Immigration Courts Are Telling Employees to Come to Work — Ignoring Health Risks and Local Shelter-in-Place Orders

20 Mar

by Dara Lind

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On Tuesday night — over a day after several Bay Area counties issued shelter-in-place orders barring most people from leaving their homes — the San Francisco immigration court sent an email to staff: Hearings were being postponed nationwide for most immigrants, so the court would be closed starting Wednesday. (The text of the email was provided to ProPublica.)

On Wednesday, however, employees were directed to get onto a conference call, according to two participants. There they were told the Tuesday night email was wrong. The court wasn’t closed. They would have to come into the office — or use their vacation time to stay home. When staff asked about the shelter-in-place orders, the response was that the Department of Justice, which runs immigration courts, took the position that those were local laws and didn’t apply to federal employees.

The Trump administration has reduced immigration court operations in the past week, by postponing hearings for non-detained immigrants and closing a handful of courts to the public. Those actions came after the unions representing immigration prosecutors and judges issued a rare public call for courts to close.

The reduced court operations came after weeks of employees raising concerns privately and, they say, receiving few and unhelpful answers. And because the closures are determined solely by whether a court is hearing cases of detained immigrants, rather than by the level of health peril, employees still feel they’re putting their health at risk every time they come into the office as instructed.

That’s the picture that emerges from interviews with 10 federal employees who work at immigration courts across the country. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity. Many said they had raised concerns internally about their exposure to COVID-19 to their managers or hadn’t been informed of potential exposures.

“When I signed up for this job, I thought it might be morally compromising at times,” one immigration court employee told ProPublica, “but I never thought it would be compromising of my health and safety.”

The Executive Office for Immigration Review, the DOJ agency that oversees immigration courts, told ProPublica that agency headquarters was responsible for deciding when courts closed, but it did not confirm or deny specifics of the employees’ allegations, saying, “We do not comment on internal communications or internal personnel operations.”

In Denver, one prosecutor interviewed by ProPublica was alarmed by a judge’s frequent coughs during a hearing last Friday. “Don’t mind my coughing,” the judge said, according to the prosecutor. “I don’t think it’s coronavirus.” The following Tuesday, the prosecutor noticed that the judge was out for the rest of the week and emailed a court staffer in concern: Was it the coronavirus? Should she be taking precautions? The staffer’s reply: For privacy reasons, the prosecutor’s questions couldn’t be answered.

Only after news broke to the public on Tuesday night that a judge at the Denver immigration court had been diagnosed with COVID-19 (the disease caused by the new coronavirus) did court officials follow up with the prosecutor and confirm her suspicions. Other attorneys the judge had been in close contact with were notified the next day. The court remained open through Thursday, when the entire building it was housed in was shut down for deep cleaning by the General Services Administration. (It’s currently set to reopen Monday.)

In New York, legal aid groups sent a letter to immigration court officials saying that two of their attorneys had symptoms of COVID-19 and a third had been exposed to someone who’d tested positive. All three attorneys had appeared in court the past week, and all had hearings scheduled the following day. The courts didn’t say anything to their employees about the letter, according to multiple sources.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has pressured the immigration courts to process as many immigrants as quickly as possible — pressuring judges to hear more cases and complete them within a year, and making it harder for immigrants or attorneys to postpone hearings. Now, they face a public health crisis that requires everyone to reduce person-to-person contact.

Immigration court workers have two concerns. The first is that the courts are often crowded and require close contact with members of the public. The second is that, like most employees of any type, especially those who take public transit, they are exposed every time they leave their homes to work.

Employees remain concerned about their exposure over the past few weeks, while courts were running as usual. Employees in New York and California — the states hardest hit by the pandemic to date — told ProPublica that their requests for “deep cleaning” were rejected by managers, and that they were bringing their own Clorox wipes and disinfectant spray to the office.

