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ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.
Nearly an hour into Judge Anibal Martinez’s afternoon immigration docket, the bailiff called out Wilder Maldonado’s name. The 6-year-old hadn’t made a fuss about the wait, quietly coloring pictures of animals. Now, he set aside his blue crayon, tiptoed up to the defendant’s table and took a long, deep breath.
Wilder Hilario Maldonado Cabrera, chubby-cheeked with a toothless grin, has done a lot of waiting. He and his father left grinding poverty El Salvador for the United States in June, but they were caught by Border Patrol agents after they illegally entered the country. The agents then separated the pair — along with nearly 3,000 others — as part of the administration’s zero-tolerance policy. Faced with sweeping condemnations, the administration retreated from the policy and, led by immigrant advocates and lawyers, began putting the families back together. Wilder’s case is one of the last that remains unresolved.
Since their separation, Wilder has been living in a temporary foster home in San Antonio while his father is held in an immigration detention facility less than an hour’s drive away. Wilder has spent the last six months — one-twelfth of his life — in limbo, waiting for his father’s plea for asylum to work its way through the system and determine whether the two of them could start a new life in the United States, or be sent back to the one they left.
Part of Wilder’s waiting involved coming to Martinez’s court. Wilder was last here a few weeks ago, right before Thanksgiving. That day, he was striking, wearing a hat stitched with two googly eyes and a red yarn mohawk. This time, he dressed without flourish, in a dark denim jacket with gray sleeves. Last time, he appeared alone, without a lawyer. This time, his father’s lawyer, Thelma O. Garcia, appeared on both the father and son’s behalf.
Garcia said that Wilder’s father had been denied asylum and had decided not to appeal any further. He’d grown desperate sitting in detention, while his wife and three other children remained back in El Salvador struggling to cobble together enough money to eat. He was his family’s sole breadwinner, Garcia said, and if he wasn’t going to be able to stay here, he needed urgently to go home. And he wanted take Wilder with him.
But one of the quirks of the zero-tolerance reunification system required Wilder to affirmatively tell a judge that he wanted to go. That’s why Garcia had joined him in court.
“We are requesting a voluntary departure for this young man,” Garcia said.
“He wishes to return to El Salvador?” the judge asked.
“Yes,” Garcia said.
“Would his return place him in any danger or harm?” the judge asked.
“The parents are there for him, and he should not be in any danger,” she said.
Then the judge peered down from the bench at Wilder. “You want to go home to your mother?”
Wilder nodded eagerly, smiling at the judge, who he referred to as “El Señor.”
Then the judge ordered it so, and he set a six-week deadline for Wilder to leave the country, as if his departure was up to him.
At that moment, the only departure that really seemed to matter to Wilder was getting out of the courtroom. He yawned and looked around for his caseworker. He asked Garcia, whose hands he’d adorned with stickers, whether she’d call him to play again sometime. Then, as he got up to leave, he was asked how he felt. His answer suggested that the moment was bittersweet. He wants to go home to his mother and sisters, but he’s also become attached to his foster parent, a woman he calls “tía,” or aunt.
“I’m tired,” he said. “And I’m sad because I have to leave my tía.”
The federal agency responsible for primary policing duties at a controversial tent city housing thousands of immigrant children in Tornillo, Texas, doesn’t have experience investigating child sex offense cases, despite evidence that such assaults are occurring within the nation’s shelter system.
The tent city, built on a patch of federal land near the border in El Paso County, has been a focal point of criticism and controversy as the number of children housed there has ballooned in recent months to about 2,800.
Late last month, as part of a larger investigation into child safety at the shelters, the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services warned that the Trump administration had waived FBI fingerprint background checks for employees at the emergency tent shelter and had hired “dangerously” few mental health counselors.
To handle any potential crimes at the tent city, the government has assigned the largely obscure Federal Protective Service.
The chief mission of the FPS is to protect federal buildings, such as the Census Bureau and the Social Security Administration, which it mostly does through its force of 13,500 private security guards. The agency also employs 1,000 law enforcement officers, who conduct site assessments, handle bomb threats and investigate any crimes, such as assaults and burglaries, that occur on federal property.
