In the days after ProPublica’s investigation of the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, Tennessee, one state lawmaker wrote that she was “horrified.” Another called it a “nightmare.” A third labeled it “unchecked barbarism.” A former Tennessee congressman posted the story about the unlawful jailing of kids and tweeted, “The most sickening and unAmerican thing I’ve read about in some time.” The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called for a federal civil rights investigation. A pastor, in his Sunday sermon in Nashville, said: “We can’t allow this madness to continue. These are our babies.”
And on Tuesday evening, four days after the story published, the president of Middle Tennessee State University notified faculty and staff that Donna Scott Davenport, a juvenile court judge at the heart of the investigation, “is no longer affiliated with the University.” Davenport had been an adjunct instructor at the school, which is based in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. For many years, she taught a course on juvenile justice. In 2015, she was one of the university’s commencement speakers.
On Wednesday, a Rutherford County spokeswoman said in an email that she had not yet had the opportunity to consult with Davenport about the interview request. She provided a written statement from the county’s mayor, Bill Ketron, which said in part, “I share our community’s concerns over a news story that was recently released involving Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system.” The mayor’s statement said that because of ongoing litigation in federal court, the county is “very limited in what can be discussed.”
Davenport is a graduate of MTSU, where she earned associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, according to a university press release from 2015. Davenport, in a monthly radio segment, has spoken frequently of her law enforcement background. In a sworn deposition in 2017, she said that while a student at MTSU she worked full time as a university police officer for two to three years. But her personnel file, obtained through a public records request to the university, showed her being a part-time dispatcher, then a full-time clerk-typist, then a full-time secretary.
This year, Davenport’s LinkedIn profile said she had begun working as an adjunct at MTSU in 1996. (Her profile is no longer online.) She passed the bar one year earlier, in 1995, on her fifth attempt, she told lawyers in a deposition. In 1998, she was appointed to be a juvenile court referee, a position akin to a judge. In 2000, she won election to the newly created position of Rutherford County juvenile court judge, a job she has held ever since, winning reelection two times. She has said previously that she plans to run again next year for what would be an eight-year term.
Davenport’s MTSU personnel file shows that when she taught a three-credit course on juvenile justice in the fall of 2020, she was paid $2,400.
On Tuesday evening, a one-sentence email signed by MTSU’s president, Sidney McPhee, was sent to the university’s faculty and staff. “Adjunct instructor Judge Donna Scott Davenport, whose actions overseeing Rutherford County Juvenile Court have recently drawn attention in national media reports, is no longer affiliated with the University,” it said. The president’s message was also shared with students on Facebook.
We asked the university for an interview with McPhee. But an MTSU spokesman responded by email, “It is our practice not to comment on personnel matters.” The president’s one-sentence message “will likely be our only statement on this matter,” the spokesman wrote.
On Sunday, Vincent Windrow, senior pastor at Olive Branch Church in Murfreesboro and Nashville, delivered a sermon at both branches centered on the revelations by ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio about Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system. The story included a detailed account of Murfreesboro police arresting four Black girls at an elementary school in 2016. The officers handcuffed two of the girls, including the youngest, an 8-year-old. The kids were accused of watching some boys fight and not stepping in. (They were charged with “criminal responsibility for conduct of another,” which is not an actual crime. All the charges were later dismissed.)
“How traumatic must it have been, as someone who is in elementary school, to be handcuffed? Were they going to resist arrest? As a 9-year-old, as a 10-year-old?” the pastor told the congregation in Nashville, according to a video of the sermon. “How in the world do we expect folk to respect law enforcement when they get treated with such a lack of dignity, such a lack of respect, such a lack of love?”
“How can we expect our children to grow up and admire police when they have been treated in such a contemptible way?”
“Who will it be next? Whose child will it be next? Let it end, and let it end now.”
Windrow also works at MTSU, where he serves as associate vice provost for student success. In his Sunday sermon he encouraged parishioners to call on the MTSU president and governing board to ask why Davenport was being allowed to continue on. “What is she teaching the students?” Windrow said. “What are they learning in their criminal justice administration classes? What is she trying to convey to them? More of the same?”
In Rutherford County, Davenport instructed police on what she called “our process,” telling them that upon arresting children, they should take them to the juvenile detention center. There, staff used a policy called the “filter system” to decide which children to hold. That system, broad and vague, was illegal. A federal judge ordered an end to it in 2017. Davenport oversees the juvenile detention center and appointed its director. In 2014, among cases referred to juvenile court, Rutherford County locked up children in 48% of its cases. The statewide average was 5%.
In 2015, in a commencement speech at MTSU, Davenport told graduates that to be successful, “you need to consider yourself in the people business,” according to a video excerpt of her address. She encouraged graduates to be “sincere, open-minded and fair.” A story on her speech in Murfreesboro’s Daily News Journal said Davenport listed honesty, integrity and a sense of justice as crucial traits.
After ProPublica published its story, Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, wrote a thread on Twitter; she said she was “horrified” and called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate. WKRN, a Nashville television station, published a story in which a state senator, Jeff Yarbro, said, “It’s a horror show plain and simple,” and state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, in a written statement, called it “unchecked barbarism,” adding, “we must admit that we’ve failed too many for far too long.”
Gloria Johnson, a state representative, tweeted, “Our Democratic caucus will work to make sure this never happens again.” In an email to ProPublica, she wrote, “It is unimaginable and must be corrected.” State Sen. Heidi Campbell also wrote to ProPublica, saying of the story, “As you might imagine, we are all horrified by it.”
ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week.
The Sweet Fern Savanna Land and Water Reserve, in the heart of Pembroke Township, Illinois, offers a glimpse into what much of the area looked like before European settlers drained swamps and cleared forests to grow corn and soybeans.
At least 18 threatened or endangered plant and animal species, including the ornate box turtle and regal fritillary butterfly, have been sighted here. Mature oaks tower over verdant fields of clustered sedge and Carolina whipgrass. Warbling songbirds and buzzing cicadas add a mellow soundtrack to the tranquil scene.
Sixty miles south of Chicago, this wildlife reserve is among nearly 2,900 acres owned by private individuals and environmental groups — most prominently, The Nature Conservancy — trying to establish a network of nature sanctuaries in Kankakee County. Their efforts have overlapped with those of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which two decades ago put forward a plan to buy up and preserve thousands of acres of what conservationists consider a rare habitat, one that includes the nation’s largest and most pristine concentration of sandy black oak savanna.
But these well-intended efforts overlooked a key consideration: the support of the residents of Pembroke and surrounding areas. Across the region, the acquisition of land by both the federal government and private conservationists occurred — and planning for more continues — in the face of persistent objections from local communities, including residents of this longtime Black farming community.
Founded by formerly enslaved people and later a haven for Black Southerners fleeing racial violence during the Jim Crow era, Pembroke became renowned as a symbol of Black emancipation and touted as one of the largest Black farming communities north of the Mason-Dixon Line. In its heyday, farmers and ranchers here not only raised their own food but supplied fresh produce to Kankakee and Chicago. Today, a small number of Black farmers are trying to hang on to what little they have left, while other parts of the township have struggled as well, with loss of jobs, a declining population and a crumbling village hall.
Some land for these nature sanctuaries was purchased at county auctions after local residents fell behind on their property tax payments, or from outsiders who picked up the delinquent parcels and flipped them, raising echoes of predatory practices that have long plagued Black landowners.
Adding to the opposition in Pembroke is the cold, hard math of property taxes. Newer environmental designations and restrictions have allowed outside groups to receive tax breaks that local elected officials argue are eroding an already precarious tax base.
The loss of Black-owned land in this community exposes a cruel irony. Pembroke has been one of the few places Black landowners could gain a foothold in Illinois, in part because this land was passed over by white settlers who presumed its sandy soils were worthless. And now, after generations without large-scale development or landscape-destroying corporate farming, this land has become sought after by outside conservationists because Pembroke’s savannas remain largely untouched.
Years of protest have done little to dissuade those pushing for more land to be dedicated for conservation.
Local residents have already seen what the future might hold. Most of the sites reserved for conservation ban long-standing local traditions like hunting and picking wild fruit, restrictions designed to remain in place forever, even if the land changes hands. In a community known for Black cowboys, new conservation-minded owners barred horseback riding but, in a couple of instances, protected the right to cross-country ski, not a popular pastime in Pembroke.
Before the arrival of private conservationists, there were no permanent legal restrictions on this land. And, in a place where neighbors knew each other, landowners permitted horseback riders to travel historic trails and passersby to pick wild blackberries regardless of property lines.
The tension has become an ongoing case study in how predominantly white environmental organizations and government agencies — willfully or not — can marginalize communities of color by prioritizing conservation goals over the wishes of residents.
For their part, the conservationists working in Pembroke say they are protecting the area’s most valuable resources and paying taxes on many properties after previous owners had fallen behind and contributed nothing. The Nature Conservancy has stopped buying at tax auctions and says it wants to learn from its experiences in Pembroke. “We understand that for our conservation goals to work in earnest, we need to listen to the residents who know their community best,” the conservancy said in an emailed statement.
But as conservationists and the federal government continue to press on toward their ultimate goal of preserving savannas, some Pembroke residents like Cornell Ward Jr. find themselves on the outside looking in.
One muggy and overcast July afternoon, Ward, a thin-framed 63-year-old man with salt-and-pepper dreadlocks, stood on a gravel road outside Sweet Fern Savanna.
Ward remembers a time when much of Sweet Fern Savanna belonged to Black farmers, including him. Peering beyond the barbed wire fencing and signs threatening to prosecute trespassers, he could see the patch of land where he once grew soybeans. The small patch of land — two adjacent parcels, totaling 3 acres — represented a chance for him to carry on a family legacy that extends back 60 years in Pembroke. Ill and unemployed, Ward lost his properties after he failed to pay $1,511.40 in taxes; they were purchased about a decade ago at county auctions by the preserve’s owner, an 85-year-old conservationist from Chicago’s south suburbs.
“How did they get all of this?” Ward wondered aloud.
Humble Beginnings and Lost Land
No one knows how Joseph “Pap” Tetter escaped the horrors of slavery in North Carolina, only that he, his wife, children and extended family arrived in what would become Pembroke Township in a wagon one day around 1861.
Tetter homesteaded 42 acres of land, which he parceled out and sold to fellow settlers. Proceeds went to help liberate more enslaved people via the underground railroad, according to oral histories.
Unlike the black, spongy soil that made Illinois an agricultural powerhouse, Pembroke’s sandy soil — widely considered some of the poorest in the state — didn’t retain moisture that would allow commodity crops like corn to thrive. But the land offered a fresh start for people who had been owned as property and forced to farm under threat of violence. Through trial and error, they found what could survive the sandy soil, growing specialty crops like okra, collards, peas and watermelons.
“It was available for African American farmers to come in and settle, because it wasn’t being snapped up by European American farmers,” said Mark Bouman, a program director at the Field Museum’s Keller Science Action Center in Chicago who has worked with residents, including a local project in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy, and has studied Pembroke’s history. “And so it was kind of like the leftovers.”
Ward’s family moved to the area in the late 1950s after briefly resettling in Chicago following the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in their home state of Mississippi.
Ward’s father, a construction worker, used recycled lumber and materials to build the family’s house on land in northeastern Pembroke, where they raised chickens, goats, pigs and cows. Ward and his 10 brothers and sisters tilled the fields, sowed vegetable seeds and pulled the harvest from the earth by hand.
When Ward’s father died in 1999, he left no will. The siblings couldn’t agree on the fate of the property. Eventually, the family lost the land due to unpaid taxes. On his own, Ward still owned properties elsewhere in Pembroke but then lost those as well. Now some of that land is part of Sweet Fern Savanna.
Farming in Pembroke required long hours in the field, perseverance and faith; the small operations never yielded great wealth. But families carved out a modest living, enjoying the tranquility and spaciousness of the countryside.
Holding on to the land, however, proved tough. Pembroke’s farmers have suffered from the same racial inequities that permeate the American agriculture industry. Without capital or access to loans, they often used outdated equipment or planted by hand. Most farmed their land without irrigation systems, commercial fertilizers and pesticides — the hallmarks of modern agriculture. Many didn’t grow at the scale that would warrant crop insurance, leaving them vulnerable to drought or floods.
Their plight was not unlike that of other Black farmers across the country. In 1920, Black farmers owned about 15 million acres; by 2017, they owned around 4.6 million acres, according to a federal report.
In Illinois, an agricultural behemoth, Black-owned farms collectively make up only 18,659 acres — less than a tenth of a percent of the state’s agricultural lands.
Outsiders Gobble Up Acres
The push to preserve and restore rare natural habitats in Kankakee County, where Pembroke is the largest township by area, might have stalled out two decades ago if the only party interested was the federal government.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service drafted the first plans to create a national wildlife refuge at the Illinois-Indiana border more than 20 years ago, but it was stymied when local residents raised objections and an Indiana congressman blocked federal funding. “We will not establish a national wildlife refuge here until we get funding from Congress, and Congress will not support funding unless the people want it,” Bill Hartwig, then-regional director of the service, told the Chicago Tribune in 1998.
There were no such promises from The Nature Conservancy, which had endorsed the federal plan and accumulated land on the Indiana side of the border. Without any announcement or public input, it began buying on the Illinois side too.
The Arlington, Virginia-based land trust has been praised for its efforts in protecting more than 125 million acres of land globally. But the organization also has been the subject of scrutiny for its real estate dealings.
A 1994 government watchdog report found some environmental land trusts, including The Nature Conservancy, had profited handsomely in some cases from selling land to the federal government. A 2003 Washington Post investigation found the organization had imposed permanent land-use restrictions on some of its properties to guard their natural features, but later sold the land to current and former trustees at reduced prices, some of whom built houses there.
In Kankakee County, The Nature Conservancy started by purchasing 128 acres of forest on the edge of a large commercial farm in Pembroke for $183,000 in 2000. But much of Pembroke consists of tiny, slender tracts of land, meaning the organization had to work on a much smaller scale to expand its footprint.
Some of those tracts became available through public auctions of land lost due to unpaid taxes in Kankakee County. The Nature Conservancy said it has collected 201 deeds at tax sales, totaling 448 acres. It’s not possible to determine the race of all the former owners of the forfeited land, but the population of Pembroke is predominantly Black; local residents and politicians say most of the owners affected by tax sales were Black too.
Because the tax-sale properties tended to be small, those parcels made up less than one-fifth of the conservancy’s acreage in Kankakee County, according to the organization’s own figures. But, among local elected officials, the purchases raised questions about the ethics of buying land forfeited in financially distressed communities.
Those sales, along with the local belief that conservationists were serving as an extension of Fish and Wildlife, fueled a backlash. After an auction in 2015, The Nature Conservancy stopped buying through the tax sales.
That same year, Fish and Wildlife reemerged to reveal it would be pursuing the dormant plans for what it called the Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area, and the next year it accepted a 66-acre donation to establish the refuge. (The refuge is intended to be primarily in Kankakee County, with a small portion in Iroquois County; the initial donation consisted of land in Iroquois.)
Sharon White, who was Pembroke Township supervisor at the time, joined with other area politicians from the U.S. Congress, the state legislature and local government to push back. The Kankakee County Board voted 22-2 in favor of a resolution objecting to plans for the refuge.
The Nature Conservancy, because of its deep pockets, drew special attention, and White met with conservancy officials.
In November 2016, White placed an advisory referendum on the ballot, asking: “Should The Nature Conservancy be allowed to purchase land within Pembroke Township to establish a conservation marshland?”
Voters left no doubt about their preference, answering “no” by a margin of 708-123. (The Nature Conservancy and its supporters say the vote was misleading because it misstated the type of habitat they are seeking to safeguard in Pembroke; conservationists want to protect savannas.)
“Coming from outside, assumptions were made by the conservation organizations that what they did for the good of the Earth, everybody would automatically love it,” said Bouman, the Field Museum director. “They’ve learned.”
In response to the local outcry, The Nature Conservancy took conciliatory steps, agreeing to temporarily halt land acquisition efforts for eight months. It also agreed to participate in ongoing efforts by the Field Museum and local residents in a Pembroke community planning project.
But conservancy leaders struck a different tone in emails with federal and state government officials. Those emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by ProPublica and examined for this story. Conservancy officials acknowledged the resistance from Pembroke residents and elected officials, but minimized the situation as a “melodrama” in internal documents circulated in a 2016 email.
In an email later that year, Fran Harty, then director of terrestrial conservation at The Nature Conservancy, urged Fish and Wildlife Service officials not to scrap the refuge plans despite community resistance.
“It is important that USFWS does not pull out all together because it will feed the
idea that all you have to do is throw a tantrum and USFWS will pack up and leave,” Harty wrote.
