Justice

The Warden Tried to Cover Up a Crisis at His Freezing Brooklyn Jail — Then He Got Promoted

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 18/07/2019 - 1:48am in

It’s been five months since a crisis of freezing and inhumane conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, when a power failure brought darkness to a detention center already inundated by the January cold. The Bureau of Prisons and the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Justice both pledged to investigate conditions at the federal jail but have yet to release their reports.

Even as those inquiries remain open, and blame for the crisis remains officially unassigned, Herman Quay, who as warden presided over the jail, has been promoted. As of June 9, Quay has a new job as complex warden overseeing three federal prisons in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, where he is responsible for some 3,400 incarcerated people — roughly twice as many as he was charged with in Brooklyn.

“It’s certainly not acceptable that the person who was responsible for the care of all the inmates at that facility, who from our perspective did not exercise due care, would then be getting a promotion to another facility.”

“It’s certainly not acceptable that the person who was responsible for the care of all the inmates at that facility, who from our perspective did not exercise due care, would then be getting a promotion to another facility, let alone a promotion before we have the investigation made public,” said Robert Gottheim, the district director for Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the chair of the House Judiciary Committee who had toured MDC during the crisis and denounced the conditions.

As warden of MDC last winter, Quay was responsible for a jail in which incarcerated people reported freezing cells, insufficient clothing, near-perpetual lockdown in unlit cells, cold and unreliable meals, deprivation of legal counsel and family visits, and dangerous medical neglect. Conditions became especially dire after an electrical fire knocked out power to much of the jail on January 27, as New York City was enduring a week of arctic temperatures, but people familiar with the jail say that MDC Brooklyn has a long history of inadequate heat and medical care. The situation generated public protests and inspection visits by members of Congress and a federal judge, and led the Bureau of Prisons and DOJ to open investigations into how things had gotten so bad.

Quay didn’t just preside over the crisis, he attempted to conceal it. He told the press that reports of inadequate heat in the cells were “inaccurate” and that incarcerated people had been “out all week” in common areas, rather than locked down in their cells. His staff initially tried to blame the power outage on Con Edison. When Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., attempted to tour the facility on February 1, Quay and his staff prevented her from speaking to any incarcerated people, claiming they were unavailable.

When top officials at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York asked Quay what was going on, he told them that heat and hot water were unaffected; he said the people inside the jail were receiving hot meals and medical care and were not confined to their cells. And when Nadler, the House member from New York, toured the facility, Quay told him that MDC had long had issues with heat, hot water, and electricity, but that he had never reported these problems to his superiors at the Bureau of Prisons.

Quay’s insistence that nothing so terrible happened at his jail last winter continued long after the news trucks had left the MDC parking lot. In an April 3 letter denying an inmate’s request for administrative remedy based on the ordeal he experienced during the power outage, Quay continued to insist on a version of events contradicted by the accounts of incarcerated people, jail staff, lawyers who visited the units during this period, and the testimony elicited by Judge Analisa Torres when she toured the jail in February.

Of the period following the fire, Quay wrote, “All housing units had functional lighting allowing inmates to move freely in the housing units.” He wrote that people had access to hot showers and the cells had hot water. “Inmates received regularly scheduled hot meals each day,” his letter said. “Medical and mental health attention was not affected.” For these reasons, Quay concluded, “the relief you seek is denied.”

MDC-brooklyn-for-the-intercept-1563371116

Messages of support remain on the wall in view of those incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn on July 16, 2019.

Photo: Elise Swain/The Intercept

The misrepresentation of conditions at MDC isn’t limited to its erstwhile warden. On April 10, Sonya Thompson, the Bureau of Prisons’ acting assistant director for information, policy, and public affairs responded to a series of questions Nadler had directed at the bureau more than two months earlier. Thompson’s reply to the House Judiciary Committee chair combines artful weaselry with outright falsehoods.

“The heat for the facility is provided via a boiler and was unaffected by the power outage,” she wrote. This is true as far as it goes, but it gives the impression that temperatures at MDC the week of January 27 were adequate. In fact, heating units had frozen solid and ruptured (independently of the power outage), knocking out the heat in many cells. By one account, a guard recorded a temperature of 34 degrees in one housing unit. When Torres, the federal judge, toured the facility more than a week after the power outage, she noted that vents were blowing cold air into the Special Housing Unit.

“Medical staff continued to disperse medications,” Thompson wrote to Nadler. It appears to be true that some inmates whose prescriptions had been freshly filled continued to receive their prescribed medications throughout the power outage. Many, however, did not. In any case, adequate medical care involves considerably more than dispensing pills: It includes access to medical care, which many people locked up at MDC, with conditions ranging from eczema to gunshot wounds to suicidal mental illness, went days without.

“Medical staff did not come to the units,” Deirdre von Dornum, supervising attorney for the Federal Defenders of New York, told The Intercept in an email. “When inmates got a CO’s attention for a medical emergency, the CO” — correctional officer — “would say ‘too bad’ and walk away.” Touring the facility during the blackout, von Dornum said, she saw incarcerated people bleeding and begging for help. She continued, “When I returned three days later with Judge Torres, those same inmates still had not been cared for.”

“Hot meals remained available,” Thompson wrote Nadler, “and hot water was available in inmate cells and shower areas.” Both these claims are flatly contradicted by the accounts of people inside, who received no hot meals from January 27 to February 1. There was no hot water in the cells, according to people inside who spoke to The Intercept and lawyers who spoke with clients inside. Showers, in those infrequent intervals when they were made available, ranged from icy to tepid.

“The BOP acts as though because it is part of the executive branch, it is above the law, and that it can simply deny facts, no matter how many witnesses there are.”

Thompson told Nadler that during the power outage, people at MDC Brooklyn suffering from sleep apnea got their required assisted-breathing machines. “Inmates with CPAP machines were provided with the opportunity to be relocated to a secure location in the facility with power for the CPAP machines,” she wrote. This assertion is especially remarkable, since Thompson presumably knows that Nadler is quite familiar with the unavailability of CPAP machines to people who needed them inside MDC. Nadler toured the facility with Quay and other officials February 2, and spoke to people who hadn’t had access to a machine for days. It was only after Nadler personally demanded that people who needed CPAP machines get them that, seven days into the blackout, jail officials finally complied, moving sick patients to a largely empty wing of the jail that still had power.

Von Dornum, of the Federal Defenders of New York, said Quay’s promotion and the Bureau of Prisons’ letter to Nadler shows that the disregard for the safety of people in federal custody goes beyond MDC to the very top of the bureau. “The BOP acts as though because it is part of the executive branch, it is above the law, and that it can simply deny facts, no matter how many witnesses there are,” she said. “Any shred of trust we had in the BOP has been broken by its letter to Rep. Nadler.”

Nadler’s office is similarly unimpressed. “We’re not satisfied,” said Gottheim, Nadler’s district director. “Their response was inadequate.”

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The Bureau of Prisons confirmed Quay’s promotion to The Intercept but wouldn’t say why he was promoted before the investigations into his jail have concluded or answer other questions. “As these matters are still under review, the BOP declines to provide specific comments,” an agency spokesperson wrote.

A spokesperson for the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General confirmed that an inspection and review of conditions at MDC Brooklyn last winter is underway but declined to comment further on an ongoing matter.

In February, after lawyers with the Federal Defenders of New York had gone days without being able to meet with their clients at the jail, the organization took the unusual step of suing Quay and the Bureau of Prisons in its own capacity.

The public defenders alleged that the jail was violating the right to counsel protected by the Sixth Amendment and asked the court to appoint a special master to monitor conditions at the jail. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, representing Quay and the Bureau, argued that while defendants have a right to see a lawyer, lawyers don’t have any right to see their clients. Judge Margo Brodie agreed and invited the Federal Defenders to amend their lawsuit to include people housed at MDC as plaintiffs. For the Federal Defenders, however, their ability to bring the suit on their own was the whole point: The Sixth Amendment starts to ring somewhat hollow, they argued, if the only people with standing to assert their right to counsel can be put on indefinite lockdown and cut off from contact with the outside world. The Federal Defenders’ appeal of Brodie’s ruling is pending.

A civil class-action lawsuit seeking damages from Quay and the Bureau of Prisons is also being brought by the New York civil rights firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady. Lawyers for the firm are still conducting interviews and collecting information, and a hearing is scheduled for September.

In the meantime, people familiar with conditions inside the jail on the Brooklyn waterfront say little has changed inside. Where it was perilously cold in February, it is now uncomfortably hot. Water still leaks from the ceilings and walls of cells, and black mold still proliferates. Medical care remains inadequate; lawyers with clients at MDC report that there is, at present, no gynecologist on staff or contract to provide care to the women there.

The post The Warden Tried to Cover Up a Crisis at His Freezing Brooklyn Jail — Then He Got Promoted appeared first on The Intercept.

“Do We Believe in Asylum? If We Do, We Need to Stop This Rule”: Trump Policy Upends Protections at U.S.-Mexico Border

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 17/07/2019 - 5:01am in

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Justice

This week, the Trump administration announced an unprecedented rule that would deny tens of thousands of asylum-seekers the chance to find refuge in the United States, imposing a bar to asylum for anybody who has passed through another country without applying for protection and being denied it there. The rule went into effect Tuesday, the day after it was announced, and set off an immediate storm of criticism and outcry.

Heather Axford, an attorney with Central American Legal Assistance, told The Intercept that the rule would apply to almost all of her clients. Axford described the case of Blanca — a pseudonym — who fled El Salvador after she had been “green lit” to be killed by MS-13 because she had testified against the gang members who had murdered her uncle. Blanca initially went to Mexico but was tracked down by a woman from MS-13 in the migrant shelter where she was staying. Blanca and her infant daughter were forced to continue their flight to the United States, where, this March, she was granted asylum. Axford put it simply: “She should not be required to seek asylum in Mexico if she has not found safe haven there.”

Another Central American woman, Elizabet, from Guatemala, has been waiting in Nogales, Mexico, with her 2-year-old daughter for their turn to present at the U.S. border and ask for asylum. Elizabet — who fled domestic abuse in her husband’s household for her mother’s farm but couldn’t survive on their meager, climate-afflicted crops — has been waiting since April for their number to be called under the system of “metering,” which limits the number of asylum-seekers who can approach U.S. officials each day. According to the Kino Border Initiative, the aid and advocacy group who shared her story with me, Elizabet’s number was likely due to come up next week. Having passed through Mexico, however, under the new regulation she and her daughter are no longer eligible for asylum.

“This new rule is patently unlawful and we will sue swiftly.”

The 58-page new rule is “so plainly illegal,” said Kerri Talbot, director of federal advocacy at the Immigration Hub, that attorneys expect it to be quickly blocked in the courts. That was the fate of the first “asylum ban,” issued last November, which would have eliminated asylum for anyone who applied after crossing the border between ports of entry, and which never went into effect.

But asylum-seekers and immigration advocates might be wary of relying on the courts to rein in the Trump administration’s anti-asylum animus, as the administration has successfully instituted a number of policies to outsource immigration enforcement to Mexico. The so-called Migrant Protection Protocols endanger asylum-seekers by forcing them to await the processing of their claims in Mexican border towns, and generally restrict access to asylum. Nonetheless, Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, promised, “This new rule is patently unlawful and we will sue swiftly.”

Legally speaking, the trouble with the latest ban is that it directly contradicts the very first asylum statute of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which states, “Any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States (whether or not at a designated port of arrival and including an alien who is brought to the United States after having been interdicted in international or United States waters), irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum.”

That seems pretty clear, but there are some exceptions, one of which is a “safe third country” agreement. The U.S. has one with Canada, which deems both Canada and the U.S. “safe” and limits asylum-seekers from seeking protection in one country if they have already been in the other. For months, the U.S. has been trying to strong-arm Mexico into signing such an agreement, and recently seemed on the verge of convincing Guatemala to do the same. But this past Sunday, the day before heading to Washington, embattled outgoing Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales bailed on the potential deal amid outcry and legal challenges in Guatemala. Though the new regulation is different than a safe third country agreement, it effectively, and unilaterally, imposes such an “agreement” on any country a potential asylum-seeker has entered while en route to the U.S. Though it will mostly affect Central Americans, there are also increasing numbers of asylum-seekers from Africa, south Asia, Venezuela, and Caribbean countries who pass through Mexico and will be deemed ineligible for asylum if they arrive to the United States.

The latest executive ukase would not take into account the validity or strength of any asylum claim from someone who has passed through a third country before reaching the U.S. They could be fleeing irrefutable racial, religious, or political persecution, among other dangers, and simply because they stepped foot in Mexico, they would be automatically denied.

Tens of thousands of people a year would be impacted if the new ban were fully implemented. In 2017, there were nearly 120,000 defensive asylum applications (when someone claims asylum to try to prevent their being deported), many of them from people who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border or presented at ports of entry. And that number doesn’t include many of the children who are already in the U.S. and can make affirmative asylum claims, who would also be affected by the ban. So far this fiscal year, Border Patrol has arrested 363,300 family members from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — none of whom, under the new rule, would be eligible for asylum.

Besides seeming to baldly disregard U.S. law, the regulation also is, according to Eleanor Acer, director of refugee protection of Human Rights First, in “direct violation” of the U.N. Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, the latter of which the U.S. is a signatory to. The U.N. refugee agency itself issued a statement that they were “deeply concerned with this measure.”

