gazette, who shared the email with ProPublica.)

Asked about the email, Goldstein, who left City Hall last year, told ProPublica she was surprised to see the op-ed in print since it was standard practice for all city agencies to discuss upcoming stories with the mayor's office.

“I do think that we tried to be sensitive" to the agency's independence, she said. “But I do think we expected them to give us a heads-up when things were happening."

A month later, Davie again ran afoul of the mayor's office. He was set to testify before the state senate, where a bill to finally repeal the 50a secrecy law was being considered.

As chair of the CCRB, Davie was going to call for an end to the law. “If New York is indeed sincere about our commitment to transparency in policing, we must repeal 50-a," Davie planned to say, according to his draft testimony.

But the mayor's office objected. “City Hall was adamantly against it," recalled Napolitano, who worked on the draft. She said Davie's testimony, along with planned remarks from an NYPD official, were canceled just minutes before the hearing. A spokesperson told ProPublica the mayor was “not involved."

After the New York Post reported that the mayor's office had scuttled the testimony, Davie did testify a week later, softening his call for repeal and explaining it was just his opinion.

A few months later, Davie organized a letter signed by other CCRB board members calling for repeal. A City Hall spokesperson at the time disavowed the letter, saying it didn't represent the agency's official position.

Last summer, state legislators repealed the law.

When de Blasio first pushed for stronger oversight for the NYPD more than a decade ago, he recognized the importance of independent funding. He proposed that the CCRB's budget be set to a fixed percentage of the NYPD's, so the agency would “never be subject to politically charged budget negotiations."

Two years ago, there was an opportunity to make that reality. A commission had been convened to propose reforms to the city's charter, including rules on police oversight.

Like other agencies, the CCRB prepared recommendations in the fall of 2018, including the idea de Blasio had once advanced about the budget. But as one agency official had texted a colleague, the proposals prompted a “fight" with the mayor's office and City Hall “put the kibosh" on the planned testimony.

After pushback from police-reform advocates, the CCRB did offer its proposals to the commission the next spring. But the agency struggled to find support, including from the mayor's appointees to the commission.

One commission member who pushed for independent CCRB budgeting recalled having to drop the idea to secure support for another proposal to bolster the agency. It was “baffling," said Sateesh Nori, who had been appointed by the city's elected public advocate.

The commission ended up endorsing a proposal that linked the CCRB's head count to the size of the NYPD, but did not guarantee a budget. It also allowed the mayor to ignore the head count provision based on “fiscal necessity." Voters approved the proposal in November 2019.

Four months later, the CCRB prepared testimony to the City Council requesting money for a “public education campaign" so more New Yorkers would know where to go with complaints about police. City Hall cut the request, arguing that a unit within the agency dedicated to outreach was already sufficiently funded. (Here is the final testimony.) Currently, the CCRB has a roughly $20 million budget and about 200 employees.

By that summer, there was a push inside the agency to swiftly complete investigations into the Police Department's aggressive response to the racial justice protests that had swept the city after George Floyd's killing. But investigators were overwhelmed by hundreds of complaints and stymied by a lack of cooperation by the NYPD under Commissioner Dermot Shea, who had been appointed to the top job by de Blasio in December 2019. As of Wednesday, the CCRB had brought charges against 11 officers.

Last September, the CCRB was going to note in a report another reason for the delays. Some officers had covered their badge numbers, making it hard to identify them. City Hall softened the wording to say there had just been allegations of badges being covered.

When Napolitano objected, CCRB general counsel Matthew Kadushin replied: “Nicole – Please make the changes that City Hall recommended." (Kadushin did not reply to a request for comment.)

Two months later, Napolitano and three other senior CCRB staffers were called for video meetings with two agency officials. Napolitano and the others were told they were being let go and that their access to agency emails and records was being cut off. When Napolitano asked why, one official said they couldn't discuss it but that the agency was “restructuring." In a statement at the time, board chair Davie said the moves were made to “address redundancies."

Napolitano had voted for de Blasio multiple times, including as her local council member. She had joined city government soon after he was elected, believing in his message that building trust in the NYPD was critical and could lead to more effective policing. “I was hopeful," she recalled.

Despite everything, Napolitano said she still has hope. For real change to happen, people “need to understand how the system really works."

You may be paying a higher tax rate than a billionaire

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. The Secret IRS Files is an ongoing reporting project. Sign up to be notified when the next installment publishes.

The very richest Americans win at the tax game no matter which measure you use. ProPublica has published an article, based on a vast trove of never-before-seen IRS information, that reveals the pittance in taxes the ultrawealthy pay compared with their massive wealth accumulation.

But that trove of IRS data also reveals new information on how little the 25 wealthiest Americans pay in taxes by the most conventional measure: income. Not all are able to minimize their income and avoid taxes; some report very substantial sums. But even then, the data — and a new analysis by ProPublica — shows they still pay strikingly low rates.

On average, they paid 15.8% in personal federal income taxes between 2014 and 2018. They had $86 billion in adjusted gross income and paid $13.6 billion in income taxes in that period.

That's lower than the rate a single worker making $45,000 a year might pay if you include Medicare and Social Security taxes.

Even by the Most Conventional Yardstick, the Ultrawealthy Pay Low Income Tax Rates

The top tax bracket is 37%, but the 25 richest Americans paid an average of 15.8% on their reported income from 2014 to 2018.

The federal tax system is designed to be progressive: The more money people make, the higher the tax rate they're supposed to pay. Today, a married couple pays a tax rate of 10% on their first $19,900 in taxable income (after deductions), stepping up to 37% for everything they make above $628,300

But those are just the rates on paper. To get a more accurate picture, analysts at the IRS look at what taxes people actually pay. This is known as the "effective tax rate." If you made $10 million, and paid $2.5 million in taxes, you'd have had an effective rate of 25%.

Looking strictly at income taxes, IRS statistics show that effective tax rates do, in fact, climb with income. In 2018, the latest year for which data is available, those earning between $500,000 and $1 million paid a tax rate twice as high, on average, when compared with taxpayers earning between $100,000 and $200,000. Taxpayers earning between $2 million and $5 million paid 27.5%, the highest of all taxpayers. But, at that point, the climb stops.

From there, rates descend as incomes rise. By the time you reach the most rarefied income grouping whose data is released by the IRS — the top .001% of taxpayers, a collection of 1,400 who each disclosed income over $69 million — the rate has fallen to 23%.

But as ProPublica's new analysis shows, the top 25 pay even less than that.

How is that possible?

Generally, the wealthy of all stripes keep their tax rates low in multiple ways. Some are simple: They avoid forms of income, like wages, that are taxed at a high rate, 37%, and instead make most of their money via capital gains and dividends from investments, most of which is taxed at 20%. (Among those with the highest annual incomes and the highest capital gains are the managers of elite hedge funds.) Large charitable donations reduce taxable income. Other tax-saving approaches are more arcane: everything from taking deductions for things like interest payments to various credits for business owners.

The top 25 take these strategies and apply them on an epic scale, ProPublica found. The richest also can choose when to take income, matching up their deductions to reduce their bills. Using their vast holdings of stock, they can make large charitable grants. This achieves the twin feat of avoiding any tax on the stock's growth while getting tax deductions for the full value.

To grasp how low the personal tax burden of the country's richest Americans is compared with typical wage earners, you also need to count other forms of federal taxes. Social Security and Medicare obligations, which are automatically withheld from paychecks for employees, hardly hit the ultrawealthy at all, because they tend to avoid the forms of income, like salaries, to which the taxes apply. ProPublica found that such taxes had a negligible effect on the total burden of the top 25. If we include them in our calculation above, it would raise the average tax rate of the wealthiest from 15.8% to 16%.

Most workers, however, pay more in Social Security and Medicare levies than in income taxes — though they probably don't know it. Taxes for these retirement and health programs are administered in a way that makes them almost invisible: Not only are they subtracted automatically each pay period, but the burden is split. Half is taken directly from employees' pay and the other half is paid by employers.

Take the typical worker we cited above, who had a salary of $45,000 in 2018. With the standard deduction, this worker's income tax bill would be $3,800, a rate of 8%. But now add payroll taxes. The worker paid a bit more than $3,400 directly over the course of the year; in addition, the worker's employer paid an equivalent amount as their share of the worker's Social Security and Medicare taxes. Government agencies and most economists typically count both contributions — a total of nearly $6,900 in this instance — as a tax that is effectively borne by workers since it's part of the cost of paying their wages. The logic is that employers consider those costs when hiring and would hire fewer people or pay them less because of the tax burden.

All in, our worker paid $10,700 in taxes. Taken as a percentage of the worker's full compensation (including a typical health plan), this comes out to a rate of 19%.

Yes, that's higher than the average rate of the richest 25 Americans.

Methodology

We used the IRS' definition of "total income tax" to calculate the income taxes of the ultrawealthy. To arrive at the effective income tax rate, we divided the total income tax by the adjusted gross income, over a five-year period. The rates we present are averages, that is, the sum of income tax divided by the sum of AGI.

To calculate the income tax rate of a worker earning $45,000, we assumed the worker was single and childless and further assumed that all $45,000 in that person's income came via wages and that the taxpayer took the standard deduction.

We also calculated the worker's payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare). For this story, we included both the employer's and employee's side of payroll taxes. It is conventional in distributional economic models of household income and taxes, such as those produced by the Congressional Budget Office, the Tax Policy Center and others, to include both components of payroll tax when considering tax burden. However, doing so is not intuitive to people who aren't economists, which is why we opted for a simpler approach in the article that compares taxes to wealth growth. Here, we are focusing on traditional income tax rates, so the impact of including both sides was more relevant.

To be consistent in our analysis, we used not only the broadest definition of a worker's taxes, but also the broadest definition of a worker's compensation. The latter entails including health insurance benefits provided by the employer. For that, we used the Kaiser Family Foundation's 2018 Employer Health Benefits Survey, which found an average premium for single coverage of $6,896. Together, all this brought our worker's total compensation above $55,000. The rate we present in the story is the sum of income and payroll taxes divided by this number.

The secret IRS files: Trove of never-before-seen records reveal how the wealthiest avoid income tax

Series: The Secret IRS Files

Inside the Tax Records of the .001%

In 2007, Jeff Bezos, then a multibillionaire and now the world's richest man, did not pay a penny in federal income taxes. He achieved the feat again in 2011. In 2018, Tesla founder Elon Musk, the second-richest person in the world, also paid no federal income taxes.

Michael Bloomberg managed to do the same in recent years. Billionaire investor Carl Icahn did it twice. George Soros paid no federal income tax three years in a row.

ProPublica has obtained a vast trove of Internal Revenue Service data on the tax returns of thousands of the nation's wealthiest people, covering more than 15 years. The data provides an unprecedented look inside the financial lives of America's titans, including Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg. It shows not just their income and taxes, but also their investments, stock trades, gambling winnings and even the results of audits.

Taken together, it demolishes the cornerstone myth of the American tax system: that everyone pays their fair share and the richest Americans pay the most. The IRS records show that the wealthiest can — perfectly legally — pay income taxes that are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions, if not billions, their fortunes grow each year.

Many Americans live paycheck to paycheck, amassing little wealth and paying the federal government a percentage of their income that rises if they earn more. In recent years, the median American household earned about $70,000 annually and paid 14% in federal taxes. The highest income tax rate, 37%, kicked in this year, for couples, on earnings above $628,300.

The confidential tax records obtained by ProPublica show that the ultrarich effectively sidestep this system.

America's billionaires avail themselves of tax-avoidance strategies beyond the reach of ordinary people. Their wealth derives from the skyrocketing value of their assets, like stock and property. Those gains are not defined by U.S. laws as taxable income unless and until the billionaires sell.

To capture the financial reality of the richest Americans, ProPublica undertook an analysis that has never been done before. We compared how much in taxes the 25 richest Americans paid each year to how much Forbes estimated their wealth grew in that same time period.

We're going to call this their true tax rate.

The results are stark. According to Forbes, those 25 people saw their worth rise a collective $401 billion from 2014 to 2018. They paid a total of $13.6 billion in federal income taxes in those five years, the IRS data shows. That's a staggering sum, but it amounts to a true tax rate of only 3.4%.

It's a completely different picture for middle-class Americans, for example, wage earners in their early 40s who have amassed a typical amount of wealth for people their age. From 2014 to 2018, such households saw their net worth expand by about $65,000 after taxes on average, mostly due to the rise in value of their homes. But because the vast bulk of their earnings were salaries, their tax bills were almost as much, nearly $62,000, over that five-year period.

No one among the 25 wealthiest avoided as much tax as Buffett, the grandfatherly centibillionaire. That's perhaps surprising, given his public stance as an advocate of higher taxes for the rich. According to Forbes, his riches rose $24.3 billion between 2014 and 2018. Over those years, the data shows, Buffett reported paying $23.7 million in taxes.

That works out to a true tax rate of 0.1%, or less than 10 cents for every $100 he added to his wealth.

In the coming months, ProPublica will use the IRS data we have obtained to explore in detail how the ultrawealthy avoid taxes, exploit loopholes and escape scrutiny from federal auditors.

Experts have long understood the broad outlines of how little the wealthy are taxed in the United States, and many lay people have long suspected the same thing.

But few specifics about individuals ever emerge in public. Tax information is among the most zealously guarded secrets in the federal government. ProPublica has decided to reveal individual tax information of some of the wealthiest Americans because it is only by seeing specifics that the public can understand the realities of the country's tax system.

Consider Bezos' 2007, one of the years he paid zero in federal income taxes. Amazon's stock more than doubled. Bezos' fortune leapt $3.8 billion, according to Forbes, whose wealth estimates are widely cited. How did a person enjoying that sort of wealth explosion end up paying no income tax?

In that year, Bezos, who filed his taxes jointly with his then-wife, MacKenzie Scott, reported a paltry (for him) $46 million in income, largely from interest and dividend payments on outside investments. He was able to offset every penny he earned with losses from side investments and various deductions, like interest expenses on debts and the vague catchall category of “other expenses."

In 2011, a year in which his wealth held roughly steady at $18 billion, Bezos filed a tax return reporting he lost money — his income that year was more than offset by investment losses. What's more, because, according to the tax law, he made so little, he even claimed and received a $4,000 tax credit for his children.

His tax avoidance is even more striking if you examine 2006 to 2018, a period for which ProPublica has complete data. Bezos' wealth increased by $127 billion, according to Forbes, but he reported a total of $6.5 billion in income. The $1.4 billion he paid in personal federal taxes is a massive number — yet it amounts to a 1.1% true tax rate on the rise in his fortune.

The revelations provided by the IRS data come at a crucial moment. Wealth inequality has become one of the defining issues of our age. The president and Congress are considering the most ambitious tax increases in decades on those with high incomes. But the American tax conversation has been dominated by debate over incremental changes, such as whether the top tax rate should be 39.6% rather than 37%.

ProPublica's data shows that while some wealthy Americans, such as hedge fund managers, would pay more taxes under the current Biden administration proposals, the vast majority of the top 25 would see little change.

The tax data was provided to ProPublica after we published a series of articles scrutinizing the IRS. The articles exposed how years of budget cuts have hobbled the agency's ability to enforce the law and how the largest corporations and the rich have benefited from the IRS' weakness. They also showed how people in poor regions are now more likely to be audited than those in affluent areas.

ProPublica is not disclosing how it obtained the data, which was given to us in raw form, with no conditions or conclusions. ProPublica reporters spent months processing and analyzing the material to transform it into a usable database.

