Trump won the county in a landslide -- his supporters still hounded the elections administrator until she resigned

An elections administrator in North Texas submitted her resignation Friday, following a monthslong effort by residents and officials loyal to former President Donald Trump to force her out of office.

Michele Carew, who had overseen scores of elections during her 14-year career, had found herself transformed into the public face of an electoral system that many in the heavily Republican Hood County had come to mistrust, which ProPublica and The Texas Tribune covered earlier this month.

Her critics sought to abolish her position and give her duties to an elected county clerk who has used social media to promote baseless allegations of widespread election fraud.

Carew, who was hired to run elections in Hood County two-and-a-half months before the contested presidential race, said in an interview that she worried that the forces that tried to drive her out will spread to other counties in the state.

"When I started out, election administrators were appreciated and highly respected," she said. "Now we are made out to be the bad guys."

Critics accused Carew of harboring a secret liberal agenda and of violating a decades-old elections law, despite assurances from the Texas secretary of state that she was complying with Texas election rules.

Carew said she is joining an Austin-based private company and will work to help local elections administrator offices across the country run more efficiently. She will oversee her final election in early November before leaving Nov. 12.

David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a nonprofit that seeks to increase voter participation and improve the efficiency of elections administration, said Carew's departure is the latest example of an ominous trend toward independent election administrators being forced out in favor of partisan officials.

"She is not the first and won't be the last professional election official to have to leave this profession because of the toll it is taking, the bullies and liars who are slandering these professionals," said Becker, a former Department of Justice lawyer who helped oversee voting rights enforcement under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. "We are losing a generation of professional expertise. We are only beginning to feel the effects."

Though experts say it is difficult to determine how many elections officials have left their positions nationally, states like Pennsylvania and Ohio have seen numerous departures. According to the AP, about a third of Pennsylvania's county election officials have left in the last year and a half; in Ohio, one in four directors or deputy auditors of elections have left in the southwestern part of the state, according to The New York Times.

Hood County would seem an unlikely place for disputes over the last presidential election given that Trump won 81% of the vote there, one of his largest margins of victory in the state. Across the country, partisans' demands for audits have mostly focused on counties and states carried by President Joe Biden, particularly those that went for Trump four years earlier.

But Texas, despite going for Trump by 6 percentage points, has seen its fair share of blowback. Last month, the Texas secretary of state announced a "comprehensive forensic audit" of four of the state's largest counties hours after Trump issued a public letter demanding audits of the state's results.

Before that, in July, Texas passed sweeping voting legislation that critics say disenfranchises vulnerable voters and unfairly targets administrators and other elections officials. Among the law's provisions are new criminal penalties for election workers accused of interfering with expanded powers given to poll watchers.

On Saturday, after blasting the four-county audit plan as "weak," Trump threatened the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives with a primary challenge if the speaker didn't advance a bill that would allow audits in more counties.

In Hood County, the local GOP executive committee likewise issued warnings to Republican officials who defended Carew. In July, the committee threatened County Judge Ron Massingill with a social media campaign that would tell voters he was "incapable of providing them with free and fair elections" if he didn't convene the county's elections commission to discuss Carew's termination.

Massingill refused, arguing that no political party should be able to direct the activities of the independent elections administrator. Katie Lang, the county clerk and vice chair of the county's election commission, convened the meeting and moved to fire Carew. Carew survived the vote by a 3-2 margin, with Massingill and the county tax assessor, both Republicans, joining the Hood County Democratic chair.

Republican County Chair David Fischer called on county commissioners to dissolve the independent office of elections administrator and transfer election duties to Lang, which he said would make the election administration process more accountable to the county's Republican majority.

Counties in Texas can choose between hiring an independent elections administrator, who is meant to be insulated from political pressures, or letting a county official, often an elected county clerk, run elections. County clerks, who manage functions like property records and birth certificates, run elections in many of the state's smallest counties.

Fischer has declined to speak with ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.

On social media, Lang has shared "Stop the Steal" and "Impeach Biden" memes and videos. Lang made national headlines in 2015 after refusing to issue a marriage license to a gay couple following the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Lang did not respond to a request for comment on Monday, but she previously told the Hood County News she wished Carew "the best in her future endeavors."

Over the last year, Carew has come under fire for everything from her connection with the League of Women Voters, which critics say is anti-Trump, to her interest in a $29,000 grant, funded in part by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, that would have been used to pay for costs related to the pandemic.

She was also accused of harboring a hidden agenda after refusing to allow a reporter with the fervently pro-Trump One America News Network into a private training for election professionals in March when she headed the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.

The most sustained criticism of Carew came from critics who accused her of violating the law by not adhering to an obscure election law that requires ballots to be consecutively numbered.

But seven election experts and administrators told ProPublica and the Tribune that consecutively numbering ballots is out of step with best practices in election security and voter privacy, and that consecutive numbering is not required to conduct effective election audits.

Despite the toll the last year has taken on her, Carew on Monday remained defiant. "I'm leaving on my own accord," she said. "I'm the one who wins in the end."

Jeremy Schwartz is an investigative reporter for the ProPublica-Texas Tribune Investigative Initiative.

A secretive counterterrorism team interrogated dozens of citizens at the border

A new government report has revealed that a secretive counterterrorism team interrogated dozens of American activists and journalists at the border as part of the Trump administration's sweeping response to fears about a large migrant "caravan" that was making its way to the United States' southern border.

A ProPublica story in May first revealed the involvement of the counterterrorism team. But the new report, from the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general, shows the unit's assignment was far broader than previously known.

According to the report, at least 51 U.S. citizens were flagged for interrogation — often based on evidence as flimsy as once having ridden in a car across the border with someone suspected of aiding the caravan.

Thirty-nine of those Americans crossed the border shortly after being flagged and were detained and interrogated. All of those interrogations, the report found, were conducted by members of the Tactical Terrorism Response Team, a little-known unit of Customs and Border Protection trained in counterterrorism, not immigration issues. The existence of the inspector general's report was first disclosed by Politico.

Tarek Ismail of the City University of New York, who's been investigating the role of the counterterrorism units and is part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking documents on them, told ProPublica that he'd never seen the unit's work detailed in a government report before. "There's so little information out there about the TTRT that it's astounding that the report talks about them in such a matter-of-fact way, as if it's nothing to be concerned about," he told ProPublica.

In the fall of 2018, thousands of Central Americans migrating together for safety had become a fixation of President Donald Trump and his administration. The federal government sent a surge of intelligence and security forces to the southern border in what it dubbed Operation Secure Line, which ultimately led to the dragnet interrogations.

The government initially maintained that it was investigating confrontations between migrants and agents. But the Trump administration then said it was looking into whether activists were abetting smuggling by "encouraging" migrants to enter the U.S.

Taylor Levy, one of the citizens targeted by CBP's effort (and who was involved in the FOIA case that first disclosed the counterterrorism agents' involvement this spring), told ProPublica the new report validated her suspicions. "I'm not paranoid, my friends aren't paranoid. This really did happen. It was a targeted campaign of surveillance," she said.

In one case, the inspector general's report says, two lawyers were flagged for interrogation because they had previously crossed the border with someone suspected of running a WhatsApp group associated with the caravan. In another case, a U.S. citizen was flagged for crossing into the U.S. with someone who was, months later, identified as a potential caravan organizer.

The report notes that citizens are only supposed to be flagged for border interrogations when they are suspected of criminal activity themselves. But officials were either unaware of the decades-old policy or ignored it. At least two senior officials told investigators that people could be stopped for questioning for "virtually any reason," according to the report.

In a response included with the report, CBP agreed to update its training to clarify that flags "should only be created for law enforcement purposes." It did not say it would limit future interrogations to people suspected of criminal activity themselves.

CBP referred ProPublica to its published response to the inspector general's report, and it did not comment on whether any agents had been or would be disciplined in response to the report's findings.

Recent White House study on taxes shows the wealthy pay a lower rate than everybody else

A decade ago, in an essay for The New York Times, Warren Buffett disclosed that he had paid nearly $7 million in federal taxes in 2010. "That sounds like a lot of money," he wrote. "But what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that's actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent."

The words "taxable income" are doing a lot of work in that sentence.

Buffett owns a substantial number of shares in Berkshire Hathaway, the fabulously successful holding company he founded decades ago. As the company's shares have soared nearly every year, his wealth has grown by billions. Under the U.S. tax code, none of that is taxed until he sells shares at a profit.

A little math shows that Buffett's 17.4% rate meant he reported roughly $40.2 million in income in a year where Forbes said his wealth grew by $3 billion. His revelation made it possible to compare how much he was paying the government to the increase in the size of his fortune.

No one did so, and Buffett became something of a folk hero for calling for any increase in taxes.

When we obtained access to a trove of tax data on the richest Americans, it quickly became clear to our reporters that Buffett's comparison of his own tax rate to his employees' vastly understates the inequity of our tax system. Buffett is far from unique; the documents showed that the amount of money people like Michael Bloomberg, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk reported to the IRS as income was infinitesimal when measured against their annual gains in wealth.

And so the first story in our "Secret IRS Files" series set out a new concept that makes more sense in our 21st century Gilded Age; we called it "the true tax rate." We compared the annual taxes paid by the ultrarich to their wealth gains to give readers a sense of how the system really works.

From 2014 to 2018, we pointed out, Buffett paid $125 million in federal taxes. As he said, that sounds like a lot. But according to Forbes, his riches rose $24.3 billion during that period, making his true tax rate 0.1%. In a detailed written response, Buffett defended his practices but did not directly address ProPublica's true tax rate calculation.

When we published this story, howls of rage rang out from the freewheeling corners of Twitter to the ornate offices on Wall Street. Some of the most irate critics wrote to me directly and demanded to know whether I was so @#$!@ stupid that I didn't understand the meaning of the word "income tax."

"This story, sadly, reeks with 'class envy,'" one angry reader wrote. "If this was intended to get clicks, you made your money." We're a nonprofit and our revenue from advertising adds almost nothing to our annual budget, but I understand this reader's larger point, which we noted in the story: The ultrarich are doing only what the current tax code invites them to do.

The debate intensified, and the White House-backed proposals on taxes advanced by congressional Democrats largely followed the traditional approach of raising rates on income. A separate bill introduced by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to impose a 3% tax on all wealth above $1 billion is seen as having little chance of passing.

The reluctance to embrace a wealth tax is deeply rooted. The biggest donors to both parties would be hit hard by such a law. And as we pointed out in our initial story, the complexities of taxing wealth are not trivial. Several countries have tried and struggled to figure out a fair way to tax stock gains. Does an entrepreneur whose stock skyrockets in one year, and pays a big tax, deserve a rebate if his company's shares plummet the next year?

All of that said, we took note when White House economists issued a study that used publicly available data to estimate "the average Federal individual income tax rate paid by the 400 wealthiest American families' in recent years, determined using a more comprehensive measure of income." Their methodology was similar to ours, and their findings — that those families gained $1.8 trillion from 2010 to 2018 and paid 8.2% in taxes — are in line with what we found in the tax data.

The authors say their findings are evidence in support of President Joe Biden's plan for tweaking the existing system; the words "wealth tax" are not mentioned. They point to the administration's proposal to impose higher tax rates on stock dividends and on capital gains, the profit an investor reaps when selling a stock whose value has risen.

(The Biden administration has proposed getting rid of a provision in the tax code that shields heirs who inherit stock from paying capital gains tax on the growth in value that occurred before the shares were transferred.)

None of the proposed changes come close to addressing the biggest hole in the system, which is that an ultrarich person can live comfortably off gains in wealth while never selling a single share. As our initial story pointed out, the Buffetts and Bezos of the world can borrow against the value of their considerable holdings and live comfortably without selling stock or receiving any income from dividends, which new companies like Tesla and Amazon don't pay.

The strategy, known as "buy, borrow and die," allows the wealthy to amass fast fortunes, pay no taxes on those gains and pass on much of the wealth to their descendants.

Herb and Marion Sandler, the founders of ProPublica, made it clear from the outset that they hoped our journalism would spur real-world change. They were not particularly interested in stories whose biggest effect was that they had "started a conversation."

The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Income Tax

We still measure our success by tangible effects. But over the years, we have seen that the road to impact on very complex issues can begin by changing the conversation.

Lawmakers have said that some of the most egregious tax loopholes we've exposed, notably multibillion-dollar Roth IRA accounts, will be scrutinized as Congress takes up tax legislation in coming months.

There's no telling where the larger conversation about taxing wealth will lead. As the White House paper suggests, a new way of thinking about equality and taxation has taken center stage. Whether that ultimately results in change remains very much an open question.

Will the United States officially acknowledge that it had a secret torture site in Poland?

One of the longest-held prisoners in the U.S. global war on terror is finally getting a day in court. Sort of. The prisoner, Abu Zubaydah, who has never been charged with a crime, has been waiting 14 years for a federal judge to rule on his habeas corpus petition that challenges the legality of his detention. But next week, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on a separate case: Zubaydah's request that he be permitted to take testimony from the two CIA contractors who oversaw his torture.

The Trump administration intervened to block public disclosure about how Zubaydah was treated while in U.S. custody, or even where he was held, and the Biden administration is continuing the fight. In its Supreme Court briefs, the administration has cited an array of arguments against allowing the two men to be deposed, citing everything from the state secrets privilege, which shields highly sensitive government information from being revealed in civil litigation, to the plot of the Oscar-winning thriller “Argo."

Zubaydah's case has reached the Supreme Court circuitously, beginning with an investigation in Poland five years ago into whether any of its government officials were complicit in Zubaydah's detention and torture. The United States has refused to cooperate with the Polish prosecutors, citing national security concerns.

The Polish investigators asked for help from Zubaydah's lawyer, who in turn sought to take the depositions of psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. Paid more than $80 million, they were the principal architects of the CIA's “enhanced interrogation techniques" — the agency's euphemism for waterboarding prisoners, slamming them against walls, forcing them into a coffin-sized box, depriving them of sleep for days at a time and other forms of torture. Zubaydah was the first prisoner on whom Mitchell and Jessen tested their techniques, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report released in 2014.

After the CIA seized Zubaydah in Pakistan in March 2002 and secretly took him to a black site in Thailand, Bush administration officials asserted that he was al-Qaida's third-highest-ranking leader. The government has since acknowledged that he was not a senior terrorist leader and that he had no known connection to the 9/11 attacks. He had been in and out of Afghanistan and Pakistan for nearly a decade and had suffered a serious head injury while fighting against the Soviet-backed government. Intelligence officials concluded he was more of a facilitator, providing false passports, housing and other arrangements for men, some potential terrorists, who moved between the two countries.

“He wasn't hatching plots and giving orders," Robert Grenier, the CIA station chief in Islamabad when Zubaydah was being monitored and eventually seized, wrote in his book “88 Days to Kandahar." “I did not expect that he would know the time or place of the next attack." However, in Washington, CIA officials were convinced that Zubaydah knew about plans to attack the United States, and Mitchell was determined to extract the information, according to declassified documents.

After being waterboarded 83 times in Thailand, Zubaydah had still not revealed any “actionable intelligence," cables from Thailand to Langley reported. Later, interrogators would conclude he knew nothing about al-Qaida's plans.

He did, however, send FBI agents on futile investigations as he tried to end the torture. At one point, interrogators in Thailand asked Zubaydah a hypothetical question: If you were going to carry out an attack in the United States, where would you do it? The Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, Zubaydah answered. This led New York City to impose security measures “not seen since the first months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks," The New York Times reported.

In December 2002, when journalists began asking questions about a black site in Thailand, it was shut down, and Zubaydah was secretly transferred to Poland.

For years, the Polish government denied the existence of a CIA detention site. But after the 2014 Senate Intelligence report and after the European Court for Human Rights ruled in 2015 that it was “beyond a reasonable doubt" that Zubaydah had been held in Poland, Polish prosecutors began their investigation. Invoking a mutual legal assistance treaty, which commits each country to support the other's criminal investigations, Warsaw asked Washington for assistance. Their request went unanswered.

Joseph Margulies, one of Zubaydah's American lawyers, realized that the Polish investigation offered an opportunity to make public at least some of what had been done to his client at the black sites and might lead to his release. Invoking a federal law that allows an interested party to gather evidence in support of a foreign investigation, he asked a court to compel the depositions of Mitchell and Jessen. The Trump administration immediately intervened. It asserted the state secrets privilege to block the depositions, contending that the testimony would formally confirm or deny that the CIA operated a clandestine detention center in Poland.

As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a nonprofit organization in London, put it in a brief recently filed with the Supreme Court in support of Zubaydah, “Study after study, report after report, emerging from the CIA, DOJ and SSCI, along with flight record after flight record, flight invoice after invoice, have confirmed, in graphic and granular detail, what the world already knows: that the CIA had black sites in Thailand, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay."

Even the former Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski has acknowledged that the CIA had set up a black site in his country. “Of course, everything took place with my knowledge," he told Poland's leading newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, in 2012. “The President and the Prime Minister agreed to the intelligence co-operation with the Americans, because this was what was required by national interest."

None of this has slowed the U.S. government's efforts to avoid acknowledging what is now accepted fact. In their briefs, government lawyers argue that the Polish site, if it ever existed, remains a state secret because the federal government has never officially admitted to its existence. They contend that all those public reports and statements could be part of a CIA disinformation campaign. The lawyers cite as evidence the book and movie “Argo," which chronicles how the CIA rescued Americans hiding out in Iran by posing as a film crew. (As many commentators pointed out, the movie takes considerable liberties with the facts, adding, among other things, a chase through an airport that never occurred.)

The government's Supreme Court brief relies primarily on United States v. Reynolds, a 1953 case regarding the crash of an Air Force B-29 near Waycross, Georgia. When the families of three civilian engineers killed in the crash sought a copy of the accident report and witness statements, the Air Force refused to turn over the documents, asserting that they contained classified information about a secret mission. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court upheld the government's claim and, for the first time, formally recognized the state secrets privilege.

Forty-seven years later, the Air Force declassified the documents. They contained no reference to a secret mission. “Instead, the report told a horror story of incompetence, bungling, and tragic error," Garry Wills wrote in The New York Review of Books.

'God’s will is being thwarted': Texas hard-liners seek more partisan control of elections -- even in solid Republican counties

Michele Carew would seem an unlikely target of Donald Trump loyalists who have fixated their fury on the notion that the 2020 election was stolen from the former president.

The nonpartisan elections administrator in the staunchly Republican Hood County, just an hour southwest of Fort Worth, oversaw an election in which Trump got some 81% of the vote. It was among the former president's larger margins of victory in Texas, which also went for him.

Yet over the past 10 months, Carew's work has come under persistent attack from hard-line Republicans. They allege disloyalty and liberal bias at the root of her actions, from the time she denied a reporter with the fervently pro-Trump network One America News entrance to a training that was not open to the public to accusations, disputed by the Texas secretary of state's office, that she is violating state law by using electronic machines that randomly number ballots.

Viewing her decisions as a litmus test of her loyalty to the Republican Party, they have demanded that Carew be fired or her position abolished and her duties transferred to an elected county clerk who has used social media to promote baseless allegations of widespread election fraud.

Election Administrator Michele Carew listens to public comments on her possible termination as Election Administrator during…Carew listens to public comments on her possible termination during a Hood County Election Commission meeting on July 28 in Granbury, Texas. The commission voted 3-2 against her termination. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica

Republican politicians and conspiracy theorists continue to cast doubt on the election process across the country, particularly in areas where President Joe Biden won. They have demanded audits in states like Arizona, where the results of a Republican-led review in Maricopa County confirmed Biden's victory. They have also moved to restrict voting in multiple states, including Texas, which passed sweeping legislation that has already drawn lawsuits alleging the disenfranchisement of vulnerable voters.