In 2017, Harty speculated how financial hardships for farmers might favor the group’s strategy.
“All it takes is two years of bad corn prices and it changes the chess board,” Harty told a Fish and Wildlife representative.
Officials from The Nature Conservancy’s Illinois chapter, including Harty, who retired in September, declined to be interviewed but provided a statement saying the organization will continue to work with residents of Pembroke toward its conservation goals.
“TNC does not tolerate environmental racism or injustice of any kind as we pursue our land and water conservation work in Illinois and across the world,” the statement said. “TNC’s pursuit of conservation must be inclusive and conducted with humility, trust, and respect.”
White remains skeptical of that commitment, even more so after learning of a 2015 email unearthed by ProPublica.
In 2015, while White was engaged in talks with The Nature Conservancy, she was behind on taxes for some of the parcels she owned in Pembroke. During that time, Harty shared a list of tax-delinquent parcels in Pembroke in an email to a federal official ahead of a county auction, with the note: “Fyi. I will let you know how this works out.” Highlighted in yellow were seven parcels owned by White.
In an interview, White acknowledged she was having trouble keeping up with her taxes due to financial hardship at that time. She paid her taxes, plus interest and late fees, to redeem the deeds before her properties were put up for auction.
In a recent interview, White said she had no idea that her properties, mostly wooded lots neighboring her three-bedroom home, had been discussed by The Nature Conservancy and Fish and Wildlife.
“They knew me and they were trying to buy properties from underneath me,” White said.
A spokesperson for The Nature Conservancy said the organization wasn’t interested in purchasing these parcels, and only highlighted White’s properties “on an information basis to show the areas that were tax delinquent.”
The recipient of the email was John Rogner, who at the time was a Fish and Wildlife Service coordinator. Rogner, now the assistant director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, declined to comment about the exchange, saying he did not recall the contents or context of the message.
Regarding the agency’s push for a national wildlife refuge despite the longstanding opposition in Pembroke and elsewhere in the county, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it has sought further public input and will be publishing a final planning report. The agency also emphasized that it will only buy land from willing owners.
“We want to create a sustainable plan for both people and wildlife,” Fish and Wildlife said in a statement. “This is a formative, collaborative process that’s mostly about listening.”
Rogner said that part of the federal process also includes working closely with private conservation groups. That’s what happened in Kankakee County.
“They had already brought under protection significant parcels of land,” Rogner said about The Nature Conservancy, “thus accomplishing some of what the service might have done under the refuge authorization. We coordinated with them in that they shared information about their land conservation so that we could better define what the service role should be.”
Fish and Wildlife also has a relationship with the Friends of the Kankakee, a nonprofit created by Marianne Hahn, the suburban woman who founded the Sweet Fern Savanna.
The group’s stated mission is to support the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Kankakee wildlife refuge. The 66 acres donated by Friends of the Kankakee turned the refuge from an idea to a reality.
A Way of Life Threatened
Pamela Basu, the eldest of the Ward children, is the only one who still owns land in Pembroke and farms there.
As she watches the conservationists buy up parcels and add restrictions, she sees a way of life disappearing.
When Basu was growing up, property lines meant little in a community where neighbors knew each other. Horseback riders followed historic trails. Hunters pursued wild game in the woods.
Basu belongs to a thinning cadre of elders trying to carry on the community’s traditions. She still walks the historic trail on her property, where she collects wild herbs and berries that she uses to concoct sauces, jams and tinctures. Each year, she hosts festivals featuring a farmer’s market, live performances and a nature walk.
“When I was growing up, you could walk from one end of the community to the other with trails,” said Basu. “You can’t walk through the woods anymore. You picked berries, herbs — you knew where things were. We’ve lost that part of our culture, and now you can’t pass that on to other generations.”
Outsiders are increasingly determining the future of the land. Over the years, commercial farmers and real estate speculators have purchased land lost or sold by Pembroke residents. In the past two decades, conservationists also took an interest in the area.
Even though conservationists share a love of the land with the farmers, they often have a very different view of how it should be used.
Among them is Hahn, a retired microbiologist. For years, Hahn volunteered at a nature area near her residence in Homewood, Illinois. But she was vexed by her lack of authority in the preserve. “If somebody wanted to put a trail right through the middle of a prairie, I couldn’t do anything about it. So I thought, why don’t I get my own nature preserve?”
Her larger goal: “My concept of all of this is that, in a small way, I’m saving God’s creation.”
A friend and fellow conservationist suggested she make a trip to Pembroke, an area with cheap land and abundant biodiversity. She did and was stunned by the rare prairie plants growing right along the roadside.
She bought 60 acres of land near the center of Pembroke Township, two decades ago. This would become the foundation of the township’s first state-designated conservation area: Sweet Fern Savanna.
Creating the nature reserve meant that fields that once produced crops would need to be restored to their previous form. To Hahn, that made perfect sense.
“The parcels aren’t good for farming; people can’t make a living on them. They let them go for taxes — anyone can buy them,” said Hahn, who acquired a small number of the land parcels for Sweet Fern Savanna from auctions. “Should we not buy something that’s being offered to the public at an open auction?”
Over the years, the reserve has more than doubled in size. Signs mark the perimeter, warning, “No Horses. No ATV’s. Violators will be prosecuted.” The site is cordoned off by barbed wire fences, which Hahn said she installed after trash, including roof shingles, was dumped on her property.
Visits to the reserve are allowed only with Hahn’s written permission. For those she lets onto the property, Hahn permits them to hike, birdwatch, cross-country ski, camp and hunt. She said she allows one of her Pembroke neighbors to run his dogs on her property and a friend to hunt wild turkey and deer. Though she has chided trespassing horseback riders, she said, she has never prevented any of her neighbors from picking wild berries there.
Camping and cross-country skiing will no longer be allowed in 2026, according to state records that outline land restrictions for the site. Hahn has also included a special provision to allow a single burial site.
“It was not my intention to create a park. It was my intention to have a nature preserve,” Hahn said.
Hahn’s reserve is one of seven protected areas covering more than 1,100 acres in Pembroke. Five belong to The Nature Conservancy, and, like Hahn, the nonprofit has signed legal agreements with the state imposing some permanent restrictions on these properties in perpetuity with little, if any, public input. These designations are proposed by the landowner, then approved by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and, in some cases, the governor.
Within the nature preserves created by the conservancy, hiking and sightseeing are allowed. But hunting, fishing, camping, campfires, motorized vehicles and horseback riding are not permitted. The preserves also permanently ban farming, agricultural grazing and time-honored traditions like harvesting wild fruit and plants. (Fish and Wildlife, meanwhile, does allow for wild herbs and fruits to be harvested on the acres it owns, after getting input from the community.)
At Tallmadge Savanna Land and Water Reserve, The Nature Conservancy permits cross-country skiing and deer hunting. But hunting privileges are only granted to those who have completed eight hours of volunteer conservation work.
Local residents wonder why recreation in these natural areas has to be limited.
“I haven’t seen any benefit to the community,” said White, the former township supervisor, who keeps horses in nearby Watseka, Illinois, which is in a different township. “I believe in conservation. There are national parks all over the country where there are hiking paths, horseback riding and camping. So why is it that is restricted to that extent in our community?”
What Is Best for the Local Economy?
The changes brought on by conservationists go beyond how the land is used.
After gaining ownership, conservationists have obtained state designations or imposed land restrictions that drastically reduce what they have to pay in property taxes.
The Nature Conservancy, for example, has enrolled some of its Kankakee County land in the state’s Conservation Stewardship Program, which allows the property to be assessed at 5% of its fair market value. Separately, conservancy land that is earmarked for nature preserves are only assessed at $1 per acre.
As a result, the nonprofit didn’t owe taxes on at least 38 of its parcels in 2020, comprising 382 acres, according to county tax records. That’s because the amounts owed are so small that the county treasurer doesn’t even send out a bill. In some instances, the conservancy pays less than the previous property owners were billed.
In a community where the median household income hovers around $29,000, local residents say it has been difficult to have land seized for failure to pay taxes and then see the new owners get a hefty tax break. In one instance, a Black farmer forfeited a 3-acre parcel of land in 2004 after falling behind on a $580.90 annual tax bill. The Nature Conservancy bought his land at tax sale, and two years later obtained a state conservation designation that allowed the organization to pay $19.60 annually in taxes — 96% less than the yearly amount the farmer lost it for.
But The Nature Conservancy argues that its presence can actually benefit local tax rolls, which can be hurt when landowners fall into delinquency. Organization officials say the group has paid more than $425,000 in county taxes since 2001.
Such arguments, however, have proved unconvincing in Kankakee County. Politicians and residents — Black and white — have strongly opposed conservation-related restrictions and tax breaks.
Antipathy has been especially intense in Hopkins Park because of the village’s desperate need to reverse years of economic stagnation and disinvestment. The conflict pits The Nature Conservancy, which in a 2019 tax filing reported $1.1 billion in revenue, against the mayor of a village that collected less than $37,000 in taxes for that year. Mayor Mark Hodge has led the chorus of naysayers who believe The Nature Conservancy moved too quickly to acquire land, undercutting local development plans along the way.
The conservancy purchased six parcels on Main Street, one of a limited number of places within the township served by water and sewer lines. It also bought land within several residential subdivisions. Though some of these properties were on major township roads, in some cases these areas still had a rural feel, marked by undeveloped land and trees.
“They bought property on our Main and Central streets,” Hodge said. “When they own the property, that means a house can’t go there, a business can’t go there because they are not willing to relinquish it. That would be tax revenue that we would receive for any water, sewer and other utilities. It’s unfortunate.”
He added: “It’s obvious that this is David and Goliath, the big guy trying to crush the small guy.”
The Nature Conservancy said it is unaware of any instances where its landholdings have blocked potential development. Conservancy officials said they considered selling one Main Street parcel to a developer interested in bringing a discount store to the site, but the developer withdrew for unknown reasons.
Hodge himself has picked up property this way, although he notes that the land he buys does not end up getting tax breaks in the ways conservationists have. He has been criticized within the community for his foray into commercial and residential real estate, but he says his personal investments also help the village by refurbishing properties.
In recent years, despite the legacy of farming in Pembroke, the community has become better known for its endemic poverty and lack of basic amenities. The township has lost more than half its population since 1980, and now has fewer than 2,000 residents. There are no grocery stores, pharmacies or banks in the 52-square-mile community.
Hopkins Park is marked with artifacts of disinvestment and broken promises. A factory building that once churned out military rations, and later products for Nestlé, is mothballed. Concrete silos sit abandoned on an unnamed road, the remains of a state plan to build an 1,800-bed women’s prison that officials predicted would bring 900 jobs to the area. The project was scrapped due to state budget constraints — after $13.2 million had been spent on site work.
Hodge said the constraints on development and the tax breaks amount to “community genocide.”
When landowners reduce or eliminate their tax payments, the remaining property owners in the tax district must pay more to make up for the lost funding needed for things like schools and roads, said Nick Africano, Kankakee County’s treasurer.
“These are communities that can least afford a hit to their school and village budgets,” Africano said. “They struggle for every nickel. I think it works for one set of people, and unfortunately most have no stake in our community.”
Still a Tension in the Air
In the face of intense criticism, The Nature Conservancy in 2016 invoked new principles and procedures for conservation in Kankakee County.
In addition to ending purchases of land through tax sale, the charity said it has been much more judicious with its land acquisition, ending the purchases of properties connected to village water and sewer lines — in other words, land that has development potential. Since its land-buying moratorium was lifted in late 2017, the organization has acquired roughly another 230 acres, most recently a 10-acre parcel in November 2020.
It now acknowledges that there have been missteps. “We want to … understand where we may have fallen short of our values, and adjust our approach where necessary,” the Illinois chapter said in an October statement to ProPublica.
Johari Cole, a Pembroke farmer, sees some hope in the adjustments made so far and said that disdain for the conservationists is misguided. She owns a home and 40-acre tract of land where she farms vegetables and raises goats. She’s also been an ardent supporter of environmental preservation, leading the Fish and Wildlife Service’s program to teach local adolescents about conservation in 2019. The agency, along with The Nature Conservancy, helped fund the program through the community nonprofit Cole runs.
Cole argues that the landholdings of private conservationists are dwarfed by the acreage held by outside commercial farmers. Like private conservationists, they, too, have also purchased tax-delinquent property at county auctions, contributing to Black land loss, Cole said. And because the assessed value of farmland in Illinois is based, in part, on soil type (and the soil in Pembroke is considered poor), they pay little in taxes.
“We’re dealing with two extremes: locking land up in conservation and locking in commercial ag,” said Cole, who is board president for the Community Development Corporation of Pembroke and Hopkins Park.
“I’ve told the mayor, you’ve got the same issue on both sides, but you’re only looking at one.”
The Nature Conservancy has cited Cole’s group as one of its local partners as it seeks community input. It also has worked with the Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living, a nonprofit with the goal of reclaiming 1,000 acres in Pembroke for Black farmers, letting its apprentices farm on portions of conservancy land at no cost.
More recently, following questions from ProPublica about its activities in the township, the conservancy said it had assigned two top officials who specialize in diversity and equity to work with the Illinois team in Pembroke. There also will be a review of “our interactions with the community in Pembroke Township and the Village of Hopkins Park.” (The conservancy did not make those officials available to be interviewed for this story.)
In Hopkins Park, Hodge remains unimpressed by the conservancy’s efforts. He said communication still is lacking and the conservancy remains mum on basic information like how many acres it intends to buy.
Even though the conservancy is consulting with diversity and inclusion experts, “they are going against people’s wishes,” Hodge said. “The people have voiced their objection clearly. They do not want this refuge in our community. We want to set aside some land in the community for conservation. But we don’t want to set our community aside for conservation.”
His skepticism extends to government officials at the state and federal levels. And, across the region, tension ratcheted up again in recent months when the Fish and Wildlife Service moved forward on its large-scale conservation plans, after it found new funds for land acquisition beyond the original 66 acres.
In July, the service unveiled a plan for protecting and restoring up to 12,700 acres of land in an area that includes parts of eastern Pembroke Township, Momence Township and Iroquois County.
It didn’t take long for the Kankakee County board to once again voice its displeasure, passing a resolution that month to reaffirm its objection to the government’s plans in a 24-0 vote.
The service’s public meetings on its plans revealed a wide range of concerns from county residents. Among them: Roosevelt Smyly, whose family has owned land in Pembroke for more than 70 years.
He attended a Fish and Wildlife open house to voice his opposition. He feels that conservationists are insulting local residents with the implication that they are not capable of taking care of the land.
“That’s what really offends people like me,” Smyly, 71, said in an interview. “You’ve come from somewhere else and you’re going to upset the way that I live.”
Hoping and Praying
On a slate gray morning in late May, Robert Thurman Sr. grabbed a paper bag of string bean seeds and poured them into the hopper of a garden seeder. He lined up the two-wheeled contraption and leaned into it as he planted his first row.
Soon, six of Thurman’s children brought trays of burgeoning tomato plants from their greenhouse. They placed each in the ground by hand, watered them with a 5-gallon bucket and packed the soil tight around them.
Thurman’s family has owned land in the township for around 80 years. Skeptical of financial institutions, he only pays for farm equipment out of pocket. He typically buys older equipment for fear of being “tractor poor.” And he’s at the mercy of weather because he doesn’t have crop insurance in the event of drought or flooding.
“I’m hoping and praying to God that we can be on a bigger scale, because right now I can’t afford it,” Thurman said. “If something happens to my crop, it just happens.”
As the number of Black farmers in Illinois and across the country has tumbled, the state and federal government have said they want to stem Black land loss and encourage more diversity in agriculture. Gov. J.B. Pritzker brought a delegation to Pembroke earlier this year to acknowledge the racial disparities that exist in the state’s No. 1 industry.
“We have to face the often brutal history of why we work the land but no longer own or have access to the land,” said Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, the first Black woman in Illinois history to hold that role, standing before a podium in the gymnasium of a local elementary school.
It hardly makes any difference to Thurman. He had no idea the governor was in town and hasn’t paid a lot of attention to the controversy surrounding preservation. He knows there are no promises in farming. But so long as he has his land, it’s an opportunity he intends to pass down to his children.
“I’m going to live a certain way of life,” he said. “If it comes to a point to where they try to take me off my land, they are going to have to do a helluva move. Because I’m gonna be here as long as God sees fit to have me on this earth.”
This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with KPCC and LAist.
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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.
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.”
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.
Alex Mierjeski and Mariam Elba of ProPublica contributed research. Analysis was contributed by Greg Morton of ProPublica and Dana Amihere and Zoe Ives of KPCC/LAist.
This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with WRKF and WWNO, and it was also co-published with The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.