We then verified the information by comparing elements of it with dozens of already public tax details (in court documents, politicians' financial disclosures and news stories) as well as by vetting it with individuals whose tax information is contained in the trove. Every person whose tax information is described in this story was asked to comment. Those who responded, including Buffett, Bloomberg and Icahn, all said they had paid the taxes they owed.

A spokesman for Soros said in a statement: “Between 2016 and 2018 George Soros lost money on his investments, therefore he did not owe federal income taxes in those years. Mr. Soros has long supported higher taxes for wealthy Americans." Personal and corporate representatives of Bezos declined to receive detailed questions about the matter. ProPublica attempted to reach Scott through her divorce attorney, a personal representative and family members; she did not respond. Musk responded to an initial query with a lone punctuation mark: “?" After we sent detailed questions to him, he did not reply.

One of the billionaires mentioned in this article objected, arguing that publishing personal tax information is a violation of privacy. We have concluded that the public interest in knowing this information at this pivotal moment outweighs that legitimate concern.

The consequences of allowing the most prosperous to game the tax system have been profound. Federal budgets, apart from military spending, have been constrained for decades. Roads and bridges have crumbled, social services have withered and the solvency of Social Security and Medicare is perpetually in question.

There is an even more fundamental issue than which programs get funded or not: Taxes are a kind of collective sacrifice. No one loves giving their hard-earned money to the government. But the system works only as long as it's perceived to be fair.

Our analysis of tax data for the 25 richest Americans quantifies just how unfair the system has become.

By the end of 2018, the 25 were worth $1.1 trillion.

For comparison, it would take 14.3 million ordinary American wage earners put together to equal that same amount of wealth.

The personal federal tax bill for the top 25 in 2018: $1.9 billion.

The bill for the wage earners: $143 billion.

The idea of a regular tax on income, much less on wealth, does not appear in the country's founding documents. In fact, Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution explicitly prohibits “direct" taxes on citizens under most circumstances. This meant that for decades, the U.S. government mainly funded itself through “indirect" taxes: tariffs and levies on consumer goods like tobacco and alcohol.

With the costs of the Civil War looming, Congress imposed a national income tax in 1861. The wealthy helped force its repeal soon after the war ended. (Their pique could only have been exacerbated by the fact that the law required public disclosure. The annual income of the moguls of the day — $1.3 million for William Astor; $576,000 for Cornelius Vanderbilt — was listed in the pages of The New York Times in 1865.)

By the late 19th and early 20th century, wealth inequality was acute and the political climate was changing. The federal government began expanding, creating agencies to protect food, workers and more. It needed funding, but tariffs were pinching regular Americans more than the rich. The Supreme Court had rejected an 1894 law that would have created an income tax. So Congress moved to amend the Constitution. The 16th Amendment was ratified in 1913 and gave the government power “to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived."

In the early years, the personal income tax worked as Congress intended, falling squarely on the richest. In 1918, only 15% of American families owed any tax. The top 1% paid 80% of the revenue raised, according to historian W. Elliot Brownlee.

But a question remained: What would count as income and what wouldn't? In 1916, a woman named Myrtle Macomber received a dividend for her Standard Oil of California shares. She owed taxes, thanks to the new law. The dividend had not come in cash, however. It came in the form of an additional share for every two shares she already held. She paid the taxes and then brought a court challenge: Yes, she'd gotten a bit richer, but she hadn't received any money. Therefore, she argued, she'd received no “income."

Four years later, the Supreme Court agreed. In Eisner v. Macomber, the high court ruled that income derived only from proceeds. A person needed to sell an asset — stock, bond or building — and reap some money before it could be taxed.

Since then, the concept that income comes only from proceeds — when gains are “realized" — has been the bedrock of the U.S. tax system. Wages are taxed. Cash dividends are taxed. Gains from selling assets are taxed. But if a taxpayer hasn't sold anything, there is no income and therefore no tax.

Contemporary critics of Macomber were plentiful and prescient. Cordell Hull, the congressman known as the “father" of the income tax, assailed the decision, according to scholar Marjorie Kornhauser. Hull predicted that tax avoidance would become common. The ruling opened a gaping loophole, Hull warned, allowing industrialists to build a company and borrow against the stock to pay living expenses. Anyone could “live upon the value" of their company stock “without selling it, and of course, without ever paying" tax, he said.

Hull's prediction would reach full flower only decades later, spurred by a series of epochal economic, legal and cultural changes that began to gather momentum in the 1970s. Antitrust enforcers increasingly accepted mergers and stopped trying to break up huge corporations. For their part, companies came to obsess over the value of their stock to the exclusion of nearly everything else. That helped give rise in the last 40 years to a series of corporate monoliths — beginning with Microsoft and Oracle in the 1980s and 1990s and continuing to Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple today — that often have concentrated ownership, high profit margins and rich share prices. The winner-take-all economy has created modern fortunes that by some measures eclipse those of John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie.

In the here and now, the ultrawealthy use an array of techniques that aren't available to those of lesser means to get around the tax system.

Certainly, there are illegal tax evaders among them, but it turns out billionaires don't have to evade taxes exotically and illicitly — they can avoid them routinely and legally.

Most Americans have to work to live. When they do, they get paid — and they get taxed. The federal government considers almost every dollar workers earn to be “income," and employers take taxes directly out of their paychecks.

The Bezoses of the world have no need to be paid a salary. Bezos' Amazon wages have long been set at the middle-class level of around $80,000 a year.

For years, there's been something of a competition among elite founder-CEOs to go even lower. Steve Jobs took $1 in salary when he returned to Apple in the 1990s. Facebook's Zuckerberg, Oracle's Larry Ellison and Google's Larry Page have all done the same.

Yet this is not the self-effacing gesture it appears to be: Wages are taxed at a high rate. The top 25 wealthiest Americans reported $158 million in wages in 2018, according to the IRS data. That's a mere 1.1% of what they listed on their tax forms as their total reported income. The rest mostly came from dividends and the sale of stock, bonds or other investments, which are taxed at lower rates than wages.

As Congressman Hull envisioned long ago, the ultrawealthy typically hold fast to shares in the companies they've founded. Many titans of the 21st century sit on mountains of what are known as unrealized gains, the total size of which fluctuates each day as stock prices rise and fall. Of the $4.25 trillion in wealth held by U.S. billionaires, some $2.7 trillion is unrealized, according to Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, economists at the University of California, Berkeley.

Buffett has famously held onto his stock in the company he founded, Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate that owns Geico, Duracell and significant stakes in American Express and Coca-Cola. That has allowed Buffett to largely avoid transforming his wealth into income. From 2015 through 2018, he reported annual income ranging from $11.6 million to $25 million. That may seem like a lot, but Buffett ranks as roughly the world's sixth-richest person — he's worth $110 billion as of Forbes' estimate in May 2021. At least 14,000 U.S. taxpayers in 2015 reported higher income than him, according to IRS data.

There's also a second strategy Buffett relies on that minimizes income, and therefore, taxes. Berkshire does not pay a dividend, the sum (a piece of the profits, in theory) that many companies pay each quarter to those who own their stock. Buffett has always argued that it is better to use that money to find investments for Berkshire that will further boost the value of shares held by him and other investors. If Berkshire had offered anywhere close to the average dividend in recent years, Buffett would have received over $1 billion in dividend income and owed hundreds of millions in taxes each year.

Many Silicon Valley and infotech companies have emulated Buffett's model, eschewing stock dividends, at least for a time. In the 1980s and 1990s, companies like Microsoft and Oracle offered shareholders rocketing growth and profits but did not pay dividends. Google, Facebook, Amazon and Tesla do not pay dividends.

In a detailed written response, Buffett defended his practices but did not directly address ProPublica's true tax rate calculation. “I continue to believe that the tax code should be changed substantially," he wrote, adding that he thought “huge dynastic wealth is not desirable for our society."

The decision not to have Berkshire pay dividends has been supported by the vast majority of his shareholders. “I can't think of any large public company with shareholders so united in their reinvestment beliefs," he wrote. And he pointed out that Berkshire Hathaway pays significant corporate taxes, accounting for 1.5% of total U.S. corporate taxes in 2019 and 2020.

Buffett reiterated that he has begun giving his enormous fortune away and ultimately plans to donate 99.5% of it to charity. “I believe the money will be of more use to society if disbursed philanthropically than if it is used to slightly reduce an ever-increasing U.S. debt," he wrote.

So how do megabillionaires pay their megabills while opting for $1 salaries and hanging onto their stock? According to public documents and experts, the answer for some is borrowing money — lots of it.

For regular people, borrowing money is often something done out of necessity, say for a car or a home. But for the ultrawealthy, it can be a way to access billions without producing income, and thus, income tax.

The tax math provides a clear incentive for this. If you own a company and take a huge salary, you'll pay 37% in income tax on the bulk of it. Sell stock and you'll pay 20% in capital gains tax — and lose some control over your company. But take out a loan, and these days you'll pay a single-digit interest rate and no tax; since loans must be paid back, the IRS doesn't consider them income. Banks typically require collateral, but the wealthy have plenty of that.

The vast majority of the ultrawealthy's loans do not appear in the tax records obtained by ProPublica since they are generally not disclosed to the IRS. But occasionally, the loans are disclosed in securities filings. In 2014, for example, Oracle revealed that its CEO, Ellison, had a credit line secured by about $10 billion of his shares.

Last year Tesla reported that Musk had pledged some 92 million shares, which were worth about $57.7 billion as of May 29, 2021, as collateral for personal loans.

With the exception of one year when he exercised more than a billion dollars in stock options, Musk's tax bills in no way reflect the fortune he has at his disposal. In 2015, he paid $68,000 in federal income tax. In 2017, it was $65,000, and in 2018 he paid no federal income tax. Between 2014 and 2018, he had a true tax rate of 3.27%.

The IRS records provide glimpses of other massive loans. In both 2016 and 2017, investor Carl Icahn, who ranks as the 40th-wealthiest American on the Forbes list, paid no federal income taxes despite reporting a total of $544 million in adjusted gross income (which the IRS defines as earnings minus items like student loan interest payments or alimony). Icahn had an outstanding loan of $1.2 billion with Bank of America among other loans, according to the IRS data. It was technically a mortgage because it was secured, at least in part, by Manhattan penthouse apartments and other properties.

Borrowing offers multiple benefits to Icahn: He gets huge tranches of cash to turbocharge his investment returns. Then he gets to deduct the interest from his taxes. In an interview, Icahn explained that he reports the profits and losses of his business empire on his personal taxes.

Icahn acknowledged that he is a “big borrower. I do borrow a lot of money." Asked if he takes out loans also to lower his tax bill, Icahn said: “No, not at all. My borrowing is to win. I enjoy the competition. I enjoy winning."

He said adjusted gross income was a misleading figure for him. After taking hundreds of millions in deductions for the interest on his loans, he registered tax losses for both years, he said. “I didn't make money because, unfortunately for me, my interest was higher than my whole adjusted income."

Asked whether it was appropriate that he had paid no income tax in certain years, Icahn said he was perplexed by the question. “There's a reason it's called income tax," he said. “The reason is if, if you're a poor person, a rich person, if you are Apple — if you have no income, you don't pay taxes." He added: “Do you think a rich person should pay taxes no matter what? I don't think it's germane. How can you ask me that question?"

Skeptics might question our analysis of how little the superrich pay in taxes. For one, they might argue that owners of companies get hit by corporate taxes. They also might counter that some billionaires cannot avoid income — and therefore taxes. And after death, the common understanding goes, there's a final no-escape clause: the estate tax, which imposes a steep tax rate on sums over $11.7 million.

ProPublica found that none of these factors alter the fundamental picture.

Take corporate taxes. When companies pay them, economists say, these costs are passed on to the companies' owners, workers or even consumers. Models differ, but they generally assume big stockholders shoulder the lion's share.

Corporate taxes, however, have plummeted in recent decades in what has become a golden age of corporate tax avoidance. By sending profits abroad, companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple have often paid little or no U.S. corporate tax.

For some of the nation's wealthiest people, particularly Bezos and Musk, adding corporate taxes to the equation would hardly change anything at all. Other companies like Berkshire Hathaway and Walmart do pay more, which means that for people like Buffett and the Waltons, corporate tax could add significantly to their burden.

It is also true that some billionaires don't avoid taxes by avoiding incomes. In 2018, nine of the 25 wealthiest Americans reported more than $500 million in income and three more than $1 billion.

In such cases, though, the data obtained by ProPublica shows billionaires have a palette of tax-avoidance options to offset their gains using credits, deductions (which can include charitable donations) or losses to lower or even zero out their tax bills. Some own sports teams that offer such lucrative write-offs that owners often end up paying far lower tax rates than their millionaire players. Others own commercial buildings that steadily rise in value but nevertheless can be used to throw off paper losses that offset income.

Michael Bloomberg, the 13th-richest American on the Forbes list, often reports high income because the profits of the private company he controls flow mainly to him.

In 2018, he reported income of $1.9 billion. When it came to his taxes, Bloomberg managed to slash his bill by using deductions made possible by tax cuts passed during the Trump administration, charitable donations of $968.3 million and credits for having paid foreign taxes. The end result was that he paid $70.7 million in income tax on that almost $2 billion in income. That amounts to just a 3.7% conventional income tax rate. Between 2014 and 2018, Bloomberg had a true tax rate of 1.30%.

In a statement, a spokesman for Bloomberg noted that as a candidate, Bloomberg had advocated for a variety of tax hikes on the wealthy. “Mike Bloomberg pays the maximum tax rate on all federal, state, local and international taxable income as prescribed by law," the spokesman wrote. And he cited Bloomberg's philanthropic giving, offering the calculation that “taken together, what Mike gives to charity and pays in taxes amounts to approximately 75% of his annual income."

The statement also noted: “The release of a private citizen's tax returns should raise real privacy concerns regardless of political affiliation or views on tax policy. In the United States no private citizen should fear the illegal release of their taxes. We intend to use all legal means at our disposal to determine which individual or government entity leaked these and ensure that they are held responsible."

Ultimately, after decades of wealth accumulation, the estate tax is supposed to serve as a backstop, allowing authorities an opportunity to finally take a piece of giant fortunes before they pass to a new generation. But in reality, preparing for death is more like the last stage of tax avoidance for the ultrawealthy.

University of Southern California tax law professor Edward McCaffery has summarized the entire arc with the catchphrase “buy, borrow, die."

The notion of dying as a tax benefit seems paradoxical. Normally when someone sells an asset, even a minute before they die, they owe 20% capital gains tax. But at death, that changes. Any capital gains till that moment are not taxed. This allows the ultrarich and their heirs to avoid paying billions in taxes. The “step-up in basis" is widely recognized by experts across the political spectrum as a flaw in the code.

Then comes the estate tax, which, at 40%, is among the highest in the federal code. This tax is supposed to give the government one last chance to get a piece of all those unrealized gains and other assets the wealthiest Americans accumulate over their lifetimes.

It's clear, though, from aggregate IRS data, tax research and what little trickles into the public arena about estate planning of the wealthy that they can readily escape turning over almost half of the value of their estates. Many of the richest create foundations for philanthropic giving, which provide large charitable tax deductions during their lifetimes and bypass the estate tax when they die.

Wealth managers offer clients a range of opaque and complicated trusts that allow the wealthiest Americans to give large sums to their heirs without paying estate taxes. The IRS data obtained by ProPublica gives some insight into the ultrawealthy's estate planning, showing hundreds of these trusts.

The result is that large fortunes can pass largely intact from one generation to the next. Of the 25 richest people in America today, about a quarter are heirs: three are Waltons, two are scions of the Mars candy fortune and one is the son of Estée Lauder.

