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Jacksonville Sheriff Criticizes Our Reporting. We Respond.

This response was co-published with the Florida Times-Union.

ProPublica and the Florida Times-Union have spent several months reporting on the issuing of pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville and in other parts of Florida. The reporting has shown that disproportionate numbers of the tickets in Jacksonville and elsewhere have gone to blacks, and that the seemingly minor infractions — jaywalking, walking on the side of the road — can have significant repercussions for people unable or unwilling to pay the resulting fines. The reporting has also included the finding that hundreds of the tickets given for a particular statute dealing with crosswalks were given in error.

Sheriff Mike WIlliams answers questions in the Sheriff’s office during a meeting with Topher Sanders of ProPublica and Ben Conarck from the Florida Times-Union on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017.
(Bob Mack/Florida Times-Union)

On Jan. 11, 2018, ProPublica and the Times-Union reported that the Jacksonville State Attorney’s Office had issued a bulletin to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office offering guidance for the proper interpretation and enforcement of the state’s pedestrian statutes. The article reported that the bulletin supported the interpretation of the crosswalk statute that had formed the basis of the findings regarding the erroneous crosswalk tickets. The article reported that the Jacksonville City Council president, the local public defender, and half a dozen other local legislators were now calling for the suspension of all pedestrian ticket writing.

On Friday, Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams issued a press release claiming the article was inaccurate. ProPublica and the Times-Union stand by the reporting, and have responded to each of Williams’ claims of inaccuracy, which we set out in full below.


1. Inaccuracy: The bulletin factually is not a “state attorney’s office bulletin.” It is a bulletin issued by the Sheriff to his officers.

The bulletin distributed to the sheriff’s officers is signed by Andrew Kantor, assistant state attorney. We spoke directly with the State Attorney’s Office Thursday night. The office’s spokesperson clarified for us that the bulletin was the work of the state attorney’s office and done in response to the sheriff’s request for guidance.

2. Inaccuracy: The legal position drafted by the police legal advisor specifically did not include a review of past citations issued; instead it cut-and-pasted the precise legal requirements of the Florida statutes.

We did not say the review was of past citations. Indeed, the article says specifically that the review did not involve looking at the tickets identified by the Times-Union and ProPublica as problematic.

3. Inaccuracy: The writing by the Times-Union implies that an analysis of past citations was performed. This is factually incorrect.

See above.

4. Clarification: The reporters, Ben Conarck, Mary Kelli Palka (TU) and Topher Sanders (ProPublica) were specifically told that the document was not issued by the State Attorney but rather was a legal framework requested by the Sheriff. The framing of this document as a “review” is intentionally misleading.

The sheriff’s own release of Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, calls what he asked for a “review.”

5. Inaccuracy: While Andrew Kantor is an Assistant State Attorney, he serves as the full-time legal advisor to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. The Times-Union/ProPublica wording suggests that the State Attorney’s office has performed a review of past citations, which assertion is factually incorrect.

Again, Andrew Kantor is an assistant state attorney. He signed the bulletin that went to the sheriff’s officers. The state attorney’s office said the signed bulletin was the work of that office and done in response to the sheriff’s request for guidance/review. The article, once again, does not say the review was of past citations.

6. Inaccuracy: Assistant State Attorney did not issue a bulletin. The Sheriff issued a bulletin including Attorney Kantor’s exposition of Florida Statutes.

The bulletin was signed and dated by Andrew Kantor, assistant state attorney, and designed to give officers guidance for writing pedestrian tickets.

7. Clarification: Prior to publication, Ben Conarck (TU), Mary Kelli Palka (TU) and Topher Sanders (ProPublica) were specifically advised of the Sheriff’s request for such a legal review to be performed.

Once more, the article stated just this. It should be noted the sheriff again says he asked for a review.

8. Inaccuracy: The Times-Union and ProPublica continue to assume that citations were issued in error without any finding by any competent authority to that effect.

The Times-Union and ProPublica researched the crosswalk statute. We had multiple conversations with local experts about its proper interpretation and enforcement. We then checked the circumstances of each crosswalk ticket and determined those circumstances did not meet the terms of the statute and that tickets issued there were thus given in error. We stand by that analysis.

9. Clarification: In a telephone conversation with the Sheriff, the Council President said that she had been contacted by the reporters who told her that an “analysis” by the State Attorney showed that pedestrian citations were issued in error.

Ben Conarck of the Times-Union spoke with the council president, Anna Brosche. He did not tell her an analysis by the state attorney showed citations were issued in error. He informed her that the state attorney’s office review confirmed our reading of the statute as only being applicable in certain areas. He said that, as a result of that review and community concerns, Public Defender Charlie Cofer had decided to support a temporary pause on issuing pedestrian tickets until issues of legality and racial disparities were addressed. He asked the council president if she shared that view. Her response was that she did. In an interview Friday night, the council president said she was in the car at the time of the Thursday interview and cannot recall precisely what was said to her. She said her takeaway was that the state attorney had concluded that crosswalk tickets had been given in error. Brosche said the sheriff had assured her his office was conducting its own internal review of the crosswalk tickets, and she said as a result she no longer thinks a suspension of pedestrian tickets is called for.

10. Inaccuracy: Again, there was no “analysis” of citations by the State Attorney. There was a review of Florida Statutes by the police legal advisor at the Sheriff’s request.

See above.   

11. Inaccuracy: Again, the Times-Union and ProPublica continue to assume that citations were issued in error without any finding by any competent authority to that effect.

See above.

12. Inaccuracy: There is no objective evidence that “people were being punished for failing to avail themselves of safety features that weren’t easily accessible.” The Florida Times-Union/ProPublica reporting has offered not one instance in which that is the case.

The plain purpose of the statute in question is to compel pedestrians to use the safer setting for crossing the street afforded by formal crosswalks and traffic lights. Our reporting shows that the sheriff’s officers have written hundreds of tickets to people for failing to do that when such safer alternatives are not reasonably available.

13. Inaccuracy: The last sentence above specifically contradicts the reporters’ assertions that (a) the State Attorney performed an analysis and (b) that such analysis had confirmed the reporters’ positions.

The Times-Union and ProPublica reported that people had been ticketed for failing to cross at signals when signals were not readily available and where there were other intersections at which they could cross.  The state attorney’s bulletin makes clear that in those circumstances tickets should not be issued.

14. Clarification: Prior to publication, Ben Conarck (TU), Mary Kelli Palka (TU) and Topher Sanders (ProPublica) were specifically advised of the Sheriff’s request for such a legal review to be performed.

See above.

15. Clarification: The explanation by the police legal advisor is not a binding legal opinion, it is a guidance document requested by the Sheriff for his officers.

The article accurately reflected the sheriff’s office’s view on this.

16. Clarification: Multiple telephone and in-person conversations have revealed the Council members had been contacted by the reporters who alleged that an “analysis” by the State Attorney showed that pedestrian citations were issued in error. That assertion is factually incorrect.

See above.

17. Query: Coverage by the Florida Times-Union/ProPublica seems to be urging a moratorium on the issuance of pedestrian citations. The use of the term “suspending” suggests that the suspension would be temporary, but temporary until … when?

 No inaccuracy is asserted here.

18. Clarification: Ms. Dekine failed to pay her citation and chose not to take her position to court. Her failure to respond was the cause of the suspension of her driver’s license. Suspension of her driver’s license is the outcome prescribed under the Florida Statutes.

The article says exactly this.

19. The repetition of the word “erroneous” is problematic journalistically. There is no competent authority who has found the issuance of any citation to be “erroneous.”

See above.

20. Clarification: There is no explanation of the reporters’ methodology in assessing these statistics with other jurisdictions or with Duval County.

There is no claim of factual inaccuracy to respond to. Furthermore, reporters provided the sheriff’s office multiple letters detailing their findings and the methodology used in their analysis. The reporters’ methodology was also published in a separate story.

21. Inaccuracy: There has been no factual basis established that the pedestrian citations — not all of which are “crosswalk tickets” — has been “flawed.” The continuing assertions of such by two reporters does not make it so.

See above.

22. Clarification: There is no factual predicate in the article as to Mr. Hattaway’s credentials in assessing the
actions of law enforcement. Moreover, Mr. Hattaway has no particular standing in understanding urban law
enforcement in Duval County.

No inaccuracy is alleged.

23. Inaccuracy: The use of the word “confusion” — apparently inserted by the reporters — is biased and misleading.
The Sheriff requested a legal memorandum to ensure that there was clarity for officers in issuing pedestrian citations. Apparently the desire to ensure clarity is being characterized as “confusion” by the reporters.

The confusion referred to involves officers and legislators and others statewide. Many people have attested to it.

24. Inaccuracy: The Times-Union/ProPublica analysis continues to isolate one demographic element — race — while ignoring age, gender, economic status, education level, or national origin.

There is no claim of factual inaccuracy.

25. Clarification: Citations are issued based on behavior, not on demographics.

The sheriff’s position on this question is accurately reflected in the article.

26. Inaccuracy: On average, 80,000 to 90,000 citations are issued by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. Of those, approximately 400 of these annually are issued for pedestrian violations. The argument that the Times-Union/ProPublica makes actually concerns less than one-half of one percent of all citations issued.

The reporting done by the Times-Union and ProPublica has involved exclusively pedestrian tickets.

27. Inaccuracy: The Times-Union/ProPublica coverage continues to assume that there are “bad tickets” while there is no factual basis shown that anyone cited was not — at the time of the citation — violating the law.

See above.

28. Inaccuracy: The State Attorney has not performed a review. The police legal advisor has provided a legal framework — requested by the Sheriff — to guide officers in their sworn duty to enforce Florida Statutes.

The sheriff himself says he asked for a review and received one. The critical idea that the state attorney’s office was asked to help make sure the state’s pedestrian statutes were being properly enforced is accurately captured in this article and others before it.

29. Inaccuracy: The Sheriff and his leadership team have had multiple, in-depth conversations with the reporters from the Florida Times-Union and ProPublica. To state that he would not “discuss the … findings in greater detail” is factually incorrect and misleading to readers.

The sheriff’s office has responded in general terms to our findings — saying that the tickets were given properly and not based on race — and has also discussed some of its philosophies in enforcing the statutes. Those viewpoints have been amply reflected in our reporting. But the sheriff’s office has said again and again it would not discuss specific tickets and our specific findings until his office had a chance to conduct its own assessments.