But an FPS spokesman acknowledged Thursday that the agency doesn’t have experience investigating the allegations of children who may have been abused or sexually assaulted.
“I don’t know of us investigating any cases in recent history,” said Robert Sperling, director of communications for FPS. The agency’s mission is protecting federal facilities, “there’s not often areas or instances where something like that may happen or occur.”
Experts in forensic interviewing and child abuse said children in the shelters are doubly vulnerable because they fear reporting assaults might affect their immigration cases.
Andrea Asnes, a pediatrician specializing in child abuse and an associate professor at Yale School of Medicine, said she also worried that children may be unlikely to disclose abuse at Tornillo and caregivers there may hesitate to alert law enforcement because it could reflect poorly on their vigilance.
“Then the law enforcement personnel are untrained, don’t know how to respond to these situations and may unwittingly add trauma to a situation,” Asnes said. “I think it’s fraught from start to finish.
Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance, called the arrangement “a Bermuda Triangle for child protection.”
In July, ProPublica reported that police nationwide have responded to hundreds of calls reporting possible sex crimes at the more than 100 shelters that serve immigrant children. Several cases have led to the arrests of staff members or teenage residents of the shelters. In September, a youth care worker, who’d gone for months without a background check, was convicted of molesting seven immigrant boys over nearly a year at an Arizona shelter run by Southwest Key.
The tent city in Tornillo, which opened in June, is operated by BCFS, a social services nonprofit based in San Antonio, and overseen by HHS.
But FPS is responsible for responding to everything from physical assaults to suicide attempts, which are not uncommon in other shelters. The officers, who are stationed at a nearby point-of-entry facility, would collect initial information on any incidents and then forward the details to the HHS inspector general’s office for review and follow-up. Sperling said his agency hasn’t written up any incident reports thus far.
Experts fear the communication logistics between FPS and HHS will undoubtedly delay important interviewing of the children that experts say should happen as soon as possible.
“The longer the chain of actions or the longer the loop of information between a child making a disclosure and an actual investigation, anything that lengthens that has a likelihood of both compromising a case and also adding to the trauma,” said Huizar, whose group trains and accredits organizations to conduct child abuse interviews.
“If we really want to ensure kids are protected — even though they are turning over cases to the [inspector general’s office] — those frontline first responders absolutely have to be trained,” she said.
The structure at Tornillo is a departure from how such crimes are handled at most of the other shelters housing immigrant children, which may involve two levels of outside scrutiny.
In nearly all of the facilities funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, potential sex crimes are reported first to the local police, who may call in a forensic interviewers who are specially trained to elicit sensitive details from children. In most cases, should the police determine an assault happened, trained social workers from the state agency overseeing children would also investigate. But unlike other shelters, the tent city in Tornillo isn’t licensed as a child care facility in Texas or subject to the state’s regulations.
The inspector general’s office didn’t respond to questions about lag time on potential investigations but said in a statement it is partnering with state child protection agencies to ensure cases are responded to quickly.
Former FPS director Gary Schenkel said the most relevant experience the agency has is providing security for emergency shelters in the wake of natural disasters. When incidents happened at those shelters, FPS officers would respond and open an investigation before passing it off to local authorities.
“We’re not staffed to do investigations like a local police department would be with detectives, crime scene evidence collection we re just not equipped for that,” Schenkel said. “We always have worked with local jurisdictions when it comes to crimes committed in and around federal facilities. We just didn’t have the equipment or personnel to do that.”
ProPublica’s review of hundreds of police reports connected to ORR-funded shelters showed that the HHS inspector general’s office was rarely involved in those child assault investigations. In 2017, it helped to investigate a youth care worker’s relationship with a teen at shelter on federal land in Homestead, Florida. The worker was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sending nude photos of herself to a 15-year-old boy who’d recently left the shelter, and asking him for sex. And the inspector general joined the Mesa, Arizona, Police Department’s investigation of the Southwest Key worker this year.
State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said the information about policing at Tornillo “illustrates that the federal government is making this up as it goes along.”
“These children,” he said, “deserve much better than what this administration is doing to them.”