Last week, Trump issued a public letter demanding an audit in Texas. Hours later, the Texas secretary of state's office announced that it had begun a "comprehensive forensic audit" in four of the state's largest counties: Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Collin. Biden won three of the four.

But Hood County stands out nationally and within Texas because it offers a rare view into the virulent distrust and unyielding political pressure facing elections administrators even in communities that Trump safely won. The county also represents the escalation of a wider push to replace independent administrators with more actively partisan election officials, said David Kimball, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

"Going back to the 2020 election, by and large, we saw election officials at the state and local level stand up to and resist efforts by Trump supporters to overturn the results," said Kimball, who is also a ballot design and voting equipment expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Election Lab. "And now this seems to me like part of the next move: Remove officials and put in somebody else who's more to their liking."

Kimball said such efforts can be dangerous given the power of elections administrators to control the number and location of polling places, the use of mail-in ballots and compliance with state and federal laws. In Mesa County, Colorado, for example, elected County Clerk Tina Peters, who has fueled the false narrative that Trump's victory was stolen, allowed an unauthorized individual to copy the hard drives of voting machines, according to a lawsuit against Peters filed by the Colorado secretary of state's office. Sensitive security information, including passwords, later appeared on far-right media sites and on social media, the lawsuit states. Peters' attorney has denied that she did anything wrong.

Carew's case is particularly troublesome because it "smells of political bullying" and reflects a wider rift in Texas among different factions of the GOP that has grown more pronounced since the election, said Carlos Cascos, a Republican who served as secretary of state for two years under Gov. Greg Abbott before leaving in 2017.

"They're in power, they get somewhat cocky and they start eating their own. That's what I'm seeing happening with the Texas GOP," said Cascos, who this year helped form the Texas Republican Initiative, a group that was created to combat intraparty attacks led by former GOP Chairman Allen West, who is now running for governor.

Similar fissures have cropped up in Hood County, where far-right conservatives who preach allegiance to Trump have split with more establishment-aligned Republicans in demanding that Carew's duties be placed under elected County Clerk Katie Lang, who has espoused Trump's stolen-election theory. Lang made national headlines in 2015 after refusing to issue a marriage license to a gay couple following the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

She frequently shares "Stop the Steal" and "Impeach Biden" memes and videos, including those produced by Blue Shark Media, a popular local far-right Facebook and YouTube show that has claimed the presidential election was stolen, vigorously opposed mask mandates and repeatedly called for Carew's ouster. The show's founder is Mike Lang, her husband, who as a former state representative chaired the hard-right House Freedom Caucus.

Aside from saying that she would abide by the Constitution, Katie Lang declined to talk with ProPublica and The Texas Tribune about how she would approach elections management if given the role. Mike Lang did not respond to a request for comment.

The attacks have confounded Carew, 47, whose job is nonpartisan, but who has voted in Republican primaries for the past 11 years, according to public records.

Stress now invades her sleep, waking her up at night as her mind replays the barrage of accusations against her, she said in a recent interview.

"I had no idea what I was getting into."

County Clerk Katie Lang listens motions for a two week suspension without pay after a vote allowed Election Administrator Mi…Lang called the July 28 meeting to discuss whether to terminate Carew. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica

"God's will is being thwarted"

The heart of the argument against Carew is as basic as the way she numbers voter ballots.

Hood County represents a growing number of areas that have begun shifting from electronic-only machines to more secure hybrid models, which provide paper ballots and are intended to help guard against fraud. A new state law requires all counties to move to voting systems that produce paper ballots by 2026. Like many elections officials in the state's largest counties, including nearby Tarrant and Dallas, Carew uses the machines to randomly number ballots in accordance with guidance from the Texas secretary of state.

But critics such as Laura Pressley, a self-proclaimed elections expert and favorite of hard-line Republicans in the county, accuse Carew of purposefully ignoring an obscure provision of state law that calls for paper ballots to be consecutively numbered starting with one. Pressley argues that ballots cannot be audited without such numbering, enabling the possibility of election fraud. She has stopped short of claiming any wrongdoing in Carew's handling of the 2020 election.

"Our elections are the representation of free will, and if we can't trust that our free will is being represented legally and accurately, then God's will is being thwarted," Pressley, a failed Austin City Council candidate turned critic of electronic voting machines, told county commissioners in April. Dave Eagle, a county commissioner and critic of Carew's, invited Pressley to speak at the meeting.

The push for consecutive numbering has become so potent in Hood County that commissioners in May asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in on the dispute.

The pending decision could put Paxton, a Trump supporter who unsuccessfully sued to overturn presidential election results in battleground states, at odds with the Republican-led secretary of state's office. The office has defended Carew, arguing in a July letter to Paxton that electronic voting systems must number ballots randomly so as not to violate privacy rights. It also has said that the consecutive numbering provision was intended for paper ballots, not electronic voting machines.

As state and local officials battle over how to number ballots in Hood County, experts worry that Texas' constitutional numbering requirement is outdated and doesn't reflect a broader shift toward protecting voter privacy.

J. Alex Halderman, an election security expert at the University of Michigan, said that over the years states have outlawed the numbering of ballots, adding that "Texas' policy is at the other extreme."

Colorado law explicitly states that paper ballots cannot be marked in any way that allows for voter identification. Numbering of Election Day ballots is not allowed in Illinois or North Carolina, and election laws in states including Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi and New York don't call for the numbering of ballots.

"Where I really worry is for voters who feel socially vulnerable for one reason or another, because they are themselves members of minority groups or are in the political minority," Halderman said. "They are going to be the ones most worried that, 'Oh gosh, the people running the election can figure out how I voted,' and that can deter people from voting at all or being less likely to cast a dissenting vote."

The law dates back to a time when legislators believed that numbering ballots and voter lists would allow for easy identification and help to catch fraud. Over the years, the law was challenged by candidates who worried that it could dissuade voters from participating in elections; by 1947, the League of Women Voters was pushing for a secret ballot in Texas.

"The Texas system originally was devised so that, in case of an election contest, any voter's ballot could be identified and the court could determine whether it had been changed," stated a 1947 McAllen Monitor editorial supporting the shift toward more privacy at the ballot box. "But this precaution is so little needed in contrast to the far more prevalent danger of checking up on timid voters that the cure has done more harm than the original malady."

Since then, historians have pointed to the numbering system as a facilitator of election fraud. Douglas Clouatre wrote in his book "Presidential Upsets: Dark Horses, Underdogs, and Corrupt Bargains" that George Parr, a longtime political boss in South Texas, used numbered ballots, in combination with poll lists, to identify and bribe voters to choose Democratic candidates and reject Republican ballots. Parr's scheme is credited with helping John F. Kennedy win Texas in 1960.

Seven election experts and administrators told ProPublica and the Tribune that consecutively numbering ballots is out of step with best practices in election security and is not required to conduct effective election audits.

"In an audit you're counting the ballots in a particular precinct to see if they match the totals that you've already got, and so the order of the ballots doesn't matter as long as you are counting all of them," said Kimball, the ballot design expert.

"Injecting chaos"

A 14-year veteran of county elections administration, Carew left a job in Aransas County on the Gulf Coast to be closer to her ailing parents, children and growing grandchildren in north Texas.

Michele Carew, Election Administrator of Hood County, faced calls for her termination by local officials and members of the …Carew Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica

Having grown up in Weatherford, just 25 miles away, Carew said she was proud to be running elections in Hood County. She had garnered nothing but praise from Republican leaders in Aransas County who tapped her in 2015 to be their first elections administrator.

"I can't imagine anyone not giving anything but A-plus as a grade. She's that good," Ric Young, the Aransas County Republican Party chair, said in an interview. "People have to realize her credentials are impeccable and she knows what she is doing."

More than four decades ago, Texas lawmakers passed a measure allowing counties to create an independent administrator position. Aimed at insulating elections administrators from political pressures, the law calls for them to be appointed by a bipartisan elections commission rather than by county commissioners. Elected officials are prohibited from directing the activities of administrators.

In proposing the legislation, lawmakers said the move was a step toward professionalizing elections, but they made such a switch voluntary. Of the state's 254 counties, about half — which make up roughly 80% of registered voters — have appointed an independent elections administrator. The others are run by elected local officials, usually county clerks, who are also expected to avoid partisanship.

"There has been a consistent trend in Texas to move toward the fairer, less politicized administration of elections," said Jeremi Suri, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "In the last year, we are starting to see people try to reverse that in ways that are discouraging."

Across the country, elections officials are increasingly feeling pressure to prioritize partisan interests over a fair democratic elections process, according to a June study issued by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice and the Bipartisan Policy Center. The study, which interviewed more than three dozen elections administrators, found that 78% believe misinformation and disinformation spread on social media has made their jobs harder, with more than half saying the position has become more dangerous.

In a September news release announcing a lawsuit challenging Texas' new elections law, the Brennan Center pointed to the negative effects it would have on elections administrators. In direct opposition to measures that made voting easier in Houston, the state's largest city, legislators banned drive-thru polling places and 24-hour voting across the state. They also banned the unsolicited distribution of applications for mail-in ballots to eligible voters, such as the elderly, and created new criminal penalties for election workers accused of interfering with expanded powers given to poll watchers.

"These new penalties are one example of a troubling new trend of state laws that target election officials and poll workers," the statement said. "Laws like these rub salt in the wounds of election workers, many of whom faced unprecedented threats and intimidation last year for simply doing their jobs."

Texas' new voting restrictions, a recent push by GOP activists to seize control of local party precincts and efforts to delegitimize the elections process in places like Hood County could have a greater chilling effect that drives out a generation of independent elections administrators, said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a nonprofit that seeks to increase voter participation and improve the efficiency of elections administration.

"This is an incredible delegitimization of American democracy when it comes right down to it," said Becker, a former Department of Justice lawyer who helped oversee voting rights enforcement under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. "It is a security threat that is injecting chaos and partisanship and doubt into our election system."

Carew entered Hood County in the summer of 2020, when Trump was already raising the specter of election fraud. Deep-seated divisions among the local Republican Party had already started to form with the selection of the next elections administrator.

A five-person commission that hires and fires elections administrators in the county was split between Carew and another candidate, Zach Maxwell, who had previously served as chief of staff to Mike Lang. According to his resume, Maxwell had never been employed by a county election office, but Katie Lang, who sits on the commission, said she believed he was committed to elections and praised his work ethic.

Republican County Judge Ron Massingill argued that the county needed someone with experience to deal with an expected "turbulent" presidential election. He eventually sided with the Hood County Democratic chair and the Republican county tax assessor in a 3-2 vote to hire Carew in August 2020, making him a target of hard-line party leaders who have framed the decision as a betrayal.

County Commissioner Dave Eagle speaks during the public comments of the Hood County Election Commission special meeting that…Eagle, a critic of Carew's, speaks during the July 28 Hood County Election Commission meeting. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica

In one of her first presentations to the commissioners court a month before the election, Carew asked them to approve a $29,000 grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life for items that included election supplies, voter education material and mail-in voting support. She told them that the grant gave elections officials discretion when using the money.

Eagle, an artisanal cheesemaker and former Tea Party leader, questioned the more than $350 million the nonprofit organization had received from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, saying the social media company had stifled conservative voices on its platform.

"This is just one more assault, in my opinion, by the progressive left to completely destroy this election cycle," Eagle said during the meeting. He argued that by giving to nonprofits, private donors were attempting to sway local elections in favor of Democrats, and pointed to a lawsuit seeking to prevent counties from accepting such grants. The suit was later dismissed after a U.S. district judge refused to issue a temporary restraining order blocking the grants.

Hood County commissioners voted against the grant, which was accepted by 101 other Texas counties, including 85 that voted for Trump. Texas Republican lawmakers have since passed legislation that would require written consent from the secretary of state's office for private grants exceeding $1,000 to election departments, arguing that they seek to tilt the balance of elections in favor of Democrats.

Days after the November election, Blue Shark Media alleged voter fraud in the national election and said voters should not accept the results. Mike Lang, the former state representative, and his co-hosts praised local elected officials, including Eagle, Katie Lang and Constable John Shirley, a former high-ranking member of the far-right paramilitary Oath Keepers, for attending a "Stop the Steal" rally in front of the county courthouse.

"Those are your GOP Republicans that they're for Trump, they want Trump in there. They're not part of the establishment that are like, 'Oh, no, Trump's not going to win,'" Lang said during a show posted on Nov. 8.

He did not raise concerns about the management of the local election. But since then, the show has repeatedly attacked Carew, even resurfacing her failed request for the nonprofit grant and calling it nothing more than an attempt to draw unsolicited mail-in ballots.

"We need to not only look at who we elect, but we need to look at who our elected officials hire," Lang said during a show that month.

Calls for Carew's ouster

The demands for Carew's ouster have grown so vigorous that critics have threatened political action against Massingill, the county judge, for his support of the elections administrator.

Massingill, who is quick to point out that he is a recipient of Trump's Order of Merit for loyalty and service to the Republican Party, said the attacks on Carew from his own party are unwarranted.

"I don't think it is fair. I really don't. She is following the law," Massingill said in an interview. "We want somebody in that office that is neutral and unbiased. We can't have the Democratic Party or the Green Party or the Republican Party telling her how to run the election."

Days before an April commissioners court meeting, Blue Shark Media aired an episode calling for Carew's removal. The show had spent months criticizing Carew for a host of perceived slights, including her connection to the League of Women Voters, which honored Hood County and 53 others for their "outstanding" election website. Critics in the county have argued that the voter education and advocacy group is biased because it called for Trump's removal from office after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

In another example that Carew was not ideologically pure, the show's hosts pointed to a report that she had denied Christina Bobb, a former Trump administration official who works for One America News, access to a private training held at a conference of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators. Dominion Voting Systems, one of the country's largest election system vendors, filed a defamation lawsuit against the network and Bobb in August, alleging "false and manufactured stories about election fraud." The lawsuit stated that Bobb crossed "journalism ethical lines" by raising money through a nonprofit to fund a partisan review of its voting machines in Arizona's Maricopa County. Bobb and OAN did not respond to requests for comment.

In a two-and-a-half minute report that aired in March, Bobb said that she was able to attend the first day of the conference after identifying herself as a member of the public.

On the second day, Carew, then the president of the state association, barred Bobb, saying she attempted to attend an elections certification training that was not open to the public or to members of the media. Carew said Bobb failed to inform organizers that she was a reporter. She said the Katy-based National Association of Election Officials, which puts on the training that costs several hundred dollars to attend, asked her not to allow Bobb inside.

"She was dishonest with us as to who she was with," Carew said.

But for Mike Lang, the incident was further evidence of Carew's bias.

"The fact is that Michele Carew, the president of the association, kicked her out, and is that election integrity and transparency? Not a bit," he said during a Blue Shark show in April.

Two months later, Blue Shark obtained an application that Carew submitted for a position in Travis County. The application, they said, suggested that Carew was committing fraud because she stated that she was still working for Aransas County.

"How can you have any type of integrity or honesty when you can't fill out an employment application?" Mike Lang asked on a June 21 show as he displayed portions of the application.

Carew, who said she applied for the job after months of attacks in Hood County, told ProPublica and the Tribune that she mistakenly submitted an older version of her standardized employment application. She said she was shocked to learn that critics had gone as far as to track down the application.

"Let's have a commission meeting and let's find another elections administrator," Lang said during the June show in which he demanded that Massingill take action against Carew.

Despite concerns from some Republican precinct chairs about a lack of evidence, the Hood County Republican Party Executive Committee in July passed a resolution threatening a social media campaign against Massingill if he didn't convene the county's elections commission to discuss Carew's termination.

"The resolution makes several big claims, but only uses hearsay to back them up," Mark Shackelford, a precinct chair, wrote in internal Hood County GOP emails obtained by ProPublica and the Tribune. Shackelford later told ProPublica and the Tribune that he believed that without more robust evidence the resolution would be perceived as sour grapes within the county. "And it was," he told ProPublica and the Texas Tribune in an email.

When Massingill refused, Katie Lang, the vice chair of the elections commission, stepped in and called a meeting. Aside from opponents, the meeting drew poll workers, election judges and former officials in Aransas County who defended Carew.

In the end, the elections commission voted 3-2 not to terminate Carew, marking the same split as when it hired her to be the elections administrator. David Fischer, Hood County's GOP chairman who along with Lang voted to fire Carew, said the vote had not ended the effort against her.

The next step, Fischer said during the meeting, should be for the commissioners court to schedule a vote to dissolve the office and place elections under Lang. The move would make the office more accountable to the county's majority Republican voters, said Fischer, who declined an interview request.

Commissioners have not said whether they plan to abolish the position.

In the meantime, Eagle and Pressley have continued their claims that Carew is flouting the law. In August, the pair addressed City Council members in Granbury, the largest city in Hood County, where Eagle advised them against contracting with Carew for its November 2021 election.

Instead, Eagle told officials, the city should hire a private company to run its election.

"I felt alone"

Carew has struggled to withstand the personal attacks and the accusations that she violated the law. She worries she has grown less trusting and more cynical.

Michele Carew, Election Administrator of Hood County, faced calls for her termination by local officials and members of the …Carew Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica

"I felt alone to tell you the truth," she said in an interview. "The worst part was being dragged through the mud over something they don't know what they're talking about."

Carew said she has tried to find solace in discussions with other elections administrators, the only people who really know what she has been going through.

She feels as if she's somehow let them down. That her experience in Hood County has overshadowed more than a decade of service as an elections manager. And she worries that she will only be known for the claims lodged at her by those trying to remove her from the role.

But Carew is sure of one thing. She has already told her husband that Hood County will be her last elections administrator position.

"I don't feel like I am the same person I was a year ago," Carew said. "This county has ruined me."

Carla Astudillo contributed reporting.

Disclosure: Facebook, Texas Secretary of State and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Cops are settling schoolyard disputes in a California desert -- and Black teens are bearing the brunt

By Emily Elena Dugdale, KPCC/LAist, and Irena Hwang, ProPublica, photography by Bethany Mollenkof, special to ProPublica

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

LANCASTER, Calif. — Barron Gardner, a high school history teacher in Southern California's Antelope Valley, stared down Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies during an online meeting in April, trying to keep his composure.

Gardner, 41, had become a reluctant spokesperson for a growing movement, driven primarily by Black and Latino residents, to get LASD deputies off school campuses. His wife, a nurse, worried about the repercussions for their family. What if he lost his job? What if he became a target of discrimination or worse? After all, this valley at the western edge of the Mojave Desert, population roughly 500,000, has a long history of racial tension, including white supremacist attacks on Black community members.

But Gardner felt obligated to speak up during the meeting, which had been called by school district administrators. Some of his Black students had complained that they were treated differently than white kids caught doing the same things, like fighting, disrupting class or smoking cigarettes. He'd been concerned for a long time about the culture on campus, fearing it encouraged staff to turn Black students over to law enforcement. But Gardner knew he needed more than just a hunch and secondhand accounts, he said.

He also knew the LASD had a well-documented, troubled track record in the Antelope Valley. In 2013, a Department of Justice investigation found that LASD deputies there had violated the Constitution, including by conducting discriminatory and illegal searches and seizures primarily affecting Black residents. The investigation resulted in a settlement agreement that mandated a batch of reforms, as well as periodic monitoring reports. Gardner combed through the latest of those reports, from the summer and fall of 2020, in preparation for the meeting. Black people, he read, were still much more likely to be stopped and more likely to be searched.