Most immigration court business happens in person. Even trying to postpone an immigration hearing (for example, due to illness) requires an attorney to file a paper form with a clerk. And if an immigrant doesn’t show up for a hearing, they’re at risk of getting ordered deported in absentia. In at least one New York court, according to two people who work there, the chief judge told employees Monday to issue absentia deportation orders if immigrants weren’t showing up, even if the coronavirus was the suspected cause.

Policies the Trump administration introduced before the COVID-19 pandemic put considerable pressure on judges and prosecutors not to allow immigrants to postpone their hearings. Judges face a “performance standard” of completing 80% of their cases within a year — a standard over 90% of judges don’t meet, according to the National Association of Immigration Judges. But the more than 150 judges who have been hired in the past two years are still in their probationary period, where they could be fired for failing to meet performance standards.

While many judges have been lenient in granting coronavirus-related postponements, others have not. Last week, according to one California immigration court employee, a judge took a break from a hearing to tell colleagues that the immigrant’s attorney claimed to be sick, but because he wasn’t coughing, the hearing would move forward.

One email sent by the chief prosecutor at the Miami court Tuesday, read to ProPublica, told prosecutors that if an immigrant or her attorney claimed to be sick, any postponement should be counted against the immigrant (preventing them from requesting another postponement). If the immigrant didn’t want to postpone, and the judge wasn’t willing to hold the hearing by phone, the prosecutor was instructed to contact her manager — who would assess the claim of illness himself before deciding what to do. (A call to the chief prosecutor in Miami was not immediately returned.)

Most communication, though, has been oral. In at least two courts, chief judges were asked to put policies in writing and declined.

Employees have been in the dark about who, exactly, is making the decisions about which courts are open and when employees are allowed to work from home or take leave to stay home. “The word is that it’s out of their hands. Everything is out of everybody’s hands,” Fanny Behar-Ostrow, president of the union representing immigration prosecutors, told ProPublica Wednesday. “I don’t know who’s making the calls, but they’re wrong.”

An email obtained by the Miami Herald, written by the assistant chief immigration judge in charge of the Miami immigration court on Wednesday, said that closure decisions were ultimately being made by “the White House” — something that employees at other courts also said their managers had suggested. But chief judges gave conflicting explanations about which decisions were subject to White House approval; one chief judge told employees that the White House had to be involved in decisions about remote work, while other chief judges made those decisions themselves.

It’s not clear who at the White House is involved or how. Immigration officials told the Herald that the ultimate decision was made by the Office of Management and Budget. However, according to the employees ProPublica spoke to, some immigration court officials used “White House” to refer to policies set by the Office of Personnel Management. The assistant chief immigration judge (the judge in charge of a given immigration court location) for one California court told employees on March 12 that she’d had a phone call with staff for Vice President Mike Pence, who’s running the official coronavirus task force.

But to many employees, the specter of “White House” involvement raised concerns that the administration’s immigration policy priorities were getting in the way of its public health obligations.

The Department of Justice and White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Judge Amiena Khan, speaking as the executive vice president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told ProPublica on Wednesday that she was “pleased to see that the agency is taking the correct steps in the right direction.” But other employees, like the ones in San Francisco, retain acute concerns that simply showing up continues to put them at risk.

Employees have been told that courts are closing in full only if they exclusively hear “non-detained” cases — meaning all their hearings have been postponed for the next few weeks. At courts that hear cases of both detained and non-detained immigrants, all employees are expected to continue to work, even in the areas hardest hit by the pandemic.

Two employees noted to ProPublica that they had been deemed “nonessential” employees during the 2019 government shutdown, when their pay was at stake, but were now being treated as if they were essential and told to put their health at risk. “The government needs to decide,” one said. “Are we essential, or are we not?”

Some employees have been told they can take “annual leave” (vacation time) if they wish to stay home. But most junior attorneys at the DOJ, and many immigration prosecutors, don’t have much accumulated vacation time.

