Lawmakers attempting takeover of special federal funds for Jackson’s water system

by Nick Judin, Mississippi Free Press

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

JACKSON, Miss. — The freeze of early 2021 wasn’t the origin of Jackson, Mississippi’s water system collapse. But the winter storm introduced the country to Jackson’s aging and improperly maintained pipes and water plants, which failed and left residents without clean water for over a month.

The crisis surged back in the summer of 2022, leaving residents without clean water for two months and drawing comparisons to Flint, Michigan’s lead-poisoning scandal, another banner example of America’s ruinous infrastructure systems. Here, as in Flint, the federal government stepped in: In November, the Department of Justice appointed a federal manager to take control of the beleaguered utility, and less than a month later, Congress approved $600 million exclusively for the city’s water system.

But the rescue effort is already running up against the realities of local politics, reflecting historic tensions between Jackson and the rest of the state. For decades, state and city leaders have clashed over who should control local spending, services and infrastructure. Now, both the federal manager and the city’s mayor are warning that state politicians are attempting to take over Jackson’s water system, along with hundreds of millions in federal funds meant for repairing it.

At the heart of the feud is Senate Bill 2889, introduced in mid-January by a lawmaker who says his only goal is to ensure the Mississippi capital’s water system is restored.

The legislation would create a new regional water-authority board to oversee the system’s water, sewer and drainage systems. The governor and lieutenant governor would appoint a majority of the board. Over the years, state leaders including the current governor, Tate Reeves, have expressed skepticism about whether Jackson is capable of managing its own affairs. Federal agencies, including the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, have also questioned the city’s management of its water and wastewater systems.

The latest move in the Legislature worries the manager, Ted Henifin, who says a regional authority could allow improvements and debt relief to flow out of Jackson and into suburban utilities that join the entity. “I believe the $600+ million in federal funding has created a monster in the Mississippi Legislature,” Henifin told the Mississippi Free Press and ProPublica in a written statement last week. A federal judge appointed Henifin to the position of interim third-party manager in late November.

Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba built on Henifin’s critique Monday. “It is a colonial power taking over our city. It is plantation politics. I have not been shy in the ways that I have referenced this,” he said.

The mayor highlighted a litany of other proposed legislation that together would give Mississippi authority over segments of Jackson’s police and court systems. He called the legislative proposals a “unified attack” against the city’s autonomy.

“It reminds me of apartheid,” he said. “They dictate our leadership, put a military force over us and we’re just supposed to pay taxes to the king.”

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. David Parker, R-Olive Branch, and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, whose office helped design the measure, strongly denied that attempts to divert federal funds were behind the legislation. After the news organizations asked Parker about some critics’ concerns, he and Hosemann agreed that the state should recoup none of the federal funds, and Parker pledged to introduce an amendment that would explicitly prohibit the use of the funds outside Jackson’s city limits.

Henifin was unmoved, saying he was concerned that amendments could be overwritten later, and that a regional utility was the wrong solution for Jackson in any case.

“We Need an Arbitrator”

If the Senate bill becomes law, the Mississippi Capitol Region Utility Act would effectively give the state authority over Jackson’s water system once the federal manager’s authority lapses.

That’s because it would grant the governor power to appoint three of the nine members, and the lieutenant governor two, giving statewide leaders, who are white, majority control over water, wastewater and stormwater utilities in Jackson, whose population is 82% Black. The mayor would get four appointments, including one that he would have to select in “consultation” with the mayor of nearby Byram, majority Black, and another chosen with the mayor of Ridgeland, a demographically mixed suburb. The board would then elect a president to formally lead the new regional utility.

In an interview, Henifin said he believes Jackson’s system requires judicial and federal oversight to prevent the mismanagement of critical infrastructure funds, which he estimates would take years to properly spend.

“I think at the end of the day we need an arbitrator, and I think that’s a federal judge in this case.” He said he believes this oversight should be extended to protect the federal dollars, estimating that five years of some form of oversight should be sufficient to lock in the necessary contracts and investments.

He later said that legislative interference might threaten efforts to procure a contract to address the water system’s crucial staffing shortages because the prospect of a change in the water utility’s leadership while a long-term contract is still being executed could scare off large corporations.

Although Parker and Hosemann were complimentary of Henifin in interviews with the Mississippi Free Press, Henifin says neither of the parties involved has ever consulted him. Indeed, he said that Hosemann’s office rebuffed his attempt to set up a meeting. Hosemann acknowledged that he had not spoken with Henifin yet but said he intended to “shortly.”

“I Wanted to Be Very Sympathetic”

Parker said that although he lives 200 miles from Jackson, he did experience the city’s water crisis firsthand.

“I have a daughter that I live with during the legislative session,” he said. “I’ve spent numerous times walking down to the swimming pool and dipping water into a cooler, taking it back up to the toilet to flush. We live in an apartment complex that’s had to put portable facilities on the ground floor to allow people to go to the bathroom.”

“I wanted to be very sympathetic and compassionate to the feelings of the mayor and other people who have spent a long time trying to seek answers to this problem,” Parker said. “So in setting up a board that would be overseeing the water and sewer system, my idea was to give the mayor four appointments on a nine-member board.”

He said he believed the governor and lieutenant governor should appoint a majority of the board’s members because Mississippi’s failure to “provide the basic needs and services that our people deserve is reflected 100% back on the governor and the people in this building.”

Parker said he initially believed that residents in Ridgeland drew water from Jackson’s treatment plant. Though the facility itself is located in Ridgeland, reporters told Parker that Ridgeland does not currently receive water from Jackson’s water system; they also told him that parts of Ridgeland may use Jackson’s greater sewage system. He then suggested the bill may have included that city’s mayor in light of that fact.

He expressed surprise over Henifin’s comments and strongly denied any intent to divert money away from Jackson.

“There is no intent on my part to stack a board in any way, shape or form that would give preferential treatment to the fringe areas of the water authority,” he said. “My hope would be that if the majority of the water authority is within the city of Jackson, I would hope that the governor, lieutenant governor and mayor would put people on the board from those geographic areas.”

Parker said he intends to speak with Henifin as his bill makes its way through the Senate.

“Crafting something like this is an extreme challenge.”

The bill gives the surrounding municipalities a path to join the new capital water authority, transferring their assets and debts to it, a common feature of regional utilities.

The news organizations asked Parker if any part of SB 2889 prevented that regionalization from allowing federal funds to be dispersed to utilities outside Jackson. Parker said he would look into that question. A day later, Hosemann said he had agreed with Parker that they should address any gaps that might allow money to be spent outside of the authority itself.

“It Is Plantation Politics”

Lumumba said the feud over spending the federal funds highlights the friction between the state’s majority-white leaders and the majority-Black capital city.

“It is plantation politics,” Lumumba said. “It’s consistent with this paternalistic relationship that the state of Mississippi believes that it maintains with the city of Jackson.”

Lumumba compared it to the 1% Sales Tax Commission, a system the Legislature designed to assert control over spending derived from a special sales tax Jackson maintains to fund infrastructure projects.

The mayor identified other bills as part of what he considers an assault on the city’s right to self-determination, including bills to expand the Capitol Police’s territory. Another bill would create an independent court system of unelected judges and prosecutors for that same area. Lawmakers said the legislation was needed to respond to a rise in crime rates.

“It’s all a unified attack,” he said.

In a response to additional inquiries, Hosemann’s Deputy Chief of Staff Leah Rupp Smith said they defer to Parker on the legislation but “share a desire with all parties to find a long-term solution,” and she said that a regional utility authority “has been viable in other parts of our state.” They said they planned to meet with Henifin the week after next.

Parker said his conversations with the mayor have been “productive and congenial.” He added that they “share an interest in ensuring all people served by the systems have access to safe and reliable water and wastewater services at a fair and reasonable cost.”

In recent years, Lumumba has clashed repeatedly with Hosemann over Jackson’s autonomy. “The last time I met with him, he said that I needed to look at a possible relationship with the state of Mississippi, because ‘what did I think, that Biden was gonna write me a check?’”

“I recently told him I do, and he did,” the mayor said of Biden.

'We’re still gonna say no': Inside UnitedHealthcare’s effort to deny coverage to chronically ill patient

by David Armstrong, Patrick Rucker and Maya Miller

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

In May 2021, a nurse at UnitedHealthcare called a colleague to share some welcome news about a problem the two had been grappling with for weeks.

United provided the health insurance plan for students at Penn State University. It was a large and potentially lucrative account: lots of young, healthy students paying premiums in, not too many huge medical reimbursements going out.

But one student was costing United a lot of money. Christopher McNaughton suffered from a crippling case of ulcerative colitis — an ailment that caused him to develop severe arthritis, debilitating diarrhea, numbing fatigue and life-threatening blood clots. His medical bills were running nearly $2 million a year.

United had flagged McNaughton’s case as a “high dollar account,” and the company was reviewing whether it needed to keep paying for the expensive cocktail of drugs crafted by a Mayo Clinic specialist that had brought McNaughton’s disease under control after he’d been through years of misery.

On the 2021 phone call, which was recorded by the company, nurse Victoria Kavanaugh told her colleague that a doctor contracted by United to review the case had concluded that McNaughton’s treatment was “not medically necessary.” Her colleague, Dave Opperman, reacted to the news with a long laugh.

“I knew that was coming,” said Opperman, who heads up a United subsidiary that brokered the health insurance contract between United and Penn State. “I did too,” Kavanaugh replied.

Opperman then complained about McNaughton’s mother, whom he referred to as “this woman,” for “screaming and yelling” and “throwing tantrums” during calls with United.

The pair agreed that any appeal of the United doctor’s denial of the treatment would be a waste of the family’s time and money.

“We’re still gonna say no,” Opperman said.

More than 200 million Americans are covered by private health insurance. But data from state and federal regulators shows that insurers reject about 1 in 7 claims for treatment. Many people, faced with fighting insurance companies, simply give up: One study found that Americans file formal appeals on only 0.1% of claims denied by insurers under the Affordable Care Act.

Insurers have wide discretion in crafting what is covered by their policies, beyond some basic services mandated by federal and state law. They often deny claims for services that they deem not “medically necessary.”

When United refused to pay for McNaughton's treatment for that reason, his family did something unusual. They fought back with a lawsuit, which uncovered a trove of materials, including internal emails and tape-recorded exchanges among company employees. Those records offer an extraordinary behind-the-scenes look at how one of America's leading health care insurers relentlessly fought to reduce spending on care, even as its profits rose to record levels.

As United reviewed McNaughton’s treatment, he and his family were often in the dark about what was happening or their rights. Meanwhile, United employees misrepresented critical findings and ignored warnings from doctors about the risks of altering McNaughton’s drug plan.

At one point, court records show, United inaccurately reported to Penn State and the family that McNaughton’s doctor had agreed to lower the doses of his medication. Another time, a doctor paid by United concluded that denying payments for McNaughton’s treatment could put his health at risk, but the company buried his report and did not consider its findings. The insurer did, however, consider a report submitted by a company doctor who rubber-stamped the recommendation of a United nurse to reject paying for the treatment.

United declined to answer specific questions about the case, even after McNaughton signed a release provided by the insurer to allow it to discuss details of his interactions with the company. United noted that it ultimately paid for all of McNaughton’s treatments. In a written response, United spokesperson Maria Gordon Shydlo wrote that the company’s guiding concern was McNaughton’s well-being.

“Mr. McNaughton’s treatment involves medication dosages that far exceed FDA guidelines,” the statement said. “In cases like this, we review treatment plans based on current clinical guidelines to help ensure patient safety.”

But the records reviewed by ProPublica show that United had another, equally urgent goal in dealing with McNaughton. In emails, officials calculated what McNaughton was costing them to keep his crippling disease at bay and how much they would save if they forced him to undergo a cheaper treatment that had already failed him. As the family pressed the company to back down, first through Penn State and then through a lawsuit, the United officials handling the case bristled.

“This is just unbelievable,” Kavanaugh said of McNaughton’s family in one call to discuss his case. ”They’re just really pushing the envelope, and I’m surprised, like I don’t even know what to say.”

The Same Meal Every Day

Now 31, McNaughton grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, just blocks from the Penn State campus. Both of his parents are faculty members at the university.

In the winter of 2014, McNaughton was halfway through his junior year at Bard College in New York. At 6 feet, 4 inches tall, he was a guard on the basketball team and had started most of the team’s games since the start of his sophomore year. He was majoring in psychology.

When McNaughton returned to school after the winter holiday break, he started to experience frequent bouts of bloody diarrhea. After just a few days on campus, he went home to State College, where doctors diagnosed him with a severe case of ulcerative colitis.

A chronic inflammatory bowel disease that causes swelling and ulcers in the digestive tract, ulcerative colitis has no cure, and ongoing treatment is needed to alleviate symptoms and prevent serious health complications. The majority of cases produce mild to moderate symptoms. McNaughton’s case was severe.

Treatments for ulcerative colitis include steroids and special drugs known as biologics that work to reduce inflammation in the large intestine.

McNaughton, however, failed to get meaningful relief from the drugs his doctors initially prescribed. He was experiencing bloody diarrhea up to 20 times a day, with such severe stomach pain that he spent much of his day curled up on a couch. He had little appetite and lost 50 pounds. Severe anemia left him fatigued. He suffered from other conditions related to his colitis, including crippling arthritis. He was hospitalized several times to treat dangerous blood clots.

For two years, in an effort to help alleviate his symptoms, he ate the same meals every day: Rice Chex cereal and scrambled eggs for breakfast, a cup of white rice with plain chicken breast for lunch and a similar meal for dinner, occasionally swapping in tilapia.

His hometown doctors referred him to a specialist at the University of Pittsburgh, who tried unsuccessfully to bring his disease under control. That doctor ended up referring McNaughton to Dr. Edward Loftus Jr. at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, which has been ranked as the best gastroenterology hospital in the country every year since 1990 by U.S. News & World Report.

For his first visit with Loftus in May 2015, McNaughton and his mother, Janice Light, charted hospitals along the 900-mile drive from Pennsylvania to Minnesota in case they needed medical help along the way.

Mornings were the hardest. McNaughton often spent several hours in the bathroom at the start of the day. To prepare for his meeting with Loftus, he set his alarm for 3:30 a.m. so he could be ready for the 7:30 a.m. appointment. Even with that preparation, he had to stop twice to use a bathroom on the five-minute walk from the hotel to the clinic. When they met, Loftus looked at McNaughton and told him that he appeared incapacitated. It was, he told the student, as if McNaughton were chained to the bathroom, with no outside life. He had not been able to return to school and spent most days indoors, managing his symptoms as best he could.

McNaughton had tried a number of medications by this point, none of which worked. This pattern would repeat itself during the first couple of years that Loftus treated him.

In addition to trying to find a treatment that would bring McNaughton’s colitis into remission, Loftus wanted to wean him off the steroid prednisone, which he had been taking since his initial diagnosis in 2014. The drug is commonly prescribed to colitis patients to control inflammation, but prolonged use can lead to severe side effects including cataracts, osteoporosis, increased risk of infection and fatigue. McNaughton also experienced “moon face,” a side effect caused by the shifting of fat deposits that results in the face becoming puffy and rounder.

In 2018, Loftus and McNaughton decided to try an unusual regimen. Many patients with inflammatory bowel diseases like colitis take a single biologic drug as treatment. Whereas traditional drugs are chemically synthesized, biologics are manufactured in living systems, such as plant or animal cells. A year’s supply of an individual biologic drug can cost up to $500,000. They are often given through infusions in a medical facility, which adds to the cost.

McNaughton had tried individual biologics, and then two in combination, without much success. He and Loftus then agreed to try two biologic drugs together at doses well above those recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Prescribing drugs for purposes other than what they are approved for or at higher doses than those approved by the FDA is a common practice in medicine referred to as off-label prescribing. The federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality estimates 1 in 5 prescriptions written today are for off-label uses.

There are drawbacks to the practice. Since some uses and doses of particular drugs have not been extensively studied, the risks and efficacy of using them off-label are not well known. Also, some drug manufacturers have improperly pushed off-label usage of their products to boost sales despite little or no evidence to support their use in those situations. Like many leading experts and researchers in his field, Loftus has been paid to do consulting related to the biologic drugs taken by McNaughton. The payments related to those drugs have ranged from a total of $1,440 in 2020 to $51,235 in 2018. Loftus said much of his work with pharmaceutical companies was related to conducting clinical trials on new drugs.

In cases of off-label prescribing, patients are depending upon their doctor’s expertise and experience with the drug.“In this case, I was comfortable that the potential benefits to Chris outweighed the risks,” Loftus said.

There was evidence that the treatment plan for McNaughton might work, including studies that had found dual biologic therapy to be efficacious and safe. The two drugs he takes, Entyvio and Remicade, have the same purpose — to reduce inflammation in the large intestine — but each works differently in the body. Remicade, marketed by Janssen Biotech, targets a protein that causes inflammation. Entyvio, made by Takeda Pharmaceuticals, works by preventing an excess of white blood cells from entering into the gastrointestinal tract.

As for any suggestion by United doctors that his treatment plan for McNaughton was out of bounds or dangerous, Loftus said “my treatment of Chris was not clinically inappropriate — as was shown by Chris’ positive outcome.”

The unusual high-dose combination of two biologic drugs produced a remarkable change in McNaughton. He no longer had blood in his stool, and his trips to the bathroom were cut from 20 times a day to three or four. He was able to eat different foods and put on weight. He had more energy. He tapered off prednisone.

“If you told me in 2015 that I would be living like this, I would have asked where do I sign up,” McNaughton said of the change he experienced with the new drug regimen.

When he first started the new treatment, McNaughton was covered under his family’s plan, and all his bills were paid. McNaughton enrolled at the university in 2020. Before switching to United’s plan for students, McNaughton and his parents consulted with a health advocacy service offered to faculty members. A benefits specialist assured them the drugs taken by McNaughton would be covered by United.

McNaughton joined the student plan in July 2020, and his infusions that month and the following month were paid for by United. In September, the insurer indicated payment on his claims was “pending,” something it did for his other claims that came in during the rest of the year.

McNaughton and his family were worried. They called United to make sure there wasn’t a problem; the insurer told them, they said, that it only needed to check his medical records. When the family called again, United told them it had the documentation needed, they said. United, in a court filing last year, said it received two calls from the family and each time indicated that all of the necessary medical records had not yet been received.

In January 2021, McNaughton received a new explanation of benefits for the prior months. All of the claims for his care, beginning in September, were no longer “pending.” They were stamped “DENIED.” The total outstanding bill for his treatment was $807,086.

When McNaughton’s mother reached a United customer service representative the next day to ask why bills that had been paid in the summer were being denied for the fall, the representative told her the account was being reviewed because of “a high dollar amount on the claims,” according to a recording of the call.

Misrepresentations

With United refusing to pay, the family was terrified of being stuck with medical bills that would bankrupt them and deprive McNaugton of treatment that they considered miraculous.

They turned to Penn State for help. Light and McNaughton’s father, David, hoped their position as faculty members would make the school more willing to intervene on their behalf.

“After more than 30 years on faculty, my husband and I know that this is not how Penn State would want its students to be treated,” Light wrote to a school official in February 2021.

In response to questions from ProPublica, Penn State spokesperson Lisa Powers wrote that “supporting the health and well-being of our students is always of primary importance” and that “our hearts go out to any student and family impacted by a serious medical condition.” The university, she wrote, does “not comment on students’ individual circumstances or disclose information from their records.” McNaughton offered to grant Penn State whatever permissions it needed to speak about his case with ProPublica. The school, however, wrote that it would not comment “even if confidentiality has been waived.”

The family appealed to school administrators. Because the effectiveness of biologics wanes in some patients if doses are skipped, McNaughton and his parents were worried about even a delay in treatment. His doctor wrote that if he missed scheduled infusions of the drugs, there was “a high likelihood they would no longer be effective.”

During a conference call arranged by Penn State officials on March 5, 2021, United agreed to pay for McNaughton’s care through the end of the plan year that August. Penn State immediately notified the family of the “wonderful news” while also apologizing for “the stress this has caused Chris and your family.”

Behind the scenes, McNaughton’s review had “gone all the way to the top” at United’s student health plan division, Kavanaugh, the nurse, said in a recorded conversation.

The family’s relief was short-lived. A month later, United started another review of McNaughton’s care, overseen by Kavanaugh, to determine if it would pay for the treatment in the upcoming plan year.

The nurse sent the McNaughton case to a company called Medical Review Institute of America. Insurers often turn to companies like MRIoA to review coverage decisions involving expensive treatments or specialized care.

Kavanaugh, who was assigned to a special investigations unit at United, let her feelings about the matter be known in a recorded telephone call with a representative of MRIoA.

“This school apparently is a big client of ours,” she said. She then shared her opinion of McNaughton’s treatment. “Really this is a case of a kid who’s getting a drug way too much, like too much of a dose,” Kavanaugh said. She said it was “insane that they would even think that this is reasonable” and “to be honest with you, they’re awfully pushy considering that we are paying through the end of this school year.”

MRIoA sent the case to Dr. Vikas Pabby, a gastroenterologist at UCLA Health and a professor at the university’s medical school. His May 2021 review of McNaughton’s case was just one of more than 300 Pabby did for MRIoA that month, for which he was paid $23,000 in total, according to a log of his work produced in the lawsuit.

In a May 4, 2021 report, Pabby concluded McNaughton’s treatment was not medically necessary, because United’s policies for the two drugs taken by McNaughton did not support using them in combination.

Insurers spell out what services they cover in plan policies, lengthy documents that can be confusing and difficult to understand. Many policies, such as McNaughton’s, contain a provision that treatments and procedures must be “medically necessary” in order to be covered. The definition of medically necessary differs by plan. Some don’t even define the term. McNaughton’s policy contains a five-part definition, including that the treatment must be “in accordance with the standards of good medical policy” and “the most appropriate supply or level of service which can be safely provided.”

Behind the scenes at United, Opperman and Kavanaugh agreed that if McNaughton were to appeal Pabby’s decision, the insurer would simply rule against him. “I just think it’s a waste of money and time to appeal and send it to another one when we know we’re gonna get the same answer,” Opperman said, according to a recording in court files. At Opperman’s urging, United decided to skip the usual appeals process and arrange for Pabby to have a so-called “peer-to-peer” discussion with Loftus, the Mayo physician treating McNaughton. Such a conversation, in which a patient’s doctor talks with an insurance company’s doctor to advocate for the prescribed treatment, usually only occurs after a customer has appealed a denial and the appeal has been rejected.

When Kavanaugh called Loftus’ office to set up a conversation with Pabby, she explained it was an urgent matter and had been requested by McNaughton. “You know I’ve just gotten to know Christopher,” she explained, although she had never spoken with him. “We’re trying to advocate and help and get this peer-to-peer set up.”

McNaughton, meanwhile, had no idea at the time that a United doctor had decided his treatment was unnecessary and that the insurer was trying to set up a phone call with his physician.

In the peer-to-peer conversation, Loftus told Pabby that McNaughton had “a very complicated case” and that lower doses had not worked for him, according to an internal MRIoA memo.

Following his conversation with Loftus, Pabby created a second report for United. He recommended the insurer pay for both drugs, but at reduced doses. He added new language saying that the safety of using both drugs at the higher levels “is not established.”

When Kavanaugh shared the May 12 decision from Pabby with others at United, her boss responded with an email calling it “great news.”

Then Opperman sent an email that puzzled the McNaughtons.

In it, Opperman claimed that Loftus and Pabby had agreed that McNaughton should be on significantly lower doses of both drugs. He said Loftus “will work with the patient to start titrating them down” — or reducing the dosage — “to a normal dose range.” Opperman wrote that United would cover McNaughton’s treatment in the coming year, but only at the reduced doses. Opperman did not respond to emails and phone messages seeking comment.

McNaughton didn’t believe a word of it. He had already tried and failed treatment with those drugs at lower doses, and it was Loftus who had upped the doses, leading to his remission from severe colitis.

The only thing that made sense to McNaughton was that the treatment United said it would now pay for was dramatically cheaper — saving the company at least hundreds of thousands of dollars a year — than his prescribed treatment because it sliced the size of the doses by more than half.

When the family contacted Loftus for an explanation, they were outraged by what they heard. Loftus told them that he had never recommended lowering the dosage. In a letter, Loftus wrote that changing McNaughton’s treatment “would have serious detrimental effects on both his short term and long term health and could potentially involve life threatening complications. This would ultimately incur far greater medical costs. Chris was on the doses suggested by United Healthcare before, and they were not at all effective.”

It would not be until the lawsuit that it would become clear how Loftus’ conversations had been so seriously misrepresented.

Under questioning by McNaughton’s lawyers, Kavanaugh acknowledged that she was the source of the incorrect claim that McNaughton’s doctor had agreed to a change in treatment.

