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Updated: 5 min 56 sec ago
It took numerous courtroom battles, a contempt of court threat and the withholding of millions in federal dollars, but Westchester County finally has a law banning discrimination against those who pay their rent with federal assistance.
The Board of Legislators for the suburban New York county voted 15-2 Monday night to pass the legislation required by a 2009 settlement with the federal government over Westchester’s failures to comply with fair housing laws.
The Board’s vote ends one critical scuffle in an escalating conflict chronicled last fall by ProPublica that began three years ago this month when Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino vetoed legislation that would have banned housing discrimination based on income.
The federal government, which negotiated the 2009 settlement with the county, contended that Astorino’s veto violated the terms of the deal. When the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began withholding millions in federal grants over the veto and other issues, Astorino turned to the courts.
Still, Astorino persisted in his efforts to scuttle the ban – one that made it unlawful for landlords to deny housing to potential renters simply because they received financial assistance from the federal government.
In April, the U.S. Attorney’s Office turned up the heat when it threatened to seek a contempt of court ruling against the county if Astorino did not agree to reintroduce and sign the law.
Facing large fines against both him and the county, Astorino submitted the legislation a few days later.
Still, Astorino’s fire wasn’t doused. As the board contemplated the law, Astorino asked last week for funding to work on an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The board tabled his request and then passed the legislation days later.
The federal government won’t have long to relish its victory. The battle with Astorino will now center on requirements that the county dismantle zoning that makes it difficult for African Americans and Latinos to find housing in white areas.
And the zoning issue, which is largely seen as having the greatest potential to integrate housing in the highly segregated county, could well prove to be the greater conflict.
In the face of claims that the National Security Agency’s data collection program had prevented terrorist plots, ProPublica’s Sebastian Rotella took a closer look at one of those: David Coleman Headley’s foiled plan to attack a Danish newspaper. He found that, “the government surveillance only caught up with Headley after the U.S. had been tipped by British intelligence.” And he noted that, “Even that victory came after seven years in which U.S. intelligence failed to stop Headley as he roamed the globe on missions for Islamic terror networks and Pakistan’s spy agency.”
Rotella has reported extensively on the Headley case and was a correspondent for Frontline and ProPublica’s “A Perfect Terrorist” investigation. To find out more about how authorities caught up with Headley and to discuss the intelligence gathering techniques that other international law enforcement agencies have successfully used, ProPublica editor-in-chief, Steve Engelberg, spoke with Rotella on the podcast.
“The lack of or limited resources foments creativity,” said Rotella. “In other words, what several people have said in discussing this recent brouhaha in the United States is – they almost have a sense that the U.S. has such vast resources that it can be a hindrance and there’s such a focus on just gathering information that it tends to hurt things like analysis and things like knowing the world you’re trying to spy on close up. And because they have less limited resources, they’ve been forced to get out there more on the street and develop sources and have a lot of close-up human contact to infiltrate networks and watch them develop and get inside them and monitor their operations.”
This is part two of a two-part series. Here’s part one: Worried about the Mass Surveillance? How to Practice Safer Communication.
"Encryption works." --Edward Snowden
What makes choosing good security tools hard is that despite the news, we don’t know what government agencies like the NSA are really doing on their wiretaps and with their court orders. People in the security community call the NSA the “ultimate adversary,” and point to a huge array of ways they could be analyzing and attacking every part of the net and telephony system. They could be able to decrypt everything, and even without breaking encryption, they could be able to look at enough of the internet to determine who is talking to whom just by looking at the timing of conversation. But on the other hand, they might not be able to do any of that, and are trying to project the image of data omniscience to discourage people from even trying to protect their privacy. Parts of the NSA could be pretending to be able to do things it can’t while other parts are doing things more invasive than anyone knows, hidden from oversight. In the end, our questions still exceed our answers, and even the parts we think we know keep changing. The NSA's data collection is a story that will only make sense in hindsight, and we don't know how far from now that perspective is.
While Americans get to have a conversation with their government about whether this is right or wrong, the 95% of the planet the NSA is allowed to surveil without further scrutiny doesn’t get to weigh in at all, nor do the people living in countries whose governments practice widespread Internet surveillance and censorship. That’s billions of people for whom choosing tools for protecting their privacy on the net is simply a question about the technology, not about the law.
The good news is that as we understand more about how surveillance works, it helps the people who create and use secure tools to make better and more informed choices -- even if that choice is simply not minding having their data collected.
There are a lot of ways to talk to people securely on the internet, some are purpose-built to enhance your privacy and security. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a place to start.
We’ll keep filling out this list over the next few days, so if there’s a piece of software you want us to have a look at, mention them in the comments or e-mail them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.Cryptocat
What does it let you do? Cryptocat is a web-based encrypted text chat for two or more people.
Cryptocat heads up this list of tools because it stands out for good interface and good policies. It's the easiest tool on this list to use, and Cryptocat's creator is transparent about how the software handles your data: It goes through a server run by Cryptocat’s creator, Nadim Kobeissi. Kobeissi wrote a blog post with a table explaining who can see your metadata and messages when you use the service.
To get it, go to crypto.cat, and download the browser plugin. Mac users can also find it as a standalone program in Apple’s App Store. After that, you pick a name for the chatroom and for yourself. Share the chatroom name with whoever you want to talk to, and start chatting. It is hands-down the easiest way to get started with end-to-end encryption, where only you and the person you're talking to can see the message. For more on what end-to-end means, see part one.
What does it replace? Cryptocat replaces unencrypted instant messaging and chatrooms, and has some Facebook- and Google-style group coordination features. It’s sometimes the only option when you don’t have the ability to install software on the computer you’re using.
Cryptocat, like all the tools on this list, go through a third party server. This means the communication is more like making a phone call, (which goes through the phone company) than talking on walkie talkies (which go directly to the other party). All of Cryptocat is Open Source, so if you are up for more of a challenge, you can run a server inside your own network, and your Cryptocat chats, in addition to being end-to-end encrypted, never traverse the open Internet.
This chart covers the kind of information we should all have access to about the software we use. It would be fantastic to see more projects and companies follow Cryptocat’s lead, and tell their users who can see their data.Jabber with OTR
What does it let you do? Jabber, also called XMPP (thanks for another great name, computer scientists!), isn’t a specific program or service. It’s a protocol, which is a term for an established procedure for doing something on the net. In particular, Jabber is a protocol for text-based chat, also called Instant Messaging, between two people.
OTR (“Off the Record”) is a plug-in that encrypts text chat content so that only you and the person you’re corresponding with can read it.
“Only the actual content of your messages is encrypted with OTR, but usually the XMPP channel is secured with SSL as well,” says Chris Ballinger, creator of Chatsecure, a Jabber client for iOS devices. Ballinger listed some of the metadata that is visible if your service doesn’t use SSL, which is separate from OTR message encryption. (Again, see part one for details.) Ballinger's list included:
- When you started or stopped typing
- Your availability
- Your status messages
- When you send or received a message
- The sender and recipient of each message (full Jabber ID)
- Your buddy list
- A constant stream of your buddies status updates.
What does it replace? It can replace SMS on phones, or IM and Facebook Chat online. Unlike proprietary services like Facebook Chat and Google Hangouts, Jabber lets you talk to anyone who also speaks Jabber, even if they’re not using the same service you are.
The Jabber protocol isn’t itself secure or private, though most Jabber services will use SSL to encrypt your traffic. With OTR, which is built into some clients and is a separate add-on for others, you can encrypt your messages so that even the Jabber server can’t read them; only the person you’re talking to can. OTR is one of the easiest forms of encryption. All you need is an OTR-capable chat program.
OTR-encrypted IM is reportedly the way Edward Snowden initially corresponded with Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald.Jabber Clients Chatsecure for iOS Devices
By default, Chatsecure tries to use SSL to talk to your Jabber server, but it can switch off SSL. The advanced options allow you to "Force TLS," which is another name for SSL.Gibberbot for Android devices
The creator of Gibberbot, the Guardian Project, specifically makes software for people who need security. Using the software can be difficult, but it doesn’t let you make too many mistakes. Gibberbot won’t connect to a server without using SSL. Gibberbot can also be used with Tor, which we’ll come to in a bit.Pidgin for Windows/Linux; Adium for Mac OS X
While they’re easy to use and also interoperate well with services like Facebook Chat and AIM as well as Jabber, these programs might not be secure by default, so you should check your settings. In both of them you have to hunt through menus to “edit” or “modify” your Jabber account. On Pidgin, SSL is under the “Advanced” menu as "Require encryption" inside the accounts screen and may already be enabled. On Adium, it’s under “Options” as "Require SSL/TLS." You have to enable SSL to be sure you're using it.
You’ll also want to make absolutely sure that logging is turned off, as logs are stored on your computer unencrypted. Also, in some cases, like Pidgin your Jabber password is stored in a plain text file on your computer. This is why if you're a target, (which this tutorial assumes you are not) your computer is often your weakest point, not your communications.A Note on Jabber Services
What does it let you do? Silent Circle is a commercial service that lets you text chat and make calls over your phone and video chat on Windows with end-to-end encryption and SSL.
Silent Circle has the benefit of being purpose-built for security, and a lot of thought has gone into its design, making it easy to use. It’s got some drawbacks: It’s centralized, it’s closed-source and it costs money, which means the people running it need to know your real identity for you to use it. At the cheapest level, Silent Circle can be had right now for $10 a month with an annual subscription. You can only use some features with other Silent Circle subscribers.
What does it replace? Silent Circle replaces regular phone calls and text messages, and Skype for Windows. (Other operating systems are under development at this time)
Using a service like Silent Circle exposes one very important piece of data: That you are someone concerned enough about security to pay for it. That bit of consumer behavior that sends a strong political message, but it may also give the impression to attackers, state or otherwise, that you feel you have something worth attacking -- more so than the other services listed here.
Silent Circle also has an email offering, but like all encrypted email, it leaks metadata.Tor
What does it let you do? Tor does one simple and important thing: It hides your IP address.
Tor is completely separate from encryption. It doesn’t encrypt your metadata on the Internet via SSL. It doesn’t know whether or not you’re encrypting your messages. But your IP address is one of the hardest to mask and most personally identifying pieces of metadata there is on the net. As a result, Tor is used for anonymous speech and censorship evasion around the world. How Tor works.
What does it replace? Services called VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks, hide your IP and data from the wider internet by passing it through a encrypted private network. Tor duplicates one function of a VPN, but in a decentralized way. Rather than a single encrypted private network, Tor piggybacks your internet connection through a bunch of network connections run by volunteers. As far as the experts know, nobody can reliably record all Tor traffic, nor know the real origin of any internet connection.