Many immigration judges have been staying home, either because of fear of contagion or child care needs. When a judge is absent, their docket is assigned to another judge. This week, that docket shuffling has gotten in the way of the DOJ’s efforts to wind down operations for “non-detained” cases. At one court that hears both types of cases, according to two employees who work there, none of the judges scheduled to hear detainees’ cases showed up on Wednesday — leading the rest of the judges, who were supposed to be shutting down their operations, to have to hear cases instead.

In theory, employees should be able to work remotely. But the crisis has exposed a nationwide laptop shortage at the Executive Office for Immigration Review. At some courts that have fully closed, employees have been told to wait at home and laptops will be mailed to them.

Where there aren’t enough laptops to go around, who gets to work from home is determined by seniority, not by health needs, according to several employees. Some courts have redistributed laptops from junior employees to senior ones.

At the Los Angeles court, some employees were given permission to work from home Monday and Tuesday. The court officially closed to the public Tuesday night. On Wednesday, according to one worker, employees were suddenly instructed to come into the office — where they were told to continue working, at their desks, until someone came by to take their laptops away so they could be given to immigration judges.


The White House Asked Manufacturers for Help, Then Gave Them No Clear Instructions

20 Mar

by Yeganeh Torbati

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As hospitals across the country face drastic shortages of masks, respirators and other vital equipment, the White House has sent out a plea for donations that’s left many recipients confused and full of questions.

In at least one instance this week, Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force, blindsided private industry by requesting that construction companies donate face masks to hospitals. The White House then failed to provide guidance when directly asked.

Pence asked builders on Tuesday to donate the N95 masks used at many construction sites to local hospitals and refrain from ordering more. Within minutes, Stephen Sandherr, chief executive officer of the trade group Associated General Contractors of America, contacted the White House for more details, said Brian Turmail, a group spokesman.

After receiving no reply from the White House, Sandherr sent an email to AGC’s local chapters on Tuesday telling them that Pence’s statement had taken the group by surprise.

“As we received no advance notice of this announcement and we have received no additional guidance from the Administration, it is our view that this should be considered as a voluntary gesture and not a mandate,” Sandherr wrote. Turmail said several AGC members have donated equipment to their local hospitals.

On Thursday, Sandherr finally heard back from the Department of Health and Human Services, speaking on behalf of the White House, and his group’s members were asked not to donate equipment to hospitals, as Pence had instructed. Instead, he was told the group should collect an inventory of available equipment from members, including masks, booties and protective suits, and share it with the administration.

“It isn’t clear to us, yet, how they intend to use this information, but obviously we are happy to collect the info and share it,” Turmail said.

Recently, the National Association of Manufacturers, a prominent business group, sent its members a White House request asking for “volunteers who can donate and provide and/or produce within two weeks large-scale quantities of critical supplies to help the nation respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The notice — which consisted of a short questionnaire prepared through Survey Monkey — did not explain how the White House would distribute donated equipment to states demanding urgent help, including distributions from the national stockpile of emergency supplies and medications.

The problem with that strategy, said Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is that it is far too small and piecemeal to meet a demand for protective equipment that is likely to persist for months.

“Good ideas can come from everywhere, but this seems like the wrong scale of effort by orders of magnitude,” Inglesby said. He noted that producing enough masks, gloves and other supplies will require complicated analyses of shortages and manufacturing capabilities as well as negotiating new contracts and large financial commitments to incentivize businesses to retool production lines.

“That to me suggests we should have a large professional logistics organization running things in a centralized manner that can help states around the country,” Inglesby said.

Jeremy Konyndyk, a former official at the U.S. Agency for International Development who worked on the Ebola virus response, said the government’s efforts to reach out to trade associations are “not a bad idea” and would reach many potential private sector partners. But he said given how the virus is spreading, voluntary donations “will be a month out of sync with transmission.”

The donation request was circulated widely and made its way to some small businesses struggling to stay afloat as the health crisis escalates.