The ACLU of Louisiana is calling on federal prosecutors to launch an investigation into the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office following a report by WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica that revealed stark racial disparities in shootings by deputies and systemic transparency problems.
The news organizations’ ongoing investigation into the Sheriff’s Office found that more than 70% of people who deputies shot at during the past eight years were Black; that figure is more than double the 27% of the Black population in this suburb west of New Orleans. In addition, 12 of the 16 people who died after being shot or restrained by deputies during that time were Black men.
In response to public records requests, the office could not account for how often its deputies use force. It denied a request for copies of all complaints against Sheriff’s Office employees during the past two years and couldn’t even say how many had been filed, stating such a number “does not exist.”
Alanah Odoms, the ACLU of Louisiana’s executive director, asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana to “scrutinize the data and evidence collected” by the news organizations and to review three pending lawsuits filed by the ACLU against the Sheriff’s Office.
“It is no secret that the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office has a deep-rooted history of racial discrimination and cruelty toward residents of color,” Odoms said. “The harsh political reality is the Sheriff of Jefferson Parish is wholly unaccountable to the people.”
The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a reporter’s voicemail or email about the ACLU statement. Sheriff Joe Lopinto previously declined to be interviewed about the news organization’s findings, saying only that when his deputies commit serious misconduct, they are arrested, noting that at least nine had been since he became sheriff in 2017.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on Odoms’ request for an investigation.
The U.S. Department of Justice, the parent agency of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, launched an investigation into the neighboring New Orleans Police Department over a decade ago and found problems similar to those identified by the news organizations’ investigation into Jefferson Parish. The NOPD had failed to properly track and review when its officers used force, its internal investigation system was deeply flawed and its officers were disproportionately shooting and killing Black people, the DOJ reported.
But, despite years of complaints by Black community leaders in Jefferson Parish, the DOJ has not intervened.
“I do not, and our society should not, condone any violence, misconduct or excessive use of force by those sworn to protect and serve,” said Carter, who this month called for a DOJ investigation into the Louisiana State Police, which has come under heavy scrutiny recently over a pattern of violence directed at Black arrestees.
“I am hopeful that the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office will use all resources available to thoroughly and transparently seek out the truth, wherever it may lead,” Carter said.
Ashonta Wyatt, a leader in Jefferson Parish’s Black community, called the ACLU’s request a “wonderful step in the right direction.” But she said there is a long way to go to achieve the sweeping reforms she believes are needed to improve the Sheriff’s Office.
“Something has to happen that actually turns the tide in the direction of humanity,” Wyatt said. “I want to see real change. I want the investigation to bear real fruit (because) this is a deep-seated, systemic issue.”
Wyatt and other community leaders said years of ignored complaints have eroded the public’s trust in the department. Because the sheriff is an elected position — not subject to governmental or civilian oversight — the office is accountable only to voters, barring DOJ intervention.
The ACLU called for prosecutors to review three lawsuits it has filed against the Sheriff’s Office as further evidence of misconduct. The suits allege sheriff’s deputies beat a Black man in the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center, used excessive force against a protester and unlawfully detained and searched a Black woman because of her race.
The Sheriff’s Office, in court filings, described the first two lawsuits as “frivolous, groundless and unreasonable” and said its deputies’ actions were “reasonable under the circumstances.” It has not filed a response to the third suit, according to court records.
Nearly twice as many lawsuits alleging wrongdoing by deputies have been filed against the Sheriff’s Office as against the NOPD since 2013, despite NOPD having about 1,100 officers compared with about 760 at the Sheriff’s Office, according to a WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica review. Three-fourths of the plaintiffs in the Jefferson Parish lawsuits were Black.
Odoms accused the Sheriff’s Office of operating as a “rogue agency that is permitted to operate in the shadows,” pointing to its failure to present a plan for the adoption of body cameras, despite a request to do so by the state legislature. After a sheriff’s deputy shot an unarmed 14-year-old boy in the back in March 2020, the state House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution requesting that Lopinto, by Jan. 1, 2021, present a plan to outfit deputies with body cameras.
Lopinto, however, dismissed the resolution as doing “nothing” and having “no effect of law.” He has yet to present a plan.
“All residents of Jefferson Parish should demand better of a law enforcement agency that is as funded to the tune of $100 (million),” Odoms said. “Taxpayers should be outraged by this level of unprofessionalism and corruption.”
This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with WRKF and WWNO, and it was also co-published with The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.
As Sojourner Gibbs pulled out of her parking space at a Sam’s Club in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, one afternoon last summer, she felt the familiar, sickening symptoms of diabetic shock. Weakness, confusion. She began to sweat and shake uncontrollably. And then, Gibbs said, panic set in.
Her car lurched forward a few feet. She slammed on the brakes. The groceries she had just purchased for her family’s Juneteenth barbecue jostled in the back. People started honking their horns. A concerned woman walked up to her car. “I’m a diabetic! I need help!” Gibbs yelled.
The woman called 911. Dispatcher notes show a report of a “Black female sitting/screaming” in a gold Ford Expedition. “Appears scared.” Moments later: “Needs EMS.”
Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies arrived before the paramedics. First just one, then three more. Gibbs, a doctoral candidate in public policy, thrashed in the front seat, her body stiffening. She recalls telling deputies she was diabetic. The sheriff’s department report says she told deputies to “go away.”
She insists she heard one say, “This bitch is lying. She’s high on something.”
As deputies surrounded the car, Alicia Dardar, who is white and grew up in Jefferson Parish, pulled up nearby. Dardar felt uneasy as she saw what was happening, she said, and she thought of George Floyd, who a month earlier had been killed by a Minneapolis police officer. She started recording with her cell phone.
Her video shows the four deputies dragging Gibbs out of the driver’s side door. Gibbs cries, “I don’t know why you’re doing this.” Then a deputy grabs one of Gibbs’ legs from underneath her, sending her face-first into the dirt. They secure her hands behind her back with zip ties, restraining her as paramedics arrive.
She remembers thinking of her sons, 10 and 4, and praying: Please, Lord, do not take me.
When paramedics arrived and took Gibbs’ blood sugar level, it was 17 milligrams per deciliter. Levels below 40 milligrams can be critical, even fatal. She said one paramedic told her, “You could have died.” While she was in the ambulance, deputies combed through her belongings in her SUV.
Over the next few months, Gibbs would file a complaint with the sheriff’s internal affairs division, hoping the officers involved would face consequences. What she didn’t know at the time, but would later learn, is that the Sheriff’s Office would fail to follow its own internal investigations policy. Despite her complaints, no official would ever interview her or Dardar before exonerating the officers of all wrongdoing. The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to questions about Gibbs’ case.
Had the scene in the parking lot played out in New Orleans, just four miles away, Gibbs’ pursuit of answers likely would have had very different results. That’s because just over a decade ago, the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report about policing in the city. It found that the New Orleans Police Department had failed to properly track and review when its officers used force, that its internal investigation system was deeply flawed, that officers were disproportionately shooting and killing Black people, and that years of ignored complaints and stonewalling had eroded public trust.
The report led to a settlement agreement with the city in 2013 that has resulted in drastic overhauls in policing, turning a troubled department into a model — albeit an imperfect one — of reform. Federal monitors wrote in February that despite still needing some improvement, NOPD had become a “changed agency.”
But the DOJ has never launched an investigation in Jefferson Parish, a suburb of about 440,000 people west of New Orleans that straddles the banks of the Mississippi River. Its Sheriff’s Office is one of the largest in the state, with jurisdiction over the entirety of the parish’s 665 square miles, including those cities that have their own police departments.
Here, policing looks a lot like it did in New Orleans a decade ago, with racial disparities in the people officers shoot, little transparency in cases where force is used, and a flawed internal affairs process that critics say protects problematic deputies instead of the public. Records and data collected over the last year by WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica support the claims that many Black residents have made for years: that deputies treat white residents and residents of color in significantly different ways.
More than 70% of people who deputies shot at during the past eight years were Black, more than double the 27% of the population that is Black, the news organizations’ investigation found. Seventy five percent of the people who died — 12 of 16 — after being shot or restrained by deputies during that time were Black men.
The disparities resemble those of the Louisiana State Police, which has come under heavy fire recently over a pattern of violence directed at Black arrestees. At that agency — which Black lawmakers have asked the Department of Justice to investigate — 67% of incidents where the police used force in recent years have targeted Black Louisianans, the Associated Press reported Sept. 9. Black people make up nearly one-third of the state’s population.
The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, when questioned about such incidents, failed to provide vital details, exhibiting a lack of transparency. In response to public records requests, the office could not account for how often its deputies use force. It also refused to provide the news organizations with copies of complaints against deputies.
After failing to respond to weeks of emails and voicemails, Sheriff Joe Lopinto declined to be interviewed for this story and did not respond to written questions. He said only that when his deputies commit serious misconduct, they are arrested, noting that at least nine deputies have been booked since he became sheriff in 2017, although he could not say how many of those incidents involved officers inappropriately using force.
Based on news reports, only one of those bookings appeared to involve excessive force — a 21-year Sheriff’s Office veteran who was accused of pepper-spraying a man without justification.
Gibbs said she has heard stories of abuses by Jefferson Parish deputies for years, but she didn’t see herself as someone who would ever have a reason to worry.
“I thought as long as I do the things I’m supposed to do, I’d be OK,” she said. “We pay our taxes. We have a very nice home. We go to work. We go to school. We educate our children.”
In the end, though, she said, none of it mattered. The deputies didn’t see a woman experiencing a medical emergency. They saw a Black woman acting irrationally, pegged her as a drug addict, and treated her as such, she said.
“They had a narrative in their minds of who I was and why I was and where I was. And no matter how many times I said I’m diabetic, no one responded to that,” Gibbs said. “They saw me and thought the worst.”
Across the Parish Line
Carved out of land that belonged to Orleans Parish until 1825, Jefferson Parish encompasses sprawling suburbs outside the city and stretches down to fishing villages on the Gulf of Mexico. The histories of the two parishes are intertwined, their shared border revised over the years by annexations for reasons both political and pragmatic.
As the two communities grew, their histories diverged. New Orleans is an international port city, a tourist mecca famous as the birthplace of jazz. Jefferson Parish boomed in the white flight movement of the 1950s and 1960s, once electing David Duke, the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, to the state legislature.
Although the population has diversified over the years — Black people now account for more than a quarter of the population, and Latinos have grown to account for 15% — Jefferson Parish voters supported Donald Trump in the past two presidential elections and sent conservative Republicans to Congress, including former U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Steve Scalise.
And while the margins of victory have grown tighter in recent years, the area’s conservative bent has repercussions for the oversight of the Sheriff’s Office. That’s because the Jefferson Parish sheriff, like the majority of the country’s sheriffs, is an elected position and answers only to the voters.
The sheriff also derives considerable power from the Louisiana Constitution, which prescribes that the position be unconstrained by governmental or civilian oversight. Sheriffs don’t answer to politicians, unlike in New Orleans, where the police chief is appointed by the mayor and can be fired. In New Orleans, the City Council approves the police budget, but the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office is funded through sources, such as property and sales taxes, that do not require outside approval. Public calls for accountability ultimately can only end up with the sheriff.
The late Sheriff Harry Lee, who served for 28 years until his death in 2007, called his job “the closest thing there is to being a king in the U.S.” Lee openly espoused racist views in public statements, once declaring: “If there are some young Blacks driving a car late at night in a predominantly white area, they will be stopped.” He eventually backed off the order, but he announced 20 years later that his solution to violent crime was “only stopping Black people.”
When Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the federal levees flooded New Orleans in 2005, it prompted a large crowd of mostly Black people to attempt to cross the Crescent City Connection bridge into Jefferson Parish. They were confronted by sheriff’s deputies and Gretna Police Department officers and forced to turn back. At least one officer fired a shot in the air, according to local reports.
No one was hurt, but the law enforcement blockade led to protests and allegations of racism from civil rights groups. Lee defended the officers’ actions, saying the area had already accepted thousands of evacuees and didn’t have enough supplies to care for thousands more.
Although the DOJ later found that the officers hadn’t intentionally broken any laws, Jonathan Smith, who was with the DOJ at the time, said the events were a “big red flag.” Federal investigators knew at the time that Jefferson Parish was “a troubled department,” said Smith, who served as chief of the Special Litigation Section for DOJ’s civil rights division from 2010 to 2015. He added, though, that he could not discuss whether any specific agency was of interest during his tenure.
Ultimately what happened on Danziger Bridge in New Orleans three days later overshadowed the Jefferson Parish blockade. There, NOPD officers shot six Black people who were part of a crowd fleeing the flooded city, killing two of them. Police attempted to cover up the murders by planting evidence, fabricating witnesses and falsifying reports, an investigation later found.
A united front of civil rights attorneys, elected officials and Black and white residents demanded accountability. The DOJ launched its yearlong investigation. And in 2011, the department issued its damning report.
“NOPD’s failure to ensure that its officers routinely respect the Constitution and the rule of law undermines trust within the very communities whose cooperation the Department most needs to enforce the law and prevent crime,” DOJ investigators concluded. Two years later, the DOJ entered into a consent decree with the police department, which agreed to sweeping changes in how it operates and strict outside oversight.
Several former federal officials told the news organizations there is no particular set of problems that trigger a DOJ investigation, which is a necessary step before the department can seek a consent decree. High-profile flare-ups — like the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, or the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore — tend to bring scrutiny.
There are, however, certain patterns of misconduct that have proven to be of interest to the Department of Justice, Smith said. Most of them involve findings of racial disparities, and many involve the police using excessive force and failing to discipline officers for wrongdoing.
Smith said that a lack of accountability is “probably the most important thing I’ve seen in every department where there’s been a problem. That gives people impunity to engage in bad conduct.”
Evidence of problematic policing, however, does not ensure that a federal investigation will be conducted. At the time Smith was with the DOJ, he said he had a maximum of 15 attorneys working on police investigations. While the department would not provide updated numbers on staffing, it’s clear the Civil Rights Division has to make some hard choices about where to focus its efforts among the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, Smith said.
DOJ involvement also tends to go in waves and largely tracks the politics of the president. President George W. Bush pursued just three consent decrees; President Barack Obama pursued 15. And under President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions circulated a memo cautioning against their use and entered into zero.
After President Joe Biden’s election, Attorney General Merrick Garland quickly rescinded Sessions’ order and announced investigations into the Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky, police departments following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The DOJ also opened an investigation into the Phoenix Police Department in response to accusations that officers used excessive force against homeless people.
Absent a consent decree, imposing more accountability on the sheriff’s office would probably require an amendment to the state constitution, according to experts, which is unlikely to pass given the opposition from both law enforcement and the public.
Advocates say that leaves the DOJ as their best hope, citing the changes they’ve seen in New Orleans.
“The consent decree has played a significant role in the way the NOPD shows up now,” said Norris Henderson, the founder and executive director of the New Orleans-based advocacy group Voice of the Experienced, which promotes criminal justice reforms. “JPSO has been operating with reckless abandon for years.”
A Department That Polices Itself
One night last August, a little after 4 a.m., Theresa Burke arrived at her son Ferel’s hospital room in New Orleans, summoned by a phone call from a nurse who said he had been brought in by deputies, bruised and bloodied.
Hours earlier, Burke had tried to find Ferel, 13 at the time, after hearing he had been detained for stealing a car with two friends and attempting to run from officers. She didn’t think to contact local hospitals. The deputies who met Burke outside her son’s door tried to stop her, telling her she wasn’t authorized to see him. She refused to take no for an answer.
As Burke approached her son’s hospital bed, where he was lying on his side, his wrists handcuffed behind his back, the 32-year-old dental assistant hit record on her phone. She provided a copy of the resulting video to WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica. Burke can be heard gently calling her son’s name. “Ferel? Ferel, wake up.”
He was drenched in sweat, his face bloody, Burke said. He wavered in and out of consciousness.
“Look at me,” she said, keeping her voice low so the guard at the door couldn’t hear. “Look at me. What’s wrong?”
“Beat me up,” he responded.
“Beat you up? Who beat you up?” Burke asked her son.
Burke paused to compose herself and said: “Mama gonna take care of it. Don’t worry, ya hear?”
But as she sought accountability and an explanation for her son’s injuries, Burke would find no easy answers from a department that answers only to itself.
Over the next year, she would hear conflicting accounts: Her son said a deputy grabbed his hair and smashed his head into the pavement. The deputy who arrested him wrote that Ferel suffered minor injuries that could have been incurred in the car wreck or during the arrest.
But here’s one thing all parties ultimately agreed upon: an officer struck Ferel. The arresting deputy said Ferel resisted, so he “delivered two closed fist strikes to Mr. Burke’s abdomen,” after which he “finally complied.”
