Vom putea si e util sa creem programare mentala/hipnoza fiecarui nou-nascut ca atunci cand crescut in putere se gandeste sa faca distrugere, furt si alte infractiuni si crime, sa-i apara viziune cu Dumnezeu/Mos/Moasa care sa-i aminteasca de sistemul judiciar pentru a rezolva problemele, de suferintele care le va cauza si de pedepsele ce le va primi? – Shall we be able to create mental programming / hypnosis of each newborn so when they will grow up in power and think of committing crimes (destroying, stealing …) to appear to them the vision of God / Jesus/ Moses / wife of Moses/ old wise person to remind them about the judiciary to solve the problems, about the suffering that crimes will cause, and about the penalties they will receive?

26 Jun

Why has God, if humans were created, not done it? Why has evolution, if humans evolved slowly, not done it? – De ce Dumnezeu, dacă oamenii au fost creați, nu a făcut-o? De ce evoluția, daca oamenii au evoluat lent, nu a făcut-o?

Is it proof that God does not exist, or if God exists and has created humans, God did not create us perfectly? – Este dovada că Dumnezeu nu există sau dacă Dumnezeu există și a creat oamenii, Dumnezeu nu ne-a creat perfect?

 

Shall we discover how to make gold, titanium,…. from less valuable metals? Shall we experiment on Earth, Moon, Mars, Saturn, space ships? Where shall we have success and when? What costs?

24 Jun

I am the first to think about it, I see no articles on the Internet, so I deserve some credit and share of the profits! Let’s do it and we’ll have hopefully cheap, rust free products and tools soon. We can experiment with temperature, pressure, laser, waves, germs, and what else?

 

==

Bacteria Make Gold

The largest single lump of gold ever discovered on our planet was found in Australia. It was the Holterman Nugget, and it was found in Hill End in NSW on 19 October, 1872. The whole nugget weighed 235.1 kg, and contained 93.3 kg of pure gold. (Strictly speaking, the Holterman Nugget was not really a nugget, but a mass of gold found in a reef.)

Many of the world’s large gold nuggets have come out of Australia – the Hand of Faith (27.2 kg), the Welcome Stranger (73.4 kg), and the Welcome (69. 9 kg). Ever since I was a kid, one thing about nuggets has always struck me as odd – they look so ‘organic’, like a lumpy mis-shapen potato. Well, my gut feeling might have been right. According to some recent research, gold nuggets might have been assembled by living creatures!

Gold is usually found either as a free metal in the gravel of streams and rivers, or else intermingled with quartz in veins in the rock. In 1988, South Africa mined 621 tonnes of gold, the USA mined 205 tonnes, with Australia at third place with 152 tonnes – a total of 978 tonnes of gold. This gold would fit into a box 3.7 metres on each side. (The richest goldfield in the world is the Witwatersrand in South Africa – the rand, South Africa’s currency is named after this goldfield).

There is some gold in the oceans, but it would be hard to get rich by processing it. There are only ten grams of gold in each cubic kilometre of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. However, the Mediterranean Sea is three times more concentrated in gold (probably because it is landlocked, and the gold washed in from the rivers takes longer to get diluted).

Gold is very inert, and very resistant to attack by chemicals. If you bury some in your backyard, it will look the same in thousands of years. It is used in jewellery, because it does not tarnish, because it is soft and easy to work and because it is very rare.

About 65% of gold is used in the jewellery trade. The electrical, electronic and other industrial fields use 25% of the gold mined. Gold is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, and does not tarnish or oxidise. Gold can be beaten into a transparent gold foil (0.00013 mm thick) over 500 times thinner than a human hair. Dentistry uses about 7% of the gold produced. Here it is alloyed with other metals (such as copper, silver, platinum and palladium) for restorations, partial dentures, bridges and inlays.

Now some scientists believe that bacteria might have actually laid down some of the gold deposits in the first place. After all, when a bacteria called Pedomicrobiumlives in water rich in dissolved minerals, it will actually build up layers of iron or manganese oxide around itself – like a shell. Scientists from Macquarie University have suggested that many gold deposits in Venezuala might have been laid down by bacteria. And just recently, John R. Watterson of the US Geological Survey, claims to have found proof in Alaska.

Now when most people find a lump of gold in their gold-panning dish, they quickly turn it into cold hard cash – and have a party. But when John R. Watterson got his gold, he looked at it with a scanning electron microscope. To his surprise, most of the tiny particles of gold that he had collected from nine Alaskan rivers were not solid little lumps. Instead, they looked like gold-plated bacteria.

What he saw was a lacy pattern of tiny cylinders joined by thin rods. The cylinders were the same size as the Pedomicrobium bacteria.

Now gold stops most bacteria dead in their tracks – with suffocation. It blocks up the tiny holes in the cell walls through which food comes in and wastes go out. But Pedomicrobium, has an unusual way of reproduction. Most bacteria make babies just by splitting into two separate cells. But Pedomicrobium reproduces by budding. It stretches out a narrow stalk which rises above the gilded cage closing around the parent bacteria. This narrow tube then opens up (at the end) to make a new bacteria. So new baby bacteria are continually being born just on the outside of an expanding ball of golden death. It’s a slow process – it takes over a year to ‘grow’ a gold grain roughly the thickness of a human hair (about 0.1 mm). It would take a long time to ‘grow’ a 70 kg nugget. (Maybe we could speed the process up, by genetically engineering thePedomicrobium bacteria.)

There are similar lacy patterns in 2.8 billion-year-old South African gold, and in 220 million-year-old Chinese gold. Of course, when you melt the gold in a furnace, the carbon from the bacteria just vaporises into carbon dioxide, leaving behind pure gold.

The bacteria don’t actually ”make” the gold – they just attract gold that is already dissolved in the groundwater. Now we have absolutely no idea why these bacteria can purify gold to almost 24 carat purity. But maybe now we know what happened to Midas in the old Greek fable, when everything he touched turned to gold. He might have been a victim of accidental genetic engineering, when he got infected with some Pedomicrobium bacteria. And perhaps there’s a moral for us. If you try to get too much gold, it will just suffocate you.

 

abc.net

Teroare in Ceahlau: s-a oprit?

14 Jun

Am fost in zona si batausii isi faceau de cap in continuare. Pacat de “piramida” si panorame! Solutia: analize medicale, dieta, educatie, responsabilizare, si urgent rugaciuni adanci pentru cei din conducere.

Dezvaluiri – Teroare in Ceahlau

31 august 2006

De ani si ani, localnicii din Ceahlau sunt asupriti, prin batai, amenintari si umilinte, de “banda Schiopului”.

Comuna Ceahlau, de la poalele masivului caruia ii poarta numele, ar putea fi una dintre cele mai atractive zone turistice montane din tara. Peisaje de vis, oameni gospodari, desprinsi parca din operele sadoveniene, resurse naturale… De toate acestea isi bate joc cu salbaticie o grupare numita de localnici “banda Schiopului”. Numele vine de la primarul comunei, Constantin Schiopu…

De cum au aflat ca ziaristi “de la Bucuresti” au venit in zona, localnicii tot cautau sa ne contacteze. Pe ascuns. Fiecare isi spunea pasurile, creandu-ti impresia ca stai de vorba cu robii de pe pamanturile unor boieri. Ne spun ca li se fura caii ziua-n amiaza mare, ca li se impusca animalele care intra din greseala pe domeniile smecherilor, cum li se fura pamanturi si paduri, cum nu mai pot pasuna pe terenurile strabunilor daca nu sunt in gratiile “domniei locale”, cum sunt amenintati, batuti si umiliti si cate si mai cate. Cei care practica aceasta teroare sunt cunoscuti sub numele “banda Schiopului”. Pe primarul comunei il cheama Schiopu Constantin. Pe viceprimar – Schiopu Gheorghita. Pe casiera – Schiopu. Contabila? Chieptenariu. Este sotia sefului de Post. Acolitii fac legea. Eminenta cenusie ar fi un fost sef de cabana, de pe vremea lui Ceausescu, individ care ar asigura conexiunile cu procurori, judecatori, politisti s.a.m.d.

PLANGE CEAHLAUL.Desi ar putea fi un crampei de rai, cum am spus si in titlu, comuna Ceahlau iti ofera imagini dezolante. Paraul care trece prin comuna ar putea fi amenajat si exploatat turistic prin ridicarea unor bancute cu mese din lemn, foisoare si multe altele. In schimb, paraul este “schimonosit” prin depozitarea deseurilor lemnoase sau pur si simplu este exploatat ca zona de depozitare a bustenilor gateristilor acoliti gastii. Mai mult, daca ar exista un minimum de interes din partea autoritatilor locale, zonele superbe din zona Lacului Bicaz ar putea fi amenajate ca zone de campare, de plaja si de agrement prin practicarea schiului nautic, prin plimbari cu barcute sau vaporase s.a.m.d. Dar nu, aceste zone, dupa cum se vede si in imagine, sunt folosite tot ca gropi de gunoi sau ca zone de depozitare a rumegusului gateristilor. Vorbind cu consilierii locali, constati ca acestia sunt impartiti in doua tabere: unii sunt aserviti primarului, iar ceilalti sunt pur si simplu naivi, lasandu-se manipulati si atrasi in afaceri – veti vedea – de domeniul penalului. Am stat de vorba neoficial si cu presedintele Consiliului Judetean Neamt, Vlad Marcoci. Si el condamna atitudinea primarului Constantin Schiopu. Aflam printre altele ca singurul drum practicabil din comuna, cel care urca la statiunea (sat) Durau, a fost construit de Consiliul Judetean chiar daca primarul nu a agreat ideea. De altfel, se poate spune ca, in comuna, primarul domneste dupa “legile” propriilor interese: financiare si politice.

BADITA. Sava Dumitru este obligat sa studieze Codul Penal in timpul varatului, pentru a-si castiga dreptatea

CAII ORI SE-MPUSCA…Unul dintre acolitii primarului Schiopu este un individ de prin Bacau. Caraghios prin felul de a fi, pozand in cowboy, individul in speta ii terorizeaza cu armele pe locuitorii comunei. Oamenii spun ca individul isi tine arma la vedere ca sa impresioneze prin “inteligenta” si forta sa. Locuitorii comunei povestesc cum sunt amenintati daca “nu se astampara” sau daca deranjeaza, fie si prin comentarii, afacerile dubioase ale bandei lui Schiopu. Daca autoritatile vor fi interesate le vom pune la dispozitie o lista cu oamenii care au fost amenintati, multi dintre ei fiind dispusi chiar sa dea declaratii oficiale. Unul dintre acestia este badita Dumitrel. A lu’ Sava… Cu badita nu le-a mers smecherilor comunali. Inalt, pe la vreo doi metri, puternic, cu palmele ca doua cazmale, badita Dumitrel are o arma in plus: inteligenta. Nu are scoala, dar este un om citit. Cand vorbesti cu el iti vine sa-i “saruti dreapta”, rugandu-te la Dumnezeu sa fie tot mai multi oameni ca el pe la noi, asa cinstiti si curati. E cioban din tata-n fiu, “da’ ciobani d-aia de pe vremea dacilor”, dupa cum se mandreste el. “Noi nu ne-am lepadat obiceiurile si portul. Si branza o facem tot ca pe cele vremuri, nu bagam solutii din ale’, cum am auzit ca fac acu’ alti ciobani”, tine sa mentioneze badita. Necazul cu banda Schiopului a venit dupa ce “cowboy”-ul i-a impuscat o iepsoara si i-a “sechestrat” alti doi caluti. “Era prin 2002. Se apropia augustu’, parc-asa seva. Tiu minte ca il asteptam pe Prea Inaltu’ (mitropolitul Moldovei – n.n.). Mi-a scapat calul si m-am dus sa-l caut la islaz, la pasune, ca era invoit (taxa platita pentru pasunat – n.n.)… Ma-ntalnesc cu Romica Cojocaru, care-mi zice: «Bai, da’ se fasi?». «Uite-mi caut calu’», ii zic. «Nu-l mai cauta, bai, ca ti-o impuscat calu’» «Aoleo!», zic si ma duc. Il gasesc acolo la marjinea drumului. Impuscase trei cai. Si acu’ dosaru e-n cercetari… Calu’ o murit. Era cal crescut din caii nostri. Io l-am crescut”, povesteste cu naduf badea Dumitrel. Se bucura ca are cine sa-l asculte, spunand ca s-a saturat sa nu fie luat in seama.