He came prepared for the online meeting with the findings from the federal reports. “I went in, boom, and blew the whole thing up," he said. But as he stared at the deputies through his screen, he felt intimidated, he said, and his voice shook. When Gardner finished, he said he was met with blank stares. “These people look[ed] at me like I was an alien from outer space," he said.

Just because it's happening on the streets doesn't mean it has anything to do with the schools, Gardner recalls one district official saying. Both the Sheriff's Department and the district have repeatedly claimed that no one is racially profiling students.

But according to data that California law enforcement agencies are required to publish under the terms of a law aimed at combatting racial profiling, Gardner was onto something: Sheriff's deputies in the Antelope Valley have disproportionately detained and issued citations to Black teens on public school campuses, an analysis by KPCC/LAist and ProPublica found.

We analyzed and mapped thousands of contacts between deputies and civilians that took place during the 2019 calendar year, the most recent year not disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The analysis focused on Lancaster, one of two major cities in the region, finding clusters of stops on public school campuses. In the vast majority of those contacts, deputies cited “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity" as the reason for the stops.

Our analysis found that during that time, six public high schools accounted for about 300 of the city's 4,000 stops — or roughly 7 percent. When we compared the race of teens stopped with the demographics of those schools, the disparity was clear. Black teenagers accounted for 60 percent of the deputy contacts on campuses but made up only about 20 percent of the enrollment in those schools.

The highest number of the contacts — more than 100, in a student body of roughly 1,650 — was reported at Antelope Valley High School, where Gardner teaches and most of the student body is Black or Latino. The analysis shows Black teenagers made up more than 75 percent of the reasonable suspicion contacts — about 2.5 times their share of the school's enrollment.

While Black teenagers at Gardner's school were questioned at far higher rates than would be expected based on the demographics of the student body, the same was not true for white and Latino teenagers. Only one reasonable suspicion contact involved a white student.

The racial disparity seen in the contacts with deputies is also evident in the district's disciplinary data, which shows that the share of Black students who were suspended was more than three times that of white students.

At Quartz Hill High School on the city's more affluent west side, about one-quarter of contacts with deputies involved Black teens, although Black students account for less than 10 percent of the student body.

Terrell “T.J." Pina was a 15-year-old freshman at Quartz Hill in December 2018 when he was detained by the campus deputy in a “reasonable suspicion" stop after a fight with a white student. Pina, a special education student, told school staff that the white boy had been bullying him and calling him the N-word. Terrell was charged with felony assault and spent two weeks in juvenile detention before his first hearing, his mother, Richelle Bankhead, said.

The sheriff's data indicates that only Pina was arrested for the fight. When asked why the other student wasn't arrested, John Lecrivain, the Lancaster Sheriff's Station captain who took over this year, said he could not comment on individual cases involving juveniles.

“The school district had the Sheriff's Department snatch him up and drag him through the mud like he was a criminal," Bankhead said.

The felony charge against Pina eventually was reduced to a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to perform community service.

Administrators at Quartz Hill and Antelope Valley High School referred questions to the district. Antelope Valley Union High School District administrators did not respond to interview requests or to a list of written questions.

Stationing law enforcement on school campuses has been controversial for decades, but the backlash has grown in cities across the country since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last summer spurred a broader debate about policing and race. Since then, school districts in Denver, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, have decided to end or scale back contracts with law enforcement. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest public school district in the country, decided in February to cut funding for campus policing by one-third.

But there have been no cuts to the police budget in the Antelope Valley Union High School District, despite protests and a petition drive that gathered more than 4,000 signatures in support of ending the district's contract with the LASD. “These targeted attacks on vulnerable communities only pushes our students into the broken criminal justice system before they've had a chance to build a brighter future," the petition read.

Protestors say LASD deputies, who are stationed on at least nine of the district's campuses, are racially profiling students, but Sheriff's Department officials insist that is not the case. LASD Deputy Justin Ruppert, team leader of the Lancaster station's school safety unit, said the vast majority of deputies' contacts on campuses are based on referrals from school staff and administrators — not initiated by law enforcement.

To assess the validity of this assertion, we interviewed 25 current and former students, teachers and staff in the Antelope Valley Union High School District. Many said the deputies, who are also known as school resource officers, were brought into relatively minor disputes and that their intervention often escalated the situation.

The news organizations' investigation found that some students detained by deputies were accused of what some experts said were routine school disciplinary issues.

“They're turning the principal's office into the police station," said Daniel Losen, director of UCLA's Center for Civil Rights Remedies. “They're being referred to law enforcement with the kinds of things that, once upon a time, you would just have a little detention, or meet with a principal, or a parent conference."

Experts interviewed by KPCC/LAist and ProPublica said that a U.S. Supreme Court decision empowered police on campus by loosening Fourth Amendment protections on public school campuses, reducing the burden of proof required for school officials to conduct stops and searches. In California, courts have ruled that those lower legal standards also apply to school resource officers, giving them wider discretion to stop and search students than they would have off campus.

“The reality in California is that schools have become 'Constitution-free' zones," said Richard Braucher, a staff attorney at the First District Appellate Project.

Victoria Ruffin, an Antelope Valley Union High School District board member who cast the lone vote against approving a new contract with the LASD in July, said the analysis by KPCC/LAist and ProPublica supports what she has long suspected. While reviewing expulsion and suspension cases that came before the board during the past three years, she noticed that most seemed to involve Black students. Often, she said, the descriptions of their offenses mentioned referrals to school resource officers.

“It's a slap on the hand for this kind of kid, but [for] this kid," there's punishment, Ruffin said.

A Troubled History

The Antelope Valley sits more than 60 miles north of Los Angeles, up a highway that winds through the San Gabriel Mountains and opens into a vast desert dotted with Joshua trees and other yuccas. The two largest cities in the valley — Lancaster and Palmdale — grew rapidly in the past 30 years, fueled by people priced out of Los Angeles real estate. With that growth came a dramatic demographic shift. White people, who in 1990 had been strongly in the majority at 80 percent, now account for less than one-third of the population, which is mostly Latino and Black.

Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, a Republican, made national news shortly after his election in 2008 for calling for a war on Section 8 housing and complaining that the city was becoming a “dumping ground" for the poor from Los Angeles. His comments led to a federal lawsuit alleging that the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale were working with the Sheriff's Department and county housing agency to conduct sweeps of public housing, unfairly targeting Black and Latino voucher holders.

The lawsuit was dropped after the cities and Los Angeles County agreed to separate settlements, but it drew the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, which, after a two-year investigation, issued a report supporting the allegations involving the housing sweeps and found that deputies routinely racially profiled Black residents in the Antelope Valley.

The DOJ and LASD entered into a court-ordered settlement agreement called a consent decree in 2015, agreeing to reforms that included protections against racial profiling. Consent decrees are one of the most powerful tools the federal government has to combat unconstitutional policing, but they often take decades to complete. The Los Angeles Police Department spent 12 years under a consent decree that was spurred by corruption in the anti-gang unit of the department's Rampart Division, only being released in 2013. The Oakland Police Department has been under a settlement agreement for nearly 20 years.

Some consent decree monitors complained that they felt less support from the DOJ under the Trump administration, which entered into zero consent decrees and said the agreements increase crime and damage law enforcement morale.

“Prior to Trump, if you were a consent decree monitor, you could be confident that you'd be backed by the Department of Justice," said David Douglass, the deputy consent decree monitor for the New Orleans Police Department and CEO of the nonprofit Effective Law Enforcement for All. But with Trump, “there were a lot of signs of pullback."

In the Antelope Valley, slow progress recently prompted local residents to call for federal monitors to take LASD back to court. “We've lost faith in this process, to be quite frank," said Xavier Flores, president of the Antelope Valley League of United Latin American Citizens, at a virtual town hall meeting with the federal monitoring team in February.

A review of the federal monitoring reports by KPCC/LAist and ProPublica shows LASD has made some degree of progress on nearly all of the requirements, but so far it has fully complied with only a handful, most of them related to the housing sweeps. The monitors declined interview requests.

Black people are still much more likely to be stopped and searched, the monitoring team found after analyzing all of the roughly 20,000 deputy contacts in the valley between January and July 2019. The monitors did not specifically look at activity on school campuses.

The most recent report from the monitoring team, released in early August, shows that the department still is not in compliance with the requirement that deputies have a “reasonable suspicion" to stop and detain people.

School resource officers are only mentioned in one sentence in the latest monitoring report. Monitors urged the department to “genuinely listen" to calls to cancel LASD contracts with local school districts.

Principal's Office vs. Police Station

In Antelope Valley's high school district, the racial disparities in the treatment of Black and white students is evident not just in the contacts with deputies on campuses, but also in the district's own disciplinary data on suspensions and expulsions.

When a student gets in trouble, teachers can try to resolve the problem on their own, or they can call campus security or a school resource officer for help. If teachers lack the training or experience to handle difficult situations with students, they can often default to calling school resource officers, said Losen, the director of UCLA's Center for Civil Rights Remedies. But because records involving school disciplinary hearings and juvenile court cases are typically sealed to protect student privacy, it is difficult to assess how the cases are handled across the district.

Robert Davis, who served on the Antelope Valley Union High School District board from 2015 to 2019, said he did his own informal review of outcomes of disciplinary cases that came before the board for votes on suspensions or expulsions, including some that involved deputies. He focused specifically on the racial disparities at two high schools in Lancaster: Quartz Hill and Antelope Valley High.

A former teacher and counselor with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Davis looked for cases involving students who were accused of the same allegations and compared their punishments. His observation, he said, was that at Quartz Hill, students of color bore the brunt of any punishments handed out. White students were told not to do that again and given a second chance. At Antelope Valley High School, nonwhite students received the harshest penalties. “Bam! They were gone," he said.

He said decisions appeared to be “fly-by-night. How are we gonna deal with this kid?"

An analysis by KPCC/LAist and ProPublica of the district's disciplinary data shows that it disciplines students — particularly Black students — at far higher rates than the state average.

The district's suspension rate for the 2018-19 school year was more than 8 percent, about two-thirds higher than the statewide rate for high school students, and the expulsion rate for the district was nearly 45 percent higher than the state's.

The suspension rate for Black students is about 18 percent, meaning that about 1 in 6 Black students were suspended. That's over three times the rate for white students, and much higher than the statewide rate for high school students.

Some teachers interviewed by KPCC/LAist and ProPublica said they fear students will face unintended consequences when teachers turn discipline cases over to deputies.

James Tilton, a teacher at Eastside High School, said that a few years back he referred a freshman who had mouthed off to him to security, thinking he'd end up in the principal's office. The boy, who was Black, ended up in front of a deputy instead. Tilton said the deputy later told him that the boy shoved him and he arrested the student. Tilton has regretted his decision ever since, he said. He keeps thinking the boy needed teachers, counselors, psychiatrists and mentors in that moment. Instead, “we gave him a cop."

The Sheriff's Department's own analysis of data for the 2019-20 school year — from August until schools closed due to the pandemic in March — shows that deputies assigned to the Lancaster station reported more than 500 calls from school administrators and faculty “to document or investigate a criminal-related incident." Roughly two-thirds of those calls involved Black students, the data shows.

Ruppert, the team leader of the school safety unit at the LASD's Lancaster station, said the racial disparities evident in the data reflect an existing problem, which he described as Black students having needs that are not being met outside schools.

What's happening on campus, he said, is not indicative of racial profiling by school officials or deputies. “They're not walking through the campus going like, 'Oh, there's a Black male student, let's jam him up,'" Ruppert said.

Shynyia Lemon, 18, who graduated from Antelope Valley High School in June, said having deputies on campus made her feel like she was constantly walking on eggshells. She even considered transferring.

“It makes us be on edge, like, 'Oh lord, we gotta be careful, we don't want the deputy to come over and handcuff us for stupid things,'" said. “It just makes you feel like a whole criminal."

In August 2019, Lemon, a varsity basketball player, started struggling to breathe as she walked through an outdoor courtyard where deputies had just broken up a fight between two students. Later that day, Lemon opened Instagram and found a video recorded by another student that showed two Black teenagers fighting and two sheriff's deputies walking up and squirting pepper spray in their faces. The spray also hit the crowd of students and staff, including a coach who was breaking up the fight. (LASD officials said they could not comment on the video, citing the need to review additional material.)

“It was like a simple little fight," Lemon said. “I could have broken it up."

In a viral video filmed Aug. 30 at Lancaster High School, a school resource officer slams 16-year-old MiKayla Robinson to the ground and sits on her. The video prompted protests and compelled the Sheriff's Department to issue a statement that said MiKayla “physically resisted" the deputy. The statement said the department was conducting “an in-depth review of the policy and tactics" used and would “take appropriate action."

As a result of how a U.S. Supreme Court ruling was interpreted by California courts, deputies have broad authority to stop and search students — more than they would have for adults on a city street.

If any of these stops had taken place off campus, a police officer would have to establish probable cause — specific and detailed facts to support a belief that someone committed a crime — in order to arrest them. To simply detain and question someone, an officer would have to establish they had a reasonable suspicion, which is more than a hunch but less than probable cause.

On California school campuses, though, school resource officers can detain and question students as long as they do not do so arbitrarily or to harass them.

“They got it backwards," said Sam Walker, a police accountability expert and University of Nebraska Omaha professor. Students could be considered more vulnerable than adults and should have stronger Fourth Amendment protections on school campuses, not weaker, he said.

Lecrivain, who heads up the Sheriff's Department's Lancaster Station, said he was not aware of the court rulings and that his deputies adhere to the same standards on campus as they do off. That's why the stops on school campuses are reported under the state's racial profiling law as being based on “reasonable suspicion."

For years, school board member Ruffin said, she's been concerned that deputies' duties are not outlined in their contract with the district. The contract provides a short, vague description of deputy responsibilities: “provide law enforcement services."

“That's actually pretty shocking," Walker said.

It's imperative to make it clear what officers aren't supposed to do, he said — especially when it relates to stopping and detaining people. “If they don't have a common understanding, I mean, that's an invitation to disaster," Walker said. “This sounds like American policing in the early '60s."

KPCC/LAist and ProPublica obtained a copy of an internal security audit commissioned by the district in 2019 that raised concerns about the vague language in LASD's contract with the district. Two years later, it remains unchanged.

Lasting Consequences

Our analysis found that the overwhelming majority of Black teenagers who were questioned on school campuses on the basis of a “reasonable suspicion" were subsequently issued citations. Nearly two-thirds of the citations issued by deputies based on those contacts involved Black teenagers, the analysis found.

The citations can result in serious consequences. Fighting — the most common violation — carries a penalty of up to 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $400. Because juvenile cases are sealed, there is no way to know how the citations were resolved, although there are other, less punitive outcomes available, including probation, diversion programs and community service.

Pina, the student arrested for fighting at Quartz Hill in 2018, said the judge told him at his first court hearing that he was a menace to the community. Before his arrest, he was a goofy, loving kid and a leader on the freshman football team, his mother said. “I helped kids stay out of trouble," Pina said.

But after the fight, he was expelled and placed on house arrest with an ankle monitor for at least a month, he said. It was so sensitive, he recalled, that it went off when he took a trip to the garage to feed the dogs. He became withdrawn, retreating into his room with the curtains closed. “I didn't want to talk to anyone. I didn't want to come out [of] my room," he said.

Now he has anxiety attacks, Bankhead, his mother, said. Earlier this summer, Bankhead skipped work because her son, crying, told her he didn't want to live anymore. “He's just not the same kid he was prior," she said.

A few weeks before the current school year, Bankhead got a call from Quartz Hill High. Pina could re-enroll in the district. “They wanted him to play football," Bankhead said.

She declined the offer. “He's gonna be in school at 18 years old," she said. “What if they want him to come back, and then they set him up with something? He goes to jail."

Safer Schools?

KPCC/LAist and ProPublica tried over the course of several months to interview district administrators, but we did not receive responses, even after sending a list of questions. Ruffin was the only board member who agreed to be interviewed.

Although the district did not respond to requests, it has taken steps to examine the role of school resource officers on its campuses. This summer, the district commissioned a survey that found that about 75 percent of parents and school district staff supported having the deputies, who are armed, in the schools. But less than one-third of students surveyed did; most were undecided. The results, which were presented to the school board, suggested “a lack of relationship or awareness" between students and the school resource officers, according to the researchers.

One of the main arguments advanced by supporters of keeping the school resource officers is campus safety. In April, the school board heard from students and teachers who cited a 2018 shooting at Highland High School in Palmdale, a neighboring city in the Antelope Valley, as a reason for their support. The shooter, who was 14 years old, brought a rifle onto campus and fired about 10 rounds, injuring a 15-year-old. An off-duty Los Angeles Police Department officer, who was a family friend, detained the shooter in a nearby shopping center parking lot.

“The safety of students and staff should be a top priority of the school district — and without law enforcement's presence on campus, school sites are not safe, period," Curt Stephan, a teacher in the district for 15 years, said in written testimony to the board.

In 2020, the Trump administration's Department of Justice released guidelines supporting stationing school resource officers on campus. “The ability of specially selected and trained [officers] to establish trust relationships with students has been demonstrated to prevent school shootings," the guidelines state.

“In addition, there have been numerous documented instances of SROs directly intervening to prevent or quickly mitigate active school shootings," they said.

But the Congressional Research Service reported in 2013 that although some studies indicate that school resource officers may deter students from bringing weapons to campus and prevent assaults, “children in schools with [officers] might be more likely to be arrested for low-level offenses."

“When you put police on campus, you're asking for a very strict, narrow approach to student misconduct that has nothing to do with the shootings," said Losen, the director of UCLA's Center for Civil Rights Remedies.

'They Don't Care'

The Antelope Valley Union High School District isn't the only one evaluating the role of school resource officers. The controversy over having deputies on campuses has attracted the attention of the powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which earlier this summer turned its attention to LASD's 17 contracts with districts, which total about $8 million. In a June vote, the board demanded more data on who deputies stop on school campuses and why.

Starting in 2022, the Sheriff's Department will have to get the board's approval for contracts that station school resource officers on campuses.

“We are simply pulling back the authority that we've previously delegated to the sheriff," said Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who co-authored the motion.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district includes the Antelope Valley, voted against the move to require board approval of LASD's contracts, saying she didn't want to take away the school districts' power to decide.

KPCC/LAist and ProPublica sent the results of their school resource officer data analysis to Barger's office. Barger declined to be interviewed for this story, responding to the data and media inquiry with a statement supporting local control, adding that school resource officers “can have a positive impact on students, teachers and school administrators."

Gardner, the Antelope Valley High School teacher, has grown frustrated with what he describes as a reluctance by district officials to acknowledge LASD's troubled past and correct the disparities in punishment for Black students.

He said many teachers and staff are afraid to speak up because they fear retaliation from the school district. His fear is supported by a 2019 districtwide internal security audit, which said that several district staffers told auditors that “anyone who speaks-out against the views of the Administration faces swift and severe discipline."

Gardner went to high school in the Antelope Valley in the 1990s, when the district first started stationing deputies on campuses. He remembers one officer asking one of his Black friends if he was in a gang, Gardner said, and thinking then that the question was wrong.

Gardner said the root of the racial disparities in punishment on campuses is easy to identify: systemic racism, which he said feeds into a knee-jerk reaction by some school staff to call security and deputies on Black students.