“I incorrectly made an assumption that they had come to some sort of agreement,” she said in a deposition last August. “It was my first peer-to-peer. I did not realize that that simply does not occur.”

Kavanaugh did not respond to emails and telephone messages seeking comment.

When the McNaughtons first learned of Opperman’s inaccurate report of the phone call with Loftus, it unnerved them. They started to question if their case would be fairly reviewed.

“When we got the denial and they lied about what Dr. Loftus said, it just hit me that none of this matters,” McNaughton said. “They will just say or do anything to get rid of me. It delegitimized the entire review process. When I got that denial, I was crushed.”

A Buried Report

While the family tried to sort out the inaccurate report, United continued putting the McNaughton case in front of more company doctors.

On May 21, 2021, United sent the case to one of its own doctors, Dr. Nady Cates, for an additional review. The review was marked “escalated issue.” Cates is a United medical director, a title used by many insurers for physicians who review cases. It is work he has been doing as an employee of health insurers since 1989 and at United since 2010. He has not practiced medicine since the early 1990s.

Cates, in a deposition, said he stopped seeing patients because of the long hours involved and because “AIDS was coming around then. I was seeing a lot of military folks who had venereal diseases, and I guess I was concerned about being exposed.” He transitioned to reviewing paperwork for the insurance industry, he said, because “I guess I was a chicken.”

When he had practiced, Cates said, he hadn’t treated patients with ulcerative colitis and had referred those cases to a gastroenterologist.

He said his review of McNaughton’s case primarily involved reading a United nurse’s recommendation to deny his care and making sure “that there wasn't a decimal place that was out of line.” He said he copied and pasted the nurse’s recommendation and typed “agree” on his review of McNaughton’s case.

Cates said that he does about a hundred reviews a week. He said that in his reviews he typically checks to see if any medications are prescribed in accordance with the insurer’s guidelines, and if not, he denies it. United’s policies, he said, prevented him from considering that McNaughton had failed other treatments or that Loftus was a leading expert in his field.

“You are giving zero weight to the treating doctor’s opinion on the necessity of the treatment regimen?” a lawyer asked Cates in his deposition. He responded, “Yeah.”

Attempts to contact Cates for comment were unsuccessful.

At the same time Cates was looking at McNaughton’s case, yet another review was underway at MRIoA. United said it sent the case back to MRIoA after the insurer received the letter from Loftus warning of the life-threatening complications that might occur if the dosages were reduced.

On May 24, 2021, the new report requested by MRIoA arrived. It came to a completely different conclusion than all of the previous reviews.

Dr. Nitin Kumar, a gastroenterologist in Illinois, concluded that McNaughton’s established treatment plan was not only medically necessary and appropriate but that lowering his doses “can result in a lack of effective therapy of Ulcerative Colitis, with complications of uncontrolled disease (including dysplasia leading to colorectal cancer), flare, hospitalization, need for surgery, and toxic megacolon.”

Unlike other doctors who produced reports for United, Kumar discussed the harm that McNaughton might suffer if United required him to change his treatment. “His disease is significantly severe, with diagnosis at a young age,” Kumar wrote. “He has failed every biologic medication class recommended by guidelines. Therefore, guidelines can no longer be applied in this case.” He cited six studies of patients using two biologic drugs together and wrote that they revealed no significant safety issues and found the therapy to be “broadly successful.”

When Kavanaugh learned of Kumar’s report, she quickly moved to quash it and get the case returned to Pabby, according to her deposition.

In a recorded telephone call, Kavanaugh told an MRIoA representative that “I had asked that this go back through Dr. Pabby, and it went through a different doctor and they had a much different result.” After further discussion, the MRIoA representative agreed to send the case back to Pabby. “I appreciate that,” Kavanaugh replied. “I just want to make sure, because, I mean, it’s obviously a very different result than what we’ve been getting on this case.”

MRIoA case notes show that at 7:04 a.m. on May 25, 2021, Pabby was assigned to take a look at the case for the third time. At 7:27 a.m., the notes indicate, Pabby again rejected McNaughton’s treatment plan. While noting it was “difficult to control” McNaughton’s ulcerative colitis, Pabby added that his doses “far exceed what is approved by literature” and that the “safety of the requested doses is not supported by literature.”

In a deposition, Kavanaugh said that after she opened the Kumar report and read that he was supporting McNaughton’s current treatment plan, she immediately spoke to her supervisor, who told her to call MRIoA and have the case sent back to Pabby for review.

Kavanaugh said she didn’t save a copy of the Kumar report, nor did she forward it to anyone at United or to officials at Penn State who had been inquiring about the McNaughton case. “I didn’t because it shouldn’t have existed,” she said. “It should have gone back to Dr. Pabby.”

When asked if the Kumar report caused her any concerns given his warning that McNaughton risked cancer or hospitalization if his regimen were changed, Kavanaugh said she didn’t read his full report. “I saw that it was not the correct doctor, I saw the initial outcome and I was asked to send it back,” she said. Kavanaugh added, “I have a lot of empathy for this member, but it needed to go back to the peer-to-peer reviewer.”

In a court filing, United said Kavanaugh was correct in insisting that Pabby conduct the review and that MRIoA confirmed that Pabby should have been the one doing the review.

The Kumar report was not provided to McNaughton when his lawyer, Jonathan Gesk, first asked United and MRIoA for any reviews of the case. Gesk discovered it by accident when he was listening to a recorded telephone call produced by United in which Kavanaugh mentioned a report number Gesk had not heard before. He then called MRIoA, which confirmed the report existed and eventually provided it to him.

Pabby asked ProPublica to direct any questions about his involvement in the matter to MRIoA. The company did not respond to questions from ProPublica about the case.

A Sense of Hopelessness

When McNaughton enrolled at Penn State in 2020, it brought a sense of normalcy that he had lost when he was first diagnosed with colitis. He still needed monthly hours-long infusions and suffered occasional flare-ups and symptoms, but he was attending classes in person and living a life similar to the one he had before his diagnosis.

It was a striking contrast to the previous six years, which he had spent largely confined to his parents’ house in State College. The frequent bouts of diarrhea made it difficult to go out. He didn’t talk much to friends and spent as much time as he could studying potential treatments and reviewing ongoing clinical trials. He tried to keep up with the occasional online course, but his disease made it difficult to make any real progress toward a degree.

United, in correspondence with McNaughton, noted that its review of his care was “not a treatment decision. Treatment decisions are made between you and your physician.” But by threatening not to pay for his medications, or only to pay for a different regimen, McNaughton said, United was in fact attempting to dictate his treatment. From his perspective, the insurer was playing doctor, making decisions without ever examining him or even speaking to him.

The idea of changing his treatment or stopping it altogether caused constant worry for McNaughton, exacerbating his colitis and triggering physical symptoms, according to his doctors. Those included a large ulcer on his leg and welts under his skin on his thighs and shin that made his leg muscles stiff and painful to the point where he couldn’t bend his leg or walk properly. There were daily migraines and severe stomach pain. “I was consumed with this situation,” McNaughton said. “My path was unconventional, but I was proud of myself for fighting back and finishing school and getting my life back on track. I thought they were singling me out. My biggest fear was going back to the hell.”

McNaughton said he contemplated suicide on several occasions, dreading a return to a life where he was housebound or hospitalized.

McNaughton and his parents talked about him possibly moving to Canada where his grandmother lived and seeking treatment there under the nation’s government health plan.

Loftus connected McNaughton with a psychologist who specializes in helping patients with chronic digestive diseases.

The psychologist, Tiffany Taft, said McNaughton was not an unusual case. About 1 in 3 patients with diseases like colitis suffer from medical trauma or PTSD related to it, she said, often the result of issues related to getting appropriate treatment approved by insurers.

“You get into hopelessness,” she said of the depression that accompanies fighting with insurance companies over care. “They feel like ‘I can’t fix that. I am screwed.’ When you can’t control things with what an insurance company is doing, anxiety, PTSD and depression get mixed together.”

In the case of McNaughton, Taft said, he was being treated by one of the best gastroenterologists in the world, was doing well with his treatment and then was suddenly notified he might be on the hook for nearly a million dollars in medical charges without access to his medications. “It sends you immediately into panic about all these horrific things that could happen,” Taft said. The physical and mental symptoms McNaughton suffered after his care was threatened were “triggered” by the stress he experienced, she said.

In early June 2021, United informed McNaughton in a letter that it would not cover the cost of his treatment regimen in the next academic year, starting in August. The insurer said it would only pay for a treatment plan that called for a significant reduction in the doses of the drugs he took.

United wrote that the decision came after his “records have been reviewed three times and the medical reviewers have concluded that the medication as prescribed does not meet the Medical Necessity requirement of the plan.”

In August 2021, McNaughton filed a federal lawsuit accusing United of acting in bad faith and unreasonably making treatment decisions based on financial concerns and not what was the best and most effective treatment. It claims United had a duty to find information that supported McNaughton’s claim for treatment rather than looking for ways to deny coverage.

United, in a court filing, said it did not breach any duty it owed to McNaughton and acted in good faith. On Sept. 20, 2021, a month after filing the lawsuit, and with United again balking at paying for his treatment, McNaughton asked a judge to grant a temporary restraining order requiring United to pay for his care. With the looming threat of a court hearing on the motion, United quickly agreed to cover the cost of McNaughton’s treatment through the end of the 2021-2022 academic year. It also dropped a demand requiring McNaughton to settle the matter as a condition of the insurer paying for his treatment as prescribed by Loftus, according to an email sent by United’s lawyer.

The Cost of Treatment

It is not surprising that insurers are carefully scrutinizing the care of patients treated with biologics, which are among the most expensive medications on the market. Biologics are considered specialty drugs, a class that includes the best-selling Humira, used to treat arthritis. Specialty drug spending in the U.S. is expected to reach $505 billion in 2023, according to an estimate from Optum, United’s health services division. The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, a nonprofit that analyzes the value of drugs, found in 2020 that the biologic drugs used to treat patients like McNaughton are often effective but overpriced for their therapeutic benefit. To be judged cost-effective by ICER, the biologics should sell at a steep discount to their current market price, the panel found.

A panel convened by ICER to review its analysis cautioned that insurance coverage “should be structured to prevent situations in which patients are forced to choose a treatment approach on the basis of cost.” ICER also found examples where insurance company policies failed to keep pace with updates to clinical practice guidelines based on emerging research.

United officials did not make the cost of treatment an issue when discussing McNaughton’s care with Penn State administrators or the family.

Bill Truxal, the president of UnitedHealthcare StudentResources, the company’s student health plan division, told a Penn State official that the insurer wanted the “best for the student” and it had “nothing to do with cost,” according to notes the official took of the conversation.

Behind the scenes, however, the price of McNaughton’s care was front and center at United.

In one email, Opperman asked about the cost difference if the insurer insisted on only paying for greatly reduced doses of the biologic drugs. Kavanaugh responded that the insurer had paid $1.1 million in claims for McNaughton’s care as of the middle of May 2021. If the reduced doses had been in place, the amount would have been cut to $260,218, she wrote.

United was keeping close tabs on McNaughton at the highest levels of the company. On Aug. 2, 2021, Opperman notified Truxal and a United lawyer that McNaughton “has just purchased the plan again for the 21-22 school year.”

A month later, Kavanaugh shared another calculation with United executives showing that the insurer spent over $1.7 million on McNaughton in the prior plan year.

United officials strategized about how to best explain why it was reviewing McNaughton’s drug regimen, according to an internal email. They pointed to a justification often used by health insurers when denying claims. “As the cost of healthcare continues to climb to soaring heights, it has been determined that a judicious review of these drugs should be included” in order to “make healthcare more affordable for our members,” Kavanaugh offered as a potential talking point in an April 23, 2021, email.

Three days later, UnitedHealth Group filed an annual statement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission disclosing its pay for top executives in the prior year. Then-CEO David Wichmann was paid $17.9 million in salary and other compensation in 2020. Wichmann retired early the following year, and his total compensation that year exceeded $140 million, according to calculations in a compensation database maintained by the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. The newspaper said the amount was the most paid to an executive in the state since it started tracking pay more than two decades ago. About $110 million of that total came from Wichmann exercising stock options accumulated during his stewardship.

The McNaughtons were well aware of the financial situation at United. They looked at publicly available financial results and annual reports. Last year, United reported a profit of $20.1 billion on revenues of $324.2 billion.

When discussing the case with Penn State, Light said, she told university administrators that United could pay for a year of her son’s treatment using just minutes’ worth of profit.

“Betrayed”

McNaughton has been able to continue receiving his infusions for now, anyway. In October, United notified him it was once again reviewing his care, although the insurer quickly reversed course when his lawyer intervened. United, in a court filing, said the review was a mistake and that it had erred in putting McNaughton’s claims into pending status.

McNaughton said he is fortunate his parents were employed at the same school he was attending, which was critical in getting the attention of administrators there. But that help had its limits.

In June 2021, just a week after United told McNaughton it would not cover his treatment plan in the upcoming plan year, Penn State essentially walked away from the matter.

In an email to the McNaughtons and United, Penn State Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Andrea Dowhower wrote that administrators “have observed an unfortunate breakdown in communication” between McNaughton and his family and the university health insurance plan, “which appears from our perspective to have resulted in a standstill between the two parties.” While she proposed some potential steps to help settle the matter, she wrote that “Penn State’s role in this process is as a resource for students like Chris who, for whatever reason, have experienced difficulty navigating the complex world of health insurance.” The university’s role “is limited,” she wrote, and the school “simply must leave” the issue of the best treatment for McNaughton to “the appropriate health care professionals.”

In a statement, a Penn State spokesperson wrote that “as a third party in this arrangement, the University’s role is limited and Penn State officials can only help a student manage an issue based on information that a student/family, medical personnel, and/or insurance provider give — with the hope that all information is accurate and that the lines of communication remain open between the insured and the insurer.”

Penn State declined to provide financial information about the plan. However, the university and United share at least one tie that they have not publicly disclosed.

When the McNaughtons first reached out to the university for help, they were referred to the school’s student health insurance coordinator. The official, Heather Klinger, wrote in an email to the family in February 2021 that “I appreciate your trusting me to resolve this for you.”

In April 2022, United began paying Klinger’s salary, an arrangement which is not noted on the university website. Klinger appears in the online staff directory on the Penn State University Health Services webpage, and has a university phone number, a university address and a Penn State email listed as her contact. The school said she has maintained a part-time status with the university to allow her to access relevant data systems at both the university and United.

The university said students “benefit” from having a United employee to handle questions about insurance coverage and that the arrangement is “not uncommon” for student health plans.

The family was dismayed to learn that Klinger was now a full-time employee of United.

“We did feel betrayed,” Light said. Klinger did not respond to an email seeking comment.

McNaughton’s fight to maintain his treatment regimen has come at a cost of time, debilitating stress and depression. “My biggest fear is realizing I might have to do this every year of my life,” he said.

McNaughton said one motivation for his lawsuit was to expose how insurers like United make decisions about what care they will pay for and what they will not. The case remains pending, a court docket shows.

He has been accepted to Penn State’s law school. He hopes to become a health care lawyer working for patients who find themselves in situations similar to his.

He plans to reenroll in the United health care plan when he starts school next fall.

'Biggest scandal in our history': Nevada's new governor who once vilified lobbyist also asked him to help with his budget

During his contentious campaign to become Nevada governor, Joe Lombardo accused the Democratic incumbent of catering to the family of a donor and their lobbyist who helped an error-prone COVID-19 testing lab get licensed in the state.

Shortly after he won the race, Lombardo, a Republican, quietly turned to that same lobbyist for help building the state budget, giving him access to confidential documents and putting him in a position that allowed him to advocate for state funding sought by his clients.

Lobbyist Mike Willden’s name doesn’t appear on the list of people Lombardo appointed to his transition team as he takes the reins from former Gov. Steve Sisolak. But emails and budget documents obtained by ProPublica show Willden was invited to budget meetings with each of Lombardo’s department directors, provided advice on health care spending and was involved in discussions on changes to the spending plan worth nearly $30 million a year to his clients — though not all of those changes were ultimately approved.

He also was involved in discussions on an effort to extend a nearly $600 million contract for one of his clients to continue administering Nevada’s Medicaid program.

Willden has expertise in state government, including the complex Medicaid budget. He served as chief of staff to the last Republican governor, after decades working for the Department of Health and Human Services, including 13 years as director.

The owner of the lobbying firm that employs Willden said in a statement that he volunteered hundreds of hours to help Lombardo’s transition team with the budget and that none of his clients “materially benefited from Mike’s involvement.”

“He has been involved in five gubernatorial transitions and has played a vital role in the preparation of more than 20 budgets,” said Richard Perkins, owner of The Perkins Company and a former state assemblyman. “He has unique expertise, experience and integrity. His involvement is especially critical, in the incredibly compressed time frame” a new governor has to prepare a budget.

“I know that cynicism and skepticism dominate our political and governing environment these days, however, it’s a shame that a long time, trusted public servant, like Mike Wilden, is criticized, and not truly appreciated,” Perkins added.

Willden played a central role in a controversy that rocked the final year of Sisolak’s administration. In late 2021, Willden leaned on his relationships with state regulators and Sisolak’s office to speed the licensing of COVID-19 testing laboratory Northshore Clinical.

Last year, ProPublica detailed serious problems with the lab’s operations in Nevada, including questionable billing practices and a high rate of false negative results. At the time, Willden said he was trying to help the state address a critical shortage in testing by assisting Northshore’s two Nevada representatives, who were family friends of Sisolak’s. Willden said he wasn’t paid by the company or its representatives and was unaware of problems with the lab’s services.

During the gubernatorial race, Lombardo and Republicans spent heavily on advertising that used the Northshore debacle to portray Sisolak as corrupt and accuse him of jeopardizing the safety of Nevadans to enrich his friends. Lombardo described it as the “biggest scandal in our history” on Twitter, and his campaign dubbed Sisolak “Northshore Steve.”

Sisolak denied showing favoritism toward the company and said his administration had acted quickly once problems with Northshore’s tests became known.

Lombardo’s chief of staff, Ben Kieckhefer, said the campaign attacks weren’t on his mind when Willden was asked to help prepare the $11.4 billion, two-year budget, which the governor recommended to the Legislature this week. Under state law, Lombardo had three weeks from the time he took office to complete a proposed spending plan.

“My thought was we needed to get a budget built. That was my focus,” Kieckhefer said. He dismissed the idea that Willden’s involvement could open Lombardo to the same criticisms the Republican leveled against Sisolak.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who knows more about the Medicaid budget than Mike,” Kieckhefer said. “Coping with potential conflicts? That’s on me, not on Mike.”

Documents show Willden worked with Kieckhefer, as well as the incoming deputy chief of staff and two members of the transition team: state Senate Minority Leader Heidi Gansert and Jeremy Aguero, an economic analyst with clients who do business with state and local governments in Nevada. The group held budget meetings with each of the state’s department directors to review funding requests, raise issues and decide what changes should be made to the draft budget from the previous administration.

Kieckhefer said Willden was already part of the transition team’s budget subcommittee when Kieckhefer was named chief of staff and took over management of the budget process.

The documents obtained by ProPublica include an “open issues list” drawn up by the working group in late December. It shows that issues affecting three of Willden’s clients featured heavily in the budget discussion.

For example, Willden lobbies for the Nevada Health Care Association and Center for Assisted Living, an industry group for nursing homes and assisted living facilities. That industry stands to lose $24 million a year in extra Medicaid funding related to the pandemic that’s expected to expire when the public health emergency ends. The document states it’s the industry’s “desire not to experience payment reductions.”

The document also highlights a requested rate increase worth $4.5 million a year to providers of early childhood intervention services. Willden is a paid lobbyist for the Early Intervention Community Providers Association.

The largest issue, and perhaps the thorniest, is a lucrative contract to administer the state’s Medicaid program, which provides health insurance for more than 900,000 lower-income Nevadans. Gainwell Technologies, which holds the $558 million contract, is one of Willden’s clients. The contract expires in June, and efforts to renew it have stalled.

“Immediate action needs to be taken to negotiate a contract extension with Gainwell or there will be no contracted vendor in place as of July 1, 2023,” the document says.

Kieckhefer said he did not include the request for additional money for nursing homes in the recommended budget but did include the rate increase for early intervention providers. That increase was listed as a top priority of the department director before Willden’s involvement, Kieckhefer said. The Gainwell contract has no bearing on the state budget but was flagged as a serious issue that needs attention, he added.

Kieckhefer said Willden was “always forthcoming about who he represented” during his work with the transition team. He said he wasn’t too concerned that Willden’s participation may give his clients an advantage.

“My job is to weigh all the considerations and then act in the way I think is in the best interest of Gov. Lombardo and his priorities,” Kieckhefer said. “I rely on my previous experience and taking counsel from people who also may have experience one way or another. Ultimately, it’s me and the governor making decisions about what’s included in the budget.”

Promoters of Trump's election lies also hyped a hospital for Ukraine. That never happened either.

Gregg Phillips and Catherine Engelbrecht are best known as the election deniers behind True the Vote, a Texas-based nonprofit responsible for amplifying conspiracies that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

But soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, they shifted some of their focus to the war effort, jumping into the fray with an inspiring idea — to bring a mobile hospital to the region to care for victims of the conflict.

They called it The Freedom Hospital.

Phillips solicited donations on conservative media platforms, linked up with American veterans working in Ukraine and traveled to the region in March to meet with local officials. The Freedom Hospital’s website announced it was halfway to its goal of raising $25 million.

“Our recent project, The Freedom Hospital, in Ukraine helps old folks, women and kids near the fight receive healthcare,” Phillips wrote on the conservative social media site Truth Social on June 5.

But that was one of a series of misrepresentations from Phillips and The Freedom Hospital about the operation’s donations and accomplishments, according to a joint investigation by ProPublica and The Dallas Morning News. The Freedom Hospital never got off the ground, and, through their lawyers, Phillips and Engelbrecht now say they never raised significant amounts of money for the project.

They never brought the mobile hospital to the region.

Both Phillips and Engelbrecht declined to answer questions. According to their lawyers, who spoke to ProPublica and the News, the pair’s Ukraine project was a good-faith effort that was unsuccessful.

They said Phillips realized during his March trip to the region that the mission wasn’t feasible because local officials weren’t interested, because potential donors felt the U.S. government was already funneling enough money into the war effort, and because he was worried about the potential for local corruption.

“They pretty much abandoned it all as of, like, April,” Cameron Powell, a partner at Gregor, Wynne, Arney who’s one of the pair’s attorneys, said during a December interview. “Pretty much during his trip, he was deciding it’s probably not going to be feasible.”

Phillips continued to seek donations for months after that and gave the impression that the project was still in the works. The lawyers now say that is because the pair kept pushing forward “with their due diligence for a while longer” and declined to clarify exactly when the project was abandoned.

Asked about Phillips’ statements that The Freedom Hospital had raised half of its $25 million goal, the lawyers said that amount was an in-kind donation from the mobile hospital manufacturer, not cash. The manufacturer's CEO disputed that account, saying it never pledged to make such a donation.

Created by Engelbrecht in 2010, True the Vote vaulted to national prominence after its work was featured in the 2022 Dinesh D’Souza movie “2000 Mules,” a film that included voter fraud claims that have been widely discredited.

The Ukraine venture is the latest in a string of failed initiatives and misleading statements from Engelbrecht and Phillips. Phillips has been a longtime True the Vote board member, and he and Engelbrecht have raised millions on the promise that they would reveal widespread voter fraud. But they have never supplied any evidence the election was stolen, leaving a trail of disappointed donors and frustrated partners, even as the false election-theft narrative has continued to be a potent force in American politics.

An “Awe-Inspiring” Mission

A former health and human services official for the states of Texas and Mississippi, Phillips was eager to use his expertise to aid the people of Ukraine when Russia invaded, his lawyers said.

The Freedom Hospital’s website, which is now defunct, described the project as “awe-inspiring.” A group of Americans had “banded together” to bring to the region “a state-of-the-art mobile emergency hospital system that can skirt battle zones to treat the wounded,” according to the site’s archive. “Every penny of your donation will be used to save lives,” the website stated, with a link to a PayPal donation site.

In March 2022, Phillips traveled to the region and discussed the project with several local governmental and religious officials.

The next month, he explained the ongoing effort to a podcaster. Phillips said his team was “ensuring that we could clear supply paths and ensure that the hospitals could remain sort of fully supplied and fully staffed” and that they had secured a warehouse.

The hospital’s Twitter account described the facility as a 100,000-square-foot warehouse donated by an unnamed family behind “Europe’s biggest transport company.”

The lawyers now say an unnamed citizens’ group offered use of an empty auditorium that was not ultimately needed.

Over the course of the spring, Phillips continued to promote the humanitarian effort, seeking donations and other support. On Twitter, he called it “history in the making.” In early June, he repeatedly discussed the project on Truth Social and said it was responsible for extracting “dozens” of elderly refugees from the region.