…ORI SE FURA.Anul urmator, respectiv in 2003, baditei Dumitrel i-au fost sechestrati (furati?) doi cai: o iapa cu manz. Din actele pe care le are se poate deduce ca banda lucreaza metodic: se fura caii, se sechestreaza pe motiv ca ar fi incalcat proprietati private, dupa care se cere rascumparare (daune, plus intretinerea cailor pana la data la care se asteapta a fi ridicati de proprietari). Se mizeaza pe faptul ca oamenii nu au bani sa-si rascumpere animalele, dar si pe faptul ca legea este controlata prin relatii sus-puse pe plan local. In cazul de fata, “smecherii” comunali s-au grabit. In unele adrese oficiale sustin ca proprietatea privata ar fi fost “violata” la o anumita data, desi, tot oficial, in alte adrese sustin ca animalele au fost “luate in custodie” cu o zi in urma fata de comiterea “infractiunii”. Badita povesteste: “Dupa ce mi-or impuscat calul, am luat alta iapa de la o sora de-a mea de la Targu Neamt. In 2003 si asta mi-o disparut, cu manz cu tot. La 15 august m-am dus la Primarie, dupa ce-l cautasem o saptamana, si am declarat si la Politie. Dupa care imi trimite Primaria o adresa prin care ma cheama pe data de 30 august, uite ca scrie aisea, «pentru a va ridica cei doi cai aflati in custodie din data de 16 august» (adica a doua zi dupa ce Sava Dumitru declarase disparitia cailor, iar adresa fusese trimisa dupa 12 zile de custodie! – n.n.), pentru motivul ca impreuna cu alte animale au produs pagube materiale la spitalul din comuna Ceahlau. Cu alte cuvinte, caii au produs pagube Spitalului si au fost retinuti de Primarie. Buun! Ma duc pe 30 august sa ridic calul (…) Numa’ ca la Primarie apare al de mi-o impuscat calu’. Isi trage jeep-ul acolo si oleaca dup-aia vine si primarul cu seful de post. Primarul imi zice sa ma inteleg cu el (cu «cowboy»-ul – n.n.), iar io ii spun ca n-am nici o treaba cu el, ci cu Primaria care m-a chemat sa-mi ridic calul. Facuse si primarul o adresa care anuntase Prefectura ca, uite colea adresa!, caii mei au intrat pe pasunea spitalului in noaptea de 17 spre 18. La fel mi-a scris si Politia Ceahlau, ca in urma verificarilor lor, cei doi cai ar fi intrat pe pasune tot in noaptea de 17 spre 18 august. Acu’, io stau si ma intreb cum au putut sa intre in noaptea de 17 spre 18 pe pasunea inchiriata lu’ SC Cernat Celina, cand caii mei s-or aflat in custodia Primariei inca din data de 16 august?”, se intreaba retoric Sava Dumitru. In cele din urma, caii au fost vanduti de cel care i-a sechestrat, adica de “cowboy”. Mentionam ca, in universul rural, calul este cel mai de pret animal, contribuind in mare masura la asigurarea traiului de zi cu zi. Mai mult, pentru ca a indraznit “sa faca galagie”, Sava Dumitrel a primit tot felul de amenintari. “Odata trecea cu masina si, cand m-o vazut, a lasat geamul si a inceput sa tie: «Ba, daca nu te linistesti, te-mpusc»”, sustine badita. El considera ca din acelasi motiv, fiindca a facut galagie, este obligat acum sa vareze cu oile “la dracu’n praznic”, fiindca nu i s-a mai dat “invoire” la islazul comunal. Islaz care ar fi fost vandut prin “licitatie”…

“PESCARI”. Mos Chirila a fost invatat sa stea in casa, pentru ca hotii sa poata pescui in liniste

“MI-AU FURAT PESTII DIN PASTRAVARIE!”Nea Chirila Neculai are 80 de ani, dar nu credea ca Ceahlaul va ajunge “de rapa” ca acum. “Domne, noi, astia din Ceahlau, suntem oameni gospodari si cinstiti. Ne-am ocupat din mosi-stramosi care cu oieritul, care cu munca pamantului sau cu lucru’ din lemn. Da’ acu s-a ales prafu’ de cand cu astia. Mie mi s-au furat pestii din pastravarie. Dupa ce mi-a murit femeia tot venea politistul la mine sa-mi zica din senin sa nu ies noaptea afara din casa, daca aud zgomote, ca ma omoara hotii. Mi-a zis o data, de doua ori, ca ma si-ntrebam ce-are asta de-mi tot zice de hoti? Numa’ bine ca, dupa ce am fost eu instruit sa nu ies din casa, m-au calcat hotii si mi-au furat toti pestii din pastravarie. Aproape doua tone de pastravi le-au luat cu plase de-alea mari”, spune mos Chirila. Bineinteles ca politistii nu au reusit sa-i prinda pe hoti. Ba mos Chirila chiar banuieste ca hotii ar fi avut epoleti, ca prea il pregatisera sa nu-i deranjeze noaptea cand vin la furat.

BATAI CU DEDICATIE.Ciucanel Gavril este alt indezirabil pentru banda Schiopului. A indraznit sa conteste jaful din comuna si, mai mult, sa il ia la intrebari pe primar. Sustine ca a fost batut de indivizi angajati de primarul Schiopu Constantin. Oamenii din sat sunt de aceeasi parere. De altfel, acest “incident” a contribuit la instalarea fricii in oameni, care se tem ca vor fi batuti daca protesteaza in vreun fel. Mai ales ca au mai fost oameni batuti in comuna, aparent fara motiv. Nea Gavril spune ca in 1999, in seara zile de 6 august, dupa ce a parcat autobuzul in fata casei a fost lovit cu un pumnal in cap de un individ, “dupa care am cazut jos si am fost lovit cu picioarele”. A fost dus la spital, unde i s-a acordat primul ajutor. Pentru ca Politia nu se arata prea dornica sa investigheze cazul, nea Gavril a apelat la un parlamentar care a sunat la Bucuresti. Imediat, agresorul a fost prins. Este din Bacau. Si-a recunoscut fapta, complicii sai (alti doi bacauani) pozand, chipurile, in martori la proces. Degeaba! Justitia stramba de pe plan local si-a facut datoria fata de cei care o cumpara: derbedeul a fost condamnat, dupa ani de procese, cu o pedeapsa de cateva luni de inchisoare… cu suspendare. Infractiunile comise, care stau la baza acestei condamari, sunt “minore”: vatamare corporala (desi putea fi usor incadrat la tentativa de omor) si violare de domiciliu. Nea Gavril a facut recurs. Se judeca si acum… Mult mai interesant este ceea ce vrea sa sublinieze, in scris, nea Gavril. “Mentionez ca Tatarasanu Remus (agresorul – n.n.) a stat doua-trei zile inainte in Durau cu primarul Constantin Schiopu (…) A fost cazat la hotel “Bistrita” de primar sub un nume fals: «Mititelu Stefan»”, declara “pe propria raspundere” Gavril Ciucanel. Cativa consilieri locali ne-au marturisit ca, in sedinte, primarul ameninta ca cei care nu se supun vor pati ce a patit nea Gavrila, adica vor fi batuti. Nea Gavrila nu este singurul batut in comuna pe motiv de “indisciplina”.

PUMNII SCHIOPULUI. Primarul Schiopu Constantin se astepta sa-l contactam. Spunem asta, pentru ca “sejurul” nostru in comuna “sa” a fost strict monitorizat. Discutia a fost scurta. Primarul nu a vrut sa ne puna la dispozitie niciun document public referitor la afacerile dubioase in care este implicat, invocand diferite pretexte, care mai de care mai “convingatoare”. Ba ca nu mai e secretarul, ba ca actele au fost ridicate de DNA, ba ca una, ba ca alta. In schimb, inca de la inceput a vrut sa stie cine ne-a chemat in comuna. Raspunde tot el: “Cred ca ala din Bucuresti, de la Actiunea Civica Directa. Las’ ca-l prind io si-i trag vreo trei pumni in cap!”. “Pai faceti puscarie”, zicem. “Ei pe dracu’! Pentru atata lucru fac io puscarie!?”, se mira primarul, mangaindu-si ghiulul de aur cu sigla Mercedes. Ca sa evite raspunsurile clare, incearca sa foloseasca ironia. Isi recunoaste unele fapte glumind. Trucuri ieftine…

BATAUS
“Cred ca ala din Bucuresti, de la Actiunea Civica Directa (Cristian Grecu – presedintele ONG-ului – n.n.) v-a adus aici. Las’ ca-l prind io si-i trag vreo trei pumni in cap!”Constantin Schiopu, primarul comunei Ceahlau

MISTER
“Acu’, io stau si ma intreb, cum au putut sa intre caii in noaptea de 17 spre 18 pe pasunea inchiriata lu’ SC Cernat Celina, cand caii mei s-or aflat in custodia Primariei inca din data de 16 august?”Sava Dumitru, ciobanul caruia i-au fost impuscati si sechestrati caii

STRATEGIE
“Tot venea politistul la mine sa-mi zica, din senin, sa nu ies noaptea din casa ca ma omoara hotii. Numai bine ca, dupa ce am fost eu instruit sa nu ies din casa, mi-au furat toti pestii din pastravarie”Chirila Niculaie, victima a “pescarilor” profesionisti

LISTA GAINARIILOR
In afara tunurilor prezentate, oamenii din comuna cer ca “domnii de la Bucuresti” sa investigheze si alte fapte de care s-ar face vinovat primarul Schiopu. Una dintre ele este mentionata chiar intr-un comunicat de presa al IGP, in care se mentiona ca Schiopu Constantin “si-a insusit o centrala termica destinata Scolii Nr. 2, substituind-o cu cea care i-a apartinut (alimentata cu combustibili solizi)”. Din memoriile pe care localnicii ni le-au adresat aflam cum oamenii lui Schiopu au fost prinsi in Primarie in timp ce modificau listele originale de improprietarire. Consilierii locali opozanti acuza faptul ca principala sursa de venit a bandei Schiopului ar fi umflarea devizelor unor lucrari publice dincolo de limita bunului-simt. Tot aici se incadreaza, probabil, si sala de sport, construita cu fonduri obtinute de la Ministerul Lucrarilor Publice. Trecand peste asta, oamenii se intreaba de ce se construieste aceasta sala de sport la… 2 kilometri distanta de scoala, distanta parcursa de copii in cel putin 30 de minute. Jurnalul National va monitoriza atent evolutia situatiei din Ceahlau, declarandu-si in acelasi timp disponibilitatea in a sprijini autoritatile CENTRALE (nu cele din judetele Neamt sau Bacau), pentru ca acest crampei de rai sa fie redat oamenilor. Suntem convinsi ca o investigatie complexa ar putea taia mai multe brate ale acestei caracatite: judecatori, procurori, politisti, ingineri silvici si alti reprezentanti locali ai institutiilor statului.