“I was troubled,” said Tsan Abrahamson, a California attorney who is a member of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, which certifies women-owned businesses. WBENC sent out a plea to members on Wednesday saying the White House had asked for donations of supplies. The WBENC email directed members to fill out the NAM questionnaire.

Abrahamson said women-owned companies are “traditionally marginalized businesses who are being asked to donate not to those in specific need, like hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stock warehouses.” Instead, the survey asks respondents for their contact information so they can be reached directly by the White House for follow-up.

The request was part of a “whole of America” approach pushed by Pence to combat the coronavirus, emphasizing robust, voluntary partnerships with the private sector.

The White House and WBENC did not respond to questions, and a NAM spokesman declined to respond to questions.

Health care workers are growing desperate for gear to protect them from airborne particles and liquids that can spread the coronavirus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has downgraded its guidance for how health workers should protect themselves, saying they “might use homemade masks” like a bandanna or scarf if no masks are available.

Elizabeth Zimmerman, a former associate administrator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said FEMA has coordinated with the private sector to identify supply shortfalls in past emergencies, but she was not sure if that coordination included online surveys of the type sent out by NAM.

On Wednesday, Trump signed an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act, which gives the president broad authority to require companies to prioritize government contracts and incentivize companies to expand production of critical goods. The executive order granted Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar additional powers to allocate medical supplies.

But the president has contradicted himself several times on whether he has actually triggered the DPA. In a Thursday press conference, he said “we hope we’re not going to need that” and put the onus on individual states.

“The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping. You know, we’re not a shipping clerk,” Trump said.

Just hours later, governors on a teleconference with Trump, Pence, Azar and other senior officials complained that their efforts to get crucial supplies on the private market were floundering.

Pence said during that teleconference that although Trump had “activated” the DPA, “he has not initiated any other action underneath it” and suggested that voluntary decisions by American businesses would be sufficient to meet the critical needs.

“I think the president’s perception and the team’s perception is now” that “American industry is stepping forward very aggressively,” Pence said.

Then on Friday, in response to a question about whether Trump was using the DPA to “tell businesses they need to make ventilators, masks, respirators,” Trump nodded and said, “We are using it.”

“We are using the act, the act is very good for things like this,” Trump said. “We’re invoking it to use the powers of the federal government to help the states get things that they need, like the masks, like the ventilators.”

Minutes later, Trump appeared to backtrack, saying that “when we need something, we will use the act.”


Calling local businesses! Tell us about changes to your operations and how Cowichan can support you

20 Mar

This is a difficult time for a lot of people, including the local business community and the people who rely on it. At The Discourse Cowichan, we want to help.  That’s why we’ve decided to build a #SupportLocal directory for the Cowichan region. It will bring all of the information we can gather about small, […]

The post Calling local businesses! Tell us about changes to your operations and how Cowichan can support you appeared first on The Discourse..

The Veterans Health Administration Has Banned Even Administrative Employees From Working From Home

20 Mar

by Bryant Furlow, New Mexico In Depth

This article was produced in partnership with New Mexico In Depth, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

The head of the U.S. Veterans Health Administration, the nation’s largest integrated health care system, has banned most administrative staff from working at home, despite calls from public health officials and the White House for more Americans to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a March 13 memo obtained by New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica, Richard A. Stone, the VHA’s executive in charge, called for a halt to authorizations for administrative employees to telework until further notice, citing concern about overwhelming computer servers that are needed by health care providers for telemedicine.

“Telework is not to be authorized for administrative staff at this time,” the document states. “Telework may be authorized for patient care providers if that is the only way by which they can continue to provide patient care.”

Stone’s memo is the latest indication of how federal agencies are straining to function in the face of the crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus.

The March 13 memo came one day after the White House Office of Management and Budget called for agencies to maximize how many federal employees are allowed to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of federal employees have been awaiting authorizations for them to telework, ProPublica has reported.