In the past year and a half, hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from COVID-19, while millions were thrown out of work. But one of the bleakest periods in American history turned out to be one of the most lucrative for billionaires. They added $1.2 trillion to their fortunes from January 2020 to the end of April of this year, according to Forbes.

That windfall is among the many factors that have led the country to an inflection point, one that traces back to a half-century of growing wealth inequality and the financial crisis of 2008, which left many with lasting economic damage. American history is rich with such turns. There have been famous acts of tax resistance, like the Boston Tea Party, countered by less well-known efforts to have the rich pay more.

One such incident, over half a century ago, appeared as if it might spark great change. President Lyndon Johnson's outgoing treasury secretary, Joseph Barr, shocked the nation when he revealed that 155 Americans making over $200,000 (about $1.6 million today) had paid no taxes. That group, he told the Senate, included 21 millionaires.

“We face now the possibility of a taxpayer revolt if we do not soon make major reforms in our income taxes," Barr said. Members of Congress received more furious letters about the tax scofflaws that year than they did about the Vietnam War.

Congress did pass some reforms, but the long-term trend was a revolt in the opposite direction, which then accelerated with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Since then, through a combination of political donations, lobbying, charitable giving and even direct bids for political office, the ultrawealthy have helped shape the debate about taxation in their favor.

One apparent exception: Buffett, who broke ranks with his billionaire cohort to call for higher taxes on the rich. In a famous New York Times op-ed in 2011, Buffett wrote, “My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It's time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice."

Buffett did something in that article that few Americans do: He publicly revealed how much he had paid in personal federal taxes the previous year ($6.9 million). Separately, Forbes estimated his fortune had risen $3 billion that year. Using that information, an observer could have calculated his true tax rate; it was 0.2%. But then, as now, the discussion that ensued on taxes was centered on the traditional income tax rate.

In 2011, President Barack Obama proposed legislation, known as the Buffett Rule. It would have raised income tax rates on people reporting over a million dollars a year. It didn't pass. Even if it had, however, the Buffett Rule wouldn't have raised Buffett's taxes significantly. If you can avoid income, you can avoid taxes.

Today, just a few years after Republicans passed a massive tax cut that disproportionately benefited the wealthy, the country may be facing another swing of the pendulum, back toward a popular demand to raise taxes on the wealthy. In the face of growing inequality and with spending ambitions that rival those of Franklin D. Roosevelt or Johnson, the Biden administration has proposed a slate of changes. These include raising the tax rates on people making over $400,000 and bumping the top income tax rate from 37% to 39.6%, with a top rate for long-term capital gains to match that. The administration also wants to up the corporate tax rate and to increase the IRS' budget.

Some Democrats have gone further, floating ideas that challenge the tax structure as it's existed for the last century. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has proposed taxing unrealized capital gains, a shot through the heart of Macomber. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have proposed wealth taxes.

Aggressive new laws would likely inspire new, sophisticated avoidance techniques. A few countries, including Switzerland and Spain, have wealth taxes on a small scale. Several, most recently France, have abandoned them as unworkable. Opponents contend that they are complicated to administer, as it is hard to value assets, particularly of private companies and property.

What it would take for a fundamental overhaul of the U.S. tax system is not clear. But the IRS data obtained by ProPublica illuminates that all of these conversations have been taking place in a vacuum. Neither political leaders nor the public have ever had an accurate picture of how comprehensively the wealthiest Americans avoid paying taxes.

Buffett and his fellow billionaires have known this secret for a long time. As Buffett put it in 2011: “There's been class warfare going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won."

The Colonial Pipeline ransomware hackers had a secret weapon


Series: The Extortion Economy

U.S. Companies and Ransomware

On Jan. 11, antivirus company Bitdefender said it was “happy to announce" a startling breakthrough. It had found a flaw in the ransomware that a gang known as DarkSide was using to freeze computer networks of dozens of businesses in the U.S. and Europe. Companies facing demands from DarkSide could download a free tool from Bitdefender and avoid paying millions of dollars in ransom to the hackers.

But Bitdefender wasn't the first to identify this flaw. Two other researchers, Fabian Wosar and Michael Gillespie, had noticed it the month before and had begun discreetly looking for victims to help. By publicizing its tool, Bitdefender alerted DarkSide to the lapse, which involved reusing the same digital keys to lock and unlock multiple victims. The next day, DarkSide declared that it had repaired the problem, and that “new companies have nothing to hope for."

“Special thanks to BitDefender for helping fix our issues," DarkSide said. “This will make us even better."

DarkSide soon proved it wasn't bluffing, unleashing a string of attacks. This month, it paralyzed the Colonial Pipeline Co., prompting a shutdown of the 5,500 mile pipeline that carries 45% of the fuel used on the East Coast, quickly followed by a rise in gasoline prices, panic buying of gas across the Southeast and closures of thousands of gas stations. Absent Bitdefender's announcement, it's possible that the crisis might have been contained, and that Colonial might have quietly restored its system with Wosar and Gillespie's decryption tool.

Instead, Colonial paid DarkSide $4.4 million in Bitcoin for a key to unlock its files. “I will admit that I wasn't comfortable seeing money go out the door to people like this," CEO Joseph Blount told The Wall Street Journal.

The missed opportunity was part of a broader pattern of botched or half-hearted responses to the growing menace of ransomware, which during the pandemic has disabled businesses, schools, hospitals and government agencies across the country. The incident also shows how antivirus companies eager to make a name for themselves sometimes violate one of the cardinal rules of the cat-and-mouse game of cyber-warfare: Don't let your opponents know what you've figured out. During World War II, when the British secret service learned from decrypted communications that the Gestapo was planning to abduct and murder a valuable double agent, Johnny Jebsen, his handler wasn't allowed to warn him for fear of cluing in the enemy that its cipher had been cracked. Today, ransomware hunters like Wosar and Gillespie try to prolong the attackers' ignorance, even at the cost of contacting fewer victims. Sooner or later, as payments drop off, the cybercriminals realize that something has gone wrong.

Whether to tout a decryption tool is a “calculated decision," said Rob McLeod, senior director of the threat response unit for cybersecurity firm eSentire. From the marketing perspective, “You are singing that song from the rooftops about how you have come up with a security solution that will decrypt a victim's data. And then the security researcher angle says, 'Don't disclose any information here. Keep the ransomware bugs that we've found that allow us to decode the data secret, so as not to notify the threat actors.'"

Wosar said that publicly releasing tools, as Bitdefender did, has become riskier as ransoms have soared and the gangs have grown wealthier and more technically adept. In the early days of ransomware, when hackers froze home computers for a few hundred dollars, they often couldn't determine how their code was broken unless the flaw was specifically pointed out to them.

Today, the creators of ransomware “have access to reverse engineers and penetration testers who are very very capable," he said. “That's how they gain entrance to these oftentimes highly secured networks in the first place. They download the decryptor, they disassemble it, they reverse engineer it and they figure out exactly why we were able to decrypt their files. And 24 hours later, the whole thing is fixed. Bitdefender should have known better."

It wasn't the first time that Bitdefender trumpeted a solution that Wosar or Gillespie had beaten it to. Gillespie had broken the code of a ransomware strain called GoGoogle and was helping victims without any fanfare, when Bitdefender released a decryption tool in May 2020. Other companies have also announced breakthroughs publicly, Wosar and Gillespie said.

“People are desperate for a news mention, and big security companies don't care about victims," Wosar said.

Bogdan Botezatu, director of threat research at Bucharest, Romania-based Bitdefender, said the company wasn't aware of the earlier success in unlocking files infected by DarkSide. Regardless, he said, Bitdefender decided to publish its tool “because most victims who fall for ransomware do not have the right connection with ransomware support groups and won't know where to ask for help unless they can learn about the existence of tools from media reports or with a simple search."

Bitdefender has provided free technical support to more than a dozen DarkSide victims, and “we believe many others have successfully used the tool without our intervention," Botezatu said. Over the years, Bitdefender has helped individuals and businesses avoid paying more than $100 million in ransom, he said.

Bitdefender recognized that DarkSide might correct the flaw, Botezatu said. “We are well aware that attackers are agile and adapt to our decryptors." But DarkSide might have “spotted the issue" anyway. “We don't believe in ransomware decryptors made silently available. Attackers will learn about their existence by impersonating home users or companies in need, while the vast majority of victims will have no idea that they can get their data back for free."

The attack on Colonial Pipeline, and the ensuing chaos at the gas pumps throughout the Southeast, appears to have spurred the federal government to be more vigilant. President Joe Biden issued an executive order to improve cybersecurity and create a blueprint for a federal response to cyberattacks. DarkSide said it was shutting down under U.S. pressure, although ransomware crews have often disbanded to avoid scrutiny and then re-formed under new names, or their members have launched or joined other groups.

“As sophisticated as they are, these guys will pop up again, and they'll be that much smarter," said Aaron Tantleff, a Chicago cybersecurity attorney who has consulted with 10 companies attacked by DarkSide. “They'll come back with a vengeance."

At least until now, private researchers and companies have often been more effective than the government in fighting ransomware. Last October, Microsoft disrupted the infrastructure of Trickbot, a network of more than 1 million infected computers that disseminated the notorious Ryuk strain of ransomware, by disabling its servers and communications. That month, ProtonMail, the Swiss-based email service, shut down 20,000 Ryuk-related accounts.

Wosar and Gillespie, who belong to a worldwide volunteer group called the Ransomware Hunting Team, have cracked more than 300 major ransomware strains and variants, saving an estimated 4 million victims from paying billions of dollars.

By contrast, the FBI rarely decrypts ransomware or arrests the attackers, who are typically based in countries like Russia or Iran that lack extradition agreements with the U.S. DarkSide, for instance, is believed to operate out of Russia. Far more victims seek help from the Hunting Team, through websites maintained by its members, than from the FBI.

The U.S. Secret Service also investigates ransomware, which falls under its purview of combating financial crimes. But, especially in election years, it sometimes rotates agents off cyber assignments to carry out its better-known mission of protecting presidents, vice presidents, major party candidates and their families. European law enforcement, especially the Dutch National Police, has been more successful than the U.S. in arresting attackers and seizing servers.

Similarly, the U.S. government has made only modest headway in pushing private industry, including pipeline companies, to strengthen cybersecurity defenses. Cybersecurity oversight is divided among an alphabet soup of agencies, hampering coordination. The Department of Homeland Security conducts “vulnerability assessments" for critical infrastructure, which includes pipelines.

It reviewed Colonial Pipeline in around 2013 as part of a study of places where a cyberattack might cause a catastrophe. The pipeline was deemed resilient, meaning that it could recover quickly, according to a former DHS official. The department did not respond to questions about any subsequent reviews.

Five years later, DHS created a pipeline cybersecurity initiative to identify weaknesses in pipeline computer systems and recommend strategies to address them. Participation is voluntary, and a person familiar with the initiative said that it is more useful for smaller companies with limited in-house IT expertise than for big ones like Colonial. The National Risk Management Center, which oversees the initiative, also grapples with other thorny issues such as election security.

Ransomware has skyrocketed since 2012, when the advent of Bitcoin made it hard to track or block payments. The criminals' tactics have evolved from indiscriminate “spray and pray" campaigns seeking a few hundred dollars apiece to targeting specific businesses, government agencies and nonprofit groups with multimillion-dollar demands.

Attacks on energy businesses in particular have increased during the pandemic — not just in the U.S. but in Canada, Latin America and Europe. As the companies allowed employees to work from home, they relaxed some security controls, McLeod said.

Since 2019, numerous gangs have ratcheted up pressure with a technique known as “double extortion." Upon entering a system, they steal sensitive data before launching ransomware that encodes the files and makes it impossible for hospitals, universities and cities to do their daily work. If the loss of computer access is not sufficiently intimidating, they threaten to reveal confidential information, often posting samples as leverage. For instance, when the Washington, D.C., police department didn't pay the $4 million ransom demanded by a gang called Babuk last month, Babuk published intelligence briefings, names of criminal suspects and witnesses, and personnel files, from medical information to polygraph test results, of officers and job candidates.

DarkSide, which emerged last August, epitomized this new breed. It chose targets based on a careful financial analysis or information gleaned from corporate emails. For instance, it attacked one of Tantleff's clients during a week when the hackers knew the company would be vulnerable because it was transitioning its files to the cloud and didn't have clean backups.

To infiltrate target networks, the gang used advanced methods such as “zero-day exploits" that immediately take advantage of software vulnerabilities before they can be patched. Once inside, it moved swiftly, looking not only for sensitive data but also for the victim's cyber insurance policy, so it could peg its demands to the amount of coverage. After two to three days of poking around, DarkSide encrypted the files.

“They have a faster attack window," said Christopher Ballod, associate managing director for cyber risk at Kroll, the business investigations firm, who has advised half a dozen DarkSide victims. “The longer you dwell in the system, the more likely you are to be caught."

Typically, DarkSide's demands were “on the high end of the scale," $5 million and up, Ballod said. One scary tactic: If publicly traded companies didn't pay the ransom, DarkSide threatened to share information stolen from them with short-sellers who would profit if the share price dropped upon publication.

DarkSide's site on the dark web identified dozens of victims and described the confidential data it claimed to have filched from them. One was New Orleans law firm Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann. “A big annoyance is what it was," attorney Phil Wittmann said, referring to the DarkSide attack in February. “We paid them nothing," said Michael Walshe Jr., chair of the firm's management committee, declining to comment further.

Last November, DarkSide adopted what is known as a “ransomware-as-a-service" model. Under this model, it partnered with affiliates who launched the attacks. The affiliates received 75% to 90% of the ransom, with DarkSide keeping the remainder. As this partnership suggests, the ransomware ecosystem is a distorted mirror of corporate culture, with everything from job interviews to procedures for handling disputes. After DarkSide shut down, several people who identified themselves as its affiliates complained on a dispute resolution forum that it had stiffed them. “The target paid, but I did not receive my share," one wrote.

Together, DarkSide and its affiliates reportedly grossed at least $90 million. Seven of Tantleff's clients, including two companies in the energy industry, paid ransoms ranging from $1.25 million to $6 million, reflecting negotiated discounts from initial demands of $7.5 million to $30 million. His other three clients hit by DarkSide did not pay. In one of those cases, the hackers demanded $50 million. Negotiations grew acrimonious, and the two sides couldn't agree on a price.

DarkSide's representatives were shrewd bargainers, Tantleff said. If a victim said it couldn't afford the ransom because of the pandemic, DarkSide was ready with data showing that the company's revenue was up, or that COVID-19's impact was factored into the price.

DarkSide's grasp of geopolitics was less advanced than its approach to ransomware. Around the same time that it adopted the affiliate model, it posted that it was planning to safeguard information stolen from victims by storing it in servers in Iran. DarkSide apparently didn't realize that an Iranian connection would complicate its collection of ransoms from victims in the U.S., which has economic sanctions restricting financial transactions with Iran. Although DarkSide later walked back this statement, saying that it had only considered Iran as a possible location, numerous cyber insurers had concerns about covering payments to the group. Coveware, a Connecticut firm that negotiates with attackers on behalf of victims, stopped dealing with DarkSide.

Ballod said that, with their insurers unwilling to reimburse the ransom, none of his clients paid DarkSide, despite concerns about exposure of their data. Even if they had caved in to DarkSide, and received assurances from the hackers in return that the data would be shredded, the information might still leak, he said.

During DarkSide's changeover to the affiliate model, a flaw was introduced into its ransomware. The vulnerability caught the attention of members of the Ransomware Hunting Team. Established in 2016, the invitation-only team consists of about a dozen volunteers in the U.S., Spain, Italy, Germany, Hungary and the U.K. They work in cybersecurity or related fields. In their spare time, they collaborate in finding and decrypting new ransomware strains.