In New Orleans, since the DOJ investigation, that simple fact — admitted to by the officer himself — would have prompted an internal affairs investigation, even without a formal complaint, experts said.
In addition, the department’s use-of-force policy includes a detailed list of prohibited actions, such as neck holds, warning shots, shooting at moving vehicles and pistol whipping. It states that officers have a duty to intercede when they suspect a colleague is using excessive force. There is also a separate 14-page policy laying out the reporting requirements for uses of excessive force.
But none of that applies in Jefferson Parish.
The Sheriff’s Office has a policy that says deputies should only use as much force as necessary to protect themselves and the public. It does not include a list of prohibited actions. Instead, it states that “generally” deputies should not fire warning shots or shoot at moving vehicles unless the driver is using deadly force.
The policy also does not say what level of force should prompt an intervention or internal investigation. It states only that when a deputy’s use of force results in an injury to either the deputy or a civilian, the deputy must complete a report while a ranking officer goes to the scene to determine and document if there are witnesses or evidence.
In Jefferson Parish, it’s not clear that the department is tracking how its officers use force at all. In response to requests, the department provided only records of shootings. But the vast majority of use-of-force incidents — like Ferel’s — do not involve shootings, experts say. However, in response to requests for records regarding those non-shooting incidents, the Sheriff’s Office provided none, instead sending along files on a suicide and murders committed by civilians. The research organization Police Scorecard Project made a similar request for data on use-of-force incidents. The Sheriff’s Office responded by saying those records don’t exist.
For a long time, New Orleans’ system was similarly broken.
But after the DOJ intervened, the NOPD created a Use of Force Review Board that reviews all incidents. The outcomes of use-of-force investigations are published in an online database. The number of times NOPD officers have reported using force has fallen by half over the past five years, from 754 in 2015 to 338 last year, due largely to improved training, according to the consent decree monitor and criminal justice experts.
In Jefferson Parish, there was no independent monitor Burke could turn to for help. She posted on Instagram about Ferel’s injuries: “I am deeply saddened,” she wrote, “and I want justice for my child.”
Then she hired attorney Chris Murell, who filed a civil lawsuit and asked the Sheriff’s Office to provide all records related to Ferel’s arrest and injuries. Their response, reviewed by a reporter for WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica, did not include an internal affairs investigation, a use-of-force review or any mention of discipline. The only time the punching is mentioned is in a single sentence in a report prepared by the deputy who arrested him.
These factors — the deputy’s admission, the boy’s hospitalization, his mother publicly accusing the deputy of attacking her son — should have raised red flags within the Sheriff’s Office and prompted an internal affairs investigation, said Sam Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“I would assume that hospitalization of a use-of-force victim would automatically trigger an [internal affairs] investigation,” Walker said. “The officer’s claims cannot be accepted without at least some investigation.”
But Burke said that’s exactly what happened. And some people in the parish seem to be OK with that, she said.
“They’re going to stand together [with] their police officers if they do wrong, especially if it’s a Black kid,” Burke said. “They don’t care.”
“My Son Has a Bullet Wound”
Even in the most high-profile use-of-force incidents — when officers shoot someone and or a person dies in custody — the Sheriff’s Office has faced similar criticisms. Since 2018, a string of incidents where deputies shot Black people has prompted mounting calls for reform. Those calls intensified last summer amid the nationwide protests in response to Floyd’s death and allegations that the office concealed from the public that a deputy shot 14-year-old Tre’mall McGee.
Tre’mall and three friends ran from deputies in March 2020 after being pulled over in a stolen car. Tre’mall was facedown, trying to squeeze under a shed in a backyard, when a deputy shot him in the shoulder. (The deputy said the boy moved his arm and he feared Tre’mall had a gun. The boy did not.) The deputy could not be reached for comment.
Tre’mall’s mother, Tiffany McGee, said she tried for months to get answers about her son’s shooting, but said the Sheriff’s Office stonewalled her: Tiffany said she met with the sheriff’s criminal investigations bureau and asked to file a complaint. They sent her to the internal affairs division, which told her to contact the New Orleans branch of the FBI. The FBI sent her back to the Sheriff’s Office, where detectives referred her to the head of the gun violence unit, who told her their officers hadn’t shot at anyone recently.
When McGee pressed the sergeant, he asked, “He was shot with a firearm, not a Taser?” according to a recording of their conversation.
“My son has a bullet wound,” she replied. “That is never going to go away. At 14 years old, OK?”
Frustrated, McGee finally turned to the media. When reporters questioned Lopinto last summer, he insisted the Sheriff’s Office has a “great reputation of doing the right thing.” But, he emphasized, “we have the authority to defend ourselves. And guess what? There’s people out there that shoot at us.”
Lopinto then lashed out at the attorneys and families suing him. He accused them of spreading a “false narrative for the sake of trying to get a payday” and dismissed Tre’mall’s injuries as “non-life-threatening.” In response to the family’s lawsuit, the Sheriff’s Office said its deputies’ actions were “reasonable under the circumstances” and accused Tre’mall of negligence.
After WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica filed a public records request for investigative reports into every time deputies shot at someone since 2013, it received records for only 16 of 35 incidents. The Sheriff’s Office withheld the remainder, saying some (nearly four years old) were still under investigation, were the subject of pending criminal litigation or involved juveniles. In at least a dozen of the 35 shootings, deputies’ accounts were disputed by witnesses or the people who were shot at, according to public records, news reports and subsequent lawsuits.
The news organizations’ review found that of the 40 people deputies shot at during the past eight years, 29 were Black — meaning 73% of people shot at by police were Black, more than double their share of the population. (In some of the 35 shootings, more than one person was shot at.)
After similar findings by the DOJ in New Orleans, NOPD now typically releases body camera footage within 10 days of an officer shooting at someone or an incident that results in the hospitalization or death of a civilian. Each shooting triggers independent reviews of witness interviews, autopsies and disciplinary hearings.
In New Orleans, “people can have faith in the process,” said Stella Cziment with the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor, a civilian oversight agency. “There’s a lot of eyes on that decision, and a lot of evidence behind that decision.”
Without the benefit of that transparency, people in Jefferson Parish alleging abuses by deputies have turned to the courts. Since 2013, nearly twice as many lawsuits alleging wrongdoing by deputies have been filed against the Sheriff’s Office as against the NOPD, despite NOPD having about 1,100 officers compared to about 760 at the Sheriff’s Office, according to a WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica review. Three-fourths of the plaintiffs in the Jefferson Parish lawsuits were Black.
The litigation has exposed problems in how the Sheriff’s Office handles some of its most serious cases. While it conducts criminal investigations to see if deputies violated the law, the Sheriff’s Office repeatedly said in sworn statements in court filings that it did not conduct internal affairs investigations into high-profile deaths of people in police custody.
This is significant, said Lou Reiter, a national police consultant and trainer. Internal affairs investigations not only scrutinize the actions of the deputy but also assess the response of the organization as a whole. Is there a strong enough policy in place to prevent misconduct? Is it enforced? Did supervisors react appropriately and discipline those found to be in violation of the agency’s ethical standards?
“They’re a fact-finding, unbiased look to say, ‘How can we protect all the stakeholders?’ Because, in the end, if you don’t do a good job, the community pays for it,” Reiter said of internal affairs investigations.
Eric Parsa, 16, died in January 2020 after deputies — including one who weighed more than 300 pounds — sat on his back for at least nine minutes while he was facedown on the pavement of a parking lot, according to court records. The coroner ruled the severely autistic boy’s death was an accident as a result of excited delirium, with “prone positioning” as a contributing factor.
The family filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office, which issued a press release saying the suit was “rife with false claims and malicious accusations” and claiming that Parsa had attacked his father and deputies were trying to control him.
William Most, an attorney suing on behalf of Parsa’s parents, asked through discovery if the Sheriff’s Office had conducted an internal affairs investigation. The answer was no, according to court filings. No one was disciplined.
Most, looking to establish a pattern as to how the Sheriff’s Office handles in-custody deaths, also asked about the May 2018 death of 22-year-old Keeven Robinson, whose family claims he died after deputies beat and choked him. Lopintotold reporters he suspected Robinson’s death was due to a combination of asthma and poor air quality. But the coroner ruled his death a homicide by asphyxiation and that his injuries were consistent with someone squeezing his neck or choking him.
As with Parsa, the Sheriff’s Office said it did not conduct an internal affairs investigation into Robinson’s death. It also said no one was disciplined.
Walker, the criminal justice professor, said the absence of internal affairs investigations into such deaths is “inconceivable.”
“I don’t think this occurs anywhere else,” he said.
A Flawed Complaints Process
After Gibbs’ encounter with deputies, she was taken to a local hospital where she stayed for several hours while her blood sugar levels normalized. She returned home later that day with leaves and dirt in her hair from being thrown to the ground. Her arms were sore from where the deputies grabbed her. She had scratches on her wrists from being handcuffed.
She stood before her husband and two children, shaken and distraught, and wept.
Ten days after the incident, Gibbs — named after the famed abolitionist Sojourner Truth — filed a complaint with the sheriff’s internal affairs division, hoping it would spur an investigation and result in disciplinary action against the deputies.
“I was pinned in the dirt by an officer’s knees on my right shoulder and right thigh,” Gibbs wrote. “In between cries, I said, ‘Please don’t kill me. I am a diabetic.’”
Since that day, she wrote, she’d had trouble sleeping, often lying awake at night thinking about how when she needed help, she “instead received harm.”
She sent a follow-up email three days later, asking the Sheriff’s Office to preserve any evidence of the encounter and to provide any police reports.
Days went by, then weeks, with no response. Nobody reached out to Gibbs for an interview, which is a direct violation of the sheriff’s internal investigations policy. It states that the investigator shall “thoroughly exhaust all leads,” which includes interviewing “the accused employee, all principals, and all witnesses.”
When WWNO/WRKF and ProPublica filed a public records request for copies of all complaints against Sheriff’s Office employees during the past two years, the office denied the request, calling it overly burdensome and an invasion of privacy. The agency said it couldn’t even provide the number of complaints filed, stating such a number “does not exist.”
When the news organizations narrowed their request, seeking only substantiated complaints from 2017 through mid-2020, the Sheriff’s Office turned up only one report. It involved a deputy who was suspended for three days after being accused of slapping and choking a patient in an ambulance.
“If you find out one out of every 50 [complaints] is sustained, that indicates a failure to really investigate and take seriously complaints about use of force,” Walker said.
Ashonta Wyatt, a leader in Jefferson Parish’s Black community who helped found an organization called the Village Keepers to push for reforms of the Sheriff’s Office, said the lack of accountability in the complaint process has damaged public trust.
“We feel almost at his mercy,” she said of the sheriff. “I have family members and friends that will not drive in parts of Jefferson Parish. Ever. They just won’t do it.”
NOPD’s complaint procedures prompted similar criticisms of opacity before the DOJ investigation, but the department now publishes the outcomes of all complaint investigations in a public database.
During the three-year span in which Jefferson Parish substantiated only one complaint, NOPD substantiated 247, according to the department.
No Body Cameras
It’s been more than a year since Dardar took video of Jefferson Parish deputies dragging Gibbs out of her vehicle. Dardar grew up in Jefferson Parish during the reign of Sheriff Harry Lee and remembers when he ordered deputies to stop Black people driving in white neighborhoods. She said she had long worried about how the Sheriff’s Office treats Black people. But witnessing what happened to Gibbs was difficult, she said, particularly because her 12-year-old son saw the whole thing.
“I don’t see how you could treat a fellow human that way, especially one who’s screaming for help and zero threat to you,” she said.
Dardar’s video is the only footage Gibbs has seen of what happened that day. That’s because the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office remains one of the few large law enforcement agencies both in Louisiana and across the country that does not use body cameras.
About 80% of U.S. police departments with at least 500 sworn officers had body cameras as of 2016, according to the most recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Many more have adopted them since then. The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, one of the largest in Louisiana, entered into a $1.6 million, five-year contract that covers purchasing cameras, training officers on their use and storing the video footage.
The Gretna Police Department, located on the west bank of Jefferson Parish, followed suit in May.
“It’s something that is good for the community, it’s good for the officers,” Police Chief Arthur Lawson said, according to local news reports. “If the officer is acting inappropriately or violates our policies, it gives us a tool there.”
Lopinto, however, has consistently pleaded poverty, saying his department can’t absorb the cost it would take to store the footage, which he estimated to cost at least $1.9 million annually.
After the shooting of 14-year-old Tre’mall McGee, the state House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution requesting that Lopinto, by Jan. 1, 2021, present a plan to outfit deputies with body cameras.
Rep. Rodney Lyons, D-Harvey, who introduced the resolution, said there is a “parish-wide consensus” in support of the technology. Lopinto, however, dismissed the resolution as doing “nothing” and having “no effect of law.” He has yet to present a plan.
About three months after Gibbs filed her complaint with the Sheriff’s Office, she received a letter from the department. It was 99 words. Gibbs read it slowly, carefully digesting every sentence. It said the investigation into her complaint had been concluded. All four deputies had been “exonerated.”
“This means that the investigation and reviews have determined that the facts do not reflect a violation of this Department’s Code of Conduct,” the Sheriff’s Office wrote, concluding by thanking Gibbs for bringing the matter to its attention.
Gibbs said the letter retraumatized her. But she was not surprised.
“If you want to perpetuate a certain conduct, you keep that person moving forward,” she said. “Institutions protect institutions.”
In response to a lawsuit Gibbs later filed against the Sheriff’s Office, the department defended its deputies’ actions as “reasonable under the circumstances” and wrote that Gibbs, “by virtue of her own actions and conduct, was guilty of negligence.”
When a reporter told Gibbs the deputy who grabbed her leg from underneath her also shot 14-year-old Tre’mall and later was promoted to detective, she put her head in her hands and cried.
Hannah Fresques of ProPublica contributed data analysis. Mariam Elba of ProPublica contributed research analysis. Gordon Russell with The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate contributed reporting.
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Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 following a campaign of pledges to build a wall along the border with Mexico, repeal and replace his predecessor’s signature health care legislation, “drain the swamp” of special interests in Washington, D.C., and cut through the federal government’s bureaucracy, all to “Make America Great Again.”
Trump ultimately fell short on many of his signature promises, but his administration’s successes in cutting taxes, rolling back regulations and reshaping the judiciary will cast a long shadow, with the national debt reaching historic highs, weakened federal agencies and conservative judges who will remain in position for decades.
President Joe Biden has begun undoing some inherited policies via executive orders, yet much of what the new administration ultimately hopes to achieve cannot be accomplished by presidential fiat. Like Trump when he was reversing Obama-era regulations, Biden will need cooperation from Congress, including compromises with at least some Republicans in the Senate, to enact significant swaths of his agenda, and he faces a ticking clock to undo some of Trump’s “midnight” rules.
Here are some of the most important ways Trump changed Washington and the federal government:
Renovating the Swamp
From the start of his term, Trump staffed his administration with lobbyists — hundreds of them, by our count — some of whom remain in career positions. He signed an executive order on ethics that was supposed to bar his political appointees from lobbying their former agencies for five years after they left government, though ProPublica found in 2018 that the order was not being enforced. Then, one of his final acts as president was to rescind that order, calling into question whether the swamp was drained or if Trump had built a yacht club along its murky waters.
The new administration will almost certainly have to employ one of the tools Trump used to halt or undo former President Barack Obama’s regulations: a little-known law called the Congressional Review Act.
The law, passed in 1996 by a GOP majority in the House, which was led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, gave Congress the ability to pass a simple resolution of disapproval and thereby reject any new major regulation implemented by a president. It also permanently prevents these voided regulations from being resurrected in any similar form without a subsequent act of Congress. In the two decades after it was enacted, the CRA was only used successfully once.
Then came Trump.
His 2016 election resulted in a flood of regulatory rollbacks — 15 in the first year of his term alone.
Now that the Congressional Review Act has been established as a political power tool, Biden and a Democratic-led House and Senate will likely use it to repeal as many of the Trump administration’s midnight regulations as they possibly can in the limited window of time available to them.
Among federal institutions, the judicial branch will remain in Trump’s shadow the longest. The one-term president was responsible for installing more than 225 federal judges and three Supreme Court justices to lifetime appointments. A ProPublica analysis highlighted the relative youth of Trump’s judicial appointments. Given the age of many of these judges, they are likely to remain in their positions for 30 years or more before retiring.
The Senate’s then-majority leader, Mitch McConnell, handed Trump a gift by refusing to hold hearings in 2016 for Obama’s nominee to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. In April 2017, that seat was filled by Neil Gorsuch, who, at age 49, was the youngest justice on the court.
The subsequent appointments of Brett Kavanaugh (53 when confirmed) and Amy Coney Barrett (47 when confirmed) made clear Trump’s goal of placing young, deeply conservative justices into lifetime appointments.