 30. Clarification: Prior to publication, Ben Conarck (TU), Mary Kelli Palka (TU) and Topher Sanders (ProPublica) were specifically advised of the Sheriff’s request for such a legal review to be performed.

See above.         

31. Grammatical Error: “analysis” doesn’t “spark” “upset.”

We respectfully disagree.

32. Facts: (a) Jacksonville has consistently led the state in pedestrian fatalities, (b) statistically, one pedestrian is involved in a crash every day in Jacksonville, and (c) one in four traffic deaths in Jacksonville involve a pedestrian.

There is no claim of factual inaccuracy. We have regularly reported on the dangerous circumstances faced by Jacksonville pedestrians.

 33. Inaccuracy: The Times-Union/ProPublica continues erroneously to assert that a “legal review” has taken place. To reiterate, the Sheriff asked the police legal advisor for a legal framework that officers could follow. That is all that has occurred.

See above.

34. Clarification: Prior to publication, Ben Conarck (TU), Mary Kelli Palka (TU) and Topher Sanders (ProPublica) were specifically advised of the Sheriff’s request for such a legal review to be performed.

Here, the sheriff himself says he asked for a legal review, something he accuses us of having falsely reported.

35. Clarification: Inaccurate and biased coverage by The Florida Times-Union and ProPublica has created a false impression and does a disservice to readers and citizens.

We stand by our accurate and important reporting. That reporting has been welcome in many corners of Jacksonville and provoked calls for reform and improvement.

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Jacksonville City Council President and Local Public Defender Call for Suspension of Pedestrian Ticket Writing

This story was co-published with the Florida Times-Union.

The Jacksonville City Council president and other local lawmakers have called for suspending the issuing of pedestrian tickets in the wake of a state attorney’s office bulletin, the substance of which suggests that hundreds of tickets had been issued in error in recent years.

Jacksonville Assistant State Attorney Andrew Kantor on Tuesday issued a bulletin to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office detailing the proper enforcement of Florida’s pedestrian statutes — a document that supports a recent Times-Union/ProPublica analysis showing police have been issuing certain crosswalk violations in error, ticketing hundreds of pedestrians for failing to cross at formal intersections even when no such option was readily available.

“I’d like to make sure that we are enforcing the laws appropriately,” City Council President Anna Brosche said shortly after being made aware of the state attorney’s bulletin. “I do support a pause to make sure that everything is being enforced that should be.”

The Times-Union/ProPublica analysis published late last year found that more than 300 tickets over the last five years for pedestrians crossing streets outside a crosswalk resulted from mistaken interpretations of the applicable statute — errors that resulted in unwarranted fines and suspensions of people’s driver’s licenses.

While the statute bars pedestrians from crossing streets outside formal crosswalks when they are “between adjacent intersections at which traffic control signals are in operation,” officers nonetheless issued scores of tickets to people who had no reasonable access to such intersections. In short, people were being punished for failing to avail themselves of safety features that weren’t easily accessible.

During the Times-Union and ProPublica’s reporting on the tickets last fall, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said it would seek guidance on pedestrian statute enforcement from the local state attorney. Kantor’s bulletin was his answer to the sheriff’s request. The office did not examine the tickets identified by the Times-Union and ProPublica, and the bulletin does not refer to the Times-Union/ProPublica findings.

It is unclear what, if any, steps Sheriff Mike Williams will now take. In an interview Thursday evening, Patrick Ivey, the sheriff’s office second in command, maintained that the state attorney’s position was not a legally binding opinion. Ivey added that the state attorney’s review would not retroactively apply to tickets already issued by sheriff’s officers.

Brosche’s call to temporarily halt all pedestrian ticket writing echoed similar calls by several other council members, as well as the Jacksonville public defender.

“I applaud the sheriff for seeking guidance from the State Attorney’s Office so that we can clarify the rights and responsibilities of motorists and pedestrians, not only for those charged with enforcement, but also for pedestrians and motorists themselves,” said Lori Boyer, a senior council member who has led a variety of efforts aimed at improving Jacksonville pedestrian safety record. “This guidance now gives us an opportunity to correctly educate everyone in our City about the proper use of our roadways. It is a big step in the right direction.”

Of the 17 other City Council members, six said they are in favor of suspending pedestrian ticketing. Another five said they needed to review the state attorney’s legal bulletin, which Boyer’s office sent to all members.  The remaining either couldn’t be reached or said they would need time to review the matter.

Sheriff Mike Williams speaks at a meeting with reporters about enforcement of pedestrian laws in Jacksonville on Nov. 8, 2017.
(Bob Mack/Florida Times-Union)

A spokesperson for Mayor Lenny Curry said the mayor had not seen the state attorney’s bulletin.

“While we welcome the opportunity to review the State Attorney’s report, please know that the mayor relies on Sheriff Williams, his team, and the State Attorney’s office for enforcement and prosecution decisions,” said the spokesperson, Tia Ford. Ford did not say whether the mayor supported the idea of suspending ticketing temporarily.

Eboni Dekine, who had her driver’s license suspended after she failed to pay the fine for one of the erroneous citations in 2016, said people such as her who didn’t pay the fines should have their records cleared and those who did pay the fines should have their money returned.

“I’m glad that they were able to admit it and hope they do the right thing,” Dekine, a mother of two who is still without her license, said in an interview Thursday.

The Times-Union and ProPublica have identified 132 instances in which erroneous tickets led to driver’s license suspensions.

The flawed crosswalk tickets are not limited to Jacksonville, according to a Times-Union-ProPublica review of pedestrian tickets statewide. The Times-Union and ProPublica reviewed more than 2,600 such tickets throughout the state, and determined that at least 60 percent of them were given in error. Law enforcement agencies in Broward, Dade, Hillsborough and Orange counties all issued erroneous tickets to pedestrians.

Billy Hattaway, considered by many to be the state’s top expert on pedestrian safety and enforcement, was not surprised by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s confusion when asked by reporters last year. He said there is widespread lack of understanding about the statutes statewide — among officers, citizens and legislators. He said many of the pedestrian statutes need to be rewritten.

The Times-Union/ProPublica examination of pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville found that the sheriff’s office issued hundreds a year, a disproportionate number of them going to blacks. Indeed, all categories of pedestrian tickets — typically costing $65, and given for jaywalking, walking on the wrong side of the road, crossing the street at other than a right angle, and other violations — were disproportionately issued to blacks, almost all of them in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. In the last five years, blacks received 55 percent of all pedestrian tickets in and around Jacksonville, while only accounting for 29 percent of the population.

The crosswalk statute accounts for more tickets in Duval County than any other. Of the more than 300 bad tickets issued for crosswalk violations, 48 percent of them went to blacks.

Williams has maintained that his office’s enforcement of pedestrian statutes does not target blacks. His office has insisted that blacks have simply violated the statutes in greater numbers than others. But Williams’ office said it would not discuss the Times-Union/ProPublica findings in greater detail until the state attorney had done his review. His office added that anyone who felkt they were issued a ticket in error could contest the matter in court.

The analysis by the Times-Union and ProPublica sparked upset among a number of local legislators and civil rights leaders. There have been calls to suspend the issuing of pedestrian tickets and some moves toward enacting legislation to limit the impact of such tickets on recipients’ driver’s licenses. One meeting of the city council late last year was consumed by angry testimony about the ticketing effort.

The sheriff’s office has said the ticketing is designed to protect lives in a city that is notoriously unsafe for pedestrians. Yet the Times-Union/ProPublica analysis showed there was no great correlation between where tickets were being written and where pedestrian deaths were occurring.

Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition, a community advocacy group, seemed grateful for the state attorney’s interpretation, but also repeated his call for a halt to ticketing.

“The Northside Coalition is renewing its call for the Sheriff to impose a moratorium on the writing of pedestrian tickets,” Frazier said in a statement. He added, “We are now asking the Mayor and the City Council to hold the sheriff accountable. The sheriff should be called before the council to explain why he is still allowing the civil rights of black residents to be violated.”

Jacksonville’s public defender, Charlie Cofer, said he welcomed the legal review by the state attorney’s office, saying it was consistent with his interpretation of the law, which he first voiced in November. Cofer said he, too, now believes that the sheriff’s office should stop writing pedestrian tickets and pause to examine the effects of the enforcement on the city’s more marginalized communities.

Cofer said the disproportionate ticketing in poorer neighborhoods “creates a perception within that community that they are being treated differently by law enforcement.”  

“That is something I think that law enforcement has to consider,” Cofer said. “There are other collateral consequences of using statutes like this.”

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Help Us Figure Out Where in Illinois to Take Our Theater-Journalism Project

by Logan Jaffe


ProPublica Illinois is teaming up with Free Street Theater on a six-month initiative to engage with communities around the state. You may think it’s a little strange for a newsroom of investigative journalists to collaborate with a community-minded theater collective. It is. But it makes sense if you know the context of our work and goals.

First, a little background. When ProPublica Illinois opened its doors in October of last year, we knew that listening to people and involving them in our reporting would play a central role in our approach to journalism. We also knew that we’d need to think creatively about how to bridge divides and earn trust if we wanted our journalism to resonate across the state’s diverse, geographically disparate communities. In partnership with Illinois Humanities, we put out a call for projects that would help us address that challenge. That’s how we met Free Street Theater.

Free Street Theater has a long history (49 years!) of using live exercises and activities to facilitate conversations among people with different perspectives in ways that are fun, honest and informative.. What if we were to find ways to connect what they do and what we do?

Here’s the idea: Working with ProPublica Illinois, Free Street will facilitate workshops around the state to spark discussion around the news and information that impacts Illinoisans. Based on what we’ve learned, Free Street will then provide ProPublica Illinois and the communities we visit with the tools to host future conversations.

Here’s where we’d like your input to shape what this project looks like:

  • Our goal is to hold these workshops throughout Illinois. So, where should we go? Why? What are people already talking about there? This project is about conversation and information. We want to start by learning directly from you about issues in your own community. Has there been a lot of discussion about a police-related incident where you live? Are there issues with your drinking water? Or with pesticide use? Did a large employer recently close — or open? This type of input will help us create relevant, useful and responsive workshops that fit your community.