VA employees expressed alarm that they might be unnecessarily exposed to the coronavirus at a time when the agency may be facing a flood of new patients. Many VA clients are elderly, a group at especially high risk from COVID-19.

Employees at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said there was growing frustration among workers that requests to work from home were being ignored. A physician at the hospital tested positive for COVID-19 on March 12, and 25 patients have been tested. It is unclear whether any of those tests returned positive.

“I think the facility is at significant risk,” one employee said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The VHA oversees 1,255 health care facilities serving 9 million veterans each year. Two veterans at VA facilities have died from the coronavirus and 130 have tested positive, according to media reports and VA press briefings.

VHA spokesperson Bobbi D. Gruner wrote in an email Thursday that the agency was following OMB guidance to minimize risk to employees while maintaining the ability to care for veterans. “We are ensuring our daily operations incorporate as much telework as possible in those functions that are telework eligible,” Gruner wrote.

The VA has already taken emergency actions to continue serving veterans. Last month, the agency opened 19 new operations centers across the country and has begun restricting entry to its facilities for those suspected of exposure to the novel coronavirus. Officials have also cut back on dental and elective surgeries. Nationwide, 44 VHA patients have been diagnosed with COVID-19, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said at a White House briefing Wednesday.

While acknowledging the need to ensure adequate network capacity, the Albuquerque VA employee expressed frustration that the agency hadn’t acted sooner to expand capacity. The employee voiced concern that leadership would “sit and wait” until the COVID-19 outbreak becomes more severe before allowing support staff to work from home. Requests for authorization to work from home are being ignored, the employee said.

“Right now, there is a stack a foot high in HR that they are just sitting on,” the employee said.

Employees allowed to work remotely could be called back to the hospital if front-line workers fall ill during the pandemic, the employee said.

Many jobs can be done remotely and every person working at the hospital is “another possible infection and carrier,” said another Albuquerque VA worker, also speaking on the condition of anonymity.

In a second memo issued Monday, Stone encouraged employees with existing telework authorizations to reduce demands on network bandwidth by checking email using mobile devices and to avoid Skype meetings and perfunctory emails.

Employees with iPads and iPhones are also able to work remotely.

“New telework approvals should only be made for clinical staff who will be using the remote connection to provide healthcare,” Stone wrote.

Stone’s second memo also called on supervisors to review workers’ previously granted work-from-home authorizations. He recommended approval of requests for leave or telework “for a limited period” to allow employees to arrange child care but noted that “absent undue hardship, long term school closures may not be a reason to approve new telework agreements.”


Bryant Furlow is a reporter for New Mexico In Depth.

We Tracked the Last Time the Government Bailed Out the Economy. Here’s What to Know About the $1 Trillion Coronavirus Plan.

20 Mar

by Michael Grabell and Paul Kiel

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

Never in U.S. history has there been a moment like this: Trillion-dollar proposals are pouring forth from Capitol Hill in a mad bid to save the economy from the ravages of a pandemic.

On the other hand, 2008, when toxic mortgage assets made “bailout” a political buzzword, wasn’t so long ago.

Back then, Congress, to revive a financial system paralyzed by devastating mortgage losses, opened the nation’s wallet wide, passing a $700 billion bailout. The following year, as unemployment rose, credit froze and public coffers dried up, it kicked in $840 billion more in a stimulus bill designed to save and create jobs and jump-start consumer spending. Of course, these helicopter drops of taxpayer cash seemed ripe for waste and fraud, so we decided to track where the money went.

What we learned from dogging those massive efforts provides some important lessons for today’s crisis. Many of the proposals lawmakers put forth this week — a grab bag of rescues for affected industries, broad loan programs and cash payments — the U.S. tried not too long ago.

