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Dig Investigative nuggets from the staff of Reveal

FTC should investigate Facebook’s child gaming practices, advocates say

The Federal Trade Commission is being urged to investigate Facebook after court records unsealed last month showed the social media giant deployed a business model that knowingly duped children out of money.

“Facebook’s internal documents indicate a callous disregard for young people and a culture that prioritized profits over people,” a coalition of child safety and online privacy groups wrote in a complaint filed with the FTC this morning.

The unsealed court documents – more than 150 pages of internal Facebook memos, strategies and emails between employees that span from 2010 to 2014 – show that the Silicon Valley company knew children were unwittingly spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on its games.

The information revealed in the Facebook documents, which were uncovered by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, should be investigated by the FTC, according to the complaint signed by more than a dozen advocacy groups:

Facebook knew that a number of in-game purchases were so integrated into gameplay that children did not realize they were spending real money, with one employee noting that purchases with Facebook credits “don’t necessarily look like real money to a minor.”

Facebook’s internal documents show that parents did not realize the company had stored their credit card or that children could make in-game purchases without some form of authorization, such as re-entering the credit card number or a password. Records also show children... Read More >

We’re suing ICE for keeping contract details secret

Reveal sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement yesterday for failing to comply with the Freedom of Information Act after it kept secret the details of a contract with a company it used to transport migrant children, including those separated from their parents at the border.

In November, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting requested a copy of a contract between ICE and MVM Inc. It’s the second time we’ve made such a request and the second time the agency has failed to produce the contract.

Government contacts between federal agencies and private contractors like MVM, which are funded with the public’s money, are subject to inspection by the public under the Freedom of Information Act, better known as FOIA.

In July, our investigation revealed that MVM was holding migrant children overnight in an unlicensed vacant office building in Phoenix. A video captured by a neighbor showed children, including toddlers, being ushered into the building. MVM originally maintained that the contractor doesn’t house children but later called the building in question a “temporary holding place.” Some of the children had been separated from their parents as part of President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.

Less than a week after Reveal’s investigation, MVM acknowledged it had, in fact, held children in its Phoenix office overnight and called the practice “a regrettable exception” to its own policy, which the company says dictates children be housed... Read More >

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... 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... 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.



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... 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.


“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,... 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... 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 >

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