When it came out this year that President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee raised and spent unprecedented amounts, people wondered where all that money went.
It turns out one beneficiary was Trump himself.
The inauguration paid the Trump Organization for rooms, meals and event space at the company’s Washington hotel, according to interviews as well as internal emails and receipts reviewed by WNYC and ProPublica.
During the planning, Ivanka Trump, the president-elect’s eldest daughter and a senior executive with the Trump Organization, was involved in negotiating the price the hotel charged the 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee for venue rentals. A top inaugural planner emailed Ivanka and others at the company to “express my concern” that the hotel was overcharging for its event spaces, worrying of what would happen “when this is audited.”
If the Trump hotel charged more than the going rate for the venues, it could violate tax law. The inaugural committee’s payments to the Trump Organization and Ivanka Trump’s role have not been previously reported or disclosed in public filings.
“The fact that the inaugural committee did business with the Trump Organization raises huge ethical questions about the potential for undue enrichment,” said Marcus Owens, the former head of the division of the Internal Revenue Service that oversees nonprofits.
Inaugural workers had other misgivings. Rick Gates, then the deputy to the chairman of the inaugural, asked some vendors to take payments directly from donors, rather than through the committee, according to two people with direct knowledge. The vendors felt the request was unusual and concerning, according to these people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they signed confidentiality agreements. It is not clear whether any vendors took him up on his request.
The revelations about the inauguration’s finances show how Trump blurred the lines between his political and business lives, as the real estate mogul ascended to the presidency.
On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that federal prosecutors in New York have opened a criminal investigation into whether the inaugural committee misspent money and whether donors gave in return for political favors, citing people familiar with the matter. In addition, The New York Times reported that prosecutors are examining whether foreigners illegally funnelled money to the inauguration.
Peter Mirijanian, a spokesman for Ivanka Trump’s ethics lawyer, said: “When contacted by someone working on the inauguration, Ms. Trump passed the inquiry on to a hotel official and said only that any resulting discussions should be at a ‘fair market rate.’ Ms. Trump was not involved in any additional discussions.”
Mirijanian did not provide evidence that Ivanka Trump sought a fair market rate.
A spokeswoman for the inaugural committee said it “is not aware of any pending investigations and has not been contacted by any prosecutors. We simply have no evidence the investigation exists.” The White House and a lawyer for Gates did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the Manhattan federal prosecutors’ office declined to comment. The Trump Organization did not comment.
“That doesn’t have anything to do with the president or the first lady,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Thursday night, when asked about the story in the Journal.
President-elect Trump was repeatedly briefed on inaugural planning and specific events, according to one committee worker with direct knowledge. WNYC and ProPublica have seen presentations that were shown to the president-elect, complete with renderings and floor plans.
Trump’s 2017 inauguration committee, which was chaired by his friend the businessman Tom Barrack, raised nearly $107 million from donors including the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and AT&T. The January 2017 festivities cost almost twice President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, previously the most expensive. The nonprofit that planned Trump’s inauguration booked many spaces in the Trump International Hotel, located in the Old Post Office building near the White House, including a ballroom, hotel rooms and work spaces, as well as paying for meals there, according to several people who worked on the inauguration.
How the inaugural committee managed to spend all the money it raised remains a mystery, nearly two years after the event. While groups that support political candidates or issues must publicly detail their spending, an inaugural committee is required to list only its top five contractors. That leaves about $40 million unaccounted for.
Greg Jenkins, who led George W. Bush’s second inauguration, was perplexed by the Trump team’s mammoth fundraising haul. “They had a third of the staff and a quarter of the events and they raise at least twice as much as we did,” Jenkins told WNYC and ProPublica this year. “So there’s the obvious question: Where did it go? I don’t know.”
As planning for the inauguration was underway in December 2016, Ivanka Trump was still an executive vice president at the Trump Organization. But she was reportedly preparing to move to Washington and take on a greater public role. She now serves as an adviser to the president.
Around the middle of the month, with Inauguration Day scarcely a month away, Ivanka Trump was asked to help resolve a dispute between inaugural planners and her family’s Washington hotel, according to emails.
The problem: Organizers thought the hotel was charging too much money.