Here’s a key takeaway: The reason we can easily update you on the pitfalls of the 2008-09 bailout is … it never actually ended. (And guess who keeps updating ProPublica’s Bailout Tracker?) Massive interventions have a way of leaving a mark. The government took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant mortgage finance entities, in 2008, and they remain in conservatorship. Tens of millions each month are still going out under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the bailout’s misleading moniker, through next year. (We’ll get back to what TARP ended up doing in a bit.)

So, while a crisis provoked by a rampaging global virus certainly looks a lot different from one caused by toxic mortgage assets, the proposed solutions already on the table really aren’t.

President Donald Trump’s marquee proposal, also embraced by some Democrats, is a $500 billion plan to send stimulus money to American taxpayers as soon as early April. But history shows that the much-anticipated cash relief might not come as fast, or end up as well targeted, as the Trump administration is promising.

The Bush administration tried a similar stimulus measure in February 2008 when it sent $600 tax rebate checks to middle-class workers, with additional money for parents with children. But workers didn’t get them for three to five months — much longer than the two to three weeks Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is currently promising.

When the checks did arrive, people didn’t run out and buy things. Most of the money was saved or used to pay down debt.

When President Barack Obama took over, he pitched a much larger, but ultimately insufficient stimulus package, designed around “shovel-ready” projects, safety net spending and investments in clean energy. Many people forget that the biggest item was a middle-class tax cut. But instead of sending checks, the administration chose to dribble the money out in paychecks at about $10 a week over two years, hoping that this way consumers would spend more of it. They didn’t.

There’s even more reason to believe that the proposed stimulus checks will be saved this time.

By definition, stimulus programs aim to get people to go out and spend, creating demand that creates jobs. But to slow the spread of the coronavirus, government officials are telling, and in some places ordering, people to stay home. Extra money would certainly help workers who’ve lost their jobs or seen their hours cut. It might even encourage people stuck at home to buy new laptops and TVs, helping foreign manufacturers and domestic warehouse workers and truckers. But as popular as tossing cash from helicopters might be, lack of money is not the reason people with jobs aren’t spending right now.

Economic studies have shown there may be more efficient ways to spend $500 billion to aid those in need, such as expanding food assistance, unemployment benefits and other safety net programs as well as incentives to stem the tide of layoffs.

One of the most effective programs from Obama’s stimulus package was a $50 billion fund to shore up state and local budgets, which has been credited with saving the jobs of more than 300,000 teachers and support staff. Sending money to local governments could help down the line as tax revenues plummet along with the economy.

The Trump administration and Congress could do something similar with private businesses now, encouraging them to pay their workers during shutdowns, as Honda has pledged to do.

One proposal floated in a recent Treasury Department memo obtained by The Washington Post is a program that would guarantee $300 billion in loans to help small businesses meet payroll for eight weeks.

But policymakers should also consider the success that Germany had during the last recession with a program known as “work sharing.”

The idea is that businesses will eventually need to ramp up again whenever this especially unpredictable crisis is over. Under work sharing, instead of laying workers off, employers reduce hours, and the government pays partial unemployment benefits to make up for lost wages. For some workplaces, such a program could also achieve the goal of social distancing or allow people a way to balance the new child care and teaching demands caused by school closures.

But according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 20 states don’t offer work sharing programs.

There’s also a lesson from the bailout about what happens when Congress hands an administration broad authority without clear direction or restrictions.

One clear lasting legacy of the 2008-09 bailout is a chronically flawed mortgage modification program, one launched with the promise of saving millions of people from foreclosure, but characterized by ongoing chaos, lax enforcement of its rules and failure. The program was rolled out months after the Treasury Department had quickly pumped hundreds of billions into banks with few strings attached.

This happened because, with pressure to act quickly in 2008, Congress gave the Treasury Department broad discretion to essentially make things up as it went. That’s how — and why — even though the TARP was conceived as a giant program to buy up toxic mortgage assets, the government almost immediately abandoned that idea. Instead, the Treasury Departments of both Bush and Obama spun out an array of programs, successfully bailing out AIG, large banks and the auto industry — and only later launched a notably unsuccessful program for homeowners. (For a rundown of who paid the money back, see here.)

