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Dig Investigative nuggets from the staff of Reveal

Federal judge sides with Reveal, ruling injury and illness data is public

A federal judge on Thursday ruled that injury and illness records of America’s employers are not confidential and must be disclosed in a key decision that strikes down corporate and government secrecy around worker safety.

Magistrate Judge Donna M. Ryu of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ordered the federal Labor Department to release the logs, known as Form 300As, where employers note the number of people who were injured and died on the job, in response to a lawsuit filed by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. 

Reveal filed a Freedom of Information Act requesting the information more than two years ago. The government denied the request, citing an exemption in the law that shields government records collected for law enforcement purposes. After the lawsuit was filed, government attorneys from the Department of Justice defending the case soon dropped that argument and asserted that the injury logs could not be disclosed because they were confidential business records.

The ruling has broad implications. Understanding which employers are the most dangerous could motivate more employers to improve safety and provide workers with a deeper understanding of the risks associated with their jobs. The records can also help hold companies accountable. Last year, with help from warehouse workers, Reveal managed to obtain the injury records for some of Amazon’s warehouses, and discovered that Amazon’s injury rates for those were sky-high compared to the industry average.

“This case is a great win for freedom of access,” said D. Victoria Baranetsky, Reveal’s general... Read More >

Tesla workers say company risked lives by sending them to work in shutdown

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, was originally a high-profile coronavirus doubter. “The coronavirus panic is dumb,” he tweeted March 6, when there were just 282 confirmed cases in the United States. 

Still, Tesla eventually promised to shut down its car factory in Fremont, California, on March 23 under pressure from local authorities, which had issued an order for all nonessential businesses to stop operating a week earlier. 

That’s why some Tesla workers were surprised to get a text message March 22 telling them their jobs – fixing cars that had come off the production line with paint mistakes – were still necessary. They would have to report for work or use their paid time off until the cars were finished, they were told.

“I know it sucks, but we have to support our scheduled days,” a supervisor texted March 22, notifying workers that they would have to work after the shutdown. 

Workers still were getting called in this past weekend. Their jobs had been “deemed essential,” a supervisor texted March 26. 

“I understand everyone’s concerns and position we have all been placed in,” the text said. “We have been fighting for you guys unfortunately now it’s out of our hands and it’s HR call.”

Two workers who received the text messages told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that they were upset about being put at risk of contracting COVID-19.

“It’s wrong,” said one paint department worker, who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job. “How desperate are they that those cars are worth so... Read More >

Texas House unanimously votes to reform rape prosecutions

The Texas House of Representatives voted 146-0 Tuesday to create the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Task Force inside the governor’s office, bringing money and support at the highest levels of state government to reform how rapes are tracked, investigated and prosecuted across Texas.

The measure provides up to $3 million to fund the task force, which will collect, analyze and make publicly available a new set of information showing where gaps remain in the system to prevent and prosecute sexual assaults.

The lead sponsor of the bipartisan measure said reporting by Newsy, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica proved pivotal in convincing Texas lawmakers they needed to act.

“The series was pretty alarming I think,” said Rep. Donna Howard, a Democrat from Austin, of Case Cleared, published in November.

The articles showed how the Austin Police Department and dozens of others across the country frequently use what’s known as “exceptional clearance” to close rape cases without solving them, increasing publicly reported clearance rates while leaving suspects on the streets. The series also led to an audit by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which concluded that nearly one-third of the cases Austin police had exceptionally cleared were misclassified.

Howard said the series woke up lawmakers, who supported creating a high-level task force to collect more detailed information about how rape cases drop out of the system.

“I’m not sure any... Read More >

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau moves to limit home loan data

Want to know which banks target people of color for loans with high interest rates, steep fees or reverse mortgages?

Or which banks deny home loans to African Americans and Latinos even when their income shows they could easily cover the monthly payment?

You won’t be able to find out if new regulations proposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau go through. The Trump administration on Thursday announced its intention to roll back rules adopted in 2015 under President Barack Obama, which dramatically expanded the public’s access to home mortgage information. At the same time, the CFPB said it planned to limit the number of banks that have to report the race and gender of consumers who get – and are denied – loans.