Tor is the hardest tool to use on this list, but what it does is very powerful. Be prepared to give this one a little time. There's plenty of documentation to help you along.Tor Clients The Tor Browser Bundle for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux
The Tor browser bundle makes using Tor much easier. It comes with the Tor system, called Vidalia, and a Tor browser (based on Firefox) set up to use it. You can put Vidalia together with any other application on this list to hide your IP, even from the service you’re using.Orbot and Orweb for Android
Orbot is the Guardian Project’s cellphone-sized version of Vidalia. Orweb is a Tor browser for your phone. Orbot can route any Android application with options for setting a “proxy server” through Tor, hiding your IP. For instance, it works with the Twitter app. Despite the first message you see, you don’t have to “root” your phone to use it; ignore that message.The Onion Browser for iOS
Onion Browser is a Tor-powered web browser for iOS devices, written by Mike Tigas, who currently works at ProPublica as its Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Fellow. Onion Browser allows you to use the web over Tor without having to jailbreak your iPhone or iPad. Like Tor Browser Bundle and Orweb, your traffic is encrypted and anonymized. Unlike the others, Onion Browser is a standalone app and cannot proxy traffic for other apps on your device.So Many Tools, So Little Room.
There are many tools we haven't discussed here. Some, like Jitsi (Voice-Over-IP audio and video calls), because it's still too hard for the average user. Others, like PGP for email, because it doesn't address the issue of mass metadata surveillance that is the focus of this article. And still others, like Wickr for iOS, because I just don’t have the room. But you can have fun with it: These services and many other out there do a great job of encrypting your messages and your metadata, and put you back in control of who gets to watch you on your networks.
This can all seem overwhelming, but learning even one tool makes the next one much easier to understand conceptually. These tools will get easier for everyone with time and development. The internet has, throughout its history, responded to threats by toughening up; threats change and the Internet evolves with it. It’s an ecology as much as a network, a wild place, sometimes a forest, sometimes a swamp. It’s early days, but the internet is where we live more and more of our lives, and as we get a sense of it, living there safely will become a normal part of life.
“The news this week makes a lot of people feel helpless,” said Abel Luck, one of the Guardian Project developers. “There’s a war on privacy on, and every time you use a bit of cryptography, you’re winning.”
In the months following the October 2001, passage of the Patriot Act, there was a heated public debate about the very provision of the law that we now know the government is using to vacuum up phone records of American citizens on a massive scale.
“A chilling intrusion” declared one op-ed in the Baltimore Sun.
But the consternation didn’t focus on anything like the mass collection of phone records.
Instead, the debate centered on something else: library records.
Salon ran a picture of a virtual Uncle Sam gazing at a startled library patron under the headline, “He knows what you’ve been checking out.” In one of many similar stories, the San Francisco Chronicle warned, “FBI checking out Americans' reading habits.”
The concern stemmed from the Patriot Act’s Section 215, which, in the case of a terrorism investigation, allows the FBI to ask a secret court to order production of “any tangible things” from a third party like a person or business. The law said this could include records, papers, documents, or books.
Civil liberties groups and librarians’ associations, which have long been fiercely protective of reader privacy, quickly raised fears of the FBI using that authority to snoop on circulation records.
The section even became known as the “library provision.”
Yet as the Guardian and others revealed this month, the government has invoked the same provision to collect metadata on phone traffic of the majority of all Americans — a far larger intrusion than anything civil libertarians warned about in their initial response.
“A person might uncharitably think of us as lacking in imagination,” says Lee Tien, a longtime attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
In a speech before casting the sole dissenting vote in the Senate against the Patriot Act, Sen. Russ Feingold did zero in on Section 215 as “an enormous expansion of authority” with “minimal judicial supervision.”
But even Feingold did not conceive of the provision being used for bulk data collection, merely mentioning the possibility of individualized cases — for example, compelling “a library to release circulation records.”
Civil liberties advocates said in interviews there is a simple reason for the disconnect: In the period immediately after the Patriot Act passed, few if any observers believed Section 215 could authorize any kind of ongoing, large-scale collection of phone data.
They argue that only a radical and incorrect interpretation of the law allows the mass surveillance program the NSA has erected on the foundation of Section 215. The ACLU contends in a lawsuit filed last week that Section 215 does not legitimately authorize the metadata program.
The reason libraries became a focal point, Tien says, is that, “People could see that those kinds of records were very seriously connected to First Amendment activity and the librarians were going to war on it.”
Even before the Patriot Act passed, the American Library Association warned members of Congress that the business records provision under consideration would “eviscerate long-standing state laws and place the confidentiality of all library users at risk.”
“The library groups have a very well-informed and active lobby,” says Elizabeth Goiten, who co-directs the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program.
So has the government ever used Section 215 to get library records? We don’t know.
Testifying before Congress in March 2011, a Justice Department official said Section 215 “has never been used against a library to obtain circulation records.”
But as with so much else about the Patriot Act, how often or even whether the government has obtained library records is secret. Section 215 imposes a gag order on people or businesses who are compelled to produce records.
The FBI has also used a separate Patriot Act provision, issuing what is known as a national security letter, to seek library patron records. One such episode prompted a successful court challenge by Connecticut librarians in 2005-06.
The government itself didn’t get around to using Section 215 to vacuum up phone metadata until five years after the Patriot Act passed, in 2006, according to a new Washington Post report. The government had been sweeping up metadata since after 9/11 but apparently was doing so without a court order.
USA Today revealed that warrantless surveillance in 2006. Around the same time, according to the Post, the telecoms asked the NSA to get a court order for the data, believing that it would offer them more protection.
On May 24, 2006 two weeks after the USA Today report, the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decided to redefine relevant business records under Section 215 “as the entirety of a telephone company’s call database,” according to the Post.
Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, says that she has for years worried about bulk collection of metadata, but believed the government might be justifying it using other provisions in the Patriot Act.
“It was a really novel idea on the part of the government that they could use 215 to get bulk phone records,” she says.
As part of the Patriot Act reauthorization of 2006, Congress changed some of the wording in Section 215. But because the government’s interpretation of the law is still secret, it’s not clear whether the changes made any difference in the court’s ultimate authorization of the metadata program.
Bank of America employees regularly lied to homeowners seeking loan modifications, denied their applications for made-up reasons, and were rewarded for sending homeowners to foreclosure, according to sworn statements by former bank employees.
The employee statements were filed late last week in federal court in Boston as part of a multi-state class action suit brought on behalf of homeowners who sought to avoid foreclosure through the government’s Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) but say they had their cases botched by Bank of America.
In a statement, a Bank of America spokesman said that each of the former employees’ statements is “rife with factual inaccuracies” and that the bank will respond more fully in court next month. He said that Bank of America had modified more loans than any other bank and continues to “demonstrate our commitment to assisting customers who are at risk of foreclosure.”
Six of the former employees worked for the bank, while one worked for a contractor. They range from former managers to front-line employees, and all dealt with homeowners seeking to avoid foreclosure through the government’s program.
When the Obama administration launched HAMP in 2009, Bank of America was by far the largest mortgage servicer in the program. It had twice as many loans eligible as the next largest bank. The former employees say that, in response to this crush of struggling homeowners, the bank often misled them and denied applications for bogus reasons.
Sometimes, homeowners were simply denied en masse in a procedure called a “blitz,” said William Wilson, Jr., who worked as an underwriter and manager from 2010 until 2012. As part of the modification applications, homeowners were required to send in documents with their financial information. About twice a month, Wilson said, the bank ordered that all files with documentation 60 or more days old simply be denied. “During a blitz, a single team would decline between 600 and 1,500 modification files at a time,” he said in the sworn declaration. To justify the denials, employees produced fictitious reasons, for instance saying the homeowner had not sent in the required documents, when in actuality, they had.
Such mass denials may have occurred at other mortgage servicers. Chris Wyatt, a former employee of Goldman Sachs subsidiary Litton Loan Servicing, told ProPublica in 2012 that the company periodically conducted “denial sweeps” to reduce the backlog of homeowners. A spokesman for Goldman Sachs said at the time that the company disagreed with Wyatt's account but offered no specifics.
Five of the former Bank of America employees stated that they were encouraged to mislead customers. “We were told to lie to customers and claim that Bank of America had not received documents it had requested,” said Simone Gordon, who worked at the bank from 2007 until early 2012 as a senior collector. “We were told that admitting that the Bank received documents ‘would open a can of worms,’” she said, since the bank was required to underwrite applications within 30 days of receiving documents and didn’t have adequate staff. Wilson said each underwriter commonly had 400 outstanding applications awaiting review.
Anxious homeowners calling in for an update on their application were frequently told that their applications were “under review” when, in fact, nothing had been done in months, or the application had already been denied, four former employees said.
Employees were rewarded for denying applications and referring customers to foreclosure, according to the statements. Gordon said collectors “who placed ten or more accounts into foreclosure in a given month received a $500 bonus.” Other rewards included gift cards to retail stores or restaurants, said Gordon and Theresa Terrelonge, who worked as a collector from 2009 until 2010.
This is certainly not the first time the bank has faced such allegations. In 2010, Arizona and Nevada sued Bank of America for mishandling modification applications. Last year, Bank of America settled a lawsuit brought by a former employee of a bank contractor who accused the bank of mishandling HAMP applications.
The bank has also settled two major actions by the federal government related to its foreclosure practices. In early 2012, 49 state attorneys general and the federal government crafted a settlement that, among other things, provided cash payments to Bank of America borrowers who had lost their home to foreclosure. Authorities recently began mailing out those checks of about $1,480 for each homeowner. Earlier this year, federal bank regulators arrived at a settlement that also resulted in payments to affected borrowers, though most received $500 or less.
The law suit with the explosive new declarations from former employees is a consolidation of 29 separate suits against the bank from across the country and is seeking class action certification. It covers homeowners who received a trial modification, made all of their required payments, but who did not get a timely answer from the bank on whether they’d receive a permanent modification. Under HAMP, the trial period was supposed to last three months, but frequently dragged on for much longer, particularly during the height of the foreclosure crisis in 2009 and 2010.
ProPublica began detailing the failures of HAMP from the start of the program in 2009. HAMP turned out to be a perfect storm created by banks that refused to adequately fund their mortgage servicing operations and lax government oversight.
Bank of America was far slower to modify loans than other servicers, as other analyses we've cited have shown. A study last year found that about 800,000 homeowners would have qualified for HAMP if Bank of America and the other largest servicers had done an adequate job of handling homeowner applications.
This week, a federal judge ruled that Fox Searchlight violated minimum wage laws for not paying two production interns. So what are those laws? Are unpaid internships ever OK?
Here are some answers to commonly asked questions about intern pay.
What laws determine when an intern should or should not be paid?
The Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA, regulates minimum wage and overtime for U.S. workers, including interns. The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division is responsible for enforcing the law, and has a six-factor test to determine whether interns at private sector employers must be paid minimum wage.
According to the Department of Labor, an unpaid internship must meet all these criteria:
- The internship is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment
- It’s for the benefit of the intern
- The intern doesn’t displace paid employees
- The employer doesn’t benefit from work the intern is doing, “and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.”
- The intern isn’t promised a job at the end (unpaid “tryouts” aren’t allowed)
- Both the intern and their boss understand its an unpaid position
So are unpaid internships ever OK?
Very rarely, for work done at for-profit companies. According to the Department of Labor's test, companies can’t derive an “immediate advantage” from an intern’s work. And in the private sector, work that doesn’t benefit the company is rare.
“It’s fair to say most private-sector employers who employ volunteers are violating the law,” said David Yamada, a professor of law at Suffolk University in Boston.