We’d like to visit a mix of urban, rural and suburban parts of the state, and we’re up to hold these workshops in storefronts, historical societies, libraries, the back room of a restaurant, a travel plaza — pretty much anywhere. Tell us where you think we should go and why we should go there.

  • Who should we work with? We’re looking for people who are involved in their communities in some way. Maybe you’re an organizer, a teacher, a librarian, a parks and recreation department employee, or you just have a tight-knit group of friends. Reach out, say hello, and consider inviting us over. Or maybe you know someone else we should speak to. Send them our way.

Have more questions about this project? Let’s talk about it. Email ProPublica Illinois engagement reporter Logan Jaffe: logan.jaffe@propublica.org.

Have a nice weekend.

Logan

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Join ProPublica to Report on the Technology Platforms Dominating Our Lives

by ProPublica

Facebook and other online platforms are playing increasingly central roles in society: They help decide the news we see, the job opportunities we’re aware of and so much more. Just like other powerful institutions, their work should be subject to scrutiny. That’s why we’ve been reporting on them. With Facebook, we’ve shown how it has allowed companies to exclude older workers from job ads, allowed advertisers to exclude users by race and enabled advertisers to reach “Jew haters.”

We’re going to be doing much more, and we want you to help us dig. We’re looking for a technology reporter who will be part of one of the most innovative, cross-disciplinary reporting teams around. Take a look at the bylines in the stories we’ve done: You see straight-up reporters, coders, engagement reporters, researchers, statisticians and more.

You should have experience covering technology and tech companies, particularly on issues related to privacy and security. You should be to understand complex subjects and explain them in clear and compelling stories. You don’t need to be an experienced coder yourself, but should be able to talk to coders.

You should also have experience gathering and organizing data and using it to inform storytelling. That means being familiar with computer assisted reporting tools, which could include: SQL and database management; R or other statistical packages; and Python or other scripting languages.

We’re also looking for someone who:

  • Has the curiosity and knowledge to develop a testable hypotheses that can be asked of a dataset
  • Can file a lot of FOIAs and be organized and persistent about following up on them
  • Has the patience to clean big datasets, just the same way that they would comb through a stack of FOIA documents
  • Knows how to interview people and can engage with technologists on their level during interviews
  • Aches to do stories that are both important and powerfully told

We know, it’s possible nobody may have all these skills. You can be a great candidate even if you don’t fit everything we’ve described above. You can also have important skills we haven’t thought of. If that’s you, don’t hesitate to apply and tell us about yourself.

We are dedicated to improving our newsroom, in part by better reflecting the people we cover. We are committed to diversity and building an inclusive environment for people of all backgrounds and ages. We especially encourage members of underrepresented communities to apply, including women, people of color, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities.

What you should send us:

The most important part by far is your past work. Send us your best stories, even if they aren’t about technology. We’d also like you to submit a memo that describes how you’d approach the technology platforms beat. What specific stories might you do? Tell us how you would execute them. How should they be told? How would you imagine achieving impact? Show us how you think.

If all of this sounds exciting to you, apply using this form.

The job is full time and include benefits. We are based in New York, but open to remote-working if the fit is right.

You can send questions to reporting.jobs@propublica.org. No phone calls, please.

The deadline for applications is Jan. 26.

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How the Public Fueled Our Investigations in 2017

A year ago, we said we would focus more on how the public can participate in our investigative reporting. We wanted to work more collaboratively and openly, and create more opportunities for participation.

So, our engagement team focused on finding the right audience — not just the biggest — to not only share our reporting but to help us do reporting. As we wrote last year, that meant hiring journalists who specialize in building and cultivating communities. We decided to call them engagement reporters, and we hired three great ones: Adriana Gallardo, Ariana Tobin and Logan Jaffe.

The result? Lots of good journalism that would otherwise not have existed. Here are a few things the public helped us report.

You helped us tell the story of why America is the most dangerous place in the developed world in which to give birth.

One of ProPublica’s most read stories last year was the tale of a neonatal nurse who died while giving birth at her own hospital. It was the first story in our series examining maternal care in the U.S.

But it wasn’t the first thing we published in this series. That wasn’t a story at all. It was a question and a request: “Do you know someone who died or nearly died in childbirth? Help us investigate maternal health.”

We started the crowdsourcing effort in February, three months before the first story in the series ran. Since then, we’ve collected nearly 5,000 stories from mothers and families affected by maternal complications or deaths.

The thousands of personal stories played a crucial in our coverage. It helped put a name and face to many of the estimated 700 to 900 women who die each year from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth; it helped show how severe complications for mothers are skyrocketing; and it helped us create an advice guide for mothers by mothers who nearly died.

And we didn’t leave it there. Engagement reporter Adriana Gallardo paired mothers and daughters to talk to each other about how maternal complications have impacted their families (contains audio). Here’s a sublime thread Adriana wrote about that.

You helped us find Facebook turning a blind eye to hate.

We got a trove of internal documents about how Facebook’s censors differentiate between hate speech and legitimate political expression. Looking at them, we found that Facebook’s secret censorship rules sometimes protect white men from hate speech but not black children.

We wanted to know more, specifically if the site’s censorship policies were actually working. So we developed a Facebook messenger bot to make it easy for users to submit questionable posts.

Hundreds of people submitted examples. When we asked Facebook about its handling of posts readers sent us, the company acknowledged that it had made the wrong call on nearly half of them.

You showed us that Facebook was letting companies exclude older workers from job ads.

Here’s where two crowdsourcing projects converged into one. In May, we asked people to share stories of age discrimination in the workplace. A few months later, we announced a completely separate project: We asked people to help us monitor political ads on Facebook. You’ll never believe what happened next.

The ads people submitted to our Political Ad Collector showed that companies were also placing job ads that were only being shown to younger users. (You can see the ads here.) The stories people submitted to the age discrimination callout allowed us go directly to the people impacted. In fact, one of those people became the lead example of our front page story with The New York Times.

You helped us go through White House staffers’ financial disclosures and find stories.

On a Friday night in April, the Trump administration said it was making White House staffers’ financial disclosure forms available. The disclosures laid out details like ownership of stock, real estate and companies — the kind of information that’s vital to ferret out potential conflicts. But there was a catch: The White House required a separate request for each staffer’s disclosure, AND it didn’t give the names of the staffers. With the help of readers and our partners at The New York Times and Associated Press, we pierced the administration’s attempt at opacity, found the names and made the disclosures public.

We posted the financial disclosures and asked the public to help us dig through the names. Readers sent us dozens of tips. One reader led us to a story about how President Donald Trump transferred some of his holdings to his son Eric while avoiding the usual taxes.

You helped us track the more than 1,000 officials Trump quietly deployed across the government.

The Trump administration has been slow to fill many jobs that need Senate approval. Yet it has made more than 1,000 temporary hires across the government without going through that vetting process. Many work at agencies they once sought to influence.

Again, once we got the names, we posted them and asked the public to help us dig in. One of the many tips we received led us to a Trump administration hire whom five students accused of sexual assault.

You helped us uncover members of Congress misleading constituents about Obamacare.

Early last year, a reader sent us an email she received from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., after she sent him an email supporting the Affordable Care Act. A statistic cited by a senator’s office didn’t seem right to her. She asked us to fact-check it. We did. Blunt’s note was misleading and lacked key context. But we also thought: What were other members of Congress telling their constituents?

We asked the public to send in any correspondence they may have received from a member of Congress regarding the ACA. We partnered with Vox, Kaiser Health News and STAT News. Hundreds of letters came in. What we found: “They’re full of lies and misinformation.”

You helped us show the reality of the Trump Organization’s announced hotel expansion.

Last year, the Trump Organization announced it would be expanding its hotel business. It said it had 39 deals across the country. But it wouldn’t say where they were or who they were with. So we asked for your help to find them. (The Trump Hotels CEO called the effort “inappropriate and irresponsible.”) We received dozens of tips, and found false starts, fizzled-out partnerships, and, often, no signs of deals at all.

What to expect this year.

From left: Engagement reporters Ariana Tobin and Adriana Gallardo, along with Deputy Engagement Editor Terry Parris Jr., discuss how to engage people in investigative reporting at the People Powered Publishing Conference on Nov. 8, 2017, in Chicago, Illinois.
(Courtesy of Mike Rispoli)

ProPublica’s mission is the same as ever — to do revelatory, powerful journalism that exposes injustices and spurs change. We on the engagement team want to use the skills we’ve developed to do more of it. We plan to do more work that is technology- and platform-based, more engagement with those who are civically involved and more crowd-driven projects that span investigations.

We told you we would share our experiences as we go — what we’ve learned from each project. We did some of that, but we want to do more. We want to not only be transparent and collaborative in our reporting, but also in how we’re doing it.

And, finally, what kind of post about participation, community and crowdsourcing would this be without asking for your help: What are your ideas? What should we be doing more of? Interested in this type of work? Get in touch. We’re always listening.

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After a Sweet Deal With Dad, Eric Trump Assembles a Valuable Penthouse

by Derek Kravitz, ProPublica, and Will Parker, The Real Deal

President Donald Trump’s son Eric is preparing to capitalize on a windfall he received from his father during the presidential campaign: He’s combining three luxury Manhattan high-rise apartments, one of which he purchased at a throwaway price from his father, into one potentially lucrative penthouse.

In the spring of 2016, Eric Trump got a great deal from his father. He bought two previously unsold condominium apartments at Trump Parc East for just $350,000 each, about half of the price they had recently been listed for.  

Such bargain basement sales are usually treated as gifts by the IRS. But they might not have been taxed that way, tax experts said, because of advantages available only to real estate developers.

Last month, Eric transferred ownership of one of the condos — unit 14G — and two other adjacent apartments he owns into a new entity called 100 CPS Penthouse LLC.

He had already applied for permits to combine these three units into a 2,400-square-foot apartment on the top floor of a building that overlooks Manhattan’s Central Park. The estimated cost to combine the apartments: $410,000.

All told, Eric paid just under $3 million for the three apartments. With the estimated renovation costs included, he will have spent more than $3.3 million to create the penthouse.