“My work and my calling is to create a private healthcare and extraction ecosystem for old folks, women and children,” he wrote in a post on June 5. “The Freedom Hospital is my commitment to God come to life.”

In the December interview, Powell, one of the pair’s lawyers, said Phillips finished the project’s feasibility study by the time he returned from Ukraine, at which time he told donors he couldn’t ask them to fund the project.

But this week, after being sent questions ahead of publication of this article, Powell was vaguer about the project’s timeline. When asked why Phillips continued promoting the hospital into June, he acknowledged his clients began to “harbor doubts” about the project months before without specifying when it was officially shuttered.

“The group came to the realization sometime after Gregg returned that the project was ‘probably’ not feasible, but it would be unrealistic to expect that realization occurred during a single, identifiable moment in time. There was no epiphany,” Powell said.

The project’s Twitter account still exists but has not tweeted since May 5.

True the Vote was listed as The Freedom Hospital’s fiscal sponsor on the project’s website and Engelbrecht successfully applied for nonprofit status for the hospital from the IRS in March.

Phillips and Englebrecht planned to get a medical unit from MED-1 Partners, a mobile hospital manufacturing company based in North Carolina. Phillips’ lawyers said he worked with sales representatives and was told the unit would come at “a substantial reduction in price, which MED-1 spoke of as an in-kind donation to help the effort.”

MED-1 Partners CEO Tim Masud told ProPublica and the News this account is not true.

MED-1 Partners was selling an older demo unit for a reduced price, the same price that would be offered to anyone interested in purchasing it, he said. Masud added neither he nor his authorized liaison on the deal described this reduced price as a donation or pledged to provide a donation to The Freedom Hospital.

In March, Masud said the company drafted a letter of intent for a project called “The Freedom Children’s Hospital” that required a $150,000 deposit. But it was never signed and no money changed hands.

“All we did was offer a hospital for sale to a group of people. That’s it,” Masud said.

Powell said his clients raised only $268 for the project through PayPal, which the lawyers said was returned “at Mr. Phillips’ direction.” Another of the group’s attorneys, Michael Wynne, said in a December phone call that the project had raised no other funds through other means.

On April 21, The Freedom Hospital posted a video on its YouTube account with a caption saying that its “team” was “reporting” from Ukraine. But The Freedom Hospital had no role in producing the video.

Christopher Loverro, a Los Angeles-based actor and veteran, made the video, which he said was shot in front of a recently bombed Ukrainian preschool.

In an interview, Loverro said he has never had any connection to The Freedom Hospital and had not given anyone permission to use his work. After being contacted by ProPublica and the News, Loverro said he reported the video to YouTube and commented on the post, warning: “This is a scam. Do not donate to this organization.”

After ProPublica and the News sent the lawyers questions about the video, Loverro said a woman named Catherine, who was associated with the project, contacted him for the first time to discuss The Freedom Hospital. Following that conversation, he said he had no reason to doubt the woman, who told him the project was a legitimate humanitarian effort with “no fraud involved” that simply came to naught.

Phillips’ lawyers said he did not post the video and does not have access to The Freedom Hospital’s YouTube account to remove it. It was likely posted by one of “several volunteers working on the Freedom Hospital project at that time,” they added.

The video and a donation request still remain up on the project’s YouTube channel.

Complaints

The Freedom Hospital project and other efforts troubled one of True the Vote’s contractors enough that he submitted a complaint in June referencing the hospital and a number of other concerns to the Texas attorney general’s criminal investigation division.

“After a series of bizarre calls and communications over several months, Gregg told us he’d raised the money for [The Freedom Hospital]. Several times he told us it was $2.5 million. He also gave us the figures of $10 million. He also marketed that they needed $25 million,” Kyle Reyes, whose company had worked on marketing initiatives for True the Vote, wrote.

ProPublica and the News obtained the complaint through a public records request.

In the document, Reyes accused True the Vote of a wide range of questionable business practices and said the organization had not paid his marketing firm for the services it performed.

Wynne said the complaint is “demonstrably false.” It’s unclear what the status of Reyes’ complaint is; the Texas attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The questions about The Freedom Hospital come as Engelbrecht and Phillips are facing new scrutiny over continued failed efforts to prove widespread fraud in the American election system.

The pair have frequently profited handsomely from their election denial work, according to an investigation by Reveal that found loans issued to Engelbrecht and self-dealing contracts to nonprofit insiders. (Their attorney at the time said that there was nothing inherently wrong about the contracts.) The outgoing attorney general of Arizona, once an ally, now wants the group investigated for potential “financial improprieties” related to this work. In November, the pair spent a week in jail on contempt of court charges for failing to disclose a source behind their election fraud claims.

Reyes told ProPublica and the News that he terminated his firm’s contract with True the Vote in June. After Reyes filed his complaint, he said, True the Vote paid his company the outstanding invoices about $25,000.

“As conservatives, we need to hold our fellow brothers and sisters to the same standard that we hold everyone in America to — no matter what side of the political aisle you’re on,” he said.

Inside the controversial sales practices of the nation’s biggest title lender

In her mid-20s, Cordelius Brown thought she had found the perfect job. She was thriving as a store manager at TitleMax, a Savannah, Georgia-based company that dominates a segment of the state’s subprime lending industry known as title lending.

Brown’s easy rapport and hustle made her a natural in convincing Georgians with few credit options to sign up for TitleMax’s lending product. She was earning more than she ever had, thanks to bonuses she received based on a percentage of her store’s profits made from the company’s targeted consumers — people like her own family who were struggling to make ends meet in low-wage service industry jobs, living on a fixed income or out of work because of poor health.

For people written off as credit risks by traditional lending institutions, a “title pawn” from TitleMax can help finance urgent needs. The transaction is straightforward: The company lends money in exchange for collateral — the title to the vehicle in which the customer drove to the store.

But Brown’s customers continued to struggle, despite the financing from TitleMax. A key reason, she came to believe, was that the actual costs of borrowing were being masked by the sales techniques used by the company, which is exempt from Georgia’s usury laws and can lend money at terms that would be illegal for other subprime lenders.

“I carry a lot of guilt,” the 35-year-old said. “My community trusted me. What the company was selling to the community wasn’t good for them.”

In 2016, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined TMX Finance, the parent company of TitleMax, $9 million after the federal regulator determined that it violated federal laws with unfair, deceptive and abusive acts toward customers in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.

The CFPB also placed TMX Finance under a consent order to ensure the company’s compliance with the laws.

But Brown and two other former managers at TitleMax stores across south Georgia told The Current and ProPublica that, despite ongoing scrutiny by the federal regulator, the company continued similar sales techniques that distorted and hid the true costs of borrowing in Georgia until as recently as 2021.

Brown and another former store manager agreed to go on the record with their experience at five separate stores in Savannah and Columbus, Georgia. The third, who also worked in Savannah, requested anonymity out of fear of legal entanglements for speaking out against the company, which last year posted $735 million in revenue and is known in its key market of Georgia for its litigious nature.

The Current and ProPublica also reviewed internal TitleMax company documents, emails and text messages that corroborated the former store managers’ allegations.

TitleMax’s top executives have been clear publicly that the company’s business model depends on repeated monthly interest payments by its 293,000 customers nationwide. Brown, who worked as a store manager at TitleMax for almost seven years, and former Savannah store manager Ted Welsh Lupica both said that the company’s business model was drilled into them in training, and that they faced repercussions for telling customers how to pay off their debt quickly or in full.

Welsh Lupica, a military veteran, said his supervisors told him to stop being transparent with customers about the true costs of borrowing.

Still, Welsh Lupica kept providing this information to his customers. “I would be explicit. I would tell them, ‘Look, you make $2,000 a month and you want a $2,000 loan.’ I’d tell them, ‘Even if you pay us $200 a month, you are going to be doing that for the rest of your life because that’s not going to pay down the loan’” with the triple-digit interest rate, said Welsh Lupica, who worked with Brown for a few months at a store on Savannah’s east side.

The CFPB, which in December extended its consent order with TMX Finance through late January, declined to comment on the former store managers’ allegations.

Welsh Lupica quit TitleMax in September 2020 after he said he received a second oral reprimand for his transparent sales pitch and has pursued a different line of work.

Brown was fired in June 2021 for violating store policies, a move that came shortly after she had filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging racial discrimination by the company.

TMX Finance did not respond to requests for comment.

TitleMax, the nation’s largest title lender, boasts that it offers a rewarding workplace with plenty of upsides for employees who work hard. The company has a “passion for customer service coupled with a desire to create opportunity,” according to its website. “Fast-paced, dynamic, energetic — and just plain fun!”

In 2015, fresh from earning an associate degree in business, Brown liked what the company was promising. She had always been described as a natural salesperson. And she was familiar with TitleMax’s products: Her sister and some of her family’s acquaintances had taken title pawns.

When she was first hired in Columbus, Brown avidly consumed the company’s slickly produced training folder, paying close attention to TitleMax’s explanations of how employees could boost their monthly pay and get promoted. Employees would boost store profits — and receive a financial bonus — based on closing new accounts, the average size of title pawns and persuading customers to keep monthly interest payments coming in. Each of TitleMax’s more than 200 stores in Georgia tracks its own financials — which means, for store managers, “the more you sell, the more you make,” Brown said.

As an assistant store manager at the time, Brown was not aware that the system that sounded so good to her was running afoul of federal consumer protection laws.

The year after Brown was hired, in September 2016, the CFPB found that TitleMax’s businesses in three states had been violating multiple federal laws intended to protect Americans from predatory lenders or deceitful financial practices. In a 21-page consent order, the federal regulator described how the true costs of borrowing were hidden by TitleMax’s sales pitches and the company’s proprietary document known as a “voluntary payback guide,” which was given to customers to instruct them on ways to minimize their monthly payments without informing them that it could lengthen the time to pay off their debt. Those practices, the CFPB investigators concluded, “materially interfere with a consumer’s ability to understand that the longer the consumer takes to pay off the transaction, the more expensive the transaction will be, or to understand how much more expensive the transaction will be if paid off over a longer time.”

The result was that customers would owe their original debt to the company, even after making payments for many months or years — something that boosted profits for the company but was “unfair, deceptive or abusive” to customers, according to the CFPB.

TMX Finance did not admit to any wrongdoing but agreed to pay a $9 million fine.

Shortly afterward, in a lawsuit filed in the Magistrate Court of Dekalb County, Georgia, a retired Navy veteran made similar allegations that the voluntary payback guide he had signed at an Atlanta-area store was deceptive. (TitleMax successfully had the case transferred to federal court in Georgia.)

In court filings, TitleMax pushed back against the allegations. Its lawyers argued that the voluntary payback guide could not be construed as deceptive because it was not a legally binding document, and that the company followed federal Truth in Lending Act disclosures in its title pawn contracts. The judge cited these two arguments when he dismissed the lawsuit in the company’s favor in 2018.

Still, after TitleMax announced the CFPB’s order internally to its employees, Brown recalled that the voluntary payback guide disappeared from her TitleMax store. Sales techniques, however, didn’t change, she said.

By 2017, Brown had been promoted to store manager and had worked at two Columbus stores. She was being praised by superiors for increasing performance at the outlets, which served a primarily Black clientele. In 2019, she was promoted again and sent to a third store. Within months, her district supervisor and the regional vice president were applauding her work to store managers around the region, according to the emails reviewed by The Current and ProPublica.

Brown said her success came down to building trust with potential customers and her long hours hustling after payments from delinquent customers.

Brown and other store managers in Georgia were still boosting customer interest in the company’s title pawn contracts by emphasizing the monthly interest rate that TitleMax would charge, generally between 9.9% and 12.9%, according to a review of corporate documents and an analysis of contracts by The Current and ProPublica. In Georgia, however, because the contracts are structured to last only 30 days and customers are allowed to roll over the contract an unlimited amount of times, the true costs of borrowing remained opaque.

From July 2019 through June 2022, roughly 210 TMX Finance stores in Georgia under the brand names TitleMax and TitleBucks issued new title pawns for approximately 47,000 vehicles annually. They represented more than 60% of the state’s total volume of title pawns. In November, a review of more than two dozen Georgia title pawn contracts conducted by The Current and ProPublica found that annual interest rates in typical TitleMax contracts ranged from 119% to 179%.

Brown said she focused on collecting those repeat monthly payments in line with her corporate training and relished the role. She couldn’t recall ever talking to her hundreds of customers about an amortization schedule that would reduce their principal and finally get their account balance to zero. Her training made it clear that the company never expected her to do that, she said.

Yet Brown was deeply affected by a wave of customers telling her of their stress and worry when they couldn’t reduce their debt.

Robert Jones, an elderly Black man who lives on fixed income in Columbus, was one such customer. He used TitleMax multiple times when he was facing medical debts from his treatment for emphysema. In the more than two years of making monthly payments to the company, Jones said, he dealt with at least four different managers, and Brown was the only one who cautioned him about adding on to his debt load of $2,000 to pay for a new, expensive medicine with an additional title pawn. Brown “worked hard to help me understand which way was up” in what he saw as confusing contractual terms, Jones said.

Still, Jones eventually had to borrow more money from TitleMax because of his lingering medical debts, a move that compounded his struggles to get out of what he called his “debt trap” with the company.

In other cases, Brown decided to be even more proactive in helping customers find solutions to their debt problems.

In November 2019, Brown advised four longtime TitleMax customers, each of whom owed around $10,000, about securing an installment loan with a lower interest rate from another lender to pay off TitleMax. When they did, Brown’s Columbus-area district director noticed these lump-sum payoffs. He then chastised Brown for losing what had been high-paying repeat monthly accounts, according to a text message reviewed by The Current and ProPublica. The district director told her to “stay aggressive,” according to the text exchange.

“Our customers are decent, hardworking people. They aren’t bums,” Brown told The Current and ProPublica. “But to TitleMax, they just have one purpose: money.”

In February 2020, TitleMax asked Brown to move to Savannah and take over a struggling store there. She was nervous — the city was more than four hours away from her family — but she took the offer that she believed would bring her another promotion. She had dreams of being the first in her family to buy a home, and a career at TitleMax was a way to achieve that.

But Brown couldn’t square the idea of getting ahead personally with what she was starting to believe was an ambiguous business model. That understanding solidified that spring when a new assistant manager was assigned to her store.

Welsh Lupica was mustering out of the Air National Guard just as the global economy was shutting down because of the COVID-19 epidemic. He needed a job to help pay the bills, and TitleMax, which had been declared an essential business by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, was hiring as industries across the state remained shuttered.

Welsh Lupica went through his TitleMax training with a more jaundiced eye than Brown had. He recalled asking during his training whether TitleMax used predatory practices and whether TitleMax was among the title lenders that had actively lobbied against a push to cap interest rates in Nevada at 36% to protect consumers against high-interest subprime lenders.

“In the military, I got a lot of financial education. We were always targets for that kind of crap,” Welsh Lupica said, referring to predatory lenders. The Pentagon, alarmed by the national security risks posed by the number of service members struggling to pay off debt, worked to strengthen federal laws protecting them from high-interest financial instruments, including title loans. “I wanted to know, ethically, what I was signing up for.”

Welsh Lupica said he was assured that TitleMax worked within the law, and that the company was a community asset.

Welsh Lupica began to feel differently, however, soon after he went to work with Brown at the TitleMax store on Skidaway Road in east Savannah, a mile away from Georgia’s first historically Black university and surrounded by leafy neighborhoods where a mix of working-poor and professional Black families lived.

Welsh Lupica and Brown formed a quick attachment as she taught him, a white man, how to gain the trust of their majority Black customers. That included tutorials on how to talk to older Black people, to drop some of his ramrod military formality and to be more self-deprecating in the store.

Brown, meanwhile, said Welsh Lupica opened her eyes to how the sales techniques that TitleMax had taught them as standard business practices confused customers about the true costs of a title pawn. Welsh Lupica explained to her how the minimum monthly payments that the company told them to emphasize with customers would lead people into a debt trap. Those minimal monthly payments would never decrease the principal, he told her.

“Customers who come to us looking for $2,000 or even $200 are not the type of people who can pay back that money at the end of the month. I knew that my customers would be paying month after month after month, but I didn’t realize how impossible it was,” Brown said.

Venus Lockett, a single parent who lives near Atlanta, turned to TitleMax when she couldn’t get a traditional loan because of her low credit score. The Atlanta-area store she dealt with never offered a printed contract, she said, and it took multiple trips dealing with multiple managers to get a clear sense of her debt.

Lockett said she would definitely have thought twice about signing a title pawn contract had she received the type of transparent sale pitch that Brown and Welsh Lupica offered. “You walk into TitleMax because you are desperate for any help to keep your kids warm and fed. But even desperate people can hear, if they are told plainly, what a terrible deal” a title pawn is, Lockett said.

In the spring of 2020, Brown decided to implement more transparency before customers signed their contract, something she saw as beneficial for them and the company. “We were there to make money for ourselves and TitleMax, and we could do that by building trust with the customer,” Brown said.

One such strategy was to print the sales contract — the only document that showed the annual interest rate — for customers before they signed it. Verbally, Brown and her team continued to talk about the monthly payments but described that as a fraction of the total annual cost of borrowing. They also clarified with customers that the minimum payment due each month would only cover interest, and that larger monthly payments would be necessary to get rid of the principal. “I would tell them, ‘I don’t care if you only have an extra dollar or $5, you need to give that to me as well,’” Brown recalled. “‘Otherwise, I’m going to see you in here month after month until the day you die.’”

The standard TitleMax procedure is to simply show customers contracts on a digital screen, not in a physical copy, according to the three former store managers. The only time a customer sees the annual interest rate is on the final contract, they said.

The third former store manager, who worked at two other TitleMax locations in south Georgia, confirmed that the sales techniques adopted by Brown and Welsh Lupica were not part of TitleMax’s standard routine. “We were trained to keep customers paying [their monthly interest], not how to tell the customer how to pay off the loan,” the former store manager said.

By late spring, however, the company got wind of the transparent sales pitch that Brown and Welsh Lupica had adopted — and communicated its disapproval, they said. Brown said her relationship with the company deteriorated, as she became emboldened to speak up against what she saw as workplace problems and to advocate for customers struggling to pay their title pawns.

Welsh Lupica, meanwhile, was transferred in June 2020 out of Brown’s store. He was sent to TitleMax’s flagship store in Savannah, which serviced over a million dollars in customer accounts each year. He didn’t adhere to the hard-nosed sales techniques that were routinely employed there, such as trying to get customers to agree to a higher amount of financing than they said they needed.

Instead, Welsh Lupica tried to continue the practice he had adopted at Brown’s store. But he said he was reprimanded and told to stop, especially his habit of printing the sales contracts for customers.

Feeling uneasy about the business practices, Welsh Lupica resigned in September 2020. “Most people who come to us are financially challenged,” said Welsh Lupica, who is now a Chatham County firefighter. “They rely on trust with the store manager.”

As 2020 continued, Brown became increasingly disillusioned with her work, especially with how the company dealt with Black employees and customers.

The pandemic was ravaging Georgia’s Black community — yet TitleMax did not pay for COVID-19 tests for employees in south Georgia, according to the three former store managers. Brown also complained to human resources and her district director that she had to work a full month without a day off or lunch breaks, while white managers in nearby stores were granted those basic rights, according to a civil rights discrimination lawsuit she later filed against the company, as well as the emails and text messages reviewed by The Current and ProPublica. Welsh Lupica confirmed Brown’s predicament. “Black employees were treated differently. I saw it happen,” he said.

The company also ignored pleas from Brown to try to evict a group of suspected drug users who slept in her store’s parking lot and made her and other employees feel unsafe, according to Brown’s lawsuit, as well as the reviewed company communications.

In October 2020, Brown was physically attacked as she was closing her store for the night, according to medical records and company communications. She took a leave of absence and returned to work in February 2021 because she needed a paycheck.

Brown said she resumed her practice of transparently explaining the true costs of borrowing to her customers. But she hit a wall a couple of months later when an elderly Black woman came into her store. Brown remembered watching the woman struggle painfully to walk from the parking lot to discuss her overdue account. The woman had had a stroke, she explained, and TitleMax had repossessed her car while she was in the hospital. Brown fought successfully with the company to have it pay $200 for a towing company to return the customer’s car. Yet what Brown saw as a decision affecting her customer’s life, the company seemed to view it as a mere accounting issue, according to company communications reviewed by The Current and ProPublica.

For Brown, that was the last straw. She filed a workplace grievance with the EEOC, alleging racial discrimination by TitleMax. In her claim, Brown listed multiple occurrences of what she described as unequal treatment she received as a Black woman compared with white colleagues, including being passed over for a promotion, unequal enforcement of the rules for breaks and vacation, and the use of racially insensitive language by her superiors.

In June 2021, TitleMax fired her, citing multiple violations of protocol, including once mistakenly repossessing a wrong vehicle.

Seven months later, the EEOC closed Brown’s complaint, declining to rule either for Brown or for the company. “The EEOC makes no finding as to the merits of any other issues that might be construed as having been raised by this charge,” the final report said. Employment and labor lawyers in Georgia say the EEOC rarely pursues the thousands of complaints it receives each year, leaving aggrieved workers in limbo about their allegations of discrimination. The EEOC declined to comment on the case, citing confidentiality.

At least two other former TitleMax employees in Georgia have sued the company in the last 10 years alleging racial discrimination or sexual harassment after filing EEOC complaints. One case was settled, but its terms are unknown. The other was dismissed before the discovery phase. The company’s employment contract had a mandatory arbitration clause — a closed-door dispute mechanism that companies often use to prevent workplace allegations or criticisms from becoming public. The EEOC declined to provide the total number of complaints filed against TitleMax, citing privacy laws.

In April, Brown filed her lawsuit against the company in the federal district court for the Southern District of Georgia, hoping that the courts would take her complaints more seriously. TitleMax never replied to the substance of Brown's allegations and instead argued for the case to be thrown out on procedural grounds. This month, the judge dismissed the case, which Brown filed on her own and without legal counsel, for technical reasons, faulting her for not presenting the legal complaints in a professional or appropriate manner. He did not rule on the merits of the case.

Brown also emailed a letter to the CFPB, citing her allegations of racial discrimination and TitleMax’s business practices as potential violations of federal law. But she did not use the dedicated email portal or phone number that the CFPB spokesperson said the agency encourages whistleblowers to use, and she has not heard back from the federal regulator. The CFPB declined to comment on Brown’s allegations, citing the ongoing consent order with TitleMax.

Brown now works for another Savannah-based company that sells furniture to elderly residents with mobility issues. She makes less money but feels better about work at the end of the day. At least one former TitleMax manager also works at the business, and they often swap stories about their shared experience.

“You can make money and be honest with your customers,” Brown said. “That’s the bottom line. In seven years at TitleMax, I didn’t see a single supervisor who understood that and wanted to do business in that way.”

Websites selling abortion pills are sharing sensitive data with Google

Online pharmacies that sell abortion pills are sharing sensitive data with Google and other third parties, which may allow law enforcement to prosecute those who use the medications to end their pregnancies, a ProPublica analysis has found.

Using a tool created by the Markup, a nonprofit tech-journalism newsroom, ProPublica ran checks on 11 online pharmacies that sell abortion medication to reveal the web tracking technology they use. Late last year and in early January, ProPublica found web trackers on the sites of at least nine online pharmacies that provide pills by mail: Abortion Ease, BestAbortionPill.com, PrivacyPillRX, PillsOnlineRX, Secure Abortion Pills, AbortionRx, Generic Abortion Pills, Abortion Privacy and Online Abortion Pill Rx.

These third-party trackers, including a Google Analytics tool and advertising technologies, collect a host of details about users and feed them to tech behemoth Google, its parent company, Alphabet, and other third parties, such as the online chat provider LiveChat. Those details include the web addresses the users visited, what they clicked on, the search terms they used to find a website, the previous site they visited, their general location and information about the devices they used, such as whether they were on a computer or phone. This information helps websites function and helps tech companies personalize ads.

But the nine sites are also sending data to Google that can potentially identify users, ProPublica’s analysis found, including a random number that is unique to a user’s browser, which can then be linked to other collected data.

“Why in the world would you do that as a pharmacy website?” said Serge Egelman, research director of the Usable Security and Privacy Group at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. “Ultimately, it’s a pretty dumb thing to do.”

Representatives for the nine sites did not respond to requests for comment. All were recommended on the popular website Plan C, which provides information about how to get abortion pills by mail, including in states where abortion is illegal. Plan C acknowledged that it does not have control over these sites or their privacy practices.

While many people may assume their health information is legally protected, U.S. privacy law does little to constrain the kind or amount of data that companies such as Google and Facebook can collect from individuals. Tech companies are generally not bound by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, which limits when certain health care providers and health plans can share a patient’s medical information. Nor does federal law set many limits on how companies can use this data.