What if they provide a stipend or lunch money? Does that count?
Probably not, assuming it’s a private sector employee covered by the FLSA, according to Yamada. If an internship at a for-profit employer doesn’t meet the factors laid out in the six-point test, they most likely have to pay their interns minimum wage.
What about internships at nonprofits?
According to the Department of Labor, nonprofits have an additional exception for unpaid interns that "volunteer their time." The government's guidelines state that “unpaid internships in the public sector and for non-profit charitable organizations...are generally permissible.”
What about gigs with the government?
For most interns on Capitol Hill, it’s perfectly legal for them to be working for free. Congress conveniently exempted itself from the Fair Labor Standards Act, meaning they don’t have to pay their interns. (It’s just one of many workplace laws that Congress doesn’t have to follow.) Most federal-level internships, including the White House’s program, are also unpaid.
Does getting college credit mean it’s OK to not get paid?
Not really. Many companies attempt to use academic credit as legal justification for an unpaid internships. But this week’s “Black Swan” ruling suggests college credit is not a reason to not pay your interns, a move that, as Yamada put it, opens an “interesting door.”
From the judge’s decision:dc.embed.loadNote('http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/712522/annotations/105588.js');
“The law focuses on what employers are doing and if they’re offering a bona fide training program,” said Rachel Bien, an attorney who represented the plaintiffs in the Fox case.
If an intern feels they’re owed pay, what can they do?
They can either attempt to work it out with their employer, file a complaint with the Department of Labor, or sue.
Of course, many interns don’t act. The Department of Labor has said they only receive a handful of complaints per year. And in recent years, there have only been three major lawsuits alleging companies should have treated interns as employees.
When interns do bring a lawsuit, it often settles out of court. Employment lawyer Michael Tracy says that in his experience, interns that did complain were paid “quite quickly and quite well...That’s what keeps it going. You pay one or two interns that complain, and you keep 20 or 30 that don’t. That’s a good business model.”
According to Yamada, cases that settle out of court often involve a confidentiality clause that prevents the intern from talking about the settlement. Interns are rarely in a position to stick with a case through trial. “Few unpaid interns have the resources to wait five years for a case to resolve,” said Tracy. ”You need a moral crusader.”
ProPublica is currently investigating internships in the United States that violate labor laws, such as the Fox Searchlight case. And we need your help. To contribute, you can:
Tell us about a recent internship - paid or unpaid
- Tell us if you've been excluded/impacted from an unpaid internship
- Donate to our Kickstarter so we can hire an intern to help with our investigation (deadline is June 27!)
This story was co-published with The Washington Post.
My sister and I took our positions in the funeral home's family room and greeted hundreds of mourners who had come to pay their respects. Everything seemed as it had four months earlier at our mother's funeral. The ubiquitous tissue boxes. My navy pinstriped suit. The ripped black ribbon, a Jewish tradition, affixed to my lapel.
But this time, we were accepting condolences after the death of our dad, who stood next to us such a short time before.
It's hard enough to lose one parent. Losing two within months is incomprehensible. When I left my parents' Michigan apartment last month, I couldn't believe it would be for the last time. I've replayed phone messages so that I could hear their voices again. And each morning, I look at Dad's watch on my wrist, thinking it should be on his.
Two days before my dad died, I celebrated the first Mother's Day without my mom. Now, I'm marking the first Father's Day without my dad.
As I've mourned my parents, I've been struck by how many stories I've heard about husbands and wives dying soon after their spouses. One of my high school teachers lost both parents within a year; so did a journalist friend in Los Angeles. My rabbi told me his parents died only months apart.
My mom buried both of her parents within the same week in April 1979, when I was 5. My zaydee died first, unable to fathom life without his wife, who lay dying in the hospital. My bubbe died during his funeral two days later.
I wondered whether there was more to this than coincidence, and sure enough, there's a well-documented "widowhood effect." Those who lose a spouse are about 40 percent more likely to die within six months than those with living spouses. The effect has been found in a host of countries, across a range of ages, in widows and in widowers – though men are more likely to die soon after losing spouses than women are.
S.V. Subramanian, a professor of population health and geography at Harvard University, co-wrote a review published in 2011 that looked at more than a dozen studies on the effect. "We never say that grief is a disease," he told me. "But what some of this research is showing is that at older ages, grief can make you more vulnerable to mortality."
Subramanian said his uncle's parents died within days of one another.
There are a variety of theories about why this happens. Perhaps it's the emotional toll – the grief that accompanies a broken heart. Perhaps there's a practical explanation – a wife or husband may have provided support in the form of reminders to take medication. Perhaps it's that a surviving spouse may be less active and feel less of a sense of responsibility after a partner is gone, contributing to a decline in health.
For my dad, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, his heartbreak was evident from the start. I'd never seen him cry as he did in the minutes after we disconnected the ventilator keeping my mother alive back in January. He typically kept his emotions well contained, and it was agonizing to watch him overcome by grief.
"My sweet, sweet wife of 42 1/2 years has just passed," he wrote on Facebook hours later. "She was a wonderful wife, mother, and grandma. There is a hole in my heart."
Then he stopped talking about it. He changed topics when my sister and I asked how he was coping. Instead, he talked of moving to the Jewish senior apartments, going on a dialysis cruise, starting a new business, visiting our family in New Jersey.
My dad's health problems may have caught up with him even if my mom hadn't died. He had heart disease, diabetes, renal failure and congestive heart failure. Last summer, his heart stopped and he had to be on a ventilator, but he pulled through.
Whether by coincidence or not, his health began to slide further after my mom's death. He fell in the bathroom and cut his foot, a problem for diabetics like him. When the toes didn't heal properly, he had to have them amputated.
He joked that he and his toes had had a good run and wondered if the toe fairy would come for a visit.
My father maintained his humor even on the morning of his death. When my sister called to ask him, "Who's the best dad in the world?" he responded, "I don't know, but when you find him, can you have him give me a call so I can get some pointers?"
I can't help but think about the pain behind that facade – how much he missed my mom, the woman he shared his life with and relied on for more than four decades.
In the end, I was relieved that my sister and I didn't have to decide whether to disconnect life support, a decision that caused so much anguish and pain in my mom's final days. My dad died quickly: He went into cardiac arrest and could not be revived. He was 68.
There's some solace in the idea that my parents are together again. But that doesn't make this Father's Day any easier.
I'll cherish the time with my wife and kids. We'll probably go for bagels, as we do every weekend, and maybe we'll head to the Jersey Shore. I wish that I could share the day's highlights with my dad. I want to tell him that his 6-year-old grandson has learned how to play checkers (and is actually decent) and that our 3-year-old is building symmetrical Lego spaceships. I want him to know that the baby boy my wife is expecting in November seems to be doing well.
Could I have made more of my time with my parents? Will my children remember them? How I can live a life worthy of their legacy? If I can be as kind and generous a parent as they were, that will be a start.
Have you lost your parents within a short time frame? Share your experiences of cope and loving in the comments below, or join Charlie for a discussion of the "widowhood effect" on Facebook. Charlie wrote about his mother's death, and how it changed his thinking about end-of-life care, in February.
For more than two years, Jabbar Collins and his lawyer have pursued a multi-million dollar wrongful conviction lawsuit against New York City. They have unearthed what they claim is damning evidence of misconduct by prosecutors in the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes. They have obtained a sworn affidavit from a man who said he was forced by prosecutors to lie on the stand during Collins' murder trial. They have named the individual prosecutors to hold them personally accountable.
But their aims have not been limited to establishing possible wrongdoing in the 1995 case that sent Collins to prison for 16 years. Instead, the lawsuit has included an additional, ambitious allegation: that Hynes, over many years, ran a district attorney's office that overlooked, condoned and even rewarded misconduct by its prosecutors.
It is a bracing assertion. And it is one Hynes, in legal papers filed by the city, had sought to avoid answering in person. Lawyers for the city, arguing on Hynes' behalf, said it was unnecessary or premature for Hynes to have to submit to questioning about the oversight of the men and women who worked for him. They asked a federal judge in Brooklyn to prevent Collins' lawyer from taking testimony from him under oath.
On Wednesday, that judge, Federal Magistrate Judge Robert Levy, ruled that Hynes would not be spared. Hynes, based on the judge's ruling, will have to sit for a deposition with Collins' lawyer, Joel Rudin, in August. The judge also rejected the city's bid to keep the deposition sealed. Hynes, who is running for a seventh term, is set to square off in a Democratic primary in September.
Outside the courtroom in Brooklyn, Collins said he was excited about the prospect of questioning Hynes.
"I think it's finally vindication to really confront him and have him answer under oath why he permitted the horrendous misconduct in my case to occur and why he failed to do anything about it," Collins said.
Lawyers for the city have rejected the claims that Hynes has been condoning misconduct. And they have portrayed Rudin's efforts to question him under oath as a stunt to humiliate the district attorney.
"Regrettably, plaintiff's fierce resistance to deposing other senior officials, together with his apparent proclivity to litigate this case in the press, betrays his motives: To embarrass the District Attorney by ambushing him with pointed questions from 50 separate cases that have been litigated in his office for the past 30 years or more, and then to play 'gotcha' when the DA understandably cannot recall specifics or details," city lawyers said in court papers.
Rudin has alleged in the lawsuit that Hynes' tacit policy of overlooking misconduct has led to repeated instances in which witnesses were secretly coerced into giving false testimony, exculpatory evidence was withheld, and coverups were mounted when defendants appealed. Rudin has asserted that he has found nearly 60 cases in which some or all of that kind of misconduct took place. In all those instances, Rudin asserts, no prosecutor involved was ever disciplined. Instead, he has claimed in court papers, Hynes has "praised and promoted them, thereby encouraging future constitutional violations to occur."
Rudin has also argued that the pervasiveness of misconduct in Hynes' office demonstrates that prosecutors are improperly trained to handle exculpatory evidence when they discover it. In fact, he claims that prosecutors "were permitted and/or encouraged to refrain from making any record of false or inconsistent out-of-court statements of prospective prosecution witnesses." That way, they'd never have to turn such material over to the defense as the law requires, Rudin has claimed in the lawsuit.
All of this, Rudin has alleged, produced "overall deliberate indifference" to misconduct in Hynes' office. And that attitude, he has said, helped explain the misconduct that Rudin has alleged against the lead prosecutor in Collins' murder case decades ago. Rudin has accused that prosecutor, Michael Vecchione, of having engineered false testimony against Collins and then having overseen an effort to deny him access to records that might have freed him from prison. Collins was released after 16 years after he won a rare bid in federal court to have his case re-examined.
Vecchione has denied each and every one of Rudin's claims, and lawyers for the city have continued to insist that Collins is guilty.
Vecchione was scheduled to be deposed by Rudin on Friday. However, Vecchione, who has been a principal character in CBS' current series "Brooklyn DA," had asked to have the deposition postponed because he was busy on a case. Judge Levy, however, ordered that Vecchione be deposed no later than June 24.
At the hearing, the city withdrew its argument that certain emails and other records turned over to Rudin and Collins by Hynes' office be kept under court seal.