Several members, including Wosar, have little formal education but an aptitude for coding. A high school dropout, Wosar grew up in a working-class family near the German port city of Rostock. In 1992, at the age of 8, he saw a computer for the first time and was entranced. By 16, he was developing his own antivirus software and making money from it. Now 37, he has worked for antivirus firm Emsisoft since its inception almost two decades ago and is its chief technology officer. He moved to the U.K. from Germany in 2018 and lives near London.

He has been battling ransomware hackers since 2012, when he cracked a strain called ACCDFISA, which stood for “Anti Cyber Crime Department of Federal Internet Security Agency." This fictional agency was notifying people that child pornography had infected their computers, and so it was blocking access to their files unless they paid $100 to remove the virus.

The ACCDFISA hacker eventually noticed that the strain had been decrypted and released a revised version. Many of Wosar's subsequent triumphs were also fleeting. He and his teammates tried to keep criminals blissfully unaware for as long as possible that their strain was vulnerable. They left cryptic messages on forums inviting victims to contact them for assistance or sent direct messages to people who posted that they had been attacked.

In the course of protecting against computer intrusions, analysts at antivirus firms sometimes detected ransomware flaws and built decryption tools, though it wasn't their main focus. Sometimes they collided with Wosar.

In 2014, Wosar discovered that a ransomware strain called CryptoDefense copied and pasted from Microsoft Windows some of the code it used to lock and unlock files, not realizing that the same code was preserved in a folder on the victim's own computer. It was missing the signal, or “flag," in their program, usually included by ransomware creators to instruct Windows not to save a copy of the key.

Wosar quickly developed a decryption tool to retrieve the key. “We faced an interesting conundrum," Sarah White, another Hunting Team member, wrote on Emsisoft's blog. “How to get our tool out to the most victims possible without alerting the malware developer of his mistake?"

Wosar discreetly sought out CryptoDefense victims through support forums, volunteer networks and announcements of where to contact for help. He avoided describing how the tool worked or the blunder it exploited. When victims came forward, he supplied the fix, scrubbing the ransomware from at least 350 computers. CryptoDefense eventually “caught on to us ... but he still did not have access to the decrypter we used and had no idea how we were unlocking his victims' files," White wrote.

But then an antivirus company, Symantec, uncovered the same problem and bragged about the discovery on a blog post that “contained enough information to help the CryptoDefense developer find and correct the flaw," White wrote. Within 24 hours the attackers began spreading a revised version. They changed its name to CryptoWall and made $325 million.

Symantec “chose quick publicity over helping CryptoDefense victims recover their files," White wrote. “Sometimes there are things that are better left unsaid."

A spokeswoman for Broadcom, which acquired Symantec's enterprise security business in 2019, declined to comment, saying that “the team members who worked on the tool are no longer with the company."

Like Wosar, the 29-year-old Gillespie comes from poverty and never went to college. When he was growing up in central Illinois, his family struggled so much financially that they sometimes had to move in with friends or relatives. After high school, he worked full time for 10 years at a computer repair chain called Nerds on Call. Last year, he became a malware and cybersecurity researcher at Coveware.

Last December, he messaged Wosar for help. Gillespie had been working with a DarkSide victim who had paid a ransom and received a tool to recover the data. But DarkSide's decryptor had a reputation for being slow, and the victim hoped that Gillespie could speed up the process.

Gillespie analyzed the software, which contained a key to release the files. He wanted to extract the key, but because it was stored in an unusually complex way, he couldn't. He turned to Wosar, who was able to isolate it.

The teammates then began testing the key on other files infected by DarkSide. Gillespie checked files uploaded by victims to the website he operates, ID Ransomware, while Wosar used VirusTotal, an online database of suspected malware.

That night, they shared a discovery.

“I have confirmation DarkSide is re-using their RSA keys," Gillespie wrote to the Hunting Team on its Slack channel. A type of cryptography, RSA generates two keys: a public key to encode data and a private key to decipher it. RSA is used legitimately to safeguard many aspects of e-commerce, such as protecting credit numbers. But it's also been co-opted by ransomware hackers.

“I noticed the same as I was able to decrypt newly encrypted files using their decrypter," Wosar replied less than an hour later, at 2:45 a.m. London time.

Their analysis showed that, before adopting the affiliate model, DarkSide had used a different public and private key for each victim. Wosar suspected that, during this transition, DarkSide introduced a mistake into its affiliate portal used to generate the ransomware for each target. Wosar and Gillespie could now use the key that Wosar had extracted to retrieve files from Windows machines seized by DarkSide. The cryptographic blunder didn't affect Linux operating systems.

“We were scratching our heads," Wosar said. “Could they really have fucked up this badly? DarkSide was one of the more professional ransomware-as-a-service schemes out there. For them to make such a huge mistake is very, very rare."

The Hunting Team celebrated quietly, without seeking publicity. White, who is a computer science student at Royal Holloway, part of the University of London, began looking for DarkSide victims. She contacted firms that handle digital forensics and incident response.

“We told them, 'Hey listen, if you have any DarkSide victims, tell them to reach out to us, we can help them. We can recover their files and they don't have to pay a huge ransom,'" Wosar said.

The DarkSide hackers mostly took the Christmas season off. Gillespie and Wosar expected that, when the attacks resumed in the new year, their discovery would help dozens of victims. But then Bitdefender published its post, under the headline “Darkside Ransomware Decryption Tool."

In a messaging channel with the ransomware response community, someone asked why Bitdefender would tip off the hackers. “Publicity," White responded. “Looks good. I can guarantee they'll fix it much faster now though."

She was right. The next day, DarkSide acknowledged the error that Wosar and Gillespie had found before Bitdefender. “Due to the problem with key generation, some companies have the same keys," the hackers wrote, adding that up to 40% of keys were affected.

DarkSide mocked Bitdefender for releasing the decryptor at “the wrong time…., as the activity of us and our partners during the New Year holidays is the lowest."

Adding to the team's frustrations, Wosar discovered that the Bitdefender tool had its own drawbacks. Using the company's decryptor, he tried to unlock samples infected by DarkSide and found that they were damaged in the process. “They actually implemented the decryption wrong," Wosar said. “That means if victims did use the Bitdefender tool, there's a good chance that they damaged the data."

Asked about Wosar's criticism, Botezatu said that data recovery is difficult, and that Bitdefender has “taken all precautions to make sure that we're not compromising user data" including exhaustive testing and “code that evaluates whether the resulting decrypted file is valid."

Even without Bitdefender, DarkSide might have soon realized its mistake anyway, Wosar and Gillespie said. For example, as they sifted through compromised networks, the hackers might have come across emails in which victims helped by the Hunting Team discussed the flaw.

“They might figure it out that way — that is always a possibility," Wosar said. “But it's especially painful if a vulnerability is being burned through something stupid like this."

The incident led the Hunting Team to coin a term for the premature exposure of a weakness in a ransomware strain. “Internally, we often joke, 'Yeah, they are probably going to pull a Bitdefender,'" Wosar said.

Marjorie Taylor Greene appeared in a SuperPAC ad asking for money -- and that might break the rules

Not long after her election to Congress, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., helped raise money for a super PAC by appearing in a video ad that tests the boundaries of rules limiting fundraising by elected officials.

by Isaac Arnsdorf

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

The ad explicitly asks for money for the Stop Socialism Now PAC, an entity that can accept unlimited donations. But candidates and elected officials are not allowed to solicit contributions greater than $5,000, according to campaign finance experts.

Greene made the ad with Rick Shaftan, a North Carolina-based consultant whose company also handled ads for Greene's campaign and works with a gun activism group that has been closely aligned with the freshman lawmaker. Some Republicans have cut their ties to Shaftan over his history of racistremarks.

In December, Greene appeared in several ads for the super PAC leading up to Georgia's two Senate runoffs. “It's time to fight back now before it's too late," Greene said in one of the videos.

Immediately after she leaves the screen, a voice-over urges viewers to “make a contribution today."

Under federal law, candidates and elected officials cannot “solicit, receive, direct, transfer, or spend funds in connection with an election … unless the funds are subject to the limitations, prohibitions, and reporting requirements" of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. Super PACs aren't subject to those requirements, as noted in the fine print on the donation webpage referenced in the Greene ad. The statute defines “solicit" as “to ask, request, or recommend, explicitly or implicitly," that a person give money or something of value. The law says messages should be considered in context, including “the conduct of persons involved in the communication."

Legal experts differed in their assessments of whether Greene's appearance follows the law, depending on their views of how strictly campaign finance rules should be interpreted. The Federal Election Commission, which enforces campaign finance rules, is notoriously weak. Although the commission staff looks into complaints about violations of fundraising rules, the six-member commission, which has equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, routinely deadlocks.

Paul S. Ryan, a campaign finance expert with the good-government advocacy group Common Cause, said he believes the Greene ad clearly crosses the line.

“This communication constitutes an illegal solicitation by a member of Congress of unlimited funds," Ryan said. The ban on soliciting unlimited donations, he said, “becomes meaningless if a candidate can do this."

Ryan said he's never before seen a candidate reading a super PAC's script in an ad that explicitly asks for money. That goes further, he said, than other instances where super PACs have repurposed footage of a candidate or hosted candidates at fundraisers that people have already paid to attend.

Political operatives have steadily pushed to blur the lines between candidates and their allied super PACs, which are supposed to be independent. Candidates regularly started showing up at super PAC fundraisers with the FEC's blessing. Campaigns and super PACs are not supposed to share private information, so campaigns started publicly posting video that super PACs could use — in 2015, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign famously posted hours and hours of raw footage.

The Greene ad is different because her appearance was clearly recorded specifically for the super PAC.

“Even if a super PAC can accept, a federal candidate can't solicit — that is clear and indisputable," said Erin Chlopak of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “The whole basis for these organizations to exist is acting independently and not in coordination with federal candidates. The weaker we make that, or the lack of rules that really require such independence, then the entire premise of why they're allowed to accept unlimited contributions falls apart."

The Greene ad doesn't specify a $5,000 contribution limit, which experts say could have avoided the issue.

“My advice would be to be very clear that a candidate is not soliciting beyond those limits," said William Minor, a campaign finance lawyer at the firm DLA Piper. Minor said the FEC has given detailed guidance about what candidates can and can't do in relation to fundraising events, but the only rule that addresses asking for money in ads is the blanket ban on soliciting outsize donations.

Still, Jan Baran, a prominent Republican campaign finance lawyer, said he believes the ad complies with FEC rules because the solicitation for money flashes up while Greene is not on screen. She also doesn't appear on the super PAC's online donations page, he said.

“The ad and Ms. Greene seem in compliance since there is no solicitation by Ms. Greene and no evidence direct or indirect that impermissible [federal election] funds are being solicited by using Ms. Greene's name or likeness," Baran said in an email.

The Greene campaign and its lawyer, former Trump White House deputy counsel Stefan C. Passantino, didn't respond to requests for comment. Reached by phone, Shaftan hung up. His Twitter bio says, “I no longer talk to the #FakeNewsMedia or care what you write."

Greene voted to overturn the presidential election by objecting to the Electoral College results on Jan. 6, when a violent mob of then-President Donald Trump's supporters attacked the Capitol. Georgia Democrats called for Greene to resign over her inflammatory rhetoric leading up to the insurrection.

In February, the House voted to remove Greene from her committee assignments for conduct such as accosting a school shooting survivor and showing support online for killing Democratic leaders. Greene said in a speech that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could be executed for treason and liked a Facebook comment that suggested removing Pelosi with “a bullet to the head."

Those incidents predate Greene's election to Congress, but while in office she has provoked fresh altercations on Capitol Hill. Freshman Democrat Cori Bush of Missouri moved her office after she said Greene and her staff “berated" and “threatened" her in response to being asked to wear masks. Greene also put up an anti-transgender sign outside her office, across the hall from a lawmaker whose daughter is transgender. Last week, Greene aggressively pursued Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., outside the House chamber, falsely accusing her of supporting terrorists.

It is not clear exactly when and where the super PAC launched the ad featuring Greene. Stop Socialism Now PAC reported spending $12,000 on Dec. 4 for “digital and television advertising" against the Democratic candidates in the Senate runoffs, according to FEC disclosures. The group didn't show up in a search of broadcast airtime by the ad-tracking firm AdImpact.

The super PAC posted the Greene ad that asked for money on its Facebook page on Dec. 3, logging more than 3,500 views. That ad isn't one of the super PAC's paid posts that show up in the social network's voluntary disclosures of political ads.

FEC disclosures don't connect contributions to any particular ad or solicitation. But the super PAC has received several donations above the $5,000 limit that applies to regular (non-super) PACs.

Cynthia B. Howalt, whose family owns a chemical manufacturing company in Greene's district, gave $125,000 on Nov. 13. Her husband, Frederick “Chip" Howalt, told a local reporter in January that the couple wanted to increase support for Greene and oppose Republicans who didn't vote to overturn the 2020 election. The couple didn't respond to requests for comment.

Another large donor to the super PAC was William O. Cooley, a retired land developer in West Palm Beach, who gave $10,000 on Dec. 9. He declined to comment.

Greene's extensive television ads, financed in part with her $1 million loan to her campaign, were key to her victory in the Republican primary last year. Her campaign has paid Shaftan's firm, Neighborhood Research and Media, more than $665,000 for ads, polls, mailers, phone messages and calls, according to FEC disclosures. The super PAC paid the firm another $10,000.

Shaftan's ads for Greene's official campaign included one simulating an explosion at an enormous Confederate monument in Stone Mountain, Georgia, as Greene says, “The socialist left won't stop until America is destroyed." In another ad, Greene brandishes an assault rifle and appears to blow up targets labeled “gun control" and “socialism."

Shaftan also works with a network of pro-gun groups run by brothers in Ohio named Chris, Aaron and Ben Dorr. They are also prominent allies of Greene's. In an interview with Chris Dorr a week before the 2020 election, Greene said that if Trump lost, his supporters might resort to violence.

“Once it's gone, freedom doesn't come back by itself — the only way you get your freedoms back is it's earned with the price of blood," Greene said in a video of the interview, reported by Mother Jones. “This is it. Nov. 3, freedom is on the ballot."

Greene planned to speak at a May 1 rally in Columbus, Ohio, organized by Chris Dorr, who told followers they could openly carry guns there. On the eve of the rally, the organizers called it off. Greene released a statement claiming state authorities refused to provide security for her.

An Ohio State Highway Patrol spokesman disputed that account, saying the police “had every intention of providing security" and had “all necessary measures in place."

Chris Dorr didn't respond to requests for comment. In 2019, Ohio authorities investigated and decided against prosecuting him for threatening assassinations in response to the Republican governor's proposed gun regulations. “There could be political bodies lying all over the ground," Dorr said in an online video. “We gun owners will pull the trigger and leave the corpse for the buzzards."

Greene also touted the Dorr brothers' American Firearms Association's endorsement of a bill she introduced in Congress to block federal funding for any gun regulations. An article on the far-right website Breitbart said Greene's bill was a response to an abandoned effort late last year by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to restrict equipment that makes it possible to use pistols like assault weapons. This type of weapon was later used in the Boulder, Colorado, mass shooting in March.

In April, Greene's campaign said it would raffle off a version of the weapon. “I'm giving away the gun that triggers the Fake News Media," Greene said in an email to supporters.