After college, when he returned to the Antelope Valley in 2008 to teach and raise his family with his wife, he kept his head down for years, he said. Gardner said he only started really pushing for reforms on campus in January 2020, when he and a group of teachers formed an organization called the Alliance for Black Student Equity, which lists the termination of the LASD contract as one of several goals.

As Gardner became more vocal about the deputies, some community members posted on social media that he should be fired because of his advocacy. But he kept up the campaign. He wasn't able to make it to the Antelope Valley board meeting in June where they voted to fund the LASD contract for another year because he was teaching summer school. The vote — like the findings of the news organizations' analysis of stops on campuses — was disappointing, but not surprising, he said.

Gardner is teaching again this fall in his portable classroom, where a Colin Kaepernick jersey hangs on the wall next to thank-you cards from his students.

While he waits for a change in policy, he's trying to connect one-on-one with the kids in his classes, he said, so they'll feel comfortable talking to him and coming to him if they have a run-in with school administrators or a deputy on campus.

“I see these kids, and I see my buddies that I grew up with," Gardner said. “Some of these adults just see criminals."

About the Data: How We Analyzed Police Contacts in Lancaster

KPCC/LAist and ProPublica obtained data describing the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department's contacts with civilians from the County of Los Angeles open data portal. The data includes all incidents where at least one person was detained or arrested, as well as details about each person involved in these contacts, including information about the person's perceived race and age, and the outcome of the contact. KPCC/LAist and ProPublica then filtered the data for all contacts that took place in Lancaster, California, during the 2019 calendar year where the basis for the contact was listed as “reasonable suspicion that the person was engaged in criminal activity."

To assess where these police contacts were taking place, KPCC/LAist and ProPublica cleaned and geocoded the address reported for each contact. Geocoded addresses and campus footprints obtained from the Python library OSMnx were used to establish whether a contact took place at a school. (The county data did contain a field indicating whether the contact took place at a K-12 school, but the field was not reliably populated, so it could not be used to find all on-campus contacts.)

KPCC/LAist and ProPublica focused on contacts that took place at campuses of Antelope Valley High School District high schools located in Lancaster. They included Antelope Valley High, Desert Winds Continuation High, Eastside High, Lancaster High, Quartz Hill High and Phoenix High Community Day. The SOAR early college high school was excluded from analysis because it is located on the Antelope Valley College campus, and we could not determine whether contacts that took place at the college were with attendees of the college or of SOAR. When looking at school campuses, we limited our analysis to contacts involving teenagers.

Erik Prince threatens ProPublica reporters after they reveal special trusts he and others exploited to avoid estate taxes

By Jeff Ernsthausen, James Bandler, Justin Elliott and Patricia Callahan

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

Series: The Secret IRS Files

Inside the Tax Records of the .001%

It's well known, at least among tax lawyers and accountants for the ultrawealthy: The estate tax can be easily avoided by exploiting a loophole unwittingly created by Congress three decades ago. By using special trusts, a rarefied group of Americans have taken advantage of this loophole, reducing government revenues and fueling inequality.

There is no way for the public to know who uses these special trusts aside from when they've been disclosed in lawsuits or securities filings. There's also been no way to quantify just how much in estate tax has been lost to them, though, in 2013, the lawyer who pioneered the use of the most common one — known as the grantor retained annuity trust, or GRAT — estimated they may have cost the U.S. Treasury about $100 billion over the prior 13 years.

As Congress considers cracking down on GRATs and other trusts to help fund President Joe Biden's domestic agenda, a new analysis by ProPublica based on a trove of tax information about thousands of the wealthiest Americans sheds light on just how widespread the use of special trusts to dodge the estate tax has become.

More than half of the nation's 100 richest individuals have used GRATs and other trusts to avoid estate tax, the analysis shows. Among them: former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg; Leonard Lauder, the son of cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder; Stephen Schwarzman, a founder of the private equity firm Blackstone; Charles Koch and his late brother, David, the industrialists who have underwritten libertarian causes and funded lobbying efforts to roll back the estate tax; and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs. (Powell Jobs' Emerson Collective is among ProPublica's largest donors.)

More than a century ago amid soaring inequality and the rise of stratospherically wealthy families such as the Mellons and Rockefellers, Congress created the estate tax as a way to raise money and clip the fortunes of the rich at death. Lawmakers later added a gift tax as a means of stopping wealthy people from passing their fortunes on to their children and grandchildren before death. Nowadays, 99.9% of Americans never have to worry about these taxes. They only hit individuals passing more than $11.7 million, or couples giving more than $23.4 million, to their heirs. The federal government imposes a roughly 40% levy on amounts above those figures before that wealth is passed on to heirs.

For her part, Powell Jobs has decried as “dangerous for a society" the early 20th century fortunes of the Mellons, Rockefellers and others. “I'm not interested in legacy wealth buildings, and my children know that," she told The New York Times last year. “Steve wasn't interested in that. If I live long enough, it ends with me."

Nonetheless, after the death of her husband in 2011, Powell Jobs used a series of GRATs to pass on around a half a billion dollars, estate-tax-free, to her children, friends and other family, according to the tax records and interviews with her longtime attorney. By using the GRATs, she avoided at least $200 million in estate and gift taxes.

Her attorney, Larry Sonsini, said Powell Jobs did this so that her children would have cash to pay estate taxes when she dies and they inherit “nostalgic and hard assets," such as real estate, art and a yacht. (At 260 feet, Venus is among the larger pleasure ships in the world.) Without the $500 million or so passed through the trusts, he said, Powell Jobs' heirs would have to sell stock that she intends to give to charity to pay her estate tax bill.

Sonsini said Powell Jobs, whose fortune is pegged at $21 billion by Forbes, has already given billions away to charity and paid $2.5 billion in state and federal taxes between 2012 and 2020. “When you look at an estate that may be worth multiple billions, and all the rest is going to charity, and you put it in perspective, what is the problem we're worried about here?" Sonsini asked. “This is not about creating dynasty wealth for these kids."

In a written statement, Powell Jobs said she supports “reforms that make the tax code more fair. Through my work at Emerson Collective and philanthropic commitments, I have dedicated my life and assets to the pursuit of a more just and equitable society."

Others whose special trusts ProPublica identified, including Bloomberg and the Kochs, declined to comment on why they'd set up the trusts or their estate-tax implications. Representatives for Lauder didn't respond to requests to accept questions on his behalf. Schwarzman's spokesperson wrote that he is “one of the largest individual taxpayers in the country and fully complies with all tax rules."

A typical GRAT entails putting assets, like stocks, in a trust that ultimately benefits a person's heirs. The trust pays back an amount equal to what the trust's creator put in plus a modest amount of interest. But any gains on the investments above that amount flow to the heirs free of gift or estate taxes. So if a person puts $100 million worth of stock in a GRAT and the stock rises in value to $130 million, their heirs would receive about $30 million tax-free.

In 1990, Congress accidentally created GRATs when it closed another estate tax loophole that was popular at the time. The IRS challenged the maneuver but lost in court.

“I don't blame the taxpayers who are doing it," said Daniel Hemel, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. “Congress has virtually invited them to do it. I blame Congress for creating the monster and then failing to stop the monster once it became clear how much of the tax base the GRAT monster would eat up."

Users of the trusts extend well beyond the top of the Forbes rankings, ProPublica's analysis of the confidential IRS files show. Erik Prince, founder of the military contractor Blackwater and himself heir to an auto parts fortune, used the shelter. Fashion designer Calvin Klein has used them, as have “Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels and media mogul Oprah Winfrey.

“We have paid all taxes due," a spokesperson for Winfrey said. A representative of Klein did not accept questions from ProPublica or respond to messages. A spokesman for Michaels declined to comment.

Prince also did not answer questions. “Hey if you publish private information about me I'll be sure to return the favor," he wrote. “Go ahead and fuck off."

The GRAT has become so ubiquitous in recent decades that high-end tax lawyers consider it a plain vanilla strategy. “This is an off-the-shelf solution," said Michael Kosnitzky, co-leader of the private wealth practice at law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. “Almost every wealthy person should have one."

ProPublica's tally almost certainly undercounts the number of Forbes 100 members who use shelters to avoid estate taxes. ProPublica counted only those people whose tax records or public filings explicitly mention GRATs or other trusts commonly used to dodge gift and estate taxes. But a wealthy person can call their trusts whatever they want, leaving plenty of trusts outside of ProPublica's count.

This month, the House and Senate are hammering out proposals to raise revenue to help pay for the Biden administration's plans to expand the social safety net. The legislative blueprint released by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., would defang GRATs and other trusts, which would still be legal but no longer be as useful for estate tax avoidance. If the provision makes it into law, “it would put a major dent in GRATs," said Bob Lord, an Arizona attorney who specializes in trusts and estates.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has proposed going further in undercutting estate tax avoidance tools. But the prospect of any reform is uncertain, as Democrats on Capitol Hill struggle to find the votes to pass the package of spending and tax changes.

GRATs are commonly described by tax lawyers as a “heads I win, tails we tie" proposition. If the investment placed in the GRAT soars in value, that increase passes to an heir without being subject to future estate tax. If the investment doesn't go up, the wealthy person can simply try again and again until they succeed, leading many users to have multiple GRATs going at a time.

For example, Herb Simon, founder of the country's biggest shopping mall empire and owner of the Indiana Pacers, was one of the most prolific GRAT creators in records reviewed by ProPublica. Since 2000, he has hatched dozens of the trusts, often more than one a year. In an interview with The Indianapolis Star in 2017, the octogenarian Simon said, “It's always a big tax problem" for the next generation when someone dies, “but we've worked that tax problem. We won't have a problem with that."

A spokesperson for Simon didn't respond to questions for this article.

Mentions of these trusts have periodically surfaced in the press after being disclosed in securities filings, as was the case with trusts held by Facebook co-founders Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. In 2013, Bloomberg News published a groundbreaking series on GRATs, mining securities filings and other records to reveal how the mega-rich, including casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and such families as Walmart's Waltons, had perfected the use of the device.

ProPublica's data shows that Michael Bloomberg, the majority owner of the company that bears his name and No. 13 on Forbes' list of the wealthiest Americans, is himself a heavy user of GRATs. Over the course of a dozen years, he repeatedly cycled pieces of his private company in and out of the trusts — often opening multiple GRATs in one year. During that time, hundreds of millions of dollars in income flowed through Bloomberg's GRATs, giving him opportunities to shield parts of his fortune for his heirs.

ProPublica described the transactions (but not the name of the person engaging in them) to Lord, the trusts and estates attorney. The GRAT is “the perfect loophole to avoid estate and gift tax in this situation," said Lord, who is also tax counsel for Americans for Tax Fairness and an advocate for estate tax reform.

When Bloomberg ran for president in 2020, he vowed to shore up the estate tax. “Owners of the biggest estates are expert at gaming the system to reduce what they owe," a campaign fact sheet for his tax plan said. Bloomberg vowed to “lower the estate-tax threshold, so that more estates are taxed," and to “shut down multiple estate-tax avoidance schemes." His fact sheet offered few details as to how he would do that, and it didn't mention GRATs.

The legislation Congress is now considering to curtail GRATs would leave open other options for estate tax avoidance, including a cousin to the GRAT known as a charitable lead annuity trust, or CLAT, which contributes to charity while passing gains from stocks and other assets on to heirs. And the legislation would grandfather in existing trusts, meaning that those who have already established trusts would be able to continue to use them to avoid paying estate taxes.

That has set off a predictable push by tax lawyers to get their clients to create tax-sheltering trusts before any new legislation takes effect.

Porter Wright, a law firm that offers estate planning services, told existing and potential clients it was “critical" to evaluate opportunities because “the window may close very soon. There are important and time sensitive issues which could substantially impact the amount of wealth you are able to transfer free of estate and gift tax to future generations."

Landlords use secret algorithms to screen potential tenants. Find out what they’ve said about you.

In this guide, you'll find answers to the following questions:

Do I have a tenant score?

How can these scores affect me?

Where do I find my score?

My score is bad. What can I do to improve it?

What should I know when I apply for housing in the future?

How do I request my score from a screening company?

The company won't turn over my score. What can I do?

How can I help ProPublica investigate tenant scores?

If you've ever applied to rent a home or apartment, you may have a tenant score. Tenant scores are different from your credit score. Tenant screening companies plug your personal details into secret algorithms and rate you as a potential tenant. These scores can have a huge impact on your life when you're trying to get approved for an apartment.

Unlike with credit scores, federal regulators do not review the tenant scoring models or algorithms. There is little guidance available on how to improve your score. It's not even easy to find out whether a company has given you a score.

My former apartment building used a tenant screening company called LeasingDesk, so I requested to see my file through LeasingDesk's website. Five days later, a one-page report showed up in my inbox. It contained a surprising amount of detail about me, with everything from my previous address at a house where I sublet a room one summer in college nearly 20 years ago to a $100 late fee I paid in 2018. I had no evictions or criminal history, but the report was full of information that could hurt my ability to negotiate a lower rent price if shared with future landlords. However, the report did not show my tenant score.

When I called LeasingDesk, a customer service representative told me the company deletes all scores 60 days after a screening.

But the consumer lawyers we spoke with for this project expressed doubts my score had been deleted, saying they had requested and seen much older tenant scores and reports during lawsuits against LeasingDesk's parent company, RealPage Inc. I decided to keep trying, and sent LeasingDesk another request for my score via a certified letter. In an Aug. 27 email, the company assigned my request a case number but gave no hints about when I might receive a response or whether it would include my score.

Tenant scores affect a lot of people, and that's why we are reporting on it. We would appreciate hearing about your experiences with these companies, too. Tell us about your tenant scores and how they compare to your credit scores below.

Do I have a tenant score?

Maybe. Many tenants are unaware they have been rated by a tenant screening company.

Depending on the laws in your state, your landlord may not be required to share your score or your screening report with you unless you are denied housing. The best way to find out if you have a tenant score is to ask your landlord or property manager for the name of the tenant screening companies they used to screen you, according to San Francisco attorney Craig Davis.

How can these scores affect me?

Landlords may use tenant scores to decide whether to rent to you or how much to charge you for a security deposit. We have heard from tenants who say scores have impacted their ability to find housing. Other renters have reported being denied for apartments or asked to pay double in security deposits because of their tenant scores.

Where do I find my score?

Some tenants receive their scores in housing approval or denial letters. If you haven't, Davis recommends asking your landlord or property manager for your screening report. Davis said he's heard from some clients that property managers and landlords have pushed back against these requests, saying they can't release the reports to tenants directly. But Davis said you have the right to see your report. In fact, the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act requires tenant screening companies to provide you with a report upon request listing all the information the company has on you.

My score is bad. What can I do to improve it?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends checking your report for any inaccurate information. You have the right to dispute any incorrect information and ask for the screening company to remove it from your file. You can use the same contact methods as below. If the company says it has received information from court records or credit agencies, you will need to fix your record with those agencies first.

What should I know when I apply for housing in the future?

Here's some advice from the CFPB:

  • If you are applying as a tenant for a residential property, ask the management company for the names of all consumer reporting companies it will be using to screen you.
  • Contact the tenant screening companies to fact-check your information and dispute any inaccuracies. A tenant screening report with negative information in it, such as prior housing evictions, could result in a rejected lease application, or it may get approved but with tough conditions inserted into the lease agreement such as requiring you to pay 12 months of rent in advance.
  • If a landlord refuses to rent to you or charges you more because of something in a background check, be sure to know your rights and protections.

How do I request my score from a screening company?

It's unclear how many tenant screening companies exist. There is no comprehensive list, so below we've compiled a list of a dozen of the more well-known tenant screening companies with directions on how to request your free report, which may contain your score.

Many of these screening companies allow you to request your report online, over the phone or by mail. But before they send you a report, you will often need to verify your identity by providing your Social Security number, date of birth and a photocopy of your driver's license. If you are wary about giving out this kind of personal information, ask if they can process your request using just your name and the last four digits of your Social Security number.

The company won't turn over my score. What can I do?

Next steps could include consulting a lawyer or sending a formal records request by mail. I mailed a certified letter to RealPage's corporate headquarters, asking for my full consumer file, including my tenant reports and scores and the dates those scores were calculated. I also asked them to provide a list of landlords or companies who had received information about me.

Long-secret FBI report reveals new connections between 9/11 hijackers and Saudi religious officials in the US

A long-suppressed FBI report on Saudi Arabia's connections to the 9/11 plot has revealed that Saudi religious officials stationed in the United States had more significant connections to two of the hijackers than has been previously known.

The 2016 report was released late Saturday night under an executive order from President Joe Biden, who promised to make it public no later than the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks that killed 2,977 people and injured more than 6,000 others. The 16-page document was a final inventory of circumstantial evidence and leads from the FBI's investigation of Saudi ties to the plot; it was heavily redacted.

Nonetheless, lawyers for families of the 9/11 victims, who are suing the Saudi kingdom in federal court, said the document provided important support to their theory that a handful of Saudis connected to their government worked in concert to assist the first two Qaida hijackers sent to the United States in January 2000.

“This validates what we have been saying," said James Kreindler, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs. “The FBI agents working this case detailed a Saudi government support network that was working in 1999, 2000 and 2001 to provide the hijackers with everything they needed to mount the attacks — apartments, money, English lessons, flight school."

The Saudi government has always denied any role in the attacks, noting that al-Qaida and its former leader, Osama bin Laden, were sworn enemies of the royal family. But the 2016 report shows that FBI agents found evidence that several Saudi religious officials working in the United States had connections not only to people who assisted the hijackers but also to other Qaida operatives and suspected extremists. At the time, there were many Saudis in the country who had diplomatic credentials but were mainly involved in religious activity. The FBI later investigated many of them for extremism.

The FBI agents investigating possible Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks were part of a largely secret second phase of the bureau's examination of the plot, called Operation Encore. The story of that inquiry, and the obstacles it faced, was first revealed last year by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine.

The report released on Saturday was written by a senior analyst on the Encore team, John Nicholson, after the leader of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York, Carlos Fernandez, decided with federal prosecutors to reassign Nicholson and the rest of his New York team, effectively shutting down their work.

Although the FBI stopped investigating the case, officials said, it kept the Encore file nominally open until earlier this year. The Justice Department repeatedly cited the continuing inquiry as a primary reason why it could not disclose Encore files to families of the 9/11 victims. But relatives of the victims say the U.S. government has maintained a shield of secrecy to protect the Saudi kingdom from embarrassing revelations.

“There is no reason this shouldn't be brought to light," said Christopher Ganci, a battalion chief in the New York Fire Department, whose father, Peter, was the highest-ranking fire official to die in the attacks. “The American people deserve to know this information. The ground troops, the FBI agents on the street, have been chomping at the bit to have this come out. It's been so frustrating for them and for us."

Among the pieces of new evidence cited in the 2016 report are telephone records showing that a Saudi graduate student who helped the two first hijackers to settle in San Diego was in contact with a Saudi religious official stationed in the United States, who in turn had connections to other Qaida operatives and later became a target of a new investigation.

The Saudi student, Omar al-Bayoumi, was a middle-aged man who rarely attended classes and was being paid surreptitiously by the Saudi Defense Ministry, where he had previously worked. Starting in 1998, the FBI had investigated him for suspected extremist activity, but that inquiry was inconclusive.

An FBI official who was a case agent for the bureau's initial investigation of the attacks, Jacqueline Maguire, testified to the bipartisan 9/11 Commission in 2004 that “by all indications" Bayoumi's first meeting with the hijackers “was a random encounter." Maguire and other FBI officials have described Bayoumi as an unwitting accomplice.