http://www.jurnalul.ro/special/dezvaluiri-teroare-in-ceahlau-13426.htm

Freedom of the Press 2017 by Score

14 Jun

Key Global Findings

  • Global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016 amid unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies and new moves by authoritarian states to control the media, including beyond their borders.
  • Only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a Free press—that is, a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.
  • Forty-five percent of the population lives in countries where the media environment is Not Free. The world’s 10 worst-rated countries and territories were Azerbaijan, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
  • Politicians in democracies  such as Poland and Hungary shaped news coverage by undermining traditional media outlets, exerting their influence over public broadcasters, and raising the profile of friendly private outlets.
  • United States President Donald Trump disparaged the press, rejecting the news media’s role in holding governments to account for their words and actions.
  • Officials in more authoritarian settings such as Turkey, Ethiopia, and Venezuela used political or social unrest as a pretext for new crackdowns on independent or opposition-oriented outlets.
  • Authorities in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Asia extended restrictive laws to online speech, or simply shut down telecommunications services at crucial moments, such as before elections or during protests.
  • Among the countries that suffered the largest declines were Poland, Turkey, Burundi, Hungary, Bolivia, Serbia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Press Freedom's Dark Horizon — new #fotp2017 report via @FreedomHouseDC freedomofthepressfh.org
Image by KAL.

SPECIAL SECTION

Hobbling a Champion of Global Press Freedom

by Michael J. Abramowitz

Never in the 38 years that Freedom House has been monitoring global press freedom has the United States figured as much in the public debate about the topic as in 2016 and the first months of 2017.

Press freedom globally has declined to its lowest levels in 13 years, thanks both to new threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies, and to further crackdowns on independent media in authoritarian countries like Russia and China.

But it is the far-reaching attacks on the news media and their place in a democratic society by Donald Trump, first as a candidate and now as president of the United States, that fuel predictions of further setbacks in the years to come.

No U.S. president in recent memory has shown greater contempt for the press than Trump in his first months in office. He has repeatedly ridiculed reporters as dishonest purveyors of “fake news” and corrupt betrayers of the national interest. Borrowing a term popularized by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, Trump has labeled the news media as “enemies of the people.” His senior White House adviser described journalists as “the opposition party.”

Such comments suggest a hostility toward the fundamental principles and purposes of press freedom, especially the news media’s role in holding governments to account for their words and actions—as opposed to the government holding the media to account. They also raise concern that the U.S. president may, in effect, be offering a license to political leaders elsewhere who have cracked down on the media as part of a larger authoritarian playbook.

Press Freedom's Dark Horizon — new #fotp2017 report via @FreedomHouseDC freedomofthepressfh.org
Trump takes questions from reporters during a news conference in the East Room at the White House on February 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. Credit: Getty Images.

Still strong, but in decline

The United States remains one of the most press-friendly countries in the world. It enjoys lively, aggressive, and diverse media, and some of the strongest legal protections for reporting and expression anywhere in the world. With a handful of exceptions in recent years, reporters in the United States—in contrast to counterparts in some other countries—have been able to pursue their profession without fear of physical violence.

But press freedom has been on a modest decline in the United States, owing to a variety of factors that predate the Trump presidency. The rise of the internet weakened the financial underpinnings of long-established media organizations; the lack of a new, sustainable business model has diminished coverage of local news, and made in-depth investigative reporting harder to support. The polarization of media into outlets that pursue openly partisan agendas has accelerated, reducing public trust. And the ability of a billionaire (Peter Thiel) to use a privacy lawsuit to help bankrupt a media company (Gawker) last year made publishers and editors uneasy.

Several recent presidents have sought to limit their exposure to reporters, aggressively attempted to bypass mainstream news outlets, or made it difficult to access government records under the Freedom of Information Act. The Obama administration pursued a crackdown on federal officials who leaked information to the press, while many journalists chafed at what they regarded as excessive efforts to control access to the Obama White House.

In 2016, Freedom House saw a slight decline in press freedom in the United States, due mainly to harassment and roughing up of journalists at Trump rallies and a campaign of antisemitic abuse against Jewish journalists on Twitter. It is too soon to know whether the president will follow through on some of his most extreme campaign proposals, such as the threat to pursue more restrictive libel laws. Should he continue his attacks on the press, it could further erode public confidence in the media and set the stage for court or legislative measures that would set back freedom.

Rhetoric, however, is different from governance. So far, despite President Trump’s fierce denunciations of unfavorable but factual stories as “fake news,” there is abundant evidence that major news organizations remain undeterred, even innovative, in pursuing serious investigations of the government and of Trump himself.

Leading by example

Trump’s attacks mirror initial actions in other countries where media freedom subsequently suffered far more drastic restrictions and interference. In Latin America, leaders who publicly criticized independent media and journalists followed up with attempts to break apart media companies, revoke broadcast licenses, or impose onerous regulatory oversight. In countries including Turkey and Hungary, ruling parties have engineered more friendly media sectors through opaque or coerced ownership changes.

The United States will not necessarily follow the same path; it has stronger constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and speech, as well as robust legislative and judicial systems that can check executive power. Though these institutions may be tested, there is ample reason to hope that U.S. press freedom will remain vibrant in the years ahead.

A greater danger is that the United States will stop being a model and aspirational standard for other countries. Protection of press freedom in the United States remains vital to the defense and expansion of press freedom worldwide; indeed, it is a cornerstone of global democracy. When political leaders in the United States lambaste the media, it encourages their counterparts abroad to do the same. When U.S. leaders step back from promoting democracy and press freedom, journalists beyond American shores feel the chill.

The sobering alternative model, seen in authoritarian countries, is to extinguish press freedom, the better to allow a political party, movement, or leader to control information—and to use that control to retain power indefinitely. Further weakening of press freedom in the United States would be a setback for democracy everywhere.

Press Freedom's Dark Horizon — new #fotp2017 report via @FreedomHouseDC freedomofthepressfh.org
Demonstrators in Warsaw protest government plan to restrict journalists’ work in the Poland’s parliament building. (Photo by NuPhoto/Getty)

 

https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/freedom-press-2017

 

Global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016 amid unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies and new moves by authoritarian states to control the media, including beyond their borders.

Only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a Free press—that is, a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.

Forty-five percent of the population lives in countries where the media environment is Not Free. The world’s 10 worst-rated countries and territories were Azerbaijan, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Politicians in democracies such as Poland and Hungary shaped news coverage by undermining traditional media outlets, exerting their influence over public broadcasters, and raising the profile of friendly private outlets.

The Rate of Wrongful Conviction: 1%, 10%,or? – we have a lot of people incarcerated, around 2.5 million. That means a wrongful conviction rate of only 1%, if applicable to all those incarcerated, means we have wrongfully imprisoned 25,000 people [and real criminals are not paying and are free]

14 Jun

MONDAY, JUNE 28, 2010

On The Rate of Wrongful Conviction: Chapter 0.027

In my spare time, I’m preparing a compilation of essays on various estimates of our country’s wrongful conviction rate.  As I draft them, I’ll publish them here. When I’m done with all of them, I will compile them into a single document and make it available on Scribd for free, and on Amazon for a minimal cost.
The chapters will be numbered according to the predicted wrongful conviction rate, in percent. I will begin with the lowest estimate and work my way up to the highest. Keep in mind that we have a lot of people incarcerated, around 2.5 million. That means a wrongful conviction rate of only 1%, if applicable to all those incarcerated, means we have wrongfully imprisoned 25,000 people. A wrongful conviction rate of 10% means we have wrongfully imprisoned a quarter of a million people.
It should be interesting to see what the various studies have to say. Let’s get started.
CHAPTER 0.027
THE SCALIA NUMBER
Joshua Marquis is the district attorney of Clatsop County, the county residing on the mouth of the Columbia River, at the northwest corner of Oregon. His article “The Innocent and the Shammed” appeared in the January 26, 2006 issue of The New York Times. He therein presented his estimate of our country’s wrongful conviction rate.

In the Winter 2005 Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, a group led by Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan, published an exhaustive study of exonerations around the country from 1989 to 2003 in cases ranging from robbery to capital murder. They were able to document only 340 inmates who were eventually freed. (They counted cases where defendants were retried after an initial conviction and subsequently found not guilty as “exonerations.”) Yet, despite the relatively small number his research came up with, Mr. Gross says he is certain that far more innocents languish undiscovered in prison.

So, let’s give the professor the benefit of the doubt: let’s assume that he understated the number of innocents by roughly a factor of 10, that instead of 340 there were 4,000 people in prison who weren’t involved in the crime in any way. During that same 15 years, there were more than 15 million felony convictions across the country. That would make the error rate .027 percent — or, to put it another way, a success rate of 99.973 percent.

<<>>
Five months later, Justice Antonin Scalia published a concurring opinion in the case of Kansas v. Marsh. Scalia chided those who dissented, led by Justice David Souter, for suggesting that innocent people may have already been executed in the United States.
It should be noted at the outset that the dissent does not discuss a single case — not one — in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.
Souter’s dissent, however, did mention the study by Samuel Gross, mentioned above. Scalia dismissed that study by quoting directly from The New York Times article.

Of course, even with its distorted concept of what constitutes “exoneration,” the claims of the Gross article are fairly modest: Between 1989 and 2003, the authors identify 340 “exonerations” nationwide — not just for capital cases, mind you, nor even just for murder convictions, but for various felonies. Joshua Marquis, a district attorney in Oregon, recently responded to this article as follows:

“[L]et’s give the professor the benefit of the doubt: let’s assume that he understated the number of innocents by roughly a factor of 10, that instead of 340 there were 4,000 people in prison who weren’t involved in the crime in any way. During that same 15 years, there were more than 15 million felony convictions across the country. That would make the error rate .027 percent—or, to put it another way, a success rate of 99.973 percent.”

Scalia then adopts the 0.027% error rate as fact.
The proof of the pudding, of course, is that as far as anyone can determine (and many are looking), none of cases included in the .027% error rate for American verdicts involved a capital defendant erroneously executed.
Ironically, Scalia had earlier in his opinion berated Souter and the other dissenters for parroting news articles without critical review.
Of course even in identifying exonerees, the dissent is willing to accept anybody’s say-so. It engages in no critical review, but merely parrots articles or reports that support its attack on the American criminal justice system.
<<>>
Joshua Marquis made an elementary but critical mistake in his calculation. He divided his estimate of all those who might be exonerated by his estimate of all felony convictions. He should have instead divided by all felony convictions in which exoneration is reasonably possible.Most felony convictions, for example, are for crimes such as burglary, assault, and drugs. Such crimes are frequently devoid of DNA evidence and typically result in sentences of less than ten years. Since DNA is the most powerful evidence of actual innocence, and since the average time from conviction to exoneration is ten years, people convicted of the lesser felonies are seldom exonerated, for reasons having nothing to do with guilt or innocence.