How much Eric could get on the market if he sold such a large penthouse is not clear, but for comparison’s sake, an apartment of 1,700 square feet on a lower floor of the same building sold for $7.5 million in 2013. At that price per foot, the penthouse would sell for over $10 million. Higher floors tend to command steeper prices.

In 2008, a 4,400-square-foot unit in the building went on the market for $38 million but never sold.

Representatives for the Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment.

David Herzig, a tax professor at Valparaiso University Law School, said the fact that Eric needed unit 14G in order to assemble the enlarged penthouse could make the fair market value of the gifted apartment even higher than previously thought.

The $350,000 deal he got from Trump “might not only have been a fire sale,” he said, “but if this is a key component that you would need to combine them together to make a penthouse, to get the requisite number of rooms, that actually means that this property should have been sold at a premium, not a discount.”

The Trump Parc East building in New York CIty
(Frank Franklin II/AP)

It’s not clear why Trump sold unit 14G to Eric for just $350,000, when he sold another unit, the 1,350-square-foot 14D, to Eric for $2 million in 2008. That was much closer to its likely market value.

If he had simply given the apartment to Eric for free, Trump could have incurred up to 40 percent tax on its market price. But the sale for $350,000 could have been arranged to look like a “fair market sale” and not a gift.

As the developer of the building, Trump had some leeway with how he priced unsold apartments. He could have demonstrated that the real value was very low if, for example, the apartment was still subject to city rent regulations or was in need of significant repairs. The apartment’s new function as the keystone for a penthouse, however, makes that a difficult case to argue, Herzig said.

Trump paid transfer taxes on the sale, which isn’t the norm when gifting a property. But he also did not check a box on sales documents to indicate that the sale was between two relatives.

The tax reform bill the president signed into law last month increased the amount of tax-free gifts individuals can hand down to their children from $5 million to $10 million. Without the president’s tax returns, we might never know if Trump reported the $350,000 sales to Eric as gifts.

Trump was listed as Trump Parc East’s legal salesman until August of last year, eight months into his presidency, filings with the New York State Attorney General show. The president’s two oldest sons, Eric and Donald Trump Jr., are now in charge of selling the 14 remaining apartments in the building owned by the Trump Organization.

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Ethics Board Fines Cook County Assessor Over Campaign Contributions

by Ray Long, Chicago Tribune, and Jason Grotto, ProPublica

Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios is facing $41,000 in fines for failing to return campaign contributions from property tax appeals lawyers whose donations exceeded legal limits, according to a pair of new rulings by the county ethics board.

The rulings raise the level of scrutiny on campaign contributions given by appeals lawyers to Berrios, who doubles as chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party and depends heavily on their donations in raising political funds. The action also ignites another high-profile showdown with the county Board of Ethics, with which he previously clashed over nepotism issues.

At the center of the ethics board’s rulings is a 2016 county ordinance stating that donors who seek “official action” with the county may contribute no more than $750 in nonelection years. Attorneys for Berrios are seeking to overturn the rulings, arguing that the county limits are unconstitutional and that higher limits set by state law should apply, among other objections.

The fines add to the controversy surrounding Berrios, who is heading into a March primary as he bids for a third four-year term as assessor.

Berrios has been under fire for inaccurate assessments that favor the wealthy over the poor since the Tribune published “The Tax Divide,” an investigation launched in June and continued in December in collaboration with ProPublica Illinois. Federal court monitors also have criticized Berrios for being too slow to erase politics from hiring and other employment decisions as required under the anti-patronage Shakman decree.

In rulings released late Monday, the ethics board listed 30 examples of property tax attorneys or firms whose donations to Berrios’ main political fund in late 2016 or early 2017 exceeded the $750 limit. It fined Berrios and the Committee to Elect Joseph Berrios Cook County Assessor $1,000 for each violation, for a total of $30,000. The $1,000 fine per violation is the maximum allowed.

An additional $11,000 in fines were imposed on Berrios and his 31st Ward Democratic Organization, the source of his main power base.

The ethics board said the 41 donations to Berrios’ political funds exceeded the limit by a total of $62,250 — an excess of $52,200 for the assessor’s election fund and $10,050 for the 31st Ward fund.

Some contributions flagged by the ethics board came from the county’s most active tax appeal attorneys and firms.

Among them was a $1,500 contribution made by Michael Crane of Crane and Norcross, which filed appeals on nearly $7.9 billion in commercial and industrial initial values since Berrios took office in December 2010, winning reductions on $1.8 billion, according to a ProPublica Illinois-Tribune analysis of county appeals data.

Thomas Tully, a former Cook County assessor now with Thomas M. Tully & Associates, contributed $5,000 to Berrios in the fourth quarter of 2016. The Tully law firm filed appeals on about $2.9 billion in commercial and industrial value since Berrios took office, winning reductions on $756 million.

Crane and Tully did not respond to requests for comment.

The rulings, based on an October 2016 ordinance, appear to be the first to impose fines regarding campaign contributions from attorneys who represent clients before the assessor’s office.

Attorney Kevin Forde, who said he was asked to represent Berrios as a special assistant state’s attorney, said Tuesday that the Berrios campaign funds had returned “over a dozen contributions” from the same time period as the ones now in dispute. Those donations generally came from county vendors, not lawyers representing clients before county government, he said.

Arguing on Berrios’ behalf at a Monday board hearing, Forde challenged the authority of county officials to set contribution limits that are stricter than those permitted by state law. The state currently allows $5,600 in contributions from individuals per election.

“There is a good-faith attempt by (Berrios) and the people who made the contributions to rely on state law and the validity and controlling authority of the state ethics statute,” Forde said.

The ethics board rejected that argument, saying Cook County’s home-rule powers give the county authority to set its own limits. The questions of constitutionality and jurisdiction raised by Berrios are “impossible to square” with prior Illinois Supreme Court decisions, the board wrote in its rulings.

Berrios’ campaign manager, Mario Lopez, echoed Forde’s legal objections, saying “every contribution received by the assessor’s campaign complies” with state law.

“Attempts by the county ordinance to limit the rights of contributors are invalid,” Lopez said in a statement. “Assessor Berrios is not personally wealthy so he must rely on campaign contributions from supporters.”

The issue is further complicated because Berrios challenger Fritz Kaegi has put enough of his own money into his campaign to remove the state’s contribution limits. To date, Kaegi has loaned himself $560,000, records show.

“We intend to supply further evidence that there was no violation of the election law by accepting any contributions,” said Lopez, who predicted Berrios would prevail on a motion for the ethics board to reconsider its rulings.

A memorandum prepared by Berrios’ team and given to the board Monday lays out numerous objections.

To bolster the position that the county ordinance is invalid, the memo said the statewide contribution limits were put in place to “ensure people with an incentive to curry favor or buy influence with elected officials are prevented from doing so.”

The memo also noted that a delegate to the state’s constitutional convention had argued that election laws “seem to fall entirely within the jurisdiction of the legislature rather than that of home rule units or their voters.”

Even so, various home-rule communities, including the city of Chicago, have placed their own limits on campaign contributions from vendors with which they do business.

Forde also argued that the county ethics ordinance would hinder the right of a citizen to retain the lawyer he or she wishes. “If an attorney made a campaign contribution in excess of the limits” set forth in the county ethics ordinance, “that attorney may have no choice but to decline to take a client’s property tax appeal,” the memo stated.

The memo even challenges whether the county ordinance should apply to contributions from lawyers, saying the attorneys represent “individual taxpayers who are seeking to appeal a tax assessment.”

“They serve as legal representatives of taxpayers who are seeking to enforce the constitutional rights of their clients to fair and uniform assessments,” the memorandum said.

It’s not the first time Berrios will have challenged an ethics board decision. In 2012, the board fined Berrios $10,000 for violating county nepotism rules by hiring his sister and son to work in his office.

After Berrios filed a legal challenge, a judge ruled in 2015 that the assessor had to comply with the county’s ethics ordinance but that the ordinance did not authorize the board to impose fines. County commissioners later gave the board the power to levy fines. Berrios’ son no longer works in the assessor’s office.

Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia commended the ethics board’s actions on contributions from tax appeals attorneys.

“These contributions look bad,” he said. “They appear to the average person as pay-to-play activity.”

Garcia, who is running for Congress, also pointed to the growing list of legal battles Berrios has fought with the ethics board and the county’s inspector general.

“Joe Berrios always seems to be fighting our ethics agencies in Cook County, and it’s taxpayers who end up paying the expensive legal bills,” Garcia said.

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Canadian Research Adds to Worry Over an Environmental Threat the Pentagon Has Downplayed for Decades

by Abrahm Lustgarten

New research by Canadian scientists into the spread of a chemical commonly used in military explosives has confirmed some of the worst fears of U.S. environmental regulators tracking the threat posed by the Pentagon’s handling of its munitions in this country.

The Canadian research analyzed soil and water samples at nine sites where military explosives were detonated between 1990 and 2014, and came up with data about where and in what concentrations the explosive compound known as RDX, a possible human carcinogen, had turned up. Calling RDX “an internationally known problem,” which “has led to an international warning on possible soil, surface water, and groundwater contamination on military training sites,” the research described with actual measurements how RDX floats on the wind and seeps through soils into water supplies.

The researchers took water samples from groundwater at the explosives sites and found that in 26 out of 36 samples, the RDX that had made its way into aquifers exceeded levels considered safe. As a result, the researchers suggest that the data can be used to model RDX contamination at any site where munitions are routinely detonated, and for the first time, give environmental experts a way to quantify how much of it is spreading into surrounding communities.

RDX was considered a major military breakthrough when it was first developed for large-scale use on the eve of World War II, and to this day it remains a staple of the U.S. military’s war-making abilities, used in bombs, missiles and other weapons. And for decades, the Pentagon has known about RDX’s potential health and environmental threat. But the Pentagon has long maintained that the risk is not great, and it has both financed research and flexed its political muscle to have its view prevail. Most recently, the Pentagon has waged an intense fight to not have the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency upgrade its classification of RDX’s health threat, a move that could expose the Department of Defense to billions of added dollars in cleanup costs.