The CFPB also said it would be closing a web portal that provides public access to the lending data – making it harder for journalists to identify patterns that suggest discrimination and for civil rights advocates to fight it.

At issue is how information is collected and released under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, or HMDA, a 1975 anti-discrimination law that requires banks and other lenders to disclose details of every home loan application they receive.

“Data is imperative to recognize discrimination in the market and address it,” said Melissa Stegman, senior counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending. “It goes hand in hand with our other civil rights statutes.”

In a statement posted on its website, the agency said the government was developing a new tool and that the public would... Read More >

Prominent rehab faces 3 lawsuits for sending patients to work without pay

Former drug rehab patients have filed three federal lawsuits against the Cenikor Foundation this week, saying the prominent rehab violated federal labor law by forcing thousands of patients to work for free for for-profit companies.

“Cenikor has turned patients struggling with addiction into a pool of unpaid, forced labor,” according to one of the complaints filed in federal court in Texas on Wednesday. “While in Cenikor’s work program, patients are frequently required to work 60-80 hours or more a week, often performing hard manual labor under dangerous conditions.”

The lawsuits come in the wake of an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and a documentary by Al Jazeera Fault Lines, which found that the Cenikor Foundation has sent tens of thousands of patients to work without pay at more than 300 for-profit companies over the years.

Patients worked grueling shifts in a warehouse for Walmart, in an oil refinery for Exxon and on an oil platform for Shell. Cenikor kept all of their pay, saying the wages would be used to cover the treatment costs of the program. While companies received a cheap, reliable source of labor, the patients worked so much that they had little time for addiction treatment or counseling.

The outside job contracts netted Cenikor more than $7 million last year, making it one of the most lucrative work-based rehabs in the... Read More >

Same data, new lawsuit: Reveal sues Labor Department for failure to release updated Silicon Valley diversity numbers

We asked. We sued. We won. We thought.

Now we’re suing again.

Last year the U.S. Department of Labor gave us diversity data for federal contractors in Silicon Valley after a long legal fight. And now the department is stalling again. So, we’re filing another lawsuit to get the same data for the same contractors, but for a different year.

Our victory in the courts meant that the public could see basic diversity statistics for large contractors such as Palantir and Oracle for the first time. The numbers revealed poor representation of women and minorities in some of the largest technology companies.

Palantir was one of 10 companies out of 167 of the largest Silicon Valley technology companies with no female executives in 2015.

The breakthrough required almost a year of legal back and forth, and resulted in the Department of Labor releasing federal contractors’ 2015 EEO-1 records over the objections of the companies, a break from a longtime policy of denying such requests.

But despite its surrender of 2015 data, the Labor Department is now refusing to release the same data for the same contractors for 2016, saying it wants to wait to see the outcome of a separate, ongoing Supreme Court case. This case, the agency argued, would determine the parameters of the exemption that it is using to withhold records as confidential business information or trade secrets.

“These records should be public,” said Victoria Baranetsky, Reveal’s general counsel. “Diversity statistics don’t qualify as confidential business information, under any possible interpretation of the law. The agency’s own actions... Read More >

Why we’re suing the Beverly Hills school district

Beverly Hills school officials say they lobbied the Trump administration – and the president himself – in an effort to stop a Los Angeles subway project that they say poses a threat to the local high school.

But the Beverly Hills Unified School District claims it doesn’t possess a single document about the meetings. Calling that claim “highly implausible,” Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has sued the school district, saying that it violated the California Public Records Act last year when it rejected a request for documents.

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, says the school district should be ordered to do a proper search for the requested documents and release them promptly, as the law requires.

“The public has an undeniably strong interest in knowing the use of public funds and the details of public officials’ lobbying efforts paid for by taxpayers,” the lawsuit says. No court date has been set.

The fight against the subway line has dominated Beverly Hills politics for six years. It took on national importance when local power players began using their connections to President Donald Trump to try to kill the project by canceling $1.2 billion in federal transportation grants.