The Guantanamo Bay trials of alleged terrorists, restarted by President Obama in 2011, have been marked by secrecy, snafus, and delays. ProPublica’s Cora Currier is at Gitmo this week for one such case. Read her first dispatch, about arriving at the U.S.’s most infamous court.
On October 12, 2000, a skiff pulled up alongside the U.S.S. Cole, docked in Aden, Yemen, and blew up. The attack killed 17 sailors and nearly sank the Cole. It was one of Al Qaeda’s most lethal operations before 9/11.
Nearly 13 years on, prosecutors and defense lawyers are still in pre-trial hearings, arguing over spiral notebooks, whether a dead man can testify, and dozens of other legal questions ranging from mundane errors to constitutional challenges to the court’s authority. There’s no indication when the actual trial will be able to begin.
Welcome to the courts at Guantanamo Bay.
Abd al Rahim Al Nashiri faces the death penalty for allegedly being “in charge of planning and preparation” of the attack on the Cole, as well an attack on a French ship and an attempted bombing of another U.S. vessel. The 48-year-old Saudi has been in U.S. hands since 2002, first at a CIA secret prison and for the six last years at Gitmo.
In this week’s hearings, Nashiri sits in a wheeled office chair, unshackled, dressed in a white, oversize, short-sleeved shirt. (On a tour of the courtroom, we were told defendants had to sit in chairs without wheels.) His lawyer can’t say whether he’s fasting as part of the ongoing hunger strike at Guantanamo, but he appears to be a normal weight.
I’m watching the first day’s proceedings behind triple-paneled soundproof glass, looking into the courtroom, facing the judge, alongside legal observers and victims and family members of those harmed in the bombing.
We are not allowed to doodle, lest we reveal the layout of the room.
TVs above the window play the proceedings along with audio. Both have a controversial 40 second delay, allowing censors time to bleep out classified information.
So we all rise for the judge, then sit again as he takes his seat and starts talking, only to still be hearing nothing and watching, on TV, an empty chair. When the court recesses, the judge leaves the room, and we all remain standing, rapt at his still-speaking image on the TV screen.
The issue currently before the judge, James Pohl, is, well, according to Pohl: “This is an issue…” He paused, with a sigh.
“I won’t characterize what I think of the issue.”
In fact, the morning’s hearing covers a motion the defense has filed, seeking to clarify what, precisely, they can bring into meetings with their client. Recently, the government wouldn’t let them bring in a note-filled spiral-bound notebook, saying the wire, if removed, could be dangerous.
The prosecution offers solutions. The defense lawyers could, for example, take the pages they need from their spiral notebook and transfer them to a three-ring binder, Marine Major Christopher Ruge tells the judge. The defense lawyers’ notebook, Ruge notes, “comes three-hole punched.”
But when pressed on it, the prosecutor is not actually sure that binders are allowed.
Nashiri’s civilian attorney, Rick Kammen, jumps on the wavering to take issue with what he characterizes as an ever-changing, erratically enforced procedure. “Pens, eyeglasses – almost anything in the imagination of someone who sees danger everywhere – can be a weapon.” (Kammen wears a kangaroo pin on his lapel, for kangaroo court. He says he also keeps a stuffed kangaroo on his desk.)
Major Ruge says the military has to keep everyone safe: “A length of metal wire can be broken off of it, much like a paper clip, and used as a weapon.” A ruling on what constitutes contraband steps over the line into dictating day-to-day prison operations.
The judge turns to the defense. “What harm are you suffering, by simply bringing in a non-spiral notebook?”
“If we have material in the [spiral] notebook,” Kammen responds, “it renders the visit less effective.”
Another government counsel states for the record that three-ring binders would indeed be allowed. Some of the family members shake their heads. One of them chuckles.
Later in the day, Ronald Francis, whose 19-year-old daughter Lakeina was killed in the Cole attack, says that to spend time “on can I have a notebook with metal is really asinine. They need to get to the meat of what we’re here for.”
The judge asks, “Can the next commander come in and decide, I don’t like pens?”
Nashiri’s lawyer Kammen chimes in, “I can see another prosecutor saying, in deference to another commander, they’ve got to write in crayon.”
In the end, the judge sides with the defense, allowing them to call witnesses later this week to testify on the matter of spiral notebooks.
Other motions are dispensed with fairly quickly. One was to note a medical evaluation that had found Nashiri sane, but suffering from PTSD and depression. The cause of these ailments was not noted in the unclassified version, though the defense suggests it stems from his torture in CIA custody. Classified documents show Nashiri was waterboarded and subject to a mock-execution with a power drill. Nashiri has said torture led to his confession to the Cole attack.
Others drag on interminably.
In April, it was revealed prosecutors in another case had somehow ended up with defense emails (though didn’t read them) and defense files had disappeared off central servers.
The government says the problems were technical and are being remedied, and that it’s time to move on. The defense acknowledges the mistakes don’t appear to be intentional, but say they’re still not convinced their information is secure.
We also hear about the mysterious case of monitoring devices disguised as smoke detectors in attorney-client meeting rooms at the prison. In this instance, the arguments are still only over which witnesses to call, not the facts of the case, and again, the defense seeks to make it about their lack of faith in the fairness of the commissions system. The government maintains it’s a non-issue; no monitoring has or will occur. The judge rules we’ll hear testimony from a prison commander later in the week.
We do touch on weightier matters. Does the Sixth Amendment guarantee that defendants “be confronted with the witnesses,” apply to the military commissions? Is hearsay admissible?
As the New York Times reported in 2009, the public evidence of Nashiri’s role in the bombing includes second-hand statements from people who may be dead or impossible to bring to testify.
One such man is Fahd Al Quso, who was indicted for the Cole bombing, and then reportedly killed in a drone strike in Yemen last year.
Is his “testimony,” transmitted via FBI agents or old reports, still admissible?
Kammen begins, “If I pick up the paper and read a government witness has died –”
The judge interjects. “Is now unavailable.”
“Is now unavailable,” Kammen continues, “can the U.S. kill witnesses and then still use their evidence, their hearsay evidence?” If so, he says, the defense will need to prepare for the possibility, and do extensive research overseas.
The government “opposes the motion as unripe” -- that is, the harm the defense seeks to remedy is not yet apparent. The chief prosecutor, Brigadier General Mark Martins, says if and when the prosecution includes hearsay, then the defense can object.
Both sides are pushing on the military commissions’ sore spot – delays. The defense says it’s best to delay now – to rule whether hearsay is admissible – and avoid delay later, when the defense challenges it down the road.
The judge concedes, “I’m not going to sit up here and tell you it may be a quick process.”
“It’s going to be a hideously long process,” says Kammen.
On the second day of the hearings we also hear arguments about whether or not Nashiri can be banned from classified pre-trial hearings. He doesn’t have security clearance, after all. He can be present when he himself discusses classified information that he knows, the government says. But beyond that, it’s not guaranteed.
The defense team (which does have clearance), claims a Catch-22 – they can’t ask Nashiri whether he knows about classified information without revealing it.
Among the things that are classified: detainees’ treatment by the CIA. The defense argues that Nashiri’s torture is central to their case, and that Nashiri must be able to counter what the government says about it.
“Let's say some agency gives them incorrect information,” Kammen says. “He will never be in a position to say to us that's not true. And waiting 'til trial is way, way, way too late.”
During a court recess, the reporters are stuck in an awkward spot in a courtyard behind the courtroom, hanging out of the sun under a tarp tent. The legal observers debate the finer points of the arguments. The victims and family members are set apart, with their own escorts. One of them looks at the observers talking, mimes chattering with his hand, and rolls his eyes at John Clodfelter, who lost his son, Kenneth.
Later, Clodfelter fulminates against the “legalese.”
“They’re not even thinking about the people that were killed,” he says.
Yesterday, a federal judge issued the first major ruling on the illegality of unpaid internships in recent years, challenging a rise in corporate reliance on uncompensated workers.
Judge William H. Pauley III ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated U.S. and New York minimum wage laws by not paying two production interns for work done on the set of the movie “Black Swan.”
Pauley ruled that the interns had essentially completed the work of paid employees – organizing filing cabinets, making photocopies, taking lunch orders, answering phones – and derived little educational benefit from the program, one of the criteria for unpaid internships under federal law. Pauley also ruled that the plaintiffs were employees and thus protected by minimum wage laws.
“I hope this sends a shockwave through employers who think, ‘If I call someone an intern, I don’t have to pay them,’” Eric Glatt, one of the plaintiffs, told ProPublica. “Secondarily, it should send a signal to colleges and universities who are rubber-stamping this flow of free labor into the marketplace.”
The “Black Swan” case is one of three class-action lawsuits in recent years that have alleged wage violations by companies, and the first to result in a ruling; one other settled out of court, and the other was denied class-action status. This week’s decision could have broader implications for companies and courts across the country.
As we’ve reported, internships in the for-profit sector must meet six criteria to qualify to be unpaid under federal minimum wage law. One is that the internship must benefit the intern; another is that the company must derive no “immediate advantage” from the intern’s work.
Previously, some courts have ruled that interns — legally considered trainees — can be unpaid if they derive the primary benefit from their work, an argument Fox Searchlight also relied on in this case.
But Pauley called the “primary beneficiary” test too “subjective and unpredictable,” and focused instead on whether the company derived an immediate advantage from the interns’ work.dc.embed.loadNote('http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/712522/annotations/105589.js');
Pauley also wrote that the “primary beneficiary” test doesn’t comport with a seminal Supreme Court case that undergirds the law about unpaid interns today. In that 1947 case, Walling v. Portland Terminal Co., the Supreme Court ruled that a training program for prospective railroad workers was exempt from federal minimum wage laws.
“I think [the decision] might reflect a more modern understanding that most interns provide genuine labor to their employers,” said David Yamada, an expert on labor law and Director of the New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University. “The judge is looking at this and saying ‘These guys aren’t doing a high school internship where you pad around after someone all day and go home. These are professional programs, and they’re learning their trade by delivering work.’”
The ruling also raised the issue of college credit, which Yamada said “opens a very interesting door.”
Many employers attempt to use academic credit as a legal justification for unpaid internships. But in his ruling, Pauley explicitly noted that academic credit doesn’t automatically pave the way for no pay.dc.embed.loadNote('http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/712522/annotations/105588.js');
Rachel Bien, an attorney who represented the plaintiffs in the Fox case, said yesterday’s ruling shows that “that justification [of college credit] is not founded on the law.”
“The law focuses on what employers are doing and if they’re offering a bona fide training program,” Bien explained
One last point to note: The judge also certified class-action status for this lawsuit, which means other interns at Fox may be eligible for back wages. Pauley’s ruling is contrary to that in a similar case against the Hearst Corporation. A judge declined to grant the Hearst case class-action status, saying the interns (at various magazines and with various duties) didn’t have enough in common.
Chris Petrikin, a spokesperson for Fox, said the company was “very disappointed” with the ruling and plans to appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where the differing legal approaches of the Fox Searchlight and Hearst cases may be reconciled.