The U.S. claims an intractable crisis, bemoaning “an extraordinary strain on the nation’s immigration system.” Yet even Uganda hosts more refugees than the United States.

The U.S. government claims an intractable crisis, bemoaning, in the text of the new rule, “an extraordinary strain on the nation’s immigration system.” Yet, the country that hosts the most refugees in the world is Turkey, followed by Jordan, Lebanon, and Pakistan. Even Uganda hosts more refugees than the United States. Though the number of people arriving to the U.S. at its southern border has gone up in recent years, overall, fewer people are coming than in the early 2000s. The recent increase stems in large part from countries where the U.S. has played, and continues to play, a heavy hand in destabilization: whether through economic exploitation, military intervention, or as a driver of climate change.

Attorney General William Barr, while calling the U.S. a “generous country,” said that the new rule would “decrease forum shopping by economic migrants and those who seek to exploit our asylum system to obtain entry to the United States—while ensuring that no one is removed from the United States who is more likely than not to be tortured or persecuted on account of a protected ground.” He was referring to the fact that asylum-seekers who still manage to make it to the U.S.-Mexico border will remain eligible for other forms of relief, including “withholding of removal” (temporary protection against being sent back to a country where you’re in danger) and the Convention Against Torture, or CAT (similar to withholding, but specific to cases where torture is likely). Both these forms of protection, however, have significantly higher burdens of proof than asylum and are much more limited. Neither offers pathways to citizenship, and they both prohibit family reunification and foreign travel. Plus, unlike asylum, the government can pull the protections of both withholding of removal and CAT.

For the majority of those who seek asylum by approaching the U.S. southern border, protection is simply nowhere else within reach. Mexico itself has a strained asylum system, has significantly cut funding in the past year, and remains a dangerous place to await a claim. María Hernández, of Médicos Sin Fronteras in Mexico, told me, “Asylum seekers [in Mexico] are exposed to violence, to rapes, kidnappings, homicides.” There have already been reported cases of rape and kidnapping of people enrolled in the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, commonly referred to as “Remain in Mexico,” which force many asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico until their court dates.

Guatemala, the other country many refugees have to pass through on their way to the U.S., and where they may now be forced to stake a claim, is neither safe nor able to process asylum claims. In 2018, Guatemala only approved a total of only 20 claims, and only has 12 officials who work on the asylum process, according to Human Rights First. And Guatemala itself is a main source of migration from Central America, due to violence, corruption, poverty, and climate factors; in the 2019 fiscal year, Border Patrol has also apprehended more families and unaccompanied children from Guatemala than from any other country of origin.

The new regulation’s challenge to long-enshrined protections is existential, advocates say. As Keren Zwick, attorney at National Immigrant Justice Center, put it, “Do we believe in asylum? If we do, we need to stop this rule.”

The post “Do We Believe in Asylum? If We Do, We Need to Stop This Rule”: Trump Policy Upends Protections at U.S.-Mexico Border appeared first on The Intercept.

Reformist District Attorney Larry Krasner Argues Pennsylvania Death Penalty Is Unconstitutional

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 16/07/2019 - 12:00pm in

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Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who campaigned in 2017 as an unequivocal opponent of the death penalty, asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a legal filing Monday night to declare the state’s death penalty system unconstitutional.

The death penalty as it stands “cannot survive the state Constitution’s ban on cruel punishments,” Krasner wrote in a brief he submitted to the state’s high court. He cited a study, conducted by his office, that revealed a startling 72 percent of Philadelphia death sentences were overturned during post-conviction review between 1978 and 2017, often due to ineffective legal representation. In a justice system rife with racial disparities, that 37 of the 45 people from Philadelphia currently on death row are black adds even more cause for concern, Krasner argued. 

While grassroots opposition to the death penalty has grown with increasing evidence of wrongful convictions, it is rare for prosecutors themselves to call for its end. Krasner joins a small group of prosecutors who have called for their states to end the death penalty — where it still exists — including Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty in Colorado, King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg in Washington, and former Washoe County homicide prosecutor Thomas Viloria of Nevada. 

Krasner’s declared opposition to his state’s death penalty comes after a week during which his office was embroiled in a high-profile controversy with Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office was recently granted authority by the legislature to prosecute some gun crimes in Philadelphia — a move that was viewed as an attempt to undermine Krasner’s prosecutorial reforms. Shapiro says he did not ask to have jurisdiction over gun crimes in Philadelphia County alone. On Friday, under pressure from activists, he said he would support a repeal of the new law.

The reformist district attorney’s filing once again pits him against Shapiro’s office, which defends state laws that face legal challenges. Last summer, the attorney general opposed a request by the Philadelphia federal defender’s office that the state Supreme Court declare the death penalty unconstitutional. Shapiro argued that, if the Supreme Court agreed to do so, it would be overstepping its authority by setting policy from the bench. 

The federal defender’s request came in the case of an appeal from Jermont Cox, who is on death row following a 1993 conviction for first-degree murder and a series of other charges stemming from three 1992 shootings, and Kevin Marinelli, who has been on death row since he was convicted in 1995 for the murder of Conrad Dumchock. As a result of their appeals, the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether the state’s death penalty system is so flawed that it violates the Constitution. Krasner’s filing opposing the death penalty came as part of that case. Shapiro, in a separate Monday night filing to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, argued that review of Marinelli’s case should be denied and deferred to the legislative branch.

A number of outside groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have submitted briefs in this case arguing that Pennsylvania Supreme Court should find that the death penalty as currently applied violates the state Constitution. In an amicus brief filed on behalf of Cox and Marinelli, the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes capital punishment, argued that the death penalty has been imposed upon “those who have received the worst representation,” not those who are the most “deserving of execution.” 

Since Krasner entered office, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office has stopped fighting appeals of death row inmates, citing ineligibility in court filings on the basis of inadequate representation or intellectual disability. But Monday’s filing is the first time the office has argued that the state’s system as a whole is unconstitutional.

His data-based argument is just the latest step taken by elected officials in the state to draw attention to issues with the application of the death penalty. A bipartisan report from state lawmakers published last June showed that six people on Pennsylvania’s death row have been exonerated since 1972. Three have been executed. 

Gov. Tom Wolf issued a moratorium on all Pennsylvania executions in 2015, calling the state’s death penalty system “flawed.” Pennsylvania is one of four states currently under a moratorium, including Colorado, California, and Oregon. 

Krasner’s brief cites his office’s study finding “equally troubling data regarding the race of the Philadelphia defendants currently on death row; nearly all of them are black.”

“The DAO believes that these facts call into question the constitutionality of the death penalty as it has been applied in the county where it has been most actively employed,” the brief reads. “To be clear: the problem is not with the statute, but rather with its application. Despite the General Assembly’s efforts to craft a statute that comports with constitutional standards, a 72% reversal rate shows that death sentences have been applied ‘in a wanton and freakish, arbitrary and capricious manner,’” it continues. “This violates the state Constitution’s ban against cruel punishments.”

Groups including the NAACP, the Juvenile Law Center, and the Innocence Network, among others, have issued amicus briefs in support of Cox and Marinelli, calling into question the constitutionality of the state’s death penalty and asking the court to reconsider its ruling in both men’s cases. 

Oral arguments in the case are set for September 11. 

The post Reformist District Attorney Larry Krasner Argues Pennsylvania Death Penalty Is Unconstitutional appeared first on The Intercept.

How Some Florida Prosecutors Are Pushing Back Against GOP Voter Suppression Efforts

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 15/07/2019 - 9:00pm in

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Justice, Politics

In January, an amendment to Florida’s constitution, passed through a ballot measure, came into force, restoring voting rights to more than a million people with felony convictions in their past. Since then, the Republican-led state government has pushed to erect obstacles to the re-enfranchisement of these Florida residents. Late last month, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law that restricted the restoration of civil rights to people with past felony convictions who did not owe any court fines or fees — a move that many have likened to a poll tax.

Now, prosecutors across the state of Florida are contemplating ways to work around the new Republican-imposed restrictions and implement the constitutional change while hewing to its original purpose: to give people the vote. State attorneys in at least three Florida counties, covering major cities like Miami and Tampa, are looking into the possibility of modifying the sentences of some indigent people with felony records, potentially by allowing them to do community service rather than pay off often cumbersome court costs.

Amendment 4 restored the civil rights of all people with felonies who have completed their sentences, except those convicted of murder or sex offenses, affecting an estimated 1.4 million people. It was the most significant expansion of voting rights since women won the right to vote in 1920. Though its proponents insisted the reform was a nonpartisan measure — indeed, it passed with 65 percent of the vote in an election in which a Republican won the governor’s race by a razor-thin margin of 0.4 percent — it is largely assumed that the prospective influx in voter registration will benefit Democrats in the critical swing state. Few observers, then, were shocked that the GOP-led legislature moved to quickly pass a law narrowing Amendment 4’s reach.

“I’ve always felt that the requirement to make ex-felons go through the difficult process of rights restoration was partly about voter suppression.”

“I’m not surprised that the legislature passed an implementing bill for Amendment 4,” said Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, whose office is trying to find a way to allow people with felony records to pay off their obligations to the court through community service. “I always knew that there would be pushback because I’ve always felt that the requirement to make ex-felons go through the difficult process of rights restoration was partly about voter suppression.”

Still, the returning citizens who spent a decade fighting to get their lifetime voting ban lifted say they’re not ready to give up just yet. “Big picture-wise, for us, where other people see obstacles, we see opportunity,” said Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which spearheaded the effort to get Amendment 4 passed last fall. “That is part of the heartbeat of this entire movement. It took us 10 years to get to last November, and we’re in this for the long haul. It’s not about politics, it’s about how you continue to overcome.”

Most court fines and fees in Florida are mandated by the state legislature, essentially creating a criminal justice system that is funded on the backs of the people who pass through it. When people with felonies fail to pay up, those costs can balloon from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands. Not only do the fines now implicate voting rights, they can lead to drivers’ license suspensions and additional time behind bars.

The fines and fees imposed by the state frequently go unpaid — in Hillsborough County, the clerk of the court collected $15 million in court fines and fees from 2007 to 2017, less than 3 percent of the $500 million it had assessed — meaning that many people with felonies remain dogged by the run-ins with the law. What’s more, because the assessments are state-mandated, there’s little room for local officials, including judiciary officials, to affect the levels of the fees and fines.

“When those fines and fees are assessed initially, there’s not a whole lot of judicial discretion with most of them. There’s not a determination made as to whether a person is able to pay, what their income is, what their circumstances are,” said Ashley Thomas, Florida state director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which advocates for eliminating fees in the justice system. “These fines and fees are assessed without an analysis of whether the person could ever pay them.”

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle gives a news conference on the opioid-related death of 10-year-old Alton Banks in Miami, Fla. The fifth grader from a drug-ridden Miami neighborhood apparently died of a fentanyl overdose in June, becoming one of Florida’s younges victims of the opioid crisis, authorities said Tuesday. But how he came into contact with the powerful painkiller is a mystery. (AP Photo/Mario Houben)

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle gives a news conference in Miami, in July, 2017.

Photo: Mario Houben/AP

Would-be Florida voters need to act fast to be able to vote in Florida’s next statewide elections in 2020, with the presidential primary scheduled for March 17 and other primaries slated for August, ahead of the general election in November. The voter registration deadline for the presidential primary is February 18, giving groups interested in helping people register to vote about eight months to make it happen.

The majority of people with past felonies who are impacted by Amendment 4 are immediately eligible to vote, said Volz, whose group is currently focused on going into communities and encouraging civic engagement. “We basically remind everybody that the impact of Amendment 4 is intact, that the lifetime ban is history, and we’re now looking at a situation where we have about 800,000-plus who are immediately eligible, and about 500,000-plus who are not yet eligible because of financial obligations.”

Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has developed perhaps the most specific Amendment 4 implementation plan to date: It would include a streamlined case review system to help people who owe money they are unable to pay but are otherwise eligible, according to a draft her office shared with The Intercept. In Hillsborough County, a metropolitan area that includes Tampa, State Attorney Andrew Warren intends to set up a “rocket docket” to modify the sentences en masse.

“I agree with Amendment 4. I supported it. I voted for it. And now we have this gap in place where it’s up to localities to implement a process,” Warren said in an interview. “We’ve taken the reins of it here in Hillsborough County so we can do what we can to fulfill the promise of Amendment 4 as voters overwhelmingly approve.”

The moves taken by the state attorneys came after a new law was passed by the legislature in May and signed by DeSantis on June 28. The law made the restoration of voting rights contingent upon the payment of court fines and fees included as part of a sentence, as well as restitution paid to the victim of a crime.

The statute allows for financial obligations to be converted into community service, noting that a completion of community service hours would render a financial obligation met. It also allows the court or victims, in the case of restitution, to waive their right to be paid.

Despite these avenues for relief, the statute complicated Amendment 4 implementation efforts, which include plans to help register voters, because there is no centralized database with information about who could be eligible to vote except for the fact that they owe money to the court. There are 20 judicial circuits in Florida, and the legislature’s failure to issue implementation guidance means that unless elected officials actively seek to help re-enfranchise those with felonies, many will likely get lost in the system.

The state attorneys who are pursuing means to help move toward full implementation of Amendment 4 hail from Democratic counties, among the handful of Florida jurisdictions that went to Hillary Clinton in 2016. The state attorneys are therefore less likely to face strong political backlash for pushing back against the GOP legislature, even as they try to secure bipartisan buy-in for their efforts.