According to a ProPublica analysis, all three Trump-appointed justices could remain with the court until 2050 or beyond by simply staying through or slightly beyond the average age of retirement for the court.
Trump’s relative success with Supreme Court nominations was only part of the GOP strategy to remake the federal courts. McConnell and Republican leadership deliberately held back on confirming Obama’s judge nominations in hopes of the White House changing parties after 2016. In his last two years in office, Obama only saw two of his appellate nominees confirmed to the bench. By contrast, Trump seated a cavalcade of judges during his term — 19 appeals court spots and nearly 50 U.S. district court judges in 2018 alone.
In one four-year term, Trump placed 54 judges in federal appellate courts, and seated 174 district court judges. By contrast, Obama and former President George W. Bush seated 55 and 62 appellate judges, respectively, over the course of their eight-year stays in office.
Following the death of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020, the issue of “packing the court” by adding more justices became a talking point for both progressives who supported the idea and for Trump, who claimed Biden would use the strategy to change the court’s ideological balance. However, Biden has not publicly supported this idea, and it would be unlikely to succeed in Congress.
The Constitution prescribes no specific number of justices for the Supreme Court, which over the years has had as few as six justices and as many as 10. The current nine-justice court was established in 1869, though there have been multiple proposals to expand the court, most notably in 1937, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt made a failed plan to expand the Supreme Court to as many as 15 justices.
The Democrats’ win of both Georgia Senate seats in January means Biden should be able to fill vacancies in the judiciary, with Republicans unable to block hearings and Vice President Kamala Harris acting as the tiebreaker for any 50-50 confirmation votes. However, finding nominees that satisfy all 48 Democrats and the 2 independents who caucus with them may prove to be a challenge.
There is also the question of how many Supreme Court seats Biden will have the opportunity to fill. Stephen Breyer is the only justice currently above the typical retirement age. Justice Clarence Thomas, the longest tenured of the nine, is 72. According to the ProPublica analysis, if he stays on the bench through typical retirement age, he would remain in place through 2029.
Long-tenured district and appellate court judges who meet specific age and experience requirements can declare “senior” status, which allows for their seats to be filled by the president while they continue working. There are currently dozens of judges eligible for this designation. On Inauguration Day, District Court Judge Victoria Roberts of Michigan’s Eastern District announced her intention to transition into senior status. It remains to be seen how many others will choose this path.
A Win for the Wealthy, a Loss for the Uninsured
Even though Trump began his term with Republicans in control of both chambers, the GOP was unable to pass major bills on issues like immigration and abortion because it couldn’t get the 60 votes it needed to end debate in the Senate and get to a final vote. The two signature Trump legislative efforts — on health care and tax cuts — were expedited by using the budget reconciliation process, which limits what can be put into the legislation but means the bill is not subject to a cloture vote.
In his public remarks, Trump sold the Republicans’ 2017 tax reforms as mainly benefiting the middle class and creating jobs.
Yet the new tax law’s cap on deductions for state and local taxes, along with the elimination of some mortgage deductions, resulted in a trillion-dollar drop in overall home values nationwide — “a very big deal to families whose biggest financial asset is the equity they have in their homes,” wrote ProPublica’s Allan Sloan.
ProPublica has reported on a number of ways in which the 2017 tax cuts benefited America’s wealthiest, including some Trump appointees. Similarly, the plan’s Opportunity Zone tax breaks, which were purportedly intended to spur investment in lower-income neighborhoods, have repeatedly gone to billionaire investors and developers for projects that were not new or are of dubious value, like a Florida superyacht marina.
Critics warned the cuts would raise the national debt, which then stood at around $20 trillion. Trump insisted otherwise, telling Fox News’ Sean Hannity in 2018 that when the bill “really kicks in, we’ll start paying off that debt like it’s water.”
Despite Trump’s pledge that the revenue lost from the tax cuts would be recouped by tariffs and increased productivity, the national debt continued to rise, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. The $1.563 trillion budget deficit from 2019 was higher than it had been in all but one year under the Obama administration, which spent $1.652 trillion in 2010 in an effort to end the economic downturn that resulted from the crash of the housing market. More than a year after signing the tax law, Trump’s own White House referred to the then-$22 trillion national debt as a “grave threat to our economic and societal prosperity.”
During the 2020 campaign, Biden proposed income tax increases on individuals earning more than $400,000 annually, repealing the cap on state and local tax deductions, and raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, splitting the difference between Trump’s level and the 35% rate that was in place before 2017.
As experts have noted, the new president may face an uphill battle trying to sell any tax hike while the economy remains troubled. While the Democratic Party now controls both chambers of Congress, Biden cannot afford even a single defector in the Senate if he hopes to succeed there. Additionally, Biden hopes to push through a $1.9 trillion stimulus package in the early part of 2021, which will further inflate the debt.
On the day of his inauguration in 2017, Trump signed Executive Order 13765, instructing the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the heads of other relevant federal bodies to try to “waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay the implementation” of any part of the Affordable Care Act if they deemed that it “would impose a fiscal burden on any State or a cost, fee, tax, penalty, or regulatory burden on individuals, families, healthcare providers, health insurers, patients, recipients of healthcare services, purchasers of health insurance, or makers of medical devices, products, or medications.”
While the House passed its version of a health care plan, dubbed the American Health Care Act, in May 2017, what followed was a series of failed attempts to craft a Senate version of the bill. The process came to an end in July 2017 with the Health Care Freedom Act, dubbed a “skinny repeal” bill with no real replacement plan. That too failed in the Senate, when Sen. John McCain of Arizona, with a now-famous thumbs-down gesture, joined fellow Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine and all Democrats in voting “no.”
The closest Trump would come to repealing the ACA came later in 2017, when — as part of the Republican tax bill — he effectively negated the individual mandate, which required individuals to carry a minimum level of healthcare coverage or face an annual penalty of up to $695; the tax bill reduced the amount of that penalty to $0. The Trump administration also cut back on marketing for the ACA’s open enrollment periods and expanded the availability of short-term limited-duration insurance policies, which are generally less expensive than those that meet ACA requirements but offer fewer protections, particularly for preexisting conditions. Despite repeated promises from the president that a true ACA replacement was in the offing, it never materialized.
Though Obama’s legislation remains on the books, its initial surge in coverage numbers began to reverse itself after 2017. According to a 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation report, there were 28.9 million uninsured nonelderly Americans by the end of 2019, an increase of 2.2 million since the beginning of 2017, with the number expected to continue rising in 2020 due to the historic levels of unemployment resulting from pandemic-related layoffs and closings.
In addition to resulting in more uninsured Americans, the Obamacare repeal campaign set the tone of bluster, partisanship and misinformation that would come to define many aspects of the Trump years. As ProPublica reported in May 2017, backers of the repeal legislation had engaged in a campaign of inaccurate information, misleading euphemisms and a curated online discussion bubble in which members of Congress blocked critical comments from their constituents.
Biden and the new Democratic-led Congress could reinstate the individual mandate, but financial penalties for uninsured Americans will be difficult for the White House and legislators to sell to a public living through mass unemployment. Rather, as part of his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, the new president hopes to maintain insurance rolls by increasing the value of the Premium Tax Credit — a refundable credit that helps eligible taxpayers afford insurance coverage — so that their net cost of insurance premiums is no more than 8.5% of an individual’s yearly income.
The new White House will face pressure from within its own party as progressive Democrats push to replace traditional insurance plans with a single-payer “Medicare for All” plan. Support for this concept is increasing among the general public. According to a September 2020 report from Pew Research, 63% of Americans support at least some mix of government and private insurance plans, up 4 percentage points from the previous year. Support for a single national government program was up 6 percentage points year-over-year, rising from 30% to 36%. During the campaign, Biden did not push for a Medicare for All plan, but rather for expansion of the ACA marketplace via the “public option,” meaning government-run insurance plans that would compete with private insurers.
In early 2018, with nothing to show for his campaign promises and no indication that Mexico wanted any involvement in funding the border wall, Trump floated to then-Defense Secretary James Mattis the idea of using money earmarked for the armed forces to build it.
It would be nearly a year before Trump moved forward with this plan, setting off a slew of legal challenges, some involving the Supreme Court. Opponents said Trump did not have the authority to reallocate billions of congressionally appropriated military funds. The standoff over money for the wall resulted in the longest shutdown in U.S. government history. Congress, now with a Democratic majority in the House, eventually agreed to give Trump part of what he requested, but with some restrictions. The president was also allowed to use billions that had previously been allocated for the military’s counter-narcotics efforts.
After construction on the wall finally began in earnest, a ProPublica/Texas Tribune investigation found that costs for the structure were running significantly higher than expected. For example, the Army Corps of Engineers issued two contracts worth $788 million for construction of one 83-mile stretch of wall. In less than a year, the value of those contracts increased by more than $1 billion. Within a year, after the length of the wall segments in those contracts was extended by 63% to 135 miles, the total cost more than tripled to $3 billion. ProPublica and the Tribune found multiple instances where the value of border wall contracts was increased through the use of supplemental contracts without any competitive bidding.
While more than 400 miles of wall were constructed by the end of Trump’s term, only about 80 miles involved building a barrier where none had existed before, according to newsreports. The Washington Post reported that Biden may be obligated to build more than 200 additional miles of wall.
On his first day in office, Biden issued an executive order describing the wall as a “waste of money that diverts attention from genuine threats to our homeland security.” The order pauses construction and spending on the wall “to the extent permitted by law,” leaving open the possibility that construction could continue or that money will continue to be spent on the project. Our investigation confirmed that some wall contracts come with hefty termination fees. One agreement stipulates a cancellation fee of nearly $15 million.
The Erosion of Trust
The legacy of the Trump administration will be one of erosion, both of norms and of trust in government. Arguably the strongest example is Trump’s yearslong campaign to convince the American people that their elections are not secure.
Trump became president by winning the electoral college in 2016, but he repeatedly insisted without evidence that he’d only lost the popular vote to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton because of widespread election fraud.
“I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump tweeted on Nov. 27, 2016, despite all evidence to the contrary. The next day, he added, “Serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California – so why isn’t the media reporting on this? Serious bias – big problem!” Again, his claims were not backed up by the facts.
His zeal for the voter fraud myth did not cool after taking office. A May 11, 2017, executive order created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to investigate, among other things, issues “that could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting.”
In the end, the commission only met three times before Trump summarily dissolved it in January 2018, amid internecine legal squabbles and other troubles. Though the administration said the Department of Homeland Security would continue the commission’s work, the Trump White House never unearthed any actual evidence of substantial voter fraud.
The commission was a failure, but it thrust members like Hans von Spakovsky into the spotlight. Von Spakovsky, a prominent purveyor of discredited voter fraud claims, would go on to become a central figure in some Republican efforts to restrict mail-in and early voting during the 2020 election.
As Trump and his surrogates stoked unfounded fears of dead people and undocumented migrants voting, Americans grew concerned about interference in elections. A Gallup poll released in early 2020 found that nearly 3 in 5 Americans no longer had confidence in the election process, an inversion from only a decade earlier when that same poll found that almost 3 in 5 Americans were confident in the integrity of their elections.
With the 2020 election drawing near, Trump preemptively claimed that if he lost on Election Day it would have to be the result of fraud.
“The Democrats are also trying to rig the election by sending tens of millions of ballots using the China virus as the excuse for allowing people not to go to the polls,” Trump said during a June 2020 campaign event in Phoenix, Arizona. He later predicted, “This will be, in my opinion, the most corrupt election in the history of our country, and we cannot let this happen.”
The volume of ominous statements from Trump soared in the weeks leading up to the November election. According to The Washington Post’s tally of Trump’s false and misleading claims, the president made more than 1,500 such statements about the election between July 1 and Nov. 2, 2020.
Even after Trump’s legal team and his unofficial legal supporters failed more than 60 times to convince courts to overturn election results in multiple states, and after the Jan. 6 Stop the Steal rally escalated into an insurrection at the Capitol that left at least five people dead, a large number of Americans still believe in the fiction of a stolen election.
According to a CNN/SSRS poll taken after the violence at the Capitol, 32% of Americans said they think Biden did not legitimately win the election. Nearly one-quarter of all respondents believe there is “solid evidence” that Biden actually lost. Three-quarters of Republican respondents said they had little or no confidence that elections reflect the will of American voters.
The 2020 election will not be the end of outrageous voter fraud myths. The longer-term effect is only just being seen, as state legislatures around the country reconvene for their new sessions, with a number of Republican-led assemblies already moving to restrict or repeal efforts to make voting easier.
“Far too many residents of Pennsylvania are questioning the validity of their votes or have doubt that the process was conducted fairly, securely and produced accurate results,” state Sen. Jake Corman, who had voted for the 2019 election reforms, said about the commission in December. His statement echoed an argument similar to that made by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz on Jan. 6, only minutes before insurrectionists breached the Capitol.
Similarly, Minnesota state Sen. Scott Newman, a Republican, recently introduced a bill to require photo identification from voters. Like Corman, he did not cite any evidence of specific fraud that would merit ID checks, just stated that “millions of American citizens believe there was widespread fraud during the last election, and their loss of faith in the integrity of our election system alone justifies incorporating photo ID into our voting system.”
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A top adviser to former President Donald Trump pressured agency officials to reward politically connected or otherwise untested companies with hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts as part of a chaotic response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the early findings of an inquiry led by House Democrats.
Peter Navarro, who served as Trump’s deputy assistant and trade adviser, essentially verbally awarded a $96 million deal for respirators to a company with White House connections. Later, officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency were pressured to sign the contract after the fact, according to correspondence obtained by congressional investigators.
Documents obtained by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis after a year of resistance from the Trump administration offer new details about Navarro’s role in a largely secretive buying spree of personal protective equipment and medical supplies.
But they also show he was among the first Trump officials to sense the urgency of the building crisis, urging the president to push agencies and other officials to “combat the virus swiftly in ‘Trump Time’” and cut through the red tape of the federal purchasing system.
In another communication, Navarro was so adamant that a potential $354 million contract be awarded to an untested pharmaceutical company that he told the top official at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, “my head is going to explode if this contract does not get immediately approved.”
Navarro did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The committee’s work backs up investigations by ProPublica and other news outlets into the more than $36 billion the federal government has awarded, much of it without traditional bidding and with little scrutiny, to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
At least five of the committee’s lines of inquiry are exploring issues reported by ProPublica, including the $96 million no-bid deal for respirators that was ordered by Navarro, a $34.5 million deal signed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that fell apart and ended with a contractor pleading guilty to fraud, a contract for masks awarded to a former Trump administration official, and the revelation that FEMA had paid millions to a contractor with a history of fraud allegations for unusable and unsanitary fake test tubes.
In a letter describing the subcommittee’s findings, Democrat James Clyburn of South Carolina and members of the committee told President Joe Biden’s emergency response team that Trump’s lack of action worsened the health crisis.
“The President rejected calls from governors to ensure that the country had sufficient (personal protective equipment) and other supplies to address the crisis, leading to severe shortages and forcing states and cities to compete on the open market,” they wrote.
The committee asked officials overseeing FEMA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with the director of the National Archives, to provide records detailing Navarro’s actions and the circumstances behind several questionable contracts awarded in response to the pandemic, which has left more than 550,000 Americans dead and many more suffering.
“In the absence of a coordinated national plan, various White House officials pursued ineffective, ad hoc approaches to procuring certain supplies. Recently obtained documents show that White House officials pushed federal agencies to issue non-competitive contracts for certain pharmaceutical ingredients and other items — some of which would not be ready for many months or even years — even as acute shortages for surgical masks, nitrile gloves, gowns, and other items continued,” members of the subcommittee wrote.
The respirator deal, with Airboss Defense Group, a subsidiary of Canadian company Airboss of America, was reported by ProPublica in April 2020 after a highly unusual entry in federal procurement data indicated the contract had been directly ordered by the White House. The Trump administration provided few answers about the award, but records the company provided to Congress indicate the firm used an influential consultant to connect Navarro with Airboss CEO Patrick Callahan.
Retired four-star Army Gen. John Keane, whom Trump had recently awarded the Medal of Freedom, reached out to Navarro on behalf of Airboss and the company got a phone meeting with the White House Coronavirus Task Force, emails show. The emails indicate that the company delivered an initial batch of respirators to FEMA before any contract was awarded, and the company upped its production on the promise that the White House, and Navarro, would make a contract official. Emails indicate the company expected to be paid upfront, at contract signing. The federal government typically doesn’t pay until a contract is agreed to and a product is delivered.
Airboss’ parent company nearly tripled its sales in large part because of the deals Navarro helped broker, the subcommittee wrote, and saw a $12 million increase in profit from April to June 2020. The company said it hadn’t seen the subcommittee’s letters but defended its work with FEMA.