ProPublica is currently investigating internships in the United States that violate labor laws, such as the Fox Searchlight case. And we need your help. To contribute, you can:
Tell us about a recent internship - paid or unpaid
- Tell us if you've been excluded/impacted from an unpaid internship
- Donate to our Kickstarter so we can hire an intern to help with our investigation (deadline is June 27!)
School tardiness and absences come at a high cost in Dallas, Texas. Gone are the days of detention and writing lines on the chalkboard; now students are fined, even jailed.
The enforcement of the state’s truancy laws, which were strengthened substantially in 2003, have led to a range of abuses, according to a complaint filed Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Justice:
- Students have been taken out of school in handcuffs, held in jail for days at a time, and fines have totaled more than $1,000 for students who miss more than 10 days of school.
- The students who are hauled into court to face truancy or lateness charges are not provided with legal counsel. The only lawyers in the courtroom are the judge and a member of the district attorney’s office, unless the student’s family can afford their own representation.
- Defendants are charged court fees even if they prevail in fighting the accusations, discouraging people from exercising their right to a full hearing.
The complaint, filed by a coalition of advocacy groups for young people and the disabled, targets the Dallas, Garland, Mesquite, and Richardson school districts in Texas and urges the Justice Department to force reforms and “declare the practice of criminally prosecuting children as adults for truancy” a violation of their constitutional rights.
For their part, some school officials, lawmakers, and judges say that the rigid enforcement system has led to improved attendance.
In a statement, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins defended the program.
“The Dallas County system offers the best chance for truant students to get back in class and graduate,” said Jenkins, adding that the courts are staffed by attorneys who specialize in juvenile justice issues, and make use of agencies who work to solve the underlying issues behind the truancy of students.
Certainly, the volume of cases has been striking. Texas adult courts in one recent year handled 113,000 truancy cases. Dallas County truancy court alone collected nearly $3 million in fines. It sent 67 students age 17 and older to jail because of truancy violations, and 53 students younger than 17 to juvenile detention centers. (Statewide records were not available.)
The complaint asserts that the program unfairly targets minorities and underprivileged students, and routinely puts youngsters in jail rather than keeping them in school.
Texas, like many other states, has been struggling with truancy issues for years. To combat the problem, the state legislature has passed a series of laws to stiffen penalties for absent and tardy students. In the 1990s, the legislature designated “failure to attend school” as a Class C misdemeanor, which meant that children could be tried as adults for missing school.
Texas state law now requires schools to report students to truancy court when a student has 10 or more unexcused absences within a six-month period. The complaint says that when students appear in court, they are often pressured to plead guilty and accept fines of anywhere from $80 to $500 rather than go to trial, pay additional court fees, and risk jail time. If students fail to appear in court or pay their fines on time, they can be arrested and jailed. Wyoming is the only other state in the country with a similar law, the complaint says.
In 2003, Dallas County got even more aggressive. According to the complaint, county officials lobbied the legislature to allow it to create its own specialized court system that would handle only truancy cases. The request was granted and since then four public school districts in the county have agreed to send their truant cases to the specialized courts.
Michael Harris, a senior attorney with the California-based National Center for Youth Law, said each of those school districts are predominantly African American and Latino, but are overseen primarily by white superintendents, and that the specialized court system is overseen by a white judge.
Chris Moore, a spokesman for the Garland school district, said the district has taken several steps to ensure parents are informed of their children’s unexcused absences well in advance of any complaint to the truancy court system. Tim Clark, director of communications for the Richardson school district, said the district always acts within the law in its handling of truants, and said that district officials would cooperate with any federal inquiry. In a statement on its website, the Mesquite school district said it informs students and parents about state truancy laws in the beginning of each school year.
A call to the Dallas district superintendent was not immediately returned. (If the district responds, we will update this article.)
“It’s pretty obvious that this program is set in school districts that do not have a large percentage of middle class white students. For example, the Dallas independent school district has less than 10 percent white students,” said Harris. “These students are thought of in a different way by key decision-makers in the county than white students.”
A handful of parents and students interviewed by ProPublica say that the enforcement of the program has turned school grounds into something like a police state, with guards rounding up students during “tardy sweeps,” suspending them, then marking their absences as unexcused and reporting them to truancy court. According to the complaint, charges have been levied even when students have legitimate reasons for an absence, such as a family emergency or illness.
Ashley Brown, a 16-year-old high school sophomore and honors student at South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas, said she missed four straight days of school in December 2012. Her grandmother, who she cared for personally, died of cancer, and she stayed home to mourn her death. She was also suspended twice for three days, once because she got in a fight, and another time because she was late to class.
Brown was eventually charged with 10 unexcused absences, even though Brown’s mother sent the school the grandmother’s obituary, and suspensions are supposed to be counted as excused absences under state law.
When Brown received a letter ordering her to appear in court, her mother panicked and called the school to correct her daughter’s attendance record. Afterward she missed a day of work and pulled her daughter from school to appear in court and explain the confusion. Eventually she persuaded the judge to dismiss the charges.
Andrew Collins, the assistant principal at South Oak Cliff High School, told ProPublica that he believes in the tough truancy program.
“To an extent, I do believe if a student is continuously truant, sometimes fines help solve a lot of that,” Collins said.
Others haven’t been as successful as Brown in disputing their truancy charges.
Roddi Ann Schoneberg, a 40-year-old former pre-school teacher and mother of three, said she struggled mightily to get her children to school on time after her mother suffered a stroke late in the summer of 2011.
Her children, two of whom she says are autistic, were traumatized by the experience and often went into tantrums when they were supposed to get ready for school in the morning. Overwhelmed by her children’s behavioral problems and her responsibilities toward her ailing mother, Schoneberg said she brought her elementary-school-aged children to school five to 10 minutes late roughly 20 times in the first half of the 2011 school year.
She said her children’s elementary school in the Richardson school district reported each late arrival as unexcused, and in December 2011 she received a notice to appear in court. School administrators refused to help her, she said.
Schoneberg said she intended to contest the charges, but ultimately succumbed to pressure from court officers and a county prosecutor and pleaded guilty. She was told that if she wanted to contest the charges at trial, she’d be liable for court costs no matter the outcome. The complaint alleges that Schoneberg’s experience is not unique; it says the truancy court doesn’t provide legal counsel and frequently threatens children and their families with jail time in open court, thus encouraging people to plead guilty rather than go to trial.
The county prosecutor initially tried to fine her $2,600, but Schoneberg said the judge decided to reduce it to $609. She had to return to court on five separate occasions to make payments.
“It totally enveloped my life,” Schoneberg said.
The policy, according to the complaint, can be especially hard on special education students and the disabled, who often miss school because of their physical or psychological issues.
The complaint also describes the plight of a high school student who has asthma and chronic respiratory problems. It says the student sometimes needs to be out of school for days at a time to be closer to her medical equipment at home.
Over the course of the 2011 school year she had several multi-day absences caused by her health problems, and on two occasions she forgot to turn in a note from her mother explaining why she was away. She was ultimately convicted of failure to attend school and paid a $100 fine and $77 in court costs.
Her lawyer, Dustin Rynders, supervising attorney for a disability rights group in Texas, said the child ultimately missed as much school for the court appearances as she did for her illness.
But the complaint suggests these steps aren’t working: By the time parents are able to reason with school administrators and get them to understand why their child was absent, it’s too late— the absences have already been reported to the truancy courts through an automated electronic filing system.
“This is an actual school to prison pipeline in terms of how they send kids to adult criminal court for what’s really minor misbehavior,” said Michael Harris, an attorney for the National Center for Youth Law, who said he spent hours watching students get processed by the courts. “Research shows that once they go to criminal court the likelihood that they’ll be swept up in the justice system again increases greatly.”
Harris and his fellow attorneys hope that the Justice Department will use the complaint as a roadmap to investigate the truancy court system in Dallas and eventually force changes to it.
They make several recommendations, like giving children proper legal counsel and refraining from taking them out of class in handcuffs.
A spokesperson for the Justice Department did not immediately return calls for comment.
Since the Rana Plaza building collapse killed more than 1,100 people in April, retailers have faced mounting pressure to improve safety at Bangladesh garment factories and to sever ties with manufacturers that don't measure up.
The world's largest retailer, Walmart, last month released a list of more than 200 factories it said it had barred from producing its merchandise because of serious or repeated safety problems, labor violations or unauthorized subcontracting.
But at least two of the factories on the list have continued to send massive shipments of sports bras and girls' dresses to Walmart stores in recent months, according to interviews and U.S. customs records.
In June 2011, Walmart said, it banned the Bangladeshi garment factory Mars Apparels from producing goods for the retail giant. But over the last year, Mars has repeatedly shipped tons of sports bras to Walmart, according to U.S. customs records and Mars owners. The most recent shipment was in late May, almost two years after Walmart claims it stopped doing business with the Bangladeshi firm.
A second Bangladeshi clothing maker, Simco Dresses, was blacklisted in January but continued shipping to Walmart Canada into March.
Walmart spokesman Kevin Gardner said the Mars shipments were allowed because of confusion over whether Walmart's standards applied. Mars didn't produce garments with a Walmart house brand but instead with a Fruit of the Loom label. So, Gardner said, it wasn't clear if Mars needed to meet Walmart's standards or Fruit of the Loom's.
Fruit of the Loom could not immediately be reached for comment.
As for Simco, orders that Walmart had already placed were accepted to lessen the impact on workers, Gardner said.
The shipments raise questions about Walmart's ability to monitor its supply chain as well as its efforts to ensure decent working conditions in factories located in low-wage countries.
Interviews with Bangladeshi factory owners spotlight another potential problem: Walmart's approach of publishing a blacklist with no further details might unfairly tar family businesses with minor violations.
International labor groups have been pressing retailers to sign an accord to pay for fire and building safety upgrades to Bangladesh factories. So far, several large retailers including H&M, Inditex and PVH Corp., which includes Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, have signed onto the agreement.
But many of the biggest retailers in the United States, including Walmart and Gap, have not. Instead, they are working on an alternative plan that they say will improve safety faster — but that is not legally binding.
"We think the safety plan that we've put in place already meets or exceeds the [other] proposal and is going to get results more quickly," Gardner said. "The point of the list is to get more accountability and transparency into our supply chain."
Soon, he said, Walmart would also publish safety audits of its current suppliers in Bangladesh.
Dan Schlademan, a United Food and Commercial Workers leader who directs the union's Making Change at Walmart campaign, said the shipments from barred factories show that Walmart's program is hollow.
"It's either a question of Walmart just telling people what they want to hear," he said, "or it's that Walmart has created a supply chain system that they have no control over."
Making Change at Walmart initially provided the customs data. ProPublica verified the information and found other shipments using public data compiled by research firms serving the import-export industry.
Mars Apparels is a manufacturer of lingerie and sportswear in the port city of Chittagong. In the last year, the garment maker sent at least 22 shipments, totaling 80 tons, of sports bras through the Port of Newark, according to customs records compiled by Import Genius, a data consultant for the import-export industry. In each case, the customer was listed as "Walmart Stores" and the product mark as "Ariela-Alpha International," whose brands include L.e.i. and Fruit of the Loom. (Ariela-Alpha did not return phone calls.)