The LA Metro transit agency is building a 9-mile, $8.2 billion subway extension to link downtown with the city’s Westside. The plan calls for running a subway line through a tunnel under Beverly Hills High School, a 92-year-old landmark famed for its movie-star alumni.

Because the school was built atop an old oil... Read More >

Government acknowledges 15 to 20 migrant children held in ‘out of network’ facilities

The federal government has acknowledged that 15 to 20 migrant children in its custody are being held outside its network of publicly disclosed shelters, a day after Reveal reported that the government is housing unaccompanied children in secret facilities without the knowledge of their attorneys.

In a statement today, government spokesperson Evelyn Stauffer said the Office of Refugee Resettlement relies on these “out of network” facilities for children who require “highly specialized care.” She denied that the agency uses clandestine facilities to house minors, saying the shelters are state-licensed and monitored monthly by the refugee agency.

“It is long standing practice for ORR to provide specialized care out of our network of shelters,” Stauffer wrote. “ORR is committed to ensuring that all (unaccompanied alien children), including those in out of network placements, have access to proper care and services.”

But Holly Cooper, an attorney who represents unaccompanied minors in the agency’s care, said she had been unaware of the facilities, despite the government’s obligation, under a 1997 court settlement, to provide an accurate accounting of where children were held.

Cooper said the facilities she has learned of so far specialize in mental and behavioral health. There are at least five in Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Virginia, holding children as young as 9 years old.

Stauffer wrote that when children are sent to an “out of network” facility, the government also assigns an... Read More >

Congressman wants answers on closure of FBI war crimes unit

A prominent member of the House Judiciary Committee is demanding answers from FBI Director Christopher Wray, saying he was “deeply disturbed” that the bureau is dismantling a special unit that investigates war crimes and hunts down war criminals – including suspected torturers and perpetrators of genocide.

The unit “was originally dedicated to hunting down Nazis living in the United States after World War II and has since grown into an important legal and moral bulwark against perpetrators of genocide and other human rights abuses,” Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, said in his letter to Wray last week. The human rights unit’s closure was exposed by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

“What is the rationale for closing the International Human Rights Unit?” Lieu asked. “What process was used to arrive at the decision to shutter (it), and who was ultimately responsible for making it?”  

In an email to Reveal, the FBI acknowledged receiving Lieu’s letter but declined to comment further. When the bureau confirmed the unit’s closure to us last month, it argued that its dissolution “in no way reflects a reduced commitment by the FBI” to enforce human rights law.

Lieu’s missive is the latest effort to get answers from the FBI since Reveal’s report. On Feb. 22, four former high-ranking diplomats wrote an op-ed in The Hill that argued the closure of the human rights unit marks a dangerous retreat from the Nuremberg Principles, a set of rules for war crimes adopted by the United Nations after World... Read More >

Defense contractors cited for endangering workers continue to win big business

Dozens of defense contractors caught seriously endangering their workers continued receiving lucrative federal contracts, a congressional watchdog agency says.

In a new report inspired by a Reveal investigation, the Government Accountability Office said 52 of 192 defense contractors it reviewed were cited for serious health or safety violations from the 2013 through 2017 fiscal years. Workers in these accidents suffered chemical burns, amputations and even death.

In one case, a hydrogen blast left one worker pinned under a 20,000-pound lid, gave another second-degree burns and killed a third. In another case, a worker who fell 98 feet from an elevator was killed. In a third accident, a vessel became unmoored in high winds and struck a pier, pulling two workers underwater and killing one of them.

“The Defense Department’s contract workforce contributes every day to our national defense and should never be at risk of exposure to unsafe and unhealthy working conditions,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wrote in a statement. “The GAO’s report confirms the Pentagon needs to crack down on its contractors who are breaking the law.”

Warren wrote a provision in the 2018 defense bill that required the GAO to review how the Pentagon tracks and responds to workplace safety violations among shipbuilders and other defense contractors.

The senator proposed the measure in response to a 2017 investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, which found that... Read More >

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