An Airboss spokesperson said in a statement that the company is “proud of its successful efforts to rapidly respond to the urgent requests of the then White House Coronavirus Task Force to help supply the U.S. Government with urgently-needed PPE equipment to save lives, and protect our front-line healthcare professionals in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Within days of the request, ADG mobilized its extensive U.S. PPE manufacturing capabilities, and vast supply chain network to produce and begin delivering this critical equipment.”
In a separate contract negotiation, this time for generic pharmaceuticals, Navarro pressured FEMA and officials leading the effort to beef up a depleted national stockpile to award a potential $354 million deal to Phlow to make drug ingredients. In an email pressing BARDA officials Navarro wrote:
“This is a travesty. I need PHLOW noticed by Monday morning. This is being screwed up. Let’s move this now. We need to flip the switch and they can’t move until you do. FULL funding as we discussed.”
Democrats on the subcommittee noted that Phlow had never before received a federal contract and had incorporated just a couple months earlier, in January 2020. ProPublica left a message with a company spokeswoman, who has not yet responded.
In another public letter this month, the subcommittee expressed concern that Robert Stewart, the CEO of Federal Government Experts LLC, which was awarded a no-bid $34.5 million contract with the VA and a smaller deal with FEMA, wasn’t cooperating with its investigation.
This contradicts statements his lawyer made before a federal district judge just weeks before, that Stewart was helping congressional investigators, as he pleaded guilty to multiple counts of fraud. Stewart did not immediately respond to calls and text messages.
March 31, 2021: This story originally misstated the honor awarded to retired four-star Army Gen. John Keane. It was the Medal of Freedom, not the Medal of Honor.
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On Dec. 19, President Donald Trump blasted out a tweet to his 88 million followers, inviting supporters to Washington for a “wild” protest.
Earlier that week, one of his senior advisers had released a 36-page report alleging significant evidence of election fraud that could reverse Joe Biden’s victory. “A great report,” Trump wrote. “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
The tweet worked like a starter’s pistol, with two pro-Trump factions competing to take control of the “big protest.”
On one side stood Women for America First, led by Amy Kremer, a Republican operative who helped found the tea party movement. The group initially wanted to hold a kind of extended oral argument, with multiple speakers making their case for how the election had been stolen.
On the other was Stop the Steal, a new, more radical group that had recruited avowed racists to swell its ranks and wanted the President to share the podium with Alex Jones, the radio host banned from the world’s major social media platforms for hate speech, misinformation and glorifying violence. Stop the Steal organizers say their plan was to march on the Capitol and demand that lawmakers give Trump a second term.
ProPublica has obtained new details about the Trump White House’s knowledge of the gathering storm, after interviewing more than 50 people involved in the events of Jan. 6 and reviewing months of private correspondence. Taken together, these accounts suggest that senior Trump aides had been warned the Jan. 6 events could turn chaotic, with tens of thousands of people potentially overwhelming ill-prepared law enforcement officials.
Rather than trying to halt the march, Trump and his allies accommodated its leaders, according to text messages and interviews with Republican operatives and officials.
Katrina Pierson, a former Trump campaign official assigned by the White House to take charge of the rally planning, helped arrange a deal where those organizers deemed too extreme to speak at the Ellipse could do so on the night of Jan. 5. That event ended up including incendiary speeches from Jones and Ali Alexander, the leader of Stop the Steal, who fired up his followers with a chant of “Victory or death!”
The record of what White House officials knew about Jan. 6 and when they knew it remains incomplete. Key officials, including White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, declined to be interviewed for this story.
The second impeachment of President Trump focused mostly on his public statements, including his Jan. 6 exhortation that the crowd march on the Capitol and “fight like hell.” Trump was acquitted by the Senate, and his lawyers insisted that the attack on the Capitol was both regrettable and unforeseeable.
Rally organizers interviewed by ProPublica said they did not expect Jan. 6 to culminate with the violent sacking of the Capitol. But they acknowledged they were worried about plans by the Stop the Steal movement to organize an unpermitted march that would reach the steps of the building as Congress gathered to certify the election results.
One of the Women for America First organizers told ProPublica he and his group felt they needed to urgently warn the White House of the possible danger.
“A last-minute march, without a permit, without all the metro police that’d usually be there to fortify the perimeter, felt unsafe,” Dustin Stockton said in a recent interview.
“And these people aren’t there for a fucking flower contest,” added Jennifer Lynn Lawrence, Stockton’s fiancee and co-organizer. “They’re there because they’re angry.”
Stockton said he and Kremer initially took their concerns to Pierson. Feeling that they weren’t gaining enough traction, Stockton said, he and Kremer agreed to call Meadows directly.
Kremer, who has a personal relationship with Meadows dating back to his early days in Congress, said she would handle the matter herself. Soon after, Kremer told Stockton “the White House would take care of it,” which he interpreted to mean she had contacted top officials about the march.
Kremer denied that she ever spoke with Meadows or any other White House official about her Jan. 6 concerns. “Also, no one on my team was talking to them that I was aware of,” she said in an email to ProPublica. Meadows declined to comment on whether he’d been contacted.
A Dec. 27 text from Kremer obtained by ProPublica casts doubt on her assertion. Written at a time when her group was pressing to control the upcoming Jan. 6 rally, it refers to Alexander and Cindy Chafian, an activist who worked closely with Alex Jones. “The WH and team Trump are aware of the situation with Ali and Cindy,” Kremer wrote. “I need to be the one to handle both.” Kremer did not answer questions from ProPublica about the text.
So far, congressional and law enforcement reconstructions of Jan. 6 have established failures of preparedness and intelligence sharing by the U.S. Capitol Police, the FBI and the Pentagon, which is responsible for deploying the D.C. National Guard.
But those reports have not addressed the role of White House officials in the unfolding events and whether officials took appropriate action before or during the rally. Legislation that would have authorized an independent commission to investigate further was quashed by Senate Republicans.
Yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she would create a select committee to investigate Jan. 6 that would not require Republican support. It’s not certain whether Meadows and other aides would be willing to testify. Internal White House dealings have historically been subject to claims of “executive privilege” by both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Our reporting raises new questions that will not be answered unless Trump insiders tell the story of that day. It remains unclear, for example, precisely what Meadows and other White House officials learned of safety concerns about the march and whether they took those reports seriously.
The former president has a well-established pattern of bolstering far-right groups while he and his aides attempt to maintain some distance. Following the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump at first appeared to tacitly support torch-bearing white supremacists, later backing off. And in one presidential debate, he appeared to offer encouragement to the Proud Boys, a group of street brawlers who claim to protect Trump supporters, his statement triggering a dramatic spike in their recruitment. Trump later disavowed his support.
ProPublica has learned that White House officials worked behind the scenes to prevent the leaders of the march from appearing on stage and embarrassing the president. But Trump then undid those efforts with his speech, urging the crowd to join the march on the Capitol organized by the very people who had been blocked from speaking.
“And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” he said.
One Nation Under God
On Nov. 5, as Joe Biden began to emerge as the likely winner of the 2020 presidential election, a far-right provocateur named Ali Alexander assembled a loose collection of right-wing activists to help Trump maintain the presidency.
Alexander approached the cause of overturning the election with an almost messianic fervor. In private text messages, he obsessed over gaining attention from Trump and strategized about how to draw large, angry crowds in support of him.
On Nov. 7, the group held simultaneous protests in all 50 states.
Seven days later, its members traveled to Washington for the Million MAGA March, which drew tens of thousands. The event is now considered by many to be a precursor of Jan. 6.
Alexander united them under the battle cry “Stop the Steal,” a phrase originally coined by former Trump adviser Roger Stone, whom Alexander has called a friend. (Stone launched a short-lived organization of the same name in 2016.) To draw such crowds, Alexander made clear Stop the Steal would collaborate with anyone who supported its cause, no matter how extreme their views.
“We’re willing to work with racists,” he said on one livestream in December. Alexander did not return requests for comment made by email, by voicemail, to his recent attorney or to Stop the Steal PAC’s designated agent.
As he worked to expand his influence, Alexander found a valuable ally in Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist at the helm of the popular far-right website InfoWars. Jones, who first gained notoriety for spreading a lie that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax, had once counted more than 2 million YouTube subscribers and 800,000 Twitter followers before being banned from both platforms.
Alexander also collaborated with Nick Fuentes, the 22-year-old leader of the white nationalist “Groyper” movement.
“Thirty percent of that crowd was Alex Jones’ crowd,” Alexander said on another livestream, referring to the Million MAGA March on Nov. 14. “And there were thousands and thousands of Groypers — America First young white men. … Even if you thought these were bad people, why can’t bad people do good tasks? Why can’t bad people fight for their country?”
Alexander’s willingness to work with such people sparked conflict even within his inner circle.
“Is Nick Fuentes now a prominent figure in Stop the Steal?” asked Brandon Straka, an openly gay conservative activist, in a November text message, obtained exclusively by ProPublica. “I find him disgusting,” Straka said, pointing to Fuentes’ vehemently anti-LGBT views.
Alexander saw more people and more power. He wrote that Fuentes was “very valuable” at “putting bodies in places,” and that both Jones and Fuentes were “willing to push bodies … where we point.”
Straka, Fuentes and Jones did not respond to requests for comment.
Right-wing leaders who had once known each other only peripherally were now feeling a deeper sense of camaraderie. In an interview, Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio described how he felt as he walked alongside Jones through the crowds assembled in Washington on Nov. 14, after Jones had asked the Proud Boys to act as his informal bodyguards.
“That was the moment we really united everybody under one banner,” he said. “That everyone thought, ‘Fuck you, this is what we can do.’” According to Tarrio, the Proud Boys nearly tripled in numbers around this time, bringing in over 20,000 new members. “November was the seed that sparked that flower on Jan. 6,” he said.
The crowds impressed people like Tom Van Flein, chief of staff for Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz. Van Flein told ProPublica he kept in regular contact with Alexander while Gosar led the effort in Congress to shoot down the election certification. “Ali was very talented and put on some very good rallies on short notice,” Van Flein said. “Great turnout.”
But as Jan. 6 drew nearer, the Capitol Police became increasingly concerned by the disparate elements that formed the rank and file of the organization.
“Stop the Steal’s propensity to attract white supremacists, militia members, and others who actively promote violence, may lead to a significantly dangerous situation for law enforcement and the general public alike,” the Capitol Police wrote in a Jan. 3 intelligence assessment.
Yet the police force, for all its concern, wound up effectively blindsided by what happened on Jan. 6.
An intelligence report from that day obtained by ProPublica shows that the Capitol Police expected a handful of rallies on Capitol grounds, the largest of which would be hosted by a group called One Nation Under God.
Law enforcement anticipated between 50 and 500 people at the gathering, assigning it the lowest possible threat score and predicting a 1% to 5% chance of arrests. The police gave much higher threat scores to two small anti-Trump demonstrations planned elsewhere in the city.
However, One Nation Under God was a fake name used to trick the Capitol Police into giving Stop the Steal a permit, according to Stop the Steal organizer Kimberly Fletcher. Fletcher is president of Moms for America, a grassroots organization founded to combat “radical feminism.”
“Everybody was using different names because they didn’t want us to be there,” Fletcher said, adding that Alexander and his allies experimented with a variety of aliases to secure permits for the east front of the Capitol. Laughing, Fletcher recalled how the police repeatedly called her “trying to find out who was who.”
A Senate report on security failures during the Capitol riot released earlier this month suggests that at least one Capitol Police intelligence officer had suspicions about this deceptive strategy, but that leadership failed to appreciate it — yet another example of an intelligence breakdown.
On Dec. 31, the officer sent an email expressing her concerns that the permit requests were “being used as proxies for Stop the Steal” and that those requesting permits “may also be involved with organizations that may be planning trouble” on Jan. 6.
A Capitol Police spokesperson told ProPublica on April 2, “Our intelligence suggested one or more groups were affiliated with Stop the Steal,” after we asked for a copy of the One Nation Under God permit, which they declined to provide.
Yet 18 days later, Capitol Police Acting Chief Yogananda Pittman told congressional investigators that she believed the permit requests had been properly vetted and that they were not granted to anyone affiliated with Stop the Steal. Pittman did not respond to ProPublica requests for comment.
Last week, a Capitol Police spokesperson told ProPublica, “The Department knew that Stop the Steal and One Nation Under God organizers were likely associated,” but added that the police believed denying a permit based on “assumed associations” would be a First Amendment violation. “The Department did, however, take the likely association into account when making decisions to enhance its security posture.”
Kenneth Harrelson, an Oath Keeper who allegedly ran the far-right group’s “ground team” in D.C. on Jan. 6, went to Washington to provide security for Alexander, according to Harrelson’s wife. Harrelson has pleaded not guilty to felony charges in connection with the riot and is one of the Oath Keepers at the center of a major Department of Justice conspiracy case.
Harrelson’s wife, Angel Harrelson, said in an interview with ProPublica that her husband was excited to visit Washington for the first time, especially to provide security for an important person, but that he lost Alexander in the chaos that consumed the Capitol and decided to join the crowd inside.
As the movement hurtled toward Jan. 6, what started as a loosely united coalition quickly splintered, dividing into two competing groups that vied for power and credit.
On one side, Alexander and Jones had emerged as a new, more extreme element within the Republican grassroots ecosystem.
Their chief opposition was the organization Women for America First, helmed by Kremer and other veterans of the tea party movement, itself once viewed as the Republican fringe. Kremer was an early backer of Trump, and her tea party work helped get Mark Meadows elected to the House of Representatives in 2012.
The schism was rooted in an ideological dispute. Kremer felt Alexander’s agenda and tactics were too extreme; Alexander wanted to distinguish Stop the Steal by being more directly confrontational than Kremer’s group and the tea party. “Our movement is masculine in nature,” he said in a livestream.
Trump promoted both groups’ events online at various times.
Stop the Steal, through its alias One Nation Under God, obtained a Capitol Police permit to rally on Capitol grounds, while Kremer and Women for America First controlled the National Park Service permit for a large gathering on the White House Ellipse.
Alexander and Jones wanted to speak at the Ellipse rally, but Kremer was opposed. The provocateurs found a powerful ally in Caroline Wren, an elite Republican fundraiser with connections to the Trump family, particularly Donald Trump Jr. and his partner, Kimberly Guilfoyle. Wren had raised money for the Ellipse rally and pushed to get Alexander and Jones on stage, according to six people involved in the Jan. 6 rally and emails reviewed by ProPublica.
Pierson, the Trump campaign official, had initially been asked by Wren to help mediate the conflict. But Pierson shared Kremer’s concern that Jones and Alexander were too unpredictable. Pierson and Wren declined to comment.
On Jan. 2, the fighting became so intense that Pierson asked senior White House officials how she should handle the situation, according to a person familiar with White House communications. The officials agreed that Alexander and Jones should not be on the stage and told Pierson to take charge of the event.
The next morning, Trump announced to the world that he would attend the rally at the Ellipse. “I will be there. Historic day!” he tweeted. This came as a surprise to both rally organizers and White House staff, each of whom told ProPublica they hadn’t been informed he intended to speak at the rally.
That same day, a website went live promoting a march on Jan. 6. It instructed demonstrators to meet at the Ellipse, then march to the Capitol at 1 p.m. to “let the establishment know we will fight back against this fraudulent election. … The fate of our nation depends on it.”
Alexander and his allies fired off these instructions across social media.
While Kremer and her group had held legally permitted marches at previous D.C. rallies and promoted all their events with the hashtag #marchfortrump, this time their permit specifically barred them from holding an “organized march.” Rally organizers were concerned that violating their permit could create a legal liability for themselves and pose significant danger to the public, said Stockton, a political consultant with tea party roots who spent weeks with Kremer as they held rallies across the country in support of the president.
Lawrence and Stockton’s fellow organizers contacted Pierson to inform her that the march was unpermitted, according to Stockton and three other people familiar with the situation.
While ProPublica has independently confirmed that senior White House officials, including Meadows, were involved in the broader effort to limit Alexander’s role on Jan. 6, it remains unclear just how far the rally organizers went to warn officials of their specific fears about the march.
Another source present for communications between Amy Kremer and her daughter and fellow organizer, Kylie Kremer, told ProPublica that on Jan. 3, Kylie Kremer called her mother in desperation about the march.
Kylie Kremer asked her mom to escalate the situation to higher levels of the White House, and her mother said she would work on it, according to the source, who could hear the conversation on speakerphone. “You need to call right now,” the source remembered the younger Kremer saying.
The source said that Kylie Kremer suggested Meadows as a person to contact around that time.