Fernandez Rundle and Warren had been in talks about how to implement Amendment 4 even before the law was passed, though the restrictions imposed by the legislature made their efforts all the more important. Aronberg, the Palm Beach County state attorney, contacted Warren’s office after the Hillsborough County prosecutor floated the rocket docket idea in an interview with the local press.

“We’re trying to figure out a way to do all this,” Aronberg said, referring to the rocket docket idea. “What does that mean? What does that entail?” Last Tuesday, he attended a meeting with interested groups and government entities about Amendment 4. “We haven’t seen a plan yet and obviously we’d be interested to see what others are doing.”

In each jurisdiction, the state attorneys’ offices are in talks with key stakeholders whose cooperation would be critical to any sort of implementation plan. Those include the clerk of court, the public defender’s office, the supervisor of elections, the administrative office of the courts, and the Department of Corrections.

One thing the state attorneys are insistent upon is leaving in place the restrictions for those people with felonies who owe restitution to victims or their families.

“We keep victims in mind whenever we’re doing anything that can impact them. That’s why it’s lower-hanging fruit to address those ex-felons who have nonviolent drug offenses and they just owe court costs and fees,” Aronberg said. “You can move from there to other crimes until you get to victim crimes, and that would be a separate discussion.”

Meanwhile, the future of the new law restricting Amendment 4’s reach will likely be determined by the courts. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center have sued Florida election officials, alleging that the statute is unconstitutional and creates two classes of returning citizens: those who can afford voting rights and those who cannot.

Warren, who was elected in Hillsborough County in 2016 as a reform-minded prosecutor, was the first state attorney to react to the law restricting Amendment 4 by proposing a plan to allow indigent people with felony histories to complete community service in lieu of payment. The biggest hurdle, he said, is “identifying through data the universe of people who we can target for this rocket docket process.”

There are two approaches his office intends to take. The first is to ask people who believe they qualify — people who have completed their sentences, don’t owe restitution, but still owe the court money and are unable to pay it — to self-identify.

“If we determine that the person fits someone who has completed all those terms and is unable to pay, then through some finding of financial hardship, likely relying on whether the person had a public defender appointed for them when they went through the judicial process in the first place,” Warren said, “then we can include them in the expedited judicial process of the rocket docket.”

“It would be extremely cumbersome for people to do it individually, and it would bog down the courts. We want to do it in an efficient way that’s not taking up a lot of court time.”

The other, more difficult task is for the state attorney’s office, working with other government entities, to collect data and identify groups of people who meet the criteria. The clerk of court keeps information on the payment of money owed to the court, while the Department of Corrections tracks whether individuals have completed their sentences. Identifying whether an individual has paid restitution is more complicated, because those payments can be made privately or through the state attorney’s office. The public defender or an outside group like the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, would then reach out to the identified individuals to inform them about the rocket docket process.

One reason the state attorney’s office is at the center of this effort, Warren said, is that the idea was borne out of conversations he had with the legislature about implementing Amendment 4, of which he was an early supporter. Another factor is that his prosecutor’s office can reopen a large number of cases to modify sentences.

“We are the one agency who has standing to go into all these cases and say, ‘Not just for John Smith’s case, but for these thousand cases, we are going to do it.’ Otherwise we’d force individual defendants to take the initiative individually, to navigate the process to be able to do it and reopen their cases,” Warren said. “It would be extremely cumbersome for people to do it individually, and it would bog down the courts. We want to do it in an efficient way that’s not taking up a lot of court time.”

While a rocket docket will help people make their way before a judge to get their fines cleared, people’s difficulties navigating the court system — even letting people know that they need to go into court to ask for a sentence modification —  remains a major hurdle. “Hopefully these rocket dockets will help lower the access-to-court burden, but there’s still the issue of making sure they are advised by counsel and many other issues that may come up,” said Thomas of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “Sometimes people have cases in more than one jurisdiction, and looking at it holistically and looking at what their situation is and how it can be addressed is going to be tricky.”

In Miami-Dade County, Fernandez Rundle has developed a plan that, while narrower than what Warren has discussed, is the most specific proposal to date. Her office’s draft plan lays out a 12-step process that starts with helping people who have completed their sentences register to vote and leads to something it calls a “streamlined case review” for a modification of a sentence. The case review would help indigent former felons who have yet to pay off their court fines, fees, and costs, unless their sentences included restitution or probation.

“For some time now, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has been exploring the existing legal complexities regarding the implementing of Amendment 4,” spokesperson Ed Griffith said in an emailed statement. “Given that any proposed plan to implement the restoration of voting rights will require the involvement of a number of governmental agencies and entities to actually start the process, an organizational blueprint must be in place to actually work.”

Fernandez Rundle’s office plans to work with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which, according to the draft plan, will set up an online or telephone portal to collect information about ex-felons, their sentences, and their ability to repay the court. Legislative offices could also field requests for assistance, according to the plan. (The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition does not yet have a clear timeline for when such a portal might be ready, Volz said.)

The process laid out in Fernandez Rundle’s proposal would have the state attorney, public defenders, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, and legislators collaborate to bring attention to the plan through advertising; check people’s qualifications for the program through court clerks; double verify that no other obstacles such as disqualifying charges exist; and then finally appraise them of their standing under Amendment 4. Eligible people with past felonies who owe no fines and fees would be told to register; those with outstanding debts would complete a financial affidavit and work with the state attorney’s office to set the case for a streamlined case review.

In cases in which the public defender’s office did not previously represent the individual, they would refer the case to pro bono attorneys. The chief judge would appoint one person to handle streamlined case reviews, and the clerk’s office would work with the court to schedule regular days for that to happen.

Fernandez Rundle’s plan declares that streamlined case review should move along quickly because the initial stages of determining eligibility will already include public defenders and court clerks.

Some state attorneys have bristled at the notion of getting involved in the process. Bernie McCabe, the state attorney for Pinellas and Pasco counties, which border Hillsborough, has said the new law restricting Amendment 4 is in line with what the plan for restoring voting rights was all along. “I thought what they’ve got now is what they advertised,” McCabe told the Tampa Bay Times, of Amendment 4 supporters.

The office of Duval County’s Melissa Nelson, who was elected in 2016 on a reform platform, told The Intercept that implementation of Amendment 4 is not a current focus. In Orange County, which includes Orlando, the fourth-largest city in the state after Jacksonville, Miami, and Tampa, State Attorney Aramis Ayala said she could not independently make decisions about sentence modification.

“As State Attorney I remain focused on the pursuit of justice, and this includes the work necessary to eliminate barriers to reentry,” Ayala, who has implemented significant reforms since her 2016 election and does not intend to seek a second term, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, it is not up to me alone to make determinations regarding fines and fees; therefore, I want to avoid conversations that evoke premature hope. I am proud to stand with the many people dedicated to the research, brainstorming, and planning process that produces tangible results. I remain committed to finding a solution.”

For the state attorneys who are seeking to broaden the implementation of Amendment 4, their hope is that their work setting up processes and systems for giving voting rights back to more people with past felony convictions helps other counties implement similar policies. Griffith, Fernandez Rundle’s spokesperson, said, “The hope was that whatever was created here in Miami-Dade County could become a structure for use throughout the State, thereby creating uniformity for all individuals seeking their voting rights anywhere in Florida.”

The post How Some Florida Prosecutors Are Pushing Back Against GOP Voter Suppression Efforts appeared first on The Intercept.

Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” Policy Exposes Migrants to Rape, Kidnapping, and Murder in Dangerous Border Cities

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 14/07/2019 - 9:30pm in

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Justice

The big man with a little mustache sat slumped in his chair at an immigrant aid office in Ciudad Juárez. The Mexican city sits a block and a half from El Paso, Texas, across the shallow trickle of the Rio Grande. But proximity to the U.S. meant nothing in his case; the office might as well have been on another continent. The man was sobbing. “Soy un muerto. Un muerto vivo,” he kept saying. “I’m a dead man. The walking dead.”

The man, whom I will call Franklin to protect him from retaliation, said he was being pursued by assassins. Back in his home country months earlier, covered from head to toe to conceal his identity, he had given testimony against cartel bosses who had extorted his and his common-law wife’s businesses. The extortionists were convicted and imprisoned, but the witness’s disguise had fooled no one. Post-trial, two of the bosses’ armed underlings pursued Franklin, first in his home country in Central America. Then, after he fled, they threatened his niece back home with death if she did not say where he had gone. “Juárez, Mexico,” the terrified woman told the hit men.

Franklin should have been able to cross the Rio Grande to the U.S. side long ago and make his asylum claim where the thugs couldn’t get him. Last year, he could have done so. He could have walked over an international bridge to a port of entry in El Paso, and Customs and Border Protection agents would have sent him to a detention center administered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. There, an asylum officer would have interviewed him about his fears. He almost certainly would have passed the interview and been released on bond to join friends or family in the interior. He would have gotten a lawyer and begun gathering evidence to show an immigration judge why he needed safety in America.

But Franklin had arrived too late. By the time he got to the border in March, the Trump administration had months earlier enacted a policy at southern border bridges called “metering.”

The policy posted guards at the exact middle of international bridges, where the U.S. legally begins, along with its civil rights. Instead of letting Franklin cross, the guards told him to take a number and go back to Mexico until the number came up.

In Juárez, Franklin joined thousands of other migrants waiting for their own numbers to come up. His finally did, almost three months later, in early June. He eagerly went back to the bridge. But when he got there, he was devastated to learn that he still would not be allowed into the U.S. Instead, he was enrolled in a new Trump scheme for asylum-seekers. By the end of June, almost 17,000 asylum-seekers up and down the border had joined him. They have been booted out of San Diego, Calexico, and El Paso and sent to nearby Mexican border cities to wait. Juárez, across from El Paso, has received the largest number: almost 8,000 people. The new program, commonly referred to as “Remain in Mexico,” is called MPP, short for the Migrant Protection Protocols.

Migrants waiting to enter the United States are pictured at dusk at Iglesia Metodista "El Buen Pastor," a church run shelter for migrants, where they are being allowed to stay while they either wait for their number to be called on the metered system, or wait for their second asylum hearings, in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua State, on May 18, 2019. - About 7,000 migrants are waiting to enter the United States via El Paso, either by the metered number system, or those which are part of the remain in Mexico policy, Migrant Protection Protocols. Those that are part of MPP are made to wait out their asylum claims on the Mexican side of the Border, where they are vulnerable to criminals looking for an easy target, extortionists, corrupt police, among other dangers.

At the Iglesia Metodista “El Buen Pastor” shelter, migrants are allowed to stay while they either wait for their number to be called on the metered system or for their second asylum hearing.

Photo: Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

Remain in Danger

To call that phrase Orwellian is a gross understatement. The MPP, rather than protect migrants, puts them in grave danger. It mandates that they remain in crime-ridden Mexican border cities for months, even years, waiting for U.S. courts to decide their asylum claims. Every few weeks, refugees enrolled in the MPP are brought into U.S. border cities such as El Paso to see an immigration judge. But after their hearings, they are sent back to Mexico, to cities so violent that the U.S. State Department recommends that Americans limit travel to them, or avoid travel entirely.

Juárez, for instance, is one of the 50 most violent cities in the world, and the State Department forbids its employees from traveling through the poverty-stricken northern and western parts of the city. Those are areas where many rented rooms and cheap hotels are located, housing migrants expelled from El Paso under the MPP. There are also charity shelters, though according to a report published this month by Human Rights Watch, they have room for only 1,000 people. An unknown number of others are living on the streets, including in the city’s most dangerous sectors.

Migrants in these situations face far more danger than Americans do in Juárez, according to Jeremy Slack, a University of Texas at El Paso anthropologist. His newly released book “Deported to Death” analyzes data he has been collecting for years about what happens to immigrants, mostly Mexicans, who have been expelled from the U.S. to Mexican cities like Juárez. Because most migrants are transient, poor, and without local ties, few if any residents of the border cities will know, much less protest, if they are hurt or killed. Slack says that Central Americans and other non-Mexicans may have it even worse. They are at severe risk of being robbed, kidnapped for ransom, beaten, raped, murdered — or at the very least, traumatized by violence they witness.

Examples abound. In June, Juárez media outlets reported that a 20-year-old woman from Honduras was taken by force from a house in Juárez and sexually assaulted by men dressed as federal police officers, driving a car with federal insignia. They handed her over to three men in another house, who put tape over her eyes and raped her repeatedly over several days. She was rescued after suspicious neighbors notified local Mexican law enforcement authorities that something seemed amiss in the house.

Also in June, two young Cuban women, and the husband of one of them, were hailing a taxi when a van drove up and men with assault rifles forced them inside. The group was taken to a house and told they could choose to carry drugs across the border in backpacks or pay $500 a piece to be freed. The women told me, during an interview at a migrant assistance office in Juárez, that they declined both options and the husband was taken to a separate room. The women were then raped repeatedly until the victims paid their ransoms.