But the Encore team came to believe that Bayoumi not only gave extensive help to the two Qaida operatives, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar, but later lied about his dealings with them and others.

Although Mihdhar and Hazmi were seasoned Qaida operatives, they spoke virtually no English, could not read street signs and were unable to navigate around the United States without considerable help, people who knew them told investigators. The Encore team believed that a support network of Saudi officials and other extremists in Southern California mobilized before their arrival in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2000.

Witness testimony in the 2016 report provides the strongest evidence yet that on Feb. 1, 2000, Bayoumi went directly from a meeting at the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles to a nearby cafe, where he waited for Hazmi and Mihdhar, approached them when they arrived and then spent about half an hour speaking with them.

Another witness, who appears to be a former Yemeni student in Los Angeles, told the FBI that a friend of his was tasked with helping the hijackers by a Saudi imam assigned to the Saudi Consulate, Fahad al-Thumairy. The FBI report quotes the witness as saying his friend, an Eritrean worshipper at Thumairy's mosque named Mohammed Johar, was instructed to take the two hijackers to the cafe where they met Bayoumi.

In interviews through his lawyer with ProPublica and in his statements to the FBI, Johar denied having been asked by Thumairy to assist the hijackers as well as allegations that he provided lodging for them at Thumairy's direction. According to the 2016 report, he said that a few days after the lunch meeting, he took Hazmi and Mihdhar to a Greyhound station to catch a bus to San Diego. They were met there by Bayoumi, who found them an apartment in his building, loaned them money to rent it, helped them arrange English classes and flying lessons, and introduced them to a circle of other Muslims, including the future Qaida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

FBI officials had previously described Bayoumi as having been in close telephone contact with Thumairy, the Saudi imam and consular official in Los Angeles. The 2016 report reveals that Thumairy was also in telephone contact with the family home in Saudi Arabia of two Qaida militants, Suleyman and Abd al Aziz Al-Khalidi, who were later captured in Afghanistan and sent to the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The detainees' older brother, Issa, was killed by Saudi forces during the 2004 kidnapping of an American worker in Saudi Arabia, Paul Johnson, who was beheaded by his captors.

According to the 2016 report, Thumairy also had telephone contacts with some alleged Muslim extremists in Los Angeles who were suspected of helping Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian who was captured by U.S. border agents as he tried to cross from Canada on his way to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in late 1999. It is not clear if the FBI determined the extent of those suspected connections.

The FBI investigated Thumairy after the attacks, and the State Department withdrew his diplomatic visa on the suspicion that he led a radical Islamist faction at the King Fahad Mosque in the Los Angeles suburb of Culver City. He was deported to Saudi Arabia when he tried to return to Los Angeles in 2003; he has denied knowing the hijackers or supporting militant causes. Investigators for the 9/11 Commission concluded that he was not a credible witness.

That 2016 report also cites an intriguing but briefly described report from a source that Thumairy received a telephone call from an unidentified person in Malaysia shortly before Hazmi and Mihdhar flew into Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 15, 2000.

It has long been known that the CIA had the hijackers under surveillance in Malaysia as they met there with other Qaida operatives early that January, days before leaving for the United States. The CIA then lost the hijackers' trail and neglected for more than 16 months to alert the FBI, even after learning that at least one of them had entered the United States.

The 2016 report also reveals a new layer to Bayoumi's efforts, noting telephone records that show he was in touch with another Saudi religious official, Mutaeb al-Sudairy, who was then assigned to the Saudi Embassy in Washington. Significantly, “Bayoumi called Sudairy five times" during the crucial period when the hijackers met Bayoumi in Los Angeles and he helped them move to San Diego, the report says.

Sudairy, the son of a prominent Saudi family, traveled extensively in the United States as a Muslim missionary for the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, according to documents and interviews. During this period, the Encore report states that he also spent four months as the roommate of Ziyad Khaleel, a Palestinian-American extremist who was living in Missouri. The FBI investigated Khaleel for terrorism-related activities, including the procurement of a satellite phone for bin Laden, according to court documents and interviews. (Khaleel has since died.)

After the Sept. 11 attacks, an American who knew Sudairy in Missouri reported him to the FBI as a possible extremist. But the Saudi religious official had left the country, and the result of the report is not known.

In 2010, Sudairy caught the FBI's attention again. While examining old phone activity of Bayoumi, an analyst on the Encore team discovered links to Sudairy. Soon afterward, the analyst learned that Sudairy and another official in the religious ministry had recently applied for new U.S. visas to study English at the University of Oklahoma. This was strange because the two Saudis were educated, wealthy officials who had lived and worked in the United States years earlier. Because of their suspected extremist links, agents believed that the plan to study in Oklahoma might be a cover for something more nefarious.

In contrast to other leads developed by the Encore team, FBI leaders took the matter seriously. They authorized an operation to put the two Saudis under full-time surveillance after they landed in the United States, former officials have told ProPublica.

But the episode ended when CIA officers in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, objected strongly to the FBI plan, one former official said. For reasons that remain unclear, the two Saudis canceled the visit at the last minute. Former investigators felt they lost an important opportunity to learn more about the suspected role of Saudi officials in the support network of the Sept. 11 hijackers. The new information about Sudairy raises even more questions about why U.S. authorities were not able to pursue the lead more aggressively in 2010.

Biden says he will open up the government’s secret 9/11 files -- but will they answer the questions that remain?

With families of 9/11 victims threatening to protest his appearance at events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the attacks, President Joe Biden took the notable step last week of ordering the Justice Department and other agencies to disclose new portions of their long-secret files on the Qaida plot.

The executive order on Sept. 3 appears to stave off the prospect that the president might be picketed on the eve of 9/11 memorial services, just days after the final, chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

What remains in doubt is whether the declassification of FBI documents will resolve the mysteries that still surround the case or provide evidence to support the families' claims in a federal lawsuit that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia bears some responsibility for the attacks.

“He has the power to give us closure," a spokesperson for the families, Brett Eagleson, said of the president. “He has now made us a promise, but he still needs to fulfill it."

The relatives' years-long fight against Justice Department secrecy has lately centered on a list of 45 FBI documents that the government has identified as relevant to the families' lawsuit in a federal district court in New York.

Lawyers for the families said those documents represent only a small fraction of the government files they should be entitled to under a 2018 judge's order. That order limits the plaintiffs to information on a handful of figures who have been tied to the first two Qaida hijackers to arrive in the United States, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar.

The two Saudis flew into Los Angeles from Bangkok on Jan. 15, 2000. Although they had been trained as terrorists, they spoke almost no English and had only the vaguest notions about how to operate in a Western society, people who knew them told the FBI after the attacks.

The pair quickly made their way to a new mosque that the Saudi government had built in Culver City, California, not far from Sony Pictures Studios. During a purportedly chance meeting at a nearby cafe, they were invited to settle in San Diego by Omar al-Bayoumi, a shadowy middle-aged Saudi graduate student who had already been investigated by the FBI as a possible spy for the kingdom.

The CIA had been following Hazmi and Mihdhar as they met with other Qaida operatives in Malaysia in early January 2000. The agency somehow lost their trail when the hijackers flew with their own Saudi passports to Thailand and on to Los Angeles. Even after the CIA learned in March 2000 that at least one of the terrorists had entered the country, it did not notify the FBI until late August 2001.

CIA officers would later interrogate the architect of the plot, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, about why he sent the first two hijackers to Southern California and whether they had any support network waiting there. (The bipartisan 9/11 Commission found his account implausible.) But most FBI agents investigating the attacks had limited access to the CIA's intelligence, and even less of that information has since been made public.

Among the other potential pieces of evidence that have never emerged from the government's investigation are closed-circuit videotapes showing Hazmi and Mihdhar's arrival at Los Angeles International Airport. Former FBI investigators said they were never able to locate any tapes despite their repeated requests, leaving questions whether anyone had met the hijackers' plane.

The FBI's handling of evidence it did gather has raised even sharper questions. Just last week, representatives of the 9/11 families wrote to the Justice Department's inspector general, Michael Horowitz, asking that he investigate whether the FBI might have deliberately hidden or destroyed some evidence to avoid its disclosure.

That request followed claims by the government in federal court that it could no longer find some materials and information it had gathered in the inquiry, including FBI witness interviews and telephone records of people linked to the hijackers. Among the items that the bureau has said it had lost is a home video from a party in San Diego where Bayoumi introduced the two hijackers to a group of his friends.

A report in 2020 by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine recounted that soon after the FBI launched Operation Encore, a follow-on investigation to the original 9/11 case, in 2007, agents learned that FBI archivists were about to dispose of evidence seized from Bayoumi in the days after the attacks.

Those materials included a diagram that seemed to show the trajectory of a plane crashing to the ground — resembling the way that American Airlines Flight 77, which Hazmi and Mihdhar helped to hijack, had flown into the Pentagon. A former commercial airline pilot who reviewed the diagram in 2012told FBI agents there was “a reasonable basis" to suspect that it might have been used in preparation for the attacks, according to a newly disclosed statement in the federal litigation.

At the center of the 9/11 families' lawsuit is the theory that Bayoumi and a Saudi religious official based in Los Angeles, Fahad al-Thumairy, provided help to the two hijackers. In an interview with the 9/11 Commission, Bayoumi claimed he had no idea the men were Qaida members. Thumairy told the commission staff he did not even recall meeting the two men.

Most of the U.S. national security establishment has long discounted the possibility that the Saudi royal family might have knowingly supported the plot. The kingdom viewed Osama bin Laden as a subversive enemy, and the attacks had overwhelmingly negative repercussions for Saudi interests.

But questions remain about the ties between the Qaida operatives and Saudi religious institutions. Saudi clerics operated with considerable autonomy before 9/11, propagating the kingdom's conservative Wahhabi doctrine around the world with generous funding from the state. They also supported a number of charities tied to al-Qaida and other militant Islamist groups.

After 9/11, two teams of FBI investigators began to examine the activities of Saudi religious officials who had been operating in the United States. By 2006, the bureau had quietly forced dozens of accredited diplomats and others to leave the country, usually without filing any criminal charges.

Operation Encore, which is also referred to as “the subfile case," concentrated closely on Hazmi and Mihdhar and the people who assisted them in California. But the investigators also left behind big holes: Although they discovered that Bayoumi was not actually studying and was being paid indirectly by a Saudi defense agency, for instance, they were unable to determine whether he had ties to the kingdom's intelligence services or its religious bureaucracy.

Encore received little support from senior FBI officials, agents involved in the effort said. It was effectively shut down in 2016, when the chief of a New York counterterrorism task force disbanded the small team of investigators and analysts who were working the case.

However, as ProPublica revealed last year, a senior analyst on the Encore team left an important marker behind. Before moving on to a new post, other investigators said, the analyst compiled a detailed 16-page summary of the Encore findings and filed it electronically so that it could not be easily deleted from the FBI's computer system. That document, dated April 4, 2016, is one that Biden specifically ordered the Justice Department to review for declassification “no later" than Sept. 11 of this year.

Until last month, the Justice Department had argued repeatedly in court that the FBI could not disclose key documents from the 9/11 inquiry because its investigation was ongoing. Since 2017, though, virtually no significant investigative activity has been cited in FBI files that have been shared with lawyers for the families.

During his campaign, Biden wrote to the 9/11 families that he supported their quest for “full truth and accountability" in the attacks, promising new transparency if he was elected. After more than 1,700 family members warned him to avoid memorial events this year unless he made good on his pledge, the Justice Department announced on Aug. 9 that the FBI had finally closed the Encore investigation and would work to “identify additional information appropriate for disclosure."

That wasn't good enough, the families responded. As they moved forward with plans for anti-Biden protests one day before the 20th anniversary, the president issued his executive order.

The aggressive secrecy of the Justice Department peaked under the Trump administration and former Attorney General William Barr, who asserted in 2019 that materials from the FBI investigation must be protected as state secrets. But efforts to safeguard both intelligence sources and Saudi sensitivities date back to the Bush and Obama administrations.

“The Bush administration was cozy with the Saudis, and Obama didn't want to fight and was concerned about keeping Saudi support because of ISIS," one former senior intelligence official said. “Now, there is an opportunity for this administration to say, yes, the Saudi relationship is important, but we can take a different approach to this issue."

How Trump's 'Big Lie' inspired thousands of supporters to take over the GOP at the local level

One of the loudest voices urging Donald Trump's supporters to push for overturning the presidential election results was Steve Bannon. “We're on the point of attack," Bannon, a former Trump adviser and far-right nationalist, pledged on his popular podcast on Jan. 5. “All hell will break loose tomorrow." The next morning, as thousands massed on the National Mall for a rally that turned into an attack on the Capitol, Bannon fired up his listeners: “It's them against us. Who can impose their will on the other side?"
When the insurrection failed, Bannon continued his campaign for his former boss by other means. On his “War Room" podcast, which has tens of millions of downloads, Bannon said President Trump lost because the Republican Party sold him out. “This is your call to action," Bannon said in February, a few weeks after Trump had pardoned him of federal fraud charges.

The solution, Bannon announced, was to seize control of the GOP from the bottom up. Listeners should flood into the lowest rung of the party structure: the precincts. “It's going to be a fight, but this is a fight that must be won, we don't have an option," Bannon said on his show in May. “We're going to take this back village by village … precinct by precinct."

Precinct officers are the worker bees of political parties, typically responsible for routine tasks like making phone calls or knocking on doors. But collectively, they can influence how elections are run. In some states, they have a say in choosing poll workers, and in others they help pick members of boards that oversee elections.

After Bannon's endorsement, the “precinct strategy" rocketed across far-right media. Viral posts promoting the plan racked up millions of views on pro-Trump websites, talk radio, fringe social networks and message boards, and programs aligned with the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Suddenly, people who had never before showed interest in party politics started calling the local GOP headquarters or crowding into county conventions, eager to enlist as precinct officers. They showed up in states Trump won and in states he lost, in deep-red rural areas, in swing-voting suburbs and in populous cities.

In Wisconsin, for instance, new GOP recruits are becoming poll workers. County clerks who run elections in the state are required to hire parties' nominees. The parties once passed on suggesting names, but now hardline Republican county chairs are moving to use those powers.

“We're signing up election inspectors like crazy right now," said Outagamie County party chair Matt Albert, using the state's formal term for poll workers. Albert, who held a “Stop the Steal" rally during Wisconsin's November recount, said Bannon's podcast had played a role in the burst of enthusiasm.

ProPublica contacted GOP leaders in 65 key counties, and 41 reported an unusual increase in signups since Bannon's campaign began. At least 8,500 new Republican precinct officers (or equivalent lowest-level officials) joined those county parties. We also looked at equivalent Democratic posts and found no similar surge.

“I've never seen anything like this, people are coming out of the woodwork," said J.C. Martin, the GOP chairman in Polk County, Florida, who has added 50 new committee members since January. Martin had wanted congressional Republicans to overturn the election on Jan. 6, and he welcomed this wave of like-minded newcomers. “The most recent time we saw this type of thing was the tea party, and this is way beyond it."

Bannon, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.

While party officials largely credited Bannon's podcast with driving the surge of new precinct officers, it's impossible to know the motivations of each new recruit. Precinct officers are not centrally tracked anywhere, and it was not possible to examine all 3,000 counties nationwide. ProPublica focused on politically competitive places that were discussed as targets in far-right media.

The tea party backlash to former President Barack Obama's election foreshadowed Republican gains in the 2010 midterm. Presidential losses often energize party activists, and it would not be the first time that a candidate's faction tried to consolidate control over the party apparatus with the aim of winning the next election.

What's different this time is an uncompromising focus on elections themselves. The new movement is built entirely around Trump's insistence that the electoral system failed in 2020 and that Republicans can't let it happen again. The result is a nationwide groundswell of party activists whose central goal is not merely to win elections but to reshape their machinery.

“They feel President Trump was rightfully elected president and it was taken from him," said Michael Barnett, the GOP chairman in Palm Beach County, Florida, who has enthusiastically added 90 executive committee members this year. “They feel their involvement in upcoming elections will prevent something like that from happening again."

It has only been a few months — too soon to say whether the wave of newcomers will ultimately succeed in reshaping the GOP or how they will affect Republican prospects in upcoming elections. But what's already clear is that these up-and-coming party officers have notched early wins.

In Michigan, one of the main organizers recruiting new precinct officers pushed for the ouster of the state party's executive director, who contradicted Trump's claim that the election was stolen and who later resigned. In Las Vegas, a handful of Proud Boys, part of the extremist group whose members have been charged in attacking the Capitol, supported a bid to topple moderates controlling the county party — a dispute that's now in court.

In Phoenix, new precinct officers petitioned to unseat county officials who refused to cooperate with the state Senate Republicans' “forensic audit" of 2020 ballots. Similar audits are now being pursued by new precinct officers in Michigan and the Carolinas. Outside Atlanta, new local party leaders helped elect a state lawmaker who championed Georgia's sweeping new voting restrictions.

And precinct organizers are hoping to advance candidates such as Matthew DePerno, a Michigan attorney general hopeful who Republican state senators said in a report had spread “misleading and irresponsible" misinformation about the election, and Mark Finchem, a member of the Oath Keepers militia who marched to the Capitol on Jan. 6 and is now running to be Arizona's top elections official. DePerno did not respond to requests for comment, and Finchem asked for questions to be sent by email and then did not respond. Finchem has said he did not enter the Capitol or have anything to do with the violence. He has also said the Oath Keepers are not anti-government.

When Bannon interviewed Finchem on an April podcast, he wrapped up a segment about Arizona Republicans' efforts to reexamine the 2020 results by asking Finchem how listeners could help. Finchem answered by promoting the precinct strategy. “The only way you're going to see to it this doesn't happen again is if you get involved," Finchem said. “Become a precinct committeeman."

Some of the new precinct officers were in the crowd that marched to the Capitol on Jan. 6, according to interviews and social media posts; one Texas precinct chair was arrested for assaulting police in Washington. He pleaded not guilty. Many of the new activists have said publicly that they support QAnon, the online conspiracy theory that believes Trump was working to root out a global child sex trafficking ring. Organizers of the movement have encouraged supporters to bring weapons to demonstrations. In Las Vegas and Savannah, Georgia, newcomers were so disruptive that they shut down leadership elections.

“They're not going to be welcomed with open arms," Bannon said, addressing the altercations on an April podcast. “But hey, was it nasty at Lexington?" he said, citing the opening battle of the American Revolution. “Was it nasty at Concord? Was it nasty at Bunker Hill?"

Bannon plucked the precinct strategy out of obscurity. For more than a decade, a little-known Arizona tea party activist named Daniel J. Schultz has been preaching the plan. Schultz failed to gain traction, despite winning a $5,000 prize from conservative direct-mail pioneer Richard Viguerie in 2013 and making a 2015 pitch on Bannon's far-right website, Breitbart. Schultz did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In December, Schultz appeared on Bannon's podcast to argue that Republican-controlled state legislatures should nullify the election results and throw their state's Electoral College votes to Trump. If lawmakers failed to do that, Bannon asked, would it be the end of the Republican Party? Not if Trump supporters took over the party by seizing precinct posts, Schultz answered, beginning to explain his plan. Bannon cut him off, offering to return to the idea another time.

That time came in February. Schultz returned to Bannon's podcast, immediately preceding Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO who spouts baseless conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

“We can take over the party if we invade it," Schultz said. “I can't guarantee you that we'll save the republic, but I can guarantee you this: We'll lose it if we conservatives don't take over the Republican Party."