Law enforcement can obtain people’s data from tech companies such as Google, whose privacy policies say the companies reserve the right to share users’ data with law enforcement. Google requires a court order or search warrant, which law enforcement can obtain with probable cause to believe a search is justified. The company received more than 87,000 subpoenas and search warrants in the U.S. in 2021, the most recent year available; it does not provide a breakdown of these requests by type, such as how many involved abortion medication.

In a statement, Steve Ganem, product director of Google Analytics, said: “Any data in Google Analytics is obfuscated and aggregated in a way that prevents it from being used to identify an individual and our policies prohibit customers from sending us data that could be used to identify a user.”

Google pledged last year that it would delete location history data related to people’s visits to abortion and fertility clinics, but the company has not announced any changes since then related to data involving abortion pill providers or how it handles government requests for data. A Google spokesperson did not respond when asked whether the company has turned over any data to law enforcement about users of online pharmacies that provide abortion medication or whether it has been asked to do so.

“This is problematic and dangerous — both the potential access that law enforcement has to figure out who is violating our new state bans and that we’ve let tech companies know so much about our private lives,” said Anya Prince, a law professor at the University of Iowa who focuses on health privacy. “It shows us how powerful this data is in scary ways.”

Medication Abortion

Using medications to induce an abortion involves taking two drugs. Mifepristone blocks the hormone progesterone, effectively stopping the growth of the pregnancy. Misoprostol, taken a day or two later, helps the uterus contract, emptying it of pregnancy tissue. This drug combination is the most commonly used method of abortion, accounting for more than half of abortions in the U.S.

Demand for the drugs is expected to grow amid reproductive health clinic closures and the enactment of a cascade of state laws banning abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last June.

At least 13 states now ban all methods of abortion, including medication abortion, though some allow exceptions for medical emergencies, rape or incest. People who are unable to shoulder the cost of traveling to states where abortion is legal are increasingly turning to online pharmacies to buy abortion pills without prescriptions. The mail-order pills can be taken at home, and they’re generally cheaper than abortion services provided in clinics — about $200 to $470 from online pharmacies, compared to about $500 for a first-trimester abortion conducted in a clinic.

Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2000, mifepristone — the first tablet in the two-step regimen — can be used to help end pregnancies in their first 11 weeks. The agency initially restricted the drug, requiring patients to get it from clinicians in person.

Mifepristone became more accessible during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the FDA temporarily relaxed the requirement that people visit providers in person to get the drug. The agency scrapped the requirement altogether in December 2021, allowing people to obtain abortion medication through the mail after a telemedicine appointment.

Then, on Jan. 3, the FDA published new rules allowing retail pharmacies to dispense mifepristone to people who have prescriptions, potentially expanding access to medication abortion. But those rules do not help pregnant people in more than a dozen states where abortion bans prevent pharmacies from offering the drug.

A week later, Alabama's attorney general said that anyone using abortion pills could be prosecuted under a state law that penalizes people for taking drugs while pregnant — despite the state’s abortion ban, which excludes abortion seekers and penalizes providers instead. He then appeared to back off his statement, saying the law would be used only to target providers.

Nineteen states already ban the prescription of abortion drugs through telehealth, meaning people in those states must see a clinician in person or find abortion medication online on their own. Many appear ready to do the latter. After a draft of the Supreme Court’s abortion decision leaked last May, internet search traffic for medication abortion surged. Dozens of people have posted descriptions online of their experiences getting abortion pills, some in restrictive states. One Reddit user recounted their ordeal on an abortion subgroup in October: “I’m in TX so i ordered through abortion RX. It said it’ll be here soon like 5-6 days. I’m extremely nervous I’m doing this by myself, but I’ve looked and don’t have a lot of time to make a decision. This is the fastest way.”

A New Legal Era

Just two states — Nevada and South Carolina — explicitly outlaw self-managed abortion. But that hasn’t stopped prosecutors in other states from charging people for taking abortion drugs.

Prosecutors have cited online orders of abortion pills as evidence in cases charging people with illegal abortions in several states, including Georgia, Idaho and Indiana. And in at least 61 cases from 2000 through 2020 spread across more than half the states in the country, prosecutors investigated people or ordered their arrest for allegedly self-managing abortions or helping someone else to do so, according to a report by If/When/How, a reproductive justice advocacy organization. In most of these cases, people had used medication for their abortions.

Those prosecutors interested in criminalizing abortion are aided by state and private surveillance.

“This is an entirely new era,” said Ari Waldman, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern University. “We’re moving to a modern surveillance state where every website we visit is tracked. We have yet to conceptualize the entire body of laws that could be used to criminalize people getting abortions.”

Law enforcement can use people’s behavior when visiting websites that sell abortion pills as evidence to build cases against those suspected of having abortions. Investigations and charges in these cases overwhelmingly stem from reports to law enforcement by health care providers, trusted contacts or the discovery of fetal remains, legal experts say. Once authorities launch an investigation, they can use online searches for abortion pills as part of the evidence.

“This information can tell a district attorney that you went to an abortion website and you bought something,” Waldman said. “That might be enough to get a judge to get a warrant to take someone’s computer to search for any evidence related to whatever abortion-related crime they’re being charged with.”

This was true even under the more limited abortion restrictions under Roe. For example, in 2017, prosecutors in Mississippi charged Latice Fisher with second-degree murder after she lost her pregnancy at 36 weeks. Prosecutors used her online search history — including a search for how to buy abortion pills online — as evidence. Fisher’s murder charge was eventually dismissed.

“We have a private surveillance apparatus that is wide and is largely unregulated,” said Corynne McSherry, legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes digital rights. “Now Google knows what you’re searching. This is a real threat. If any third party has your information, it means your data is no longer in your control and it could be sought by law enforcement. This is 100% a worry.”

Opting Out

Many people aren’t aware of how to opt out of sharing their data. Part of the problem is that when users visit online pharmacies that share users’ information with third parties such as Google, their information can then be shared with law enforcement if allowed by the privacy policies of those third parties.

“The mere fact that you’ve used the online pharmacy to buy abortion medication, that info is now collected by Google and it is now subject to the privacy policy of Google such that you have no way of opting out of that, because it’s entirely separate from the website you went to,” Waldman said.

Users can install a web browser, such as Brave or Firefox, that offers privacy protections. They can also install browser extensions to block third-party trackers and adjust the privacy settings on their browsers. But these steps aren’t always foolproof. Tech companies can still subvert them using hidden tools that users cannot see, and they likely retain vast troves of data that are beyond users’ control.

“Individuals are not going to solve this problem; technical solutions aren’t going to solve this problem,” said Chris Kanich, associate professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “These trillion-dollar companies of the economy aren’t going anywhere. So we need policy solutions.”

Congressional lawmakers have spent years discussing a national data privacy standard. The bill that has made the most progress is the American Data Privacy and Protection Act. Introduced last June by a bipartisan group of lawmakers who intended to strengthen consumer data protections, the bill limited companies from using any sensitive data, including precise geolocation information or browsing histories, for targeted advertising or other purposes. Companies would have been required to get consumers’ express consent before sharing sensitive data with third parties. The legislation passed out of its assigned House committee in July.

Another bill, the My Body, My Data Act, also introduced last summer, would limit the reproductive health data that companies are allowed to collect, keep and disclose.

But neither bill has passed. The My Body, My Data Act had few, if any, Republican supporters. Plus, legislators couldn’t reach an agreement over whether the American Data Privacy and Protection Act should supersede state privacy laws such as the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018, which provides data privacy protections for consumers in the state.

Privacy experts say the most effective way to protect users’ data is for online pharmacies that sell abortion medication to stop collecting and sharing health-related data.

Companies selling abortion pills should immediately stop sharing data with Google, said Cooper Quintin, senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“Web developers may not have thought they were putting their users at risk by using Google Analytics and other third-party trackers,” Quintin said. “But with the current political climate, all websites, but especially websites with at-risk users, need to consider that helping Google, Facebook and others build up records of user behavior could have a potentially horrific outcome. You can't keep acting like Roe is still the law of the land.”

In the shadows: These documents reveal abuses in rogue system of global diplomacy

The story started in a bustling port city in West Africa, where a prominent Lebanese businessman was accused by the U.S. government of funneling money to the terrorist group Hezbollah.

In sanctioning Ibrahim Taher, the Treasury Department made a rare reference in the eighth paragraph of a press release to an obscure and largely unregulated diplomatic arrangement that allows private citizens in their home countries to represent the economic and cultural interests of foreign governments. In exchange for their service, these honorary consuls receive some of the same coveted legal protections and privileges provided to career diplomats, including the ability to move bags across borders without inspection.

The centuries-old arrangement is now used by a majority of the world’s governments — big and small, rich and poor — including those in Africa, where the Treasury said Taher levied his honorary consul credentials to travel with “minimal” scrutiny as a financier of the terrorist organization. Taher has denied the government’s allegations.

In 2022, ProPublica and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, in collaboration with dozens of media partners, investigated this shadowy world, finding corrupt, violent and dangerous consuls — including accused terrorist financiers and Kremlin loyalists — who have threatened the rule of law in the United States and abroad.

The governments of seven countries have so far announced reforms, investigations or other changes. That includes Latvia, which last month launched an investigation into an honorary consul after revelations of domestic violence, and Jordan, which ended the appointment of a long-serving honorary consul whose prior arrest in a corruption scandal was described in the ProPublica and ICIJ investigation.

All told, the news organizations’ investigation identified at least 500 current or former consuls who have been accused of crimes or embroiled in controversies.

Here are nine key documents used by the reporters to produce the first comprehensive account of exploitation by consuls and breakdowns in the system that empowers them.

Kremlin-Backed Political Party Registration (Montenegro)

In December 2017, Russia’s then-honorary consul in Montenegro, Boro Djukic, signed a registration document to form a hard-line, Kremlin-backed political party that sought to force the country’s withdrawal from NATO. Djukic’s aggressive role in Montenegro’s politics drew criticism because honorary consuls are supposed to be benign representatives of foreign governments, championing cultural and economic ties. Djukic lost his post in 2018 after about four years as consul. He could not be reached for comment; he previously defended his tenure as an honorary consul.

Court Records (Egypt)

Though no longer an honorary consul, Ladislav Otakar Skakal in 2017 smuggled more than 21,000 Egyptian antiquities, including coins, pots and a wooden coffin, in a diplomatic container to the Italian port city of Salerno, according to court records. The container, Egypt’s public prosecution office said in court records obtained by ProPublica and ICIJ, ensured “that it would not be opened or searched by the specialized employees of the Egyptian Customs Authority.” Italian authorities searched the container and discovered the relics only after a paperwork mistake. Skakal, who had been appointed an honorary consul by Italy, was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison. He is believed to be in Italy and could not be reached for comment.

Court Records (Guinea)

Last year, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned two prominent businessmen in Guinea, including Taher, for allegedly financing Hezbollah. Among other things, the U.S. government accused the men of traveling in 2020 to Lebanon on a special flight with a “large amount of money” that they claimed was for COVID-19 relief. The coronavirus had been used before as a cover for transferring funds from Guinea to Hezbollah, authorities said. Prosecutors in Guinea opened an investigation but later closed the inquiry without filing charges, according to court records. Both businessmen have denied wrongdoing.

Police Records (Spain)

In 2019, as part of a wider drug trafficking probe, police in Spain filed a memorandum to a judge referencing three honorary consuls suspected of laundering money for an accused drug trafficker. “Consuls act completely autonomously and are not controlled by the State they represent. … The Spanish government has no chance of intervening in their affairs,” investigators wrote. Authorities included a diagram of suspected money flows. The report was obtained by El Periodico and shared with ProPublica and ICIJ. The consuls, who deny wrongdoing, have not been charged.

Transcript of Undercover Operation (U.S. and Ghana)

In 2012, international arms broker Faouzi Jaber told undercover informants pretending to seek missiles and grenades for use against American forces that he could help them obtain honorary consul appointments. Jaber said he could make them a “consul in your country,” according to a transcript of the conversation recorded by U.S. investigators and described in a subsequent indictment. Jaber was extradited to the United States, where he pleaded guilty in 2017 to conspiring to support a terrorist group and was sentenced to prison. Jaber said he was under the influence of drugs at the time and had made a “once-in-a-lifetime mistake.”

Archival Records (Europe)

In 1927, Gustavo Guerrero, an expert on diplomatic privileges, recommended that honorary consuls “should no longer exist,” according to a 1926 report to the League of Nations as it debated the first-ever international agreement on consuls. Archived records show that most countries at the time objected to the recommendation. Almost a century later, honorary consuls remain popular agents of diplomacy.

Public Records Request (El Salvador)

El Salvador, like dozens of other countries, does not publish information about its honorary consuls. Reporters obtained the names of honorary consuls appointed by El Salvador through a public records request to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

U.S. Army Archives

Terrorist groups and leaders of corrupt regimes have long leveraged honorary consuls as agents of disruption. In 1946, the U.S. Army published a report on German intelligence during and after World War II. German spies were “usually built into the diplomatic staff accredited to a neutral government, their leaders being camouflaged as honorary consuls or other functionaries,” the report said.

Intelligence Report (North Macedonia)

In a 2017 report, intelligence authorities in North Macedonia named two honorary consulates as “bases” for Russian espionage aimed at creating conflict in the Balkans. “The honorary consulates in Bitola and Ohrid represent intelligence bases from which the politics of RF [Russian Federation] are implemented in the Republic of Macedonia,” the report noted. The two honorary consuls who oversaw those offices have denied wrongdoing.

How Congress finally cracked down on a massive tax scam

After six years of failed efforts by the IRS, Justice Department and lawmakers, new legislation is expected to prevent the worst abuses of a tax-avoidance scheme that has cost the U.S. Treasury billions of dollars. Tucked into the massive, $1.7 trillion government spending bill signed into law by President Joe Biden on Dec. 29, a provision in the law seems poised to accomplish what thousands of audits, threats of hefty penalties and criminal prosecutions could not: shutting down a booming business in “syndicated conservation easements,” which exploit a charitable tax break that Congress established to preserve open land.

Under standard conservation easements, landowners give up development rights for their acreage, often an appealing, bucolic space. In return, they receive a charitable deduction equal to the property’s development value, and the public benefits by the preservation of the land, which in some cases is made available as a park.

But as ProPublica first described in 2017, aggressive promoters built a lucrative industry through “syndicated” deals. These promoters snatched up idle land (a long-vacant golf course near a trailer park, in one example examined by ProPublica) and hired an appraiser willing to claim that it had huge, previously unrecognized development value — perhaps for luxury vacation homes or a solar farm — which they contended made it worth many times its purchase price. The promoters then sold stakes in a massive conservation easement deduction to rich investors, who made a quick profit by claiming charitable write-offs that were four to six times their investment. The promoters reaped millions in fees.

The new measure will limit taxpayers’ deduction to two and a half times their investment. That will effectively eliminate the profits that drive syndicated deals while allowing traditional conservation easements to continue. “I don’t know how the industry moves forward after the new law,” said Sean Akins, an attorney with Covington & Burling who represents multiple syndication promoters.

The path to the new law was lengthy and winding. For years, syndicated easements seemed impervious to attempts to rein them in. Since late 2016, the IRS has attempted to stymie the deals, branding them as “abusive” and among “the worst of the worst tax scams.” The agency has challenged $21 billion in deductions claimed by 28,000 syndicated-easement investors, pursued scores of tax court cases and collaborated with the Justice Department in targeting top promoters with criminal charges and civil lawsuits.

Prominent lawmakers from both parties weighed in against the abuse and, starting in 2017, introduced legislation, called the Charitable Conservation Easement Program Integrity Act, to halt the practice. According to estimates by Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation, applying these limits to deals struck since December 2016, when the IRS first branded the practice improper, would generate an additional $12.5 billion for the U.S. Treasury through 2031.

The syndicators fought back so furiously and so effectively over multiple years that ProPublica published not one, but two stories describing how bulletproof the industry seemed. The promoters and their investors were undaunted by IRS threats. Syndication partnerships were so profitable that they set aside special “audit reserves” of as much as $1 million to do battle with the agency in tax court. Syndication firms and their newly formed Washington trade group, called the Partnership for Conservation, or P4C, spent more than $11 million, by ProPublica’s calculations, on lobbyists to protect their business before Congress. At one point, they went on the attack, seeking to strip the IRS of funds used to enforce the December 2016 notice that flagged profit-making syndicated deals as abusive and required participants to file forms reporting their involvement to the IRS.

The agency’s efforts did little to slow the volume of syndicated deals, according to congressional testimony by then-IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig in May 2022. He sounded a bit desperate when he told lawmakers: “We need congressional help.”

As Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chair of the Senate Finance Committee, told ProPublica last June, “There is a tax shelter gold mine here, and they’re fighting very hard to protect it.” He added, “This is a textbook case of the power of lobbyists.”

By that point, the legislation targeting syndicated deals had been introduced, in one legislative chamber or another, eight times. A late-2021 strategy to include the syndication-killer language in Biden’s Build Back Better bill had unraveled at the hands of Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, then a Democrat, who demanded that it be stripped out as a condition of her critical vote to win passage of the larger measure. (Sinema did not respond to ProPublica’s request for comment at the time.)

The tide finally turned last summer — without attracting much notice at the time. During a June 22 Senate Finance Committee markup on retirement legislation, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., a longtime sponsor of the Integrity Act, identified the projected windfall from a clampdown on syndicated easements as a way to pay for a popular proposal enhancing benefits for disabled police, firefighters, paramedics and EMTs. That bipartisan legislation, months later, got added to the massive, must-pass government funding bill, where no single lawmaker had the power to strip it out.

A big concession sealed support for the deal: Daines and other backers agreed not to apply the law to transactions that date back to when the IRS flagged syndicated easements as abusive in 2016 (though the IRS can still pursue cases from back then). Instead the new limits apply only to transactions that occur after the law’s enactment. Along with a much smaller change exempting the measure from applying to historic buildings, this reduced the projected Treasury windfall to about $6.4 billion.

As the measure neared final passage in late December, Daines issued a statement: “It’s about time — for too long bad actors have abused the conservation easement program and ripped off the American people, but this fraud will now come to an end. I’m glad to have worked with my colleagues across the aisle to stop scam artists, promote true conservation, and save taxpayers billions of dollars.”

In an email to ProPublica, Rettig, whose term as IRS commissioner expired in November, called the new legislation “critical to the ongoing efforts of the IRS to stem the tide of abusive syndicated conservation easements.” He said the measure, combined with $80 billion in new funding for the resource-starved agency, “will hopefully allow the IRS compliance and taxpayer education efforts to catch up on abusive syndicated conservation easement transactions as well as other similarly important service and compliance functions.”

The IRS, in a separate statement to ProPublica, said “we are working to implement the recent legislation aimed at some of the most egregious syndication conservation easement transactions” as part of the agency’s “commitment and efforts to combat abusive conservation easement transactions and all other abusive transactions.”

P4C President Robert Ramsay, who has said the profit motive produces “tremendous opportunities” for conservation, attributed the measure’s passage to the IRS’ “ability to win a war of attrition.” Ramsay told ProPublica that the new limits will have “a broad chilling effect” on all land conservation, even though it targets only syndicated deals. He also said its “broad brush” provisions would do nothing to stop inflated easement deductions by wealthy individuals and family partnerships. Ramsay added that he expects the measure to prompt “a number” of syndication promoters to exit the business entirely.

Efforts to shut down the syndication business had been pushed by the Land Trust Alliance, a Washington trade association whose 950 members administer traditional conservation easements. Fearful that exploitation of the charitable tax break by “brazen” profiteers could jeopardize the conservation deduction altogether, the group had prodded the IRS to undertake its crackdown and spent more than $2.5 million on lobbyists since 2017. “We kept this about ending the abuse, rather than discard the incentive,” said Andrew Bowman, the organization’s CEO. “We were relentless in trying to defend the integrity of a very important tax incentive.”

Bowman marveled that none of the IRS’ traditional measures to combat abusive tax transactions had worked. “All that just wasn’t stopping it,” he told ProPublica. “Congress could see it had to act. No one else was going to be able to fix this problem. The incentive to do the deals is now gone.” He praised Daines for masterminding the strategy to pass the legislation, calling him “a true hero for private conservation.” (He also said ProPublica’s coverage “put out there for the public how egregious this abuse was.”) Bowman added: “It’s a great victory for conservation. It took longer than it should have, but we’re certainly thrilled with the outcome.”

What you need to know about cellphone radiation

To many people, the notion that cellphones or cell towers might present a health risk long ago receded into a realm somewhere between trivial concern and conspiracy theory. For decades, the wireless industry has dismissed such ideas as fearmongering, and federal regulators have maintained that cellphones pose no danger. But a growing body of scientific research is raising questions, with the stakes heightened by the ongoing deployment of hundreds of thousands of new transmitters in neighborhoods across America. ProPublica recently examined the issue in detail, finding that the chief government regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, relies on an exposure standard from 1996, when the Motorola StarTAC flip phone was cutting edge, and that the agency brushed aside a lengthy study by a different arm of the federal government that found that cellphone radiation caused rare cancers and DNA damage in lab animals. The newest generation of cellphone technology, known as 5G, remains largely untested.

Here’s what you need to know:

Do cellphones give off radiation?

Yes. Both cellphones and wireless transmitters (which are mounted on towers, street poles and rooftops) send and receive radio-frequency energy, called “nonionizing radiation.” The amount of this radiation absorbed by the human body depends on how close a person is to a phone and a cell transmitter, as well as the strength of the signal the phone needs to connect with a transmitter. Cellphones displaying fewer bars, which means their connection with a transmitter is weak, require stronger power to communicate and so produce more radiation. Wireless transmitters, for their part, emit radiation continually, but little of that is absorbed unless a person is very close to the transmitter.

What does the science say about this? Is it harmful?

That’s the multibillion-dollar question. Government-approved cellphones are required to keep radiation exposure well below levels that the FCC considers dangerous. Those safeguards, however, have not changed since 1996, and they focus exclusively on the unlikely prospect of “thermal” harm: the potential for overheating body tissue, as a microwave oven would. The government guidelines do not address other potential forms of harm.

But a growing body of research has found evidence of health risks even when people are exposed to radiation below the FCC limits. The array of possible harms ranges from effects on fertility and fetal development to associations with cancer. Some studies of people living near cell towers have also confirmed an array of health complaints, including dizziness, nausea, headaches, tinnitus and insomnia, from people identified as having “electromagnetic hypersensitivity.”

The most sensational — and hotly debated — health fear about wireless radiation is cancer. In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, cited troubling but uncertain evidence in classifying wireless radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” In 2018, a study by the federal government that was nearly two decades in the making found “clear evidence” that cellphone radiation caused cancer in lab animals. A major study in Italy produced similar results.

Do cellphones pose any special health risks for kids?

Some experts say they do, citing studies suggesting children’s thinner, smaller skulls and developing brains leave them more vulnerable to the effects of cellphone radiation. The American Academy of Pediatrics embraces this concern and has for years urged the FCC to revisit its radiation standards, saying they don’t adequately protect kids. More than 20 foreign governments, as well as the European Environment Agency, urge precautionary steps to limit wireless exposure, especially for children.

What about risks in pregnancy?

A Yale study found hyperactivity and reduced memory in mice exposed to cellphone radiation in the womb, consistent with human epidemiological research showing a rise in behavioral disorders among children who were exposed to cellphones in the womb. Dr. Hugh Taylor, the author of the mouse study and chair of the obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences department at the Yale School of Medicine, told ProPublica: “The evidence is really, really strong now that there is a causal relationship between cellphone radiation exposure and behavior issues in children.”

What does the U.S. government say about cellphone radiation?

The key federal agencies — the FCC and the Food and Drug Administration — have echoed the wireless industry and a number of other groups in rejecting evidence of any “nonthermal” human health risk, saying it remains unproven. The government websites also reject the claim that children face any special risk.

In 2019, during the administration of President Donald Trump, the FCC shut down a six-year review of its 1996 wireless-radiation safety standards. The agency rejected pleas to make the standards more stringent, saying it had seen no evidence its safeguards were “outdated or insufficient to protect human safety.” In 2021, however, a federal appeals court ordered the FCC to revisit the issue, saying the agency had ignored evidence of an array of noncancer harms to humans, animals and the environment, and that its decision to uphold its exposure standard failed to meet “even the low threshold of reasoned analysis.” The FCC has taken no formal action since then.

Why is the issue not resolved?

Determining wireless radiation’s health effects with certainty is difficult. Researchers cannot ethically subject people to endless hours of cellphone radiation to gauge the results. Scientists have to rely on alternatives such as animal studies or epidemiological research, where challenges include getting subjects to accurately recount their wireless use and pinpointing the specific causes of disease or harm. Many health effects of toxic exposure, especially cancer, take years or decades to appear. And the mechanisms of how wireless radiation could affect the body at the cellular level are poorly understood.

