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Dig Investigative nuggets from the staff of Reveal

FBI is dismantling its war crimes unit

The FBI is dismantling a special unit that investigates international war crimes and hunts down war criminals – including suspected torturers and perpetrators of genocide, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has learned.

The unit, which was created a decade ago and has its roots in federal efforts to hunt Nazis living in the United States after World War II, has had a hand in many high-profile prosecutions.

Most recently, its investigators helped take down the Liberian warlord Thomas Woewiju, whom agents found living a quiet life in Philadelphia. At trial, witnesses said Woewiju’s men herded civilians through checkpoints decorated with severed heads and strings of human intestines. He was convicted of perjury in July.

Now, human rights advocates worry that criminals like Woewiju could evade justice.

“These are difficult cases to prove because they need rock-solid investigations,” said Beth Van Schaack, a law professor at Stanford University who was deputy ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues in the Obama administration. Scrapping the FBI unit “is inevitably going to jeopardize prosecutions,” she said.

In a statement, the FBI confirmed the shuttering of the war crimes unit but argued its dissolution “in no way reflects a reduced commitment by the FBI” to enforce human rights law. The agents previously dedicated to human rights work will continue that work as members of the FBI’s civil rights program, the agency said.

But the move could run afoul of Congress, which mandated... Read More >

Scientist who resisted censorship of climate report lost her job

For several years, climate change scientist Maria Caffrey led a trailblazing study outlining the risks of rising seas at national parks. After Friday, she’ll be out of a job.

Caffrey, who worked under a contract with the National Park Service, resisted efforts by federal officials to remove all references to human causes of climate change in her scientific report. After Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting reported the attempts at censorship, Democratic members of Congress called for an investigation, and last May, the park service released the report with all the references reinstated.

Caffrey’s contract expires on Friday. Park service officials told her last year that they would hire her for a new project. But they notified her today that no funding is available for the work.

Caffrey said she asked her supervisor at the park service, “Is this because of the climate change stuff?” She said he told her, “I don’t want to answer that.” Park service officials did not respond to questions from Reveal about why Caffrey wasn’t rehired. But spokesman Jeremy Barnum said it was not because she spoke out against the editing of the climate report.

Caffrey’s career boom and bust exemplifies the difficult situation many scientists face as President Donald Trump’s administration tries to suppress research on topics that he doesn’t consider a priority. Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law has reported 194 examples of the federal government censoring,... Read More >

When did Zuckerberg learn about Facebook’s targeting of children? Senators want to know

Two U.S. senators and a coalition of child health and privacy groups sent letters to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg today after documents obtained by Reveal showed Facebook knowingly duped children into spending money, and then declined refunds from upset parents and children.

“These findings point to a problematic culture of putting profits ahead of your users’ financial wellbeing and raise serious concerns regarding the company’s willingness to engage responsibly in its interactions with children,” U.S. Sens. Edward Markey and Richard Blumenthal wrote in their joint letter to Zuckerberg.

The Reveal story was based on more than 135 pages of internal Facebook memos, secret strategies and employee emails that paint a troubling picture of how the social media giant targeted children as it looked to grow revenue from games such as Angry Birds, PetVille and Ninja Saga.

The internal Facebook records were made public last week after Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting requested a U.S. District Court judge unseal court documents related to a class-action lawsuit that settled in 2016.

“These findings are alarming and raise serious concerns about whether your company and its employees knowingly harmed families,” the senators wrote to Zuckerberg.

 

More from FACEBOOK’S CHILD GAMING PROBLEM

The senators asked the Facebook CEO to answer detailed questions in writing by Feb. 19, including at what point Zuckerberg become aware that “children were likely unknowingly spending their parents’ money while playing games.”

In a separate letter, a group of... Read More >

Public housing tenants get $650,000 settlement for squalid living conditions

The Bay Area city of Richmond has agreed to pay $658,000 to nine elderly and disabled public housing tenants who for years lived in a notorious housing project overrun with roaches, mice, squatters and mold.

The proposed legal settlement was a welcome, though painful, vindication for the former residents of the Hacienda housing complex – among them a formerly homeless grandmother, a wheelchair-bound senior who had cycled in and out of hospitals, and a gentleman with a prosthetic leg.