'Who is this monster?' She went undercover to catch a rapist -- but she had to wait two decades to get her chance

by Catherine Rentz

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Series: Cold Justice

The Outrage and Promise of Untested DNA From Rape Victims

Rose Brady walked alone between bus stops on a busy street in Baltimore County one evening in April 1987. She was 28, with long, curly brown hair and blue eyes — perfect prey for the predator local police had named the “Sunglass Rapist."

She hoped so, anyway.

Brady worked for the Baltimore County Police Department and had just been promoted to corporal. When she signed on in 1977 at age 18, she had been one of only 15 female officers in a department of about 1,100. Within a year, though, she'd shown her value, going undercover to help take down a pimp operating out of massage parlors. She had met the suspected pimp with no gun, no cellphone, no wire. Supervisors told her and another female cadet working with her to throw a glass ashtray out the window if he started to make trouble.

On the street in 1987, Brady wore jeans and a light coat, and she briefly touched the outline of the handgun hidden beneath the jacket. She knew the Sunglass Rapist kidnapped women from behind with a gun or knife, covering their eyes with dark glasses before shoving them into his car. She had convinced reluctant supervisors to let her act as a decoy. Everyone worried the rapist was about to turn murderer. Brady had backup waiting to pounce if he struck.

The decoy operation, though, proved a bust, one with a brutally dispiriting twist. That night, the Sunglass Rapist ended up grabbing a 17-year-old two blocks from Brady. The girl escaped and gave police a vague description of his pickup truck. Officers scrambled to converge on him, but when they picked someone up, the girl couldn't identify him. The attacker had covered her eyes with his signature welder's glasses. The suspect was released and melted back into the Baltimore night.

You've got to be kidding me, Brady thought.

Almost two decades later, Brady was back trying to lock up rapists, this time as the supervising sergeant in the department's special victims unit. She'd risen through the agency as a repeat trailblazer — the first woman in the motorcycle unit and the first female sergeant in the homicide squad. Now, after nine years investigating murders, she was the first female supervisor in a unit dedicated to tackling rape cases.

Unsolved rape cases were piling up in the county. The Sunglass Rapist was just one suspected serial attacker who had never been caught.

It didn't take Brady long to see why so many predators remained on the street.

The SVU had always been a neglected squad. In the department's shimmering multistory headquarters, the unit operated from a converted 10th-floor storage closet. In 2004, the year Brady took over, the team had seven times as many cases as the homicide squad, but only half as many detectives.

Trips down to the department's evidence room only deepened Brady's frustration. Most of the evidence in cold rape cases had disappeared, everything from blood samples to basic investigative records.

Then, in the fall of 2004, just months into her new SVU position, Brady happened to attend the annual Fraternal Order of Police “basket bingo" fundraiser. She and family friend Mary Beck went every year. They loved the handcrafted baskets.

On the way, Beck asked Brady whether she was still working homicides.

Brady told her she'd recently been moved to sex crimes and lamented how little evidence remained in the department's property room.

Beck was a supervisor in the pathology department at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, which was the main rape care center for Baltimore County. From behind the wheel, she asked Brady whether she was interested in Dr. Breitenecker's slides.

“Who's Dr. Breitenecker?" Brady asked.

Beck explained that Dr. Rudiger Breitenecker had for years created microscopic slides of forensic evidence taken during rape examinations at GBMC.

The doctor had begun preserving the potential evidence before the advent of standardized rape kits and a decade before the first breakthrough using DNA to solve crimes in the 1980s. He'd been a quiet crusader of sorts, committed to seeing women's assailants captured and confident that advances in science and technology would one day make his makeshift DNA database invaluable.

Breitenecker had given some of the samples to police upon request over the years, but by 2004, seven years after he'd retired, most of the slides remained in hospital storage. “How far back do these slides go?" Brady asked.

“1977," Beck answered. They used to go back to 1975, but already the first two years of slides had been destroyed in adherence to the hospital's retention policy.

“Whatever you do," Brady said, “don't destroy these slides!"

Brady later said it was lucky she wasn't driving because she likely would have crashed the car.

Rape has been a plague in Baltimore for what can feel like forever.

In the late 1970s, for instance, someone reported a rape to Baltimore city police more than once a day. In suburban Baltimore County, it was more than once every other day. In the mid-1980s, as many types of violent crime went into steep decline, rapes surged. As recently as 2019, both Baltimore jurisdictions hovered above the national average in rapes per capita.

And all along, whether in the 1970s or last year, the numbers have only reflected what was reported to police. The true scope of the crime, experts have long conceded, is much bigger.

Rapes involving women who knew their attackers were notoriously hard to prove. In what are known as stranger rapes, detectives decades ago had a few forensic tools, such as fingerprints and blood typing, to solve the cases, but the process was laborious and involved finding suspects and then manually comparing the prints and blood. More often than not, the evidence detectives retrieved from the hospital or crime scene went into the dumpster within the next year or two.

When Brady first joined the force, one of her chores as a rookie was to transport evidence from the precincts to the Baltimore County police evidence room. The sergeant who ran the evidence room was a “dictator," she recalled. His credo, Brady said, was, “If the evidence hadn't already led to an arrest, destroy it."

“In homicide, they never destroyed anything, no matter what," Brady said. But in the SVU in the 1970s and 1980s, Brady said, “They were destroying everything just to get it out of the evidence room."

Baltimore County police were hardly alone in their lack of regard for evidence in rape cases. Agencies across the country regularly have destroyed rape evidence. But Baltimore's practice was curious in this: Maryland does not have a statute of limitations on rape. Rapists can be prosecuted for their crimes no matter how long ago they were committed. Old evidence can be critical, even decisive.

Capt. Brian Edwards, who led the SVU through several policy reforms in recent years, said police didn't have Breitenecker's foresight in the 1970s and 1980s. But he was “shocked" to learn that destruction of evidence continued long after.

“Sometimes, when you're buried in the policy, you don't see the bigger picture," he said. Supervisors dealing with budget concerns and storage costs can get bogged down and lose sight of what they are actually trying to accomplish, he said.

Baltimore County police now save rape evidence for 75 years. “It doesn't matter how much it costs or how much room it takes. If you need to keep it, you need to keep it," Edwards said.

The sense of wasted opportunity, Brady said, had only deepened over the years as DNA technology revolutionized crime fighting and gave rape squads a powerful tool for using aging evidence to make new cases.

In 2001, the state legislature moved to try to address the problem by adopting a law requiring that police retain evidence for three years in cases in which someone was convicted of rape, murder or manslaughter. The following year, the law was expanded to cover the length of the convicted person's incarceration. It was not until 2017 that legislation was enacted to bar the destruction of any rape kit for 20 years.

Brady's discovery of Breitenecker's stash meant that despite the department's years of neglect and destruction, someone else had kept perhaps the most vital and powerful evidence: the genetic signature of the rapist.

Brady allowed herself to dream about what she could do with such evidence. Maybe she would end up with nothing, of course, but she was going to try. Why else be a sergeant?

Brady's entire SVU squad included a detective team of just three women and three men to help her investigate the roughly 150 to 200 reported rapes every year. She also had a corporal who researched the investigative files and applied for subpoenas.

Budgets, though, were a constant issue in the SVU. One of her detectives, Joan Wheeler-Felts, had long wanted to do cold cases full time, but the position was never approved. She and others would have to fit their efforts in during lunches, after work, in their weekends and downtime. Because the doctor's slides were covered with a special stain, Brady had to outsource the analysis work to a private lab. For a while, she had to carve out money from other sections of the budget to pay for the independent analysis work.

Brady and her unit, understaffed but newly motivated, got to work. The unit needed to formally subpoena Breitenecker's slides, and to do that they needed to find cases in which the victims had been treated at Breitenecker's hospital, GBMC.

Steve Duffey, Brady's corporal, holed up in the basement of police headquarters, pulling and printing paperwork and any remaining forensic evidence on unsolved rape cases. Sometimes, he found, detectives had managed to spare a piece of clothing. Most of the evidence and the investigative files, which typically include detectives' notes and interviews with neighbors, witnesses and suspects, had been thrown away, but the bare-bones police reports had been copied and stored on microfiche. They included the basic narrative of the crime — who reported it, what happened, when and where, as well as where the victim had been treated.

When Duffey could confirm GBMC as the hospital where the victim sought treatment, he applied for a grand jury subpoena to obtain Breitenecker's DNA slides and drove each sample set from the hospital to the police laboratory for analysis.

The trickiest part of the process, Duffey said, was contacting the survivors. Letting them know that there was, years later, a chance that their case could be solved risked re-traumatizing the victims, who had both suffered and lost hope. Detectives started bringing a brochure with a psychologist's contact information with them on these visits.

Wheeler-Felts said the victims had a range of reactions. Some hadn't ever told their families about what happened and were shocked when police appeared at their door. Others were excited about the prospect of finally capturing their assailants. Almost all spoke of the way their lives had been altered — the constant struggle to feel safe. They spoke of years of chronic insomnia and nightmares, of daily routines of double-checking doors and windows, changed walking routes, the need to always have someone else in their house. Some had abandoned jobs because a client or a colleague reminded them of their rapist.

Martin Fedric Czosnowski and Anthony Joseph Klanavitch were among the first to be arrested and later convicted by Brady and her squad. The men had offered two women a ride home from a bar in June 1986, but instead had taken them up the interstate to an isolated area near the border with Pennsylvania and raped them. The women escaped, hid in the woods until dawn, found a phone to call the police and went to GBMC for an exam.

They would be the patients numbered 824 and 825 in the hospital's Rape Care Center, according to Breitenecker's log.

At the time, the rap sheets of Klanavitch and Czosnowski, then 22 and 21, were clean. But both went on to commit additional rapes and a raft of other crimes. They occasionally would be caught and convicted, and do time in prison. But they'd never been connected to the 1986 attacks.

Two decades later, one of the women raped that night traveled from her new home in Texas to see Klanavitch and Czosnowski plead guilty. They would be sentenced to 20 or more years in prison.

Another one of the early cases was also one of the most brutal: A 58-year-old woman had been raped at knifepoint on June 3, 1981, in her home and then been left hanging in a closet, bound at the hands and feet. She managed to escape after the rapist left, but the rope had carved a neck wound so deep that her larynx was exposed.

By the time Brady's team tested the slides, the victim had died. But the team found a second, living victim in Breitenecker's files where the suspect had the same DNA profile; she had been raped by the same man in 1980, just a year earlier. Herman Lee Bolling Jr. had been convicted of raping another woman in 1981 and had served about 25 years for that crime, but he was back out on the street.

Brady's team arrested him, the newly identified victim agreed to testify against him, and Bolling pleaded guilty to raping her. He was sentenced to life in prison.

“When we first heard that Dr. Breitenecker had this stash of cold-case slides, we were in utter amazement and shock with a little bit of glee," said one of Brady's detectives, Jessica Hummel.

But, she said, exciting as it was, they were never certain whether such old evidence could actually solve cases.

“Quite frankly, we were all shocked [the slides] worked so well," said Lynnda Watson, a police forensic biologist who worked with Brady and her squad.

Hummel said there was a “minor little party" with each new identification made from Breitenecker's samples. Then it was quickly back to work.

“You always had that next unsolved case," Wheeler-Felts said.

Similar scenes would play out across the country as law enforcement agencies started to process thousands of rape kits. The revelations from those cases have reshaped the conventional wisdom about rapists and the consequences of their crimes.

One finding is that serial rapists change their modus operandi more often than previously thought. Researchers examining 20 years worth of untested sexual assault kits in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, found that a quarter of the serial rapists in their files had assaulted both strangers and people they knew, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of Criminal Justice.

Another finding is that serial offending is far more common than thought — and expensive to ignore. Prosecutors in Wayne County, Michigan, have found more than 800 suspected serial rapists so far after processing 11,137 untested sexual assault kits in recent years. They calculated the economic cost of just one of the unchecked serial rapists to be $1.5 million, as he assaulted four additional women during the time that the rape kit from his first victim lay untested. The estimates included expenses incurred by the criminal justice system and the toll on the lives of victims, such as health costs and lost wages.

Other research in Cuyahoga County found that suspected rapists often serially committed a myriad of other offenses. A look into the criminal histories of suspects who were identified by testing previously ignored kits revealed that they had an average of seven arrests apiece for felony and other serious crimes, including murder, robbery, assault and domestic violence.

Late in 2004, one of the cold cases Duffey was digging into required calling his boss on her vacation. It was a 1987 case, and Brady's name was on the paperwork.

“My name's in the report?" she asked.

“Yes, he did multiple rapes and was wearing welder's glasses," Duffey said.

“I'll be in," Brady said.

The report Duffey told her about was indeed the decoy operation from April 1987 when Brady was doing her first stakeout as a new corporal, hoping to catch the infamous Sunglass Rapist. Less than a month before the decoy operation, the man had raped someone else, forcing her to wear dark sunglasses. That woman had been taken to GBMC.

Breitenecker's slides and the woman's panties, which police had managed to hold on to, were both processed for DNA, according to police records. The resulting profile was entered into the federal DNA database, first created in 1994, and it matched a 53-year-old convicted sexual offender in Baltimore. The man had worked at a local General Electric plant applying enamel to appliances. It was a task that likely required protective glasses, a G.E. human resources contact confirmed to detectives.

Police finally had the guy Brady had been so upset about not catching in 1987. He'd represented everything that was so frustrating about combating serial rapists back then. There were close calls, eye witnesses, even partial fingerprints, but no evidence that would stand up in court and get him off the street. It turned out he assaulted at least two others after that failed decoy operation, including a little girl who was a relative of his. While he had been caught and sent to prison for assaulting the child, he was back out on the street.

The man, Thaddeus S. Clemons, ultimately was convicted in 2005 of five sexual assaults committed between 1985 and 1988.

For Brady, there was perhaps no cold case she wanted to solve more than the 1978 rape of a colleague on the force. Her attacker had hidden in the bushes until she returned home, then forced his way in as she opened her door. Two other women in the same apartment complex had been raped by a stranger over two months. One was grabbed as she took her trash to the dumpsters behind her building. The other opened the door for a man who posed as a taxi driver and asked if she'd called a cab before he broke in.

Brady, who was a rookie at the time, didn't know there had been a failed stakeout for that rapist, too. Her colleague was traumatized by the attack, Brady said. Eventually the two lost touch, but Brady remained fixated on finding the attacker, telling her cold-case squad, decades later, “I'm not retiring until I solve this case."

Detectives described Brady as an “Energizer Bunny" fueled by marshmallow donuts and an extra-large sweet tea from Chick-fil-A that she sipped on throughout the day. They gave her boxes of the donuts and gallons of the tea as gifts, especially if they needed to soften her up for something.

When Brady wasn't at police headquarters, her idea of relaxation was working the mule farm she shared with her daughter and late husband. She and her husband, also a cop, rode their motorcycles on country roads and drove their mules on covered wagon rides along Maryland's borders with Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Even riding the Appalachian trail with her cowboy hat on, Brady was available to jump into cases 24/7, taking calls in her covered wagon or leaving in the middle of the night to drive to a major crime scene.

Brady had no idea whether her friend had been treated at GBMC in 1978, but she had reason to hope.

Initially, a police department logbook showed the case had been cleared, meaning solved or otherwise abandoned. She knew it hadn't been. Brady then learned that sometimes, when a suspect was arrested, the case was marked “cleared" even when police didn't have evidence strong enough to support charges and had to release the suspect. Frequently, the status in the logbook was never corrected.

Steve Duffey copied the case number from the logbook and rode the elevator down to the fifth-floor central records room. There, he opened a long drawer in a cabinet and thumbed to where the case file should have been.