Rape and murder cases, on the other hand, constitute less than two percent of all felony convictions but represent ninety-six percent of all known exonerations. (See Samuel Gross’ rebuttal to Scalia’s opinion “Souter Passant, Scalia Rampant: Combat in the Marsh.”)

If Joshua Marquis were to correct his calculation from

(10 x 340) / (15,000,000)

to

(10 x 340) / (15,000,000 x 0.02 / 0.96)

as I believe he should, then his estimate would rise to 1.1%.

Marquis’ corrected estimate would still, however, depend entirely on the arbitrary multiplier he selected in the numerator. He simply assumed the Gross study had identified 10% of all the people wrongfully convicted. Had he assumed instead that the Gross study had identified all 100% of those wrongfully convicted, his corrected estimate would be 0.11%.

On the other hand, had Joshua Marquis assumed the Gross study identified only 1% of the factually innocent, a number which seems as reasonable to me as 10%, then his corrected estimate would indicate we wrongfully convict, by trial or plea bargain, 11% of all those people we charge with felonies.

<<>>
Despite multiplying some numbers together and then dividing by another, the Scalia number is no more than a guess by a single prosecutor, a guess soon adopted by a supreme court justice who demonstrates no aptitude for the simplest of applied mathematics.
Chapter 0.027: The Scalia Number
Chapter 0.5: The Huff Number
Chapter 0.8: The Prosecutor Number
Chapter 1.0: The Rosenbaum Number
Chapter 1.3: The Police Number

Chapter 1.4: The Poveda Number
Chapter 1.9: The Judge Number
Chapter 2.3: The Gross Number
Chapter 3.3: The Risinger Number
Chapter 5.4: The Defense Number
Chapter 9.5: The Inmate Number
Chapter 10.1: A Skeptical Juror Number
Chapter 11.1: A Skeptical Juror Number
Chapter 11.4: The Common Man Number

Unfortunately, the chapter numbering goes backwards a wee bit. My error once again. (I almost typed a lame excuse, but I’ll just get on with it.) I write this post assuming people have read Chapter 11.1, my estimate based on judge-jury agreement data. In the monograph, I’ll have to restructure everything.
Chapter 10.6
The Spencer Number

I was inspired to pursue this quantification effort by a paper entitled “Estimating the Accuracy of Jury Verdicts.”  It was written in April of 2006 and modified one year later by Bruce Spencer.

Bruce D. Spencer is a Professor of Statistics at Northwestern University. That’s interesting in that Northwestern University is the home of David Protess and the Medill Innocence Project. Those folks have actually helped free innocent people from wrongful imprisonment, and for that I tip my hat. Their name may ring a bell to those of you who have read my posts on the Hank Skinner case.

I consider Bruce Spencer to be the father progenitor of modern day wrongful conviction estimation. It’s a title for which many strive but only one can hold. Everyone before Spencer guessed, surveyed other people who guessed, surveyed people behind bars, divided exonerations by convictions, or just gave up. Spencer did none of these things. He realized that the rate of wrongful conviction was just one piece of valuable information that could be gleaned from judge-jury agreement data.
Despite the lofty title I just bestowed upon him, and despite the shocking implications of his paper, Spencer’s work regarding the rate of wrongful convictions has generally been overlooked by both press and public. I believe there are two reasons for that. Reason number one: Spencer’s an egghead and he writes accordingly. First we’ll look at the Urban Dictionary for its definition of an egghead.
1. A person who is considered intellectually gifted in the field of academics. “Egghead” is usually used as college-speak to describe a brainiac.
2. A person’s whose head is shaped like an egg. Most people however, will use this word interchangeably as a pun. It has also been known that people whose heads are shaped like an egg are usually large at the top, which explains the larger brain-size.

Next, we’ll look at just two contiguous sentences from Spencer’s paper:

In Section III, an estimator of jury accuracy is developed that has three components of error, survey error from estimating the agreement rate, specification error arising because differential accuracy between judge and jury is not observed and the dependence between judge and jury verdicts is not known, and identification error arising because we cannot distinguish correct agreement from incorrect agreement. The specification error will be one sided, leading to overestimates of jury accuracy, provided that two conditions hold: (i) errors in the judge’s and jury’s verdicts for a case are either statistically independent or positively dependent, and (ii) the judges’ verdicts are no less accurate on average than the juries’, even though for individual cases the judge’s verdict may be incorrect when the jury’s verdict is correct.

There you go.

The second reason that Spencer’s work hasn’t received the attention I think it deserves is because Bruce D. Spencer is a Professor of Statistics and he doesn’t trust the randomness or sample size of  his source data any further than he can throw it. Every time he provides a shocking number, he leads it or follows it with a warning that his numbers should not be used by Joe Q. Public. Below, I provide examples of the caution he sprinkles liberally throughout his paper.

The jury verdict was estimated to be accurate in no more than 87% of the NCSC cases (which, however, should not be regarded as a representative sample with respect to jury accuracy).

Caveat: the NCSC cases were not chosen with equal probabilities as a random sample, and the estimates of accuracy should not be generalized to the full caseload in the four jurisdictions let alone to other jurisdictions.

The analysis suggests, subject to limits of sample size and possible modeling error, …

The unequal sampling rates imply that the results for the NCSC sample cases should be weighted if they are to generalize to the full caseload in the four jurisdictions. No such weighting is employed in the present analysis, and the statistical inferences do not extend outside the cases in the NCSC study.

In light of these limitations, the empirical estimates from the data analysis must be interpreted with great caution and in no event should be generalized beyond the NCSC study.

The estimates are no basis for action other than future studies.

Assuming you can work through the writing and the math (and there is some substantial math), you’ll go through a series of “Wow! Never mind” moments. But if you finally get through it (after about a couple dozen tries in which you still can’t work all the way through the stupid math and that makes you kinda discouraged so you just say “screw it”) you might be inspired to try something on your own.
<<>>

Here’s where Spencer started.

The table summarizes the results of 290 criminal jury trials surveyed by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) during the period 2000-2001. In each of the trials, the judge recorded the verdict he or she would have rendered had it been a bench trial. The table shows that the judge and jury agreed Guilty was the proper verdict in 64.1% of the trials. In 12.8% of the trials, the judge and jury agreed that Not Guilty was the proper verdict. Overall, the judge and jury agreed in 76.9% of the cases. They disagreed only 23.1% of the time.
The table gave Spencer three independent inputs. There are four squares, four pieces of information, but only three of them are independent. The fourth one, whichever you choose, must be set such that the sum of the four squares equals 100%.
Spencer needed to solve for five output values: The rate of wrongful conviction for both judge and jury, the rate of “wrongful acquittal” for both judge and jury, and the fraction of defendants who were actually innocent or actually guilty. Spencer couldn’t solve for five variables when he had only three inputs. He couldn’t do it and nobody else can. It’s not Spencer’s fault. It’s just mathematically impossible. Spencer needed more input, and the NCSC study had more to give.
In addition to providing judge-jury results for 290 trials, the judges and jurors  were asked to rate the evidence between 1 (evidence strongly favored prosecution) and 7 (evidence strongly favored defense.)  Including that strength-of-evidence information in his analysis, Spencer arrived at the following results,which I have simplified for ease of understanding.
The table shows that the jury convicts a factually innocent person in 5.4% of the trials, and the judge (based on his or her vote) would convict an actually innocent person in 10.5% of the trials. Those are not, however, quite the numbers we are looking for. We want to know the number of wrongful convictions per conviction, not per trial. To arrive at that number from the table, we would divide the percentage of wrongful convictions by the percentage of convictions. In the case of the jury, that’s .054 / .689 = .078 = 7.8%. The corresponding number for judges is 12.9%.Another shocking number from the table is the probability of an actually innocent person being convicted. Spencer’s analysis indicates that 27% of the defendants are actually innocent of the crime for which they are charged. If those innocents face a jury, they have a 20% chance of being convicted. ( .054 / .27 = .20 ) That’s bad enough. If those innocents instead elect for a bench trial, they have a 39% chance of being convicted. ( .105 / .27 = .39 )

Similarly, you can calculate the rate of “wrongful acquittal” from the table. I put the term in parenthesis because it is not necessarily an error to acquit a person who is actually guilty. If the State did not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, then the error would be in voting guilty. When I use the term “wrongful acquittal” with the quotes, I am indicating only that the person was acquitted despite being factually guilty, not that the jury necessarily made an error.

The “wrongful acquittal” rate for the jury, based on Spencer’s analysis of the NCSC judge-jury agreement data, is 30.5%. ( .095 / .311 = .305 ) Whereas the judge is almost twice as likely to convict an innocent person, the judge is only one-third as likely to acquit a guilty person. ( .022 / .187 = .118 = 11.8% )

<<>>

There are so many numbers floating around, and so many numbers that could be made to float, that we need a way to simplify everything. That’s why each chapter in this monograph is defined by a single number, the rate of wrongful conviction for jury and bench trials combined. That rate can then be multiplied by the number of people incarcerated to determine the number of people wrongfully incarcerated.

To arrive at that single number, we need to account for the number of jury trials compared to the number of bench trials. I have summarized those calculations in the three tables below. One table is for the juries, one for the judges, and one for jury and bench trials combined. Each table contains three estimates. Spencer actually provided estimates for a variety calculation assumptions, but recommended only two be considered valid. Those are labeled 3a and 3b. I’ve also included the results from my own judge-jury agreement analysis, which I present in Chapter 11.1.

There’s a whole lot of data there, so you’ll have to click on the image to enlarge it and view it. Don’t be intimidated. I’ve marked up the figure to allow you to quickly home in on what’s important.

The numbers in bold are the basic results from the judge-jury analyses.

The numbers underlined (near the upper left) are state court conviction data for 2004 from the Sourcebook for Criminal Justice Statistics Online. They are, of course, identical for each of the three analyses within each table. I’m merely seeing what would happen if I applied the results from the judge-jury agreement analyses to real world data.

The other numbers are merely Excel level calculations. The wrongful conviction and wrongful acquittal rates are inside the heavily outlined boxes in the bottom table. Spencer has estimated two different wrongful conviction rates. I took the average of his two results to use as the chapter number.

I’m ecstatic to see that my calculated wrongful conviction rate matches that of Professor Bruce D. Spencer to the first decimal point, assuming I choose to accept his second analysis as correct. The match is interesting since we used two different sets of input data, and two dramatically different approaches for defining and solving our equations. I’m quite frankly stunned.

Spencer and I don’t agree near as well when it comes to the rate of wrongful acquittal. My calculated rate is nearly 50% higher than his. However, since acquittals are far fewer than are convictions, in absolute numbers, both Professor Spencer and I are once again in near agreement. (Notice how I’ve elevated him once again from Spencer to Professor Spencer now that I see he agrees with me.)

The number “n” along the right hand side of the tables is the ratio of guilty men set free to innocent men convicted. In all cases, it’s close to unity. In no case is it close to ten. Ten is the number made famous by the long dead English jurist William Blackstone who proclaimed that it is “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

My choice of using “n” as the symbol for that value comes from a clever and fascinating article by Alexander Volokh entitled “n Guilty Men.” Volokh therein presents an amazing and comprehensive history of various pronouncements of what a proper value of “n” should be, ranging from a high of infinity to a low of 0.1.