Some 5,000 children up and down the border are in the MPP, and they are not spared from assaults. In July, I learned from an immigration lawyer in California that a distraught client had called to report that her sister, a Salvadoran woman, with a 14-year-old, 10-year-old, and 3-year-old, were kidnapped in Juárez. The California family scraped together $4,000 for a ransom payment, and after several days, the family was freed near a church in downtown Juárez. The mother said that she and her children had been captured after the kidnappers had spotted them wandering into Juárez disoriented, after being dumped there following their enrollment into MPP. When I met them by the church, the family told me that during their captivity they’d had almost nothing to eat, and they barely slept. After being freed, they made it to a migrant assistance organization that operates behind locked doors. A psychologist there told me that the family was suffering from shock, including the kids.

Not everyone in the MPP is assaulted, but even those who avoid such treatment are traumatized. A couple with two daughters, ages 5 and 3, told me that they are trying to live in Juárez for as long as it takes to pursue their asylum claim, but the family is freaked out by the city. “We went downtown one day to enjoy ourselves, and we passed a garbage can with a smell,” the father said. “I looked inside and there was a corpse covered in blood. My kids asked what I’d seen. ‘Oh, nothing,’ I said.”

Franklin wondered when he would end up in the garbage. He said he’d twice ridden city buses to job interviews and spotted the two hit men in the street. “They will torture me,” he said through tears as he spoke to pro bono El Paso legal workers who had traveled to the immigrant aid office in Juárez. “They will put my body parts in bags and dump them.”

The first time I met him in the migrant assistance office, Franklin explained how he tried to stay alive. He said he moved around Juárez with his shoulders hunched and his baseball cap pulled low. His nights at the church shelter were sleepless. His stomach was so tightly wound that in place of meals, he ate antacid pills. He wanted to go to court in El Paso and ask for a non-refoulement interview, in which an asylum officer listens to a migrant’s story about fear of being sent to a dangerous third country — in this case Mexico — and decides if the person should be removed from the MPP program and allowed to stay in the U.S.

But Franklin’s first MPP court date in El Paso was over four months away. Meanwhile, he’d seen the hit men near a monument to Benito Juárez, staring intently. They’d seen Franklin, too, even though he was on a bus, and they yelled, “Get him! Kill him!” The bus driver sped away. Franklin was certain his pursuers would not give up.

People walk past a sign reading "last number entered" in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, on May 20, 2019. - About 7,000 migrants are waiting to enter the United States via El Paso, either by the metered number system, or those which are part of the remain in Mexico policy, Migrant Protection Protocols. Those that are part of MPP are made to wait out their asylum claims on the Mexican side of the Border, where they are vulnerable to criminals looking for an easy target, extortionists, corrupt police, among other dangers.

People walk past a sign reading “last number entered” in Juárez on May 20, 2019.

Photo: Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

The Polite Judge

The MPP court in El Paso dismays first-time visitors. The children are the biggest shock. Refugee mothers and fathers cram the spectator benches, waiting to be called to a table before the immigration judge. They are almost always accompanied by sons and daughters: teenagers, 10-year-olds, toddlers, babies. Adolescents sit stonily. Infants lie supine. Two-year-olds wriggle under the benches, calling “Mamá!” and flapping their fingers into airplanes and singing Spanish nursery songs. There is coughing from people of all ages. The din sometimes grows so loud that the judge must call a break.

And then there are the adults crying — as when Katy, a Guatemalan woman, tells Judge Nathan Herbert what happened after she was returned to Juárez from her first MPP hearing with him a few weeks ago. (The Intercept has changed the names of migrants mentioned in this article to protect them from retaliation.) Katy describes being kidnapped by a taxi driver and his accomplices, who demanded $1,000 from her family in the U.S. They paid most of the ransom, and she was freed. But the kidnappers said they knew where she was staying, and they gave her a warning: “If you file a report, you know how people die in Juárez.” Later, Katy tells Herbert that she was trying to sleep and saw a knife being inserted into the doorjamb of her room. She chokes up at the memory. Two other women in the courtroom, who were also kidnapped, begin to wail.

A 3-year-old boy on a bench whines that he’s hungry. A toddler sucks her thumb, while a 4-year-old treats her mother like a pony, furiously flipping and stroking her hair.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry to hear that,” says Herbert to the sobbing Katy.

Judge Herbert is always punctiliously pleasant and respectful to the refugees, calling them “sir” and “ma’am,” and asking after their children’s health before testimony begins. His politesse only underscores the Alice-in-Wonderland absurdity and cruelty of the MPP.

“Ma’am, since the last time we were together, did you use the Legal Aid list I gave you then to find a lawyer?” he asks one Central American after another as the hearing drones on.

He already knows the answer.

“I made 30 calls,” the woman says. “Half of them didn’t answer. The other half said they wouldn’t take my case.”

Representatives from Human Rights Watch observed multiple MPP hearings in El Paso in May, for a total of 54 persons. Only three had lawyers. Of the almost 8,000 people who have been kicked back into Juárez under the MPP, and most are destitute. Meanwhile, the number of pro bono lawyers in El Paso who are willing to travel to Juárez and do MPP representation for these thousands of people is well known among local immigration rights activists: three, possibly four.

Even so, Judge Herbert tells the refugees he will give them one additional continuance to “Keep calling. Maybe they’ll answer.”

At one hearing in Herbert’s court, a very young Guatemalan man named Marlon has given up on getting a lawyer and says he wants to go pro se — to represent himself — for his asylum claim. Herbert gives him a packet of papers to complete back in Juárez. He admonishes Marlon that each form and document in the filing, from Central American birth certificates and police reports to Spanish-language crime-page news clips, must be submitted with copies and in English translation, with a declaration for each document attesting to the translation’s accuracy. All this, though translators in Juárez are very expensive and very hard to come by.

Another refugee, also going pro se, protests to the judge that the translation requirement is impossible.

“People do it all the time,” Herbert says. “So can you.”

People tell him that they have been ripped from the children they are related to. Arlys talks about her 13-year-old nephew, Edgar, who was taken from her when she was put into MPP. “I know nothing about him since.”

Marlon testifies that he took legal custody of his little brother, a minor, after their dad was murdered in Guatemala. Now the murderer is about to be released from prison, “and that is why we decided to come. I have my certificate making me responsible for my brother, and my father’s death certificate.” The siblings were separated anyway, the younger one to parts unknown.

“I have raised her since she was little,” says Samuel about his stepdaughter, Nicole. She and Samuel’s common-law wife were kept in El Paso after the family was apprehended. Samuel was put into MPP and sent back to Juárez.

“My 16-year-old brother, Derik,” says Donald.

“My daughter, aged two,” says a man sitting next to Donald.

The judge tells these people to ask the government lawyers in the courtroom about their loved ones’ whereabouts, or perhaps to inquire with a CBP officer. The judge in his black robe is unerringly kindhearted when he dispenses this counsel, but also unerringly chirpy. He might as well be a uniformed parking attendant, advising people about how to find their cars after they left them too long in the lot and were victims of the tow truck.

Nowhere, however, is the fracture between reality and rhetoric more chilling than when the migrants plead to be allowed to stay in the U.S.

When they are first interviewed by Border Patrol or CBP officers, migrants are supposed to be asked if they are afraid to return to their home countries. But nothing is asked about Mexico, and very few refugees would think to bring it up. Most have just arrived in the border cities and know nothing about life there — much less that they’re about to be sent back. Their first real chance to talk about fear does not come until they walk into court in the United States, weeks or months later.

“You are afraid to go back to Mexico: Is that correct?” Herbert asks person after person.

“Very afraid.”

“Totally afraid.”

“My case is really serious!”

Again, there are tears, to which the judge responds nonchalantly. “Ma’am,” he says (or “Sir”), “the decision on whether or not you’re going to go back to Mexico is not mine to make.” He assures the migrants that Christopher Chaffee, Jaime Diaz, Juan Carlos Brucelas-Vazquez, or whichever other Department of Homeland Security attorney is in court that day, has “made a note, and you and your children will all be referred for an interview with an asylum officer before any decision is made about whether or not you go back to Mexico. Do you understand that?”

“Sí,” the migrants say.

Reuters recently reported that only about one in 100 migrants in the MPP receive non-refoulement interviews that get them out of Mexico. To pass the interview, according to the rules, one must show that it is “more likely than not” that they will be subjected to violence. For the government, the fact that a migrant has already been victimized in a third country does not mean they will be hurt in the future.

Katy, for example — the woman who was kidnapped in the taxi and later saw the knife pushing through her door — described those experiences during a non-refoulement interview. She was sent back to Juárez anyway.

And after the three young Cubans were kidnapped and the two women in the group were raped for days, they got free of their kidnappers. All three went to the international bridge. The man in the group was admitted to the U.S. The women rape victims were put into the MPP and sent back to Juárez.

An asylum officer recently told Vox that the standard for prevailing on a non-refoulement claim regarding Mexico is “all but impossible for applicants to meet.” Another officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that they think the standard violates the law.

It seems that the only victimized migrants who are guaranteed under the MPP to achieve relief from future harm are those who no longer need relief from anything, because they are dead.

Back in February, a few weeks after the MPP was first rolled out, the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other civil rights groups sued the government, arguing that the MPP violates U.S. immigration and administrative law, as well as U.S. obligations under international law not to send people back to countries where they are threatened. The plaintiffs at first won a preliminary injunction, but the government appealed. In May, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the MPP could continue pending resolution of the appeal. Today the MPP remains in effect indefinitely.

 El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz (R) escorts Celsia Palma (C), 9, from Honduras, as they cross the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry bridge towards the U.S. on June 27, 2019, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Seitz escorted Celsia and other family members across the port of entry to be processed by U.S. immigration authorities. Earlier, Seitz and clergy from the Diocese of Ciudad Juarez held a prayer with migrants who were recently returned to Ciudad Juarez from El Paso because of the controversial 'Remain in Mexico' policy.

El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz, right, escorts 9-year-old Celsia Palma, from Honduras, as they cross the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry bridge toward the U.S. on June 27, 2019, in Juárez.

Photo: Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Political Theater

Last month, Bishop Mark Seitz of the Roman Catholic diocese of El Paso donned his black cassock with the scarlet piping, and a zucchetto — his purple-pink skullcap — and went to Juárez. There, surrounded by a crush of media, he walked several endangered migrants over an international bridge.

A week later, on July 3, New Jersey Senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker did the same thing. Fresh from his Spanish competition during the debates with El Paso native Beto O’Rourke, Booker shepherded endangered MPP migrants into the U.S., including the two Cuban women who had been kidnapped and raped.

Both attempts were successful. But at bottom, the crossings were little more than political theater. Most of the successful non-refoulement efforts have been assisted by a team of lawyers from Las Americas Immigration Advocacy Center. But according to Las Americas director Linda Rivas her agency has been able to handle only 100 cases, and has won exceptions from MPP for 29 individuals, with a few more cases pending. The successful exemptions were mostly for migrants who were ill or were in their last weeks of pregnancy. Only 10 had suffered from extreme violence.

Those 10 did not include the kidnapped and ransomed Salvadoran mother and her three psychologically traumatized children. On July 9, Rivas crossed that family into El Paso. But they did not pass their non-refoulement interviews, and on July 11 they were dumped into Juárez for a second time.

The government is now planning to vastly expand MPP. According to the new Human Rights Watch report, Mexico expects to receive 60,000 migrants by August. To ramp up hearings on the U.S. side, massive tents are slated for installation in at least three locations on the border — Yuma, Arizona, as well as Laredo and Brownsville, Texas.

Each tent will contain multiple MPP courts. Migrants will have their hearings in these tents, but judges will not be there. Instead, they will preside by video from hundreds or thousands of miles away. If a migrant manages to get a lawyer, the attorney might not be allowed in the tent, either, but instead will have to travel to the distant judge’s court. Rumors among immigrant rights activists are that community observers and reporters will also banned from the tents. The courts will run for 14 hours a day, to take advantage of judges’ differing time zones across the country.

A week after my first interview with Franklin, he was back at the immigration aid office; he’d been accepted into the entourage Bishop Seitz would be accompanying that afternoon across the bridge. I tried to speak with Franklin a second time, but it was hard to start the conversation. He was slumped in a chair, utterly still, with his eyes shut. I called his name; no response. I tapped him — nothing. I shook his face.

Suddenly, he was back. “Oh! Sorry,” he said, and explained that he’d been awake all night, just like every night, staring at the ceiling. But at the office, knowing he was finally headed to safety, as part of Bishop Seitz’s entourage, he’d finally relaxed and fallen asleep.

A few minutes later, he started to feel scared again, and he scurried out into the street and covered his face with a lime-green bandanna. But then he joined the group of migrants with the bishop. At the middle of the bridge, CBP allowed Franklin to walk into the United States. He was soon given a non-refoulement interview. He passed, was removed from the MPP, and was sent to an ICE detention center, where he passed his credible fear interview. A Las Americas-affiliated immigration lawyer has vowed to bond Franklin out, pending resolution of his asylum claim.

The post Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” Policy Exposes Migrants to Rape, Kidnapping, and Murder in Dangerous Border Cities appeared first on The Intercept.

Justice Department Agrees to Drop Charges in Sleazy Las Vegas Sting “Operation Bo-Tox”

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 13/07/2019 - 9:30pm in

The FBI spent more than two years chasing alleged money launderers in Las Vegas and Florida as part of “Operation Bo-Tox,” a code name referencing the toxin used in cosmetic procedures to reduce wrinkles. But the case finally collapsed this week, when the Justice Department moved to drop all charges against the lead defendant, Emile Bouari, as part of a pretrial diversion agreement.