The investigative report and any remaining evidence were gone, so he pulled a microfiche file, loaded it into a machine, scrolled through until he found the right report, and printed it out. And there, in the hard-to-decipher copy, he saw that Brady's friend and colleague had been taken to GBMC. So had the two other women from her complex who'd been attacked.

On Monday, Feb. 7, 2005, Duffey presented the three reports to a Baltimore County Circuit Court grand jury, and they agreed to issue a subpoena to have GBMC hand over the slides that Breitenecker had collected from the three women. That afternoon, Duffey drove to pick up the slides, which had each been placed in a plastic tube for safe transport, and drove them back to police headquarters, where he handed them over to Baltimore County's police forensic lab. Technicians slipped the slides below a microscope to confirm they had enough spermatozoa to test and then shipped them off to a private lab to create a DNA profile.

Although Baltimore County's police lab by then had its own DNA analysis facilities, it did not have the capacity to analyze Breitenecker's slides because of the special stains on top of the spermatozoa. Police thus also obtained a “victim standard" cheek swab from the three survivors to confirm the slides had been taken from them and to isolate their DNA strand from the suspect's strand.

After the DNA profiles were obtained, the Maryland State Police uploaded the suspect's DNA into the FBI's database to see if there was a match with anyone already in the system.

The result was disappointing; the DNA profiles did not get a hit with a known offender. However, they did confirm the suspicions the detectives had shared back in 1978: The DNA profiles developed in all three cases matched. It was a serial rapist.

Then Brady's team received news from state police that gave them the chills.

The national DNA database didn't only store profiles from convicted sex offenders, but also profiles of unknown assailants in unsolved cases. And the DNA profiles from the three women's cases matched the profile of an unidentified rapist who had attacked a woman in 2000 in the city of Baltimore.

The grim calculus was clear to them all: They were looking at a predator who had raped women over at least 22 years in a relatively tiny corner of the county, and they had no idea who it was or how many women he had actually raped.

One thing seemed to be clear. It couldn't be someone currently behind bars. Otherwise, they'd get a DNA hit.

Brady's detectives soon came across old police reports from the 1970s and 1980s that showed the attacks on the three women had been part of a notorious rape spree that included a number of adjacent neighborhoods. Brady spoke to a former SVU detective who confirmed they had set up a decoy operation to try to catch the man. Newspaper accounts detailed how warnings had been issued to local community groups at the time. Detectives had gone door to door to alert residents that a rapist was coming through unlocked doors and open windows. The stories in the newspapers crept from the inside pages to the front pages. The police were under fire.

But no one was ever caught.

Brady's squad eventually plastered a large Baltimore County map across a wall of the special victims office, put colored stars on the locations of similar rapes, culled old files, talked to old sources.

They wound up not just frustrated but frightened. The unidentified rapist's DNA continued to match up to more unsolved cases in the state's database. Two years into their effort, he'd been linked to at least seven rapes, including the three from the late 1970s.

“So, we're looking at all of these cases and comparing them and looking at the M.O.s, looking at the locations, looking at your victims and thinking, 'Good God, who is this monster?'" Hummel said. “Please let us catch him."

Brady called the Maryland State Police contact responsible for loading profiles into the FBI's DNA system after each new hit. The two were on a first-name basis by now: “Are you sure there's no suspect?"

“Rose, nobody," she was told.

Brady was beside herself. The detectives knew the additional hits on unsolved cases connected to this one rapist were just what they had pulled from one doctor at one hospital.

“By that point, you're thinking you're never going to find out who this guy is," she said.

Brady went up the chain of command and was given an additional full-time detective.

That's how Detective Evelyn Grant joined Brady's team.

Grant was not the typical detective. She wore a silver skull necklace and a silver-studded black belt, and had straight, jet-black hair that fell to her lower back.

And she loved to draw pictures.

Grant was an art student in high school who began drawing funny caricatures of her fellow police officers when she joined the department as a cadet in 2000. Headquarters wasn't thrilled about her hobby and told her to “stop drawing the good guys and start drawing the bad guys." They sent her to train as a forensic artist creating criminal suspect profiles.

Inside the SVU office, Brady asked Grant to look for any unsolved cases starting since 1977 within the identified neighborhoods, what the team called the rapist's “hunting ground." Link them by the rapist's M.O., not just his DNA.

Grant began pulling not just unsolved rape cases but also other serious sex offenses and recording each one on a spreadsheet detailing the date, survivor name, address, crime and whether the crimes were linked by M.O. or DNA.

Her count reached seven, then 10, then 15, then 30.

Grant sifted through the various reports looking for Identi-Kit suspect profiles. An Identi-Kit is an old-school facial composite that is created by fitting together the eyes, noses and other features that come the closest to matching the victim's memories of the suspect. It was a far from perfect method and had been replaced years ago.

But as Grant read the police reports, she noticed nearly all of the cases lacked any physical description of the suspect. The man had attacked women from behind or while they were sleeping.

There was one case from January 1979, though. The victim had been treated at GBMC. She was patient No. 240 in Breitenecker's files. She had briefly caught a glimpse of the perpetrator.

Grant took the Identi-Kit numbers listed in the microfiche report — HH136, BB01, NN14, LL20, EE65, FF02, CC07 — that represented types of hair, eyebrows, noses and other facial features, and began piecing them together.

She took the profile home with her, too, and began the improvised work of aging it nearly 30 years.

Her husband, a detective with the Baltimore city police, was fascinated. He watched nightly as Grant added years to the suspect's profile and the face of the rapist responsible for two decades of harm began to take shape.

'Blow her brains out!' North Carolina town confronts a bloody past and an uncertain future amid battle over racial justice

By Carli Brosseau, The News & Observer, video by Julia Wall, The News & Observer

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

One afternoon in mid-July, hundreds of people gathered around a stage in front of the historic gray stone courthouse at the heart of the small town of Graham, North Carolina. They were listening to a song of protest.

“We don't want to die," a local musician sang out to the diverse crowd.

The group wanted the removal of a marble statue of a Confederate soldier that had stood watch over the town square since white citizens of Alamance County erected it in 1914. But protesters in this central North Carolina county seat were seeking much more.

“We don't want to die no more," the man belted out again.

Across the street from the monument, dozens of people, most of them white, lined the manicured edge of a small park. They waved Confederate battle flags. Some wore T-shirts purchased at a local motorcycle shop that sells patches with Nazi symbols and KKK “life member" insignia. The shirts bore a picture of the town's Johnny Reb statue with the words “I ain't coming down."

A brass bell that once tolled from the roof of the original courthouse, built before the Civil War and demolished in the 1920s, sat at the center of the park. A man in the crowd had seized control of it, heaving its clapper over and over against the bell's lip to drown out the protesters.

The singer and his audience did their best to ignore the noise. “We don't want to die no more," he sang out again. The bell ringer looked around. Nobody, including nearby law enforcement officers, tried to stop him. He picked up his pace. The singer continued, “That's why we on a riot."

For many protesters, the statue symbolized the deep injustices that continue to plague America: the police and vigilante violence that killed George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others; the criminal, voting and nuisance laws that appear to invariably favor white people; the backlash that seems to follow every small gain in Black political power.

Their demonstration, the first of its kind here in living memory, signaled that a vocal demand for change was rising in Alamance County, a place where the civil rights movement never flourished. Even with the surging national momentum of Black Lives Matter, the protesters knew the odds of change were steep. Black people still endured racial slurs in the town square and grocery stores. The governing boards of the city and county were all-white and had been that way, with brief exceptions, for a century and a half. Many Black people feared even going downtown.

Alamance County offers a rare view into the fight for racial justice in small-town America. With its long history of violently suppressing Black political action, it is an especially bitter battlefield in the national conflict over race, police and power. Locals seeking change launched a stubborn rebellion after Floyd's death, bound together by grief and a sense of profound unfairness. Law enforcement cracked down, sending dozens to jail. People calling themselves Confederates backed the status quo, and some grew increasingly radical.

A raucous and diverse coalition of church leaders, longtime activists and newfound converts collided with the most visible representative of the local power structure: Sheriff Terry Johnson. A tireless political operator, Johnson had served as the county's top law enforcement official since first being elected in 2002. So dominating was his presence that supporters and opponents alike refer to Graham as “Terry's Town."

Johnson first banned demonstrations on courthouse grounds, but a federal judge ruled against him in early August. Switching tactics, the 71-year-old sheriff kept the heat on by outfitting his deputies in military gear and repeatedly arresting protesters for minor infractions. His actions delighted his base of voters, who like to describe Alamance as North Carolina's last bastion of conservatism, a place where “Southern heritage" has yet to be diluted by outsiders. And he inspired the Confederates, who saw in him their truest defender.

Since Floyd's death in Minneapolis last May, Johnson and his deputies have jailed scores of protesters. A judge and a prosecutor deemed some of the charges unconstitutional. Deputies arrested a woman at one protest for swearing after they tackled her husband. At another, they arrested a man for impeding traffic by standing on a curb with a sign held aloft. Charges against both were dropped.

Civil rights groups criticized Johnson for overly aggressive police tactics. Deputies body-slammed one man after he called them “pigs" while leaving a county commissioners meeting. Grandparents and young children were choked by clouds of pepper vapor during a preelection march to the polls.

In an interview in March, Johnson said his approach was necessary to keep order. He pulled out a copy of the oath he took when he became sheriff and read it aloud:

“I, Terry Steven Johnson, do solemnly and sincerely swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States; that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the State of North Carolina, and to the constitutional powers and authorities which are or may be established for the government thereof; and that I will endeavor to support, maintain and defend the Constitution of said State, not inconsistent with the Constitution of the United States, to the best of my knowledge and ability; so help me God."

Personal politics or racism play no role in his decisions, he said: “I have no preference for anything except following the law."

But the law hasn't always protected Black people in Alamance County. Ku Klux Klan chapters that formed there after the Civil War were infamous for extreme violence, including the lynching of the county's foremost Black leader in 1870. In the 1920s, the governor sent members of the state militia to Graham to stop a lynching, but the ensuing shootout left a bystander dead. A month later, a masked mob kidnapped a Black man and shot him to death.

In the 1960s, locals vigorously protested school integration. At a rally of 500 parents in 1968, a clergyman invited the ultraconservative John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan to join his group's campaign against the federal government's school desegregation plan. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit alleging that the Alamance County Sheriff's Office had racially profiled Latinos. Johnson fought the charges and won in district court, settling only after federal officials filed an appeal.

In recent years, there have been signs that Alamance County is changing. In 1990, the county's population was 79% white and 19% Black. An influx of Latinos has helped drive the population to 163,000, a 51% increase over three decades. Last year those residents helped elect Ricky Hurtado, the first Latino Democrat to serve in the state legislature. The county is now 64% white, 20% Black and 13% Latino. In Graham, white people barely make up a majority.

Once a textile hub, Graham has turned into a bedroom community for the industrial Triad cities of Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem and the high-tech Research Triangle to the east. People come for easy highway access and cheap rent. A new breed of businesses has followed: a yoga studio, a craft brewery, a coffee shop where new arrivals sip lattes against a backdrop of exposed brick. Colorful murals on downtown walls feature phrases like “Love, Graham" and “Love Always Wins."

But under the Confederate soldier's stony gaze, one thing never changed. At every challenge to white dominance, especially when outsiders joined the cause, Alamance County leaders put up a determined fight.

As the crowd strained to hear over the old bell's toll that July afternoon, demonstrators saw strength in their numbers, their persistence and their ability to broadcast defiance. They joined the singer in the chorus: “We don't want to die no more, that's why we on a riot!"

A century had passed since the bell last summoned townspeople to court or church. But to many in the crowd that day, it seemed that the 400 pounds of cast metal was ringing with a sound of judgment that echoed through time.

“Ask Me About Wyatt Outlaw"

Along with the bright murals and new businesses reshaping downtown Graham came Dionne Liles, a vintage clothing trader who had been based in Durham.

Liles aspired to build a business that could serve as a community space, but was also an outsider, not even from the South. Liles, who uses they/them pronouns, was perplexed to be asked repeatedly for their opinion on the Confederate monument.

“Because of my ignorance, I was like, it's a part of history, whatever," said Liles, who opened The Muse in January 2020, becoming Court Square's only Black proprietor.

The days after Floyd's death brought a painful education.

On May 31, Liles and two employees made Black Lives Matter signs and walked into the square, where a Graham police lieutenant almost immediately threatened them with arrest. He said they needed a permit to protest. In 1967, the City Council had enacted an ordinance requiring permits for demonstrations involving two or more people, a measure intended to stifle civil rights protests.

Liles didn't want to be responsible for their teenage employees' arrest, so the trio retreated to the store, where they watched through the window as other would-be protesters were shooed away.

Liles later tried to get a protest permit, but that experience was just as bewildering. They felt dismissed, unsure how to navigate the rules. A conversation with a police sergeant left them in tears.

“You could just feel that it wasn't right," said Liles, who once dreamed of working in law enforcement. “This entire experience has been very emotional for me because I thought the system worked. I just had a lot more faith, I guess, in all of it."

In June, when dozens of Confederate sympathizers gathered on Main Street, Graham's history snapped into focus for Liles. No law enforcement officers shut that demonstration down, and when Liles and a friend walked by, one man called the two of them a racial slur and a few followed them down the street.

Talking with friends afterward, Liles hatched a plan. Protests might require a permit, but walking tours did not. About 200 people gathered under the “Love Always Wins" mural on June 25. As the group made their way around the perimeter of the square, some of the organizers wore T-shirts that read: “Ask me about Wyatt Outlaw."

It was an invitation to learn about one of the darkest tales in the history of Alamance County.

Outlaw was a former slave who rose to prominence after the Civil War. He owned a shop in Graham just down Main Street from Court Square, where he did carpentry and metalwork and ran a saloon that likely served as a hub for political organizing.

A leader in the Union League, a secret society that sought to bring freedmen into politics, Outlaw co-founded a school and a church, and tried to instill in Black people the courage to vote. He had the ear of Gov. William Woods Holden and was elected to the town commission in 1869, making him Graham's first Black elected official. Then the mayor, a fellow Republican, appointed Outlaw to an armed patrol he was forming to ward off Ku Klux Klan attacks.

In the eyes of the white establishment, if there was anything more threatening than a powerful Black man in the post-Civil War South, it was a powerful Black man with a gun. A local lawyer, Jacob A. Long, had established a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan whose 700 or so members represented about half the county's voters. It included people from both the working class and the elite, war veterans and the sheriff and his deputies. Klan members in Alamance tortured Black people and their white Republican allies while pretending, in long white robes and horned masks, to be ghosts of Confederate dead.

The Klan came for Outlaw late one Saturday night in 1870. Pairs of robed men on horseback posted up in front of the home of anyone who might intervene, then a group of about 20 crashed through the doors of Outlaw's home. They pulled the bedcover off his 73-year-old mother and discussed ways to kill her. The mob shouted:

“Cut her head off!"

“Blow her brains out!"

“Let us set the house afire."

They found Outlaw in a room with his children and forced him out half-dressed. In the square, they hanged him from an elm tree and slashed his mouth with a knife. Outlaw's body stayed there, in the rain, until nearly noon on Sunday. People feared touching him, as if whatever blame led to his death might rub off. A Black man who followed two of the killers home was soon found dead in a millpond, his foot tied to a 20-pound stone.

Pinned to Outlaw's body was a warning: “Beware, ye guilty, black and white!" But those guilty of murdering Outlaw and terrorizing Alamance County were never brought to justice. In 1870, Holden, a Republican,declared Alamance County in insurrection for failing to protect its citizens. He sent in troops, but failed to quell the revolt. Holden was impeached and removed from office for his actions against the insurgents. Klansmen cemented their political control in the state, helping to end Reconstruction in North Carolina earlier than in other states.