For years, they had filed complaints, stormed City Council meetings and unsuccessfully pleaded with the Richmond Housing Authority to address the substandard living conditions in their units.

Geneva Eaton, 78, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, said the settlement was a long time coming. For years, she lived in an apartment swarming with mice and cockroaches; she was so traumatized by the vermin infestation that she slept with the lights on. She now lives in an apartment in Arizona, but said she still has nightmares about her time in Richmond.

More from SUBSIDIZED SQUALOR

“Sometimes I think about all the stuff I lived through and I get a cold chill on me,” Eaton said. “We lived in these horrible conditions, and the city tried to put it off on the tenants. We asked everyone for help. All they really had to do was clean that place up and they wouldn’t even do that.”

Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting first exposed the squalid conditions at Hacienda, along with chronic mismanagement by... Read More >

Austin police order deeper investigation after audit finds misclassified cleared rape cases

This story is a collaboration with Newsy and ProPublica.

The Austin Police Department will ask a third party to examine how it handles rape investigations from start to finish, following a state audit that found some cases were misclassified in a way that made it appear the department had solved more cases than it had.

The announcement follows the APD’s release of the full findings of a review by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which audited the department following an investigation by Newsy, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica. The news report showed how Austin and dozens of other police departments across the country frequently use “exceptional” clearances to close rape cases, increasing clearance rates while leaving suspects on the streets.  

The initial findings from the DPS audit, which looked at three months of Austin rape reports from 2017, concluded that nearly one-third of the cases the APD had exceptionally cleared were misclassified.

The full report reveals Austin police often failed on multiple fronts. To clear a case exceptionally, the FBI requires police to have enough evidence to make an arrest, to know who and where the suspect is, and for there to be a reason outside their control that prevents an arrest. Cases that fail to meet all four requirements cannot be cleared exceptionally. The DPS report shows that out of 95 exceptionally cleared rapes auditors reviewed, Austin police had failed to meet... Read More >

Judge unseals trove of internal Facebook documents following our legal action

A trove of hidden documents detailing how Facebook made money off children will be made public, a federal judge ruled late Monday in response to requests from Reveal.

A glimpse into the soon-to-be-released records shows Facebook’s own employees worried they were bamboozling children who racked up hundreds, and sometimes even thousands, of dollars in game charges. And the company failed to provide an effective way for unsuspecting parents to dispute the massive charges, according to internal Facebook records.

The documents are part of a 2012 class-action lawsuit against the social media giant that claimed it inappropriately profited from business transactions with children.

The lead plaintiff in the case was a child who used his mother’s credit card to pay $20 while playing a game on Facebook. The child, referred to as “I.B.” in the case, did not know the social media giant had stored his mom’s payment information. As he continued to play the game, Ninja Saga, Facebook continued to charge his mom’s credit card, racking up several hundred dollars in just a few weeks.

The child “believed these purchases were being made with virtual currency, and that his mother’s credit card was not being charged for these purchases,” according to a previous ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Beth Freeman.

When the bill came, his mom requested Facebook refund the money, saying she never authorized any charges beyond the original $20. But the company never refunded any money, forcing the family to file a lawsuit in pursuit of a refund.

The court documents, which have... Read More >

2 former Jesuit officials resign from Gonzaga after revelations about abusive priests on campus

This story was produced in partnership with the Northwest News Network.

Two priests in high-level positions at Gonzaga University resigned today. Both previously held leadership roles in the Jesuits’ Oregon Province while it sent Jesuits accused of sexual abuse to live in a home on campus.

President Thayne McCulloh announced the resignations of Father Frank Case, university vice president and men’s basketball chaplain, and Father Pat Lee, vice president for mission and ministry, in a brief statement emailed to the Gonzaga community. Both men served on the university president’s cabinet.

Case was named in an investigation by the Northwest News Network and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting about sexually abusive Jesuits whose victims were predominantly Native girls, boys and women in Alaska and the Northwest. A Jesuit home on Gonzaga’s campus, Cardinal Bea House, became a retirement repository for at least 20 Jesuit priests accused of such sexual misconduct dating back as far as 1986.