The source said that in a subsequent conversation, Amy Kremer told her daughter she would take the matter to Eric Trump’s wife, Lara Trump. The source said that Kremer was in frequent contact with Lara Trump at the time.
Stockton said that he was not aware of Kremer talking to the family about Jan. 6, but added that Kremer regularly communicates with the Trump family, including Lara Trump. He also said that Kremer gave him the distinct impression that she had contacted Meadows about the march.
Through his adviser Ben Williamson, Meadows declined to comment on whether the organizers contacted him regarding the march.
Lara Trump, who spoke at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, did not immediately respond to a voicemail and text message asking for comment or to an inquiry left on her website. Eric Trump did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Kremer did not answer questions from ProPublica about communications with Lara Trump. Donald Trump’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The White House, at the time, was scrambling from one crisis to the next. On Jan. 2, Trump and Meadows called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Trump pressed Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” that would swing the state tally his way. On Jan. 3, the president met with Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller and urged him to do what he could to protect Trump’s supporters on the 6th.
Meanwhile, Wren, the Republican fundraiser, was continuing to advocate for Jones and Alexander to play a prominent role at the Ellipse rally, according to emails and multiple sources.
A senior White House official suggested to Pierson that she resolve the dispute by going to the president himself, according to a source familiar with the matter.
On Jan. 4, Pierson met with Trump in the Oval Office. Trump expressed surprise that other people wanted to speak at the Ellipse at all. His request for the day was simple: He wanted lots of music and to limit the speakers to himself, some family members and a few others, according to the source and emails reviewed by ProPublica. The president asked if there was another venue where people like Alexander and Roger Stone could speak.
Pierson assured him there was. She informed the president that there was another rally scheduled the night before the election certification where those who lost their opportunity to speak at the Ellipse could still do so. It was meant as an olive branch extended between the competing factions, according to Stockton and two other sources.
Chafian, a reiki practitioner who’d been working closely with Alex Jones, was put in charge of the evening portion of the Jan. 5 event.
The speakers included Jones, Alexander, Stone, Michael Flynn and Three Percenter militia member Jeremy Liggett, who wore a flak jacket and led a “Fuck antifa!” chant. (Liggett is now running for Congress.) Chafian had invited Proud Boy leader Tarrio to speak as well, but Tarrio was arrested the day before on charges that he had brought prohibited gun magazines to Washington and burned a Black Lives Matter banner stolen from a church.
Tarrio told ProPublica that he did not know the flag was taken from a church and that the gun magazines were a custom-engraved gift for a friend. He has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of property destruction; the gun magazine charge is still pending indictment before a grand jury.
“Thank you, Proud Boys!” Chafian shouted at the end of her speech. “The Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters — all of those guys keep you safe.”
Wren, however, would not back down. On the morning of Jan. 6, she arrived at the Ellipse before dawn and began arranging the seats. Jones and Alexander moved toward the front. Organizers were so worried that Jones and Alexander might try to rush the stage that Pierson contacted a senior White House official to see how aggressive she could get in her effort to contain Wren.
After discussing several options, the official suggested she call the United States Park Police and have Wren escorted off the premises.
Pierson relayed this to Kylie Kremer, who contacted the police. Officers arrived, but ultimately took no action.
By 9 a.m.,Trump supporters had arrived in droves: nuns and bikers, men in American flag suits, a line of Oath Keepers. Signs welcomed the crowd with the words “Save America March.”
Kylie Kremer greeted them gleefully. “What’s up, deplorables!” she said from the stage.
Wren escorted Jones and Alexander out of the event early, as they prepared to lead their march on the Capitol.
At 11:57 a.m, Trump got on stage and, after a rambling speech, gave his now infamous directive. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong,” he said. “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.”
Lawrence, Dustin Stockton’s fiancee and co-organizer, remembers her shock.
“What the fuck is this motherfucker talking about?” Lawrence, an ardent Trump supporter, said of the former president.
In the coming hours, an angry mob would force its way into the building. Protesters smashed windows with riot shields stolen from cops, ransacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s chambers, and inflicted an estimated $1.5 million of damage. Roughly 140 police officers were injured. One was stabbed with a metal fence stake and another had spinal discs smashed, according to union officials.
The Stop the Steal group chat shows a reckoning with these events in real time.
“They stormed the capital,” wrote Stop the Steal national coordinator Michael Coudrey in a text message at 2:33 p.m. “Our event is on delay.”
“I’m at the Capitol and just joined the breach!!!” texted Straka, who months earlier had raised concerns about allying with white nationalists. “I just got gassed! Never felt so fucking alive in my life!!!”
Alexander and Coudrey advised the group to leave.
“Everyone get out of there,” Alexander wrote. “The FBI is coming hunting.”
In the months since, the Department of Justice has charged more than 400 people for their actions at the Capitol, including more than 20 alleged Proud Boys, over a dozen alleged Oath Keepers, and Straka. It’s unclear from court records whether Straka has yet entered a plea.
In emails to ProPublica, Coudrey declined to answer questions about Stop the Steal. “I just really don’t care about politics anymore,” he said. “It’s boring.”
Meadows, now a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute, a think tank in Washington, appeared on Fox News on Jan. 27, delivering one of the first public remarks on the riot from a former Trump White House official. He encouraged the GOP to “get on” from Jan. 6 and focus on “what’s important to the American people.” Neither Meadows nor anyone else who worked in the Trump White House at the time has had to answer questions as part of the various inquiries currently proceeding in Congress.
Alexander has kept a low profile since Jan. 6. But in private, texts show, he has encouraged his allies to prepare for “civil war.”
“Don’t denounce anything,” he messaged his inner circle in January regarding the Capitol riot. “You don’t want to be on the opposite side of freedom fighters in the coming conflict. Veterans will be looking for civilian political leaders.”
June 28, 2021: A caption with this story originally misstated the action President Donald Trump took to prevent Roger Stone from serving prison time. Trump commuted Stone’s sentence, not his conviction.
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As Turkey launched a military offensive against Kurdish minorities in neighboring Syria in early 2018, Facebook’s top executives faced a political dilemma.
Turkey was demanding the social media giant block Facebook posts from the People’s Protection Units, a mostly Kurdish militia group the Turkish government had targeted. Should Facebook ignore the request, as it has done elsewhere, and risk losing access to tens of millions of users in Turkey? Or should it silence the group, known as the YPG, even if doing so added to the perception that the company too often bends to the wishes of authoritarian governments?
It wasn’t a particularly close call for the company’s leadership, newly disclosed emails show.
“I am fine with this,” wrote Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s No. 2 executive, in a one-sentence message to a team that reviewed the page. Three years later, YPG’s photos and updates about the Turkish military’s brutal attacks on the Kurdish minority in Syria still can’t be viewed by Facebook users inside Turkey.
The conversations, among other internal emails obtained by ProPublica, provide an unusually direct look into how tech giants like Facebook handle censorship requests made by governments that routinely limit what can be said publicly. When the Turkish government attacked the Kurds in the Afrin District of northern Syria, Turkey also arrested hundreds of its own residents for criticizing the operation.
Publicly, Facebook has underscored that it cherishes free speech: “We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and we work hard to protect and defend these values around the world,” the company wrote in a blog post last month about a new Turkish law requiring that social media firms have a legal presence in the country. “More than half of the people in Turkey rely on Facebook to stay in touch with their friends and family, to express their opinions and grow their businesses.”
But behind the scenes in 2018, amid Turkey’s military campaign, Facebook ultimately sided with the government’s demands. Deliberations, the emails show, were centered on keeping the platform operational, not on human rights. “The page caused us a few PR fires in the past,” one Facebook manager warned of the YPG material.
The Turkish government’s lobbying on Afrin-related content included a call from the chairman of the BTK, Turkey’s telecommunications regulator. He reminded Facebook “to be cautious about the material being posted, especially photos of wounded people,” wrote Mark Smith, a U.K.-based policy manager, to Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy. “He also highlighted that the government may ask us to block entire pages and profiles if they become a focal point for sharing illegal content.” (Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization, although neither the U.S. nor Facebook do.)
The company’s eventual solution was to “geo-block,” or selectively ban users in a geographic area from viewing certain content, should the threats from Turkish officials escalate. Facebook had previously avoided the practice, even though it has become increasingly popular among governments that want to hide posts from within their borders.
Facebook confirmed to ProPublica that it made the decision to restrict the page in Turkey following a legal order from the Turkish government — and after it became clear that failing to do so would have led to its services in the country being completely shut down. The company said it had been blocked before in Turkey, including a half-dozen times in 2016.
The content that Turkey deemed offensive, according to internal emails, included photos on Facebook-owned Instagram of “wounded YPG fighters, Turkish soldiers and possibly civilians.” At the time, the YPG slammed what it understood to be Facebook’s censorship of such material. “Silencing the voice of democracy: In light of the Afrin invasion, YPG experience severe cyberattacks.” The group has published graphic images, including photos of mortally wounded fighters; “this is the way NATO ally Turkey secures its borders,” YPG wrote in one post.
Facebook spokesman Andy Stone provided a written statement in response to questions from ProPublica.
“We strive to preserve voice for the greatest number of people,” the statement said. “There are, however, times when we restrict content based on local law even if it does not violate our community standards. In this case, we made the decision based on our policies concerning government requests to restrict content and our international human rights commitments. We disclose the content we restrict in our twice-yearly transparency reports and are evaluated by independent experts on our international human rights commitments every two years.”
The Turkish embassy in Washington said it contends the YPG is the “Syrian offshoot” of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which the U.S. government considers to be a terrorist organization.
Facebook has considered the YPG page politically sensitive since at least 2015, emails show, when officials discovered the page was inaccurately marked as verified with a blue check mark. In turn, “that created negative coverage on Turkish pro-government media,” one executive wrote. When Facebook removed the check mark, it in turn “created negative coverage [in] English language media including on Huffington Post.”
In 2018, the review team, which included global policy chief Monika Bickert, laid out the consequences of a ban. The company could set a bad example for future cases and take flak for its decision. “Geo-blocking the YPG is not without risk — activists outside of Turkey will likely notice our actions, and our decision may draw unwanted attention to our overall geo-blocking policy,” said one email in late January.
But this time, the team members said, the parties were embroiled in an armed conflict and Facebook officials worried their platform could be shut down entirely in Turkey. “We are in favor of geo-blocking the YPG content,” they wrote, “if the prospects of a full-service blockage are great.” They prepared a “reactive” press statement: “We received a valid court order from the authorities in Turkey requiring us to restrict access to certain content. Following careful review, we have complied with the order,” it said.
In a nine-page ruling by Ankara’s 2nd Criminal Judgeship of Peace, government officials listed YPG’s Facebook page among several hundred social media URLs they considered problematic. The court wrote that the sites should be blocked to “protect the right to life or security of life and property, ensure national security, protect public order, prevent crimes, or protect public health,” according to a copy of the order obtained by ProPublica.
Kaplan, in a Jan. 26, 2018, email to Sandberg and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, confirmed that the company had received a Turkish government order demanding that the page be censored, although it wasn’t immediately clear if officials were referring to the Ankara court ruling. Kaplan advised the company to “immediately geo-block the page” should Turkey threaten to block all access to Facebook.
Sandberg, in a reply to Kaplan, Zuckerberg and others, agreed. (She had been at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, touting Facebook’s role in assisting victims of natural disasters.)
“Facebook can’t bow to authoritarians to suppress political dissidents and then claim to be just ‘following legal orders,’” said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who’s a prominent Facebook critic. “American companies need to stand up for universal human rights, not just hunt for bigger profits. Mark Zuckerberg has called for big changes to U.S. laws protecting free speech at the same time he protected far-right slime merchants in the U.S. and censored dissidents in Turkey. His priority has been protecting the powerful and Facebook’s bottom line, even if it means marginalized groups pay the price.”
In a statement to ProPublica, the YPG said censorship by Facebook and other social media platforms “is on an extreme level.”
“YPG has actively been using social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and others since its foundation,” the group said. “YPG uses social media to promote its struggle against jihadists and other extremists who attacked and are attacking Syrian Kurdistan and northern Syria. Those platform[s] have a crucial role in building a public presence and easily reaching communities across the world. However, we have faced many challenges on social media during these years.”
Cutting off revenue from Turkey could harm Facebook financially, regulatory filings suggest. Facebook includes revenue from Turkey and Russia in the figure it gives for Europe overall and the company reported a 34% increase for the continent in annual revenue per user, according to its 2019 annual report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Yaman Akdeniz, a founder of the Turkish Freedom of Expression Association, said the YPG block was “not an easy case because Turkey sees the YPG as a terror organization and wants their accounts to be blocked from Turkey. But it just confirms that Facebook doesn’t want to challenge these requests, and it was prepared to act.”
“Facebook has a transparency problem,” he said.
In fact, Facebook doesn’t reveal to users that the YPG page is explicitly banned. When ProPublica tried to access YPG’s Facebook page using a Turkish VPN — to simulate browsing the internet from inside the country — a notice read: “The link may be broken, or the page may have been removed.” The page is still available on Facebook to people who view the site through U.S. internet providers.
For its part, Facebook reported about 15,300 government requests worldwide for content restrictions during the first half of 2018. Roughly 1,600 came from Turkey during that period, company data shows, accounting for about 10% of requests globally. In a brief post, Facebook said it restricted access to 1,106 items in response to requests from Turkey’s telecom regulator, the courts and other agencies, “which covers a range of offenses including personal rights violations, personal privacy, defamation of [first Turkish president Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk, and laws on the unauthorized sale of regulated goods.”
Katitza Rodriguez, policy director for global privacy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the Turkish government has also managed to force Facebook and other platforms into appointing legal representatives in the country. If tech companies don’t comply, she said, Turkish taxpayers would be prevented from placing ads and making payments to Facebook. Because Facebook is a member of the Global Network Initiative, Rodriguez said, it has pledged to uphold the group’s human rights principles.
“Companies have an obligation under international human rights law to respect human rights,” she said.
Update, Feb. 24, 2021: This story has been updated to add a comment from Sen. Ron Wyden.
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This story was co-published with MIT Technology Review.
On Jan. 11, antivirus company Bitdefender said it was “happy to announce” a startling breakthrough. It had found a flaw in the ransomware that a gang known as DarkSide was using to freeze computer networks of dozens of businesses in the U.S. and Europe. Companies facing demands from DarkSide could download a free tool from Bitdefender and avoid paying millions of dollars in ransom to the hackers.
But Bitdefender wasn’t the first to identify this flaw. Two other researchers, Fabian Wosar and Michael Gillespie, had noticed it the month before and had begun discreetly looking for victims to help. By publicizing its tool, Bitdefender alerted DarkSide to the lapse, which involved reusing the same digital keys to lock and unlock multiple victims. The next day, DarkSide declared that it had repaired the problem, and that “new companies have nothing to hope for.”
“Special thanks to BitDefender for helping fix our issues,” DarkSide said. “This will make us even better.”
DarkSide soon proved it wasn’t bluffing, unleashing a string of attacks. This month, it paralyzed the Colonial Pipeline Co., prompting a shutdown of the 5,500 mile pipeline that carries 45% of the fuel used on the East Coast, quickly followed by a rise in gasoline prices, panic buying of gas across the Southeast and closures of thousands of gas stations. Absent Bitdefender’s announcement, it’s possible that the crisis might have been contained, and that Colonial might have quietly restored its system with Wosar and Gillespie’s decryption tool.
Instead, Colonial paid DarkSide $4.4 million in Bitcoin for a key to unlock its files. “I will admit that I wasn’t comfortable seeing money go out the door to people like this,” CEO Joseph Blount told The Wall Street Journal.
The missed opportunity was part of a broader pattern of botched or half-hearted responses to the growing menace of ransomware, which during the pandemic has disabled businesses, schools, hospitals and government agencies across the country. The incident also shows how antivirus companies eager to make a name for themselves sometimes violate one of the cardinal rules of the cat-and-mouse game of cyber-warfare: Don’t let your opponents know what you’ve figured out. During World War II, when the British secret service learned from decrypted communications that the Gestapo was planning to abduct and murder a valuable double agent, Johnny Jebsen, his handler wasn’t allowed to warn him for fear of cluing in the enemy that its cipher had been cracked. Today, ransomware hunters like Wosar and Gillespie try to prolong the attackers’ ignorance, even at the cost of contacting fewer victims. Sooner or later, as payments drop off, the cybercriminals realize that something has gone wrong.
Whether to tout a decryption tool is a “calculated decision,” said Rob McLeod, senior director of the threat response unit for cybersecurity firm eSentire. From the marketing perspective, “You are singing that song from the rooftops about how you have come up with a security solution that will decrypt a victim’s data. And then the security researcher angle says, ‘Don’t disclose any information here. Keep the ransomware bugs that we’ve found that allow us to decode the data secret, so as not to notify the threat actors.’”