At a minimum, the Canadian research — published Nov. 17 in the Journal of Environmental Quality — will add to the store of knowledge about RDX contamination. The research found that while the highest concentrations of RDX remained in a ring around the sites where munitions had exploded, pieces of explosive, perhaps as large as a centimeter, were carried on the wind and later settled in the soil. Surface and groundwater samples showed that the RDX ultimately did not quickly dissolve or degrade as it sank deeper into the earth, where it usually was carried into water supplies.

Harry Craig, one of the Environmental Protection Agency’s foremost experts on explosives contamination, has described RDX as the single greatest problem the U.S. faces when it comes to cleaning up thousands of toxic munitions sites across the country. In an email to agency colleagues, Craig described the Canadian research as both novel and useful.

ProPublica reported on the history of RDX and the Department of Defense’s long-standing campaign to minimize its risks and fight EPA regulation in December. RDX has been discovered at dozens of U.S. defense sites, and increasingly in public drinking water supplies around them.  After early research by the U.S. Army determined that RDX was likely responsible for cancerous tumors in rats and mice, the Department of Defense has produced dozens of reports portraying RDX as more benign. 

The new report from Canadian scientists confirms some things that the Pentagon had long sought to deny: that RDX contamination was likely to be present in most places were munitions were exploded or detonated, and that once it was present in soil, RDX moved easily into water supplies. The Canadian findings suggest that RDX contamination on or around defense sites in the U.S. could be even more widespread than is already known.

The Canadian report, authored by researchers at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, Centre Eau, Terre et Environnement, and at Defence Research and Development Canada, both in Quebec, lists several U.S. sites with concentrations of RDX contamination that had not been previously disclosed in environmental data the Pentagon had provided to ProPublica. At Fort Hood, in Texas, RDX was present at dangerous levels. The same was true at Fort Greely in Alaska and Fort Bliss in New Mexico.

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AARP and Key Senators Urge Companies to End Age Bias in Recruiting on Facebook

by Jennifer Valentino-DeVries

The largest advocacy group for older Americans and the two top members of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging are calling on employers and tech companies to stop limiting recruitment ads on Facebook and other online sites to younger workers.

“It appears age discrimination is alive and well in the digital era,” Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president of AARP, said in a statement on Friday.

“We urge online platforms to take the steps needed to ensure they’re not supporting age-biased recruiting and hiring practices. And we continue to call on all employers to end bias in their employment practices,” she said.

Maine Republican Susan Collins, who chairs the Senate Aging Committee, and Pennsylvania Democrat Robert Casey, the ranking minority member, wrote to Facebook, Google and LinkedIn on Dec. 22, asking them how many employment ads on their platforms are targeted by age group, and what safeguards they have to prevent employment discrimination based on age. The companies have until the end of January to respond.

“By targeting employment advertisements to specific age groups, certain users may be denied the ability to view job opportunities,” Collins and Casey wrote. “While targeted online job postings can benefit both employers and workers, this technological advancement can also become an avenue for discriminatory practices if not properly managed.”

AARP and the senators were reacting to a Dec. 20 report by ProPublica and The New York Times that dozens of the nation’s leading employers, including Facebook itself, narrow their audience for job ads on Facebook and other platforms by age. The ability of advertisers to direct their messages at specific groups is a cornerstone of Facebook’s business. But such micro-targeting becomes controversial when it fosters discrimination in legally protected categories such as race and age. ProPublica has reported that Facebook also accepted ads aimed at “Jew-haters” as well as housing ads that discriminated by race, gender, disability and other factors.

On the same day that the employment-ad article was published, a class-action complaint alleging age discrimination was filed in federal court in San Francisco against major employers for denying job opportunities to older workers by preventing them from receiving recruiting ads on Facebook. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Communications Workers of America and its members, as well as all Facebook users 40 or older.

ProPublica found that Google and LinkedIn also allowed the purchase of employment ads targeted by age. After being contacted by ProPublica, LinkedIn changed its ad-buying portal to prevent advertisers from using age ranges unless they affirm the ad is not discriminatory. Google and Facebook acknowledged that they allow advertisers to display ads based on the user’s age, and defended the practice.

“Used responsibly, age-based targeting for employment purposes is an accepted industry practice and for good reason: it helps employers recruit and people of all ages find work,” said Rob Goldman, a Facebook vice president. A Facebook spokesman said the company is in touch with the AARP and the Senate Aging Committee.

The AARP, which has more than 35 million members, and the senators also said the widespread targeting of ads to younger workers online shows the need to update the 1967 law that prohibits bias against people 40 or older in hiring or employment.

“Technological advancements require new attention,” LeaMond said. “The methods of discrimination have changed and its tools now include algorithms, dropdown boxes and pattern recognition.”

Casey has proposed legislation to strengthen the age discrimination law by making it equivalent to statutory protections based on race and gender. He said the issue of age targeting in online employment ads is new to him.

“We still have to learn a lot more,” he said in an interview. “One of the problems is the awareness of the law and the intensity with regard to how employers approach compliance on age discrimination is at a very low level” compared with other forms of bias.

Other groups besides AARP also expressed concern in response to the article. “This kind of discriminatory redlining is just the tip of the iceberg, and it must stop,” Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit that seeks to strengthen protections for workers, said in a Dec. 21 statement.

“To hear that certain employers might not make job ads visible to those people, it’s disheartening,” Maura Porcelli, managing director of the Senior Community Service Employment Program at the National Council on Aging, said in an interview. “The data shows that older adults are valuable members of the workplace, with expertise and very low turnover. But clearly some employers have still not embraced that value.”

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Cómo se cometen estafas de bancarrotas con impunidad en Los Ángeles

Este articulo ha sido co-publicado con Univision.

El edificio en forma de caja donde está ubicada la empresa JC Foreclosures Service no parece gran cosa. Si usted va en auto, tal vez pasará por alto esta empresa que realiza el servicio de ejecución de hipotecas entre las gasolineras y talleres de carrocería en el suburbio hispano de Bell, zona de clase trabajadora al sur del condado de Los Ángeles. La única cosa que puede captar su atención es la frase en letras rojas brillantes sobre la ventana, escrita en español: “MODIFICAMOS SU PRESTAMO. DESALOJOS. BANCARROTAS”.

Pero en el interior es donde sucede la ‘magia’. El dueño del negocio, Carlos Baez, es un maestro de algo que es todo un arte en Los Ángeles: utilizar la herramienta de la bancarrota para obtener ganancias. Cuando sus clientes llegan a verlo, desesperados por la posibilidad de ser desalojados, él puede prometer ayudarlos — siempre y cuando le sigan pagando — utilizando el poder de las reglas de la bancarrota para frenar un juicio hipotecario. Baez no es abogado y los archivos muestran que los cientos de casos que ha presentado frecuentemente están mal preparados y son rechazados por las cortes a los pocos meses. Pero el punto no es lograr un alivio duradero a la deuda de sus clientes. La meta es ganar tiempo, algo que logra repetidamente.

Por supuesto, hay leyes para evitar tal abuso del sistema. Si alguien presenta un caso una y otra vez, las protecciones de bancarrota pueden ser revocadas. Pero Baez tiene otra técnica que suele usar. Sobre el papel, sus clientes aparecen transferiendo el derecho de propiedad de sus vivendas a un grupo de personas que reciben un 5% cada uno. Este un truco permite convertir pasar de un único propietario a cuatro, cada uno de los cuales puede declararse en quiebra, uno tras otro. No importa si estos nuevos propietarios son reales. Para cuando llega el momento en que una persona de carne y hueso debe de presentarse en una audiencia, han pasado uno o dos meses. Entonces el caso es desestimado y un nuevo propietario se presenta. Y el proceso vuelve a comenzar.

Con engaños de este estilo, se pueden detener los juicios hipotecarios durante meses y a veces años. Es el tipo de fraude abierto que uno esperaría que podía ser rápidamente detectado y castigado. Pero esto es Los Ángeles, donde Baez no es un innovador extraordinario, sino un miembro más en una industria local que ha existido durante décadas. Lleva más de diez años en el tema. Es difícil llevar la cuenta de todas las leyes de quiebra que ha transgredido y, de acuerdo a sus respuestas a mis preguntas, no tiene planeado detenerse en el futuro cercano. Dice que está ayudando a sus clientes y que para eso existe la bancarrota.

Fui a Los Ángeles porque los datos nacionales mostraban que algo singular estaba pasando allí. Ningún otro distrito en el país ha tenido ni de cerca un número tan grande de casos presentados sin un abogado como la Corte de Bancarrotas de Estados Unidos para el Distrito Central de California. Esto es una señal de advertencia, porque los deudores generalmente terminan mucho peor cuando no tienen representación legal. Indagando más profundamente, nuestro análisis descubrió miles de casos presentados cada año que tenían los indicios clásicos de fraude.

Además, resultó que esto es un secreto a voces no solo entre jueces y administradores de tribunales en el distrito, sino también entre expertos en bancarrota en todo el país. Incluso el Congreso ha aprobado en dos ocasiones leyes para combatir los ardides relacionados con quiebras que emanan de Los Ángeles.

Esto explica la frustración de la juez Maureen Tighe, quien preside en la sala del distrito y ha intentado llamar la atención sobre la escala de estos fraudes. Una exfiscal, Tighe orienta a los empleados de la corte para que estén atentos a gente sospechosa, intenta castigar a aquellos que violan la ley y ayuda a publicar reportes sobre las dimensiones del fraude potencial. Incluso ha convocado audiencias especiales al respecto. Pero hasta ahí llega lo que puede hacer. Mientras tanto, los brazos del sistema judicial con el deber de vigilar estos crímenes — el fiscal general del estado y el Departamento Federal de Investigación (FBI) — raramente actúan al respecto.

“¿Si nadie obedece la ley y si no hay mecanismos para exigir su cumplimiento ni recursos policiales, qué valor tiene la ley?”, preguntó Tighe.

El éxito de estas artimañas refleja un hecho básico del sistema de bancarrota. Para gente que tiene la sofisticación y los recursos para contratar abogados acreditados, la bancarrota funciona bien. Para los otros, existen las trampas.

ProPublica ha estado examinando los problemas profundamente arraigados en el sistema de bancarrota del país utilizando un innovador método de análisis de casos. A través del país, hemos hallado cómo los costos de declararse en quiebra dañan a quienes el sistema de bancarrota debería servir. El año pasado, reportamos que los estadounidenses de raza negra en el Sur son mucho menos propensos a conseguir alivio duradero de sus deudas por bancarrota, debido a las altas tarifas que los abogados exigen, las que los obligan aescoger planes de pago para cubrir una posible quiebra que probablemente no podrán cumplir.