In 1989, while serving as head of the Jesuit order’s Oregon Province, Case wrote a letter to the Catholic chaplains association backing Father James Poole’s application to become a chaplain at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington.

“(Poole) is a Jesuit priest in very good standing, and it is my strong expectation that he will serve in such a ministry in a manner that is both generous and effective,” Case wrote. Poole got the job, working at the hospital until 2003 when... Read More >

Zinke’s unscientific reign over 500 million acres of public land

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is departing Jan. 2 amid multiple ethics investigations, leaves a legacy of widespread attacks on science. Zinke was in charge of balancing protection of national parks, endangered species, waterways and other resources with public uses on 500 million acres of public land.

Here are six ways Zinke rejected or impeded science during his nearly two years as interior secretary:

Changes in staffing

Zinke set an anti-science tone early by reassigning the Interior Department’s top climate change official to a job managing fossil fuel royalties. Thirty-two other senior career employees also were reassigned last year. He suspended dozens of Bureau of Land Management resource advisory councils and reconvened them with new responsibilities to expedite oil and gas permitting and meet other Trump administration priorities. He filled a national parks advisory committee with big donors and businesspeople. He  appointed former lobbyists to key jobs, including Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, who is a former oil company lobbyist.

Threats to ancient treasures and birds

Under Zinke, the Bureau of Land Management put countless archaeological sites at risk by auctioning off oil and gas leases in southeast Utah. Zinke expedited lease sales to oil companies that encompassed tens of thousands of acres near two national monuments in Utah.

Also, by crafting a new legal opinion, the Interior Department’s solicitor’s office erased a policy that had been used by Republicans and Democrats since the Nixon administration to protect migratory birds. Zinke’s top lawyer declared that it’s no longer illegal for companies to accidentally kill birds with oil... Read More >

Gonzaga University president responds to investigation into abusive priests

This story was produced in partnership with the Northwest News Network.

SPOKANE, Wash. – Gonzaga University President Thayne McCulloh said Monday night in a written statement to faculty, staff and students that he knew Jesuit priests accused of sexual abuse were living in a Jesuit residence on campus, but he had not been aware that any of them might be a threat to students.

McCulloh was responding to a story by Northwest News Network and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting about sexually abusive Jesuits whose victims were predominantly Native girls, boys and women in Alaska and the Northwest. A Jesuit home on Gonzaga’s campus, Cardinal Bea House, became a retirement repository for at least 20 Jesuit priests accused of such sexual misconduct.

It’s unclear exactly when McCulloh learned about the accused priests living on campus. His statement provides what appears to be contradictory information.

“It is important for me to share with you, that in the years following the 2011 Oregon Province bankruptcy, I learned that there had been priests under supervised ‘safety plans’ living at the Jesuit retirement community (Bea House),” he wrote.

But in the next sentence, he says, “It was not until 2016, when the Province chose to begin relocating a number of retired men to the Sacred Heart Community in Los Gatos, that I learned that among them were Jesuits who had been on safety plans (and were moved).”

McCulloh would not make himself available to clarify his statement. He also had declined to be interviewed... Read More >

The Hate Report: Changes are coming to how we report on hate

In this week’s roundup: The Hate Report isn’t going to be weekly anymore, so we can focus even more on original reporting.

After nearly two years of delivering The Hate Report to your inbox every Friday, we’ve decided to change things up.

We’ll be moving away from the weekly format of some curation from other sources and some original reporting. Instead, we’re going to spend more time researching our own original stories and send out The Hate Report periodically when those stories are ready.

We launched The Hate Report as America was waking up to a new era of hate. There were increasing hate attacks, and we were just beginning to understand the alt-right. We wanted to get ourselves and our readers up to speed on an urgent story.

Now, two years later, hate certainly isn’t going away. Neither is our investigative reporting on it. But we’ve all begun to understand the contours of the story better. There are scores of reporters on the story. And we think our energy is best spent focusing on new, original investigations.

One of the things we’re most proud of is the formation of the Hate Sleuths, a crack team of newsletter subscribers who volunteer their time to help us research. We’ll still keep that team going and already have them tracking down potential stories.

We’re going to dig into data sets, rake through the internet’s darkest corners and file Freedom of Information Act requests to discover the hidden truths about the hate movement, before they explode out... Read More >

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