Research funding on the issue has also been scarce in the U.S., despite frequent calls for more study. Research (and researchers) raising health concerns have come under sharp attack from industry, and government regulators have remained skeptical. A key FDA official, for example, dismissed the relevance of the federal study that found “clear evidence” of cancer in lab animals, saying it wasn’t designed to test the safety of cellphone use in humans, even though his agency had commissioned the research for that reason.

Linda Birnbaum, who led the federal agency that conducted the cellphone study, said that while proof of harm remains elusive, what is known means that precautions are merited. “Do I see a smoking gun? Not per se,” she told ProPublica. “But do I see smoke? Absolutely. There’s enough data now to say that things can happen. … Protective policy is needed today. We really don’t need more science to know that we should be reducing exposures.”

If I’m concerned about the risk, are there precautions I can take to protect myself and my family?

Because exposure varies dramatically with your proximity to the source of the radiation, experts say a key to minimizing risk is increasing your distance from the phone. This means keeping any cellphone that’s turned on away from direct contact with your body. Don’t keep it in your bra, in your pocket or (especially if you’re pregnant) against your abdomen, they say. And instead of holding the phone against your head when you talk, use a speaker or wired earphones. (Wireless headsets, such as AirPods, also emit some radiation.) Try to avoid making calls when the phone is telling you the signal is weak because that boosts the radiation level. You can also limit exposure by simply reducing how much time you spend talking on your cellphone and texting instead, they say. Using an old-fashioned landline avoids the problem altogether.

Revealed: Nazi Germany used honorary consuls to advance agenda globally

In 1942, as Nazi Germany began to send hundreds of thousands of Jews to killing centers, Brazilian police swooped into a port city in the South American country and arrested a wealthy landowner.

To locals, he was Otto Uebele, a Brazilian manager of a prominent coffee trading company. He also served as honorary consul for Germany — and was an accused Nazi spy.

“One of the leaders of German espionage in South America,” Allied intelligence agents wrote in a secret document, later released by the CIA.

A local newspaper at the time called Uebele a man of “respectable appearance, who enjoyed the greatest prestige and influence in social and commercial circles.”

“Nobody,” the paper wrote, “could imagine him a spy. The fact went off like a bomb, such was the surprise.”

Historians have long chronicled the clandestine use of ambassadors and other professional diplomats by Nazi intelligence services. Far less attention has focused on the activities of honorary consuls, who for centuries have worked from their home countries to represent the interests of foreign governments.

ProPublica and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists used declassified intelligence documents, media accounts and other reports to identify about 20 honorary consuls who were suspected of supporting the Third Reich through espionage and other illicit activities.

The consuls included a social hall vice president, a fertilizer merchant and a chemist. They largely lived and worked in neutral countries in Latin America, Europe and Africa, where Nazi Germany sought to cultivate allies or gain an advantage at critical ports and other strategic locations. A majority of the honorary consuls were appointed directly by Germany; some were named by other countries.

The use of honorary consuls by the Third Reich to cultivate power and influence is not a historical anomaly.

An ongoing investigation by ProPublica and ICIJ has exposed widespread exploitation of the largely unchecked honorary consul system, now embraced by most of the world’s governments. In exchange for their service, honorary consuls receive some of the same privileges and protections provided to career diplomats: They can move bags across borders without inspection and their offices and correspondence are protected from searches.

Terrorist groups and leaders of corrupt regimes have leveraged the volunteer diplomats as agents of disruption, part of a strategy to advance political and ideological agendas, the ProPublica and ICIJ investigation found.

Honorary consuls tied to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah have stood accused of moving drugs and money. The intelligence service in North Macedonia alleged that two honorary consuls appointed by the Kremlin allowed their offices to be used as Russian “intelligence bases.” Other honorary consuls have supported President Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasions of Ukraine.

The names of honorary consuls suspected of supporting the Nazi regime appear in a series of declassified reports that describe a broader intelligence-gathering effort run out of German embassies.

Nazi spies were “usually built into the diplomatic staff accredited to a neutral government, their leaders being camouflaged as honorary consuls or other functionaries,” according to a 1946 U.S. Army report on German intelligence during the war.

In Brazil, Uebele was captured and imprisoned. The U.S. ambassador at the time told officials in Washington that Uebele had provided fuel for Nazi boats and helped supply submarines, archival records show.

“I am a consul and our espionage will have to be entrusted to the shadow of the consulate,” Uebele said, according to a transcript of an interview with another accused spy published in Brazilian media in 1949 under the headline “Diplomacy and Espionage in Hitler's Germany.”

Uebele was ultimately acquitted in Brazil after a lengthy legal case, but the government refused to return his seized property, according to one media report. He died in 1956.

“That is the way the Germans did things,” said Priscila F. Perazzo, a history professor at Universidade Municipal de São Caetano do Sul Municipal in Brazil and author of a book on wartime espionage that described Uebele. “The center of espionage in Brazil ran through rich and powerful men in the private sector with connections to the embassy.”

In Spain, Germany appointed as honorary consul onetime brewery manager Wilhelm Leissner, who also used the name Gustav Lenz. He reportedly oversaw a large spy network in Europe, intercepting communications and forwarding information to Berlin in a diplomatic pouch, declassified records show.

“He is officially described as ‘Honorary Attache’ to the Germany embassy, but is in reality the controller of a large network of officers, agents and sub-agents,” according to a 1942 declassified document titled “Enemy intelligence activity in Spain.”

In 1944, Leissner approved a payment to an American who had agreed to provide the Germans information about the Allied invasion of southern France, according to interrogation records in a U.S. military intelligence report.

The Germans “would have guys like that who would take care of certain regions. They’re the ones contacting other Germans and bringing other people into their espionage networks,” said historian David A. Messenger, who authored a book about Nazi spies in Spain. “A low-level diplomat has contacts in the Spanish governments, knows people in economics, people in industry.”

Records show Leissner was sent back to Germany in U.S. custody in 1946, but it is unclear what happened after that.

Elsewhere, at least two honorary consuls who worked for a well-known shipping company were suspected of providing intelligence from the coast of West Africa. In Argentina, a furrier who had served as honorary consul became one of the most notable spies in South America.

German espionage networks in Central and South America were a significant concern for the FBI, which by 1946 identified nearly 900 Nazi spies, according to the agency.

Honorary consuls supported Nazi Germany in other ways, archival records show. One in Sweden gave money to a Nazi party member and to the German “winter help” fund. Another in Spain was suspected in late 1945 of arranging to move jewels and a valuable collection of postage stamps out of Germany.

In 2005, Germany’s then-foreign minister called for an investigation of the Foreign Ministry, commissioning four historians. They found that the office, which had previously distanced itself from Nazi genocide, had been actively involved in the mass murder of Jews.

This year, Germany’s foreign minister publicly recognized the role that diplomats played during the Holocaust. The statements by Annalena Baerbock were made on the 80th anniversary of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, when high-ranking Nazi Party and German officials gathered in a Berlin suburb to plot what they called the “final solution of the Jewish question.”

“We remember the murdered Jewish women, men and children, and those who survived the Holocaust,” Baerbock said.

Foreign Ministry officials “who put themselves at the service of the crimes and genocide of the Nazi regime also bear responsibility for their suffering,” she said.

They called 911 for help — and police used a new junk science to decide if they were liars

Tracy Harpster, a deputy police chief from suburban Dayton, Ohio, was hunting for praise. He had a business to promote: a miracle method to determine when 911 callers are actually guilty of the crimes they are reporting. “I know what a guilty father, mother or boyfriend sounds like,” he once said.

Harpster tells police and prosecutors around the country that they can do the same. Such linguistic detection is possible, he claims, if you know how to analyze callers’ speech patterns — their tone of voice, their pauses, their word choice, even their grammar. Stripped of its context, a misplaced word as innocuous as “hi” or “please” or “somebody” can reveal a murderer on the phone.

So far, researchers who have tried to corroborate Harpster’s claims have failed. The experts most familiar with his work warn that it shouldn’t be used to lock people up.

Prosecutors know it’s junk science too. But that hasn’t stopped some from promoting his methods and even deploying 911 call analysis in court to win convictions.

In 2016, Missouri prosecutor Leah Askey wrote Harpster an effusive email, bluntly detailing how she skirted legal rules to exploit his methods against unwitting defendants.

“Of course this line of research is not ‘recognized’ as a science in our state,” Askey wrote, explaining that she had sidestepped hearings that would have been required to assess the method’s legitimacy. She said she disguised 911 call analysis in court by “getting creative … without calling it ‘science.’”

“I was confident that if a jury could hear this information and this research,” she added, “they would be as convinced as I was of the defendant's guilt.”

What Askey didn’t say in her endorsement was this: She had once tried using Harpster’s methods against Russ Faria, a man wrongfully convicted of killing his wife. At trial, Askey played a recording of Faria’s frantic 911 call for the jury and put a dispatch supervisor on the stand to testify that it sounded staged. Lawyers objected but the judge let the testimony in. Faria was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

After he successfully appealed, Askey prosecuted him again — and again called the supervisor to testify about all the reasons she thought Faria was guilty based on his word choice and demeanor during the 911 call. It was Harpster’s “analytical class,” the supervisor said, that taught her “to evaluate a call to see what the outcome would be.”

This judge wouldn’t allow her to continue and cut the testimony short. Faria was acquitted. He’d spent three and a half years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

None of this bothered Harpster, who needed fresh kudos to repackage as marketing material and for a chapter in an upcoming book. “We don’t have to say it was overturned,” he told Askey when soliciting the endorsement. “Hook me up. … Make it sing!”

Junk science in the justice system is nothing new. But unvarnished correspondence about how prosecutors wield it is hard to come by. It can be next to impossible to see how law enforcement — in league with paid, self-styled “experts” — spreads new, often unproven methods. The system is at its most opaque when prosecutors know evidence is unfit for court but choose to game the rules, hoping judges and juries will believe it and vote to convict.

People like Faria, defense lawyers and sometimes even the judges are blindsided. “I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else,” Faria told me.

Askey, who now goes by Leah Chaney and is no longer a prosecutor, did not answer questions about the case other than to say she didn’t know about Harpster’s work until after Faria’s first trial. She has denied allegations of misconduct in other media interviews.

I first stumbled on 911 call analysis while reporting on a police department in northern Louisiana. At the time, it didn’t sound plausible even as a one-off gambit, let alone something pervasive that law enforcement nationwide had embraced as legitimate.

I was wrong. People who call 911 don’t know it, but detectives and prosecutors are listening in, ready to assign guilt based on the words they hear. For the past decade, Harpster has traveled the country quietly sowing his methods into the justice system case by case, city by city, charging up to $3,500 for his eight-hour class, which is typically paid for with tax dollars. Hundreds in law enforcement have bought into the obscure program and I had a rare opportunity to track, in real time, how the chief architect was selling it.

Harpster makes some astonishing claims in his promotional flyers. He says he has personally consulted in more than 1,500 homicide investigations nationwide. He promises that his training will let 911 operators know if they are talking to a murderer, give detectives a new way to identify suspects, and arm prosecutors with evidence they can exploit at trial.

The program has little online presence. Searches for 911 call analysis in national court dockets come up virtually empty too. A public defender in Virginia said, “I have never heard of any of that claptrap in my jurisdiction.” Dozens of other defense attorneys had similar reactions. One thought the premise sounded as arbitrary as medieval trials by fire, when those suspected of crimes were judged by how well they could walk over burning coals or hold hot irons.

Could it be true that Harpster, a man with no scientific background and next to no previous homicide investigation experience, had successfully sold the modern equivalent to law enforcement across the U.S. almost without notice?

First, I put together a list of agencies that had recently hosted him. In the months that followed, I sent more than 80 open records requests and interviewed some 120 people. Thousands of emails, police reports and other documents led to a web of thousands more in new states. When agencies refused to turn over public records, ProPublica’s lawyers threatened litigation and in one case sued.

I followed the paper trail Harpster left as he traveled the country, working law enforcement’s back channels. A story unfolded about a credulous, at times reckless, justice system functioning as an open market for junk science. Those responsible for ensuring honest police work and fair trials — from training boards to the judiciary — have instead helped 911 call analysis metastasize. It became clear that almost no one had bothered to ask even basic questions about the program.

Outside of law enforcement circles, Harpster is elusive. He tries to keep his methods secret and doesn’t let outsiders sit in on his classes or look at his data. “The more civilians who know about it,” he told me once, “the more who will try to get away with murder.”

In reality, people have been wrongfully accused and convicted of murder after someone misinterpreted their call for help, while those who used 911 call analysis against them face little or no consequences. I documented more than 100 cases in 26 states where Harpster’s methods played a pivotal role in arrests, prosecutions and convictions — likely a fraction of the actual figure.

All of it began in an unexpected place.

II.

In the winter of 2004, Harpster walked into the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was one of dozens of local police officers from around the country who’d been invited to attend a 10-week training course called the National Academy. He listened to a lecture there given by an agent named Susan Adams, who the bureau had hired in the ’80s to teach interview and statement-analysis techniques.

Harpster was rapt. Then 43, he had spent most of his career with the Moraine, Ohio, police department. Moraine, population 6,500, is an unlikely crucible for a newfangled homicide investigative method, and Harpster is an unlikely figure to be the one who forged it. The city averages less than one murder a year.

Harpster had scant involvement in homicide investigations, according to his personnel file. The file shows a decorated career with commendations for good deeds like volunteering with underprivileged kids and organizing a Christmas food and gift drive for a family in need. He was once officer of the year, and he never took a single sick day.

After he left the FBI Academy that winter, Harpster enrolled at the University of Cincinnati to pursue a graduate degree in criminal justice. For his master’s thesis, he collected 100 recordings of 911 calls — half of the callers had been found guilty of something and the other half hadn’t. Harpster believed he could analyze these calls for clues. In his thesis’ acknowledgments, he said he wouldn’t have started the project without Adams, “the best teacher I’ve ever had.”

Based on patterns he heard in the tapes, Harpster said he was able to identify certain indicators that correlated with guilt and others with innocence. For instance, “Huh?” in response to a dispatcher’s question is an indicator of guilt in Harpster’s system. So is an isolated “please.” He identified 20 such indicators and then counted how often they appeared in his sample of guilty calls.

Using that same sample of recordings, Harpster, Adams and an FBI behavioral scientist named John Jarvis set out to publish a study in 2008. But even before their work was published in a peer-reviewed journal as an “exploratory analysis” — a common qualifier meant to invite more research — police departments around the country learned about it.

That’s because the FBI sent a version of the study directly to them in a bulletin, which was not labeled exploratory. It included contact information for Harpster and Adams. The publication, which the bureau says typically has a readership of 200,000 but is not supposed to be an endorsement, had immediate impact. “It was required reading by our detective and communications personnel,” a police chief in Illinois told Harpster.

A sheriff’s sergeant in Colorado also read the FBI bulletin and, weeks later, asked Adams to analyze a 911 tape from a widow suspected of killing her husband. She and Harpster wrote a report of their findings.

The widow said the word “blood,” for example, and that’s a guilty indicator. (“Bleeding,” however, is not.) She said “somebody” at different points, which shows a lack of commitment. “Witnesses to a crime scene should be able to report their observations clearly,” Harpster and Adams wrote. She was inappropriately polite because she said “I’m sorry” and “thank you.” She interrupted herself, which “wastes valuable time and may add confusion.” She tried to divert attention by saying, “God, who would do this?" Harpster and Adams commented: “This is a curious and unexpected question.”

Their report became part of the police record — along with a significant amount of other evidence — and the prosecutor, Rich Tuttle, echoed their findings during trial. The widow was convicted of murder. Tuttle recently told me that he “did not directly use” 911 call analysis during trial because no witnesses testified about it.

But Tuttle once emailed Harpster about the impact his methods had. "We found your evaluation of the 911 call in this matter to be extremely insightful and helpful to our investigation and prosecution of the case,” Tuttle wrote.

The seeds were planted.

III.

For more than 12 years, the nation’s premier law enforcement agency helped 911 call analysis grow unabated. FBI officials at a charity fundraiser have even auctioned a copy of the book Harpster and Adams wrote about it. Harpster says he has presented his material at the FBI National Academy. He frequently trades on the FBI name, and others cite the affiliation when spreading word about 911 call analysis.

Then, in a 2020 study, experts from the bureau’s Behavioral Analysis Unit finally tried to see whether the methods had any actual merit. They tested Harpster’s guilty indicators against a sample of emergency calls, mostly from military bases, to try to replicate what they called “groundbreaking 911 call analysis research.”

Instead, they ended up warning against using that research to bring actual cases. The indicators were so inconsistent, the experts said, that some went “in the opposite direction of what was previously found."

This fall, a separate group of FBI experts in the same unit tested Harpster’s model, this time in missing child cases. Again, their findings contradicted his, so much so that they said applying 911 call analysis in real life “may exacerbate bias.”

Academic researchers at Villanova and James Madison universities have come to similar conclusions. Every study, five in total, clashed with Harpster’s. The verdict: There was no scientific evidence that 911 call analysis worked.

The FBI, which declined to comment for this article, published some of the dissent in another law enforcement bulletin. But the reversal has gone largely unnoticed. John Bailey, a police sergeant in Pennsylvania, was among the first to tap Harpster and Adams for help after learning about their technique from the FBI. He believed in it so much that he planned to have Harpster testify in front of a grand jury. (That didn’t ultimately happen.)

I recently called Bailey, now a judge, to ask if he knew about the FBI’s more recent studies undercutting the work it had once promoted. He did not. “This is how it originated — at the FBI Academy,” he said. “You telling me that makes me scratch my head.”

Jarvis, one of the original co-authors from the FBI, told me he hasn’t spoken to Harpster since they published their study. He said he advised Harpster and Adams at the time that more research needed to back up what they’d found.

Jarvis said he was uncomfortable with the method’s use in real cases. He was even more surprised that prosecutors have bought in. “I don’t see where that work rises to the level of success by the scientific community,” he said. “There’s no definitive answer as to whether this is useful.”

Adams left the bureau and is now a private communications consultant. She recently wrote me an email defending Harpster and their work together. As proof of Harpster’s qualifications, Adams cited all the times he has been invited to speak about the program and claimed they’ve analyzed hundreds of 911 tapes.

No single indicator can be used to determine the likelihood of innocence or guilt, Adams said. “Instead, our study examined indicators in combination, just as 911 call analysis should be used in combination with case facts to uncover the truth.”

But the more records I saw, the less true that seemed.

IV.

It was easy to miss, a decades-old mystery solved by local police that made national headlines for a day before vanishing to the recesses of the internet. It’s the type of story that goes on to inspire “true crime” shows, always with a neat, satisfying ending. And the FBI was right in the middle of it.

This spring, U.S. marshals followed Jade Benning, a 48-year-old mother of three with jet-black hair, as she picked up her youngest son from school in Austin, Texas. Benning sold vintage clothing in town, drove a red 1969 Camaro and owned a menagerie of rescue pets. After she left the school’s parking lot, the marshals pulled her over and told her she was under arrest for a murder that happened 26 years ago.

In the small hours of Jan. 4, 1996, Benning twice called 911 and said a burglar broke into her Santa Ana, California, apartment, stabbed her boyfriend to death and slashed her hand before running off into the night. A neighbor reported that they had seen someone fleeing the area around that time. But officers didn’t find a murder weapon and the case went cold. Years went by. Benning moved states and started a family.

After Benning’s arrest this spring, the Santa Ana Police Department posted an Instagram video of officers in suits walking a handcuffed Benning through a parking garage. The post included a vague statement: A cold case detective named Michael Gibbons had solved the murder. After receiving an anonymous letter, he “conducted extensive follow-up” and consulted forensic experts, the department said.

Benning, who has pleaded not guilty, sent her kids to live with their grandmother part time while headlines circulated about their mother’s arrest.

The police department and district attorney’s office haven’t explained who those experts are or what evidence Gibbons had discovered. Gibbons and the agencies did not respond to interview requests and the agencies refused to release records I asked for.

But Gibbons told someone. Days after the arrest, he sent an email to Harpster, thanking him for analyzing Benning’s 911 calls. “It significantly helped our district attorney to realize the indicators of guilt in the phone calls,” Gibbons wrote, “as well as suggestions on how to introduce the 911 calls to the jury during trial.” He alluded to other forensic experts but said Harpster’s consultation was “instrumental in swaying the prosecutor to file charges.”

Gibbons said he didn’t just find out about Harpster by chance: The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit recommended him. Gibbons’ email came two years after the bureau’s own experts in that same division first publicly warned law enforcement not to use 911 call analysis in actual cases.

V.

Junk science can catch fire in the legal system once so-called experts are allowed to take the stand in a single trial. Prosecutors and judges in future cases cite the previous appearance as precedent. But 911 call analysis was vexing because it didn’t look like Harpster had ever actually testified.

In 2009, Harpster learned about a double homicide in Woodbury County, Iowa, from a television documentary. He offered his services to the lead detective, saying he knew the defendant was guilty “solely upon his analysis of the defendant’s 911 call,” an assistant prosecutor for the county, Jill Esteves, noted later in an email.

Esteves’ office bought it. Prosecutors there tapped Harpster to consult and testify as an expert on a different case soon after, emails show. Harpster said he had a better idea. In surprisingly blunt language, Esteves spelled out her interpretation.

“He knows there will be a great legal hurdle getting the research admitted,” she wrote in an email to a colleague in another county, who also wanted Harpster to testify. “He doesn’t want a legal precedent prohibiting the admission of his research.” Earlier in 2009, a judge in Alabama had blocked Harpster from taking the stand because there were no other studies supporting his work.

So instead of testifying himself, Harpster began to teach others how to analyze 911 calls. His pupils are prosecutors, detectives, coroners and dispatchers. They are now the ambassadors who could present his work in court while Harpster himself is insulated from scrutiny. “No cross examination when you lecture,” Esteves quipped.

When I asked Esteves about this, she didn’t respond. But a colleague in her office, Mark Campbell, defended 911 call analysis. “Tracy Harpster’s work in analyzing 911 calls is new,” he wrote in an email, “but the need for attorneys, judges and juries to evaluate what witnesses say to determine their credibility is as old as the trial court system.” Campbell said he didn’t know of other studies in the field but that wasn’t relevant because much of 911 call analysis is similar to exercising common sense, “no different than what attorneys and judges have been pointing out since witnesses have been used.”

As Adams faded into the background, Harpster took their work on tour, from Florida to Alaska, to university lecture halls and international homicide conferences, city police academies and statewide coroners’ seminars. The extended curriculum is a two-day, 16-hour course that includes basic and advanced training.

Harpster has a motto he likes to say during his lectures: Police have but one master, the truth. A detective from Wisconsin told him that he’d hung the slogan up on his office wall.

In class, there’s a projector screen with the course title: “Is the caller the killer?” The bold, red font looks like dripping blood. He walks attendees through the indicators of guilt on a checklist that he and Adams invented called the COPS Scale, for Considering Offender Probability in Statements. It’s a one-page worksheet that they copyrighted. “COPS Scale don’t lie,” Harpster has told students, “boys do.”

Then the students listen to real 911 tapes, marking indicators on the sheet as they go. He displays two options on the screen, also in bold, red font: “guilty” or “innocent.”

VI.

Figuring out what his students went on to do with the training took some reverse engineering. There’s no list of 911 call analysis appearances and no way to easily search local court records. Police departments don’t track it either.

But Harpster does. Former students send him endorsements describing how they’ve used 911 call analysis in real cases. Then he repurposes those as marketing material when emailing law enforcement in other cities and states. It’s a feedback loop.

In emails, Harpster pitches both the curriculum and himself. “This training is unique and nobody else is doing it,” he told a local police training board in Illinois, “because I’m the only one who has done the research.”

He claims that 1 in 3 people who call 911 to report a death are actually murderers. No law enforcement officials in the records I’ve seen have questioned this figure, and many departments repeat it when promoting the training internally. In his thesis, Harpster originally said this number was 1 in 5 and attributed the figure to an unpublished study by a now-dead detective and professor in Washington state. I found nothing to support either statistic.

Harpster makes himself available day and night to take phone calls from police and prosecutors looking to validate a hunch or strategize for trial. He once hosted a former student from Florida at his lakeside vacation house in Michigan, where he claimed on his Facebook page that they “solved a murder.” Last year, a detective called him for input while standing over someone’s body at a crime scene.

Police often email him 911 tapes for consultations — men and women wailing on the phone as they plead with the dispatcher to save a loved one. Sometimes it’s a parent holding a dead child. In one case, Harpster listened to an Ohio mother’s desperate call for help and then wrote back, simply, “Call me. … DIRTY!!!!” The mother was not charged.