Reached on a cell phone in Bangladesh, Shaker Ahmed, deputy managing director of Mars Apparels and the son of its founder, confirmed the customs data and said that the latest shipment went out last month. (Customs data show several May shipments in which the customer was listed as "WMR.")
But Ahmed said that until contacted by ProPublica, he had never had any problems with Walmart or heard about its list of banned factories. He described Mars as a medium-sized garment manufacturer with less than 1,000 workers.
Ahmed said Mars has supplied Walmart for more than a decade, though since 2008 it has been making clothes for private labels such as Fruit of the Loom that are owned or licensed by an importer, which then supplies the clothing to Walmart.
When Mars was manufacturing clothing for Walmart brands, its factory was regularly audited by the company, Ahmed said. Walmart rates its suppliers green, yellow, orange and red, with green being the best and red the worst, he said. "We never received a rating below yellow."
Since 2008, Ahmed said he has passed all audits by Fruit of the Loom, which uses the Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production program to inspect factories. Walmart said Mars didn't meet all of its criteria, which it said is more stringent than WRAP's. Ahmed said he welcomed Walmart to look at his factory and that the company is in the process of building a state-of-the-art facility.
Walmart accounts for a "very large" percentage of Mars' business, Ahmed said. "If Walmart were to tell us they're stopping production, if that were to happen, we would be destroyed. Our workers would be destroyed. We haven't had a single incident in 19 years. We never had a problem. So that would be catastrophe."
The other banned garment maker in the recent customs records, Simco Dresses, was blacklisted in January. The Import Genius records show three shipments of girls' dresses in February and March to the Isfel Co. destined for Walmart Canada. Isfel didn't return a call.
Customs records provided by another trade research firm PIERS show four more March shipments of knitted dresses and rompers, also destined for Walmart Canada.
The Bangladeshi press reported in January that Walmart had refused a shipment of women's shorts from Simco after discovering unauthorized subcontracting to Tazreen Fashion, where a fire killed 117 people last year. Simco said at the time that Walmart's ban could drive it into bankruptcy.
Simco's managing director Muzaffar Siddique said his firm had subcontracted an order to an authorized Walmart supplier, which then sent the work to Tazreen without its knowledge.
Asked about the February and March shipments from Simco, Walmart spokesman Gardner said, "If it isn't an egregious matter, we will accept goods produced under existing orders as part of our efforts to mitigate impact on the workers."
Siddique contended that Walmart's listing of his company is unfair and is damaging his family's business. After the list was published, he said J.C. Penney canceled a $300,000 order for 500,000 pairs of pajamas.
"We are very upset about it," Siddique said. "When I do business with you, it is like a doctor-patient relationship; there should be confidentiality. Walmart has no business going about publishing people's names that it thinks are bad because that jeopardizes other business we are doing with our customers."
Walmart is the only U.S. retailer to release a list of barred factories in Bangladesh. Gap, which also has a large presence in Bangladesh, said in a May statement that it has committed up to $22 million for factory improvements and that its stepped-up inspections have already led to some vendors upgrading their plants. But the company has said it would not sign on to the accord because of a provision that could allow victims of future factory accidents to sue the companies in U.S. courts.
Walmart, Gap and other large retailers are moving forward with developing an alternative safety plan with the help of former U.S. Sens. George Mitchell, D-Maine, and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.
"We are committed to Bangladesh," Gardner said. "We understand the role that we play in improving the livelihood of factory workers in that country. And improving the safety of those workers is very important to us."
But Walmart's approach of naming factories as "red-failed/unauthorized" has led to criticism in the Bangladeshi garment community that Walmart is trying to shift blame rather than serve as a partner.
"What Wal-Mart is doing at the moment is nothing but saving its own skin," Reaz Bin Mahmood of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association told Reuters. "As a responsible business partner they should stay with us and help improve working conditions for the safety and security of workers."
June 13: This story has been corrected.
I’m down at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, where Abd al Rahim al Nashiri is facing capital charges for the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. Nearly 13 years later, we’re here for what are still pre-trial motions. The Gitmo trials, restarted by President Obama in 2011, have been marked by secrecy, snafus, and endless delays. After having followed Gitmo for years, this is my first visit.
The trip to Guantanamo Bay, my first, begins at Andrews Air Force Base at six in the morning. We board the plane, a Miami Air charter, in a strict pecking order: media at the very back, interspersed with observers from law schools and the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union, then military commissions personnel, attorneys, then finally, the judge and victims of the bombing and family members (VFMs, in commissions parlance).
As we descend into Guantanamo – skirting Cuban airspace, our flight captain reminds us – I can’t see much from my aisle seat, but it’s drier and browner than I expected, the water a beautiful blue-green. It’s hard to tell where the ultimate border of the U.S. base is. The hills are dotted with fences and guard towers. Dusty tracks give way to paved roads as we approach the beige buildings around the airport. The mountains in the background seem to be definitively Cuba, in shadow as they are.
Off the plane, we are scooted into the receiving line, a shaded porch-way with “no photos” on the fences. Our passports are checked (alas, there’s no special stamp) at a podium shaped like a guard tower. Our on-base public affairs officers meet us. They are cheerful and friendly, though each of them is being shadowed by their replacement, due to an upcoming tour rotation. There’s a greater than one-to-one ratio of officers to media almost everywhere we go.
Our constant minders herd us into a van and onto a ferry, where I stand near the back leaning on a big truck as we go across the bay, past some green marshes, past the mouth of the bay, traversed by a small barge and patrol boats.
Again we head into the vans, and to the Media Operations Center, in a giant white hangar: a lovely building, white and covered in gridded windowpanes. On top of a hill is the only building we’re allowed to photograph from the outside, the SCIF (Secure Compartmented Information Facility) where trials were once held, and which now functions as a watchtower. The courtroom is now housed in the Expeditionary Legal Complex, pronounced “elk.” (“Expeditionary,” we are told, because it could be picked up and moved, should, say, Gitmo be closed.)
Outside we see the trailer from which a QRT (Quick Response Team) watches the hearings -- without audio -- in case there is a “disturbance” and they have to storm the courtroom.
Then into a chain-link fence corridor covered in black fabric. Metal wheeling restraint chairs are lined up in a row. Then a mini shingled wooden barn, the kind sold at roadside expos of yard sheds and gazebos, in which sit two metal-detector chairs designed for “non-invasive orifice searches” for contraband. The officer in charge sits on one, but says the chairs must be off, as something in his hip usually sets it to beeping. Then the holding cells – five now, for the five men accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks, underscoring how specific all this is to the crime. The cells are two-roomed trailers, heavily bolted up.
In the first, a chair, a sink, a TV for watching court proceedings. In the interior room, a desk molded into the floor, a cot, a Tupperware containing a prayer mat, cap, and beads, towels, blankets. An arrow on the ground indicates the direction of Mecca. A metal circle welded to the floor is a “hard point,” for shackling. There are no windows but some dotted holes for vents in the back wall.
Then we see the camera-lined courtroom. Chain comes out of the ground by the outer edge of each of the defense side tables, under chairs without wheels, then also under the center of tables at the defense side, an adaptation from when detainees decided to represent themselves. Compliant detainees, we’re told, are not shackled. The wires of computers and microphones run through the furniture so that, our guide says, they cannot be used as a weapon.
We see the soundproof gallery from which we will watch the proceedings on a controversial 40-second audio delay, meant to protect against the disclosure of classified information.
The extreme secrecy surrounding so many aspects of the trial is a constant battle between the government, the defense, and the media. There’s a motion on the docket for this week so secret it doesn’t even have an unclassified name. The judge is hearing arguments this week on whether Nashiri himself will be allowed to know, even in general terms, what it’s about.
The government also takes the position that anything related to detainees’ time in CIA custody is still classified, despite the fact that the program has been acknowledged, ended, and much about it is in the public domain. So everything that the detainees say is presumed classified, since they are in a position to reveal classified information -- hence the 40-second delay. (A defense attorney in the 9/11 case has challenged that stance, as have the ACLU and media organizations.)
There is a big red siren light on the classification authority’s desk in the courtroom to indicate white noise. The light went off mysteriously during hearings in the 9/11 case earlier this year. No one knew who had pressed the button to censor the courtroom. The government later said it was an “original classification authority,” presumably the CIA.
We’re told they no longer have the power to cut the feed. That controversy, along with the discovery of a monitoring device disguised in a smoke detector in the rooms where defense attorneys met with their clients overshadowed this winter’s hearings. (The judge ordered those smoke-detector microphones disabled in February.) Then there was the April revelation that defense emails had been improperly accessed and files disappeared (the government maintains it was a technical glitch, and no emails were read.) The defense will try to bring all of this front and center in the week ahead.
Correction: This story previously said Guantanamo Bay's courtroom is housed in the "Expeditionary Legal Center.” In fact it's housed in the "Expeditionary Legal Complex.”
June 12: This story has been updated with NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander's Senate testimony on surveillance.
Defending a vast program to sweep up phone and Internet data under antiterror laws, senior U.S. officials in recent days have cited the case of David Coleman Headley, a key plotter in the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said a data collection program by the National Security Agency helped stop an attack on a Danish newspaper for which Headley did surveillance. And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the Senate intelligence chairwoman, also called Headley's capture a success.
But a closer examination of the case, drawn from extensive reporting by ProPublica, shows that the government surveillance only caught up with Headley after the U.S. had been tipped by British intelligence. And even that victory came after seven years in which U.S. intelligence failed to stop Headley as he roamed the globe on missions for Islamic terror networks and Pakistan's spy agency.
Supporters of the sweeping U.S. surveillance effort say it's needed to build a haystack of information in which to find a needle that will stop a terrorist. In Headley's case, however, it appears the U.S. was handed the needle first — and then deployed surveillance that led to the arrest and prosecution of Headley and other plotters.
As ProPublica has previously documented, Headley's case shows an alarming litany of breakdowns in the U.S. counterterror system that allowed him to play a central role in the massacre of 166 people in Mumbai, among them six Americans.
A mysterious Pakistani-American businessman and ex-drug informant, Headley avoided arrest despite a half dozen warnings to federal agents about extremist activities from his family and associates in different locales. If those leads from human sources had been investigated more aggressively, authorities could have prevented the Mumbai attacks with little need for high-tech resources, critics say.
"The failure here is the failure to connect systems," said a U.S. law enforcement official who worked on the case but is not cleared to discuss it publicly. "Everybody had information in their silos, and they didn't share across the silos. Headley in my mind is not a successful interdiction of a terrorist. It's not a great example of how the system should work."
Officials from Clapper's office reiterated this week that he was referring to the prevention of Headley's follow-up role in a Mumbai-style attack against Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper, a prime target because it published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that many Muslims found offensive. To that extent, Clapper's comment shed a bit of new light on this aspect of a labyrinthine case.
Separately today, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander told a Senate committee that surveillance conducted by his agency helped disrupt "dozens" of attacks aimed at the U.S. and elsewhere. According to The Washington Post, Alexander cited the Headley case and promised to make more information public about the success of the NSA's phone surveillance program, which captures "metadata" such as number, time and location of but not the content of calls.