It’s the kind of freedom Trump’s Treasury Department appears to covet: Its recent proposal suggests giving it the authority to send $50 billion to the airlines and $150 billion to “other severely distressed sectors,” with the Treasury determining the “appropriate interest rate and other terms and conditions.”

The TARP had relatively robust oversight built in, and it’s an aspect that should be repeated, said Neil Barofsky, who served as the special inspector general for the TARP from 2008 to 2011.

“You cannot push out $1 trillion without scandal. There’s going to be crime, there’s going to be fraud,” he said. “But with strong and effective oversight, you can limit it.”

Not only did the TARP have Barofsky’s office, but there was also the Congressional Oversight Panel, which was headed by a Harvard professor named Elizabeth Warren. The SIGTARP, as Barofsky’s office was known, released scathing reports and brought criminal cases against bankers who’d lied on their bailout applications, while Warren’s panel publicly raked Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner over the coals for being too generous to banks while doing far too little for ordinary people.

Whatever proposals are ultimately adopted, taxpayers should be able to see how the government is spending their money. In 2009, Obama’s stimulus package created an accountability and transparency board, requiring any entity that received contracts, grants or loans to file quarterly reports that were posted publicly on a government website.

Extending the idea to all federal spending was supported by people as far apart politically as then-Vice President Joe Biden and former Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chaired the House oversight committee. Some provisions made it into law, but the larger effort failed to get traction, and the board and its website shut down in 2015. Perhaps it’s time to resurrect the idea. Without adequate testing, we may not know the full reach of COVID-19; but at least should be able to track the money spent to respond to the crisis it’s leaving behind.

Do you have access to information about the government’s response to the economic fallout from the coronavirus that should be public? Email Michael Grabell at michael.grabell@propublica.org and Paul Kiel at paul.kiel@propublica.org. Here’s how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.


The Senator Who Dumped His Stocks Before the Coronavirus Crash Has Asked Ethics Officials for a “Complete Review”

20 Mar

by Robert Faturechi and Derek Willis

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

Sen. Richard Burr, the powerful chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, requested a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into his stock trading, a day after ProPublica and the Center for Responsive Politics reported that he had dumped significant amounts of shares before the market crash triggered by the coronavirus outbreak.

Burr unloaded between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings on Feb. 13 in 33 separate transactions, a significant portion of his total stock holdings. The sales came soon after he offered public assurances that the government was ready to battle the coronavirus.

On Twitter Friday morning, Burr defended the sell-off. “I relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision regarding the sale of stocks on February 13,” he said. “Specifically, I closely followed CNBC’s daily health and science reporting out of its Asia bureaus at the time.” He asked for the ethics committee to “open a complete review of the matter with full transparency.”

The ethics committee can recommend disciplinary action against lawmakers and refer potentially criminal violations to law enforcement. But it has been criticized for being too lax. It is illegal for members of Congress to trade shares on non-public information they gather in the course of their work. But cases are rare because proving that a politician relied on such non-public information is difficult.

As the head of the intelligence committee, Burr, a North Carolina Republican, has access to the government’s most highly classified information about threats to America’s security. His committee was receiving daily coronavirus briefings around this time, according to a Reuters story.

A week after Burr’s sales, the stock market began a sharp decline and has lost about 30% since.

After the story published, Burr faced a firestorm of criticism from both sides of the aisle. Former Obama administration officials along with prominent Trump allies blasted Burr’s stock sales. Calls for his resignation came from both ends of the political spectrum, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and the Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Thom Tillis, North Carolina’s junior senator, said on Friday that a review by the ethics committee was warranted. “Given the circumstances, Senator Burr owes North Carolinians an explanation,” Tillis, a Republican, wrote.

Throughout the day Thursday, news outlets reported instances of other lawmakers who also sold off stock before the market tanked.