Any suggestion, however, that we can better protect the innocent among us (or ourselves for that matter) only by allowing more guilty people to escape is based on a false premise. There is nothing in the mathematics that says it must be so.

We could, if we wished, improve our law enforcement system to identify and convict a higher percentage of those who are in fact guilty and not even bring to trial those who are in fact innocent. An state induced wrongful eyewitness identification, for example, can allow both the escape of a guilty person and the conviction of an innocent. Application of improved arson science could spare thousands of innocents and let not a single guilty person go free, since no crime may have been committed.

We need to learn the lesson so frequently reinforced upon those who attempt to excel at business: poor quality is extremely costly and can be deadly.

[Note to self. The closing paragraph really sucks. Need to fix it. Also, need to discuss actual innocence versus legal innocence.]

Do not get locked into debt for [overcharged] dental treatment

14 Jun

Surviving on a meager $1,300 a month, 87-year-old Theresa Ferritto fretted about the cost when her dentist told her she needed two teeth pulled.

She figured an oral surgeon would be too expensive. So she decided to try out a dental chain that promoted steep discounts in its advertisements. She went to an Aspen Dental office just outside Cleveland.

Ferritto said Aspen Dental wouldn’t just pull the teeth but insisted on a complete exam. She was bewildered when they finally handed her a treatment plan four pages long. Total price: $7,835.

Ferritto could not afford it, but Aspen Dental signed her up for a special credit card, with monthly payments of $186 for five years. She blames herself for signing the papers.

“I made a big mistake going there,” she says. “I should have known better.”

After a day of cleanings and two fillings, Ferritto asked her son for help. He called Aspen Dental to complain but said he got nowhere. So they turned to the state Attorney General.

Aspen Dental took all charges off her credit card for treatments she hadn’t yet received. But said the $2,540 she was charged for two fillings and cleanings was appropriate.

Aspen Dental charged Ferritto $350 for an antibiotic put next to teeth the dentist was going to pull, a charge other dentists say makes no sense. There were four separate charges for an antibacterial rinse similar to Listerine for $129. There was even a $149 charge for an electric toothbrush that Ferritto didn’t even know she had, until she recently retrieved an Aspen Dental bag from her garage and found it inside.

Imagine how many groceries that would buy, she sighed.

When asked if Ferritto was taken advantage of, Aspen Dental chief executive Robert Fontana said, “I hope that the team was clear about what she needed and that that she completely understood what she was getting into. And hopefully, you know, she made the choices that she thought was right for her.”

Aspen Dental is a chain of nearly 350 offices in 22 states managed by a company owned by a private-equity firm. It is part of a fast-growing industry of corporate dental practices, many of which specialize in serving people who cannot afford to go to the dentist, a group many dentists ignore.

By marketing to people who haven’t seen a dentist in years, Aspen Dental often gives new patients treatment plans costing thousands of dollars. The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and FRONTLINE spent months examining Aspen Dental and found that the same business model that makes Aspen Dental accessible to people short on cash can also lock people into debt and has led to complaints of patients being overcharged or given unnecessary treatments.

Former employees say Aspen Dental trained them in high-pressure sales. Corporate management scrutinizes the production of dentists and staff daily. And an Aspen Dental recruiting video says that dentists get paid bonuses as key production targets are met.

“You’ve got people who are not dentists, that are in management … they are breathing down the doctor’s back,” said Jenny Hayes, who worked as an office manager for Aspen Dental in the Chicago-area last year. “There are goals and if you are not hitting your goals, then you lose your job.”

Aspen Dental denies that its dentists have stronger financial incentives than other dentists or that its bonuses affect treatments. Fontana, founder and chief executive officer of Aspen Dental, based in East Syracuse, NY, said dentists won’t do unnecessary treatments because “it’s just not in their DNA.”

“I’m not even sure what corporate dentistry means, because we have no influence on the dentistry,” Fontana said.

He said Aspen Dental frees dentists to focus solely on patients, because the company handles back-office duties such as marketing, accounting and billing. In fact, dentists own and control all of the practices, says Fontana. All but four states forbid anyone who’s not a dentist from owning a practice on the assumption that dentists are trained and motivated to put patients ahead of profits.

But Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, questions whether dentists at corporate-dental chains are free from corporate pressures to maximize profits. Grassley wouldn’t speak about Aspen Dental specifically, but he’s had investigators looking into the company and other private-equity-owned chains for months.

“Because when private equity firms get involved,” Grassley explained, “You got to understand that their motivation is to make money. And they are not dentists. And dentists ought to make the determination … of what is good for the teeth … Not some private equity manager in Wall Street.”

Aspen Dental says it serves people who otherwise wouldn’t go to a dentist. Forty percent of Americans have a family member who put off going to the dentist because they couldn’t pay for it, according to a survey by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Fontana says Aspen Dental looks for ways to make it easier for those people to walk into their offices.

Their offices are easy to spot at shopping centers, often near fast-food restaurants. Posters advertise a free exam and X-rays. Many of their new patients walk in the door without an appointment. Aspen Dental accepts most insurance and if the patient is still short on cash, they will sign you up on your first day for “no-interest” credit cards through GE Capital or Chase.

Aspen Dental specializes in dentures, which they make in each office. The consultation room has a tray of dentures to choose from, ranging from the basic no-frills model to the “precision hand-crafted” ComfiLytes, coming in 27 shades. Internet ads offer dentures on sale for $249. Its commercial tells stories of a man in pain from poor-fitting dentures and a woman too embarrassed to smile.

Aspen Dental insists that all new patients get a comprehensive examination. So even if someone just wants a routine cleaning or needs a broken tooth fixed, Aspen Dental presents a treatment plan for any problems that may crop up years later. Fontana says this approach is what’s best for patients, because neglected teeth and gums can lead to serious problems. Several former employees, however, describe the initial exam as a sales tactic to maximize revenue on each new patient.

“People would come into the office maybe with a toothache and come out with a treatment plan that maybe the dentist said we need to extract all your teeth,” said Jenny Hayes, the former office manager in Illinois. “They were made to stop in the manager’s office and sit down for an intense consultative selling process that they really didn’t bargain for when they walked in the door. I had people literally breaking down and crying in my office. And it happened quite regularly.”

The average treatment plan presented to new patients runs $4,450 at Aspen Dental’s top producing offices, according to an internal company document obtained by CPI and FRONTLINE. The company says the extensive treatment is a reflection of the patients they draw.

“A typical patient is probably 45 to 65 and struggling just to make ends meet,” said Fontana, Aspen’s CEO. “They’re taking this week’s paycheck to pay last month’s mortgage, making their car payment, trying to put their kids through school and unfortunately, dentistry can become discretionary.”

Donna Kelce of Des Moines, Iowa, fits the profile. At age 55, she hadn’t been to a dentist in 15 years. She didn’t have dental insurance and didn’t think she could afford it. Besides, her teeth never bothered her until a gap starting forming between two front teeth. Embarrassed, she finally went to an Aspen Dental office after seeing one of its commercials.

Kelce was X-rayed and sent to a consultation room, where a dental assistant handed her a treatment plan. Kelce’s gaze stopped on a particular word.

“I could feel the kind of blood run from my face, thinking, “Oh my God. Dentures,” Kelce said.

Kelce recalls the dentist saying she had no real option but to get dentures because she had lost too much bone for implants. She wasn’t sure how she could afford Aspen Dental’s $3,700 bill. But then the office manager signed her up for a “no-interest” credit card through Chase. Relieved, Kelce thought she was getting a bargain.

She came back in late November 2009 to have 13 teeth pulled. But she said the dentist pulled and pulled and couldn’t get all the teeth out, breaking one at the root. Kelce wondered if so much bone was gone, why the teeth weren’t coming out easily. After three hours, the dentist still had six teeth to pull but said she could do no more because she had already given Kelce the maximum dose of Novocain.

Aspen Dental sent Kelce to one of its former dentists who could see her that evening. Dr. Jessica Lawson looked at Kelce’s teeth and concluded that they didn’t all need to be pulled. But she finished the work so Kelce could wear her dentures. Kelce said Lawson suggested that Kelce report the incident to the Iowa Dental Board. Lawson herself wrote a letter to the board.

“Having worked at Aspen Dental myself for a short period of time, I am well aware of the type of care that can potentiate, especially if the doctor isn’t firm with the office manager and regional managers in providing the standard of care that he/she is use to, instead of producing the numbers that Aspen requests and expects,” Lawson wrote.

The dentist at Aspen Dental, did not return phone calls for comment. But she gave a different account of Kelce’s treatment in her notes. She said she suggested alternatives but that Kelce “insisted on dentures and full upper extractions even though (six upper teeth) can be saved.” She added that four of those teeth might not last forever.

Kelce, who is now suing for malpractice, said the dentist never told her any of her teeth could be saved.

“Who in their right mind would let them pull my teeth if they didn’t need to?” she asked.

Dr. Gerald Marlin, a Washington DC prosthodontist who specializes in replacing teeth, looked at Kelce’s X-rays at the request of CPI and FRONTLINE. He drew a red line along the bone and said Kelce had plenty of bone to save seven of her upper teeth.

Marlin came up with seven treatment options for Kelce, in most cases replacing her teeth with a bridge or partial denture. He said dentures should only be a last resort. They don’t adhere well and affect a person’s ability to speak and eat. Partial dentures are not only cheaper but they fit securely, anchored by the remaining teeth.

The dental board dropped the case and won’t discuss it, citing confidentiality laws. Coincidentally, that same month the dental board issued a press release, saying, “The Board has seen an increase in complaints in connection with corporate dental practices. The types of complaints include both continuity of care issues and issues related to the business aspects of the practice.”

Corporate dental chains are barely regulated in most states, especially if they don’t accept Medicaid patients. State dental boards typically don’t have any power over corporations.

Lili Reitz, executive director of the Ohio State Dental Board, said last year a quarter of her complaints — or 140 — were against dentists at corporate chains. Yet she has little authority to take action against the companies. Instead, her power comes from having control over the licenses of individual dentists.

It’s common for Reitz to get complaints that private dentists are trying to do unnecessary care, such as putting fillings on cavities that other dentists don’t see. Still, Reitz says the pressures on dentists at corporate dental practices seem more intense.

“I think quotas and how many patients need to be seen a day definitely have an adverse effect on the quality of care,” Reitz said. “What’s frustrating for us is to go dentist by dentist by dentist. By the time we get there, they’re not there anymore” because corporate chains have high turnover rates.

Reitz says dentists tend to stop doing needless treatments after leaving a corporate dental chain, so she considers the problem solved and takes no formal action.

State attorneys general can take action under consumer laws if a dental chain deceives patients. The Pennsylvania Attorney General sued Aspen Dental in 2010, alleging that Aspen Dental advertised “free” exams but still charges patients with insurance. The state also alleged that Aspen Dental failed to reveal that the “no-interest” credit cards it pushes have steep penalties — 29.9 percent interest on the entire amount of the original loan — if a patient misses payments. Aspen Dental settled, paying $175,000 in restitution without admitting wrongdoing.

Dental malpractice cases are relatively rare, attorneys say, because they are expensive to pursue and usually don’t offer big payouts.