According to the FBI’s internal files, agents in 2014 believed that Operation Bo-Tox would expose a network of money launderers who ran weight loss, aesthetician, and other health and beauty businesses in Las Vegas.

Charles Ro, the FBI agent who supervised the undercover sting, described the case as an investigation of a “Middle Eastern criminal enterprise” — an apparent reference to Bouari, who was born in Lebanon and operated a weight loss clinic in Las Vegas. Bouari’s Lebanese heritage represented the case’s only connection to the Middle East.

The Justice Department’s capitulation in Bouari’s case is remarkable, given the time and resources the bureau invested and the fact that Bouari publicly acknowledged that he laundered money for the FBI’s undercover agents. But as his trial neared, Bouari had signaled to the DOJ that he intended to put the bureau itself on trial, delving into the agents’ dubious conduct and questioning whether they had legal authority to start the investigation in the first place.

“There were huge issues in how and why the FBI targeted me,” Bouari told The Intercept. “No probable cause. They came after me with a personal vendetta and in a highly invasive sting. The case would have revealed terrible issues of abuse of power.”

As The Intercept described in a feature story last year, the FBI invested heavily in Operation Bo-Tox, deploying an informant and an undercover agent in Las Vegas and sending them on two trips to Miami, where they hung out in strip clubs (FBI recordings captured the agent and informant discussing their sexual conquests and negotiating with a stripper). The agents’ efforts were intended to engage Bouari, who had no previous criminal history, and nearly two dozen of his friends and colleagues, in money laundering schemes. But after two years of undercover work, the FBI had nabbed only Bouari, his girlfriend Kimberly Milko, and a friend of theirs, Mary Green, who together allegedly laundered $590,000 and collected $52,900 in fees.

“Certain FBI agents led by Chuck Ro chased 21 innocent people, indicted four, imprisoned two, resulting in one dismissal and now this deferred prosecution,” Bouari told The Intercept.

Monday’s agreement, more than five years after the FBI first targeted Bouari, suggests that the Justice Department has come to view Operation Bo-Tox as largely a waste of time and resources. Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Knief told U.S. District Court Judge James C. Mahan the government had agreed to drop all charges against Bouari so long as he stays out of legal trouble for the next six months, holds down a job, and cooperates with a pretrial services officer.

The charges against Milko and Green are still pending. Bouari’s brother Ghassan was also indicted with the group, despite not having been involved in any of the alleged financial transactions, and spent 18 months in pretrial detention before prosecutors dropped all charges against him in August 2017.

Emile Bouari spent more than two years in detention because prosecutors claimed that he was a danger to the community. He was released on his own recognizance in May 2018, but the brothers’ businesses went under while they were in jail. (In February 2018, Ghassan Bouari sued the U.S. government and the agents involved in the case, alleging that his rights had been violated as a result of the government’s malicious prosecution.)

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Las Vegas declined to comment on Monday’s agreement. The FBI did not respond to requests for comment.

emile-and-kim-1533671426

Emile Bouari and Kim Milko.

Photo: Courtesy of Emile Bouari

Love and Loathing in Las Vegas

As The Intercept described last year, Bouari believed that the FBI’s decision to target him in an undercover sting resulted from “a love triangle,” according to a statement Bouari’s lawyer, Mont E. Tanner, made in a court.

Bouari and Milko described to The Intercept how Paul Padda, a former federal prosecutor who is now a private lawyer in Las Vegas, had developed a flirtatious relationship with Milko during a period when she and Bouari had broken up. Bouari and Milko separately described how, after they had reconciled, Padda approached their table at a Las Vegas restaurant one night, pointed his finger at Bouari, and said, “I fucked your woman and she loved it.”

Padda has denied that this incident occurred; he has also denied having the relationship with Milko that Bouari and Milko described.

Whatever the circumstances, there was bad blood between Padda and Bouari and Milko. Someone anonymously posted statements on the website Ripoff Report, describing Padda as “a real sleaze bag” and “a terrible attorney” who “has defended pedophiles.” In January 2014, Padda filed a defamation lawsuit over the statements, first naming “John Does” as defendants and then naming Bouari and Milko after he received subpoenaed records from their internet service provider.

Within weeks of Padda filing his lawsuit, a short Moroccan man named Michel Benamar showed up at the FBI’s Las Vegas office with a story to tell: Benamar claimed that Bouari had embezzled $1 million from a business partner, though he couldn’t provide the name of the person who had purportedly been fleeced. Benamar also said that Bouari was willing to launder money.

This tip was the only information the FBI had that Bouari was involved in criminal activity, and Benamar’s credibility was questionable. Just seven months earlier, Benamar had been arrested for writing four bad checks to Vegas casinos. In addition, Benamar had a $2.8 million civil judgment against him in Alabama for failing to pay back loans related to a vending machine business. Nevertheless, Ro, the FBI agent, made Benamar an FBI informant and launched Operation Bo-Tox.

In a sealed motion filed in November 2018 and provided to The Intercept, another lawyer for Bouari, William H. Brown, alleged that Padda had a previously unknown connection with Benamar. Before becoming an FBI informant, the motion says, Benamar had worked as an informant for Jason Hahn, a Las Vegas police detective-turned-private investigator, who is listed as “a valuable asset” on Padda’s law firm’s website.

“Emile Bouari believes (and has conveyed this to the government) that he was targeted by FBI Agent Charles Ro essentially at the behest, and for the benefit, of Ro’s friend (and former local AUSA) Paul Padda, and that in service of this vendetta another Padda friend/associate (former Metro Detective Jason Hahn) coordinated the planting of informant Michel Benamar to serve as a catalyst, and pretext, for the government’s investigation, and to entrap Bouari,” the motion said.

The Intercept could not independently verify Benamar’s relationship with Hahn, who did not respond to requests for comment. Padda and Ro know each other in “a professional capacity,” Padda’s lawyer Ryan J. Stonerock told The Intercept. Padda and Ro are both listed as advisers to the International Organization of Asian Crime Investigators & Specialists, a nonprofit organization that hosts an annual conference on transnational crime and terrorism, but Stonerock said that while Padda had agreed to do legal work for the organization, he had not attended any meetings or events and was not aware that he was listed as an adviser.

In addition, Padda would not describe what, if any, conversations he had with Ro about Bouari’s case. Neither Padda nor Ro responded to recent requests for comment.

Problem FBI Agents

Before Operation Bo-Tox, Ro and his partner on the case, Dennis Lao, had a reputation as problem agents. In 2010, while assigned to the FBI’s office outside Los Angeles to investigate Asian organized crime, the pair traveled to the Philippines for an undercover investigation in which Ro posed as a broker for Mexican drug cartels interested in importing weapons and Lao as Ro’s bodyguard. The sting led to the arrest of three Filipinos for transporting weapons to the U.S., including assault rifles and grenade and mortar launchers.

But witnesses told an investigator for the defendants’ lawyers that as they pursued the case, undercover FBI agents, including Ro, had spent money on alcohol and sex at a club in Manila that reportedly employed underage prostitutes. The FBI disclosed in court that agents had spent $14,500 in eight days in the Philippines, including $3,000 for a single evening at one strip club and other expenditures labeled “entertainment and cocktail (tips included).” One of the agents working with Ro and Lao testified in court that he had sex with an employee of the club and gave her $80 — but claimed the money was for her sick father, not payment for prostitution.

In a recent class action lawsuit alleging gender discrimination at the FBI Academy, 16 current and former women FBI employees accused Ro, who had served as an instructor, of making sexist and racist jokes — including referring to a black trainee with braids as “spaghetti head” — and talking about the size of his genitals and his “little blue balls.” He also allegedly discussed a female trainee’s sex life in a derogatory way with male trainees.

The FBI did not respond to questions about Ro, who appears to have left the bureau.

The post Justice Department Agrees to Drop Charges in Sleazy Las Vegas Sting “Operation Bo-Tox” appeared first on The Intercept.

Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost Was a Member of Secret Facebook Group

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 12/07/2019 - 9:48pm in

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When news broke that thousands of current and former Border Patrol agents were members of a secret Facebook group filled with racist, vulgar, and sexist content, Carla Provost, chief of the agency, was quick to respond. “These posts are completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see — and expect — from our agents day in and day out,” Provost said in a statement. “Any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable.”

For Provost, a veteran of the Border Patrol who was named head of the agency in August 2018, the group’s existence and content should have come as no surprise. Three months after her appointment to chief, Provost herself had posted in the group, then known as “I’m 10-15,” now archived as “America First X 2.” Provost’s comment was innocuous — a friendly clapback against a group member who questioned her rise to the top of the Border Patrol — but her participation in the group, which she has since left, raises serious questions.

jeopardy-question-1562880748

The original post made to the Facebook group. Some personal information and names have been redacted for privacy.

Carla-Provost-comment-1562880761

Provost is one of several Border Patrol supervisors The Intercept has identified as current or former participants in the secret Facebook group, including chief patrol agents overseeing whole Border Patrol sectors; multiple patrol agents in charge of individual stations; and ranking officials in the Border Patrol’s union, who have enjoyed direct access to President Donald Trump. (It is technically possible that someone else posted in the group using the individuals’ accounts.) The group’s existence has already generated at least two investigations from lawmakers and internal Department of Homeland Security oversight bodies.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, sent a letter to the DHS Inspector General’s office last week specifically requesting that investigators examine whether Provost and Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan knew about or had previously addressed the problem of government personnel posting “violent, racist, misogynistic comments and pictures” in the “I’m 10-15” group.

“This is why I have requested a full investigation into this matter,” Thompson said in a statement to The Intercept, after being informed of Provost’s participation in the group. “We need to know who in CBP leadership knew about these deplorable groups, when did they find out, and what action they took, if anything.”

Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, did not dispute that Provost and other senior agents had commented in the group. Provost did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement, CBP said its Office of Professional Responsibility “is investigating the material provided to CBP this week from multiple sources.”

“CBP does not tolerate misconduct on or off duty and will hold those who violate our code of conduct accountable,” the statement said. “Several CBP employees have received cease and desist letters and several of those have been placed on administrative duties pending the results of the investigation. These posts do not reflect the core values of the Agency and do not reflect the vast majority of employees who conduct themselves professionally and honorably every day, on and off duty.”

ProPublica was first to report the existence of the secret Border Patrol group on July 1, revealing that members used the page to joke about migrant deaths and share sexually violent and threatening posts about several Democratic lawmakers, including, in particular, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, D-N.Y. Politico followed up by reporting that senior officials in the Border Patrol, as well as CBP public affairs officials, had known about the group for years and used it as an “intelligence” stream to monitor the sentiment of the workforce. The Intercept then reported that the public revelations sparked an internal purging of the Facebook group’s content, but not before we archived hundreds of posts shared over multiple weeks.

CBP’s press office disputed reporting that it had monitored the group. “While the Agency has taken appropriate action to review, investigate, and caution employees about inappropriate posts brought to our attention, the Agency does not restrict employees from affiliating through social media groups,” a spokesperson told The Intercept in an email. “Further, contrary to previous media reports, CBP’s Office of Public Affairs does not continuously monitor the personal use of social media by CBP employees.”

Evidence of Provost’s participation in the secret Border Patrol group comes as Ocasio-Cortez, along with Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas;, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.; and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., head into a hearing with the Committee on Oversight and Reform and the inspectors general of DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services on Friday to discuss their recent visit to detention centers along the border.

As both ProPublica and The Intercept have reported, the lawmakers visit was a hot topic among “I’m 10-15” members, who discussed throwing burritos at the members of Congress or, in the case of one El Paso-based agent, staging a “bang in” to relieve stress from their presence. In a statement to the press Wednesday, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, chair of the oversight committee, said the Facebook group would be a topic of discussion at the hearing. The Maryland Democrat has opened an investigation into the group and, in a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, requested that the Facebook executive see to it that his company “preserve all documents, communications, and other data related to the ‘I’m 10-15’ group” including “log files and metadata.”

Shortly after the Facebook group was revealed, CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility issued a public statement, citing Provost, saying that it had alerted the DHS inspector general’s office and that an investigation had been launched. McAleenan later said that an unspecified number of individuals had been placed on “administrative duties” following the disclosures over the last week, while ABC News obtained an internal memo showing that CBP “was aware, as early as February 2018, of at least one private Facebook group that included ‘inappropriate and offensive posts’ by its personnel.”

Whether the group in question was “I’m 10-15” is unclear. As CNN reported last week, CBP employees have also participated in a group known as “The Real CBP Nation” that shared similar content to the Border Patrol group.

A CBP spokesperson told The Intercept that it “investigated and took action regarding specific inappropriate social media posts and associated individuals that the Agency was made aware of in 2016” and that OPR “distributed guidance to the workforce that warned CBP employees can be disciplined for inappropriate social media posts, including posts in private groups” in February 2018. As for current investigations, the spokesperson said, “Several employees have been placed on administrative duty (also known as restricted duty).”

“The cases are still being investigated. When the facts are ascertained in the investigative process, the report is reviewed to determine whether the case should be heard by the Agency’s Disciplinary Review Board or referred to local management for review under management’s disciplinary authority. We cannot comment on individual cases.”

Catering to current and former Border Patrol agents and other CBP employees, the “I’m 10-15” group had more than 9,500 members before being exposed. As of Friday morning, the number was a little over 4,000. Though efforts were made to remove recent disturbing content, much of the group’s past posts and comments sections remain intact, with the names of members who have left the group appearing in gray.