In January, a federal judge in Chicago imposed a 35-year prison sentence on Headley, 51, for his role in Mumbai and the foiled newspaper plot. He got a reduced sentence because he testified at the federal trial in Chicago of his accomplice, Tahawurr Rana, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Headley confessed to doing undercover surveillance in Mumbai for the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group and Pakistan's Inter-services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). U.S. officials also charged a major in the ISI with serving as Headley's handler before the attack in November 2008. Pakistan denies involvement.
In early 2009, according to trial testimony, Lashkar and the ISI sent Headley on a surveillance mission to Denmark. After he returned to Pakistan, his Lashkar and ISI handlers backed off. But Headley continued the plot with support from al-Qaida, whose leaders wanted a team of gunmen to attack the newspaper offices in Copenhagen, take hostages and throw their severed heads out of the windows.
Headley returned to Europe from Chicago for a second reconnaissance mission that July. The official version has been that he was detected at this point — but not by U.S. agencies.
Instead, U.S. and European counterterror officials have told ProPublica in interviews that British intelligence learned of Headley's contact with al-Qaida operatives near Manchester, England, who were already under surveillance. Headley planned to meet with the extremists in hopes they would supply money, arms and personnel for the Denmark attack.
"Headley was an unknown until not long before his arrest," a senior U.S. counterterrorism official told ProPublica in 2010. "He came to light because of the British. They knew him only as 'David the American.' [The British] MI5 [security service] detected that he was in contact with a group in the U.K. that they were watching ... David had made direct contact with two of the main targets of the U.K. investigation."
On July 23, 2009, the FBI asked U.S. Customs and Border Protection analysts in Washington, D.C., for assistance identifying a suspect who would travel shortly from Chicago via Frankfurt to Manchester, according to U.S. officials interviewed in 2011. The tip described a suspected American associate of Lashkar or al-Qaida with only his first name, flight itinerary and the airline, officials said. The customs analysts identified Headley through their databases containing records of his previous travel and interviews by U.S. border inspectors.
Headley went on to Sweden and Denmark. Alerted by U.S. agencies, Danish intelligence officers followed him as he scouted targets in Copenhagen and tried to find sources for guns, according to court records and interviews with counterterror officials. In the United States, court-approved FBI surveillance continued after his return in August and until his arrest that October, according to counterterror officials and court records.
Officials in Clapper's office declined to comment on accounts of the British tip. But they said that information lawfully gathered under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was integral to disrupting the attempted attacks on the Danish newspaper. This does not rule out other sources of information at other points in the investigation, the officials said.
Separately, the U.S. law enforcement official familiar with the case also said this week that a British communications intercept first detected Headley. Because the NSA works closely with its British counterparts, at that point U.S. intelligence agencies likely became involved in reviewing communications records to identify Headley and begin tracking his movements and associates, the official said.
"It was a communications intercept involving a bad guy in England," the law enforcement official said. "It was the Brits who passed us the info. Without knowing all the gritty technical details, [Clapper's depiction] definitely fits with my understanding."
The 30,000-page case file in Chicago remains wrapped in secrecy. Prosecutors have not said how investigators first detected Headley. Once he was under investigation by the Chicago field office of the FBI, agents intercepted his calls and emails and retrieved NSA intercepts of previous communications to build the case, according to court documents and ProPublica interviews. During questioning after his arrest, FBI agents confronted him with information from NSA intercepts as well as foreign intelligence agencies, the senior counterterror official said.
"What it may have allowed them to do is to go back and find emails and calls and map his movements," said Charles Swift, a lawyer for Rana, the Chicago accomplice.
Headley began cooperating after his arrest, turning over his computer and giving the FBI access to his email accounts. Swift said he is not aware of anything in the case to suggest that the disputed NSA programs identified Headley, though he acknowledged that defense lawyers were not shown the government application for a warrant to monitor Headley under FISA.
Swift called the case a dramatic example of the limits of the U.S. counterterror system because both high-tech and human resources failed to prevent the Mumbai attacks.
"You have to know what you are looking for and what you are looking at," Swift said. "Headley's the classic example. They missed Mumbai completely."
The Headley case is also problematic because of his murky past.
The convicted drug smuggler radicalized and joined Lashkar in Pakistan in the late 1990s while spying on Pakistani heroin traffickers as a paid informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration. His associates first warned federal agencies about his Islamic extremism days after the Sept. 11 attacks. Investigators questioned him in front of his DEA handlers in New York, and he was cleared.
U.S. prosecutors then made the unusual decision to end Headley's probation for a drug conviction three years early. He then hurried to Pakistan and began training in Lashkar terror camps. Although the DEA insists he was deactivated in early 2002, some U.S., European and Indian officials suspect that he remained an informant in some capacity and that the DEA or another agency sent him to Pakistan to spy on terrorists. Those officials believe his status as an operative or former informant may have deflected subsequent FBI inquiries.
The FBI received new tips in 2002 and in 2005 when Headley's wife in New York had him arrested for domestic violence and told counterterror investigators about his radicalism and training in Pakistan. Inquiries were conducted, but he was not interviewed or placed on a watch list, officials have said.
Headley was recruited in 2006 by ISI officers, who with Lashkar oversaw his missions, according to Headley's trial testimony and other court records.
In late 2007 and early 2008, another wife told U.S. embassy officials in Islamabad that Headley was a terrorist and a spy, describing his frequent trips to Mumbai and his stay at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. In fact, Headley was conducting meticulous surveillance on the Taj and other targets for an impending attack by a seaborne squad of gunmen.
Once again, U.S. agencies say they did not question or monitor him because the information from the wife was not specific enough.
Senior Indian officials believe the U.S. government did not need high-tech resources to spot Headley. They have alleged publicly that he was a U.S. double agent all along. U.S. officials strenuously deny that. They say Headley simply slipped through the cracks of a system in which overwhelmed agencies struggle to track threats and to communicate internally and with each other.
The final tip to authorities about Headley came from a family friend days after the Mumbai attacks. This time, FBI agents in Philadelphia questioned a cousin of Headley’s. The cousin lied, saying Headley was in Pakistan when he was actually at home in Chicago, according to trial testimony and court documents. The cousin alerted Headley about the FBI inquiry, but Headley went to Denmark as planned.
U.S. agencies did not find Headley or warn foreign counterparts about him in the first half of 2009 while he conducted surveillance in Denmark and India and met and communicated with ISI officers and known Lashkar and al-Qaida leaders.
FEMA’s released new, preliminary flood insurance maps for New York City, which specify how likely areas are to flood. The new maps, which replace maps that used data from 1983, double the number of structures in flood zones.
With warmer weather arriving, long-shuttered train lines reopening and a revamped boardwalk, people are flocking back to the beachfront on the Rockaways in Queens. And they’re not just coming to lie on the sand. They’re here to buy property on the 11-mile-long peninsula ravaged by Superstorm Sandy seven months ago.
“All of a sudden, everyone wants to be here,” said Annette Farina, a broker and owner of Belle Harbor Realty in Rockaway Park, N.Y.
But while Sandy’s water has long receded and the bulldozers have left, a residual effect for homeowners along the city’s coastline still lurks quietly beneath the surface. It comes in the form of a July 2012 law called the Biggert-Waters Act, which will end subsidized rates for property owners who are remapped into more severe flood zones, increasing their flood insurance premiums 20 percent a year until they reach market rates, and will apply those higher rates for newly purchased property.
The potential increases, which proponents say are necessary to sustain the National Flood Insurance Program, are not widely understood by residents, and may be catching them unprepared.
Biggert-Waters makes fundamental changes in the way our 45-year-old flood insurance system works.
Flood insurance is guaranteed by the federal government, and most property owners in flood-prone areas are required to carry it. The rates are set according to a property’s location on a map drawn by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA’s maps are based on complex storm modeling and are the agency’s estimates of each area’s chance of flooding.
On Monday, FEMA released new “preliminary” flood insurance maps for New York City, which replaced “advisory” maps rushed out in the days after Sandy devastated the area. Neither the advisory nor preliminary maps incorporate data from Sandy, but according to FEMA Mitigation Branch Director Bill McDonnell, they factor in prior storms and theoretical "Sandy-like" storms. The new maps double the number of city structures in flood zones to more than 67,000 over the last map update in 2007, which was based on 1983 data.
The mapping process now enters a public comment period, in which property owners and others will have the opportunity to appeal before the maps are finalized, which FEMA estimates will happen sometime in 2015.
The FEMA maps split the most at-risk areas into “V-Zones,” or “velocity zones,” and “A-Zones.” V-Zones risk waves higher than three feet and thus carry the highest insurance rates. A-Zones, the second most at-risk areas, also have high rates, albeit a bit lower. New York City’s A-Zones have grown dramatically since the 2007 map revision, so Biggert-Waters could mean the difference between thousands of homeowners’ making mortgage payments and going into default.
An analysis of Biggert-Waters’ effects by the Extension Disaster Education Network estimates that a typical property built in a flood zone at four feet below the expected flood level, which now carries a $1,410 yearly premium, would see premiums rise to $9,500 within five years.
The changes would be felt well beyond New York. Michael Hecht, president and chief executive of the Greater New Orleans Inc. Regional Economic Alliance estimated that the premium on a $350,000 primary residence in a Louisiana A-Zone that had never flooded could rise from $633 per year to $28,000 per year.Fixing Biggert-Waters
Concerned about the effect of changes mandated by Biggert-Waters, local and federal officials have introduced an array of measures to delay or blunt their effects.
Yesterday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced an ambitious $20 billion multi-pronged plan to protect the city through a combination of flood walls and levees, as well as grants and loans for rebuilding. Bloomberg also introduced a proposal to preempt the effects of Biggert-Waters by letting buildings that can’t be elevated escape higher premiums if they use other methods to fortify against floods. However, the plan faces at least a $4.5 billion funding gap, and Bloomberg offered no clear timeline or the project except to say it would last far beyond his term as mayor.
“It’s up to you to hold the next administration accountable for getting it done,” Bloomberg told reporters yesterday.
Last Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment proposed by Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., to reinstate the federal flood insurance premium subsidies ended by Biggert-Waters. The idea faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu proposed an amendment to the Farm Bill restoring the subsidies, but the amendment was not voted on.
Landrieu also has introduced a standalone bill called the Strengthen, Modernize and Reform the National Flood Insurance Program (SMART NFIP) Act that would delay premium increases, continue subsidized rates for homes that are sold, and allow the rebuilding of community facilities in V-Zones if they are destroyed in disasters.
In New Orleans, Hecht has been fighting for the amendment. He says that if the law isn't amended, and if new maps of areas like the Rockaways, Red Hook and Lower Manhattan are similar to the FEMA maps being released for coastal Louisiana, premiums could rise so high that homes would be effectively uninsurable.
“You’re going to be taking people and business owners who have done nothing wrong, who have followed all applicable codes, have kept their insurance up, have paid their taxes, who are suddenly going to find their properties not viable anymore,” Hecht said. “To me, that almost amounts to an illegal taking where somebody stands to lose their most important asset.”