His methods have now surfaced in at least 26 states, where many students embrace him like an oracle. They write in emails and course evaluations that his training is the best they’ve ever attended. They laud the “science” and send Harpster tales of arrests, prosecutions and convictions that they attribute at least in part to his program.

A group of North Dakota dispatchers listened to a 911 tape the day after Harpster’s class and decided the caller “didn’t seem to be appropriately shocked or upset” on the phone when reporting a homicide. One jumped up and down, shouting, “He’s guilty. He did it!!”

A police chief in Michigan said Harpster’s class paid off immediately after a man called 911 and said he had just found his mother and sister dead. “He made the mistake of saying ‘I need help,’” the chief explained.

A detective in Washington state, Marty Garland, told Harpster that a young mother had called 911 in November 2018 after her infant stopped breathing in his sleep. There was nothing suspicious at the scene and no detectives were dispatched, Garland wrote. Three separate pathologists were unable to rule the death a homicide based on the physical evidence. (One of those pathologists, hired by police, changed his conclusion to death by smothering after learning about some of the mother’s statements, which were related to him by police.)

But Garland had recently taken Harpster’s class and listened to a tape of the call. He noticed problems “from literally the first word by the ‘distraught mother.’” She had said “hi” to the dispatcher, which is considered a guilty indicator because it’s too polite. Garland shared his findings with a supervisor, who recategorized the baby’s death as suspicious. Harpster also consulted on the case.

Prosecutors charged the mother with second-degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. She took a plea deal — without admitting guilt — that resulted in a manslaughter conviction and she served about two years. “We would never have known the truth,” Garland wrote to Harpster, “if it hadn’t been for your book and your excellent training.”

This theme came up often in the records: Harpster and his acolytes position 911 call analysis in the no man’s land between intent and accident. With little physical evidence, they can claim, under the guise of science, to know that a suspect lied on the phone. Once murder is on the table, the accused may feel they have no choice but to plead to manslaughter to avoid a life sentence.

When I called Garland to ask about the case, he told me, “I can’t talk about it.”

VII.

Harpster is at once fiercely proud of his program and at the same time possessive of the data behind it. In today’s research community, it’s standard practice to follow the scientific method and share data. But he has refused those who ask.

Harpster once explained to a prosecutor one of the reasons he insists on secrecy: He thinks academics try to steal his work and claim it as their own to make money. “It never works out for them,” he wrote in an email, “because unless you have actually analyzed ALL the data, you will have no idea what the heck you are doing.”

His original study was based on just 100 emergency calls. Almost two-thirds of the calls came from Ohio and two-thirds of the callers were white. Experts told me that’s nowhere near enough data to draw conclusions from because that sample fails to account for who a 911 caller is and how that might affect the way they speak: their race, upbringing, geography, dialect, education. Not to mention that some callers may have autism or otherwise be neurodivergent, which could also affect their speech patterns. “So many things would weigh into this,” said Dr. Arthur Kleinman, a professor of anthropology and psychiatry at Harvard University.

Harpster and his co-authors also didn’t try to validate their model with separate data before publishing the study. In other words, they tested their list of guilty indicators on the same set of data they’d used to build it. Statisticians call that “double dipping.”

The experts said all of this isn’t necessarily dangerous as long as the methods stay academic, and studying 911 calls may very well be a worthwhile pursuit. “But you simply wouldn’t want to use highly exploratory work like this to inform practice without more evidence, even in a low-stakes situation,” said Michael Frank, a psychologist at Stanford University who is writing a book on statistical methods. “Let alone in high-stakes criminal justice situations.”

A team of researchers from Arizona State University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice recently received a federal grant to study 1,000 911 calls. In their grant application, they wrote about the potential danger of misinterpreting witness statements given “the countless accounts of how this presumed guilt can start a chain reaction of confirmation bias.”

In September, they asked Harpster for his data. He responded: “We never forward the data.”

The team at ASU is looking into whether police are any better at identifying liars on the phone than the rest of us might be. “We think there’s no normal way to act on a 911 call,” said the lead investigator, Jessica Salerno, a social psychologist at ASU. Given the gamut of human emotion, she explained, anyone claiming to know the right and wrong way to speak during an emergency has seen too much television.

Like most of the experts I talked to, Salerno didn’t know that Harpster’s model had already been adopted by police and prosecutors across the country. She didn’t know people were being arrested and charged because of it.

“If this were to get out,” Salerno said, “I feel like no one would ever call 911 again.”

VIII.

Harpster’s supporters say it’s easy to cast shade from the ivory tower.

When Jason Kiddey was a young detective in Fremont, Ohio, he saw Harpster speak at the state’s training academy. “I latched on to just about every word he said,” Kiddey told me. He was so impressed that he reached out to Harpster to tell him.

It was late 2012 and Kiddey had just finished interrogating a widower, Jason Risenburg, for almost six hours before Risenburg admitted to giving his wife the methadone that had killed her. “I also did what you asked and told him about the 911 call analysis and he just looked at me like I had no clue what I was talking about,” Kiddey wrote in an email to Harpster. “After throwing down the handout you gave me, he cracked. …… True story!”

Before the interrogation took place, Kiddey’s only evidence was that 911 tape, he told me. Prosecutors charged Risenburg with murder and he took a plea deal for manslaughter. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison, where he remains today. “Because of your training,” Kiddey wrote to Harpster in another email, “a man is sitting in prison for killing his wife.”

He now considers Harpster a mentor and says 911 call analysis is a good tool to reveal clues. “I don’t weigh my case on that,” Kiddey said. “It’s a building block.”

In a phone call last July, Harpster defended his program with pride. It was clear from talking with him that he believes deeply in its value and is sure that he has helped bring killers to justice and offer peace to grieving families. “It’s my life’s work,” he told me.

Harpster said critics don’t understand his methods or how to use them. He said he helps defense attorneys and prosecutors alike and “the research is designed to find the truth wherever it goes.”

Harpster also believes that he’s the final authority on the subject, which makes him wary of scrutiny. I asked to sit in on one of his classes. No, he said, that’s out of the question. They’re only for law enforcement. During the height of the pandemic, Harpster told police he didn’t want to host virtual classes because he feared his course materials would leak out.

There’s also the book he and Adams co-wrote, currently listed on Amazon. “It’s really a textbook for law enforcement,” he said. “But it doesn’t help law enforcement if everybody out there uses it to defeat law enforcement.”

“I don’t want murderers to get away with killing babies,” he told me.

We agreed to talk again soon.

IX.

On a cold, clear night in February 2014, Kathy Carpenter sped from a secluded house in the Rocky Mountains and toward the police station in downtown Aspen. She clutched the wheel with one hand and a cellphone with the other. “OK my, my, my friend had a — I found my friend in the closet and she’s dead,” Carpenter told a 911 dispatcher between wails.

Her friend Nancy Pfister, a ski resort heiress and philanthropist, had been bludgeoned to death. Local police asked the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to help find out who did it. Kirby Lewis, agent in charge with CBI and one of Harpster’s earliest students, stepped in to analyze Carpenter’s call.

This is what he noted in a report: Carpenter said “help me”; she interrupted herself; she didn’t immediately answer when the dispatcher asked for the address. She provided “extraneous information” about Pfister’s dog. When the dispatcher asked if a defibrillator was in the house, Carpenter paused before saying, “Is there what?”

Lewis found 39 guilty indicators and zero indicators of innocence. Carpenter was arrested eight days later. Newspapers and television stations published the 56-year-old’s mugshot.

She spent three months in jail before someone else confessed to the crime.

Even when people weren’t convicted, some have faced irreparable harm after others decided they chose the wrong words on the phone. Carpenter recently told me the ordeal ruined her life. She lost her job as a bank teller, along with all of her savings and her home. Her car was repossessed. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She had to move in with her mother across the state and now disguises herself in public. People still call her a murderer, she said. “I just want to go into solitude and just hide.”

Lewis didn’t respond to questions or interview requests and CBI declined to comment. His email correspondence and resume suggest he’s a true believer in 911 call analysis, part of a cohort of former students who have become boosters of the program.

Lewis has said analyses of 911 calls shouldn’t be considered evidence but rather a suggestion of what a caller knows — an “investigative lead.” That may explain why the Carpenter case didn’t dampen his faith in the program. Since Carpenter was released from jail, Lewis has performed more than two dozen analyses of 911 calls for other departments in Colorado.

He also still trades notes with Harpster over email. Their correspondence shows the lengths some powerful officials have gone to set aside their own better judgment to pursue convictions. In one exchange, Harpster told Lewis that he had spent two hours on the phone with some officers and a prosecutor in Indiana. After the meeting, the prosecutor remarked that Harpster’s ideas sounded like “voodoo magic.”

“Flash forward a year,” Harpster wrote, “that same prosecutor called me up to see if I would testify in the case.”

X.

A document filed away in a Michigan appeals court was the first sign that some judges — the supposed gatekeepers of the justice system — have accepted 911 call analysis as actual expert testimony at trial.

One night in early December 2014, Riley Spitler, a scrawny 16-year-old from the suburbs, was playing with a gun when he accidentally shot his older brother, Patrick. Riley’s call for help was nearly incoherent. Two dispatchers tried to calm him down. “I think I killed him,” he screamed. “Oh my God my life is over.” In shock, he couldn’t figure out how to open the glass front door from the inside so he shattered it with his hand.

Riley’s parents met him at the hospital and told him Patrick was dead. Riley sobbed so loudly the nurses could hear him down the hallway. In the days that followed, he told social workers he wouldn’t ever forgive himself, according to notes on their conversations. “I should be dead,” Riley said. “He should be alive.”

Police arrested Riley on murder charges — not manslaughter, which comes with a much lower possible prison sentence. The day after his arrest, Riley tried to kill himself in jail.

At Riley’s trial in 2016, prosecutors painted him as a drug-dealing, gun-toting teen who resented his popular brother so much that he murdered him and then started lying about it the moment he called 911. A detective who assisted on the case, Joseph Merritt, had taken Harpster’s course four years earlier. Since then, Merritt said in court, he’s applied the methods in 4 out of every 5 cases — more than 100 times. Prosecutors told the judge that Merritt should be able to testify as an expert about the guilty indicators he had identified in Riley’s call that night.

For instance, when the dispatcher asked, “What happened that he got shot?” Riley responded, “What hap— What do you mean?” This, Merritt wrote in an email to prosecutors, was an attempt to resist the dispatcher. Saying things like “my life is over” showed that he was concerned with himself and not his brother. “Very ‘me’ focused,” Merritt wrote. Riley said again and again that he thought his brother was dead. This is considered to be another guilty indicator known as “acceptance of death.”

Like most states, Michigan courts’ rules for evidence — adopted from the Daubert standard, which was named after a Supreme Court decision issued almost 30 years ago — say trial judges are responsible for making sure expert testimony has a reliable foundation.

Prosecutors in Lyon County, Nevada, once wanted a detective trained by Harpster to testify about the 911 call analysis used against a man accused of shooting his wife. The judge wouldn’t allow it. “I don’t see any reliable methodology or science,” he said. “I’m not going to let you say that it’s more likely that someone who is guilty or innocent or is more suspicious or less suspicious.”

The judge in Riley’s case, a former prosecutor named John McBain, was more credulous. He let Merritt testify as an expert and accepted 911 call analysis on its face. McBain explained his reasoning: Harpster’s course is recognized by the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards. This, McBain said, was proof of 911 call analysis’ value.

Joe Kempa, the commission’s acting deputy executive director, told me his agency does not technically certify or accredit courses — it just funds them. There is little review of the curriculum, he said, because the agency approves up to 10 courses a day from too many fields to count. Accrediting each would be too hard. As long as a course is “in the genre of policing” without posing an obvious health threat, it will likely be approved for state funds, he said.

Riley was convicted of second-degree murder. McBain sentenced him to 20 to 40 years in prison. McBain’s office didn’t respond to multiple interview requests.

Riley appealed on the grounds that Merritt’s testimony about the 911 call and other statement analysis techniques never should have been admitted. “This case is about junk science,” Riley’s attorney argued in court records, “used to convict a 16-year-old of murder.” The appellate judges threw out the murder conviction. Riley was resentenced for manslaughter and then released from prison in 2020.

Across the country, trial judges seldom restrict expert testimony brought in by prosecutors, the National Academy of Sciences found after reviewing publicly available federal rulings in 2009. The Daubert standard is applied unevenly because many judges don’t know how to spot sound science, the academy found. As one of the country’s leading experts put it later: “The justice system may be institutionally incapable of applying Daubert in criminal cases.”

Today, Riley is 24. He’s married with a newborn. He has a real estate license. He packed on pounds of muscle in prison and most people in town don’t recognize him anymore. Riley likes it that way.

After he was convicted, he felt despondent about both his brother’s death and how the outside world saw him. “People made me feel like a monster,” Riley told me. He replayed the trial over and over in his head, including Merritt’s testimony. He spent hours in the prison library studying Michigan’s rules on evidence standards.

Riley says McBain should have known 911 call analysis didn’t meet those standards. “It’s just insane that a judge wouldn’t be the wiser to that,” he said. “But that’s our system.”

After he learned of the public records requests I had sent to his department, Merritt called me. I told him about the story I was reporting and he said he’s not allowed to comment on the case. He didn’t respond to other interview requests later. The chief prosecutor in the county didn’t respond to my messages either.

In 2018 — one year after Riley’s conviction was overturned — Merritt took Harpster’s course again.

XI.

“It’s kind of like a human lie detector test.” That’s how a prosecutor in Michigan described 911 call analysis in a 2016 email exchange, acknowledging that he knew the COPS Scale wouldn’t be admissible in most jurisdictions. The question, then, was how to get the method into trial without litigating the science behind it or teeing up an appeal.

In chains of emails, they described a playbook to overcome this: First, identify law enforcement witnesses who have taken Harpster’s course. Then tell them how to testify about the guilty indicators by broadly referencing training and experience. As Esteves, the prosecutor in Iowa, put it in an email: “Have them testify why this 911 call is inconsistent with an innocent caller, consistent with someone with a guilty mind.”

Next, prime jurors during jury selection and opening arguments about how a normal person should and shouldn’t react in an emergency. Give them a transcript of the 911 call and then play the audio. “When they hear it,” a prosecutor in Louisiana once told Harpster, “it will be like a Dr. Phil ‘a-ha’ moment.” Finally, remind jurors about the indicators during closing arguments. “Reinforce all the incriminating sections of the call,” another prosecutor wrote, “omissions, lack of emotion, over emotion, failure to act appropriately.”

“Juries love it, it’s easy for them to understand,” Harpster once explained to a prosecutor, “unlike DNA which puts them to sleep.”

Phil Dixon, a career defense attorney who trains lawyers at the University of North Carolina’s School of Government, told me this is what makes 911 call analysis so pernicious: It can look very much like regular opinion testimony from a witness. But when prosecutors cross the line and intentionally circumvent court rules for evidence standards, he said, that’s cause for concern. He called it “attempting to clothe expert opinion in the guise of lay testimony.”

In many places, when prosecutors don’t introduce witnesses as experts, they also don’t have to disclose discovery material like consultations with Harpster or any analysis of the 911 tape. Without those disclosures, defense attorneys are caught off guard during trial. It also helps explain how 911 call analysis has spread far and wide almost undetected.

The former chief trial attorney in Macomb County, Michigan, told Harpster that she won convictions against parents in two separate child death cases partly thanks to him. In one case, she said she put a dispatcher, who’d been trained by Harpster, on the stand to testify. “This dispatcher had gained the tools and the knowledge from your class to make a HUGE impact on the prosecution of my child death case!” she wrote. Describing another case, the prosecutor said: “I used many of your points in my closing argument to show the guilt of the defendant and got a guilty verdict!”

Another prosecutor in Ohio said he huddled up with other local prosecutors who had taken the training course and listened to a 911 tape. “All of us finding it to be dirty, I called upon Tracy Harpster,” she wrote, explaining how Harpster helped prepare them for juror examinations and questions for witnesses about the 911 call. “We were able to direct the jury to the parts of the call that indicated a guilty party,” the prosecutor wrote. “Eventually we secured a guilty verdict.”

Both prosecutors either declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests.

“This is unconscionable,” David Faigman, dean of the University of California Hastings College of the Law, told me. As a leading authority on the legal standards for evidence, he’s usually one of the first to learn about new junk science. But even he didn’t know how some prosecutors were leveraging 911 call analysis. “There are so many things wrong with this,” Faigman said, “it’s hard to know where to begin.”

Former federal prosecutor Miriam Krinsky, who is now the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, said these prosecutors are supposed to be “ministers of justice” and should have known better. “We need to be very careful about things such as this.”

It’s not an accident that some prosecutors would put stock in the program. The Ohio Supreme Court has approved Harpster’s course for continuing education credits multiple times. That adds to its legitimacy because prosecutors need those credits to remain in good standing.

In 2018, Harpster emailed a local prosecutor, Nancy Moore, and asked her to sponsor his course by sending in the application forms with her signature, along with his resume and some class information.

About a week later, the court approved the program. Lyn Tolan, the court’s public information director, told me it’s the responsibility of the sponsor — not the court — to evaluate programs that the court approves. She said she was unaware of the independent studies of 911 calls. I asked what steps court officials took to find that information. Tolan repeated, “We rely on the sponsor for that.”

Moore didn’t respond to interview requests. She is now the state’s deputy inspector general. At least 20 Ohio prosecutors attended the training she sponsored for Harpster in 2018. One of them became a federal prosecutor.

Another is now a judge.

XII.

Time and again, many of those who host Harpster have not asked even basic questions about the program — or apparently done a cursory internet search for the man who helped create it. If they had, they’d have found his Facebook page.

On it, Harpster has openly espoused misogynistic, transphobic, Islamophobic and anti-immigrant views. He has called peaceful protesters “filthy scum,” and several posts have been flagged as false information. Ironically, he’s also singled out the government agency that launched his work. “The FBI is corrupt,” he wrote once.

Soon after the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, Harpster shared a meme with Floyd’s face on a $20 bill that said “Treasury Department will honor George Floyd by placing his portrait on the counterfeit $20.” Floyd was originally accused of trying to use a counterfeit bill before he was murdered by a police officer.

Since fall 2021, Harpster has been temporarily banned from posting on Facebook at least twice for breaking the site’s rules. One suspension was for sharing a video of someone accidentally shooting themselves and the reason for the other is unclear.

All the while, he has maintained a steady stream of training sessions, often at police conferences. Those conferences, I discovered, appear to be one of the most efficient platforms for spreading junk science. Harpster spoke at more than 130 between 2006 and 2017, according to his resume.

One weekend in October 2019, he addressed more than 100 Arizona police officers and prosecutors at the Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. They worked at some of the most powerful agencies in the state, including a local FBI office and the state attorney general’s office.

Casey Rucker, then a detective with the Flagstaff Police Department, was also vice president of the Arizona Homicide Investigators Association, which organized the event. Rucker coordinated an appearance by Harpster where he presented his material. He was paid $1,750.

Rucker also sponsored the seminar for education credits with the state’s Peace Officers Standards and Training Board. It’s another mark of legitimacy. The board told me that it didn’t review the program’s qualifications and instead left that up to Rucker and his home agency in Flagstaff. “Each chief or sheriff has the ability to decide the training needed by the men and women in their organization,” Matt Giordano, executive director of the board, told me in an email.

Flagstaff police asked Harpster for a course outline and presentation slides, but it’s unclear what other steps the department took to evaluate the curriculum. The department’s legal adviser said Rucker believes he discussed the sponsorship with a former supervisor to get approval. Rucker is now retired and didn’t respond to interview requests.

The conference had swift impact. At least three attendees reached out to Harpster afterwards, including a cold case detective who credited him with single-handedly changing the direction of a murder investigation.

Nathan Moffat, president of the association that put on the conference, said the extent of his vetting was talking to other groups that had sponsored Harpster previously. He said the reviews were good: Audiences found Harpster entertaining and well-informed.

Moffat, who is also a career detective, told me he’s personally never used 911 call analysis and distanced himself and the association from the program. “The only normal reaction is to not expect any specific reaction,” he said. “If someone tried testifying as an expert after the class, that’s mortifying.”

XIII.

Since we first spoke by phone back in July, Harpster had been dodging me. He said in a text that he was on vacation and wouldn’t be available to sit for an interview for months.

ProPublica was getting closer to publishing a story about Jessica Logan, a young mother in Illinois convicted of murdering her baby after Harpster’s methods were used against her. And I wanted to make sure Harpster had every chance to address what I'd found since we last spoke.

In chatting with detectives, Harpster occasionally mentions his vacation house on a lake in Michigan. So I searched lakeside property records and found a deed with his name on it. There was an address.

On a beautiful Saturday over Labor Day weekend, I drove about four hours north from Detroit to a bucolic neighborhood near the bridge to the Upper Peninsula. After I’d taken a few wrong turns, some neighbors pointed me down a dirt road that looked more like an ATV trail. It opened to a grass clearing with a crystal lake and cedar trees on the other side. Families were barbecuing along the shore. Boats motored by. I walked to the closest house and knocked.

Harpster opened the screen door. He’s a brawny guy with thick arms and a tight, white goatee. His head is cleanshaven now where there were once dark curls. I’d seen pictures of him before on his Facebook page, holding fish or posing alongside students of his program. He likes to get beers with them after class.

On my list of things to talk about were his relationship with law enforcement, with the FBI and with Adams; his emails with prosecutors; judges like McBain; the scientists and their problems with his data; the conferences and the many agencies that have given him the rubber stamp over the years; and the money he’s made off all of it.

Most importantly, there was Russ Faria, Jade Benning, Riley Spitler, Kathy Carpenter and 100 other similar cases I’d found around the country. Did he know these names?

In my six months of reporting, nobody had been willing to take responsibility for inviting 911 call analysis into the justice system or for the repercussions that followed. It seemed the buck didn’t stop anywhere. But it had started here, with him.

After I introduced myself, Harpster shook his head solemnly and said there would be no discussion. “I’m disappointed you would show up here unannounced,” Harpster told me before closing the door. “I’m on vacation.”

Three days later, he taught a 911 call analysis course in Texas.

Inside the school that calls the police on students every other day

On the last street before leaving Jacksonville, there’s a dark brick one-story building that the locals know as the school for “bad” kids. It’s actually a tiny public school for children with disabilities. It sits across the street from farmland and is 2 miles from the Illinois city’s police department, which makes for a short trip when the school calls 911.

Administrators at the Garrison School call the police to report student misbehavior every other school day, on average. And because staff members regularly press charges against the children — some as young as 9 — officers have arrested students more than 100 times in the last five school years, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica found. That is an astounding number given that Garrison, the only school that is part of the Four Rivers Special Education District, has fewer than 65 students in most years.

No other school district — not just in Illinois, but in the entire country — had a higher student arrest rate than Four Rivers the last time data was collected nationwide. That school year, 2017-18, more than half of all Garrison students were arrested.

Officers typically handcuff students and take them to the police station, where they are fingerprinted, photographed and placed in a holding room. For at least a decade, the local newspaper has included the arrests in its daily police blotter for all to see.

The students enrolled each year at Garrison have severe emotional or behavioral disabilities that kept them from succeeding at previous schools. Some also have been diagnosed with autism, ADHD or other disorders. Many have experienced horrifying trauma, including sexual abuse, the death of parents and incarceration of family members, according to interviews with families and school employees.

Getting arrested for behavior at school is not inevitable for students with such challenges. There are about 60 similar public special education schools across Illinois, but none comes anywhere close to Garrison in their number of student arrests, the investigation found.

The ProPublica-Tribune investigation — built on hundreds of school reports and police records, as well as dozens of interviews with employees, students and parents — reveals how a public school intended to be a therapeutic option for students with severe emotional disabilities has instead subjected many of them to the justice system.

It is “just backwards if you are sending kids to a therapeutic day school and then locking them up. That is not what therapeutic day schools are for,” said Jessica Gingold, an attorney in the special education clinic at Equip for Equality, the state’s federally appointed watchdog for people with disabilities.

“If the school exists for young people who need support, to think of them as delinquents is basically the worst you could do. It’s counter to what should be happening,” Gingold said.

Because of the difficulties the students face in regulating their emotions, these specialized schools are tasked with recognizing what triggers their behavior, teaching calming strategies and reinforcing good behavior. But Garrison doesn’t even offer students the type of help many traditional schools have: a curriculum known as social emotional learning that is aimed at teaching students how to develop social skills, manage their emotions and show empathy toward others.

Tracey Fair, director of the Four Rivers Special Education District, said it is the only public school in this part of west central Illinois for students with severe behavioral disabilities, and there are few options for private placement. School workers deal with challenging behavior from Garrison students every day, she said.

“There are consequences to their behavior and this behavior would not be tolerated anywhere else in the community,” Fair said in written answers to reporters’ questions.