Consumer sites on the Internet are full of complaints about Aspen Dental. Fontana acknowledges that the company counted 1,000 complaints posted from 2006 to 2010. But he said Aspen Dental treats 12,000 patients a day, so the number of complaints is relatively small. Aspen Dental has an employee who now responds to the complaints.

Two former dentists at Aspen Dental said Donna Kelce’s story is not surprising. Neither would allow their names to be used because they’d signed confidentiality agreements and feared being sued. But one admitted that he himself pulled teeth that he didn’t think needed to be pulled. It would happen when another Aspen dentist had written the treatment plan and said the patient had insisted on dentures.

He recently left Aspen Dental, saying, “I couldn’t do it anymore … They spend most of their time trying to talk people out of their teeth.”

Fontana dismissed complaints by former employees, saying all companies have disgruntled workers.

Aspen Dental is a pioneer among corporate dental chains. Fontana considered becoming a dentist when he graduated business school in 1991, but decided instead to apply his business knowledge from working in a group dental practice, imagining ways of tapping into the market of people who never go to a dentist.

In 1998, he founded Aspen Dental Management. After five years, the company had opened 50 offices and had drawn the interest of private-equity firms. Capital Resources Partners of Boston invested $18.7 million in Aspen Dental in 2004. The Los Angeles firm Leonard Green & Associates bought the company in 2010 for just under $550 million.

Fontana says private-equity firms want out of a business after about five years, and the key to a big payoff is growth. Aspen Dental opens a new office nearly every week, creating a drag on profits, according to a recent report by Moody’s. Last year, the company made more than $500 million in revenue but had a pretax profit of only $12 million.

The company meticulously tracks revenue targets for each office. Yet Fontana said those targets don’t apply to dentists.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind again, that the dentists don’t have these goals,” he said. “They just don’t have them. They don’t exist.”

But even an Aspen Dental video on the company’s Web site recruits dentists by saying, “Compensation for associate dentists includes an annual salary plus bonus opportunity that increases as key targets are met.”

The video even gives a glimpse of the revenue targets for an office in Springfield, Mass. A multicolored spreadsheet titled “My Practice Metrics” shows that “dentistry” billings for November 2009 were 243 percent above “budget.” The image shows there are also revenue targets for cleanings and dentures.

The scrutiny dentists are under at Aspen Dental is clear in a report that Fontana called the “game tape.” It’s a monthly performance measure sent to office managers. CPI and FRONTLINE obtained one of these confidential reports for an office in Owensboro, Ky. It shows that in February, the office had billed $270,000 so far this year, $35,000 above its target.

The document shows that Aspen Dental also scrutinizes the billings of its dentists. The lead dentist in Owensboro was billing an average of $5,206 a day, earning him praise from the regional director, who wrote “Showing great trends for this month.” But the tape also compared the dentist to top producing dentists, and in that regard, he fell nearly $1,000 short each day.

Heather Haynes, who managed an Aspen Dental office in Joliet, Illinois, said that office managers who didn’t hit their targets consistently were likely to be fired. She said that’s in fact what happened to her. Haynes said dentists and hygienists, the office’s revenue makers, faced the same pressures.

Aspen Dental invited CPI and FRONTLINE to a new office in Warsaw, Ind., to show how badly needed its services are. Warsaw, a town of about 13,500, has only six private dentists. Aspen Dental opened an office there after a dentist noticed how many people from Warsaw were driving an hour to Fort Wayne for dental appointments.

Ted Collins, a 47-year-old truck driver, walked into the office that day with an excruciating toothache.“I have to use ice packs at times to keep it frozen so I can get some sleep,” Collins said.

He hadn’t been to a dentist in ten years and came in because of the free X-rays. Two of his teeth were abscessed, an infection that can spread and in rare cases even become fatal. The office gave him a comprehensive exam and found he needed dentures.

Dr. Kurt Losier, the owner of the practice, wiggled several of Collins teeth and showed on the X-ray that his bone had receded dramatically. Losier suggested Collins get the dentures with the longest warranty, which are also the most expensive dentures. Collins couldn’t afford the treatment plan, which came to $7,000. So the office manager tried to sign him up for a credit card. He was rejected.

Patients at Aspen Dental are turned away every day because they cannot afford the treatment, Losier said. To avoid that, the office will trim the treatment plan down. But even that often doesn’t work.

Losier vowed no matter what, he would take care of Collins’ abscessed teeth. Ultimately Collins said a friend gave him the money for the dentures.

Haynes, the former office manager, said she lost sleep at night worried about whether the sales tactics Aspen Dental taught her were ethical. She said she trusted the dentists she worked with. But she was so skeptical of the expensive deep-cleanings sold to so many patients that she herself refused to get one after she was examined in her own office.

Lance Dykes, who managed an office in in Tennessee, said he felt like he was being forced to take advantage of people by selling them treatments he suspected they didn’t really need. He finally quit one day when he says he had to sell a $12,000 treatment plan to an elderly couple who seemed confused.

Dykes said the man looked him in the eye and asked if he had to decide right then. Dykes said no. Go home and think about it. This broke the rules taught in training for closing the deal, which he says, include getting the patient to commit before they walk out.

In December 2008, Sarah Keckler went to an Aspen Dental in Mechanicsburg, Penn., just to get her teeth cleaned. After a long wait, the dentist said the 20-year-old had three cavities and also needed to have her wisdom teeth pulled. She also said Keckler might have oral cancer.

Keckler, who now lives near Washington D.C., recalls the woman talking so loudly that it seemed the whole office could hear. “She was giving this massive disaster scenario. I didn’t believe a thing that she said.”

Keckler went to her dentist regularly, the last time just six months earlier. But a change in her insurance forced her to switch dentists. As she was wondering how she was going to get out of this, the office manager handed her an estimated bill for a little more than $600. Keckler said the manager encouraged her to sign and even to enroll for a special credit card to pay for it all up front.

Angered by what she considered a hard sell, Keckler got up and left and went back to her family dentist. He found no cavities, no need to pull her wisdom teeth and no oral cancer.

Aspen Dental reviewed Keckler’s files and says she was appropriately diagnosed and that other dentists would agree. However, in an interview, Aspen Dental’s Arwinder Judge, the vice president of clinical support, acknowledged that the surface cavities don’t show up in Keckler’s X-rays. The company is relying on the dentist’s notes to support its diagnosis.

Last February, Dr. David Schneider, a dentist in Chevy Chase, Md., examined Keckler and her X-rays at the request of CPI and FRONTLINE. He said there were no cavities, no need to pull her wisdom teeth and no signs of oral cancer.

Best city and why

14 Jun

Two cities are ranked in the top 10 by all three surveys: Vienna (Austria) and Auckland (New Zealand) identifying them as great places to live where the quality of living is high. Countries with the most cities ranked in the surveys include Australia with (4) and Canada, Germany, Switzerland with (3). 

World’s most livable cities

What made these cities great, according to these surveys was:

  • good safety and low crime
  • strong international connectivity
  • liveable climate/sunshine
  • quality of infrastructure and architecture
  • access and quality of public transportation
  • high level of tolerance
  • sound management of environmental issues including pollution
  • favourable business conditions
  • pro-active policy developments
  • access and quality of medical/health care including hygiene
  • access and quality of education
  • quality and quantity of cultural assets
  • access and quality of recreation activities and natural assets
  • political-economic stability
  • quality of urban design (sprawl, green space)

As an Aussie living in Brisbane, I can only agree with the surveys that identify Australia as a great place to live. If I were to select just four from the long list above as the reasons why I think Australia ranks so high as a great place to live, I would say:

  1. liveable climate/sunshine where as a ‘sunburnt country’, the sun shines constantly on your back making all your problems evaporate in our cities that enjoy a mostly temperate climate.
  2. political-economic stability with over 20 past years of positive economic growth and a 100+ year old democratic system that has seen many changes of power without riots or bloodshed.
  3. access and quality of recreation activities and natural assets with 75% of Aussies living within an hour of the 37,000 km coastline with its countless idyllic beaches or just turn off the highway at any point to soon enjoy the unspoiled beauty of the Aussie bush.
  4. access and quality of medical/health care including hygiene with a universal heathcare system that gives rich and poor equal access to quality health care.

Australia, a country bathed in sunshine …

Religion and Food

14 Jun

 

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Image result for compare religions by priest roles

Excessive and sometimes fatal use of Tasers: Essentially, the U.S. has made improvements, but still has a long way to go!

14 Jun

The United Nations Committee Against Torture issued a combined report encompassing its third to fifth periodic reports on the United States at its 1276th and 1277th meetings held on November 20, 2014. The report lauded some improvements under U.S. jurisdiction, but still found plenty to criticize. PLN had submitted comments for review by the committee in September 2014.

The report noted that extending habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo) detainees, prohibiting the torture of persons detained by the military, prohibiting the sentence of life without parole for children not convicted of murder and barring mandatory life without parole for children (although not retroactively), revising rules for the use of segregation in immigration detainment facilities, promulgating national standards under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, and admitting that some of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used during the Bush era     were acts of torture were positive developments. However, there is no specific federal criminal offense of torture and the U.S. continues to maintain a restrictive interpretation of the provisions of the anti-torture convention which could allow torture.

The committee called for a full and complete investigation of the torture committed by the CIA at its black ops prisons and the military at its overseas prisons and declassification of the records of those prisons. It also called for punishment of the personnel who committed such torture.

The committee called for an end to the indefinite detention without charges of prisoners at Gitmo and restated that this constitutes a per se violation of the anti-torture convention. It called for a full and open investigation of prisoner maltreatment and deaths at Gitmo.

The committee criticized the use of sleep deprivation caused by what the Army Field Manual terms “physical separation” and “field expedient separation” techniques for interrogation. It noted that even limits of four hours of continuous sleep every 24 hours constituted sleep deprivation.

Noting that expedited removal procedures in use at the southwest border were inadequate to take into account the special circumstances of some asylum seekers, the committee recommended a confidential and thorough risk assessment for such migrants and a less restrictive interpretation of the “credible fear” screening standard. It also recommended the development of community-based alternatives to immigration detention, expanded use of foster care for unaccompanied children and an end to family detention expansion.

The committee recommended reducing the use of solitary confinement. It should be used as a last resort and never used on juveniles, persons with mental health issues, pregnant women, nursing women and women with infants.

The committee criticized the six states that have refused to become PREA certified and the negative effect on the enforcement of prisoners’ rights the Prison Litigation Reform Act has had. It noted that pregnant prisoners were still being shackled during labor, delivery and post-partum recovery in many states. It criticized the exposure of prisoners to extremes of heat and the placement of juveniles in adult facilities.

The committee also noted that executions had been botched and there were lengthy delays in carrying out executions (a form of torture). It welcomed the abolishment of the death penalty in six additional states. It also noted the use of excessive and often terminal force against unarmed black persons by police and the excessive and sometimes fatal use of Tasers. Essentially, the U.S. has made improvements, but still has a long way to go.

Source: Concluding observations on the third to fifth periodic reports of United States of America, United Nations Committee Against Torture (Advance Unedited Version)

 

A Housing Affordability Crisis| Poverty, Politics and Profit | FRONTLINE | PBS

9 Jun

MAY 9, 2017

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by PRIYANKA BOGHANI Digital Reporter

The United States government spends roughly $200 billion a year to help Americans buy or rent homes. The vast majority of that spending — 70 percent in 2015 — goes toward subsidizing homeowners, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans struggle to pay rent every month — with only one in four who are eligible for housing assistance receiving it. More than 11 million households across the country spend over half their income on rent each month.