En Los Ángeles descubrimos que lo más probable es que la gente vulnerable y con deudas, particularmente minorías e inmigrantes, intenten navegar el sistema sin ningún abogado. Muchos de ellos recurren a personas como Báez, preparadores de peticiones de bancarrota sin licencia, quienes muchas veces operan más allá de lo que permite la ley y esconden su participación cuando tramitan los casos.

Distritos judiciales en otras partes del país con altas cifras de casos tramitados por los mismos afectados — lugares como Atlanta, Detroit y Milwaukee — tienen problemas similares de fraude. En particular, lo que aquí sucede es que existen preparadores de solicitudes sin escrúpulos quienes burlan las leyes y cobran demasiado por sus servicios.

“Hay tanta gente que necesita el apoyo que da el sistema para quiebras y que no pueden pagarlo,” dijo Tighe. “Y entonces caen víctimas de estos estafadores. Si tuviéramos acceso adecuado [para todos] a nuestro sistema legal, estas personas no caerían presos de la cosecha de estos artistas del fraude”.

La jueza Maureen Tighe, exfiscal federal, ha intentado llamar la atención sobre el fraude en la Corte de Bancarrotas de Estados Unidos del Distrito Central de California, donde ha sido jueza desde 2003.
(Kendrick Brinson para ProPublica)

A pesar de estas tendencias negativas, tanto en el sur de Estados Unidos como en Los Ángeles, hallamos una arraigada falta de voluntad para detener las estafas.

Sin mucha vigilancia penal de las leyes, la cantidad de fraudes en el Distrito Central de California sube y baja con la economía. Durante la crisis hipotecaria en 2011, cuando los 126,000 casos presentados por quiebra de consumidores en el distrito fueron casi un 10% de todos los casos en el país, la cantidad de fraudes de este tipo llegó a su punto máximo. Hoy, en una región donde tanta gente lucha para poder costear su vivienda, muchos estafadores todavía siguen operando.

El Programa Fiduciario de Estados Unidos, agencia que supervisa la corte de bancarrota, refiere cientos de crímenes potenciales a la oficina local del fiscal federal cada año. En la mayoría de los años, solo entre uno y tres casos acaban en denuncias penales, según datos obtenidos por ProPublica a través de una solicitud bajo el Acta de Libertad de Información. En 2009, ni una sola de las 266 recomendaciones para acción penal hechas por la oficina del Programa Fiduciario produjo una denuncia por los fiscales en el distrito.

“Hay mucha frustración, creo, entre algunos miembros del Programa Fiduciario que sienten que están haciendo el máximo esfuerzo para intentar hacer algo contra este tipo de crimen financiero,” dijo Jennifer Braun, quien trabajó como abogada en la oficina de distrito de este programa hasta principios del año pasado.

Los fiscales federales mencionan la falta de recursos y la necesidad de perseguir crímenes de perfil más alto como las razones por las que existen pocas denuncias en casos de quiebra. Desentrañar estas complejas argucias requiere mucho trabajo para victorias de poco calibre, dijeron.

Como resultado, especialmente en los barrios predominantemente de hispanos e inmigrantes dentro y alrededor de Los Ángeles, no es difícil encontrar ejemplos de estas artimañas. Solo tuve que mirar un poco.


Encontré la empresa Liderazgo Financiero solo a un par de millas de JC Foreclosure. “NO PIERDA SU CASA” decía el letrero impreso que colgaba encima de una ventana con barrotes. Dentro del negocio, encima de un escritorio, montones de panfletos de publicidad de color verde cubiertos de advertencias urgentes en español sobre juicios hipotecarios estaban listos para ser enviados por correo.

“La única forma de evitar un juicio hipotecario es a través de una quiebra”, me dijo Santiago Núñez cuando visité su pequeña oficina en South Gate en junio. “Tienes que hacer un Capítulo 13”.

Es cierto que el Capítulo 13 es la mejor opción bajo el código de quiebra para alguien que se enfrenta a un juicio hipotecario. Teóricamente, los propietarios en apuros pueden ponerse al día con su deuda por hipoteca a través de un plan de pagos, que suele durar cinco años y está calibrado conforme a los ingresos del afectado.

Pero aun cuando los deudores presentan su caso con un abogado, el Capítulo 13 tiene sus riesgos. Sin un abogado, es casi imposible obtener sus beneficios sin problemas. Entre 2008 y 2014, casi la mitad de las bancarrotas presentadas por Capítulo 13 en el Distrito Central de California se hicieron sin abogado (conocidos en la jerga legal de EEUU como casos pro se). Alrededor de un 85% de estos casos quedaron incompletos porque en los tramites faltaba información financiera básica de los deudores, según el análisis de ProPublica. Casi todos los casos fueron desechados en pocos meses, forzando a los deudores a volver a empezar sin ningún alivio a sus deudas.

Cuando revisé 50 casos pro se tramitados por Capitulo 13 en zonas mayoritariamente hispanas donde son más comunes las quiebras sin representación de un abogado, determiné que dos tercios de los deudores terminaron perdiendo sus viviendas, normalmente a menos de un año de haber presentado el caso.

Ni Núñez ni su mujer, Verónica, propietaria de la compañía, son abogados. Saltando de inglés al español, Núñez describió afablemente los servicios que Liderazgo Financiero ofrece a clientes desesperados por salvar sus hogares. Los abogados locales de quiebra, dijo, pueden cobrar hasta 5,000 dólares para tramitar un caso bajo Capítulo 13, pero su empresa solo cobra 200 dólares. Es cierto que las tarifas de abogados para Capítulo 13 en Los Ángeles oscilan entre 4,000 y 5,000 dólares, pero muchos abogados aceptan una porción de esa cantidad como anticipo, con el restante a pagar a través del plan. Para la gran frustración de jueces y abogados en el distrito, empresas como Liderazgo Financiero suelen atraer a los clientes con promesas de un rescate barato, pero después terminan extrayendo tarifas parecidas a las que cobran los abogados.

Cuando le pregunté a Núñez acerca de sus tarifas, reconoció que los 200 dólares solo cubren el documento más básico: la solicitud de quiebra. Para presentar toda la información necesaria sobre los ingresos, deudas y activos del deudor, la empresa cobraba 1,500 dólares, según dijo.

Esto es ilegal. Se permite a los no-abogados ayudar a alguien con un caso de quiebra, pero si aceptan pago, sus actividades están estrictamente limitadas. Se exige que revelen su involucramiento y no pueden dar consejos legales. En Los Ángeles, cualquiera puede establecerse como preparador de solicitudes, pero lo máximo que pueden cobrar por rellenar los formularios es 200 dólares.

La oficina de Liderazgo Financiero en South Gate, California. Los propietarios no son abogados, pero han tramitado cientos de quiebras, muchas veces violando la ley.
(Kendrick Brinson para ProPublica)

Un preparador de solicitudes con quien hablé dijo que es imposible hacer el trabajo bien y también cumplir con la ley. “No puedes ser un preparador y no dar consejos legales, porque si un cliente tiene una pregunta [sobre la quiebra] y usted responde a la pregunta, entonces les está dando un consejo legal,” dijo Christian Yates, asistente legal. Después de ser multado por Tighe en 2012 por violar las leyes de tramitación de casos, Yates dijo que ahora solo ayuda con las quiebras con un abogado presente, lo que sí es permitido. Pero otros preparadores “van a seguir haciéndolo hasta que sean pillados,” dijo.

Los preparadores de solicitudes son más activos en los barrios hispanos del distrito, pero están en todas partes, prometiendo ayudar tanto con el Capítulo 13 como con el Capítulo 7, que típicamente elimina las deudas en un par de meses. Un deudor que conocí en una audiencia de la corte, y quien pidió que no se usara su nombre, me dijo que encontró un preparador sencillamente poniendo “paralegal’’ (asistente de abogado) en Google y que había pagado 750 dólares. Se prohíbe a los preparadores usar la palabra “legal” u otras similares al publicitar sus servicios, pero muchos sencillamente ignoran esta restricción.

Según archivos judiciales, Araneta Legal Services, que hasta recientemente operaba el sitio web losangelesparalegal.org, no había revelado que había rellenado la solicitud del deudor. Los preparadores pueden esquivar la atención de la corte por el sencillo método de no revelar su participación en un caso, otra violación de la ley. Joseph Araneta, dueño de la empresa, no respondió a mis llamadas y correos electrónicos. Al parecer, la empresa ha dejado de funcionar.

En lo que concierne a Liderazgo Financiero, los archivos demuestran que ha estado involucrada en más de 200 quiebras desde mitades de 2012. En al menos 56 de ellas, la empresa no reveló su involucramiento.

Yo pude conectar estos casos a la empresa porque datos de la corte identificaban a Verónica Núñez como la persona que los había llevado a los tribunales. Como una medida para combatir que los preparadores eludan los requerimientos de información, los cinco tribunales en el distrito han empezado a exigir a los no-abogados mostrar su identificación cuando presentan en persona casos de quiebra para sus clientes. La corte compartió estos datos con ProPublica. Pero hasta esta cifra es incompleta porque Santiago Núñez me dijo que la empresa generalmente exige a los clientes que presenten sus casos ellos mismos. Esta es otra manera en que los preparadores evaden el escrutinio judicial.

Algunas de las bancarrotas manejadas por Liderazgo Financiero que examiné eran claramente falsas. En una estratagema que duró entre 2009 y 2015, 18 deudores diferentes dieron la misma dirección en Compton como su hogar en sus solicitudes de quiebra, pero solo uno de ellos vivía realmente en la casa de 1,100 pies cuadrados, según archivos públicos.