Bannon endorsed Schultz's plan, telling “all the unwashed masses in the MAGA movement, the deplorables" to take up this cause. Bannon said he had more than 400,000 listeners, a count that could not be independently verified.

Bannon brought Schultz back on the show at least eight more times, alongside guests such as embattled Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, a leading defender of people jailed on Capitol riot charges.

The exposure launched Schultz into a full-blown far-right media tour. In February, Schultz spoke on a podcast with Tracy “Beanz" Diaz, a leading popularizer of QAnon. In an episode titled “THIS Is How We Win," Diaz said of Schultz, “I was waiting, I was wishing and hoping for the universe to deliver someone like him."

Schultz himself calls QAnon “a joke." Nevertheless, he promoted his precinct strategy on at least three more QAnon programs in recent months, according to Media Matters, a Democratic-aligned group tracking right-wing content. “I want to see many of you going and doing this," host Zak Paine said on one of the shows in May.

Schultz's strategy also got a boost from another prominent QAnon promoter: former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who urged Trump to impose martial law and “rerun" the election. On a May online talk show, Flynn told listeners to fill “thousands of positions that are vacant at the local level."

Precinct recruitment is now “the forefront of our mission" for Turning Point Action, according to the right-wing organization's website. The group's parent organization bussed Trump supporters to Washington for Jan. 6, including at least one person who was later charged with assaulting police. He pleaded not guilty. In July, Turning Point brought Trump to speak in Phoenix, where he called the 2020 election “the greatest crime in history." Outside, red-capped volunteers signed people up to become precinct chairs.

Organizers from around the country started huddling with Schultz for weekly Zoom meetings. The meetings' host, far-right blogger Jim Condit Jr. of Cincinnati, kicked off a July call by describing the precinct strategy as the last alternative to violence. “It's the only idea," Condit said, “unless you want to pick up guns like the Founding Fathers did in 1776 and start to try to take back our country by the Second Amendment, which none of us want to do."

By the next week, though, Schultz suggested the new precinct officials might not stay peaceful. Schultz belonged to a mailing list for a group of military, law enforcement and intelligence veterans called the “1st Amendment Praetorian" that organizes security for Flynn and other pro-Trump figures. Back in the 1990s, Schultz wrote an article defending armed anti-government militias like those involved in that decade's deadly clashes with federal agents in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas.

“Make sure everybody's got a baseball bat," Schultz said on the July strategy conference call, which was posted on YouTube. “I'm serious about this. Make sure you've got people who are armed."

The sudden demand for low-profile precinct positions baffled some party leaders. In Fort Worth, county chair Rick Barnes said numerous callers asked about becoming a “precinct committeeman," quoting the term used on Bannon's podcast. That suggested that out-of-state encouragement played a role in prompting the calls, since Texas's term for the position is “precinct chair." Tarrant County has added 61 precinct chairs this year, about a 24% increase since February. “Those podcasts actually paid off," Barnes said.

For weeks, about five people a day called to become precinct chairs in Outagamie County, Wisconsin, southwest of Green Bay. Albert, the county party chair, said he would explain that Wisconsin has no precinct chairs, but newcomers could join the county party — and then become poll workers. “We're trying to make sure that our voice is now being reinserted into the process," Albert said.

Similarly, the GOP in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, is fielding a surge of volunteers for precinct committee members, but also for election judges or inspectors, which are party-affiliated elected positions in that state. “Who knows what happened on Election Day for real," county chair Lou Capozzi said in an interview. The county GOP sent two busloads of people to Washington for Jan. 6 and Capozzi said they stayed peaceful. “People want to make sure elections remain honest."

Elsewhere, activists inspired by the precinct strategy have targeted local election boards. In DeKalb County, east of Atlanta, the GOP censured a long-serving Republican board member who rejected claims of widespread fraud in 2020. To replace him, new party chair Marci McCarthy tapped a far-right activist known for false, offensive statements. The party nominees to the election board have to be approved by a judge, and the judge in this case rejected McCarthy's pick, citing an “extraordinary" public outcry. McCarthy defended her choice but ultimately settled for someone less controversial.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, more than 1,000 people attended the county GOP convention in March, up from the typical 300 to 400. The chair they elected, Alan Swain, swiftly formed an “election integrity committee" that's lobbying lawmakers to restrict voting and audit the 2020 results. “We're all about voter and election integrity," Swain said in an interview.

In the rural western part of the state, too, a wave of people who heard Bannon's podcast or were furious about perceived election fraud swept into county parties, according to the new district chair, Michele Woodhouse. The district's member of Congress, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, addressed a crowd at one county headquarters on Aug. 29, at an event that included a raffle for a shotgun.

“If our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, it's going to lead to one place, and it's bloodshed," Cawthorn said, in remarks livestreamed on Facebook, shortly after holding the prize shotgun, which he autographed. “That's right," the audience cheered. Cawthorn went on, “As much as I'm willing to defend our liberty at all costs, there's nothing that I would dread doing more than having to pick up arms against a fellow American, and the way we can have recourse against that is if we all passionately demand that we have election security in all 50 states."

After Cawthorn referred to people arrested on Jan. 6 charges as “political hostages," someone asked, “When are you going to call us to Washington again?" The crowd laughed and clapped as Cawthorn answered, “We are actively working on that one."

Schultz has offered his own state of Arizona as a proof of concept for how precinct officers can reshape the party. The result, Schultz has said, is actions like the state Senate Republicans' “forensic audit" of Maricopa County's 2020 ballots. The “audit," conducted by a private firm with no experience in elections and whose CEO has spread conspiracy theories, has included efforts to identify fraudulent ballots from Asia by searching for traces of bamboo. Schultz has urged activists demanding similar audits in other states to start by becoming precinct officers.

“Because we've got the audit, there's very heightened and intense public interest in the last campaign, and of course making sure election laws are tightened," said Sandra Dowling, a district chair in northwest Maricopa and northern Yuma County whose precinct roster grew by 63% in less than six months. Though Dowling says some other district chairs screen their applicants, she doesn't. “I don't care," she said.

One chair who does screen applicants is Kathy Petsas, a lifelong Republican whose district spans Phoenix and Paradise Valley. She also saw applications explode earlier this year. Many told her that Schultz had recruited them, and some said they believed in QAnon. “Being motivated by conspiracy theories is no way to go through life, and no way for us to build a high-functioning party," Petsas said. “That attitude can't prevail."

As waves of new precinct officers flooded into the county party, Petsas was dismayed to see some petitioning to recall their own Republican county supervisors for refusing to cooperate with the Senate GOP's audit.

“It is not helpful to our democracy when you have people who stand up and do the right thing and are honest communicators about what's going on, and they get lambasted by our own party," Petsas said. “That's a problem."

This spring, a team of disaffected Republican operatives put Schultz's precinct strategy into action in South Carolina, a state that plays an outsize role in choosing presidents because of its early primaries. The operatives' goal was to secure enough delegates to the party's state convention to elect a new chair: far-right celebrity lawyer Lin Wood.

Wood was involved with some of the lawsuits to overturn the presidential election that courts repeatedly ruled meritless, or even sanctionable. After the election, Wood said on Bannon's podcast, “I think the audience has to do what the people that were our Founding Fathers did in 1776." On Twitter, Wood called for executing Vice President Mike Pence by firing squad. Wood later said it was “rhetorical hyperbole," but that and other incendiary language got him banned from mainstream social media. He switched to Telegram, an encrypted messaging app favored by deplatformed right-wing influencers, amassing roughly 830,000 followers while repeatedly promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Asked for comment about his political efforts, Wood responded, “Most of your 'facts' are either false or misrepresent the truth." He declined to cite specifics.

Typically, precinct meetings were “a yawner," according to Mike Connett, a longtime party member in Horry County, best known for its popular beach towns. But in April, Connett and other establishment Republicans were caught off guard when 369 people, many of them newcomers, showed up for the county convention in North Myrtle Beach. Connett lost a race for a leadership role to Diaz, the prominent QAnon supporter, and Wood's faction captured the county's other executive positions plus 35 of 48 delegate slots, enabling them to cast most of the county's votes for Wood at the state convention. “It seemed like a pretty clean takeover," Connett told ProPublica.

In Greenville, the state's most populous county, Wood campaign organizers Jeff Davis and Pressley Stutts mobilized a surge of supporters at the county convention — about 1,400 delegates, up from roughly 550 in 2019 — and swept almost all of the 79 delegate positions. That gave Wood's faction the vast majority of the votes in two of South Carolina's biggest delegations.

Across the state, the precinct strategy was contributing to an unprecedented surge in local party participation, according to data provided by a state GOP spokeswoman. In 2019, 4,296 people participated. This year, 8,524 did.

“It's a prairie fire down there in Greenville, South Carolina, brought on by the MAGA posse," Bannon said on his podcast.

Establishment party leaders realized they had to take Wood's challenge seriously. The incumbent chair, Drew McKissick, had Trump's endorsement three times over — including twice after Wood entered the race. But Wood fought back by repeatedly implying that McKissick and other prominent state Republicans were corrupt and involved in various conspiracies that seemed related to QAnon. The race became heated enough that after one event, Wood and McKissick exchanged angry words face-to-face.

Wood's rallies were raucous affairs packed with hundreds of people, energized by right-wing celebrities like Flynn and Lindell. In interviews, many attendees described the events as their first foray into politics, sometimes referencing Schultz and always citing Trump's stolen election myth. Some said they'd resort to violence if they felt an election was stolen again.

Wood's campaign wobbled in counties that the precinct strategy had not yet reached. At the state convention in May, Wood won about 30% of the delegates, commanding Horry, Greenville and some surrounding counties, but faltering elsewhere. A triumphant McKissick called Wood's supporters “a fringe, rogue group" and vowed to turn them into a “leper colony" by building parallel Republican organizations in their territory.

But Wood and his partisans did not act defeated. The chairmanship election, they argued, was as rigged as the 2020 presidential race. Wood threw a lavish party at his roughly 2,000-acre low-country estate, secured by armed guards and surveillance cameras. From a stage fit for a rock concert on the lawn of one of his three mansions, Wood promised the fight would continue.

Diaz and her allies in Horry County voted to censure McKissick. The county's longtime Republicans tried, but failed, to oust Diaz and her cohort after one of the people involved in drafting Wood tackled a protester at a Flynn speech in Greenville. (This incident, the details of which are disputed, prompted Schultz to encourage precinct strategy activists to arm themselves.) Wood continued promoting the precinct strategy to his Telegram followers, and scores replied that they were signing up.

In late July, Stutts and Davis forced out Greenville County GOP's few remaining establishment leaders, claiming that they had cheated in the first election. Then Stutts, Davis and an ally won a new election to fill those vacant seats. “They sound like Democrats, right?" Bannon asked Stutts in a podcast interview. Stutts replied, “They taught the Democrats how to cheat, Steve."

Stutts' group quickly pushed for an investigation of the 2020 presidential election, planning a rally featuring Davis and Wood at the end of August, and began campaigning against vaccine and school mask mandates. “I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery," Stutts had previously posted on Facebook, quoting Thomas Jefferson. Stutts continued posting messages skeptical of vaccine and mask mandates even after he entered the hospital with a severe case of COVID-19. He died on Aug. 19.

The hubbub got so loud inside the Cobb County, Georgia, Republican headquarters that it took several shouts and whistles to get everyone's attention. It was a full house for Salleigh Grubbs' first meeting as the county's party chair. Grubbs ran on a vow to “clean house" in the election system, highlighting her December testimony to state lawmakers in which she raised unsubstantiated fraud allegations. Supporters praised Grubbs' courage for following a truck she suspected of being used in a plot to shred evidence. She attended Trump's Jan. 6 rally as a VIP. She won the chairmanship decisively at an April county convention packed with an estimated 50% first-time participants.

In May, Grubbs opened her first meeting by asking everyone munching on bacon and eggs to listen to her recite the Gettysburg Address. “Think of the battle for freedom that Americans have before them today," Grubbs said. “Those people fought and died so that you could be the precinct chair." After the reading, first-time precinct officers stood for applause and cheers.

Their work would start right away: putting up signs, making calls and knocking on doors for a special election for the state House. The district had long leaned Republican, but after the GOP's devastating losses up and down the ballot in 2020, they didn't know what to expect.

“There's so many people out there that are scared, they feel like their vote doesn't count," Cooper Guyon, a 17-year-old right-wing podcaster from the Atlanta area who speaks to county parties around the state, told the Cobb Republicans in July. The activists, he said, need to “get out in these communities and tell them that we are fighting to make your vote count by passing the Senate bill, the election-reform bills that are saving our elections in Georgia."

Of the field's two Republicans, Devan Seabaugh took the strongest stance in favor of Georgia's new law restricting ways to vote and giving the Republican-controlled Legislature more power over running elections. “The only people who may be inconvenienced by Senate Bill 202 are those intent on committing fraud," he wrote in response to a local newspaper's candidate questionnaire.

Seabaugh led the June special election and won a July runoff. Grubbs cheered the win as a turning point. “We are awake. We are preparing," she wrote on Facebook. “The conservative citizens of Cobb County are ready to defend our ballots and our county."

Newcomers did not meet such quick success everywhere. In Savannah, a faction crashed the Chatham County convention with their own microphone, inspired by Bannon's podcast to try to depose the incumbent party leaders who they accused of betraying Trump. Party officers blocked the newcomers' candidacies, saying they weren't officially nominated. Shouting erupted, and the meeting adjourned without a vote. Then the party canceled its districtwide convention.

The state party ultimately sided with the incumbent leaders. District chair Carl Smith said the uprising is bound to fail because the insurgents are mistaken in believing that he and other local leaders didn't fight hard enough for Trump.

“You can't build a movement on a lie," Smith said.

In Michigan, activists who identify with a larger movement working against Republicans willing to accept Trump's loss have captured the party leadership in about a dozen counties. They're directly challenging state party leaders, who are trying to harness the grassroots energy without indulging demands to keep fighting over the last election.

Some of the takeovers happened before the rise of the precinct strategy. But the activists are now organizing under the banner “Precinct First" and holding regular events, complete with notaries, to sign people up to run for precinct delegate positions.

“We are reclaiming our party," Debra Ell, one of the organizers, told ProPublica. “We're building an 'America First' army."

Under normal rules, the wave of new precinct delegates could force the party to nominate far-right candidates for key state offices. That's because in Michigan, party nominees for attorney general, secretary of state and lieutenant governor are chosen directly by party delegates rather than in public primaries. But the state party recently voted to hold a special convention earlier next year, which should effectively lock in candidates before the new, more radical delegates are seated.

Activist-led county parties including rural Hillsdale and Detroit-area Macomb are also censuring Republican state legislators for issuing a June report on the 2020 election that found no evidence of systemic fraud and no need for a reexamination of the results like the one in Arizona. (The censures have no enforceable impact beyond being a public rebuke of the politicians.) At the same time, county party leaders in Hillsdale and elsewhere are working on a ballot initiative to force an Arizona-style election review.

Establishment Republicans have their own idea for a ballot initiative — one that could tighten rules for voter ID and provisional ballots while sidestepping the Democratic governor's veto. If the initiative collects hundreds of thousands of valid signatures, it would be put to a vote by the Republican-controlled state Legislature. Under a provision of the state constitution, the state Legislature can adopt the measure and it can't be vetoed.

State party leaders recently reached out to the activists rallying around the rejection of the presidential election results, including Hillsdale Republican Party Secretary Jon Smith, for help. Smith, Ell and others agreed to join the effort, the two activists said.

“This empowers them," Jason Roe, the state party executive director whose ouster the activists demanded because he said Trump was responsible for his own loss, told ProPublica. Roe resigned in July, citing unrelated reasons. “It's important to get them focused on change that can actually impact" future elections, he said, “instead of keeping their feet mired in the conspiracy theories of 2020."

Jesse Law, who ran the Trump campaign's Election Day operations in Nevada, sued the Democratic electors, seeking to declare Trump the winner or annul the results. The judge threw out the case, saying Law's evidence did not meet “any standard of proof," and the Nevada Supreme Court agreed. When the Electoral College met in December, Law stood outside the state capitol to publicly cast mock votes for Trump.

This year, Law set his sights on taking over the Republican Party in the state's largest county, Clark, which encompasses Las Vegas. He campaigned on the precinct strategy, promising 1,000 new recruits. His path to winning the county chairmanship — just like Stutts' team in South Carolina, and Grubbs in Cobb County, Georgia — relied on turning out droves of newcomers to flood the county party and vote for him.

In Law's case, many of those newcomers came through the Proud Boys, the all-male gang affiliated with more than two dozen people charged in the Capitol riot. The Las Vegas chapter boasted about signing up 500 new party members (not all of them belonging to the Proud Boys) to ensure their takeover of the county party. After briefly advancing their own slate of candidates to lead the Clark GOP, the Proud Boys threw their support to Law. They also helped lead a state party censure of Nevada's Republican secretary of state, who rejected the Trump campaign's baseless claims of fraudulent ballots.

Law, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment, has declined to distance himself from the Las Vegas Proud Boys, citing Trump's “stand back and stand by" remark at the September 2020 presidential debate. “When the president was asked if he would disavow, he said no," Law told an independent Nevada journalist in July. “If the president is OK with that, I'm going to take the presidential stance."

The outgoing county chair, David Sajdak, canceled the first planned vote for his successor. He said he was worried the Proud Boys would resort to violence if their newly recruited members, who Sajdak considered illegitimate, weren't allowed to vote.

Sajdak tried again to hold a leadership vote in July, with a meeting in a Las Vegas high school theater, secured by police. But the crowd inside descended into shouting, while more people tried to storm past the cops guarding the back entrance, leading to scuffles. “Let us in! Let us in!" some chanted. Riling them up was at least one Proud Boy, according to multiple videos of the meeting.

At the microphone, Sajdak was running out of patience. “I'm done covering for you awful people," he bellowed. Unable to restore order, Sajdak ended the meeting without a vote and resigned a few hours later. He'd had enough.

“They want to create mayhem," Sajdak said.

Soon after, Law's faction held their own meeting at a hotel-casino and overwhelmingly voted for Law as county chairman. Nevada Republican Party Chairman Michael McDonald, a longtime ally of Law who helped lead Trump's futile effort to overturn the Nevada results, recognized Law as the new county chair and promoted a fundraiser to celebrate. The existing county leaders sued, seeking a court order to block Law's “fraudulent, rogue election." The judge preliminarily sided with the moderates, but told them to hold off on their own election until a court hearing in September.

To Sajdak, agonizing over 2020 is pointless because “there's no mechanism for overturning an election." Asked if Law's allies are determined to create one, Sajdak said: “It's a scary thought, isn't it."

The Education Department will forgive $5.8 billion in student loans for disabled borrowers

The Education Department will forgive $5.8 billion in student loans taken out by borrowers who became seriously disabled, the latest in a series of reforms to a troubled program that left many vulnerable borrowers mired in debt they couldn't repay.

A 2011 investigation by ProPublica, published in partnership with Columbia University's Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, revealed that a flawed Education Department program for assessing disability was leaving many borrowers facing financial hardship from federal student loans they were legally entitled to have dismissed.

Under the new regulation, the department will automatically forgive the debt of borrowers who the Social Security Administration has identified as severely disabled. The department will also move to eliminate a three-year monitoring period after loan discharges that led many borrowers with disabilities to have their debts reinstated due to difficulties with paperwork.