The names of three current chief patrol agents appeared in The Intercept’s search of the Border Patrol Facebook group, including Matthew Hudak, of the Big Bend sector, whose last post was on August 10, 2016; Rodney S. Scott, of the San Diego sector, who remains in the group and whose last post was on November 17, 2018; and Jason D. Owens, former deputy chief patrol agent for the Laredo, Texas, sector, who now oversees operations the Border Patrol’s Houlton sector in Maine. The Intercept additionally identified nine current or former group members whose names match current patrol agents in charge, or PAICs, of individual Border Patrol stations.

The names of Border Patrol union figures also appear in the group, including Hector Garza, who was among the first active-duty agency members to establish a relationship to then-candidate Trump in 2015, and Tucson chapter union head Art del Cueto, host of the Breitbart-sponsored Border Patrol union podcast “The Green Line” and frequent Fox News guest.

While posts shared by Border Patrol supervisors viewed by The Intercept were generally benign, that was not true in all cases.

By all indications, group member Thomas Hendricks was something of an edgy memelord in “I’m 10-15,” never cowering before the politically correct demands of so-called snowflakes. When Hendricks appeared to disappear from the group last summer, his stature and mystique grew, prompting “who is Tom Hendricks” and “we are all Tom Hendricks” style posts.

The truth, as ProPublica reported this week and as comments reviewed by The Intercept indicate, is that Hendricks appears to be a supervisor in the Border Patrol Calexico station with more than two decades on the job. He returned to “I’m 10-15” on June 21, posting “That’s right bitches. The masses have spoken and today democracy won. I have returned. To everyone who knows the real me and had my back I say thank you. To everyone else? This is what I have to say…”

Hendricks then included an image of a smirking Trump forcing Ocasio-Cortez’s face into his crotch by the back of her neck.

The post, which garnered more than 250 likes, was on the ProPublica website less than two weeks later.

The post Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost Was a Member of Secret Facebook Group appeared first on The Intercept.

Acosta Says Epstein Deal Was in a “Different World” — But His Labor Department Still Makes Trafficking Victims Suffer

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 12/07/2019 - 4:03am in

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Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta holds a press conference at the US Department of Labor on July 10, 2019 in Washington,DC. - Democratic Party leaders called on July 9, 2019 for the resignation of President Donald Trump's secretary of labor over a secret plea deal he made a decade ago with a wealthy hedge fund manager accused of sexually abusing young girls. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, 50, was serving as a federal prosecutor in Florida when his office entered into the controversial plea agreement with financier Jeffrey Epstein. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta holds a press conference at the U.S. Department of Labor on July 10, 2019 in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

“We live in a very different world,” said Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta on Wednesday, when asked whether he would make the same agreement with accused child sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein today as he did 11 years ago. In 2008, Acosta, then a U.S. attorney in Miami, signed off on a sweetheart non-prosecution deal with Epstein, the superrich money manager accused of sexually abusing and exploiting dozens of underage girls. As reports by the Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown over the last year made clear, the current labor secretary played a major role in letting a serial predator walk free, with barely a slap on the wrist.

Acosta gave the Wednesday press conference in an effort to quiet mounting calls for his resignation following Epstein’s arrest in New York on sex trafficking charges last week. Acosta made no gesture of apology to Epstein’s many victims, but claimed that the extremely lenient treatment afforded to the rich and powerful figure was a reflection of justice in the pre-#MeToo era. “Today’s world treats victims very, very differently,” said Acosta, who did not consult Epstein’s victims before signing off on the 2008 deal, a violation of a federal law governing plea deals.

Acosta’s attempted defense — that it was a different time — is galling on many levels.

Even in Acosta’s “very different world” of a decade ago, the leniency accorded Epstein was uncommon. The deal Epstein got was even an aberration among the other sex trafficking cases Acosta’s own office handled. One man was sentenced in 2007 to 30 years in prison for trafficking a minor; two other men that year received prison sentences, and unlike in Epstein’s case, “neither of the cases involved dozens of victims,” CNN reported.

The labor secretary’s attempted defense — that it was a different time — is galling on many levels. For one, despite the notable gains made for victims and survivors of sexual violence and abuse in the last decade, rape and sexual assault remain dramatically underreported and mishandled by the criminal justice system. The long overdue felling of a number of powerful media figures through #MeToo revelations has not put an end to impunity enjoyed by powerful predators, nor the shaming and silencing endured by their victims. Donald Trump is in the White House, after all, and Brett Kavanaugh sits on the Supreme Court.

For Acosta himself to suggest that times have changed for sexual violence victims is particularly vile because the Department of Labor, under his watch, has spent the last year undoing already scant protections for some of the most vulnerable victims of sex trafficking, as well as the U.S.’s flawed anti-trafficking policies.

Through his Labor Department’s policies, Acosta has continued to ensure that those vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation are made more vulnerable still.

The extensive perpetuation of Epstein and his friends’ crimes was made possible by virtue of the vast power differential between the perpetrators and their victims. Through his Labor Department’s policies, Acosta has continued to ensure that those vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation are made more vulnerable still.

Earlier this year, Acosta proposed that the Labor Department cut 80 percent of the funding to a program dedicated to combating human trafficking, forced labor, and child labor. The cuts, proposed for the 2020 fiscal year, would slash the budget of the International Labor Affairs Bureau, which prepares reports on child labor and trafficking, but also provides funding to nongovernmental groups in foreign countries working toward nipping child labor and sex trafficking at the bud. At his Wednesday press conference, when asked about the proposed cuts, Acosta defended them by stating that the money went to grants “for foreign countries.”

At the same time, and perhaps more cruel still, the Department of Labor decided to place a moratorium on special visa certifications offered by the agency to human trafficking and extreme labor-abuse victims. Since 2015, the Department of Labor has directly granted visa certifications, attesting to a victim’s allegations and their willingness to comply with law enforcement cases against their traffickers and abusive employers.

As of July 1, victims will have to appeal to a separate criminal law enforcement agency, like the FBI, to validate their claims before the Labor Department will agree to the certification. Given federal and state law enforcement’s tendency to treat sex trafficking victims, as well as consensual sex workers, as criminals themselves, the suggestion that these agencies are best equipped to verify victims’ claims is troubling. (In discussions of trafficking, it’s always worth noting the purported prosecution of sex traffickers has, time and time again, been used to ensnare consensual sex workers and their communities, rendering these workers ever more vulnerable to violence and trafficking.)

Furthermore, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services last year began deporting individuals who have been denied trafficking visas. This, together with the Labor Department’s new policy, risks a chilling effect on those undocumented immigrants who would speak out against their traffickers.

“Don’t we want criminal prosecutors to be consulted whenever someone says that they are a victim of trafficking?” Acosta replied on Wednesday, when pressed on his department’s new, harsher visa policy. His words betrayed, once again, a profound disregard for the lives of victims. When someone says they are a victim of trafficking, the most important first step should be to provide that person the means and the security to escape their situation. Exposure to higher risks of deportation and criminalization, as the new Department of Labor policy ensures, are not the responses trafficking victims need.

If Acosta has proven himself consistent between today and his “very different world” of 11 years ago, it is in his disregard for trafficking and abuse victims.

The post Acosta Says Epstein Deal Was in a “Different World” — But His Labor Department Still Makes Trafficking Victims Suffer appeared first on The Intercept.

Veterans Affairs Police Are Supposed to “Protect Those Who Served.” They Have a Shocking Record of Brutality and Impunity.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 08/07/2019 - 9:00pm in

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Derrick Hathaway served multiple tours in Kosovo, contributing to a NATO peacekeeping mission aimed at preventing ethnic cleansing. While Hathaway envisioned his Marine mission as a humanitarian one, he soon became ashamed of his work. In the course of mapping safe routes for NATO forces, Hathaway’s platoon would perform no-knock home raids to search for weapons or contraband, leading to tense confrontations with frightened families.

“It was martial law,” Hathaway said. “That left a nasty taste in my mouth. All we were doing was feeding a new form of hate.”

Still, Hathaway followed orders and earned a number of awards for his military service, including the Good Conduct Medal, which is given to recognize “good behavior and faithful service.” But after half a decade in uniform, Hathaway was given a bad conduct discharge in February 2005. He got the boot after failing a Department of Defense drug test administered shortly after a rowdy weekend in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Among other things, this denied him access to mental health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

For years, veterans advocates and policymakers have worked to open the VA to the half-million so-called bad paper veterans like Hathaway. Last year, Congress directed the VA to offer more mental health care benefits to this neglected population. For Hathaway, however, it was too little and too late.

“The military threw me to the wolves,” Hathaway told The Intercept. “I couldn’t get counseling. I was abandoned by them.” Desperate for help, Hathaway visited his local VA hospital in Phoenix and would occasionally receive care on humanitarian grounds.

The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in downtown Phoenix, Arizona seen on June 18, 2019.

The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Phoenix on June 18, 2019.

Photo: Caitlin O'Hara for The Intercept

It was September 9, 2015, at around 10:30 a.m. when Hathaway, then 34, entered the hospital looking somewhat disheveled. The temperature outside had already hit 93 degrees Fahrenheit and would continue to climb. He was wearing a whimsical green T-shirt emblazoned with the Tootsie Pop slogan, “How many licks does it take?”

A hospital staffer quickly recognized Hathaway from a previous visit, deemed him a trespasser, and alerted the Veterans Affairs Police of his presence. According to a police report, three officers quickly showed up and tried to arrest Hathaway, who resisted. In the scuffle, Hathaway allegedly kicked officers and bit one’s right thumb.

Once handcuffed, Hathaway was forced into a wheelchair and hauled to a cramped holding cell in the hospital. First, two officers grabbed him by the shirt, rammed his face and body into the back wall of the cell, then threw him to the ground, according to a lawsuit Hathaway filed later. Grainy video surveillance appears to corroborate this account, and it shows that three officers proceeded to pile on top of him. Hathaway alleged that in this pile-on, Sgt. Joshua Fister strangled him. (Though the video footage itself appears inconclusive on this point, police photos taken after the incident show red marks around Hathaway’s neck). Hathaway was ultimately left sprawled out on the floor, bruised and bleeding from a 2-inch gash on his head. At some point during the melee, one of the officers stepped in a puddle of Hathaway’s blood, which he tracked into an exterior hallway.

The hospital visit resulted in five criminal charges against Hathaway, including felony aggravated assault of a police officer. The assault charge stuck, and he served 16 months in prison, which upended his life and recovery.

After he got out of prison, the husky former Marine filed his suit against the VA, alleging that its officers used excessive force. Late last year, the VA settled with Hathaway for $25,000, according to his lawyer, Charles Piccuta. (A spokesperson for the Phoenix VA noted that the settlement “included no admission of liability or fault on the VA’s part.”)

Fister, the cop who allegedly choked Hathaway, has also faced a previous allegation of excessive force: A former VA police officer in Phoenix said that two months before Hathaway’s arrest he witnessed Fister choke a different veteran patient who, just prior to the incident, was expressing suicidal intent but “wasn’t being disruptive” or violent in any way.

“His eyeballs were popping out of his head; he was turning another color,” said the officer, an Army veteran who remains in law enforcement and requested anonymity to avoid adverse professional consequences.

The officer said he reported the incident to his deputy chief and the hospital director. Correspondence reviewed by The Intercept shows that he also informed the FBI. While the VA Office of Inspector General launched an inquiry, the whistleblowing officer said he was never interviewed. (When asked for comment, the VA OIG provided a statement saying that it does not comment on “investigations it may or may not have completed involving an individual.”) After news of the officer’s complaints leaked into the lower ranks of the department, other cops harassed the whistleblower, threatened him, and keyed his car.

“It comes down to the thin blue line: Officers don’t want to tell on other officers,” said the whistleblower, who left the department in December 2016.

Piccuta told The Intercept that all five officers accused of causing Hathaway’s injuries, including Fister, remain on the VA police force. In response to a detailed list of questions, a spokesperson at the Phoenix VA provided a statement emphasizing Hathaway’s behavior and subsequent assault conviction. The spokesperson did not make Fister available for comment, and messages left at voice mailboxes and email addresses associated with his name were not returned.

Shocking reports of police violence against elderly patients at VA facilities have emerged in recent years.

The allegations against Fister do not appear to be exceptional. Shocking reports of excessive violence against veteran patients, many of them elderly, have emerged in recent years. They include then-71-year-old Vietnam veteran Jose Olivia, who in 2016 was tackled to the ground and arrested by VA police in El Paso after setting off a metal detector. The attack, captured on a surveillance camera, resulted in shoulder and throat injuries that required surgery. The same year, Marine veteran Danny Ralph and his service dog were both slammed to the ground by VA police in Spokane, Washington. Police charged Ralph, then 60, with disorderly conduct, contending that he refused to keep his dog outside the facility despite repeated requests.

Violent incidents like these can have fatal consequences. In 2014, the VA paid out a $500,000 settlement to the family of Jonathan Montano, a veteran who died following a physical altercation with police at the VA hospital in Loma Linda, California. Police ruptured Montano’s carotid artery, which resulted in blood clotting and a stroke. Last May, a 66-year-old veteran named Dale Farhner died following a physical struggle with VA police in Kansas City, Missouri. Police detained Farhner because he was apparently driving the wrong way down one of the hospital’s driveways, according to the Kansas City Star. One year later, the VA still has not released any information on Farhner’s death despite requests from the Star, Missouri’s U.S. Senate delegation, and Farhner’s family.