The Daily Beast reported that Kelly Loeffler, a Georgia Republican who took office this year, sold off stocks jointly owned with her husband worth between $1.2 million and $3.1 million in the weeks after senators received a private briefing on the coronavirus from the Trump administration. Loeffler’s husband is the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. In response, Loeffler posted on Twitter early on Friday morning that “this is a ridiculous and baseless attack. I do not make investment decisions for my portfolio. Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisors without my or my husband’s knowledge or involvement.”

Other senators who sold off stocks this year include Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee. Reports with the Senate show that Inhofe sold shares worth between $380,000 and $830,000 both before and after the briefing, which Inhofe did not attend. “I do not have any involvement in my investment decisions,” Inhofe posted on Twitter on Friday. “In December 2018, shortly after becoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I instructed my financial advisor to move me out of all stocks and into mutual funds to avoid any appearance of controversy.”

Reports of sales by other senators surfaced as well. But those sales were less anomalous or noteworthy. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, reported selling shares in a private firm he ran, Pacur LLC, worth between $5 million and $25 million. That transaction took place on March 2. The deal had apparently been in the works for some time and had been announced on Feb. 11.

In another case generating headlines, filings also show large sales reported by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who serves on the Intelligence Committee alongside Burr. But they only involved one stock. Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum, sold off shares in Allogene Therapeutics Inc. worth between $1.5 million and $6 million on Jan. 31 and Feb. 18. Blum is a frequent stock trader, according to Feinstein’s financial disclosures, and appears to have taken a loss on at least a portion of the shares he sold.

Asked about senators making stock trades at a press conference Friday, President Trump said “I’m not aware of it, I saw some names.”

He added, “I find them to all be very honorable people, that’s all I know and they said they did nothing wrong.” The only senator he addressed by name was Dianne Feinstein, and complained that reporters at the press conference were not noting her stock trades.

By the standards of the Senate, Burr is not particularly wealthy: Roll Call estimated his net worth at $1.7 million in 2018, indicating that the February sales significantly shaped his financial fortunes and spared him from some of the pain that many Americans are now facing.

He was one of the authors of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, which shapes the nation’s response to public health threats like the coronavirus. Burr’s office did not respond to requests for comment about what sort of briefing materials, if any, on the coronavirus threat Burr may have seen as chair of the intelligence committee before his selling spree.

According to NPR, Burr had given a VIP group at an exclusive social club a much more gloomy preview of the economic impact of the coronavirus than what he had told the public, saying it might close schools and impede business travel. In response, Burr said the NPR report was misleading.

Burr’s public comments had been considerably more positive. In a Feb. 7 op-ed that he co-authored with another senator, he assured the public that “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus.” He wrote, “No matter the outbreak or threat, Congress and the federal government have been vigilant in identifying gaps in its readiness efforts and improving its response capabilities.”

Members of Congress are required by law to disclose their securities transactions.

Burr was one of just three senators who in 2012 opposed the bill that explicitly barred lawmakers and their staff from using nonpublic information for trades and required regular disclosure of those trades. In opposing the bill, Burr argued at the time that insider trading laws already applied to members of Congress. President Barack Obama signed the bill, known as the STOCK Act, that year.

Stock transactions of lawmakers are reported in ranges. Burr’s Feb. 13 selling spree was his largest stock selling day of at least the past 14 months, according to a ProPublica review of Senate records. Unlike his typical disclosure reports, which are a mix of sales and purchases, all of the transactions were sales.

His biggest sales included companies that are among the most vulnerable to an economic slowdown. He dumped up to $150,000 worth of shares of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, a chain based in the United States that has lost two-thirds of its value. And he sold up to $100,000 of shares of Extended Stay America, an economy hospitality chain. Shares of that company are now worth less than half of what they did at the time Burr sold.

The assets come from accounts that are held by Burr, belong to his spouse or are jointly held.