"We've heard loud and clear from borrowers with disabilities and advocates about the need for this change," said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona when the department announced the reforms in August. "This change reduces red tape with the aim of making processes as simple as possible for borrowers who need support."

Our investigation a decade ago found that bureaucratic obstacles often prevented borrowers from getting their loans forgiven. In one case, a borrower in a vegetative state was placed in default for failing to provide the department with income verification. The department had ignored internal recommendations to scrap its dysfunctional review process altogether and accept disability findings from the Social Security Administration.

Weeks after the story was published, the department announced the first in a series of reforms, pledging to write new rules to revamp the program. In 2012, the department agreed to recognize some Social Security disability findings. And in 2016, it sent out letters inviting an estimated 387,000 borrowers with the Social Security designations to file a simplified application form for debt relief.

The department's latest move goes significantly further: It automatically discharges the debts of borrowers who the SSA has determined to be fully disabled. The department will identify these borrowers through a data match rather than requiring them to file applications.

"Providing this relief automatically is a huge deal," said Persis Yu, the director of the National Consumer Law Center's Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project. "Notifying folks is not enough."

Yu said that problems such as outdated mailing addresses, as well as the difficulties many individuals with disabilities face in completing the application process, meant that the majority of eligible borrowers didn't get the relief they were entitled to receive.

Of the more than 800,000 borrowers identified in Social Security data matches as being entitled to relief, only about 300,000 had gotten it, according to a recent report by Yahoo! Finance. The department said the overall number contained some duplicates, and estimated that an additional 323,000 borrowers will have their debts forgiven under the new policy.

The other key element of the new reform is that the government will no longer force borrowers to prove they aren't earning income in order to keep loan forgiveness. In October, it will begin writing new regulations to eliminate a three-year monitoring period that is currently required after discharges are approved.

A 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office found that 98% of reinstatements of discharged loans during the monitoring period occurred because borrowers had failed to submit paperwork, not because their income was too high.

The latest reforms will not eliminate the department's disability review program altogether.

Borrowers who have not applied for or received Social Security disability benefits will not be covered by the data match. Of those who do receive disability payments, only those with the most severe type of disability finding — Medical Improvement Not Expected — will get automatic relief.

Scott Creighton, a former carpenter and draftsperson who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, remains outside of this category. ProPublica examined Creighton's case in its initial investigation. The Education Department had garnished Creighton's Social Security benefits to pay down a decades-old student debt.

Creighton has tried several times in subsequent years to return to work, but his medical condition made it impossible. At one job, he said, his leg would swell up following the hour-long drive to work.

"There's no improving COPD," Creighton said. "Since I spoke to you last time I've had one pulmonary embolism and I've had one heart attack."

In March 2018, an administrative law judge ruled that Creighton remained disabled, but that he was covered under a less severe designation called Medical Improvement Expected. The Education Department is no longer attempting to collect on his loans, Creighton said. But he's worried that they would resume if he tried again to return to work.

The new round of automatic forgiveness will cover only borrowers who the SSA has found are not expected to get better. Since 2019, those with a total disability finding from the Department of Veterans Affairs have also received automatic reprieve. All others must apply to the Education Department if they want their loans dismissed.

"This group of borrowers will still have to jump through the bureaucratic hoops" to get relief, said Yu of the National Consumer Law Center.

"This is a really important development for the folks this is going to impact," she added. "But there's still more to be done."

University of Kansas student group demands campus close amid pandemic -- and plans Labor Day strike

University of Kansas student group demands campus close amid pandemic -- and plans Labor Day strike College students in class (Shutterstock)

40 million people rely on the Colorado River -- and it's drying up fast

On a 110-degree day several years ago, surrounded by piles of sand and rock in the desert outside of Las Vegas, I stepped into a yellow cage large enough to fit three standing adults and was lowered 600 feet through a black hole into the ground. There, at the bottom, amid pooling water and dripping rock, was an enormous machine driving a cone-shaped drill bit into the earth. The machine was carving a cavernous, 3-mile tunnel beneath the bottom of the nation's largest freshwater reservoir, Lake Mead.

Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, is one of the most important pieces of infrastructure on the Colorado River, supplying fresh water to Nevada, California, Arizona and Mexico. The reservoir hasn't been full since 1983. In 2000, it began a steady decline caused by epochal drought. On my visit in 2015, the lake was just about 40% full. A chalky ring on the surrounding cliffs marked where the waterline once reached, like the residue on an empty bathtub. The tunnel far below represented Nevada's latest salvo in a simmering water war: the construction of a $1.4 billion drainage hole to ensure that if the lake ever ran dry, Las Vegas could get the very last drop.

For years, experts in the American West have predicted that, unless the steady overuse of water was brought under control, the Colorado River would no longer be able to support all of the 40 million people who depend on it. Over the past two decades, Western states took incremental steps to save water, signed agreements to share what was left and then, like Las Vegas, did what they could to protect themselves. But they believed the tipping point was still a long way off.

Like the record-breaking heat waves and the ceaseless mega-fires, the decline of the Colorado River has been faster than expected. This year, even though rainfall and snowpack high up in the Rocky Mountains were at near-normal levels, the parched soils and plants stricken by intense heat absorbed much of the water, and inflows to Lake Powell were around one-fourth of their usual amount. The Colorado's flow has already declined by nearly 20%, on average, from its flow throughout the 1900s, and if the current rate of warming continues, the loss could well be 50% by the end of this century.

Earlier this month, federal officials declared an emergency water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time. The shortage declaration forces reductions in water deliveries to specific states, beginning with the abrupt cutoff of nearly one-fifth of Arizona's supply from the river, and modest cuts for Nevada and Mexico, with more negotiations and cuts to follow. But it also sounded an alarm: one of the country's most important sources of fresh water is in peril, another victim of the accelerating climate crisis.

Americans are about to face all sorts of difficult choices about how and where to live as the climate continues to heat up. States will be forced to choose which coastlines to abandon as sea levels rise, which wildfire-prone suburbs to retreat from and which small towns cannot afford new infrastructure to protect against floods or heat. What to do in the parts of the country that are losing their essential supply of water may turn out to be the first among those choices.

The Colorado River's enormous significance extends well beyond the American West. In addition to providing water for the people of seven states, 29 federally recognized tribes and northern Mexico, its water is used to grow everything from the carrots stacked on supermarket shelves in New Jersey to the beef in a hamburger served at a Massachusetts diner. The power generated by its two biggest dams — the Hoover and Glen Canyon — is marketed across an electricity grid that reaches from Arizona to Wyoming.

The formal declaration of the water crisis arrived days after the Census Bureau released numbers showing that, even as the drought worsened over recent decades, hundreds of thousands more people have moved to the regions that depend on the Colorado.

Phoenix expanded more over the past 10 years than any other large American city, while smaller urban areas across Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California each ranked among the fastest-growing places in the country. The river's water supports roughly 15 million more people today than it did when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. These statistics suggest that the climate crisis and explosive development in the West are on a collision course. And it raises the question: What happens next?

Since about 70% of water delivered from the Colorado River goes to growing crops, not to people in cities, the next step will likely be to demand large-scale reductions for farmers and ranchers across millions of acres of land, forcing wrenching choices about which crops to grow and for whom — an omen that many of America's food-generating regions might ultimately have to shift someplace else as the climate warms.

California, so far shielded from major cuts, has already agreed to reductions that will take effect if the drought worsens. But it may be asked to do more. Its enormous share of the river, which it uses to irrigate crops across the Imperial Valley and for Los Angeles and other cities, will be in the crosshairs when negotiations over a diminished Colorado begin again. The Imperial Irrigation District there is the largest single water rights holder from the entire basin and has been especially resistant to compromise over the river. It did not sign the drought contingency plan laying out cuts that other big players on the Colorado system agreed to in 2019.

New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — states in the river's Upper Basin — will most likely also face pressure to use less water. Should that happen, places like Utah that hoped to one day support faster development and economic growth with their share of the river may have to surrender their ambition.

The negotiations that led to the region being even minimally prepared for this latest shortage were agonizing, but they were merely a warm-up for the pain-inflicting cuts and sacrifices that almost certainly will be required if the water shortages persist over the coming decades. The region's leaders, for all their efforts to compromise, have long avoided these more difficult conversations. One way or another, farms will have to surrender their water, and cities will have to live with less of it. Time has run out for other options.

Western states arrived at this crucible in large part because of their own doing. The original multistate compact that governs the use of the Colorado, which was signed in 1922, was exuberantly optimistic: The states agreed to divide up an estimated total amount of water that turned out to be much more than what would actually flow. Nevertheless, with the building of the Hoover Dam to collect and store river water, and the development of the Colorado's plumbing system of canals and pipelines to deliver it, the West was able to open a savings account to fund its extraordinary economic growth. Over the years since, those states have overdrawn the river's average deposits. It should be no surprise that even without the pressures of climate change, such a plan would lead to bankruptcy.

Making a bad situation worse, leaders in Western states have allowed wasteful practices to continue that add to the material threat facing the region. A majority of the water used by farms — and thus much of the river — goes to growing nonessential crops like alfalfa and other grasses that feed cattle for meat production. Much of those grasses are also exported to feed animals in the Middle East and Asia. Short of regulating which types of crops are allowed, which state authorities may not even have the authority to do, it may fall to consumers to drive change. Water usage data suggests that if Americans avoid meat one day each week they could save an amount of water equivalent to the entire flow of the Colorado each year, more than enough water to alleviate the region's shortages.

Water is also being wasted because of flaws in the laws. The rights to take water from the river are generally distributed — like deeds to property — based on seniority. It is very difficult to take rights away from existing stakeholders, whether cities or individual ranchers, so long as they use the water allocated to them. That system creates a perverse incentive: Across the basin, ranchers often take their maximum allocation each year, even if just to spill it on the ground, for fear that, if they don't, they could lose the right to take that water in the future. Changes in the laws that remove the threat of penalties for not exercising water rights, or that expand rewards for ranchers who conserve water, could be an easy remedy.

A breathtaking amount of the water from the Colorado — about 10% of the river's recent total flow — simply evaporates off the sprawling surfaces of large reservoirs as they bake in the sun. Last year, evaporative losses from Lake Mead and Lake Powell alone added up to almost a million acre feet of water — or nearly twice what Arizona will be forced to give up now as a result of this month's shortage declaration. These losses are increasing as the climate warms. Yet federal officials have so far discounted technological fixes — like covering the water surface to reduce the losses — and they continue to maintain both reservoirs, even though both of them are only around a third full. If the two were combined, some experts argue, much of those losses could be avoided.

For all the hard-won progress made at the negotiating table, it remains to be seen whether the stakeholders can tackle the looming challenges that come next. Over the years, Western states and tribes have agreed on voluntary cuts, which defused much of the political chaos that would otherwise have resulted from this month's shortage declaration, but they remain disparate and self-interested parties hoping they can miraculously agree on a way to manage the river without truly changing their ways. For all their wishful thinking, climate science suggests there is no future in the region that does not include serious disruptions to its economy, growth trajectory and perhaps even quality of life.

The uncomfortable truth is that difficult and unpopular decisions are now unavoidable. Prohibiting some water uses as unacceptable — long eschewed as antithetical to personal freedoms and the rules of capitalism — is now what's needed most.

The laws that determine who gets water in the West, and how much of it, are based on the principle of “beneficial use" — generally the idea that resources should further economic advancement. But whose economic advancement? Do we support the farmers in Arizona who grow alfalfa to feed cows in the United Arab Emirates? Or do we ensure the survival of the Colorado River, which supports some 8% of the nation's GDP?

Earlier this month, the Bureau of Reclamation released lesser-noticed projections for water levels, and they are sobering. The figures include an estimate for what the bureau calls “minimum probable in flow" — or the low end of expectations. Water levels in Lake Mead could drop by another 40 vertical feet by the middle 2023, ultimately reaching just 1,026 feet above sea level — an elevation that further threatens Lake Mead's hydroelectric power generation for about 1.3 million people in Arizona, California and Nevada. At 895 feet, the reservoir would become what's called a “dead pool"; water would no longer be able to flow downstream.

The bureau's projections mean we are close to uncharted territory. The current shortage agreement, negotiated between the states in 2007, only addresses shortages down to a lake elevation of 1,025 feet. After that, the rules become murky, and there is greater potential for fraught legal conflicts. Northern states in the region, for example, are likely to ask why the vast evaporation losses from Lake Mead, which stores water for the southern states, have never been counted as a part of the water those southern states use. Fantastical and expensive solutions that have previously been dismissed by the federal government — like the desalinization of seawater, towing icebergs from the Arctic or pumping water from the Mississippi River through a pipeline — are likely to be seriously considered. None of this, however, will be enough to solve the problem unless it's accompanied by serious efforts to lower carbon dioxide emissions, which are ultimately responsible for driving changes to the climate.

Meanwhile, population growth in Arizona and elsewhere in the basin is likely to continue, at least for now, because short-term fixes so far have obscured the seriousness of the risks to the region. Water is still cheap, thanks to the federal subsidies for all those dams and canals that make it seem plentiful. The myth persists that technology can always outrun nature, that the American West holds endless possibility. It may be the region's undoing. As the author Wallace Stegner once wrote: “One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope."

The CDC only tracks a fraction of breakthrough COVID-19 infections -- even as cases surge

The CDC Only Tracks a Fraction of Breakthrough COVID-19 Infections, Even as Cases Surge

by Jenny Deam and Bianca Fortis

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

Series: Coronavirus

The U.S. Response to COVID-19

Meggan Ingram was fully vaccinated when she tested positive for COVID-19 early this month. The 37-year-old's fever had spiked to 103 and her breath was coming in ragged bursts when an ambulance rushed her to an emergency room in Pasco, Washington, on Aug. 10. For three hours she was given oxygen and intravenous steroids, but she was ultimately sent home without being admitted.

Seven people in her house have now tested positive. Five were fully vaccinated and two of the children are too young to get a vaccine.

As the pandemic enters a critical new phase, public health authorities continue to lack data on crucial questions, just as they did when COVID-19 first tore through the United States in the spring of 2020. Today there remains no full understanding on how the aggressively contagious delta variant spreads among the nearly 200 million partially or fully vaccinated Americans like Ingram, or on how many are getting sick.

The nation is flying blind yet again, critics say, because on May 1 of this year — as the new variant found a foothold in the U.S. — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mostly stopped tracking COVID-19 in vaccinated people, also known as breakthrough cases, unless the illness was severe enough to cause hospitalization or death.

Individual states now set their own criteria for collecting data on breakthrough cases, resulting in a muddled grasp of COVID-19's impact, leaving experts in the dark as to the true number of infections among the vaccinated, whether or not vaccinated people can develop long-haul illness, and the risks to unvaccinated children as they return to school.

“It's like saying we don't count," said Ingram after learning of the CDC's policy change. COVID-19 roared through her household, yet it is unlikely any of those cases will show up in federal data because no one died or was admitted to a hospital.

The CDC told ProPublica in an email that it continues to study breakthrough cases, just in a different way. “This shift will help maximize the quality of the data collected on cases of greatest clinical and public health importance," the email said.

In addition to the hospitalization and death information, the CDC is working with Emerging Infections Program sites in 10 states to study breakthrough cases, including some mild and asymptomatic ones, the agency's email said.

Under pressure from some health experts, the CDC announced Wednesday that it will create a new outbreak analysis and forecast center, tapping experts in the private sector and public health to guide it to better predict how diseases spread and to act quickly during an outbreak.

Tracking only some data and not releasing it sooner or more fully, critics say, leaves a gaping hole in the nation's understanding of the disease at a time when it most needs information.

“They are missing a large portion of the infected," said Dr. Randall Olsen, medical director of molecular diagnostics at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas. “If you're limiting yourself to a small subpopulation with only hospitalizations and deaths, you risk a biased viewpoint."

On Wednesday, the CDC released a trio of reports that found that while the vaccine remained effective at keeping vaccinated people out of the hospital, the overall protection appears to be waning over time, especially against the delta variant.

Among nursing home residents, one of the studies showed vaccine effectiveness dropped from 74.7% in the spring to just 53.1% by midsummer. Similarly, another report found that the overall effectiveness among vaccinated New York adults dropped from 91.7% to just under 80% between May and July.

The new findings prompted the Biden administration to announce on Wednesday that people who got a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine will be offered a booster shot eight months after their second dose. The program is scheduled to begin the week of Sept. 20 but needs approval from the Food and Drug Administration and a CDC advisory committee.

This latest development is seen by some as another example of shifting public health messaging and backpedaling that has accompanied every phase of the pandemic for 19 months through two administrations. A little more than a month ago, the CDC and the FDA released a joint statement saying that those who have been fully vaccinated “do not need a booster shot at this time."

The vaccine rollout late last year came with cautious optimism. No vaccine is 100% percent effective against transmission, health officials warned, but the three authorized vaccines proved exceedingly effective against the original COVID-19 strain. The CDC reported a breakthrough infection rate of 0.01% for the months between January and the end of April, although it acknowledged it could be an undercount.

As summer neared, the White House signaled it was time for the vaccinated to celebrate and resume their pre-pandemic lives.

Trouble, though, was looming. Outbreaks of a new, highly contagious variant swept India in the spring and soon began to appear in other nations. It was only a matter of time before it struck here, too.

“The world changed," said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, “when delta invaded."

The current crush of U.S. cases — well over 100,000 per day — has hit the unvaccinated by far the hardest, leaving them at greater risk of serious illness or death. The delta variant is considered at least two or three times more infectious than the original strain of the coronavirus. For months much of the focus by health officials and the White House has been on convincing the resistant to get vaccinated, an effort that has so far produced mixed results.

Yet as spring turned to summer, scattered reports surfaced of clusters of vaccinated people testing positive for the coronavirus. In May, eight vaccinated members of the New York Yankees tested positive. In June, 11 employees of a Las Vegas hospital became infected, eight of whom were fully vaccinated. And then 469 people who visited the Provincetown, Massachusetts, area between July 3 and July 17 became infected even though 74% of them were fully vaccinated, according to the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

While the vast majority of those cases were relatively mild, the Massachusetts outbreak contributed to the CDC reversing itself on July 27 and recommending that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors — 11 weeks after it had told them they could jettison the protection.

And as the new CDC data showed, vaccines continue to effectively shield vaccinated people against the worst outcomes. But those who get the virus are, in fact, often miserably sick and may chafe at the notion that their cases are not being fully counted.

“The vaccinated are not as protected as they think," said Topol, “They are still in jeopardy."

The CDC tracked all breakthrough cases until the end of April, then abruptly stopped without making a formal announcement. A reference to the policy switch appeared on the agency's website in May about halfway down the homepage.

“I was shocked," said Dr. Leana Wen, a physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at George Washington University. “I have yet to hear a coherent explanation of why they stopped tracking this information."

The CDC said in an emailed statement to ProPublica that it decided to focus on the most serious cases because officials believed more targeted data collection would better inform “response research, decisions, and policy."

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., became alarmed after the Provincetown outbreak and wrote to CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on July 22, questioning the decision to limit investigation of breakthrough cases. He asked what type of data was being compiled and how it would be shared publicly.

“The American public must be informed of the continued risk posed by COVID-19 and variants, and public health and medical officials, as well as health care providers, must have robust data and information to guide their decisions on public health measures," the letter said.

Markey asked the agency to respond by Aug. 12. So far the senator has received no reply, and the CDC did not answer ProPublica's question about it.