Fair, who has overseen Four Rivers since July 2020, said Garrison administrators call police only when students are being physically aggressive or in response to “ongoing” misbehavior. But records detail multiple instances when staff called police because students were being disobedient: spraying water, punching a desk or damaging a filing cabinet, for example.

“The students were still not calming down, so police arrested them,” wrote Fair, speaking on behalf of the district and the school.

This year, the Tribune and ProPublica have been exposing the consequences for students when their schools use police as disciplinarians. The investigation “The Price Kids Pay” uncovered the practice of Illinois schools working with local law enforcement to ticket students for minor misbehavior. Reporters documented nearly 12,000 tickets in dozens of school districts, and state officials moved quickly to denounce the practice.

This latest investigation further reveals the harm to children when schools abdicate student discipline to police. Arrested students miss time in the classroom and get entangled in the justice system. They come to view adults as hostile and school as prison-like, a place where they regularly are confined to classrooms when the school is “on restriction” because of police presence.

U.S. Department of Education and Illinois officials have reminded educators in recent months that if school officials fail to consider whether a student’s behavior is related to their disability, they risk running afoul of federal law.

But unlike some other states, Illinois does not require schools to report student arrest data to the state or direct its education department to monitor police involvement in school incidents. Legislative efforts to do so have stalled over the past few years.

In response to questions from reporters about Garrison, Illinois Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said the frequent arrests there were “concerning.” An Illinois State Board of Education spokesperson said a state team visited the school this month to examine “potential violations” raised through ProPublica and Tribune reporting.

The team confirmed an overreliance on police and, as a result, the state will provide training and other professional development, spokesperson Jackie Matthews said.

“It is not illegal to call the police, but there are tactics and strategies to use to keep it from getting to that point,” Matthews said.

Ayala said educators cannot ignore their responsibility to help students work through behavioral issues.

“Involving the police in any student issue can escalate the situation and lead to criminal justice involvement, so calling the police should be a last resort,” she said in a written statement.

In 2018, Jacksonville police arrested a student named Christian just a few weeks into his first year at Garrison, when he was 12 years old. His “disruptive” behavior earlier in the day — he had knocked on doors and bounced a ball in the hallway — had led to a warning: “One more thing” and he would be arrested, a school report said. He then removed items from an aide’s desk and was “being disrespectful,” so police were summoned. They took him into custody for disorderly conduct.

Christian has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. Now 16, he has been arrested at Garrison several more times and was sent to a detention center after at least one of the arrests, he and his mother said.

He stopped going to school in October; his mother said it’s heartbreaking that he’s not in class, but at Garrison, “it’s more hectic than productive. He’s more in trouble than learning anything.”

“If they call the police on you, you are going to jail,” Christian told reporters. “It is not just one coming to get you. It will be two or three of them. They handcuff you and walk you out, right out the door.”

Handcuffs and Holding Rooms

Just over an hour into the school day on Nov. 15, two police cars rushed into the Garrison school parking lot and stopped outside the front doors. Three more squad cars pulled in behind them but quickly moved on.

Principal Denise Waggener had called the Jacksonville police to report that a 14-year-old student had been spitting at staff members. When police arrived, one of the officers recognized the boy, because he had driven him to school that morning. The student had missed the bus and called police for help, according to a police report and 911 call.

School staff had placed the boy in one of Garrison’s small cinder-block seclusion rooms for “misbehavior,” police records show. A school worker told the officer she had been standing in the doorway of the seclusion room when the boy spit and it landed on her face, glasses and shirt.

The child “initially stated he did not spit at anyone, but then said he did spit,” according to the police report, “but instantly regretted doing so.” The report said the child “stated he knew right from wrong, but often had violent outbursts.”

The worker asked to press charges, and the officer arrested the boy for aggravated battery.

One officer told the child he was under arrest while another searched and handcuffed him. They put him in the back seat of a squad car, drove him to the police station, read him his rights and booked him. Officers told the boy the county’s probation department would contact him later, and then they dropped him off with a guardian, records show.

The Tribune and ProPublica documented and analyzed 415 of Garrison’s “police incident reports” dating to 2015 and found the school has called police, on average, once every two school days.

The reports, written by school staff and obtained through public records requests, describe in detail what happened up until the moment police were called. These narratives, along with recordings of 911 calls, show that school workers often summon police not amid an emergency but because someone at the school wants police to hold the child responsible for their behavior.

About half the calls were made for safety reasons because students had fled the school. Those students rarely were arrested. Students whom police did arrest were most often accused of aggravated battery and had been involved in physical interactions such as spitting or pushing; by state law, any physical interaction with a school employee elevates what would otherwise be a battery charge to aggravated battery. The next most common arrest reasons were disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and property damage.

The school once called police after a student was told he couldn’t use the restroom because he “had done nothing all morning,” records show. The boy got upset, left the classroom anyway and broke a desk in the hallway.

The school called police on a 12-year-old who was “running the halls, cussing staff.”

And the school called the police when a 15-year-old boy who was made to eat lunch inside one of the school’s seclusion rooms threw his applesauce and milk against the wall.

Police arrested them all.

“These students, I would imagine, feel like potential criminals under threat,” said Aaron Kupchik, a sociologist at the University of Delaware who studies punishment and policing in schools.

“We are taking the actions of young people, and, rather than trying to invest in solving real behavioral problems that are very difficult, we are just exposing them to the legal system and legal system consequences.”

Jacksonville Chief of Police Adam Mefford said officers respond to every 911 call from Garrison on the assumption it’s an emergency, and as many as five squad cars can respond. Police often find a child in a seclusion room, Mefford said.

Officers determine whether a law has been broken but leave the decision whether to press charges to the school staff, he said. Police sometimes issue tickets to Garrison students for violating local ordinances, though arrests are far more common.

“The school errs on the side of pressing charges,” Mefford said. “They typically have the student arrested.”

He wondered whether school administrators call police so frequently because it’s become a habit that’s difficult to stop. “The school has gotten used to us handling some of these problems,” Mefford said.

Once arrested, the students are taken to the police station until parents pick them up or an officer takes them home. One mother told reporters that her 10-year-old son, who has autism and ADHD, was “bawling, freaking out,” when she picked him up after he was booked at the jail.

Mefford said he tried to make the experience less traumatic by moving the booking process from the county detention facility to the police station in 2021. He also said police refer students and their families to services in the community, such as counseling or substance abuse help.

After they are booked, students are screened to determine if they should be sent to a juvenile detention facility. Most are assigned to an informal alternative to juvenile court that Morgan County court officials regularly use, said Tod Dillard, director of the county’s probation department.

These young people avoid going to juvenile court, but the “probation adjustment” process also requires them to admit guilt and denies them a public defender. Students must periodically report to a probation officer, typically for a year.

Violating the probation terms, such as by skipping school or getting arrested again, could lead to juvenile delinquency charges. In a juvenile court case, a student’s record of previous informal probation can be used when considering bail or sentencing.

Garrison has some students who are 18 and older, and they can be charged as adults. In 2020, an 18-year-old Garrison student was arrested for disorderly conduct after he “caused a disturbance” when he threw a cup of water and punched a pencil sharpener, court records show. That student spent four days in jail and was held on $3,000 bail. He pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay $439 in court costs and $10 a month in probation fees.

Even for younger students, juvenile charges related to Garrison can later have consequences in adult court. If they are arrested again after they turn 18, prior cases can be used to illustrate that they have a police record.

The boy who spit in anger this fall at Garrison now has an aggravated battery arrest on his record. Even Fair, the school’s director, found the decision to arrest the child troubling.

The day after the boy was taken into custody, Fair told reporters she knew the child had been arrested but said she did not know why school administrators had called police. Reporters told her it had been for spitting on one of her employees.

“That’s not arrestworthy. That is not what we should be about,” Fair said. In a later interview, after learning more about the incident, Fair said staff considered the student aggressive and said, “I guess they did what they thought was right.”

From Empathy to “Coercive Babysitting”

Bev Johns, a local educator, founded Garrison in 1981 with just two students — and a belief that with a caring staff and the right support, they could be successful.

The children had exhibited such disruptive behavior that staffers at their home schools felt ill-equipped to teach them. Her solution: Open a school designed to teach students not just academic subjects but how to manage their behavior. It became part of the Four Rivers Special Education District, a regional cooperative that today provides services to students in school districts across eight mostly rural counties.

The school was considered groundbreaking, and many of the techniques that Johns implemented at Garrison are still widely considered best practice for managing challenging behavior: giving students space when they’re upset, teaching them ways to manage their emotions and giving them choices rather than shouting demands.

Those techniques often involve trying to understand what’s driving a student’s behavior. A student shoving papers off their desk may feel overwhelmed and need assignments in smaller increments. A student struggling to sit still may need classwork that involves them moving around the room.

Taking the students’ disabilities into account when they misbehave is now a firmly entrenched concept in education. In fact, it’s federal law.

“There’s a requirement both in the law — and just morally — that kids with disabilities are not supposed to be punished for behaviors that are related to their disability, or caused by it, or caused by the school’s failure to meet their needs,” said Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Johns, who led Garrison until 2003, has dedicated her career to these ideas. She published research about “the Garrison method” to help other educators, taught at a nearby college and continues to speak regularly at conferences.

“Choice is such a powerful strategy. It’s such an easy intervention,” Johns recently told a standing-room-only crowd at an Illinois special education convention in Naperville. And schools should look welcoming too, she said. “I see some schools that look like prisons. Why would a child want to go there?”

The Garrison of today isn’t a prison, but it relies on rules and methods meant to manage students.

In recent years, staffers sometimes took away students’ shoes to discourage them from fleeing, though Fair said that has not happened under her watch. Before a recent Illinois law banned locked seclusion in schools, Garrison workers used to shut students inside one of the school’s several seclusion rooms — staff members would stand outside and press a button to engage a magnetic lock. The doors have since been removed, but the “crisis rooms” are still used. The Four Rivers district reported to ISBE that workers had restrained or secluded students 155 times in the 2021-2022 school year — three times as many incidents as students.

“They would lock me in a concrete room and then close the door on me and lock it. I would freak out even worse,” said an 18-year-old named Max, who left the school in 2020.

Some of the school’s aides are assigned to one of two “crisis teams” of four employees each that respond to classrooms and can remove students who are upset, disobedient or aggressive.

Employees’ handwritten records describe several incidents where they confined a child to a small area inside the classroom. In one case, the crisis team made a “human wall” around a 14-year-old student who was wandering in the classroom, swearing and being disruptive. A 16-year-old student told reporters that school employees drew a box around his desk in chalk and told him not to leave the area or there would be consequences.

Charles Cropp, who has worked as part of crisis teams at Garrison on and off since 2009, said he and his colleagues try to help students learn how to calm down when they are upset. He said teams aim to help students learn how to manage their emotions but that sometimes the young people also need to be held “accountable” when they are physical or disruptive.

“I was one that never really cared to watch kids get escorted out in handcuffs,” said Cropp, who returned to the school full time in late November. “I never liked it but in the same sense, they have to learn when you graduate and you are an adult in the public, you can't do those things.”

Jen Frakes, a board-certified behavior analyst who worked at Garrison in 2015-16, described the culture at Garrison as “coercive babysitting.” She said she never saw a situation that warranted arresting a student.

“It seemed more of a power dynamic of ‘You’ll either follow my rules or I will show you who’s in charge,’” said Frakes, who runs a Springfield business that helps schools and families learn to work through challenging behavior. “When I saw a kid get arrested, he was sitting underneath his desk calm and quiet, and they came in and arrested him.”

This isn’t how other schools similar to Garrison are handling difficult student behavior.

Reporters identified 57 other public schools throughout Illinois that also exclusively serve students with severe behavioral disabilities. To determine how often police were involved at those schools and why, reporters made public records requests to all of the schools and to the police or sheriff’s departments that serve each one. Reporters were able to examine police records for 50 schools.

The two schools with the most arrests during the last four school years had 16 and 18, respectively. At 23 of the schools, no students were arrested in that period; six schools had only one arrest.

By comparison, five students were arrested at Garrison by mid-November of this school year alone, according to school and police records.

John McKenna, an assistant professor specializing in special education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said arresting students not only criminalizes them but also takes them out of the classroom.

“Kids are supposed to be receiving instruction and support and not opportunities to enter the school-to-prison pipeline,” he said.

“If you don’t provide kids with academic instruction, particularly those with behavior and emotional needs, the gaps between their performance and the peers who don’t have disabilities grows exponentially and sets them up for failure,” McKenna said.

The fact that Garrison students have disabilities that may explain some of their behavior appears to be lost on many of the officials who encounter them in the justice system; some described Garrison as a school for delinquents, not disabled children. A public defender tasked with representing students in juvenile court described the children as having been “kicked out” of their regular schools. An assistant state’s attorney thought students at Garrison had been “expelled” from traditional schools. Neither of those descriptions is accurate.

Rhea Welch, who worked under Johns and retired in 2016, said that during her 26 years as a teacher at Garrison it was not a place that relied heavily on police. “You don’t want your kids arrested, for heaven’s sake. You want to be able to work with them so that doesn’t happen, so they’re more in control,” she said.

For Johns, Garrison is no longer the school she remembers. Students need positive feedback, she said, not constant reprimands from and clashes with the adults they are supposed to trust.

“I always say when you’re having trouble with a child, the first place you look is yourself,” she said.

Johns read some of the school’s recent police incident reports and said she found them “bothersome,” adding, “It’s obviously hard for me to watch what’s happened.”

“I Did Everything I Could to Get Him Out”

Gabe, a 12-year-old boy with autism, likes to share with anyone who will listen all the details of his Pokemon collection and has gotten good at using online translators to read the cards with Japanese lettering on them. His stepmother, Lena, said that over the years Gabe has learned to ask for what he needs. When he gets overstimulated at home, he asks for space by saying: “I need you to back up.”

(When using the last name of a parent would identify the student —– and in doing so, create a publicly available record of the student’s arrest —– ProPublica and the Tribune are referring to the parent by first name only.)

Gabe ended up at Garrison in 2019 after having difficulty in traditional schools. He will sometimes yell and lash out when frustrated.

Lena said school officials asked her to pick up Gabe if he got upset. “I would hear Gabe screaming, and then heard them screaming back at him,” she said. “He’d say, ‘Leave me alone! Leave me alone!’ And they’d still get up in his face.”

And then one day, Gabe and Lena said, school workers barricaded him at his desk by pushing filing cabinets around it. He pushed over one of the cabinets while trying to get away, and the school called the police, Lena said.

“We had to pick up our 10-year-old at the police station,” Lena said. “I would freak out if I got boxed in with filing cabinets.”

It got so that Gabe would wake up angry and not want to go to school.

“That school is at the bottom of the food chain. If you got all the schools in the world, they would be at the bottom of the food chain. The workers there are mean,” said Gabe.

Other parents described their children becoming angrier, more withdrawn; the students dreaded going to school at Garrison. Some families begged their home districts to find another school for them.

“It was like hell,” said one mother, who said her son was miserable while he was a student there. “I did everything I could to get him out.” Her son attended Garrison for about five years before she got him returned to his home school. He is in his first year of college now.

Michelle Prather, whose daughter Destiny attended Garrison from fifth grade until she graduated in 2021, said school employees threatened to call police over minor missteps: throwing a piece of paper, or pushing a desk.

“She would walk out of a room and they’d say, ‘We’re going to call police,’” Prather said. Destiny was arrested at least once after she shoved an aide while trying to leave a classroom.

Prather and other caregivers said watching their children be arrested over and over was troubling, but it was also upsetting to realize that the school wasn’t providing the support services the students needed.

Destiny has intellectual disabilities and ADHD as well as acute spina bifida, a defect of the spine. Because of her medical condition, Destiny had difficulty sensing when she needed to use the restroom. She would sometimes get up from her desk and tell staff that she urgently needed to go.

“They would say, ‘No you don’t,’” said her mother. “She would have accidents. I would have to bring her clothes.”

Madisen Hohimer, who is now 22 and working as a bartender, said she transferred to Garrison in sixth grade when her home school recommended it. She remembers Garrison as a place that failed to help her. Hohimer said she frequently ran away from the school and employees took her shoes to try to keep her from fleeing.

“I was never involved with the police before Garrison. I started mostly acting out when I got sent over there because I felt like I had nobody,” she said. One time, she said, she swung and kicked at staff after they cornered her in a seclusion room. She wound up being arrested for aggravated battery.

Just weeks before Hohimer was set to graduate, she left for good. “I wish they would have found a way to help me,” she said.

After Gabe’s filing cabinet incident, his parents kept him home until he could be placed at a private therapeutic school three counties away. He’s been going there since last year.

“It’s an hour and a half ride and he’d rather do that than go to Garrison,” said Lena, a nursing student. He’s thriving there, she said, and noted that the school has never called police about Gabe’s behavior.

But one of Lena’s other children, Nathan, remained at Garrison.

Then one morning in late September, she got a text from her son:

“I’M AT THE POLICE STATION THERE GOING TO GET MY FINGERPRINTS AND TAKE A PICTURE OF ME AND BRING ME BACK TO THE HOUSE.”

Nathan, who was 14 at the time, had been arrested after he hit a classmate and then shoved an aide who was trying to physically keep him in the classroom, according to a school report. He then left the school. In a 911 call, a school administrator asked police to find Nathan and also to come to the school “because a staff member will probably press charges.”

Nathan’s family decided not to send him back to Garrison. He’s taking classes online instead.

“That was my worst mistake, putting either of my kids in Garrison,” Lena said. “If I could take it back, I would.”

No One Watching

Warning signs that Garrison was punishing students with policing have been there for years, waiting for someone to take notice.

Since as far back as 2011, the federal government has published data online about police involvement and arrests at schools. That year, the data showed, Garrison called police on 54% of its students and 14% were arrested. Three subsequent publications of similar data show the arrest rate climbing each time — until, in 2017-18, more than half of Garrison’s students were arrested.

Though the federal data could have raised red flags, Illinois does not collect data on police involvement in schools and does not require that the state education board monitor it. The state does monitor other punitive practices in schools, such as their numbers of suspensions and expulsions, and requires schools to make improvements when the data shows excessive use.

Illinois legislation that would have required ISBE to collect data annually on school-related arrests and other discipline stalled last year.

The state board, however, has issued guidance about involving police in school discipline. Earlier this year, ISBE and the state attorney general’s office told school districts across the state to use social workers, mental health professionals and counselors — not police — to create a “positive and safe school climate.”

Before last week, no one from ISBE had been to Garrison for at least the last seven school years. There had been no complaints that would have triggered a monitoring visit, said Matthews, the state board spokesperson.

Garrison has its own school board, and it — not the state board — is responsible for monitoring the school, including police activity, ISBE officials said. The school board is made up of representatives from some of the 18 school districts that rely on Four Rivers for special education staffing and placements at Garrison.

The board president, Linda Eades, said after a November board meeting that she couldn’t answer questions about the police involvement at Garrison and described the board as hands-off. “We don’t get down in the trenches,” she said.

Fair, the district’s director, said she is trying to understand the scope of police involvement at Garrison and is “digging into” school reports. “I’m trying so hard. It’s a lot of stuff to change,” she said in an interview. “There are a lot of things that need to improve.”

Earlier this year, Garrison was awarded a $635,000 “Community Partnership Grant” through ISBE for training to help students with their behavioral and mental health needs and help schools reduce their reliance on punitive discipline.

Some of the grant money has been used to pay for training in Ukeru, a method of addressing physical aggression that doesn’t involve physically restraining a child.

The Ukeru method focuses on training workers in how to prevent challenging behavior from becoming a crisis and uses soft blue pads to block kicks and punches if necessary. Garrison workers were trained in the method in October; blue pads are now propped up in the hallways in the building.

Starting two weeks ago, Fair said, the school began using its two social workers and a social work intern in a new way. One of the social workers is now available to go into a classroom when a student needs help, providing a way to intervene before behavior escalates into a crisis. Fair said she also plans to incorporate social emotional learning into the curriculum.

School administrators mentioned the Ukeru training and some of Garrison’s latest efforts at the November board meeting, which lasted about 20 minutes. Fair said the school had begun to monitor police involvement and arrests and said she is trying to “boost up some of the supports for the kids.”

Her priority now, she assured them, is to “really help make it a therapeutic place for the kids.”

That’s what it was always supposed to be.

Why congress can’t stop the CIA from working with forces that commit abuses

For more than two decades, the U.S. military has been barred from providing training and equipment to foreign security forces that commit “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”

The law, named for its author, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, applies to military assistance for foreign units funded through the Defense or State departments. Lawmakers including Leahy, a Democrat, acknowledged that it does not cover commando outfits like Afghanistan’s Zero Units.

In an email, Leahy said he believes that the law’s human rights requirements need to be expanded to “cover certain counter-terrorism operations involving U.S. special forces and foreign partners.

“U.S. support for foreign security forces, whether through the Department of Defense, Department of State, CIA or other agencies,” Leahy wrote, “must be subject to effective congressional oversight so when mistakes are made or crimes committed, those responsible are held accountable.”

Leahy called on the Biden administration to apply the law “as a matter of policy” to all overseas military forces that work with any U.S. government agencies.

Tim Rieser, an aide to Leahy, acknowledged that the Leahy Law “is not all-encompassing, as much as we wish it were.” The Leahy Law, he said, applies only to congressional appropriations that fund the State and Defense departments.

“Sen. Leahy’s position has always been that the policy should be consistent, that we should not support units of foreign security forces that commit gross violations of human rights regardless of the source of the funds, but that is not what the law says.”

A source familiar with the Zero Unit program said the CIA’s officers in the field, and special forces soldiers working under their direction, are required to follow the same rules of combat as American service members. The agency does not fall under the Leahy Law.

U.S. military operations fall under the jurisdiction of the Senate and House Armed Services committees. Congressional oversight of the CIA and other intelligence agencies is handled by separate committees in the House and Senate that hold most of their meetings and hearings in secret. By law, the agencies are required to keep Congress “fully and currently informed” of all covert operations. Intelligence committee staffers have the authority to ask the CIA for documents and testimony about classified missions like the support for the Zero Units under the broad national security law known as Title 50.

Congressional officials said the two oversight committees are ill-equipped to monitor the complexities of paramilitary operations in foreign countries. The Pentagon and State Department have created entire bureaucracies to make sure foreign units meet the requirements of the Leahy Law. The intelligence oversight committees, with their relatively small staffs, are not set up to track what’s happening on the ground when U.S. military officers on loan to the CIA work with elite units in the hinterlands of Afghanistan, Somalia or Syria.

“The sense I get from former operators is they don’t give a shit,” said one congressional source. “Their attitude is, the world’s dangerous and you partner with bad people, that’s why we have Title 50.”

Congressional staffers said they believed the failure of Congress to extend the Leahy Law to intelligence agencies was no coincidence.

“I mean, it’s a huge and intentional gap,” one said. “It’s designed to not have oversight; it is meant to not be under the public view.”

In his email, Leahy said an amendment to the Leahy Law, which would expand the scope to certain counter-terrorism operations, is now in the works.

The lack of consequences for blatant human rights violations, he said, “foments anger and resentment toward the U.S., undermines our mission in these countries where we need the support of the local population, and weakens our credibility as a country that supports the rule of law and accountability.”

The federal program to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina shortchanged the poor — and this data proves it

The complaints started as soon as Louisiana launched its massive program to help homeowners rebuild after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Community leaders said the largest rebuilding program in U.S. history would be unfair to the state’s poorest residents.

Activists and real estate experts spoke out at meetings of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which designed and ran the Road Home program. An attorney representing poor homeowners testified before Congress. A fair housing group sued the state and federal governments.

State officials made tweaks and settled the lawsuit, but they never changed a core part of the formula that determined how much homeowners received.

Now a groundbreaking analysis of nearly 92,000 rebuilding grants statewide shows critics were right all along: Road Home shortchanged people in poor neighborhoods while giving those in wealthy neighborhoods more of what they needed.

People in the most impoverished areas in New Orleans — those with a median income of $15,000 or less — had to cover 30% of their rebuilding costs after Road Home grants, Federal Emergency Management Agency aid and insurance. In areas where the median income was more than $75,000, the shortfall was 20%, according to the analysis by ProPublica, The Times-Picayune | The Advocate and WWL-TV.

Poverty tracks closely with race in New Orleans, so the shortfalls in the city disproportionately hurt Black people. Road Home also underpaid residents of St. Bernard Parish, a mostly white, working-class community devastated by the hurricane.

Had properties in the lowest-income parts of New Orleans been covered at the same rate as the wealthiest, each of those households would have received about $18,000 more on average. Across the city, covering all homeowners’ repair costs at the rate of the highest earners would have resulted in another $349 million for rebuilding.

The Road Home program was hugely consequential for Louisiana, and much more so for its largest city, most of which flooded after Katrina’s storm surge overwhelmed its levees. Most homeowners didn’t have adequate insurance. Facing the possibility of a mass exodus, state leaders devised Road Home to cover the gap and encourage people to rebuild.