“That means that they are one emergency, one broken-down car, one illness, one missed day of work away from not being able to pay the rent,” Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told FRONTLINE and NPR in the new documentary Poverty, Politics and Profit. “They’re really at risk of losing their homes altogether and becoming homeless.”

Households that pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered “cost-burdened,” while those that pay more than 50 percent are considered “severely cost-burdened.” The number of households that spend more than half of their income on rent has grown roughly 25 percent since 2007, according to an analysis by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.

 

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The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program Costs More, Shelters Less : NPR

On the south side of Dallas, Nena Eldridge lives in a sparse but spotless bungalow on a dusty lot. At $550 each month, her rent is just about the cheapest she could find in the city.

After an injury left her unable to work, the only income she receives is a $780 monthly disability check. So she has to make tough financial choices, like living without running water.

About This Story

NPR and Frontline

This story was produced in partnership with the PBS series Frontline.

WATCH ‘Poverty, Politics and Profit’

The episode investigates the billions spent on housing low-income people, and why so few get the help they need.

From FrontlineHow We Did The Math

From FrontlineA Housing Affordability Crisis That’s Worse for the Lowest Income Americans

From NPR: Section 8 Vouchers Help The Poor — But Only If Housing Is Available

Watch a teaser here:

PBS Frontline YouTube

Every day, she fills bottles with water from a neighbor’s house and takes them home. She washes her hands with water heated in an electric slow cooker. She uses a bucket to flush the toilet.

“I’m tired, but I don’t have nowhere to go and I don’t have enough money to do it,” she says, fighting back tears. But she adds, “I’m not living on the streets. I’m not homeless.”

Eldridge is among the 11 million people nationwide making these kinds of choices every day. The government calls them “severely rent burdened” — people paying more than half their income in rent.

Thirty years ago, Eldridge was the type of person Congress sought to help when it created the low-income housing tax credit program, which is now the government’s primary program to build housing for the poor.

But the tax-credit building that’s only a little more than 2 miles from Eldridge’s house, where she might pay as little as $200 or $300 in rent based on her income, has a waiting list up to four years long. In Dallas and nationwide, many of these buildings don’t have any vacancies.

In a joint investigation, NPR — together with the PBS series Frontline — found that with little federal oversight, LIHTC has produced fewer units than it did 20 years ago, even though it’s costing taxpayers 66 percent more in tax credits.

In 1997, the program produced more than 70,000 housing units. But in 2014, fewer than 59,000 units were built, according to data provided by the National Council of State Housing Agencies.

Industry representatives don’t dispute the numbers; they say these trends are the result of rising construction costs, decreasing federal dollars that funded other housing subsidy programs, and stricter state requirements to build homes for the lowest-income households. They also say the business is less profitable than it used to be.

But NPR and Frontline also found that little public accounting of the costs exists, even among government officials and regulators charged with monitoring the program. Some key lawmakers say that needs to change.

“My suspicion is, there’s a lot of things wrong with the program,” says Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. “If you aren’t following the money, how do you know if the low-income housing tax credit is working?”

How the low-income tax credit housing program works

The federal government used to build its own public housing, which still houses more than 2 million people today. The model was simple: The government built the apartment and became the landlord.

Some of the big, concrete high-rises became infamous for high rates of crime and their concentration of poverty. The government banned public housing construction in 1968 and began demolishing many of the buildings in the 1990s. But while direct federal construction went away, the need for new buildings did not.

So, in 1986, Congress developed a strategy to entice private businesses to build better affordable housing. That incentive came in the form of a tax credit. Since then, an $8 billion industry has evolved to help the government house the poor.

There are two types of tax credits, the smaller of which is financed by tax-exempt state and local bonds. NPR and Frontline focused our investigation on the largest part of the LIHTC program.

Here’s how that tax credit works: Every year, the IRS distributes a pool of tax credits to state and local housing agencies. Those agencies pass them on to developers. The developers then sell the credits to banks and investors for cash. Often, to find investors, developers will use middlemen called syndicators.

The banks and investors get to take tax deductions, while the developers now have cash to build the apartments.

Because taxpayers essentially paid for the construction, the buildings can have much lower rent than market-rate developments.

“A very enduring public-private partnership”

The program is often described as a win-win. Low-income people receive well-built, affordable places to live, and private industry players — developers, syndicators and investors — make a profit for their involvement. Years later, the private industry continues to profit, but it’s no longer clear whether the poor benefit as much as they could.

Betsy Julian and Mike Daniel, civil rights lawyers who have been investigating the program for years, say the thriving private industry is a sign that the scales may have tilted away from the tenants.

“It’s a frightfully expensive way to provide low-income housing and it’s got layers of profit built into it that we think we have to provide in order to get people to do something for poor people,” Daniel says.

Julian says 30 years ago, attending affordable housing conferences was different than it is today.

“I have the feeling that I’m in the room with nothing but a bunch of rich guys and gals,” she says. “That’s an impression that has to do with the ambience and the sense that there’s a lot of money to be made around affordable housing.”

Betsy Julian, a civil rights lawyer who has been investigating the LIHTC program for years, says she has noticed a significant shift in the industry.

Screenshot courtesy of Frontline (PBS)

Some attendees at a conference for the LIHTC industry last fall told NPR and Frontline that business is booming.

“We’ve had so much capital pouring into the market,” says Stacie Nekus, senior vice president of investor relations at Alliant Capital, a top syndicator.

But she adds that the thriving industry has not benefited at the expense of the people for whom the affordable housing is built. “It gets the most amount of units built,” she says. “We house millions of people.”

Advocates of the program say that providing an attractive incentive to businesses is crucial.

“Without private capital we would not be modernizing public housing. We wouldn’t be building affordable housing,” says former New York Republican Rep. Rick Lazio, who leads the housing finance team at the law firm Jones Walker. “We’ve got to be realistic about the fact that investors need some return.”

That return comes partly in the form of the fee that developers and syndicators earn for their work. The association of state agencies recommends developers receive no more than a 15 percent fee from the total development cost, but the actual percentage varies by state. So if a building costs $20 million, a developer would receive $3 million.

Industry representatives told NPR and Frontline that syndicators earned more than $300 million in fees last year.

Financial institutions see these investments as low risk. Because of the high demand for affordable housing, the chance of foreclosure is low: Buildings fill with tenants and stay full, often with years-long waiting lists. Banks also use the investment in LIHTC buildings toward the requirement mandated by the Community Reinvestment Act, which says they must help meet the needs of borrowers in the poorer communities in which they do business.

These incentives are purposefully designed to encourage investment in a public good. Mary Tingerthal, a board member of the NCSHA, the group representing the state agencies that run the program, says it has been working well for people who need affordable housing since it began.

“It has housed more than 6 1/2 million households and it’s been a very enduring public private partnership that has produced good housing that’s very well run,” she says.

Higher costs, fewer units

So why are LIHTC costs higher if fewer units are being produced?

The IRS, which oversees the program, declined a request from NPR and Frontline for an interview. We also reached out to more than 20 industry officials, including the leadership of the Housing Advisory Group and the Affordable Housing Tax Credit Coalition, which represent investors and syndicators such as Boston Capital, PNC Real Estate and CohnReznick LLP. They did not agree to an interview but answered questions by email through lawyers representing the industry.

Industry Response

After our stories aired and were published, 25 national affordable housing organizations, sent a response. Read it here.

They say several factors have led to higher costs and fewer housing units; primarily, increased construction costs. Indeed, NPR and Frontline found in an analysis of government and NCSHA data that the inflation rate associated with rising construction costs accounts for about half of the overall increase during the last 20 years.

The representatives also noted the decline in grants from two other federal subsidies developers used to help pay for these buildings — the Community Development Block Grant and the HOME Investment Partnership program. Still, fewer than one-third of tax credit units have received grants from these programs historically, according to data from the NCSHA.

Many states also are requiring tax credit buildings to target even poorer renters, which means less rent to cover any debt. But data from the NCSHA show that the proportion of LIHTC tenants in the lowest income category rose from just 4 to 9 percent of new units from 2000 to 2014 across the country.

“Millions … almost overnight”

On a downtown street in Miami, one tax credit property’s dark history offered another reason for increased costs. Labre Place, named after the patron saint for the homeless, is a $25 million development shaded with towering trees. The lobby is painted lime green and the building includes a fitness center, computer lounge and library. It is home to 90 low-income people, about half formerly homeless, and there’s a two- to three-year waiting list to live there.

In the leasing office, the apartment manager proudly displays the many state inspections the building has passed. But there’s one thing that wasn’t inspected: how much money the developers were making off the deal.

For developer Michael Cox, it was a dream job. A longtime advocate for the poor, Cox worked at a string of nonprofits until 2006. That was when he and his own company, Biscayne Housing, partnered with one of the country’s top affordable housing developers, the Carlisle Development Group. Between 2006 and 2009, Cox says the two companies had more than $250 million under development.

“I went from working with this very small nonprofit to an equal partnership with the state’s largest affordable housing developer. So it became millions of dollars … almost overnight,” Cox says.

Michael Cox’s company, Biscayne Housing, was the developer for Miami’s Labre Place.

Screenshot courtesy of Frontline (PBS)

That was before Cox discovered his partners Lloyd Boggio and Matt Greer were stealing money from their developments, and he eventually joined them. Together, according to court records, $34 million was stolen from 14 tax credit projects, including almost $2 million from Labre Place.

“It was a construction kickback scheme,” Cox recalls. “The scam was to submit grossly inflated construction numbers to the state in order to get more money than the project required and then have an agreement with the contractor to get it back during construction.”

“I convinced myself that this was OK and that I was doing such good works and I was building amazing projects in the community,” he adds.

Last year, Boggio, Greer and another partner, Gonzalo DeRamon, pleaded guilty to crimes related to the kickback scheme and were sentenced to prison. Cox was sentenced to home confinement and probation. He cooperated with prosecutors, never spent his portion of the money and returned all of it. But the impact of his theft is lasting.

At Labre, if the costs had been stated in a correct way, we could have built 10 more housing units. So, that’s 10 more people every year that that project could have served,” Cox says. “That’s 10 lives. So it’s those people that really take it on the chin when costs are inflated.”

“A program of trust”

In a government office building just a few blocks from Labre Place, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin has spent five years investigating the tax credit program in Florida. He also unraveled the Carlisle/Biscayne theft.

“This program has been described as a subterranean ATM, and only the developers know the PIN,” Sherwin says.

The IRS relies on the housing agencies to identify corruption. But Sherwin says he doesn’t believe the Florida agency, the Florida Housing Finance Corp., was equipped to spot the theft.

“It’s really a program of trust,” Sherwin says. “These housing agencies don’t have a lot of funding. Looking at Florida housing, they have good people that work there, but there are limited resources. It’s a small office with a limited staff that is in charge of managing hundreds of millions in state, local and federal money.”

Steve Auger, the man who ran Florida’s housing agency, says the Miami case was one bad apple.

“This kind of fraud has not been rampant in the tax credit program both here in Florida or nationally,” Auger says, adding that Florida has added additional audits to make sure developer theft won’t happen again.