FILE- In this March 31, 2015, file photo, the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs Medical Center is shown in Portland, Ore. An assessment by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs concluded that more than 12 percent of callers to its Portland call center get tired of waiting for someone to answer and hang up. The VA also gave poor grades to Oregon's three VA hospitals. The Portland facility rated only two out of five starts when it was assessed last December, while Roseburg's got two stars in June and White City's received a single star both in last December and in June. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Portland, Ore., on March 31, 2015. According to internal reports, two veteran patients suffered injuries at the hands of multiple officers at the facility in 2017. Officials determined that the officers acted appropriately.

Photo: Don Ryan/AP

Protecting Those Who Served

Today, nearly 4,200 Veterans Affairs police officers are stationed at 139 VA medical centers across the country. These cops are tasked with keeping order on VA grounds and overseeing a patient population that includes many highly trained ex-military members with psychological trauma. The force’s motto is “Protecting Those Who Served.” Yet for Hathaway and scores of other veterans, that maxim hasn’t matched the reality on the ground.

After reviewing internal police reports, legal documents, and local news reports spanning the past 10 years, The Intercept has identified dozens of credible allegations that VA cops in every corner of the United States have neglected standard police procedures, violated patients’ constitutional rights, or broken the law. In the course of their duties, they have beaten veterans, bungled sensitive investigations, falsified arrest reports, conducted improper searches, and ignored basic procedures, like reading citizens their Miranda rights.

It’s impossible at present to determine the prevalence of misconduct among VA police and how that might compare to other law enforcement agencies — largely because of the department’s own failures. According to a sweeping December report from the VA’s Office of Inspector General, the VA “did not have adequate and coordinated governance over its police program to ensure effective management and oversight for its approximately 4,000-strong police officer workforce.” The OIG found that forces at roughly three out of every four facilities were not receiving timely inspections. Further, the sparse data collected on police activities was not tracked or assessed in any systematic or rigorous way.

In other words, even if it’s unclear how prevalent misconduct is among VA police, it does seem apparent that the department’s lack of oversight structures stacks the deck against accountability and in favor of impunity.

While the VA police force was formally classified as a federal law enforcement body in 1991, its officers were not issued firearms for nearly a decade. But the VA soon provided its cops with the tools of modern American policing, partnering with the Pentagon as part of its highly controversial 1033 program, which provides military-grade equipment to police departments across the county. Between 2005 and 2014, VA police departments acquired millions of dollars’ worth of body armor, chemical agents, night vision equipment, and other weapons and tactical gear.

VA police in every corner of the U.S. have neglected standard procedures, violated patients’ constitutional rights, or broken the law.

Despite this windfall, VA police face critical staffing shortages and are often unable to uphold their basic mission of ensuring security on hospital grounds. (As of late last year, 40 percent of all VA police departments had an officer vacancy rate above 20 percent.) In the past year, the OIG has identified a half-dozen facilities where police failure to carry out required safety procedures “resulted in a lack of assurance of a safe environment for patients and staff.” In one typical example from an inspection of a VA hospital in Marion, Illinois, investigators found that police weren’t remedying problems with the hospital’s panic alarm system. They also had not addressed longstanding security deficiencies at the hospital’s pharmacy, which put it “at risk for potential loss or theft of medications.”

The officers themselves appear to receive as little scrutiny as the security issues they’re supposed to monitor: Oversight of the cops is sparse, decentralized, and split between local hospital leaders and a dysfunctional, Washington-based body called the Office of Security and Law Enforcement. The December OIG report identified significant internal confusion regarding OS&LE, with VA officials believing it to be the agency’s police watchdog despite the fact that the office lacks authority to hold departments “accountable for adhering to police program policies.”

One of the office’s main responsibilities is inspecting departments. Yet the OIG found that beginning in 2014, OS&LE had just six full-time staffers tasked with inspections and oversight of VA police. By 2017, three of these employees had been diverted to other roles. (Since the OIG released its report, the department has provided OS&LE with 10 additional staffers.) Because of staffing constraints, OS&LE did not provide timely inspections for 74 percent of VA medical facilities.

In response to The Intercept’s inquiries, a department spokesperson said that the VA police force is currently undergoing reforms based on the OIG’s findings. Specifically, the department has hired a senior security officer and 18 regional security managers to identify challenges, review inspection reports, and promote hiring and retention. The department will also soon pilot new software designed to continuously assess the state of physical security at department hospitals and recommend improvements. The spokesperson added that inspection times have improved, in large part because OS&LE has hired additional staffers.

The OIG’s 2018 report was the latest in a string of embarrassing inquiries dating back to the late 1980s. Some of the most shocking findings came in a 2011 Government Accountability Office report that found that many of the nearly 300 sexual assault allegations reported to the VA police since January 2007 were not passed on to the OIG — in violation of departmental regulations — or to VA leadership.

Last winter’s report was spurred, in part, by a wave of police complaints pouring into congressional offices. Earlier this year, Congress directed the Government Accountability Office to further investigate the VA police, and two weeks ago, lawmakers on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs grilled VA officials on police misconduct in their districts.

“It’s hard for me to sit here and answer questions after hearing the stories that you’re talking about,” Renee Oshinski, an acting deputy under secretary at the VA, told lawmakers. “We have to go back and question whether or not the things that we are doing are being effective.”

Michael_A_McCoy_VA_Police-Department_Intercept_20190616-v2-6-edit-1561149439

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., on June 16, 2019. Only a few miles away, staff at the local VA Medical Center allege that pervasive police misconduct festered unaddressed.

Photo: Michael A. McCoy for The Intercept

Corruption in the Capital

In April 2017, shortly after Tony Hebert became the Washington D.C. VA’s new acting police chief, he held a meeting with his officers in a conference room near the hospital’s dental clinic. Many hoped that he would conduct a much-needed cleaning of their dirty department: Two years earlier, two dozen current and former cops had taken the extraordinary step of suing their then-chief Jerry Brown on the grounds that he had secretly installed surveillance equipment, including in changing rooms used by men and women, and snooped on staffers. According to the complaint, Brown “conspired” to spy on staff with the VA Medical Center’s then-director, Brian Hawkins, whose tenure at the hospital was scarred by a damning OIG report that found hospital leaders were upholding a “culture of complacency” that led to serious lapses in the quality of care. (An attorney representing Brown and Hawkins did not respond to requests for comment.)

The reform-minded officers’ optimism was short-lived. In his introductory remarks, Hebert made clear that if anyone on the force interfered with his leadership, he would “roll the fuck over us,” according to a complaint later submitted by Officer Jeremy Balzan to the Department of Justice. According to an administrative complaint submitted by Capt. Luis Rodriguez, during multiple meetings, Hebert slammed his badge on a table and yelled, “I am the fucking chief of police! I have a gold badge; you have silver badges. You will do what I say, or I will fucking fire your asses!”

One of Hebert’s first acts as police chief was hiring a man he later described as his “best friend,” according to Rodriguez’s complaint. Alfred Coburn was hired as one of three new captains at the time, but job postings appear to indicate that only two of those positions were publicly listed. If Hebert hired Coburn for an unlisted position, as Balzan suggested in a formal grievance, it could mean that he violated federal hiring rules. (In an interview with The Intercept, Hebert categorically denied this and all other allegations against him.)

VA police in Washington, D.C., allege that they were repeatedly ordered to falsify training records, dispatch journals, and police reports.

But crony hiring is just one of the many allegations of misconduct that have since dogged Hebert. Balzan, Rodriguez, and two other VA cops who requested anonymity for fear of adverse professional consequences told The Intercept that Hebert repeatedly ordered officers to falsify training records, dispatch journals, and police reports, often in order to make charges less severe and to suggest that criminal activity had been curtailed on his watch. Specific incidents are documented in Balzan’s complaint, which alleges that Coburn also ordered changes to a police report in one instance and falsified reports himself in others.

The OS&LE later documented a plethora of bookkeeping irregularities in the D.C. department, from late and illegible firearms and ammunition records to training sheets that were filled out before said training had occurred. It also found that the department’s investigative reports frequently left out key details and suggested the police work was often not thorough enough to “determine whether a crime has been committed.” At least one report cited a witness statement that was never produced. Two reports of sexual assault made against D.C. staffers were not appropriately investigated by VA police. In one of those instances, the survivor was never even interviewed.

Balzan claims that one day while he was monitoring closed-circuit surveillance footage in October 2017, he witnessed Coburn visiting the department on his day off with a woman the DOJ complaint identified as his girlfriend. After parking illegally on the emergency room ramp, he entered the hospital, had an employee print an incident report from weeks prior, and filed a revised report. In addition to restructuring narrative details, Coburn also added felony charges against the subject of the report, who had stated his desire to file a complaint against Coburn, according to the statement Balzan submitted to the DOJ.

Ironically enough, Balzan and another VA police officer said they witnessed closed-circuit footage of Coburn using excessive force on a government employee over a parking violation just one month after his own unorthodox parking job. The individual allegedly parked at the VA while going to pick up his mother at a nearby clinic. After Coburn and another officer approached the individual, he fled and was eventually taken down by the officers. The department’s subsequent use of force review faulted Coburn’s actions as “in violation of the subject’s Fourth Amendment rights.”  (In the review, Coburn claimed that the subject tripped.)

Finding little recourse to address misconduct internally, Balzan organized nine cops and administrative staffers to sign onto his DOJ complaint. His efforts came on the heels of an August 2017 OS&LE inspection that found the D.C. department was “not operating in a satisfactory manner.”

Under fire and with the specter of accountability on the horizon, Hebert made good on his inaugural promise to punish the police who had gone against him, according to the four officers who spoke to The Intercept. Balzan said he filed his first grievance after Hebert removed him from his detective position and put him on dispatch duty on the grounds that he had failed a firearms test — despite the fact that other cops who performed at a similar level were given additional training and testing and allowed to stay in their positions. Balzan said his pay was reduced by at least $5,000 as a result of the reassignment. He continued to file complaints and said he received threats from Hebert, as well as an anonymous email that stated, “Resign while you can before you get fired.”

CPT Luis Rodriguez of the Veteran Affairs police department sits outside of his office in Washington, DC, on June 16, 2019. Rodriguez faced retaliation from his superiors after he attempted to file a formal complaint to report corruption within the Veteran Affairs police department.

Capt. Luis Rodriguez of the Veterans Affairs police department sits outside of the VA facility in Washington, D.C., on June 16, 2019.

Photo: Michael A. McCoy for The Intercept

Rodriguez, meanwhile, shared concerns with a union official that Hebert was targeting whistleblowing cops in order to remove or demote them, and he wrote a statement for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in support of Balzan. In December 2017, Rodriguez received a letter from the hospital director proposing his termination on the vague grounds of “failure to meet conditions of employment.”

“There’s no way we can do our jobs when they keep us underneath their thumbs,” Rodriguez said. “It feels like VA leaders are untouchable.”

Coburn and Hebert, meanwhile, remained essentially unscathed. Last summer, they moved to new positions at a VA police department in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. While Coburn is still on the force, Hebert recently left the VA. According to LinkedIn, Hebert had a short stint at a private security company that does business with the VA and is now the Virginia director of security solutions for another private firm, Bri-Bet Group, according to its website.

A spokesperson for the D.C. VA said that a new permanent police chief and hospital director are putting the facility “on a new path” and remediating the problems identified by the OS&LE. The spokesperson declined to address specific allegations against Hebert and Coburn without their consent. In a brief phone call, Coburn declined to speak about his VA work. “You can print whatever the hell you want,” he told The Intercept. “I don’t really care what happens.”

In an interview, Hebert said he was a “very successful chief” who earned outstanding performance evaluations, though he declined to provide them to The Intercept. He said he was targeted for being a white chief in a mostly black department.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

The retaliation alleged in D.C. is not uncommon. Last summer, the GAO found that VA whistleblowers are 10 times more likely to be disciplined than their peers. Two months before the report, the Daily Caller published a story highlighting the plight of four VA police whistleblowers. These cops and others who spoke with The Intercept say their actions spurred specious counterinvestigations, relegation to desk duty, unfair annual evaluations, and other retaliatory actions that jeopardized their jobs or made promotions impossible. Three cops from different departments told The Intercept that administrators illegally accessed their medical files in attempts to uncover dirt and write blackmail.

At the VA hospital in Saginaw, Michigan, Air Force veteran and VA Officer Mary Baker told The Intercept that she brought forth allegations that cops on the force were routinely making blatantly racist remarks and having casual conversations about rape. While her allegations were largely affirmed following an internal investigation — which found that “Police Service Leadership supported a culture of allowing inappropriate behavior (public simulated sex acts, racial slurs, etc.)” — Baker said the findings were disregarded, and the offending officers even continued to receive promotions. As one of two women on the force, Baker said her qualifications are consistently questioned, and she continues to face sexist behavior.

mary-baker-1561492657

Air Force veteran and VA police Officer Mary Baker in May 2019.

Photo: Courtesy of Mary Baker

“It sickens me to see these people in leadership roles,” Baker told The Intercept. “Meanwhile, I feel like I’m a contestant on ‘Survivor’ or ‘Big Brother'; people are trying to get a reaction or a response out of me. They want to point the finger at me, make me look unstable, unfit, emotional. They have put so much pressure on me.”