Road Home also allowed homeowners to sell their property to the state and move elsewhere, though housing was scarce in the region. If homeowners didn’t stay in Louisiana, they forfeited 40% of their home’s value.

New Orleans was the biggest beneficiary of rebuilding grants, and half of all owner-occupied homes in New Orleans received rebuilding grants, with $3.3 billion awarded citywide. Some neighborhoods rebounded quickly. Others languished.

Housing advocates say that’s due to the original sin of the Road Home program: It calculated each grant based on a home’s value before the hurricane or on the cost of repairs — whichever was less.

The value of most homes in poor areas was lower than the cost of rebuilding them, so the resulting grants didn’t cover all repairs. But for most people in affluent areas, the rebuilding cost was lower than the value of their homes. They got grants that came closer to covering their needs.

“The practical effects of how this program shaped the city can still be seen today,” said Davida Finger, an attorney who testified to Congress in 2009 about unfairness in the Road Home program.

Poor New Orleanians had a much harder time covering the costs. For a homeowner in the lowest-income areas, it would have taken more than 43 months at the average annual salary to pay the cost of repairs not covered by Road Home, FEMA and insurance, the news outlets found. In the highest-income areas, it would have taken less than eight months.

The shortcomings in the Road Home program are part of a broader tapestry of failures in the ways America helps people affected by catastrophes. A yearlong investigation by ProPublica, The Times-Picayune | The Advocate and WWL-TV has found that disaster programs often shortchange the people who need it most, worsening inequities in the wake of disaster.

Finger said the news organizations’ findings were “shocking but not surprising.”

“What Black homeowners, what lawyers, what advocates, what community organizers, what reporters were telling the program designers all along was completely accurate,” Finger said. “They simply didn't want to hear it.”

The state Office of Community Development took issue with the analysis, but none of the points it raised affected the news organizations' findings.

Two officials who were in charge of the recovery told the news outlets that the findings were troubling.

Andy Kopplin, the first executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, stressed that state officials took pains to steer more money to poorer homeowners through a second grant program. But Kopplin acknowledged in a written statement that the findings show that low- and middle-income households should’ve received more.

That’s “upsetting to those of us who were working to create more equitable outcomes and especially to those families who needed and deserved more resources for their recovery,” he wrote.

Walter Leger, who was a key board member of the LRA, said the findings should spur the state to seek more federal aid from Congress to fill the gaps.

De’Marcus Finnell, deputy press secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, declined to address the findings directly. But in a statement he said HUD’s experience after Katrina led it to favor programs that guide homeowners through rebuilding rather than giving homeowners money “and letting them manage the recovery process on their own.”

In fact, federal rules no longer allow homeowners to be compensated for losses after a disaster, and Leger said using property values to determine aid after Katrina now appears to have been a misstep.

“The plan was to help the homeowner repair his home or her home and get back in the home,” Leger said. The news organizations’ analysis shows there were disparities, he said, and “that's something that should have been, and maybe should be, addressed.”

One City, Two Recoveries

Before Katrina, the neighborhoods of Lakeview and Gentilly Woods had a lot in common. Both sat below sea level on reclaimed swampland near Lake Pontchartrain. They boasted similar post-World War II housing stock.

Lakeview was almost entirely white, and Gentilly Woods was more than two-thirds Black. Lakeview residents had higher incomes, and their homes commanded higher prices.

Both neighborhoods were swamped when the floodwalls along New Orleans’ drainage canals buckled after Katrina. Water reached the eaves of many homes.

Road Home appraised the average Lakeview home at $326,000 and the average repair cost at $286,000. With a grant based on the repair cost, the average homeowner received 83% of what was needed to rebuild, according to the news organizations’ analysis.

In Gentilly Woods, the average property was valued at $121,000, with $203,000 in rebuilding costs. With a grant based on the home’s value, the average homeowner ended up with just 73% of what was needed to rebuild.

Among those served well by Road Home was Lakeview retiree Rita Legrand, 86. She had to gut her modest ranch home. But she was determined to rebuild.

With $53,000 from insurance in hand, Legrand applied for a Road Home grant in fall 2006. Road Home estimated her home’s value at $320,000 and her repair costs at $188,000. Her grant, based on repair costs minus what she’d already gotten from insurance, was $135,000.

The grant and insurance proceeds covered her entire loss, as it was supposed to, and by April 2007 she had completely rebuilt. “The program worked great for me,” she said.

The experience was quite different for Cynthia and Charles Heisser of Gentilly Woods. Like Legrand, the Heissers had a small ranch house, and they had a similar repair estimate: $190,000. But their initial grant was just $32,000.

Charles Heisser, a 90-year-old Korean War veteran, still has the documents explaining how Road Home arrived at that figure.

Program officials estimated the pre-storm value of their home at $83,000. The state subtracted $40,000 in insurance proceeds, which their lender had made them use to pay off their mortgage, and $10,500 in FEMA aid they had received for living expenses.

Charles Heisser appealed, arguing Road Home had failed to factor in tens of thousands of dollars in improvements they had made before the storm. Their home was reappraised for $135,000.

That increased their grant to about $83,500. Even then, their total compensation including insurance and FEMA grants was $135,000 — just 70% of Road Home’s original estimate of what it would take to make their home livable.

The Heissers spent some of the Road Home grant to convert their garage into living quarters so they could move out of the FEMA trailer in their front yard. For most of the next 10 years, the house sat with a new roof and an unfinished interior where they hung laundry.

Cynthia Heisser couldn’t help but notice how differently things went in mostly white parts of New Orleans.

“It was unjust, more unjust to the Blacks than it was to the whites,” she said. People used to ask her, she recalled, “‘Oh, you don’t have your house yet?’ Or ‘You’re not in your home yet?’ And we’d say, ‘It isn’t because we're not fighting for it. We are.’”

A nonprofit called Rebuilding Together New Orleans eventually provided labor and materials to help finish repairs. The Heissers finally moved back into their house in 2018 — 13 years after the storm.

“Victims of Hurricane Katrina Were Being Victimized Again”

From the beginning, Road Home had a problem. On the one hand, thousands of residents desperately needed rebuilding aid. On the other, Road Home, like many disaster aid programs, had guardrails to make sure people didn’t end up better off than before the storm.

The idea was that “it would be illegitimate for somebody whose house only had a market value of $100,000 to get $120,000, even if that was how much it would cost to repair,” said Andy Horowitz, a history professor at the University of Connecticut and author of “Katrina: A History, 1915-2015.”

When people complained that using home values to calculate grants would help some people more than others, officials argued that pre-storm value had been part of the formula from the start. Besides, Leger said at the time, it was required by the federal government, and there wasn’t enough time or money to change the rules.

In a June 2006 interview shortly after the program was approved, Louisiana Recovery Authority chair Norman Francis dismissed the very problem many poor homeowners would soon face — that the cost of rebuilding could far exceed the value of their homes.

“That money is going to cover the difference between your damages and how much insurance you got,” Francis said. “Now, if you had a $50,000 home, not likely that you had $200,000 worth of damage. So the formula has to take into consideration your home value.”

A family member said Francis, now 91, was unavailable to comment for this story.

Melanie Ehrlich, who lived in Baltimore while her Gentilly home was rebuilt, said she quickly saw the problem with the formula. She founded a grassroots organization, the Citizens’ Road Home Action Team, and became a thorn in the side of Road Home officials.

“It was crystal clear how very unfair the program was in its design,” said Ehrlich, a Tulane University genetics professor. “What I saw is that the victims of Hurricane Katrina were being victimized again.”

In October 2006, shortly after Road Home was launched, Ehrlich met with officials in charge of the recovery and argued their formula for calculating grants was unfair. She followed up with examples. Basing grants on the pre-storm value of homes, she wrote, would “justifiably anger the middle and lower economic classes, or, more specifically, everyone who does not have an expensive house or lot.”

As homeowners received their grant letters over the course of 2007, hundreds showed up at Finger’s low-income law clinic at Loyola University. She attended dozens of public meetings in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Washington to ask officials to fix the inequity baked into the calculations.

In August 2009, Finger told a congressional committee that the formula disproportionately hurt Black residents because their homes tended to be valued for less. “Road Home’s grant formula design assured that some homeowners would not receive sufficient rebuilding funds,” she said.

Six state officials involved with the recovery effort said they didn’t ignore these complaints. But they noted that they were building a program of unprecedented scope and dealing with unforeseen problems, all while under intense pressure to get money to homeowners quickly.

Leger said he took Ehrlich’s complaint about pre-storm value to HUD officials and asked to use higher repair estimates instead. “We were told no,” he said.

Soon after the program launched, state officials said, they made changes that increased grants for all applicants: factoring land value into appraisals, using the highest of several appraisal methods and increasing rates for repair estimates.

They originally envisioned an affordable loan program to fill any gaps between grants and the actual costs of rebuilding, but it never got off the ground.

In 2007, they created another grant for less affluent homeowners whose initial grants didn’t meet their damage estimates. That enabled the state to meet a HUD requirement to pay at least half of grant money to low- and moderate-income households.

Three years later, after Black homeowners sued the head of the LRA and HUD alleging the program was discriminatory, Francis said, “That did not pass on my radar screen. If it had, I would have questioned why the program wasn’t treating people equitably.”

Francis was a revered civil rights leader and longtime president of Xavier University, a historically Black school, and Finger said she does not believe he and the other architects of Road Home intended it to be discriminatory.

Nonetheless, Finger said, “It is very difficult to look at a system that’s trying to roll out that much money as quickly as possible and to not do it in a way that replicates historic, systemic inequities.”

$297,000 in Damage, $3,468 in Aid

The plaintiffs in the suit included Almarie Ford, who said the hurricane shutters that adorn her New Orleans East home are all she ever got from Road Home.

A month after Katrina, Ford returned to find her Kingswood subdivision in ruins. The now-73-year-old social worker recalled walking into her house and gagging on the smell of black mold. She turned around, locked the front door and left, unsure what to do next.

Like many homeowners, she expected significant government assistance, but it never came. Road Home officials assessed her damage at about $297,000 but based her grant on her home’s value, $150,000. They gave her just $3,468 after subtracting about $146,500 in insurance payments.

If the grant had been based on rebuilding costs, she would have received the maximum Road Home grant of $150,000. Instead, Ford took out a loan and exhausted her savings.

“I was shocked,” Ford said of the size of her grant. “But what could you do? You could complain that you only got $3,500. But they said, ‘Well, those are the rules.’”

She wasn’t willing to accept what she described as an injustice without a fight. So she went to the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

In 2008, the housing center had joined with PolicyLink, a California nonprofit, to collect examples that showed Road Home’s formula disproportionately hurt poor communities and people of color.

Ironically, PolicyLink had teamed with the LRA two years earlier to present the state’s initial recovery plan. In a sign of just how unexpected the inequities were, a PolicyLink representative spoke at an LRA board meeting in April 2006 and “applauded the board for the design of the housing action plan,” according to meeting minutes.

James Perry, the head of the housing center, said his organization examined two nearly identical homes: four bedrooms, two bathrooms, brick construction. Each had flooded with 6 feet of water and had damages estimated at more than $200,000. But one house was in a white neighborhood and the other in a Black neighborhood.

Each homeowner received a grant based on their home value. Perry said the white homeowner got $150,000; the Black homeowner, $90,000.

Perry said his organization gave that information to Road Home and HUD, but neither took immediate action. Perry said he was shocked by what he perceived to be their lack of interest. “It wasn’t easy to remedy, but it seemed to me they would want to.”

In the resulting lawsuit, attorneys cited 2000 census data to prove their case: About 93% of Black-owned homes in New Orleans were valued at less than $150,000, compared to 55% of white-owned homes.

The homeowners secured an important victory before a federal district judge in 2010. The next year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned that ruling and sent the case back to district court, rejecting claims the grant formula was discriminatory.

The appeals court ruled that any gap in grants for Black families had been eliminated when, after the lawsuit had been filed, the state removed a $50,000 cap on the additional grant for low-income homeowners.

But the news outlets’ analysis shows the appeals court’s assessment was wrong. The additional grants did help homeowners in lower-income, nonwhite areas in New Orleans, most of which are majority Black. Thanks in part to the program, the average grant to a Black homeowner in Louisiana was slightly larger than the average grant overall, according to state records.

But in the end, the additional grants merely boosted the average share of damage covered by grants and insurance from about 51% to about 70% in those parts of New Orleans. That meant poor, nonwhite areas ultimately fared about the same as middle-income nonwhite areas, but not as well as even the poorest white ones.

The analysis backs up what U.S. District Court Judge Henry Kennedy wrote in 2010 in a preliminary ruling: “The Court does not take lightly that some African American homeowners received lower awards than they would have if their homes were in predominantly white neighborhoods.”

Louisiana and HUD “offered no legitimate reason for taking pre-storm home values into account” when calculating grants, he wrote.

While the appeals court accused plaintiffs of cherry-picking their data by focusing on majority-Black New Orleans, the news outlets’ analysis shows the disparity between wealthy and poor neighborhoods statewide was similar to that in New Orleans.

Three months after the appeals court ruling, Louisiana and HUD settled the lawsuit. The state agreed to put $62 million aside for yet another program, this one for people who made too much money to qualify for additional grants but needed more help.

It was a drop in the bucket. According to a state analysis in 2010, 25,000 New Orleans homeowners received a total of $1.2 billion less from the Road Home because their grants were calculated using pre-storm value rather than the cost of damage.

Despite being a plaintiff in the suit, Ford said she didn’t receive anything from the settlement. Fewer than 500 people did.

It took more than three years for her to complete repairs. During that time, she rented an apartment in Baton Rouge and continued to pay her mortgage, a strain that she said nearly broke her.

“It didn’t work for the people it was supposed to work for,” Ford said of the recovery program. “None of the people that I know in New Orleans East actually got any Road Home money. A lot of people, especially people who are more elderly, they just didn’t come back.”

Silence in the Seventh Ward; McMansions in Lakeview

One morning in September, Lynette Boutte picked up a piece of artwork in her Seventh Ward beauty salon. In the middle was a photo illustration of hundreds of Black people near the intersection of North Claiborne and Orleans avenues.

It depicted Super Sunday in 2003, two years before the storm. Boutte gazed wistfully, as if she could still hear the calls of the Mardi Gras Indians that day. Since Katrina, there hasn’t been such a raucous Super Sunday celebration in her neighborhood.

Music was once the lifeblood of the Seventh Ward, a working-class Creole neighborhood near the French Quarter. It has produced musical greats such as Jelly Roll Morton and John Boutte, one of her nine siblings.

After school, the sound of children playing trumpets would echo through the streets. In the evenings, musicians would fill her house for jam sessions.

The Seventh Ward doesn’t sing like it used to, she said. “There are no children in this neighborhood anymore.”

Boutte didn’t receive a dime from Road Home to rebuild, she said, because the state lowballed her property value and repair costs.

It took her nearly a decade, but she managed to rebuild with the help of relatives and church volunteers. Many weren’t so lucky.

Families who had lived in the neighborhood for generations were unable to return because they couldn’t afford to fix their homes. In the two decades after 2000, the number of children in the Seventh Ward dropped by more than a third, according to the Data Center, a community research nonprofit. The Black population in the Seventh Ward decreased by about 19 percentage points.

When asked how much responsibility the Road Home program shares for these changes, Boutte didn’t hesitate. “They are responsible for it all,” she said.

William Stoudt, executive director of Rebuilding Together New Orleans, which focuses on the Seventh Ward, said over the past 15 years his staffers have witnessed many people living in “completely substandard conditions.” Road Home’s grant formula is partly to blame, he said.

Residents who got shortchanged had to cut corners, often hiring subpar contractors and using cheaper materials, he said. Some abandoned their properties because they couldn’t afford to rebuild; others sold them to predatory developers at below-market prices.

“Most of the homeowners that we help work their entire lives for 11 bucks an hour at a hotel in the Quarter cleaning rooms day after day and have no savings,” he said. “They never had a chance.”

The community is now pockmarked with empty lots and abandoned homes. Nearly 1 in 4 Seventh Ward houses were vacant in 2020, a 51% increase compared to two decades prior, according to the Data Center.

In Lakeview, where Stoudt grew up, the post-Katrina recovery looks dramatically different.

Stoudt remembers standing in his street three weeks after the storm amid uprooted trees and abandoned cars covered in dried mud. The waterlogged front door of his family home had swollen shut. To get inside, his parents climbed a ladder and went in through a second-story window.

It was the silence, though, that haunted him. Stoudt said it seemed as if everything had died. “It was the quietest place you’ve ever been in your life.”

That silence was soon replaced by the sound of hammers and saws. His parents’ flood insurance policy covered the cost of repairs, so they didn’t need a Road Home grant. Construction began almost immediately. Within a year, their home had been rebuilt.

Today, he said, Lakeview is largely unrecognizable. People didn’t just rebuild, they expanded — replacing their ranch houses with multistory, modern homes.

“Now it’s McMansions, 4,000 square feet, double-lot monsters,” Stoudt said. “If you were in the right neighborhood, you got what you needed to rebuild.”

About the Data

To evaluate the impacts of the Road Home program, The Times-Picayune, ProPublica and WWL-TV obtained a novel dataset of more than 130,000 grants from the Louisiana Division of Administration. The anonymized dataset included, for each grant recipient in the state, the grant amounts, the pre-storm value of the property and any insurance and FEMA payouts. The analysis was conducted on a subset of 91,771 rebuilding grants that had valid grant and damage amounts, were not part of a lawsuit over errors in grant calculations and did not fall under a limited number of other circumstances that could yield incorrect information. Our analysis focused on 30,188 records from Orleans Parish and 5,911 from St. Bernard Parish.

For our analysis of demographics and income, we used data from Summary File 3 in the 2000 U.S. Census, downloaded from IPUMS NHGIS, University of Minnesota. This dataset contains survey responses from the longform census questionnaire, which was sent to approximately one in six households, and is available on the block group level. In the city of New Orleans, additional analysis using 2000 census data was conducted using Neighborhood Statistical Areas provided by the New Orleans Data Center, a nonprofit research center that defines those boundaries. Any use of “neighborhoods” refers to these boundaries. The word “areas” refers to census block groups.

The Girl Scouts’ latest business project: Hailing 5G cellphone technology

Beyond developing their camping skills, participating in a food drive to aid the hungry and donating pajamas for seniors, Girl Scouts across America this year were offered a new way to earn a special uniform patch: learning about the wonders of 5G cellphone technology and, in some cases, promoting it.

The opportunity came courtesy of Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications giant, which sponsored the “Ericsson Limited Edition 5G & IoT” (Internet of Things) patch program. The program, still available on at least one Girl Scout website, targets all age levels, from Daisies (kindergarten-age Scouts) to Ambassadors (those in high school), with an array of activities intended to “introduce Girl Scouts to 5G and the Internet of Things.”

These include watching “Explaining 5G to Kids,” a five-minute video featuring Mats, a bearded Ericsson employee, as he chats with Siofra, Freya and two other squirming but charming children, who speak English with what sound like hints of Swedish accents. Mats explains that 5G is a “new technology for the mobile phone. So everything will be much better.” He explains that the technology could allow the kids’ toys to connect. “Wouldn’t that be cool?” he asks. “This is what Ericsson is doing,” Mats explains. “This is what 5G can do.”

Other recommended activities sound more like do-it-yourself advertising. High school-age members on one Girl Scout site are encouraged to “Find a cell tower and make a video explaining how 5G would change the world for you. Share the video you made with a friend or fellow Girl Scout. Or, with an adult’s permission, post your video on social media and tag @gsheartofnj, @ericsson, #girlscoutstalk5G.”

And Scouts of all ages are invited to “discuss with your troop or an adult how mmWave spectrum is safe and does not cause harm to our health.”

Some health experts, who are concerned that wireless radiation poses a health risk to children, criticize the Ericsson program as an improper and inaccurate form of industry marketing. “Anytime corporations advertise directly to children, I’m very suspicious,” Dr. Jerome Paulson, a pediatrician and emeritus professor in George Washington University’s department of environmental and occupational health, told ProPublica. “It would be like Exxon Mobil sponsoring a patch on climate change.” Paulson previously chaired the Council on Environmental Health at the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has criticized the Federal Communications Commission’s wireless-radiation standards for failing to protect children.

The Environmental Health Trust, an activist nonprofit which first spotted the Ericsson program, recently sent a letter of protest to the Girl Scouts’ national office, saying the patch materials “misleadingly state that 5G networks and cellphones are safe,” and urging their removal from all Girl Scout websites. The ten signers included “former Girl Scouts and parents of Scouts,” the chair of the obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences department at Yale’s medical school, the former president of Microsoft Canada and a Swedish scientist who has conducted influential epidemiological studies on cellphone radiation.

In an emailed statement, Vidya Krishnan, global chief learning officer for Ericsson, who sits on the Girl Scouts National Board, defended the program: “The Ericsson Girl Scouts 5G patch has the sole purpose of educating our next generation about the latest wireless technologies that are shaping their lives and their future. Educational awareness is the only intention and impact.” (In October, the Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas honored Krishnan as a “Woman of Distinction” at its annual fundraising luncheon, where a “presenting sponsorship” went for $100,000 and individual tickets sold for $300.)

The Girl Scouts, of course, are hardly strangers to the world of commerce. They have long been renowned for their annual cookie sales — the Scouts call it “the largest girl-led entrepreneurial program in the world” — which raise about $800 million annually for local activities. Girls are eligible for special “Cookie Business” badges by honing their sales pitches and tapping into market research.

And the Girl Scouts have offered other patches sponsored by corporations. Among them: Fidelity Investments, which sponsors a “girls’ guide to managing money.” One Texas chapter offered a patch for “Fluor Engineering Month.”

The Ericsson 5G patch was first made available in March 2021 through the website of the Northeast Texas council of the Girl Scouts. Ericsson’s U.S. headquarters is in Plano, Texas, and the company, which boasts of being “the leading provider of 5G network equipment in the U.S.,” has been involved with the area’s Girl Scouts program for several years. Ericsson has focused on promoting interest in science, technology, engineering and math careers, known as STEM, where girls are historically underrepresented. (The company’s Facebook page includes photos of hardhat-wearing Girl Scouts on a 2018 field trip to an Ericsson training center with mock cell towers and transmitters.) A second Ericsson executive serves on the local Girl Scouts board, and, according to public disclosures, Ericsson has donated more than $100,000 annually to the northeast Texas council for the past three years.

Ashley Crowe, chief program officer for the Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas, said 697 Girl Scouts have obtained the Ericsson 5G patch. Crowe praised Ericsson’s support for the Girl Scouts, saying, “I for one would never feel exploited by Ericsson,” but she added that she was unaware of health concerns about children’s exposure to cellphone radiation. “I had never even heard about that,” she said. “This has not been brought to our attention at all.”

After ProPublica’s inquiries about the matter, the patch program was removed from the Texas council’s website. (A spokesperson for the council asserted that “the patch program was removed from our site at the beginning of October,” explaining that “the Ericsson 5G IoT patch program was funded by Ericsson as a one-year optional program for local Girl Scouts and concluded September 30, 2022.” However, a ProPublica reporter saw the patch on the Texas site as late as Nov. 21.) It remains available on the website of a New Jersey Girls Scouts council.

A spokesperson for Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey submitted a statement on behalf of its CEO, Natasha Hemmings, asserting that “the safety and well-being of our Girl Scouts is and always has been our top priority.” The statement continued: “In line with our mission, we partner with numerous organizations and corporations, including Ericsson, to expand access to education and to empower girls to become leaders of tomorrow.”

The national office for Girl Scouts of the USA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Scientific concern about whether cellphone radiation poses a human health hazard, including increased risk of cancer, fertility issues or other problems, has been rising in recent years. (ProPublica recently explored this issue in detail.) The research includes a massive U.S. government study that in 2018 found “clear evidence” that cellphone radiation caused cancer in lab animals. Some researchers have also warned of special risk to children, citing studies showing that their developing brains absorb more radiation because of their thinner, smaller skulls. The American Academy of Pediatrics has echoed this concern, urging the FCC to revise its exposure standards, saying they don’t adequately protect children.

More than 20 foreign governments have adopted protective measures or recommended precautions regarding wireless radiation, with many of them focused on limiting exposure to children. The European Environment Agency offers similar guidance, noting: “There is sufficient evidence of risk to advise people, especially children, not to place the handset against their heads.”

The wireless industry and U.S. regulators, including the FCC and Food and Drug Administration, deny that there is any proven health risk for anyone. They dispute that the technology poses any special hazard to children and don’t advocate any precautions. The FCC’s “Wireless Devices and Health Concerns” page, for example, notes that “some parties” recommend safety measures, “even though no scientific evidence currently establishes a definitive link between wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses.” It then states, in bold: “The FCC does not endorse the need for these practices.”