Some 40 years later, Alamance citizens gathered in front of Graham's courthouse to dedicate the rebel statue. The master of ceremonies was Long, the onetime Klan commander who was indicted but never tried for Outlaw's murder. He said the event's purpose was to “recall the achievements of the great and good of our own race and blood."

The white establishment's overwhelming victory in Alamance helped inspire the screenplay for “The Birth of a Nation," the 1915 film that powered the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan.

At Liles' walking tour more than a century later, organizers passed out hand-drawn pamphlets that recounted Outlaw's murder. On the front panel, Outlaw was depicted with a question mark over his face. No photographs exist of him. What did he look like? What was his story?

For at least one resident who learned about Outlaw for the first time last year, the most puzzling question was why the white citizens of Graham waited as long to kill him as they did.

“Why," Avery Harvey asked, “did they wait until he won?"

“What Sets Your Soul on Fire"

As he drove into town on the day of the July civil rights protest, Harvey gaped at the hundreds of people in the streets. He had grown up in the area, but had never witnessed so many Black people in downtown Graham.

The protesters flooded North Main Street, where a stage had been set up in front of the Confederate statue. Seized by the moment, Harvey pulled into a parking space and rushed to join the crowd. He took out his phone to record the excitement and danger.

“I'm a Black activist," he said into the camera as he walked bare-chested toward a crowd of white people displaying mocking signs and Confederate battle flags. “I'm out here, you hear me?"

Unlike Liles, Harvey was not shocked by displays of overt racism. He was raised in Gibsonville, a railroad outpost 10 miles west of Graham. When he was 12, Harvey said, he and friends crossed the tracks to the white side of town. They tried to go swimming at a private pool, but they discovered a “whites only" sign on the gate. The pool clerk said they needed a million dollars worth of insurance to enter. It started to make sense why their parents never went into restaurants, instead collecting food from a side window.

When Harvey declared himself an activist that July day, he was better known as a Blood. While affiliated with the gang, he had racked up arrests for breaking and entering, assault and resisting a police officer. He said he left the gang in 2018 and tried to start a new life in New York. But escaping his past wasn't so easy. His mom called him home, saying she wanted to see him on his 30th birthday, and when he returned to Alamance County people still called him “Blood."

Harvey was thrilled by the acts of Black defiance unfolding in front of him that day. He watched as protesters seized control of the bell the Confederates had used to try to drown them out.

He thought of the sentence he had inked on his forearm the day he covered up his gang tattoos with a rosary and a lion: “Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire."

“This is it," Harvey said to himself. “The revolution is here."

His life and possessions in New York receded in importance as the bell's tolling drew police and counterprotesters back into the park. One officer shoved a protester named Maurice Wells off the bell's brick pedestal. Harvey raced to Wells' defense, though the two had never met. “That's too much force, sir," Harvey told the officer. “You didn't have to push him."

On the other side of the bell, the founder of the Confederate heritage group Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, or ACTBAC, was yelling orders at police. “Do your job!" Gary Williamson shouted, his arms flailing and face red with anger. He clenched his jaw, baring his teeth.

Officers called for help from the sheriff, the one man who had the power to calm the situation down. Johnson had once coached Williamson in football at Southern Alamance High School. It was home of the Confederates when Johnson played there, renamed the Patriots by the time of Williamson's school days.

“You know when I tell you something, you better listen," Johnson told Williamson after arriving, his arm draped around his former student's shoulder. “Take your people, and get out of here."

The gesture of familiarity between the two men angered Wells, whose own family roots go back generations in Alamance County. He began to belt out the chorus to “Ring My Bell," the Anita Ward disco classic. It was a way to make himself laugh and to restrain his fury.

“I'm going to ring your bell again," he called out in the direction of Williamson and the sheriff, a declaration he repeated with an expletive-filled flourish.

Johnson ordered Wells to be put in handcuffs. After he was hauled away, a woman protested: “Why did you arrest him?"

“He refused to leave and was using language that is not decent language," Johnson told her. Later, in court, he denied that the arrest had been about profanity, saying instead that Wells was inciting a riot.

Johnson emphasized in a March interview that the arrest was not personal.

“I ain't gonna take him to my house and go out and eat with him, but I like the boy," he said, referring to Wells, who is 34. “He does not understand what he's doing to himself for the future years to come by getting involved in undisciplined protest, not being peaceful."

Images of Johnson with his arm around Williamson were widely shared on social media. The images, along with the arrests and Johnson's silence on whether to remove the statue, seemed to confirm what many people understood about Alamance County politics. The people in power are sympathetic to the Confederates, they said. They want the statue to stay up, and support tight controls on dissent. Williamson declined comment.

For those familiar with Alamance's recent history, that message was clear. A deadly white power rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, prompted protesters to tear down a Confederate statue in Durham. Soon after, Alamance officials rushed to ensure that nothing similar happened there.

Amy Scott Galey, then a county commissioner and since elected to the state Senate, asked Johnson to step up patrols in downtown Graham to quell any unrest.

Galey was an especially influential figure. She was a member of one of North Carolina's most storied political families. The Scotts had produced two governors. Gov. W. Kerr Scott, elected in 1948, also served in the U.S. Senate in the 1950s. Gov. Bob Scott, elected in 1968, recalled in an interview that his great-grandfather was among the Klansmen who had been rounded up, then released, in the wake of Outlaw's death.

“We are a government of laws, not of men, and a few people must not be allowed to overtake the process of lawful republican government," Galey wrote to Johnson in an email, according to a summary she posted on Facebook.

Galey and the other commissioners agreed that the statue must stay up. They pointed to a 2015 state law passed after a white supremacist killed nine people at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina. It blocks the removal of such monuments except in extremely limited circumstances.

Commissioners also made their personal feelings public at board meetings. Bill Lashley, a former cop and a Johnson ally who died last year, suggested that people accept the monument and move on. “If it offends anybody, then you need to look the other way," he said. “It's part of our history. We're not proud of our history sometimes, but it's still history."

Tim Sutton, another commissioner at the time, declared his pride in his Confederate heritage. “I am not ashamed of my great-grandfather," he said. “He did what he did. It is my understanding that when he died, from Sarah, my grandmother, that some guys on the farm, you can call them slaves if you want to, but I would just call them workers, that they raised a good bit of my family. When the time came, my great-grandmother gave them land. I am not going to be a part of an assault on logic, an assault on the history of this country and the heritage of this area and this country. Not going to do it."

Over the years, the same arguments were voiced again and again, even as at least 20 other Confederate monuments across North Carolina came down. The 2015 law had an exception that allowed officials to take down a monument if it posed a public safety risk. Despite frequent standoffs between pro- and anti-statue groups, and pressure from business and community leaders, Alamance's Board of Commissioners never invoked the exception.

Johnson said in an interview that triggering the monument's removal is beyond his authority, though he had warned commissioners that there is a public safety risk. He declined to offer his own opinion on whether the monument should come down.

“Write this down," Johnson said. “Politics stinks."

“Charlottesville Is Coming Here"

Johnson has seen protests descend into political violence before.

He was a high school senior in 1969 when Black student protests against racism in the neighboring city of Burlington were followed by fires, looting and the police shooting of a Black teenager.

Later, while majoring in criminal justice at East Carolina University, Johnson took a third-shift job as a sheriff's deputy and worked the chaotic night in 1972 when a police officer shot a Black man in Greenville, pitching that city into a wave of rioting.

In 1979, a few years after Johnson joined the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, he was assigned to a Communist-led “Death to the Klan" march in a Black neighborhood in Greensboro. A Klansman turned police informant hollered: “You asked for the Klan and you got 'em!" before Klansmen and Nazis jumped out of a convoy of cars and started shooting.

From his post at a traffic checkpoint, Johnson heard the shots that left five marchers dead. The sound, he said, still rings in his ears and guides his decisions about the protests in Graham today.

“We've got some controversy, you know, from people saying, well, y'all didn't allow this, you didn't allow that," he said. “Well, let me tell you what, it's no fun when you hear shots ring out and people are dying."

From the start of his career, Johnson distinguished himself for an aggressive style of law enforcement.

As a new agent in the SBI, he made headlines in his mid-20s for targeting the Rockingham County sheriff in a corruption investigation of sex trafficking at local truck stops and claiming his investigations were stymied by Democratic Party politics.

The investigation, still one of Johnson's proudest accomplishments, coincided with a federal probe that eventually took down several public officials. Johnson said a contract on his head forced him into hiding.

After a reporter asked him about the investigation, Johnson arranged for the reporter to meet with him and one of his investigation's targets. In the parking lot behind Johnson's church, a man pulled up in a truck, and Johnson invited him into the back seat of his SUV. Johnson said even though his investigation had targeted the man, he wound up testifying for the prosecution.

For the man, who declined to be identified because another witness in the case had been killed, Johnson had always been about one thing: law and order. The two joked back and forth about how dogged Johnson had been in his pursuit of suspected criminals.

“I'll tell you what makes him tick," the man said of Johnson. “Dope dealers. Trafficking in girls."

Johnson chimed in, “Murders, rapes, robberies."

When Johnson ran for sheriff in 2002, he campaigned on his record numbers of arrests and convictions. Once in office, he brought his tactics to another controversial issue: immigration enforcement. Johnson turned his jail into a federal detention hub and announced that deputies would go door-to-door checking that registered voters with foreign-sounding names were actually citizens.

By 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice had opened a civil rights investigation. The department announced two years later that it had found Johnson's deputies were as much as 10 times more likely to stop Latino drivers than non-Latino drivers on three major roadways. The investigation pointed to a discriminatory use of checkpoints, jail booking practices and deputies' use of anti-Latino epithets.

Johnson denied the charges and fought federal prosecutors at every turn, refusing to turn over documents or make deputies available for interviews. A federal judge ultimately ruled that the Department of Justice had not proven its case, but in the same decision upbraided the sheriff for sloppy oversight and “offensive and reprehensible activity" among staff. The DOJ appealed, and in 2016 Johnson settled with the Obama administration, agreeing to undergo anti-bias training and to collect data on the ethnicity of people who deputies stop and search.

Among many locals, the story had a different cast: Johnson had beaten the DOJ. His reputation as someone who could stand up to outsiders was sealed. During the most recent election, nobody ran against him.

While sheriffs generally wield outsized power, Johnson's status in Alamance stands out.

Megan Squire, a professor from nearby Elon University who keeps a close eye on Alamance politics, said, “He's got this almost mythical stature."

In October, Johnson used the prospect of unrest as a political tool. The Johnson for Sheriff Committee paid for a full-page newspaper ad blasting one Democratic county commissioner candidate for posing for a picture near a toppled statue and two others for joining political demonstrations, including a 2016 Martin Luther King Day march.

“Marches, defending voter fraud, celebrating lawlessness," the ad's bold type read. “Vote for law and order. Vote Republican."

When protests over George Floyd's killing started in North Carolina, Johnson's playbook was ready. He had already met with city officials after the Charlottesville rally to review Graham's protest ordinance. After Floyd died, Johnson banned protests on territory under his direct control: the grounds surrounding the town's historic courthouse and its Confederate monument.

When a federal judge found in July and then again in August that those measures likely violated protesters' First Amendment rights, Johnson shifted to force, his other primary tool.

Johnson's deputies hauled nearly three dozen people to jail over the course of more than 50 large and small protests that took place in Graham over the next year. All the arrests except for one were of Black Lives Matter supporters, even though the Confederates, or Southern patriots as some called themselves, swore and fought during protests too. That sole exception was a 36-year-old white woman arrested on a warrant for failing to appear in court on drug charges.

This pattern stood in marked contrast to local police, who joined deputies in enforcing the laws at the protests. Graham police arrested or cited Confederates 14 times. In comparison, they did so 22 times to Black Lives Matter supporters. Both protest groups included people who don't live in Alamance. About one-fifth of the Black Lives Matter protesters arrested did not have local ties.

For Johnson, that's at the heart of the problem.

“I wish those people, if they're going to come just to cause trouble, would stay at home," he said in an interview. “Let our people try to work whatever problems we have here out."

For locals, Johnson tried to be approachable. He told Harvey he had an open-door policy and agreed to sit down with a group of demonstrators. Though no specific changes developed from their talks, Harvey felt optimistic that the sheriff might be open to deeper listening. They continued to talk. “I love you," Harvey said at the end of their conversations. The sheriff said, “I love you, too."

In October, with the presidential campaign heating up, Johnson would face another major test. The organizers of the July march would be taking over the town square again, this time to usher people to the polls.

Pepper Spray in Peaceful March

Harvey had been working himself to exhaustion trying to persuade people in poor, Black neighborhoods to vote. Many told him they didn't want to stir up trouble. One woman who attended a county board meeting in July woke up later that night to a person in a white-hooded outfit banging on her garage door.

Activism had consequences.

In the push to register other people, Harvey had neglected to enroll himself. He had voted for Barack Obama, but hadn't updated his address.

Halloween, the day of the march to the polls, was the last day of early voting in North Carolina and Harvey's last chance to get on Alamance County's voter rolls.

That morning, a crowd amassed outside Wayman Chapel, the church that Wyatt Outlaw helped found. They were set to march down the path Outlaw took to his death, then pivot toward the polling site on West Elm Street.

In the parking lot where the crowd milled, T-shirts advertising “Good Trouble 4 Change" and “Justice for the Next Generation" were for sale. Two men blessed people by wafting smoke toward them from burning sage bundles. One of the men wore an angel costume. He offered prayers of protection, his white balaclava topped with a tinsel halo.

The march had been organized by the Rev. Greg Drumwright, a Black pastor based in Greensboro who had grown up attending church in Graham. Invited back by local activists, Drumwright was trying to make his name in the national movement, traveling to flash points like Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky, with a camera crew documenting his every move. He arrived in the parking lot as part of a convoy of four white luxury vehicles, including a Maybach.

The “I Am Change" march was billed as a family-friendly finale to a season of Black organizing. Many people brought their kids to witness what they hoped would be a show of power strong enough to reset history.

Marchers entered Court Square singing, “We ready for change." When they reached the statue, several people lay facedown on the asphalt to recreate Floyd's final position when he was killed in Minneapolis. Others kneeled or stood with heads bowed. After holding their positions for the more than eight minutes that Floyd had spent on the ground with a knee on his neck, the crowd rose. They expected to continue their protest in the street.

Instead, a half-dozen Graham police officers formed a line and told marchers to clear the road. The crowd reacted with an unwieldy mix of confusion, resignation and defiance. It wasn't obvious where they were supposed to go, and not everyone heard the commands. Wells tried to get people moving. As police officers moved in, one protester shouted into a megaphone, “These streets belong to us!"

The police reacted with force. One Graham officer aimed a pepper fogger at the speaker's feet. The irritant quickly choked Wells' 61-year-old mother, who was holding tight to his arm. At the second spray, Harvey started coughing. Small children retched as parents whisked them from the scene.

Reacting to the pepper spray, protesters scattered. Alamance News reporter Tomas Murawski was in the street photographing. Police grabbed Murawski and arrested him. Protesters were stunned by the arrest of a working journalist and by the force officers used to twist Murawski's arm above his head.

Police herded the remaining protesters toward a barricaded area near the courthouse entrance, where Drumwright and others proceeded to address the crowd using a speaker system. The permit issued by Johnson's office allowed only battery-powered amplification on courthouse grounds, but organizers had brought a gas-powered generator and a gas can. Eight of Johnson's deputies rushed toward the audio setup. One attempted to seize the generator.

In the scuffle that followed, a female deputy hit the ground. Deputies and Graham police rushed in, unleashing more pepper spray.