In a statement provided to The Intercept, a VA spokesperson in Saginaw said, “The allegations were investigated, processes were followed, and appropriate action has been taken.” She confirmed that three of the five cops who Baker claimed engaged in inappropriate behavior remain VA officers.

Officer Tim Petoskey, who spoke with both the Daily Caller and The Intercept, alleged that police leaders at the Seattle VA engaged in gross mismanagement, rampant discrimination, and illegal searches of veteran patients. Petoskey’s specific allegations, which were later corroborated in a 2015 internal investigation, included instances of cops referring to black VA employees with the “N-word” or describing them as “fucking monkeys.” Cops were found to have engaged in a litany of additional misconduct, from sloppy budgeting and unfair hiring practices to misplacing hundreds of police reports.

“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Petoskey told The Intercept. “My pay is messed up. My work orders for equipment get lost. I’ve been passed up for promotions. More troubling, our major forms of redress … are taking VA’s cartoonish excuses for this retaliatory behavior as valid.”

In response to The Intercept’s inquiries, a department spokesperson said the hospital “thoroughly investigated” the allegations and “fixed all of the identified issues.”

“As a result of that investigation, four officers — none of whom still work for VA — left the VA Puget Sound police before any discipline could be administered,” the spokesperson said.

CPT Luis Rodriguez patrols the Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Washington, DC on June 16, 2019. Rodriguez is responsible for patrolling the various locations in the Washington, DC area and another VA facility located 55 miles away in Quantico, VA. Due to limited staffing and resources the department is unable to fulfill its mission due to a job vacancy rate above 20 percent. (Michael A. McCoy for The Intercept)

Capt. Luis Rodriguez patrols the VA Medical Center by car in Washington, D.C., on June 16, 2019.

Photo: Michael A. McCoy for The Intercept

Qualified to Serve?

The VA police force has long struggled to recruit and retain clean, qualified cops. In 1988, the VA’s inspector general found that 57 percent of department officers surveyed were unqualified, unsuited, or both, including 21 police officers who did not disclose prior criminal convictions on their applications for VA employment. In 1989, the VA created the OS&LE in part to address this shortcoming.

Today, prospective VA police are required to submit to a criminal history check, a drug test, and a medical examination. But because the department is desperate to fill its many vacancies, it seems to many on the force that some qualifications are requirements in name only. In September 2017, the department issued a policy advisory that allows police to be given interim credentials before a background investigation by the Office of Personnel Management is completed. (In response to questions about officer vacancy rates and retention, a VA spokesperson told The Intercept that the department has added a net total of 402 officers since 2014.)

At least one officer with serious professional blemishes has risen quite high in the force: the D.C. VA’s deputy chief, Roger Lindsay, who, according to court documents, was indicted by a grand jury in 2004 on charges of intimidating and threatening witnesses to extract statements for a murder investigation while working as a municipal police officer in Brazil, Indiana. (The charge was dismissed on appeal due to the statute of limitations.) Lindsay also purchased a fake MBA degree and submitted it as part of an application to be a police chief at a department in Florida. The OS&LE’s report on D.C. police noted that when Lindsay was under consideration for a job, the VA did not exhaustively examine his previous five years in law enforcement, per departmental requirements. (A spokesperson for the D.C. VA said the hospital is “conducting a top-to-bottom review of Lindsay’s hiring,” which was made under Hebert’s direction; through the spokesperson, Lindsay declined to be interviewed.)

The department’s centralized training academy in Little Rock, Arkansas, is its primary attempt to professionalize its police. Yet the standardized training for VA cops today lasts just 400 hours, which falls significantly below training requirements for many local cops, which vary by jurisdiction. Massachusetts, for example, requires 900 hours of training to become an officer. And despite the unique challenges that VA officers face in dealing with veteran patients, the curriculum focuses little on how to police in this environment.

The academy dedicates only two hours total to “veteran-centered policing,” one hour to “crisis intervention,” and one hour to “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Despite a recent series of shocking suicides on hospital grounds, would-be VA cops are given just one three-hour lecture on “suicide awareness and prevention,” according to the 2019 training curriculum, which was obtained by The Intercept in a public records request.

“When I came out of the academy, I was stupider than when I went in.”

The training is held in uniformly low esteem by the officers who spoke to The Intercept. Charles Harrington, a VA police officer out of Bay Pines, Florida, said a lot of his colleagues “do not have the appropriate legal foundation” to serve, while Officer Ghassan Ghannoum of the West Los Angeles VA bluntly said, “When I came out of the academy, I was stupider than when I went in.”

In response to The Intercept’s inquiries, a spokesperson for the VA pointed to the academy’s accreditation by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Accreditation Board and claimed that it has a “reputation for excellence” among other federal law enforcement agencies that hold trainings there.

Inadequate training may account for the lackluster execution of much day-to-day police work. One troubling finding highlighted in the OIG’s winter report was that officers at the Chicago VA were not consistently advising suspects of their constitutional rights during arrest.

VA police officers across the country have been found to repeatedly issue federal charges with scant evidence for minor violations, a practice that can cause legal headaches and significant bills. The VA police force in Pittsburgh, for instance, has charged hospital employees with disorderly conduct, receiving stolen property, tampering with evidence, and invasion of privacy — charges that were later withdrawn or dismissed in Allegheny County District Court. In 2017, Tampa Bay’s NPR station WUSF found that VA police were taking veteran patients to federal court over small infractions, from parking tickets to spitting.

A VA police detective in Seattle acknowledged to OIG investigators that shoddy police work led to legitimate cases being dropped. Lawyers said that police routinely wrote poor reports that misstated statutes and didn’t properly justify probable cause for actions. One staffer inside the local U.S. Attorney’s Office simply described the Seattle department as a “hot mess.”

juan-victoria-1561150024

Navy veteran and VA nurse Juan Victoria in June 2019.

Photo: Courtesy of Juan Victoria

The Big, Powerful Men

In October 2017, Navy veteran Juan Victoria, a nurse at the VA hospital in Fayetteville, Arkansas, was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest after expressing his intention to report improper behavior by a VA police officer.

Victoria said an officer named Jeff Eye came into the hospital’s triage room, told a patient that his car was parked illegally, and demanded that he move it immediately. Victoria, who was the nursing supervisor that night, told Eye that his actions had violated various laws and regulations, including the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which guarantees patients uninterrupted access to emergency care.

“I was advocating for the patient and the VA,” Victoria told The Intercept. “If the patient had left the triage room before being evaluated by a physician and experienced a serious medical event, we would have had no justification for why the patient was taken out of the ER. We would have been held liable.”

Victoria said his words angered Eye, and a scuffle ensued. In a statement Victoria drafted and sent to VA administrators hours later, he said Eye and another VA cop “took hold of my arms and forcefully took me to the ground, hitting the left side of my forehead and my right knee while also damaging my glasses and phone. … One of the officers put what felt like his knee on my back and neck.” Victoria was arrested, placed in a holding cell, and charged. According to local union officials, his arrest was the second violent incident between VA cops and nursing staff in two months and a violation of the police’s code of conduct.

A spokesperson at the facility provided the following statement on behalf of the VA: “The incident at the center of this inquiry involved an employee who improperly intervened in a police matter and refused to comply with a police officer’s instructions despite repeated warnings. The Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks investigated this incident thoroughly and found that the officer’s use of force was appropriate.” Attempts to reach Eye by phone and email were unsuccessful.

Nevertheless, after Victoria’s congressperson, Republican Steve Womack, intervened with an inquiry on his constituent’s behalf, all of Victoria’s charges were quickly dropped.

“Every time I see that cop now, he smiles at me,” Victoria told The Intercept. “In his mind he thinks he’s taught me a lesson — not to mess with the big, powerful men: the cops.”

The post Veterans Affairs Police Are Supposed to “Protect Those Who Served.” They Have a Shocking Record of Brutality and Impunity. appeared first on The Intercept.

Tracy Ann Oberman Smears Ash Sarkar and Guardian/ Private Eye Journo as Anti-Semites

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 08/07/2019 - 3:25am in

Oh dear! It appears that Tracy Ann Oberman,(above) an actress and friend of the equally litigious Rachel Riley, might just have bitten off more than she can chew in her attacks on Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. Oberman and Riley believe that Corbyn really is a raging anti-Semite, as are his supporters. They therefore attack and smear them as Jew-haters over social media. If the victim replies with a few sharp observations about them in turn, they immediately respond by threatening them with a libel writ from their lawyers. They did this to Mike and many other people, simply because they reblogged an article describing how Princess Countdown and Cyberman bullied a sixteen year-old schoolgirl with anxiety, because she was a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, and thus, in their eyes, an anti-Semite.

This week she decided to attack Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, and then Solomon Hughes, a journalist for the Guardian and Private Eye, when he dared to stand up and defend Sarkar. Oberman started off by sneering at Sarkar, claiming that she wasn’t a serious political debater. Sarkar made a few sharp remarks about Oberman and her appearance on Eastenders. The spat went back and forth, with Oberman making the following highly defamatory comments among others.

“Don’t play the race card with me @AyoCaesar you have stirred up more antisemitism than nearly any woman on here you personally and Novarra [sic] have lied libelled and trolled many Jewish people. You’re a hypocrite. But enough attention your way”.

“Doubt after today’s view thy Ash doesn’t care about Jews who were murdered. Maybe she concurs with the tweeter who said ‘every member of your family deserved to die in the Holocaust to atone for One Palestinian’”.

Sarkar wasn’t impressed, and replied with

“Tracy, you’re going to have to find some evidence of me personally libelling and lying about Jewish people. Or I’ll have to contact those libel lawyers that you’re so keen on”.

Oberman seemed to look forward to the prospect of getting a writ, and said so

“Bring it on. Many would love the opportunity of putting Novarra [sic] in the dock to answer some pertinent questions. My team are waiting”.

But in his coverage of the, er, frank exchange of views, the Sage of Crewe remarked that, as of 22.00 the previous night there didn’t seem to be much evidence that Oberman had her lawyers waiting.

See: https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2019/07/tracy-ann-oberman-crosses-line.html

Solomon Hughes tweeted in defence of Sarkar

“No doubt people can be all kinds of horrible on Social Media about Palestine/Israel, & don’t use this as a prompt to be horrible to Tracy [Ann] Oberman, but the claim Ash Sarkar ‘stirred up antisemitism’ is both untrue and ridiculous.( As is the mention of ‘The Race Card’)”.

As you can see, this is a fairly measured response. Hughes recognises that there is poisonous stuff posted online about the Palestine/Israel conflict, and appeals to people not to abuse Oberman as her corrects her about Sarkar not being an anti-Semite. But this was too much for Tracy, who demanded that he explain it, rather than use it for clickbait. Which was a ridiculous suggestion, as his following on Twitter was a tenth of hers.

Hughes then stated again that the accusation that Sarkar was an anti-Semite was ridiculous. Oberman then accused him of trying to incite a pile-on. She then posted

“I personally do believe that Ash / Novarra [sic] has stirred up race tension. I think not supporting the IHRA is racist. Saying that Palestinians should define Jewish Racism is igniting  upset. You may disagree but to incite a pile on isn’t very Guardian or Buzzfeed?”

Zelo Street commented that this contrasts with her original statement about Sarkar, which is presented as fact. By then stating it is opinion, she has just undercut any defence she might have of the original statement as she has effectively admitted that it is just opinion and she has no evidence to back it up. Zelo Street commented

These are opinions, and no more.

We know this as she adds “You may disagree”. If Ms Sarkar did contact her lawyers, they will be all over this: it is effectively an admission that Ms Oberman cannot stand up her claims. 

He also said that Private Eye might also take an interested, as it looks like Oberman was going to accuse him of anti-Semitism or other unprofessional conduct to his Groaniad editor, Kath Viner. Oberman said she was going to drop Viner a line immediately after the conversation.

Zelo Street concludes

Tracy Ann Oberman just dug herself in deeper with Ash Sarkar. Then she invited the Eye to investigate her. This campaign may progress not necessarily to her advantage.

See: https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2019/07/tracy-ann-oberman-one-in-eye.html

It’ll be very interesting indeed if Private Eye do get involved and cover this accusation of anti-Semitism against one of their own reporters. The Eye has followed the rest of the lamestream media in promoting the anti-Semitism smears and the Labour party and Corbyn viciously anti-Semitic. This baseless attack on Hughes therefore presents them with a problem. If they defend Hughes, as they should, then they risk at least hinting that may be the rest of the anti-Semitism smears they have published and supported over the last few years are also baseless, and that the victims of the majority of them are decent, innocent people, who have been grossly libeled. As Private Eye hasn’t spoken to any of the victims, allowing them to explain how they have been smeared, defending Hughes would represent a change of editorial direction by Ian Hislop on this matter. The only thing I’ve seen published by the satirical magazine in defence of the Labour party on this issue have been letters to the magazine, followed by others from readers claiming the opposite. Except for an editorial reply, citing Jon Lansman, the head of Momentum, that there was a problem with anti-Semitism in the Labour party. This is despite testimony from many of the party’s Jewish members, stating that they have never, or only very rarely encountered it, testimony that has definitely not been published by the Eye. The Eye has never published an article casting doubt on the witch hunt, or pointing out that at least some of its victims are innocent.

I therefore wait to see what the forthcoming Eye, published this week, will have to say about all this. If anything at all.

 

 

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