Wosar said that publicly releasing tools, as Bitdefender did, has become riskier as ransoms have soared and the gangs have grown wealthier and more technically adept. In the early days of ransomware, when hackers froze home computers for a few hundred dollars, they often couldn’t determine how their code was broken unless the flaw was specifically pointed out to them.
Today, the creators of ransomware “have access to reverse engineers and penetration testers who are very very capable,” he said. “That’s how they gain entrance to these oftentimes highly secured networks in the first place. They download the decryptor, they disassemble it, they reverse engineer it and they figure out exactly why we were able to decrypt their files. And 24 hours later, the whole thing is fixed. Bitdefender should have known better.”
It wasn’t the first time that Bitdefender trumpeted a solution that Wosar or Gillespie had beaten it to. Gillespie had broken the code of a ransomware strain called GoGoogle and was helping victims without any fanfare, when Bitdefender released a decryption tool in May 2020. Other companies have also announced breakthroughs publicly, Wosar and Gillespie said.
“People are desperate for a news mention, and big security companies don’t care about victims,” Wosar said.
Bogdan Botezatu, director of threat research at Bucharest, Romania-based Bitdefender, said the company wasn’t aware of the earlier success in unlocking files infected by DarkSide. Regardless, he said, Bitdefender decided to publish its tool “because most victims who fall for ransomware do not have the right connection with ransomware support groups and won’t know where to ask for help unless they can learn about the existence of tools from media reports or with a simple search.”
Bitdefender has provided free technical support to more than a dozen DarkSide victims, and “we believe many others have successfully used the tool without our intervention,” Botezatu said. Over the years, Bitdefender has helped individuals and businesses avoid paying more than $100 million in ransom, he said.
Bitdefender recognized that DarkSide might correct the flaw, Botezatu said. “We are well aware that attackers are agile and adapt to our decryptors.” But DarkSide might have “spotted the issue” anyway. “We don’t believe in ransomware decryptors made silently available. Attackers will learn about their existence by impersonating home users or companies in need, while the vast majority of victims will have no idea that they can get their data back for free.”
The attack on Colonial Pipeline, and the ensuing chaos at the gas pumps throughout the Southeast, appears to have spurred the federal government to be more vigilant. President Joe Biden issued an executive order to improve cybersecurity and create a blueprint for a federal response to cyberattacks. DarkSide said it was shutting down under U.S. pressure, although ransomware crews have often disbanded to avoid scrutiny and then re-formed under new names, or their members have launched or joined other groups.
“As sophisticated as they are, these guys will pop up again, and they’ll be that much smarter,” said Aaron Tantleff, a Chicago cybersecurity attorney who has consulted with 10 companies attacked by DarkSide. “They’ll come back with a vengeance.”
At least until now, private researchers and companies have often been more effective than the government in fighting ransomware. Last October, Microsoft disrupted the infrastructure of Trickbot, a network of more than 1 million infected computers that disseminated the notorious Ryuk strain of ransomware, by disabling its servers and communications. That month, ProtonMail, the Swiss-based email service, shut down 20,000 Ryuk-related accounts.
Wosar and Gillespie, who belong to a worldwide volunteer group called the Ransomware Hunting Team, have cracked more than 300 major ransomware strains and variants, saving an estimated 4 million victims from paying billions of dollars.
By contrast, the FBI rarely decrypts ransomware or arrests the attackers, who are typically based in countries like Russia or Iran that lack extradition agreements with the U.S. DarkSide, for instance, is believed to operate out of Russia. Far more victims seek help from the Hunting Team, through websites maintained by its members, than from the FBI.
The U.S. Secret Service also investigates ransomware, which falls under its purview of combating financial crimes. But, especially in election years, it sometimes rotates agents off cyber assignments to carry out its better-known mission of protecting presidents, vice presidents, major party candidates and their families. European law enforcement, especially the Dutch National Police, has been more successful than the U.S. in arresting attackers and seizing servers.
Similarly, the U.S. government has made only modest headway in pushing private industry, including pipeline companies, to strengthen cybersecurity defenses. Cybersecurity oversight is divided among an alphabet soup of agencies, hampering coordination. The Department of Homeland Security conducts “vulnerability assessments” for critical infrastructure, which includes pipelines.
It reviewed Colonial Pipeline in around 2013 as part of a study of places where a cyberattack might cause a catastrophe. The pipeline was deemed resilient, meaning that it could recover quickly, according to a former DHS official. The department did not respond to questions about any subsequent reviews.
Five years later, DHS created a pipeline cybersecurity initiative to identify weaknesses in pipeline computer systems and recommend strategies to address them. Participation is voluntary, and a person familiar with the initiative said that it is more useful for smaller companies with limited in-house IT expertise than for big ones like Colonial. The National Risk Management Center, which oversees the initiative, also grapples with other thorny issues such as election security.
Ransomware has skyrocketed since 2012, when the advent of Bitcoin made it hard to track or block payments. The criminals’ tactics have evolved from indiscriminate “spray and pray” campaigns seeking a few hundred dollars apiece to targeting specific businesses, government agencies and nonprofit groups with multimillion-dollar demands.
Attacks on energy businesses in particular have increased during the pandemic — not just in the U.S. but in Canada, Latin America and Europe. As the companies allowed employees to work from home, they relaxed some security controls, McLeod said.
Since 2019, numerous gangs have ratcheted up pressure with a technique known as “double extortion.” Upon entering a system, they steal sensitive data before launching ransomware that encodes the files and makes it impossible for hospitals, universities and cities to do their daily work. If the loss of computer access is not sufficiently intimidating, they threaten to reveal confidential information, often posting samples as leverage. For instance, when the Washington, D.C., police department didn’t pay the $4 million ransom demanded by a gang called Babuk last month, Babuk published intelligence briefings, names of criminal suspects and witnesses, and personnel files, from medical information to polygraph test results, of officers and job candidates.
DarkSide, which emerged last August, epitomized this new breed. It chose targets based on a careful financial analysis or information gleaned from corporate emails. For instance, it attacked one of Tantleff’s clients during a week when the hackers knew the company would be vulnerable because it was transitioning its files to the cloud and didn’t have clean backups.
To infiltrate target networks, the gang used advanced methods such as “zero-day exploits” that immediately take advantage of software vulnerabilities before they can be patched. Once inside, it moved swiftly, looking not only for sensitive data but also for the victim’s cyber insurance policy, so it could peg its demands to the amount of coverage. After two to three days of poking around, DarkSide encrypted the files.
“They have a faster attack window,” said Christopher Ballod, associate managing director for cyber risk at Kroll, the business investigations firm, who has advised half a dozen DarkSide victims. “The longer you dwell in the system, the more likely you are to be caught.”
Typically, DarkSide’s demands were “on the high end of the scale,” $5 million and up, Ballod said. One scary tactic: If publicly traded companies didn’t pay the ransom, DarkSide threatened to share information stolen from them with short-sellers who would profit if the share price dropped upon publication.
DarkSide’s site on the dark web identified dozens of victims and described the confidential data it claimed to have filched from them. One was New Orleans law firm Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann. “A big annoyance is what it was,” attorney Phil Wittmann said, referring to the DarkSide attack in February. “We paid them nothing,” said Michael Walshe Jr., chair of the firm’s management committee, declining to comment further.
Last November, DarkSide adopted what is known as a “ransomware-as-a-service” model. Under this model, it partnered with affiliates who launched the attacks. The affiliates received 75% to 90% of the ransom, with DarkSide keeping the remainder. As this partnership suggests, the ransomware ecosystem is a distorted mirror of corporate culture, with everything from job interviews to procedures for handling disputes. After DarkSide shut down, several people who identified themselves as its affiliates complained on a dispute resolution forum that it had stiffed them. “The target paid, but I did not receive my share,” one wrote.
Together, DarkSide and its affiliates reportedly grossed at least $90 million. Seven of Tantleff’s clients, including two companies in the energy industry, paid ransoms ranging from $1.25 million to $6 million, reflecting negotiated discounts from initial demands of $7.5 million to $30 million. His other three clients hit by DarkSide did not pay. In one of those cases, the hackers demanded $50 million. Negotiations grew acrimonious, and the two sides couldn’t agree on a price.
DarkSide’s representatives were shrewd bargainers, Tantleff said. If a victim said it couldn’t afford the ransom because of the pandemic, DarkSide was ready with data showing that the company’s revenue was up, or that COVID-19’s impact was factored into the price.
DarkSide’s grasp of geopolitics was less advanced than its approach to ransomware. Around the same time that it adopted the affiliate model, it posted that it was planning to safeguard information stolen from victims by storing it in servers in Iran. DarkSide apparently didn’t realize that an Iranian connection would complicate its collection of ransoms from victims in the U.S., which has economic sanctions restricting financial transactions with Iran. Although DarkSide later walked back this statement, saying that it had only considered Iran as a possible location, numerous cyber insurers had concerns about covering payments to the group. Coveware, a Connecticut firm that negotiates with attackers on behalf of victims, stopped dealing with DarkSide.
Ballod said that, with their insurers unwilling to reimburse the ransom, none of his clients paid DarkSide, despite concerns about exposure of their data. Even if they had caved in to DarkSide, and received assurances from the hackers in return that the data would be shredded, the information might still leak, he said.
During DarkSide’s changeover to the affiliate model, a flaw was introduced into its ransomware. The vulnerability caught the attention of members of the Ransomware Hunting Team. Established in 2016, the invitation-only team consists of about a dozen volunteers in the U.S., Spain, Italy, Germany, Hungary and the U.K. They work in cybersecurity or related fields. In their spare time, they collaborate in finding and decrypting new ransomware strains.
Several members, including Wosar, have little formal education but an aptitude for coding. A high school dropout, Wosar grew up in a working-class family near the German port city of Rostock. In 1992, at the age of 8, he saw a computer for the first time and was entranced. By 16, he was developing his own antivirus software and making money from it. Now 37, he has worked for antivirus firm Emsisoft since its inception almost two decades ago and is its chief technology officer. He moved to the U.K. from Germany in 2018 and lives near London.
He has been battling ransomware hackers since 2012, when he cracked a strain called ACCDFISA, which stood for “Anti Cyber Crime Department of Federal Internet Security Agency.” This fictional agency was notifying people that child pornography had infected their computers, and so it was blocking access to their files unless they paid $100 to remove the virus.
The ACCDFISA hacker eventually noticed that the strain had been decrypted and released a revised version. Many of Wosar’s subsequent triumphs were also fleeting. He and his teammates tried to keep criminals blissfully unaware for as long as possible that their strain was vulnerable. They left cryptic messages on forums inviting victims to contact them for assistance or sent direct messages to people who posted that they had been attacked.
In the course of protecting against computer intrusions, analysts at antivirus firms sometimes detected ransomware flaws and built decryption tools, though it wasn’t their main focus. Sometimes they collided with Wosar.
In 2014, Wosar discovered that a ransomware strain called CryptoDefense copied and pasted from Microsoft Windows some of the code it used to lock and unlock files, not realizing that the same code was preserved in a folder on the victim’s own computer. It was missing the signal, or “flag,” in their program, usually included by ransomware creators to instruct Windows not to save a copy of the key.
Wosar quickly developed a decryption tool to retrieve the key. “We faced an interesting conundrum,” Sarah White, another Hunting Team member, wrote on Emsisoft’s blog. “How to get our tool out to the most victims possible without alerting the malware developer of his mistake?”
Wosar discreetly sought out CryptoDefense victims through support forums, volunteer networks and announcements of where to contact for help. He avoided describing how the tool worked or the blunder it exploited. When victims came forward, he supplied the fix, scrubbing the ransomware from at least 350 computers. CryptoDefense eventually “caught on to us … but he still did not have access to the decrypter we used and had no idea how we were unlocking his victims’ files,” White wrote.
But then an antivirus company, Symantec, uncovered the same problem and bragged about the discovery on a blog post that “contained enough information to help the CryptoDefense developer find and correct the flaw,” White wrote. Within 24 hours the attackers began spreading a revised version. They changed its name to CryptoWall and made $325 million.
Symantec “chose quick publicity over helping CryptoDefense victims recover their files,” White wrote. “Sometimes there are things that are better left unsaid.”
A spokeswoman for Broadcom, which acquired Symantec’s enterprise security business in 2019, declined to comment, saying that “the team members who worked on the tool are no longer with the company.”
Like Wosar, the 29-year-old Gillespie comes from poverty and never went to college. When he was growing up in central Illinois, his family struggled so much financially that they sometimes had to move in with friends or relatives. After high school, he worked full time for 10 years at a computer repair chain called Nerds on Call. Last year, he became a malware and cybersecurity researcher at Coveware.
Last December, he messaged Wosar for help. Gillespie had been working with a DarkSide victim who had paid a ransom and received a tool to recover the data. But DarkSide’s decryptor had a reputation for being slow, and the victim hoped that Gillespie could speed up the process.
Gillespie analyzed the software, which contained a key to release the files. He wanted to extract the key, but because it was stored in an unusually complex way, he couldn’t. He turned to Wosar, who was able to isolate it.
The teammates then began testing the key on other files infected by DarkSide. Gillespie checked files uploaded by victims to the website he operates, ID Ransomware, while Wosar used VirusTotal, an online database of suspected malware.
That night, they shared a discovery.
“I have confirmation DarkSide is re-using their RSA keys,” Gillespie wrote to the Hunting Team on its Slack channel. A type of cryptography, RSA generates two keys: a public key to encode data and a private key to decipher it. RSA is used legitimately to safeguard many aspects of e-commerce, such as protecting credit numbers. But it’s also been co-opted by ransomware hackers.
“I noticed the same as I was able to decrypt newly encrypted files using their decrypter,” Wosar replied less than an hour later, at 2:45 a.m. London time.
Their analysis showed that, before adopting the affiliate model, DarkSide had used a different public and private key for each victim. Wosar suspected that, during this transition, DarkSide introduced a mistake into its affiliate portal used to generate the ransomware for each target. Wosar and Gillespie could now use the key that Wosar had extracted to retrieve files from Windows machines seized by DarkSide. The cryptographic blunder didn’t affect Linux operating systems.
“We were scratching our heads,” Wosar said. “Could they really have fucked up this badly? DarkSide was one of the more professional ransomware-as-a-service schemes out there. For them to make such a huge mistake is very, very rare.”
The Hunting Team celebrated quietly, without seeking publicity. White, who is a computer science student at Royal Holloway, part of the University of London, began looking for DarkSide victims. She contacted firms that handle digital forensics and incident response.
“We told them, ‘Hey listen, if you have any DarkSide victims, tell them to reach out to us, we can help them. We can recover their files and they don’t have to pay a huge ransom,’” Wosar said.
The DarkSide hackers mostly took the Christmas season off. Gillespie and Wosar expected that, when the attacks resumed in the new year, their discovery would help dozens of victims. But then Bitdefender published its post, under the headline “Darkside Ransomware Decryption Tool.”
In a messaging channel with the ransomware response community, someone asked why Bitdefender would tip off the hackers. “Publicity,” White responded. “Looks good. I can guarantee they’ll fix it much faster now though.”
She was right. The next day, DarkSide acknowledged the error that Wosar and Gillespie had found before Bitdefender. “Due to the problem with key generation, some companies have the same keys,” the hackers wrote, adding that up to 40% of keys were affected.
DarkSide mocked Bitdefender for releasing the decryptor at “the wrong time…., as the activity of us and our partners during the New Year holidays is the lowest.”
Adding to the team’s frustrations, Wosar discovered that the Bitdefender tool had its own drawbacks. Using the company’s decryptor, he tried to unlock samples infected by DarkSide and found that they were damaged in the process. “They actually implemented the decryption wrong,” Wosar said. “That means if victims did use the Bitdefender tool, there’s a good chance that they damaged the data.”
Asked about Wosar’s criticism, Botezatu said that data recovery is difficult, and that Bitdefender has “taken all precautions to make sure that we’re not compromising user data” including exhaustive testing and “code that evaluates whether the resulting decrypted file is valid.”
Even without Bitdefender, DarkSide might have soon realized its mistake anyway, Wosar and Gillespie said. For example, as they sifted through compromised networks, the hackers might have come across emails in which victims helped by the Hunting Team discussed the flaw.
“They might figure it out that way — that is always a possibility,” Wosar said. “But it’s especially painful if a vulnerability is being burned through something stupid like this.”
The incident led the Hunting Team to coin a term for the premature exposure of a weakness in a ransomware strain. “Internally, we often joke, ‘Yeah, they are probably going to pull a Bitdefender,’” Wosar said.
Renee Dudley and Daniel Golden have focused on ransomware for ProPublica and are working on a book about the Ransomware Hunting Team, to be published next year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.