Verónica Núñez llevó ocho de estas quiebras de Compton a los tribunales, según indican los datos de la corte. Una novena quiebra fue presentada bajo el nombre de Juan Azuaje, un hombre que había contratado a Liderazgo Financiero para evitar un juicio hipotecario sobre su casa que estaba a una distancia de 50 millas en Simi Valley, según una grabación de la audiencia en la corte en 2012. Los archivos de la corte muestran que él, o alguien que usaba su nombre, presentó dos solicitudes de quiebra separadas en el mismo día: una dando la dirección de Simi Valley como su casa, la otra dando la dirección de Compton. Los archivos públicos muestran que Azuaje no tuvo ningún vínculo a la casa de Compton, que finalmente llegó a juicio hipotecario. Azuaje y el antiguo dueño de la propiedad de Compton no pudieron ser localizados para dar sus comentarios.

Las frecuentes presentaciones de solicitudes por parte de Liderazgo Financiero no han pasado totalmente desapercibidas en la corte. En enero de 2012, un juez en el distrito emitió una orden para que Santiago Núñez apareciera y se enfrentara a posibles multas por tramitar un caso de forma incorrecta. Este no se presentó en corte, algo común, según Tighe. “Tengo cientos de órdenes que están siendo ignoradas.”

Núñez no respondió a una detallada lista de preguntas que le hice en relación a varias violaciones de la ley.


En el verano de 2012, Mohsen Saeedy estaba desesperado. El hombre, un inmigrante iraní de alrededor de cincuenta años, había construido su propio negocio de imprenta de fotos en Los Ángeles y puesto sus ahorros en una casa tipo rancho en Phoenix, Arizona, donde él y su mujer planeaban jubilarse. La hipoteca de interés y tasa modificable le había parecido asequible en 2007. Cinco años después, ya no lo era.

Entonces encontró a JC Foreclosure. Según el recuerdo de Saeedy, la empresa prometió forzar al banco a modificar su préstamo y bajar el préstamo principal a lo que realmente valía la casa. En su estado de desesperación, dijo Saeedy, esas promesas eran irresistibles. Pagó 1,000 dólares a un intermediario para que le conectara con JC Foreclosure. Después dio a la empresa \$1,600 para empezar, y aceptó pagar \$600 en efectivo cada mes.

Por supuesto, JC Foreclosure no tenía ningún poder especial para convencer a los bancos de hacer lo que ellos querían. Sin embargo, tenía muchos trucos. Poco después, la empresa ejecutó una transferencia de título de propiedad de la esposa de Saeedy, quien poseía el título de la casa de Arizona, a una mujer llamada Marian García. Más tarde, un segundo y un tercer título de propiedad sirvieron para transferir intereses en la casa a cuatro individuos más. Saeedy me dijo que no sabía quién era García o las demás personas, y su mujer dijo que nunca había firmado tales títulos de propiedad.

Las ventanas frontales de JC Foreclosure Service
(Kendrick Brinson para ProPublica)

En este tipo de arreglos, el poder de protección del Capitulo 13 puede ser desplegado repetidamente para la misma casa siempre y cuando cada deudor parezca tener derecho a reclamar las protecciones brindadas por una bancarrota.

“[Es] la orden de suspensión cautelar más barata que se puede conseguir,” dijo Tighe.

No queda claro si algunas de esas personas sabían que habían adquirido acciones en una casa en Arizona. Un par de ellas no parecen ser reales. Pero un nuevo propietario involuntario de una porción de la propiedad de Saeedy es sin duda una persona real. De hecho, ya había presentado su propia solicitud de quiebra independiente. Después de tramitarla solo, había contratado a un abogado. Sin saberlo, unos estafadores le habían transferido acciones de al menos 11 propiedades, entre ellas la casa de Saeedy, según mociones registradas en su caso.

Abogados, jueces y fiscales llaman esta técnica de fraude ‘secuestro’. Los estafadores seleccionan una quiebra recién presentada — realmente no importa cual — y después fingen que el deudor de aquel caso es el dueño de las propiedades que los estafadores quieren proteger. Es un ardid ingenioso que frena el juicio hipotecario y ahorra el gasto de una tarifa de tramitación de solicitud.

Este tipo de ‘secuestros’ crean dolores de cabeza para abogados y jueces y exponen a deudores legítimos al peligro de efectos adversos. Renay Rodriguez, abogada en Los Ángeles, lidió con un caso en el cual porciones de 13 propiedades diferentes fueron transferidas a sus clientes. “Era absolutamente desconcertante intentar explicárselo,” dijo.

Las otras cuatro personas que recibieron acciones en la casa de Saeedy todas solicitaron quiebras pro se. Una parece ser una persona verdadera que, con la ayuda de otro preparador, presentó nueve solicitudes de quiebra durante seis años. Finalmente un juez le prohibió presentar otras solicitudes. Otra persona declaró que su vivienda era la dirección empresarial de JC Foreclosure.

Cuando en verano visité la pequeña oficina de la empresa, estaba vacía exceptuando una mujer en la mesa de recepción. Ella me dijo que la empresa no tramitaba solicitudes de quiebra porque Baez, el dueño, no era abogado. En vez de esto, dijo, la compañía derivaba a los clientes a un bufete legal cuando la bancarrota parecía la opción apropiada. No se acordaba del nombre del bufete.

En el mostrador enfrente de su escritorio – al lado de una pila de panfletos de publicidad postal marcados URGENTE, con las direcciones escritas y listos para ser enviados a clientes potenciales – había formularios de quiebra, rellenados para una deudora de nombre Suyay Crow, pero todavía sin tramitar.

Más tarde, cuando averigüé en archivos públicos, parecía que nadie con este nombre jamás había vivido en la casa del sur de Los Ángeles que estaba listada en la solicitud de quiebra. Era en realidad la segunda vez que Crow había presentado una solicitud de quiebra desde aquella dirección, cada vez sin abogado. Crow, quien puede existir o no, había adquirido acciones en la propiedad a través de un título de propiedad realizado el pasado marzo.

Al día siguiente, visité la casa en el sur de Los Ángeles. Cuatro vehículos estaban estacionados enfrente de la casa y unos niños jugaban en el jardín. Un montón de basura, incluyendo una vieja pecera y neumáticos, ocupaban el porche de la entrada. La dueña, una señora de raza negra de 86 años, abrió la puerta en silla de ruedas. Dijo que vivía allí con su sobrina, su hijo y las dos hijas de este, y que había sido la propietaria de la casa por 20 años.

La mujer, quien pidió que no se usara su nombre, me dijo que no sabía nada de Crow, Baez o JC Foreclosure. Estaba en peligro de un juicio hipotecario, dijo, porque habían subido las tarifas de pago de un préstamo. Usando otro preparador local, ella había tramitado dos solicitudes de quiebra bajo su nombre en años recientes. Las dos veces, los casos habían sido rápidamente desechados. Pero dijo que no sabía nada de los otros casos presentados y que nunca había firmado un título transfiriendo acciones de la propiedad.

“No tengo nada que ver con esto, absolutamente nada,” me dijo. Los archivos públicos muestran que el prestamista fue a juicio hipotecario por la casa en octubre.

Desde 2012, Baez ha llevado al menos 237 casos de quiebra a los tribunales. Solo en 10 casos un preparador fue identificado. Como con Liderazgo Financiero, la cifra probablemente solo refleja una parte de la actividad de la empresa, especialmente porque JC Foreclosure ha estado funcionando desde 2005, mucho antes de que la corte empezara a hacer seguimiento de tramitadores sospechosos.

Parece que la empresa sistemáticamente cobra a sus clientes tarifas que exceden considerablemente el monto legalmente permitido de 200 dólares por sus servicios, como hizo con Saeedy. Un contrato de 2016 que me fue mostrado indica que la empresa cobró 1,200 dólares para tramitar una bancarrota de Capitulo 13.

Los ciclos de quiebras falsas pueden evitar el juicio hipotecario durante años, pero a veces los servicios de hipoteca finalmente descubren la trama y presentan un recurso para frenarla. Respondiendo a una cadena de siete solicitudes que parecen haber sido organizados por Baez (los datos de la corte muestran que personalmente llevó al menos dos de los casos a los tribunales), un abogado para una empresa de hipotecas declaró en una moción en 2013 “el abuso de las leyes de bancarrota debe ser frenado. Ya basta”.

La empresa hipotecaria finalmente se percató del el caso de Saeedy también, y consiguió una orden prohibiendo que cualquier futura quiebra impidiera un juicio hipotecario sobre la propiedad. Durante más de un año, Saeedy pagó a la empresa de Baez con la expectativa de recibir una modificación de su préstamo, de acuerdo a lo que me explicó. Entonces fue abruptamente informado por Baez de que la empresa no podía hacer más para ayudarle. El juicio hipotecario era inminente. Invadido de nuevo por el pánico, Saeedy solicitó la quiebra por su cuenta para frenar la venta y rápidamente contrató un abogado.

Solo entonces, dijo, se enteró de las quiebras fraudulentas. Su abogado explicó que por culpa de ellas, su propia solicitud de quiebra no había impedido el juicio hipotecario.

Casi cuatro años después, Saeedy todavía está recuperándose. Finalmente decidió dejar el caso de bancarrota porque no veía que valiera la pena. Lamenta no haber presentado una solicitud antes. “Hubiera tenido un resultado muy diferente”, dijo.

Como muchas víctimas de estafas, Saeedy no puso una denuncia ni fue a las autoridades. En vez de eso, dijo, ha estado “negando la realidad” de los miles de dólares que había malgastado. “No quería pensar en lo estúpido que había sido”.

Envié preguntas a Baez, exponiendo las pruebas de cómo su empresa había violado las leyes de quiebra cientos de veces. También detallé cuatro tramas de transferencia de título de propiedad además de los casos que se explican en este reportaje.

En una respuesta escrita, Baez no negó ni reconoció haber falsificado documentos o presentado solicitudes de quiebra en nombre de gente ficticia. Se negó a hablar de ningún caso particular, diciendo que para hacer eso necesitaba un permiso firmado del cliente.

En su lugar, aseveró que, como su empresa tramitaba quiebras para beneficiar a clientes, las tramitaciones de solicitudes no habían sido fraudulentas, porque las leyes de quiebra “están allí para proteger a deudores”. También dijo que yo me había equivocado en decir que él había trabajado como preparador de solicitudes porque la mayoría de sus clientes “no vienen a nosotros solo para presentar un caso de bancarrota”. Cobra más de 200 dólares a los clientes, dijo, porque la empresa pasa mucho tiempo trabajando con ello. “Es una práctica común entre muchos proveedores de servicios ayudar a sus clientes a presentar una solicitud de Capitulo 13 si se necesita más tiempo para negociar con los prestamistas,” añadió.