When the CDC halted its tracking of all but the most severe cases, local and state health departments were left to make up their own rules.

There is now little consistency from state to state or even county to county on what information is gathered about breakthrough cases, how often it is publicly shared, or if it is shared at all.

“We've had a patchwork of information between states since the beginning of the pandemic," said Jen Kates, senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at Kaiser Family Foundation.

She is co-author of a July 30 study that found breakthrough cases across the U.S. remained rare, especially those leading to hospitalization or death. However, the study acknowledged that information was limited because state reporting was spotty. Only half the states provide some data on COVID-19 illnesses in vaccinated people.

“There is no single, public repository for data by state or data on breakthrough infections, since the CDC stopped monitoring them," the report said.

In Texas, where COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing, a state Health and Human Services Commission spokesperson told ProPublica in an email the state agency was “collecting COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough cases of heightened public health interest that result in hospitalization or fatality only."

Other breakthrough case information is not tracked by the state, so it is unclear how often breakthroughs occur or how widely cases are spreading among the vaccinated. And while Texas reports breakthrough deaths and hospitalizations to the CDC, the information is not included on the state's public dashboard.

“We will be making some additions to what we are posting, and these data could be included in the future," the spokesperson said.

South Carolina, on the other hand, makes public its breakthrough numbers on hospitalizations and deaths. Milder breakthrough cases may be included in the state's overall COVID-19 numbers but they are not labeled as such, said Jane Kelly, an epidemiologist at the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

“We agree with the CDC," she said, “there's no need to spend public health resources investigating every asymptomatic or mild infection."

In Utah, state health officials take a different view. “From the beginning of the pandemic we have been committed to being transparent with our data reporting and … the decision to include breakthrough case data on our website is consistent with that approach," said Tom Hudachko, director of communications for the Utah Department of Health.

Some county-level officials said they track as many breakthrough cases as possible even if their state and the CDC does not.

For instance, in Clark County, Nevada, home of Las Vegas, the public health website reported that as of last week there were 225 hospitalized breakthrough cases but 4,377 vaccinated people overall who have tested positive for the coronavirus.

That means that less than 5% of reported breakthrough cases resulted in hospitalization. “The Southern Nevada Health District tracks the total number of fully vaccinated individuals who test positive for COVID-19 and it is a method to provide a fuller picture of what is occurring in our community," said Stephanie Bethel, a spokesperson for the health district in an email.

Sara Schmidt, a 44-year-old elementary school teacher in Alton, Illinois, is another person who has likely fallen through the data hole.

“I thought, 'COVID is over and I'm going to Disney World,'" she said. She planned a five-day trip for the end of July with her parents. Not only had she been fully vaccinated, receiving her second shot in March, she is also sure she had COVID-19 in the summer of 2020. Back then she had all the symptoms but had a hard time getting tested. When she finally did, the result came back negative, but her doctor told her to assume it was inaccurate.

“My guard was down," she said. She was less vigilant about wearing a mask in the Florida summer heat, assuming she was protected by the vaccination and her presumed earlier infection.

On the July 29 plane trip home, she felt mildly sick. Within days she was “absolutely miserable." Her coughing continued to worsen, and each time she coughed her head pounded. On Aug. 1 she tested positive. Her parents were negative.

Now, three weeks later, she is far from fully recovered and classes are about to begin at her school. There's a school mask mandate, but her students are too young to be vaccinated. “I'm worried I will give it to them, or I will get it for a third time," she said.

But it is doubtful her case will be tracked because she was never hospitalized. That infuriates her, she said, because it downplays what is happening.

“Everyone has a right to know how many breakthrough cases there are," she said, “I was under the impression that if I did get a breakthrough case, it would just be sniffles. They make it sound like everything is under control and it's not."

'Half of the family just disappeared overnight'

HOUSTON — It was 9:08 p.m. when Michael Negussie's phone rang. Twenty minutes had passed since he called 911 asking for emergency crews to check on his cousins and their two children, fearing that they had fainted from carbon monoxide poisoning in their Houston home during a massive winter storm.

A fire captain at the dispatch center told Negussie that an emergency crew had arrived at the two-story town house. But, he said, no one was answering the door.

“It's one of those things, if they get there and they have to force entry, they're going to break the door, displace the lock," the captain said, according to a recording of the 911 call.

Negussie was baffled. Why would emergency responders expect someone to come to the door if the reason for the call was that the family was unconscious?

“Yeah, that's fine. Do that as soon as possible," Negussie, 21, responded, trying to convey the urgency. “We think that they might have inhaled carbon monoxide in the garage."

At any other time, Negussie would have driven the 24 miles from his home in Pearland, Texas, to his cousins' southwest Houston neighborhood. But local government officials had urged Texans not to travel the ice-coated roads on this frigid Feb. 15 evening, concerned that they would endanger themselves and first responders.

So Negussie and his parents put their faith in the emergency responders who had arrived at their cousins' home. As the fire crew waited for more information about why the family was not answering the door, the captain at the dispatch center asked Negussie what made him believe his relatives had inhaled carbon monoxide.

The power was out, Negussie explained. Their car, he had learned from someone who had spoken with the family earlier in the day, was running in the attached garage so they could charge their phones.

“All right, well, we have units out there. I'll let them know. I'll make a tactical decision on that incident, and I'll get HPD out there," the captain said, referring to the Houston Police Department, which often assists when emergency responders must force entry into a home.

“And you'll keep us updated?" Negussie started to ask. The fire captain hung up before he could finish.

Less than five minutes later, the fire crew was gone. The four family members, who had already spent hours unconscious, were left unattended and exposed to the lethal, invisible gas for nearly three more hours, according to documents from the Houston fire and police departments and recordings of 911 calls obtained by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News. An operator at the dispatch center didn't share the crucial details about Negussie's carbon monoxide concerns with the crew at the scene, according to records and interviews with fire department officials. Police officers never arrived. Neither the Houston Police Department nor the city's emergency center could find any records indicating the fire captain requested assistance.

When emergency responders returned to the home near midnight, after Negussie called 911 again, they found Etenesh Mersha, 46, and her 7-year-old daughter, Rakaeb, dead. Her husband, Shalemu Bekele, and their 8-year-old son, Beimnet, were lying on the floor, still breathing. They were rushed to the hospital. Bekele spent days recovering. Beimnet was in the hospital for nearly a month.

An investigation by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News in April told the story of Bekele and Mersha's family and some of the hundreds of others across the state who turned on gas stoves, lit barbecue grills indoors or ran their cars in enclosed spaces in an attempt to stay warm after they lost power during the unprecedented weeklong storm.

The investigation revealed that the state's failure to regulate the power grid and repeated inaction by lawmakers on legislation that would have required carbon monoxide detectors in homes had contributed to the worst carbon monoxide poisoning disaster in recent history. More than 1,400 people were treated in hospitals across the state that week after being poisoned by the gas. Mersha and Rakaeb were among at least 17 who died.

After the investigation was published, the news organizations obtained nine 911 call recordings and police and fire department reports showing that the failures extended beyond the state's inaction. Decisions made by Houston emergency responders to leave Bekele and Mersha's home before making contact with the family, along with similar cases across the country, point to a need for policy changes to avoid such tragedies in the future, six emergency response experts told the news organizations.

In Houston and in many cities across the country, first responders have discretion to decide whether to force their way into a home based on what they see, the details they get from dispatchers and the perceived credibility of the information provided by the 911 caller.

That system clearly broke down in the case of Bekele and Mersha's family, said Mike Thompson, a retired fire service battalion chief from Rapid City, South Dakota, who has 27 years of fire service and paramedic experience. Thompson said it is critical for first responders to get all of the information needed to make an informed decision about forcible entry, but he said emergency crews also should have been on high alert for carbon monoxide poisonings given the winter storm. That day alone, the Houston Fire Department responded to nearly 100 calls related to carbon monoxide, compared to a daily average of about seven in January.

The key consideration for first responders should be to ensure that the person is not in danger, said Thompson, a fire and medical expert with the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch. “You keep trying to make contact until you prove yourself wrong," he said.

On July 23, more than a month after the news organizations began asking questions about the incident, the Houston Fire Department launched an investigation into the response to Negussie's 911 calls. Citing the ongoing investigation, department officials declined interview requests for emergency responders and dispatchers involved in the case.

“What happened in this incident, it seems to me, because the investigation is still ongoing, is that the dispatcher just failed to provide the necessary information for the people on the scene to make the appropriate decision," said Houston Fire Department Chief Samuel Peña. “The second response was handled as we normally expect, but they had the additional information that apparently the first crew did not."

“A thorough review is underway and any breach of policy will be held to account," Peña later added.

On that February evening, Peña had tweeted that the department was “stretched extremely thin." He urged residents to stay safe around open fires and space heaters, ensure they had working carbon monoxide detectors in their homes and follow safe driving precautions.

But despite understanding the higher risk of carbon monoxide poisonings during the winter storm, Houston Fire Department officials disputed that they should have considered that possibility when determining whether to force entry into the home. Such decisions were not that simple given the volume and wide range of calls they were receiving, fire officials said.

“The incredible demand placed on the emergency response system (fire and police) from the thousands of emergency calls received that week was extremely taxing, but the Houston Fire Department worked tirelessly to address that demand," Peña said in an email.

Growing Frustration

Medical examiner records do not provide a time of death for Mersha and her daughter, showing only the time they were discovered lifeless in different parts of their home.

The car was still running when Bekele and Mersha were found in the garage. Rakaeb died in the home's living room, while Beimnet was found unconscious in a utility closet connected to the garage.

Given the available information, it is unclear why two members of the family died and two survived. But the outcome shows why it could have been crucial for the first emergency crew to enter the house, said Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, co-medical director at the National Capital Poison Center and an expert in carbon monoxide poisoning.

“This is so unfortunate," Johnson-Arbor said in an email. “Time can definitely make a huge difference in cases of CO poisoning. While it is not clear what time the victims actually died, it is certainly possible that earlier discovery could have saved their lives and/or resulted in less significant clinical outcomes for the surviving individuals."

On the morning of Feb. 15, a friend in Colorado was on the phone with Mersha and Bekele's family when they suddenly stopped responding. She and her husband called 911 in Houston but didn't have the family's address. Without it, dispatchers told them, there was nothing they could do.

The couple spent the next nine hours frantically searching on social media for someone who could direct emergency responders to Bekele and Mersha's home. Finally, they found Negussie's parents on Facebook and sent a message. "Please call me," one of them wrote. “Please call police or call me."

As Ethiopian immigrants whose first language is Amharic, Negussie's parents decided their college-educated son, a flawless English speaker, would call 911.

“My parents have been here for 20 years, and they understand the limitations the language barrier has on them, and they were not willing to take any risks in trying to save the lives of their family members," Negussie said.

Bekele and Mersha had followed a similar path as Negussie's parents, arriving from Ethiopia 10 years ago in search of a better life. Negussie recalls his family picking up their cousins at the airport and helping them navigate the complexities of a new country.

Eventually, the couple found work at a gas station. They had a son and then a daughter, and they saved their earnings to buy the three-bedroom town house where they planned to watch their children grow up.

The two families often shared tea and bread after church, a Sunday tradition, but they had missed services the previous day because of the weather.

The day of the storm, Negussie and his parents were huddled beneath a blanket in their home, which had lost power. As they waited to hear back from the fire department, they wrestled with whether to go to Bekele and Mersha's home to check on them and the children.

More than 2 1/2 hours after first calling 911, having heard nothing from authorities, Negussie called again at 11:20 p.m. The operator at first said she had no record that he'd called earlier. After Negussie pressed her, the operator found a record of the call in her log.

“So, is there an update? Did you make contact with the people inside the home?" Negussie asked, according to a recording. “I spoke with the fire department earlier. They said the truck was there for 15 minutes, but that's all they could tell me."

“That's the same thing I can tell you," the operator responded.

“I think there is some confusion as to what's going on," Negussie said, repeating his concerns that his cousins had fainted from carbon monoxide poisoning. “We do not know if the people we are calling for, the people we want a wellness check done, are well."

Negussie was transferred. A different fire captain from the one he'd spoken with earlier that night said he didn't know if the emergency medical services crew had made contact with the family.

The fire captain in the dispatch center said he would have to wait to ask the crew when it returned from emergency runs. But he said the department was “slammed" that night. He couldn't tell Negussie how long it would take for fire crews to return. By the end of the day, crews had responded to more than 2,100 calls, nearly 90 calls an hour and double the department's normal daily workload.

“So, we think that these people are on the floor right now as a result of carbon monoxide inhalation," Negussie said for the third time. “Should we go and break through the window and figure it out ourselves? I'm asking you what we should do."

The captain said he couldn't advise Negussie to break into the house and suggested that he call 911 and start the process again.

“If you're concerned that somebody is actually passed out, then I would suggest somebody go back out there and check," the captain said.

“Disappeared Overnight"

Negussie wonders what would have happened had emergency responders entered the home the first time.

He can't listen to the 911 calls, he said after the news organizations shared the audio with him. They're too painful.

“Regardless of how well I communicated the problem to the fire department, half of the family just disappeared overnight," Negussie said.

At every turn, Negussie said, his family felt panic and fear. But mostly they questioned whether the fire department would have responded differently if his cousins' family hadn't lived in Sharpstown, a southwest Houston neighborhood that's home to many immigrants and lower-income residents of color.

“The lack of urgency was because it was a Black family in that neighborhood, and the fire department and the police department didn't feel that sense of urgency to do something — that there might be consequences if something went wrong," Negussie said.

Fire officials disputed any suggestion that the response was different as a result of race and social class. “We don't look at a geographical map and assign resources differently," Executive Assistant Fire Chief Rodney West said. “Our expectation is to respond to every incident within so many minutes with the appropriate resources, and that's what we do."

The complex and unpredictable nature of calls asking emergency responders to enter a home without the consent of the residents requires discretion, fire and police experts said. And the decisions can be fraught with risk. Forced entry into homes has, in some cases, led to fatal shootings of both residents and emergency responders. First responders also risk angering residents whose properties are unnecessarily damaged.

But those complexities are all the more reason to establish policies and follow them, experts said.

“The situational bias and the human bias — that can sometimes get you in trouble," said Thompson, the EMS consultant. “Protocols, process, procedures, policies, they are meant to kind of fill that in and make sure that the right thing happens."

In response to a public records request, the Houston Fire Department initially said it did not have written policies governing forced entry. Justin Wells, a fire chief, said the department largely relies on professional development and “mentorship handed down from the officers to the younger members." He said the department was having trouble finding a definitive document.

Fire department officials later shared a memo Wells issued to staff in 2018 that outlined the steps firefighters should take when they respond to medical emergencies in which no one answers the door.

The memo requires first responders to ensure that they are at the correct location, look for signs that someone is inside, check with neighbors and contact dispatch to ask for additional information from the caller.

If emergency crews decide to forcefully enter the home, they should call the police for support, the memo states. Officials said employees are required to read and abide by all laws and written directives, including memos.

“I think the decision first comes down to: Are we entering or are we not? Unless we see some cause like a fire, smoke, a woman or man, someone down inside the residence or hear calls for help, normally we are not going to enter the residence," Wells said. “Once you have a reason to enter, it becomes 'OK, how do I get in?'"

Based on the department's experience, Wells said, many of the calls from a third party to check on someone else turn out to be false alarms, though the department did not provide figures. The caller, Wells added, is usually the “weakest link" because they either hang up or don't provide enough information.

In this case, though, Negussie did everything right, said Bill Toon, a retired EMS provider with decades of experience across the country who reviewed the case records and 911 call recordings at the request of the news organizations.

“This was someone who said, 'Hey, something's not really right and I'm not immediately there to check on it, I need someone that I can rely upon to go do that,'" Toon said.

Absence of Policies

Bekele is angry that the Houston Fire Department missed a potential opportunity to rescue his wife and daughter when Negussie first called 911.

But while he's filed a lawsuit against nearly a dozen companies that supply power to the state's electric grid, he has not pursued legal action against the fire department, which is shielded in most cases from personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits.

And he tries not to dwell on what went wrong, he said through an interpreter in April, focusing instead on his son. “I have to be strong for him," he said.

In other parts of the country, cases where first responders decided not to force entry into people's homes have sparked not only investigations, but also lawsuits, including two cases in Illinois that reached the state Supreme Court. Those lawsuits argued that first responders were negligent or reckless by not going into a home after a call for help.

Shortly before 8 a.m. on April 24, 1995, in Chicago, a 28-year-old woman struggling to breathe called 911.

“I need help. I'm having an asthma attack. I think I'm going to die. Please hurry," the woman told the operator, according to court documents. Chicago Fire Department paramedics arrived and knocked on her apartment door, but no one answered.

An emergency dispatcher then called the woman but got her answering machine. So the crew left.

That afternoon, the woman's boyfriend found her lying lifeless on the floor. The family sued, alleging negligence and misconduct on the part of emergency responders who left without making contact with the woman. In the lawsuit, the family said that the door was unlocked and EMS crews had not tried to enter, in violation of their training. The city of Chicago and the paramedics said they were immune from liability and denied misconduct.

In August 2000, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the paramedics could be held liable for failing to locate a patient in need of emergency treatment. “If the paramedics had been following these vital and basic precepts of their training, as alleged, they would have found the victim inside the residence, and perhaps then they could have saved her life," the court said in its ruling, sending the case back to a lower court to be reconsidered. The city of Chicago admitted no wrongdoing and ultimately settled the case in 2005 for $750,000.

In another Illinois case, a woman in Will County called 911 in 2008 saying she couldn't breathe. An EMS crew that hadn't been given that information looked through her windows but didn't see anyone. When they started to leave, concerned neighbors tried to stop them, warning that the residents who lived in the home had health problems, according to a lawsuit later filed by the woman's family. But first responders said they couldn't break in without police.

About 30 minutes later, a second crew entered the house after neighbors called 911 again. The 58-year-old woman was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

The woman's family sued, accusing the first responders and dispatchers of negligence and misconduct. The first responders said they were immune from liability and protected by the “public duty" rule in Illinois, which holds that local governments are only responsible for providing services like police or fire protection to the general public, not specific individuals.

The state Supreme Court heard the case and struck down the public duty rule, arguing that it was obsolete. The case was sent back to a lower court and was settled in 2016. Neither the government entities nor the individuals who were sued admitted wrongdoing. The settlement amount was not publicly disclosed.

Patrick Quane, a spokesperson for the Chicago Firefighters Union, said that while he was not aware of the cases, the Chicago Fire Department typically makes forcible entry when responding to medical calls where the person doesn't answer the door, because the person could be in distress. The department also wants to avoid the potential liability of leaving the scene without ensuring that the person is safe, he said.

Final Call

It was nearly midnight when emergency responders returned to Bekele and Mersha's town house for the last time.

No one answered the door.

“It looks empty. Does the caller have any reason to believe somebody's inside?" a firefighter asked the dispatcher.

Even though he had already told 911 operators and fire captains in six separate conversations that the family was unconscious, Negussie received yet another call at 12:04 a.m.

“Are y'all sure someone's there?" a dispatcher asked.

“We think that a family of two parents and two children is unconscious due to carbon monoxide inhalation," Negussie said, repeating a line he had patiently tried to convey over nearly three excruciating hours.

The dispatcher relayed the information to the firefighters on the scene, who requested that the dispatcher call Houston police to force entry into the home.

But fire crews didn't wait for the police to arrive. According to a Houston Police Department report, firefighters quickly entered through the front door.

It was unlocked.

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