Crime & Public Safety

Monday, June 1, 2020

The Secret, Absurd World of Coronavirus Mask Traders and Middlemen Trying To Get Rich Off Government Money

Posted By on Mon, Jun 1, 2020 at 1:00 PM

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ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Click here to read their biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

It was 10 p.m. on a Tuesday, and I was watching footage of secret stockpiles of N95 masks, so-called proof-of-life videos sent to me by strangers, when Tim, the juicer salesman, called.

“My name is Tim, and I heard you’re looking into VPL,” the man said in a squeaky, nervous timbre. “I distanced myself from the company because they weren’t delivering what they said.”

A few hours earlier, I had called the owner of VPL Medical LLC, a company outside Los Angeles that had gotten a $6.4 million contract from the Department of Veterans Affairs to supply 8 million three-ply surgical masks to hospitals dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. My call freaked them out, Tim said, and someone at the company had passed my number along to him.

What was his interest in the story, I asked.

“I went and got myself $8,000 in cash. I was on my way with the money in a briefcase…,” he began.

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Thursday, May 28, 2020

House Democrats Demand Trump Administration Stop Rushing Through Deportations of Migrant Children

Posted By on Thu, May 28, 2020 at 1:30 PM

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Click here to read their biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

This article is co-published with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans. Click here to get up to speed on their essential coverage of Texas issues.

Democratic congressional leaders expressed alarm Wednesday at a sudden acceleration in the deportation of migrant children and in a strongly worded letter requested that the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement “cease this practice immediately.”

The letter signed by five key House leaders overseeing immigration cited a May 18 ProPublica/Texas Tribune story that found the U.S. government has aggressively begun to rush the deportations of unaccompanied children in its care to countries where they have been raped, beaten or had a parent killed, according to attorneys, court filings and congressional staff.

That comes on top of more than 900 unaccompanied children the government has turned back at the border under an emergency declaration in March by President Donald Trump’s administration to stop the spread of COVID-19. Usually children traveling alone qualify for expansive protections under the law.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Masks Sold by Former White House Official to Navajo Hospitals Don’t Meet FDA Standards

Posted By on Wed, May 27, 2020 at 4:00 PM

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ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Click here to read their biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

The Indian Health Service acknowledged on Wednesday that 1 million respirator masks it purchased from a former Trump White House official do not meet Food and Drug Administration standards for “use in healthcare settings by health care providers.”

The IHS statement calls into question why the agency purchased expensive medical gear that it now cannot use as intended. The masks were purchased as part of a frantic agency push to supply Navajo hospitals with desperately needed protective equipment in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

ProPublica revealed last week that Zach Fuentes, President Donald Trump’s former deputy chief of staff, formed a company in early April and 11 days later won a $3 million contract with IHS to provide specialized respirator masks to the agency for use in Navajo hospitals. The contract was granted with limited competitive bidding.

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Monday, May 18, 2020

As if firefighting wasn’t dangerous enough, crews grapple with COVID-19

Posted By on Mon, May 18, 2020 at 1:00 PM

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TEMPE – As if fighting fires wasn’t dangerous enough, firefighters now have to worry about COVID-19 while they’re on the job, making for what fire officials say will be the “most challenging season we’re going to have.”

Strategies to check the spread of the disease include everything from avoiding eating together in large mess halls to splitting the regular 10-person fire crew into two teams of five. But officials said they still expect challenges in a job that relies on constant face-to-face communication.

All of which comes in a year in which conditions are ripe for intense wildfires in the state.

“This is going to be one of the most challenging seasons we’re going to have, with the added complexity of trying to deal with the COVID-19 protocols from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention),” State Fire Management Officer John Truett said during a recent briefing.

Jayson Coil, Wildland Committee Chair for the Arizona Fire Chiefs, said new precautions include avoiding eating at mess halls and installing refrigerators so firefighters can grab a meal while maintaining distance.

He said personnel will be encouraged to stay away from firefighters before a blaze, to ensure the strength of the workforce, and to maintain distances as best they can when in the field. In some cases, he said, it is possible to alter actions during firefighting to maintain social distancing, but that it all depends on time and resources available.

“It’s argued … that we can minimize the time of exposure and the proximity to other people that may potentially be COVID-19 positive, then we reduce likelihood of spreading,” Coil said.

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Tool shows what many know: State communities at high risk for wildfire

Posted By on Mon, May 18, 2020 at 11:30 AM

The Burro Fire burning east of Tucson in Redington Pass. - COURTESY BURRO FIRE INFO FACEBOOK PAGE
  • Courtesy Burro FIre Info Facebook Page
  • The Burro Fire burning east of Tucson in Redington Pass.