One protester with a disability, Janet Nesbitt, was sitting about four feet from the speakers in her motorized scooter. She felt like she couldn't breathe. Awash in anxiety, her body began to buck. Another woman sank to the ground screaming, “I can't see!"

Video from the scene quickly went viral. In the flood of news about the most contested presidential election in recent history, the images from Graham broke through. They seemed to typify the voter suppression and intimidation that Democratic pundits had been warning about.

Though Graham officers were the first to use force, criticism rained down most heavily on Johnson. He was the most senior law enforcement official in the unified command center, and his deputies were the heavies in camo. Johnson was quickly likened to Bull Connor, the civil rights-era Birmingham public safety commissioner whose use of vagrancy laws, fire hoses and German shepherds on protesters made him infamous.

Harvey had taken a break from the protest to get a meal of teriyaki chicken wings with Wells and his mother at a restaurant on the west side of the square. A police officer approached them while they waited for their food outside the restaurant and told them to go back to the designated protest area or face arrest. Several white protesters and journalists stood nearby but received no orders to move.

“Because I'm Black!" Wells yelled. “Is that why you're going to arrest me?" He and Harvey said they intended to eat. Wells' mother pushed him toward the restaurant.

“My destination is anywhere I please," Harvey said before turning to follow them. An officer came from behind and grabbed him by the arms. Police seized his megaphone. He had intended to register to vote later in the day. He never got the chance.

By the end of the day, Johnson's deputies and Graham police officers had blanketed scores of protesters with pepper fog, a chemical irritant. They had arrested 20 people, including several leaders of the protest movement. Johnson insisted the response was warranted because the terms of the event permits were violated.

“When you protest and have violence or do not follow the rules, it actually counteracts any good that you could possibly have obtained by doing it the right way," Johnson said.

After the march, Johnson painted Drumwright as a violent outside agitator. He announced felony charges of assault on an officer and obstruction of justice, which were later dropped. He mischaracterized what Drumwright said at a meeting of community organizers, suggesting the pastor had called for a riot. The district attorney's office tried to have the pastor banished from all county property, a souped-up version of the 72-hour banishment from Graham that magistrates had tacked onto many BLM protesters' bail conditions.

“We understand and they understand why they are spewing a false narrative," Drumwright said at a November news conference. “I'm here to tell you that it is deplorable. Deplorable that the county would respond in this way instead of addressing what it did. It is deplorable that the county continues to violate people's rights."

Though protesters continued to march and demonstrate in the square, much of their attention was diverted to the cases moving through the courts.

Civil rights groups filed two federal lawsuits, still pending, that allege that Graham and Alamance County violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and other laws. The aggressive response to the march was a conspiracy by law enforcement leaders to deter voting and stifle peaceful expression, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law argue. Graham and Alamance County denied the allegations.

Protesters began to receive summonses to appear in court to face charges. Harvey, who had been repeatedly arrested, knew judgment was coming for him again.

“It's just like a chain reaction," he said. “You get arrested one time, they get you on the radar. Get arrested another time, it's like OK, I gotta keep going to court, maybe pay a fine, whatever. It's another way to oppress us. Silence us."

The Capitol Riot

At virtually every Black Lives Matter demonstration in Graham, Thomas May was standing nearby with a Confederate battle flag propped on his shoulder, watching, often taunting.

May's amiable conversations with demonstrators about Bible verses morphed over the months into something more hostile. He could be heard by protesters and journalists saying the N-word. One night, he appeared to pantomime a lynching, though he said he was really just scratching his neck.

Even the polls presented an opportunity for trolling. On Oct. 18, wearing a Proud Boys shirt, he cast a ballot for the first time in his life. He was 48, motivated to vote by an admiration for President Donald Trump.

At the polling place, May found Johnson standing in line. The two chatted. May recalled later that Johnson told him they wanted the same thing: for Graham to get back to normal. The conversation with Johnson left May feeling he had done the right thing in opposing the Black Lives Matter protests.

“It's really not about the monument, and we all know that. Alamance County is one of the last, if not the strongest, conservative county left in North Carolina," May said. The BLM protesters “hate Sheriff Johnson," he said. “If they got the monument down, they would be happy, yes, but I mean they want Sheriff Johnson" out of office.

He had a new T-shirt made. Above a Blue Lives Matter flag it read “I support Sheriff Terry Johnson."

May didn't have the same pro-law enforcement attitude earlier in life, when his drug use contributed to a string of arrests and a felony conviction for breaking and entering. A religious awakening in Alamance County jail, May said, set him on a new path.

Back in June, when May first started spending his extra time in Graham, it was mostly to get a break from workaday monotony. No partner was waiting at home at the end of his shifts as a manufacturing worker. His father, who had been both his housemate and his best friend, had died a few years before. Softball games had filled his weekends and fed his competitive streak until he injured his knee.

Politics, which he'd never much paid attention to before, started to seem much more interesting than sports. He had cut off his cable after COVID upended the NCAA tournament and began relying more heavily on Facebook for news. When Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski announced his support for Black Lives Matter, May renounced the team he'd once fanatically cheered on.

The more May learned about Trump, the more he found to approve. He liked the president's economic policies. Trump railed against the free trade agreements that Alamance County residents like May's parents blamed for the loss of their reliable textile mill jobs. May said he and his coworkers each saw their take-home pay rise substantially after Trump's tax cuts, and his retirement account grew.

Grief led May back to the family Bible his father had left behind. Bookmarking its pages were memorial cards listing the names of ancestors unknown to him. His research revealed that some had fought for the Confederacy. Slowly, he found himself the county's most prominent voice for the Confederates' cause.

May became the administrator of the main local Facebook group. Members of more long-standing Southern heritage organizations, like the secessionist League of the South, bid for his attention. Sutton, the now-former county commissioner, sent May messages affirming his support for protecting the monument. Local restaurants gave him free food.

May liked the spotlight, and for the first time since his dad died, he felt like he had a family. May and his new friends traveled around the Piedmont together, brandishing their battle flags and sometimes eating together at cookouts.

In repeated confrontations with BLM and anti-fascist demonstrators, May and his friends had grown closer, and he himself had changed. In some ways for the better, he thought, in other ways probably for the worse.

“I've been thinking about it," he said recently. “BLM made me who I am."

Trump's support for Confederate monuments and his condemnation of BLM and antifa delighted May. During a presidential debate in September, Trump was asked whether he would condemn the Proud Boys, a right-wing group that frequently battled racial justice protesters in the streets. Instead, Trump seemed to embrace the group, telling the Proud Boys to “stand by and stand back."

The president later condemned the group. But May took the initial seeming endorsement seriously. The Proud Boys were a supercharged version of the family of monument defenders he had come to know in Graham.

He decided to apply for membership and sent an email to an address an acquaintance had passed along.

A Proud Boy vetting applications for a local chapter of the group sent him a videoclip. It showed May and a fellow Confederate named Steve Marley riding in the back of a truck during a Trump convoy in September. Somebody shouts, “White power!" as the truck drives past. May denied it was him. But it did not matter.

The Proud Boys rejected him, May said, on the grounds that white supremacists were not allowed in the group.

The rejection did not dissuade May from joining the Proud Boys at the Million MAGA March on Dec. 12 in Washington, D.C. He wore a shirt with the word “Exterminate" over a symbol associated with antifa and carried a Confederate battle flag. Video and images posted to Twitter by an anti-fascist activist show May with an Alamance County man who appears to drag a Black man to the ground and kick him in the head. May said in an interview that the Black man had a knife and had earlier been seen with a group burning either a Trump-branded hat or stuffed animal. He and others chased after the man, May said, adding, “If I had the chance to kick him, I would have kicked him."

He later joked on Twitter about getting new steel-toed boots for his next trip to Washington on Jan. 6, saying there was a “rumor" that “Alamance County knows how to use them."

The morning of Jan. 6, May lined up at the base of a set of stairs leading to the U.S. Capitol. When the people in front of him surged forward, he joined the charge.

May called a reporter and yelled into the phone, “We're storming the Capitol." He later called back: “It's like a war zone. I'll be quiet so you can listen."

The Arrests

Harvey was arrested in December on a disorderly conduct charge after one of May's friends called him the N-word in Court Square. According to charging documents, Harvey swore at May and his friends and said, “What you going to do," as if gearing up for a fight. May's friend Robbie Butler Jr. was arrested for disorderly conduct for using the racial slur. Harvey is awaiting trial. Butler pleaded guilty but received no criminal penalty.

At the jail that day, Harvey said, sheriff's deputies locked him in a cell with two hulking members of the Aryan Brotherhood who had swastika tattoos on their chests. There was no need to fight to defend himself this time. Harvey said a little smooth talk kept things civil, and the men put their shirts back on. What stuck with him was the laughter of the deputies who looked on, he said.

In February, Harvey was arrested again. His cousin, who he says is like a brother to him, was driving him through Graham when blue lights flashed behind the pair. The streets were dark and empty. Considering how police treated him in the public square, Harvey worried about what they might do with no witnesses.

Harvey could make out the face of the officer trying to pull them over. His horror deepened.

He saw Brandon Land, a Graham police officer who Harvey concluded had made him a special target.

In September, Land had told a friend of Harvey's that he intended to arrest Harvey for even the smallest infraction. “You tell your friend Avery that if he comes out here and so much as steps off the curb, or says a cuss word, I'm locking his ass up," local photographer Lee Vaughn recalled Land telling him after a protest in Court Square.

Another activist brought Harvey home from that September demonstration, and, minutes later, Land showed up at his apartment complex. Harvey figured he had been followed. In his experience, police hardly ever came to this neighborhood, where nearly everyone was Black. His neighbors were drunk and fighting with each other, and Harvey tried to broker peace. He intervened in a fight involving his cousin. Land soon told him to put his hands behind his back. He was being arrested for assault.

A magistrate inappropriately applied a 48-hour jail hold that would ultimately lead to the case being dismissed. Harvey said Land pointed out on the drive to jail that the hold, which normally applies to domestic violence charges, would keep him from protesting over a holiday weekend. Graham police said in an emailed statement that the magistrate applied the hold, not the officer.

Five months later, Land was back and Harvey's cousin had just taken off running. As Harvey leaped out of the pulled-over car, he saw that Land was accompanied by another officer he feared, Marcus Pollock, who had shot and killed a Black man, Jaquyn Light, the year before.

He hoped the officers' familiarity with him could keep the worst from happening. “It's Avery," he yelled. “Please don't kill my cousin."

“It's Christmas in February," Harvey said Land told him repeatedly with a smug smile. Police found cocaine in the vehicle, according to an arrest report. Land charged Harvey and his cousin with felony cocaine possession. No publicly available documents identified the amount, and police and the district attorney declined to say.

Land and Pollock did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The department has fought The News & Observer and ProPublica in court to prevent the release of related body camera footage.

After he was let out of jail later that night, Harvey returned home. But something in him was unsettled, uncertain. He walked back to the police station and stood outside, gazing at the building in the still of the night. He was trying to discern what he felt.

“Do I want to shoot them, apologize to them or say thank you for not killing me?" he wondered. He never could settle on an answer.

The Trials

It had been a discouraging few months for Harvey. He tried to hold a fast-food job, but it didn't work out. Confederates ambushed him on the street where he lived, he said, leading to a fistfight. Someone bent the pipes to his hot water heater, ransacked his car and poured sugar into the gas tank. Some days, he struggled to find the motivation to leave the house.

Court proceedings chewed through his days. He had to attend hearings for his eight arrests, and also waited outside the criminal courthouse most Wednesdays to show support for the activists on trial inside.

One local prosecutor had been assigned to handle the bulk of the protesters' cases. As he went through the paperwork, Kevin Harrison was reluctant to even bring some of them to trial. He dismissed one case against a woman charged with saying an obscenity to “deputies and the public in general" with a note: “Charged conduct is not a crime."

Harrison dismissed at least one other charge for that reason and four additional charges for lack of evidence, and still a judge chided him for proceeding with a case that seemed to him plainly crosswise with the U.S. Constitution.

Judge Lunsford Long declared one man not guilty of resisting an officer and failing to disperse on demand, on the grounds that the arresting officers were enforcing Johnson's unconstitutional protest ban.

“I have a problem with this case, Mr. Harrison," Long said. “I'm surprised you're proceeding with it. People have a First Amendment right to express their views."

The man was relieved by the verdict, but the charges had already cost him his job.

As of May 16, 46 charges against 30 BLM protesters had been resolved with only 15 findings of guilt. Many other charges were dismissed before or during trial, and several remain outstanding. A grand jury declined to indict Drumwright on a felony charge of assault on an officer.

Among the charges that the district attorney has chosen not to withdraw is one count of resisting, delaying or obstructing an officer levied against Tomas Murawski, the Alamance News reporter, making him one of an exceedingly small number of American journalists to be criminally prosecuted for an arrest in the course of doing his job.

Until The News & Observer, the Alamance News and Triad City Beat filed a petition with the North Carolina Court of Appeals, local judges wouldn't allow journalists to attend any protest-related hearings.

The trials promise to stretch beyond the one-year anniversary of Floyd's death, with appeals extending even longer. Many protesters are involved in civil litigation that could also drag on for years.

The North Carolina NAACP, along with several local advocacy groups, members of the clergy and a former candidate for county commissioner, sued to have a judge declare that the Confederate monument should come down. Its presence violates the equal protection guarantee in the state constitution and has led to inappropriate public spending, they say. The sheriff's protest-related spending in 2020 came to roughly $750,000. Graham police estimate their costs at $112,000.

Nonetheless, Johnson and the local establishment have been unyielding in their refusals to address protesters' demands.

In March, Graham passed a new protest ordinance that limits megaphone volume at unpermitted events to 60 decibels, a little louder than a clothes dryer. With a few exceptions, it requires advance notification of any protest. And it makes it a crime to violate any of the terms of a permit or related rule.

Johnson has announced some modest reforms. On April 1, he unveiled the formation of a new advisory board to smooth relations between his office and the community. The board contains several Johnson allies and none of the protesters who have been active in the streets. After a Minnesota police officer allegedly mistook her gun for a taser and killed an unarmed Black man that month, Johnson ordered yellow tasers and put bright tape on old equipment.

Harvey and others gathered in Graham to protest the April 21 police killing of Andrew Brown Jr., an unarmed Black man, in Elizabeth City, 200 miles to the east. Police arrested Harvey for failing to provide the advance notice required under the new protest ordinance. The following week, deputies hauled him to jail on an accusation that he defaced public property by attaching a Black Lives Matter flag to the new fence.

Meanwhile, May continued his activities in support of the Confederate cause. Federal investigators never visited after his trip to the Capitol, May said. He insists he never went inside. In a guest bedroom of his house, he built what he calls a “war room" for broadcasting on social media. He hung an American flag over a window and set up some tables around a camp chair. He pondered a new color scheme for his walls: gray like a Confederate soldier's uniform in some rooms, red to match the battle flag in others.

These days, he spends much of his time planning a celebration of the 160th anniversary of North Carolina's secession on May 20 on the grounds of Graham's historic courthouse, in the shadow of the statue. May anticipates the event will draw Confederate enthusiasts from far beyond Graham.

Provided he has his freedom, Harvey will be there.

The bell in the park no longer has a clapper — the city removed that in July — so Harvey has been shopping for a mallet that won't be mistaken for a weapon.

“We're going to occupy that space, and we're going to ring the hell out of it," he said. “Other people might be scared. But I'm going to ring that bell."

Harvey said it will send a message: “Wyatt Outlaw is still here and living."

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Raw Story Investigates and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.