Jolene Festa owns a brownstone in Red Hook, a coastal neighborhood in Brooklyn with 19th century cobblestone streets and beautiful views of New York’s harbor. When Sandy hit, water inundated her basement and rose a foot into her apartment, which is above grade. She currently pays about $2,000 a year for flood insurance, and says she hasn’t heard anything about rising rates, other than what’s been reported on the radio.
“Unless they’re setting us up for failure, we’re rebuilding as was,” Festa said. “We're not being told anything.”
According to the new preliminary maps, Festa’s building is in an A-Zone, with a required flood elevation of 11 feet. She says she has a realtor watching the house just in case something forces her to sell, and her architect told her there aren’t any building code changes at this time.
That’s probably because homeowners are not required to elevate unless the structure is “substantially damaged,” meaning over 50 percent of it is damaged, according to FEMA’s McDonnell.
“Either elevate,” McDonnell warned, “or understand that if they’re negatively rated by NFIP, in the future their flood insurance could be significantly higher.”
Owners whose property wasn’t “substantially” damaged could actually be in a worse position as they rebuild than those with more damage, said Jessica Grannis, a staff attorney and adjunct professor at the Georgetown Climate Center studying climate policy. Those with significant damage can collect both insurance payouts and individual assistance from FEMA, which may be enough to allow them to elevate their structures, Grannis said.
Homes with less than 50 percent damage are usually repaired under the required flood elevations, which means they may face higher insurance rates.
“In New York, you’re seeing a kind of triple-whammy,” Grannis said. “You’re getting the storm, you’re getting the new maps, and you’re getting the Biggert-Waters phaseout of subsidies.”
According to the real estate website Zillow, Red Hook real estate listing prices have risen 103 percent in the past year, but Festa believes if the new rates go forward it could have a huge effect on the neighborhood.
“Two things end up happening in these situations,” she said. “Rich people buy buildings and raise them up, or it goes back to being abandoned.”
Robin Shapiro, a Rockaway realtor, says she only knows of one house in her neighborhood that’s elevated. According to the preliminary maps, nearly all of the Belle Harbor and Neponsit sections of the Rockaway peninsula are in A- or V-Zones, with required flood elevations of up to 11 feet. In spite of that, she says people still want to move to the beach.
“Even though the rates just inched up, they’re still pretty low,” she said. “People have short memories.”
“A lot of people are still trying to rebuild, and they still don’t understand that even though they’re rebuilding, they may not be able to afford it when they get the flood insurance bills,” said George Kasimos, of Tom’s River, N.J., who runs a group called Stop FEMA Now to fight the new flood maps. “A lot of people still don't know.”
Kasimos started rebuilding his house a week after Sandy, and stopped when one of his neighbors came by and told him his flood insurance would go up to $30,000 a year if he didn’t elevate his house. Placed in what he called the “dreaded V-Zone,” Kasimos would be required to raise his house 12 feet to avoid the high rates, something he says he can’t afford to do.
Some experts are resigned to the rates hikes mandated by Biggert-Waters if they can help preserve the National Flood Insurance Program.
“The flood insurance program is about $21 billion in the hole after Sandy,” Grannis said, partly because of how much flood insurance is subsidized.
While Hecht agrees that the flood insurance program has to be adjusted, he says it has to be done gradually. He says the legislation proposed by Landrieu and Cassidy would “hit the pause button” to give lawmakers time to fix Biggert-Waters and to give FEMA time to redo the maps “in a more holistic fashion.” He would like to see the system keep grandfathered rates, but use market rates for those buying new properties or for those with severe repetitive loss.
A resolution could be years off, but Hecht says it's not time to start panicking.
“I have to believe this problem is going to get solved for Louisiana and for all of America,” he said. “If it were not to be solved, the implication is just too great. It would mean eviscerating coastal economies.”
Last month, we launched our investigation into the booming intern economy. We’re looking into companies that violate labor laws by staffing unpaid interns who function as regular employees.
But it’s not just about the interns who work for free. It's also about the thousands of people shut out of journalism, politics, the arts, and other fields because they can't afford to take unpaid internships on their climb to a career. The curators at Journos of Color, a journalism Tumblr, recently noted the cost of unpaid internships in the media:
If you’re wondering why it’s hard to find people from low-income backgrounds in elite journalism—which, disproportionately, means people of color—look no further than this. The only people who can afford to work full-time for free come from wealth, and generally, if you’re wealthy in America, you’re white.
The current internship economy raises issues of race, class and missed opportunities. Over 250 people have shared their internship story with us so far. But we also want to hear from you if your internship story is, “I can’t afford one.”
Have you changed career goals, or turned down opportunities because you needed to get paid? Help our investigation by filling out the form below.
The results of Tuesday's U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development national study on the persistence of housing discrimination are unlikely to shock: Racial and ethnic minorities continue to find themselves locked out of many housing opportunities.
No, the more startling thing may be what HUD intends to do with its findings. HUD spent $9 million to contract with the Urban Institute to conduct 8,000 undercover tests in 28 metropolitan areas in order to expose illegal housing discrimination. Yet the federal agency has no plans to use these tests to actually enforce the law and punish the offenders.
Once a decade for the last 40 years, HUD has produced a massive survey to reveal the pervasive discrimination that, year after year, exists in America's housing marketplace. But as ProPublica reported late last year, HUD as a policy refuses to invest the same kinds of time, resources and techniques in prosecuting those guilty of the very discrimination its expensive studies uncover. Instead, HUD outsources testing used to find and punish discriminatory landlords to dozens of small, poorly funded fair housing groups scattered across the country.
And Congress has shown little appetite for forcing HUD to do more meaningful enforcement. A bill that would create a national testing enforcement program at HUD is expected to soon die in committee for the third time.
In an interview Tuesday, Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan defended both the decision to conduct the survey and the Obama administration's commitment to ending the kinds of discrimination it revealed.
"The level of investment in fair housing enforcement has been significantly increased by this president," Donovan said.
Because housing discrimination these days is often more subtle — the survey released Tuesday said the kind of "door slamming" racism of years past had declined — testing is considered the best means of uncovering illegal behavior by homeowners, landlords and real estate agents.
According to HUD — the chief enforcement agency of the 1968 federal Fair Housing Act — running its own national testing program to pursue violators would compromise the agency's neutrality. Critics, including the man who created the fair housing testing enforcement program at the U.S. Department of Justice, called that stance "absurd."
In the study released Tuesday, the Urban Institute sent paired testers, one white and one a member of a minority group, to contact housing providers who'd recently advertised homes and apartments. The pairs shared similar stories with the providers about their qualifications and then recorded their treatment.
The good news is the testers — who all presented themselves as highly qualified — found little discrimination when trying to make an appointment to view a home or apartment. Black renters calling about an advertised unit are far less likely to be told it's unavailable than a decade ago.
But the study found significantly different treatment once testers met with agents.
Black, Asian and Latino testers were consistently shown or told about fewer units.
For example, white homebuyers were shown nearly 20 percent more homes as equally qualified black and Asian homebuyers. In one test, a real estate agent refused to meet with the black tester until she was prequalified by a lender but made an appointment with the white tester without asking for prequalification.
Donovan said the findings revealed a "sad" truth that the long struggle to end housing discriminations continues. "Although we've come a long way from the days of blatant in-your-face injustice, discrimination still persists. Any time freedom of choice is attacked it is a threat to the ideals we all value — equality and fairness," he said.
Donovan said these findings represent more than just numbers, and underscore, for instance, a family's inability to move across town to a safer neighborhood with better schools. That the discrimination is "hidden doesn't mean it is any less harmful," he said.
Margery Austin Turner of the Urban Institute said the discrimination uncovered in the study likely understates the problem because buyers presented themselves as highly qualified and did not necessarily represent the typical prospective minority home buyer.
"The discrimination that persists today matters," she said. "Not only is it fundamentally unfair that somebody doesn't find out about available housing because of the color of their skin, but it also really raises the costs of housing searches for minorities. It restricts their housing choices."
Turner recommended increased testing, including at the national level, and strong enforcement.
The agency's unwillingness to fund an internal testing program to not just study but to enforce the 45-year-old Fair Housing Act enforcement has long been criticized as part of its overall failure to address wide-scale housing discrimination.
Perhaps you’ve heard that ProPublica has launched an investigation into internships. If you’re not familiar with our latest project, here’s the gist: we want to document the emerging intern economy in the United States by hiring an intern to help us investigate the intern economy. There will be multimedia and traveling involved, and it’s paid.
I’m the research intern here at ProPublica, and since we are already in the business of practicing journalism that creates impact, I wanted to do my part to help persuade you to support this project.
To put it simply, the current arrangement between employers and unpaid interns is neither fair nor sustainable. The set-up — where organizations hire workers under pet names such as “apprentice” or “volunteer” and pass off full-time employees’ responsibilities without compensation — undermines a large pool of people in this country, typically young folks. In this sense, employers who actively recruit and rotate new talent without paying for it are directly hurting a critical sector of their own industries. In journalism, this mentality is contributing to a new type of bitterness in an industry that needs young people on its side, rooting for its revival and longevity.
Accepting an unpaid internship is, of course, a choice, albeit a tough one for an emerging workforce with limited professional experience. The economic downturn, paired with student loans and other financial realities, compounds the complexity of this decision for college graduates looking for jobs. According to a recent study (PDF) conducted by Intern Bridge, a college recruiting and consulting firm, more than 50 percent of graduating seniors have had some sort of internship during their time at school, with non-profits leading as the highest provider of unpaid work, followed by government and the for-profit sector. Over the past several years, I have held six internship positions, half of which were not paid and required taking on a hefty slice of salaried employees’ daily workloads, which I completed with fellow interns who often juggled multiple jobs or sought government assistance to make ends meet.
My decision to take an internship at ProPublica meant the chance to learn about investigative journalism and contribute research to projects that have the potential to create tangible impact. It was also, in the spirit of full disclosure, motivated by the lure of a living wage, something I had not been offered from an internship since graduating from college in 2011.
Thus far, the return on investment has been high. For example, since my arrival at ProPublica in February this year, I have learned how to use nearly a dozen research databases to help enhance my reporting, to comb through public records, court documents and legal proceedings, and to press officials on critical issues. I have contributed reporting to a multi-year project on patient harm, and have worked under the guidance of senior reporters and editors to investigate physicians who receive thousands of dollars in payments from pharmaceutical companies. Each week, I have been compensated $700 for my work. The intern who ProPublica hires to carry out this investigation will shoulder the same level of responsibilities, and will be paid the same way.
But this commonsense approach to labor doesn’t apply to many organizations in the current internship bubble. Employers who rely on unpaid interns to churn out large sums of work without pay are contributing to a failing system in which people on the lowest level of a professional chain are presented with two options: make do or get out. Many talented young people have chosen the latter. Their employers have, in essence, bet against them.
The impetus of any ProPublica story is moral force, and through this investigation, we will share stories of thousands of interns who have been subjected to unfair treatment by employers. With luck, we will do right by this thriving sector of the modern workforce. I hope you can help.
Hanna Trudo is a research intern at ProPublica. She was previously an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy, dually focused on print research and digital production; an intern at The New Republic; and a manuscript fact-checker for a historical book about global politics in 1979.