PHOENIX – If there’s any doubt that wildfire poses a high risk to property in Arizona, the U.S. Forest Service would like to paint a different picture – in blazing reds and flaming yellows.

Those colors blanket the state in a tool the service released last month that attempts to show wildfire risk to communities across the nation, using wildfire data from recent years to project the risk to homes, exposure types, vulnerable population statistics and wildfire likelihood.

The Forest Service said the interactive website “provides a starting point for community leaders and fire experts when assessing and taking steps to reduce risk to homes, businesses and community resources.”

In Arizona, the map shows not just a high likelihood of wildfire across the state, but a high risk of wildfire damage to many Arizona homes and communities.

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Substitute Pharmacists Warn Their Co-Workers: We’ll Probably Bring the Virus to You

Posted By on Mon, May 18, 2020 at 11:00 AM

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ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Click here to read their biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

He joined Walgreens around a decade ago, fresh out of pharmacy school and eager to learn. Like many new grads, he started as a floater — a substitute for employees who call out sick or take vacation — and he was floated as far as he was willing to go. Sometimes he would drive hours east of the Dallas area, where he lived, to pick up shifts in rural Texas, sleeping in hotels for days at a time.

The pharmacist, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, eventually worked his way up to become a full-time manager at a store in Dallas. But recently he’s returned to floating, this time at CVS, preferring its flexible hours. In the past three months, he’s traveled between 10 stores.

As the pandemic rages on, though, he wonders if he’s made a terrible mistake. When he shows up at a store, he said, he’s not told whether any employees have shown symptoms or tested positive, so he doesn’t know if he’s at risk. On two occasions, the Dallas floater said, he only heard from colleagues after he started his shift that they had just been working alongside someone who was self-isolating with COVID-19 symptoms. Because his temporary co-workers had not shown symptoms, they were not advised to quarantine.

"There’s no heads-up," he said. "It’s terrifying to learn about it after you show up, if at all." Even more terrifying, he added, is the possibility that he and other floaters are catching the virus and unwittingly spreading it to other stores.

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Monday, May 11, 2020

Homeland Secrets: Operation Agent Touch

Posted By on Mon, May 11, 2020 at 4:00 PM

London Bridge, Lake Havasu City, AZ - BIGSTOCK
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  • London Bridge, Lake Havasu City, AZ
Homeland Security Investigations, a division of ICE, describes human trafficking as a “top investigative priority.” But its handling of recent sex-trafficking investigations in Arizona and beyond has raised questions about the agency’s undercover techniques.

‘Investigative techniques’

By Mackenzie Shuman, Molly Duerig, Grace Oldham, Rachel Gold and Meagan Sainz-Pasley
Howard Center for Investigative Journalism

The women were forced to live and work in filth and near darkness, the federal agent said, surviving on only the tips they received from performing massages and sexual favors.

Lon Weigand, the deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Arizona, described them as “Asian females” who may be sex-trafficking victims. He praised the joint operation between federal agents and local police in western Arizona that led to their rescue and credited the “investigative techniques” that helped crack a “transnational criminal organization.”

Weigand assured those at a press conference called to announce the investigation’s successful conclusion that HSI had followed a “victim-based approach.” While he wouldn’t reveal anything more about the women, he added, “Know that they are now safe and being cared for.”

What Weigand didn’t say at that September 2018 press conference – although HSI documents show that some supervisors knew – was that federal undercover agents repeatedly paid for and engaged in sexual acts with the suspected victims as part of their investigation.

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What Happened When Health Officials Wanted to Close a Meatpacking Plant, but the Governor Said No

Posted By on Mon, May 11, 2020 at 12:30 PM

Slabs of beef age for two weeks before being cut up and sold. - HEATHER HOCH
  • Heather Hoch
  • Slabs of beef age for two weeks before being cut up and sold.
ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Click here to read their biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

On Tuesday, March 31, an emergency room doctor at the main hospital in Grand Island, Nebraska, sent an urgent email to the regional health department: “Numerous patients” from the JBS beef packing plant had tested positive for COVID-19. The plant, he feared, was becoming a coronavirus “hot spot.”

The town’s medical clinics were also reporting a rapid increase in cases among JBS workers. The next day, Dr. Rebecca Steinke, a family medicine doctor at one of the clinics, wrote to the department’s director: “Our message is really that JBS should shut down for 2 weeks and have a solid screening plan before re-opening.”

Teresa Anderson, the regional health director, immediately drafted a letter to the governor.

But during a conference call that Sunday, Gov. Pete Ricketts made it clear that the plant, which produces nearly 1 billion pounds of beef a year and is the town’s largest employer, would not be shut down.

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