No hay excepción en la ley que permita a los negocios cobrar más de 200 dólares si otorgan otros servicios además de preparar los casos de quiebra.

Baez dijo que su oficina provee rutinariamente a sus clientes “el servicio” de llevar sus casos de bancarrota a la corte y pagar las tarifas de la tramitación de solicitud. Esto es una violación de la ley.

Pero dijo que mis preguntas habían causado “una revisión cuidadosa de nuestras prácticas empresariales”. En adelante, JC Foreclosure va a exigir que los clientes presenten sus propios casos de quiebra, dijo.

En un indicio de los desafíos que enfrenta la corte, este cambio prometido simplemente hará más difícil rastrear las actividades de la compañía.


Las denuncias penales por fraude de bancarrota no siempre fueron tan infrecuentes como son ahora. En 1988, cuando Tighe empezó su carrera como fiscal en Los Ángeles, su única responsabilidad era combatir este tipo de fraude. Ya entonces, el área exigía atención a raíz del número extremadamente alto de casos presentados por deudores sin abogados y la proliferación de preparadores de solicitudes.

Tighe preguntó, “Si nadie obedece la ley, y si no hay mecanismos para exigir su cumplimiento ni recursos policiales, qué valor tiene la ley?”
(Kendrick Brinson para ProPublica)

“Puse a muchos de ellos en la cárcel”, dijo Tighe acerca de los primeros innovadores de fraude en el distrito. Durante los noventa, las denuncias penales por quiebras continuaron siendo una prioridad. En 1996, la entonces fiscal general Janet Reno lanzó una campaña nacional llamada ‘Operación Transparencia Total’, enfocada en el problema.

Pero las estadísticas nacionales revelan que estas denuncias penales empezaron a escasear después de 2001. Llegado 2011, el número de denuncias federales en las cuales el cargo principal era un crimen relacionado a una quiebra había caído a menos de la mitad, según datos compilados por la Oficina de Compensación de Acceso a Archivos Transaccionales.

Esta caída ocurrió a pesar de algunas advertencias internas. En el FBI, una evaluación de inteligencia de 2010 que ha sido hecho pública subsecuentemente concluyó que las quiebras fraudulentas, especialmente aquellas utilizadas para congelar juicios hipotecarios, iban a tener “un impacto significativo sobre las industrias estadounidenses de hipotecas, banca y bonos; en los consumidores; y en la economía de Estados Unidos en general”.

Las tramas afectan a bancos, inversionistas y barrios porque dilatan juicios hipotecarios inevitables. También causan juicios hipotecarios innecesarios porque atrapan a propietarios en apuros que podrían haber logrado mantener posesión de sus casas a través de medios legítimos.

A pesar del informe de inteligencia, no hay indicios de que se reasignaran recursos al respecto. En entrevistas, antiguos fiscales federales dijeron que recortes de presupuesto han defenestrado su capacidad para llevar adelante denuncias de este tipo.

Evan Davis, un exfiscal federal en Los Ángeles, recordó su frustración cuando era su trabajo coordinar las denuncias federales por quiebras en el distrito durante la crisis hipotecaria, y la oficina local del Fiduciario federal le mandaba una serie seguida de posibles crímenes para investigar.

“Mi caja de correos se atascaba con referencias que no tenía ningún interés en leer, porque sabía que no irían a ninguna parte”, dijo. “Estábamos allí sentados lamentando el hecho de que no podríamos hacer más por esos casos”.

Robert Dugdale, un fiscal federal adjunto que fue jefe de la división criminal en Los Ángeles de 2010 a 2015, dijo que hubo “una congelación de contrataciones en nuestra oficina durante varios años, así que todos los que se iban no podían ser reemplazados”. Llegó un momento, dijo, en que el dinero era tan escaso que solo mandar un paquete por Fedex requería un memorándum justificando el gasto.

Las limitaciones eran aún peores en el FBI, de acuerdo diversas fuentes. Después de los atentados del 11 de Septiembre, el terrorismo doméstico se convirtió en un enfoque mayor para el FBI y otras fuerzas de seguridad, sacando recursos del área de denuncias de crimen financiero. Por encima, a los agentes del FBI “en efecto se les disuadía de investigar los casos [de quiebra],” dijo Davis, porque el fraude de bancarrota es clasificado en el nivel menor de crímenes financieros.

El Programa Fiduciario federal también ha sido exprimido por recortes de presupuesto. En un testimonio reciente al Congreso, el director del programa se jactó de su “diligente administración de recursos cada vez más escasos,” dado que su personal ha sido reducido en un 14% durante los últimos diez años.

Los abogados del Programa Fiduciario federal pueden hacer denuncias civiles como respuesta a transgresiones, pero no cargos criminales. Para esto, remiten los casos a otras agencias. Los fiscales estatales y locales pueden hacer denuncias a veces, pero solo si también se han violado leyes locales como parte de la trama.

En una declaración oficial a ProPublica, el Departamento de Justicia resaltó las actividades del Programa Fiduciario federal para identificar crímenes en quiebras y entrenar a otros para identificarlos: “Con el paso del tiempo, estos esfuerzos colectivos dentro del Departamento de Justicia y con la comunidad más amplia de bancarrota pueden resultar no solo en un aumento en remisiones y denuncias penales, sino también en una mayor disuasión de crímenes por quiebras desde el inicio”. La declaración no explicó cómo este aumento en denuncias penales “podría” ocurrir.

La falta de recursos disponibles para denuncias vinculadas a las quiebras no está limitada a Los Ángeles. En Milwaukee, hace tiempo que los jueces de bancarrotas están preocupados por la conducta de los preparadores de solicitudes.

“Es algo trágico porque la gente que está siendo victimizada por esto son los más vulnerables,” dijo la jueza Susan Kelley, jefa de los jueces de quiebras en el Distrito Este de Wisconsin.

Cada abril, después de que han pasado los meses más duros del invierno del Medio Oeste, la compañía de energía de Milwaukee termina su suspensión invernal de cortar servicios de gas o electricidad por causa de falta de pagos. Amenazados con perder los servicios, muchos residentes responden presentando solicitudes de quiebra, frecuentemente con la ayuda de preparadores, de acuerdo a Kelley.

La gran mayoría de esos deudores tienen bajos ingresos y son de raza negra. Según el análisis hecho por ProPublica de los casos presentados en el distrito desde 2013 hasta finales de 2015, casi la mitad de los casos de Capítulo 7 tramitados por deudores en zonas de mayoría negra fueron hechos sin abogado. En las zonas de mayoría blanca, solo un 5% de los casos fueron presentados pro se.

Frenar a estos preparadores algunas veces ha resultado estar fuera del alcance de los poderes de la corte. En un ejemplo, los jueces mandaron dos veces a alguaciles federales para forzar a una preparadora a presentarse en corte y explicar por qué había ignorado las órdenes de la corte y las multas. Cuando ni esta medida la detuvo, la corte intentó abrir un procedimiento criminal.

La oficina del fiscal federal se abstuvo de hacer la denuncia, sin embargo, porque “haberlo hecho no sería un uso prudente de recursos de la justicia”, según una orden de una corte de distrito.

“Simplemente encuentro muy frustrante no poder hacer algo más”, dijo Kelley, que dijo que no recuerda haber escuchado de ninguna denuncia penal a un preparador en el distrito. “Esta gente abusa de los más pobres de los pobres”.

Un portavoz de la Oficina del Fiscal Federal para el Distrito Este de Wisconsin declinó hacer comentarios.

Thom Mrozek, portavoz de la Oficina del Fiscal Federal de Los Ángeles, reconoció que el personal ha sido especialmente reducido “en varios momentos durante los últimos 10 años”, pero dijo que está aumentando de nuevo. “Dedicamos nuestros recursos limitados después de evaluar los hechos de un caso individual, y también nuestro deseo de enfrentar los crímenes más serios y maximizar la disuasión en las áreas de más alta preocupación”.

La oficina ha presentado algunas denuncias penales importantes por fraude en quiebras en años recientes. Pero hasta aquellos casos a veces terminan demostrando lo limitada que ha sido la vigilancia de las leyes de bancarrota.

El pasado junio, el gobierno federal denunció penalmente a Mickey Henschel, que es una institución en Los Ángeles. En 1995, fue el sujeto de un perfil periodístico en el periódico Los Ángeles Times.

El autor se maravillaba de que, a pesar de varias actividades supuestamente fraudulentas (incluyendo armar quiebras por gente ficticia), Henschel había logrado mantenerse fuera de la cárcel. Nueve años después, el Times hizo otro reportaje sobre Henschel, comentando, “uno de los sitios más seguros para cometer fraude es el Sur de California”, y otra vez se maravilló de su habilidad para eludir la prisión, a pesar de varios choques con la ley y un largo historial de supuesto fraude en quiebras.

Ahora, cuando ya casi tiene 70 años, Henschel finalmente ha sido acusado penalmente por una supuesta trama de presentar bancarrotas falsas para dar falsas esperanzas a propietarios desesperados, entre otras tácticas. Su empresa ha cobrado más de 7 millones de dólares a sus víctimas, según los fiscales. Henschel se ha declarado no culpable. Su abogado no respondió a mis preguntas.

Para los fiscales que han trabajado en el distrito, la existencia de operadores de largo tiempo como Henschel ayuda a explicar porque el fraude por quiebras es tan común aquí. Los estafadores enseñan su oficio a otros, que enseñan a otros más. Hoy en día las mañas ya están tan expandidas que no hay esperanza. Y la demanda, cuando la economía va mal, puede no tener límites.

“Tenemos este problema mayor de fraude al consumidor aquí, y no tenemos ningún elemento de disuasión”, dijo Tighe. “Es una pena, porque da un mal nombre al proceso de bancarrotas para la gente que realmente lo necesitan y quienes lo están usando legítimamente”.

La reportera de datos de ProPublica Hannah Fresques y la reportera de enlace con el público Adriana Gallardo contribuyeron a este reportaje, además de Verónica Villafañe y Sarah Betancourt. Traducción al español por Carmen Méndez.

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