“It’s probably the most efficient tax housing program that has ever existed,” Auger says. “That’s why you’ve got this asset class that has performed so well with such few scandalous incidents.”

Steve Auger, then-executive director of the Florida Housing Finance Corp., called the LIHTC program “the most efficient tax housing program that has ever existed.”

Screenshot courtesy of Frontline (PBS)

After the interview with NPR and Frontline in late 2016, Auger was forced to resign from the agency after an audit revealed he spent more than $50,000 on a steak and lobster dinner for affordable housing lenders and gave his own staff almost half a million dollars in bonuses.

A few months later, Sherwin charged a Miami-based shell company called DAXC LLC belonging to the owners of Pinnacle Housing Group, another one of the largest developers in the country, with the theft of $4 million from four tax credit developments.

In an agreement with prosecutors, a DAXC representative acknowledged that the company “inflated costs” for its own “personal benefit.” The company returned the money and paid a $1 million fine. In early 2017, the Florida Housing Finance Corp. went to court to ban Pinnacle from affordable housing projects for two years. Pinnacle declined our request for an interview but told us it didn’t violate any state rules and would contest the ban.

Sherwin says he is not done investigating the LIHTC program. He says he is turning his investigation to more developers with projects in other states and also to the banks, lenders and syndicators.

“I know that this fraud doesn’t just reside in South Florida,” he says. “There’s too much money involved, and based upon other information that we’ve looked at, this fraud exists in other jurisdictions.”

Following the money

There are well-built, attractively designed tax-credit buildings all around the country where developer fraud has not played a role. Industry representatives say it’s unfair to draw wider conclusions about the program from what happened in South Florida. They say they support more stringent auditing and do not tolerate any fraud.

But without strong oversight of the billions flowing through LIHTC’s private sector, there is no way to say for certain just how rare fraud is: The vast majority of housing agencies have never been audited. There have been only seven audits of the 58 state and local housing agencies that the IRS relies on to watch the program since it began in 1986. And when you trace the tax credits of LIHTC properties upward to syndicators and investors, the profit structure becomes even more obscure.

Grassley, the Iowa senator, is one of the few lawmakers looking into the program. He recently asked the GAO to find out how much money syndicators are making and whether that is influencing developments.

“The lack of data shows that maybe the IRS isn’t doing a proper job of oversight,” Grassley says.

Despite the lack of data, Tingerthal of the NCSHA says the investors’ willingness to participate in the program and compete against each other is a sound indicator of the program’s overall efficiency.

“This is a market-driven program. And our barometer is really that rate of return: How much is the investor willing to pay for those tax credits and for those units of housing?” Tingerthal says. “We’re working all the time to drive towards more cost-efficiency.”

“It’s all we got”

Daniel, the civil rights lawyer who has been focusing on the program, says the industry’s focus on rates of return can lead to blind spots in other areas. He discovered that 90 percent of projects in Dallas were built in high-poverty areas. He filed a lawsuit against Texas that in 2015 went all the way to the Supreme Court and helped set standards for fair housing nationwide.

Daniel says getting deals done matters more to the developers, syndicators and banks than how many units a project has or where it’s located. Building low-income apartments in high-poverty areas doesn’t get met with as much opposition.

“They don’t make these deals in good places. They make these deals in the same places they won’t lend,” he says. “They were being put there because it’s easier to do.”

Mike Daniel, a civil rights lawyer who has been investigating the LIHTC program, says getting deals done matters more to the developers, syndicators and banks than how many units a project has or where it’s located.

Screenshot courtesy of Frontline (PBS)

Nationally, only an estimated 17 percent of projects are built in high-opportunity areas – places without a lot of crime and with access to jobs and high-performing schools — according to forthcoming research by Kirk McClure, a professor of urban planning at the University of Kansas who has studied LIHTC for more than a decade. And that matters: Studies show that moving to these types of areas helps children rise out of poverty so that when they’re adults, they may not need any government housing help.

The balance of power in the LIHTC program, Daniel says, tips heavily in favor of the banks, brokers and developers.

“They’re the ones that have a lot more influence than the poor people who need the housing. Nobody else involved in it has got any reason to come in and criticize it,” Daniel says.

Even housing advocates independent of the industry are not likely to publicly criticize the program, he says.

“If they take it away, what do you have? Not only do you take it away from poor people, but you also take it away from all the intermediaries who lose the money,” Daniel says. “It’s difficult to get anybody to look at it from the taxpayers’ point of view. Or even the families that should be benefiting from it. It’s all we got.”

Frontline’s Emma Schwartz, Rick Young and Fritz Kramer contributed to this story.

 

==

Farryn Giles and her 6-year-old son Isaiah have been living in a crumbling apartment building with her ex-husband, who’s letting her stay for a couple months. Pigeons have infested the walls of the courtyard. Before she lived here, she was sleeping on and off in her car.

But Giles, 26, says she recently felt like she hit the jackpot. She was awarded a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, which will pay the difference between her rent and what she can afford.

But there’s a catch: She has to find a landlord willing to take it before it expires in 90 days. Nationally, most voucher holders are able to use them, but in hot rental markets like Dallas, it’s not always easy.

“It took me six years to get my voucher but I got it,” she says. “You can best believe I’m going to utilize it.”

More than 2 million families now use vouchers to keep from becoming homeless. It’s the government’s largest program to help low-income families pay their rent. Usually, the tenant pays up to 30 percent of their income in rent and a local public housing agency makes up the difference.

But Congress had bigger plans when it created the nearly $20 billion program in the 1970s. The voucher was designed to be a ticket out of poverty– allowing families to use it wherever they want. With a portable voucher, families can move to places with jobs, good schools and low crime.

So far, however, the program has not always lived up to that promise, especially when it comes to women with children. Among voucher holders, a 2016 government study found fewer than 13 percent of female-headed households with children were able to move to areas with higher opportunity.

Farryn Giles colors with her son Isaiah at their apartment in Dallas.

Brandon Thibodeaux for NPR

Giles is trying to beat those odds. She found a new online customer service job paying $11.50 an hour. It’s a big break for her. But it’s an hour and a half bus ride away. She says she hoped the voucher would help her and her son find a place near the job in one of Dallas’ northern and wealthier suburbs.

“Hello, goals, ambition,” she says, excited about the idea of finding a quiet place to raise her son.

C’Artis Harris, 34, another voucher holder searching for a place in Dallas, also sees her voucher as a chance to make a new life.

“I can get a house or an apartment and it will be affordable for me and my children,” she says. “I don’t have to depend on people. I don’t have to go into abusive relationships. I don’t have to sleep in my van. I don’t have to have my kids going from school to school. They can know this is ours. We don’t have to keep moving.”

C’Artis Harris, 34, sits outside a friend’s apartment where she and her children are staying until she finds available housing in Dallas.

Brandon Thibodeaux for NPR

A few months into her search, Giles had called hundreds of apartment complexes, many of them near her new job in the northern suburbs.

“I’ve been to Oak Cliff, I’ve been to south Dallas, I’ve been to Pleasant Grove,” she says. “I’ve been way down south. Nobody wants my voucher.”

Giles and Harris are not alone in their struggle. In Dallas, about 60 percent of people who get vouchers are unable to use them, according to MaryAnn Russ, the former CEO of the Dallas Housing Authority. While Dallas’ rate is worse than most, the challenge is similar in other cities where rents are high and the market is tight: Sometimes vouchers don’t cover the rent or landlords prefer tenants without them.

Nationwide, upscale suburbs – like McKinney and Frisco, just north of Dallas – have not always welcomed voucher holders.

C’Artis Harris and her children run around a nearby Dallas playground.

Brandon Thibodeaux for NPR

Developer Terri Anderson says she ran into problems in McKinney and Frisco when trying to build an apartment complex, with 13 units set aside specifically for voucher holders, on the line between McKinney and Frisco.

“The city actually called a public hearing for our property and about 250 angry residents showed up,” she says. “Our superintendent has been threatened, issued a criminal trespass warning. Police officers blocked our entrance.”

Anderson says she believes she knows why: “It’s a concerted effort to shut down development of a property they do not want in their neighborhood.”

Frisco city officials say they support affordable housing and her project. They also say Anderson has not followed the city’s building requirements. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is now investigating whether McKinney and Frisco violated the federal fair housing law.

Nicole Humphrey, who lives a couple miles away from Anderson’s development, says she’s opposed to the project.

Developer Terri Anderson says she ran into problems when trying to build an apartment complex with units set aside for Section 8 voucher holders on the line between Frisco and McKinney.

Screenshot courtesy of Frontline (PBS)

She and other neighbors have said they worry about traffic and school overcrowding. But Humphrey says she has other concerns.

“In this neighborhood, most of us are stay-at-home moms with young kids,” she says. “The lifestyle that goes with Section 8 is usually working, single moms or people who are struggling to keep their heads above water.”

“I feel so bad saying that,” she adds. “It’s just not people who are the same class as us.”

When asked if others who did not have the same opportunities as her could live in her neighborhood, she says: “The problem with that is I hear a lot of the unfair of: ‘Oh we haven’t been given this or that, or we haven’t been afforded things you have been afforded.’ I don’t look at multi-millionaires and think, ‘Why don’t I have a yacht?'”

Humphrey says the issue for her is not about race. She says her neighborhood – with rows of tidy new houses and with well-cut lawns — is diverse. The real concern, she says, is that the voucher holders won’t fit in or they won’t understand her life.

Nicole Humphrey is opposed to a new affordable housing development near the McKinney and Frisco suburbs of Dallas. She and other neighbors have said they worry about traffic and school overcrowding.

Screenshot courtesy of Frontline (PBS)

“People see that I’m upper middle class, that I’m a woman who stays at home, who is kept by her husband, and instantly there’s no clout. My opinion doesn’t matter,” she says. “They look at me and think, ‘She has never experienced a problem we’re having.'”

Humphrey acknowledges that as much as she fears voucher holders will stereotype her, she says she knows she is also stereotyping them.

“I don’t know that we will ever come to a solution as a culture in America in general,” she says. “There’s always going to be someone with less, because the fair world doesn’t exist and where does that line lie?”

Giles knows exactly where the line lies. It’s between north and south Dallas.

Sitting on a bench on a 15-minute break from her customer service job, Giles says she thinks she knows how some people up north see her.

Farryn Giles was unable to find approved housing using the Section 8 voucher she received. “There just aren’t enough vacancies or communities don’t want these types of properties in their areas,” she says.

Brandon Thibodeaux for NPR

“I think that they think we are lazy, and worthless and getting over,” she says. “Even though we’re financially less capable, we still love our children the same. We still work just as hard, if not harder.”

Giles says after three months of trying, she was unable to get anyone to take her voucher. She turned it back in and recently moved with her son out of the apartment where she was staying with her ex-husband and into a public housing complex in Dallas. She has since left her job in the northern suburb.

“Section 8 is not any type of simplification for our lives,” she says, crying. “It’s not easier. Society hasn’t really grown the way people think that it has. And that’s how I feel about that. It can’t all have a happy ending I suppose.”

C’Artis Harris’ children run off to the playground. Without finding housing to use her Section 8 housing, Harris and her children continue to live with a friend.

Brandon Thibodeaux for NPR

Harris, who is still looking for a place to use her voucher, has been staying with a friend.

“Maybe it’s meant for me to live in the ‘hood,” Harris says. “But I don’t want to.”

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