Emails show that Ivanka Trump connected Gates with Mickael Damelincourt, managing director of the hotel. Damelincourt responded with a new rate of $175,000 per day for use of the Presidential Ballroom and meeting rooms, offering a $700,000 charge for four days of use.
It is not clear what the earlier price was, but Damelincourt’s revised rate did not satisfy one of the lead organizers of the inauguration, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff.
In an email to Ivanka Trump and Gates, Wolkoff, who had previously managed the Metropolitan Museum’s annual gala and fashion shows at Lincoln Center, expressed discomfort with the price.
“I wanted to follow up on our conversation and express my concern,” Wolkoff wrote in the December email.
“These events are in PE’s [the president-elect’s] honor at his hotel and one of them is for family and close friends. Please take into consideration that when this is audited it will become public knowledge,” she wrote, noting that other locations would be provided to the inaugural committee for free.
“I understand that compared to the original pricing this is great but we should look at the whole context,” Wolkoff wrote, suggesting a day rate of $85,000, less than half of the Trump hotel’s offer.
A former Trump hotel staffer confirmed that the inaugural committee paid for inaugural week events at the hotel. It’s not clear what price the committee ultimately paid. Previous media coverage has focused on spending by outside groups at the Trump hotel but it was not known that the official inaugural committee itself spent significant sums there.
Wolkoff also raised concerns about spending in a conversation with then-Trump attorney Michael Cohen, according to the story in the Journal. Federal prosecutors have a recording of that conversation, according to the Journal. The Times story suggests that conversation took place well after the inauguration.
Wolkoff, who is a friend of first lady Melania Trump, did not respond to a request for comment. Wolkoff’s firm, WIS Media Partners, was the inauguration’s highest-paid contractor, according to the committee’s tax filing. Wolkoff was scrutinized in media accounts this year because the firm received nearly $26 million. Most of the money was passed on to subcontractors, according to a person familiar with the spending. It is possible that payments to the Trump hotel were included in that sum.
If the Trump hotel charged the inaugural committee above-market rates, it could violate tax rules, according to Owens, the nonprofit tax expert who is now a partner at the law firm Loeb & Loeb.
If a person with “substantial influence” over a nonprofit group charges the group above-market rates in a transaction with their outside business, the IRS can impose steep fines. In this case, Donald Trump could qualify as a person with such influence. Should the tax agency find that a violation occurred, the Trump Organization would have to refund any overcharge and the inaugural committee would be hit with a 25 percent tax on the money, Owens said.
Owens added that IRS audits of nonprofits are increasingly rare. Since the inaugural committee was incorporated in Virginia, the state attorney general there could also have standing to investigate its operations.
A spokeswoman for the inaugural committee said its finances “were fully audited internally and independently and are fully accounted. … These were funds raised from private individuals and were then spent in accordance with the law and the expectations of the donors.”
The inaugural committee spent money at the Trump International in Washington in other ways as well. Many workers came from California and New York and stayed at the hotel, eating their meals there and holding meetings. Receipts reviewed by WNYC and ProPublica show they typically paid about $350 a night. According to an inaugural worker, 15 to 20 inaugural workers stayed at the hotel most nights for roughly a month in the run-up to the inauguration, at a total cost of what could be more than $200,000.
The professional resumes of top Trump hotel staffers indicate they worked closely with the presidential inaugural committee. The hotel’s director of food and beverage says on his LinkedIn profile that he was “working with PIC [Presidential Inaugural Committee] during the 2017 Inauguration” and a “related series of very special events.”
The day before Trump’s swearing in, the inaugural committee hosted a Leadership Luncheon in the hotel’s Presidential Ballroom, featuring his cabinet nominees and major donors. “This is a gorgeous room,” the president-elect told the crowd. “A total genius must have built this place.” And the night of the inauguration itself, Trump’s family and close allies such as Sean Hannity celebrated into the early morning at an exclusive after-party in the Trump hotel’s grand lobby. Thousands of red, white and blue balloons were released from the rafters.
Some vendors for the inauguration became concerned when Gates, a top inaugural committee official, asked them to take payments outside of the normal committee invoicing process, according to two people with knowledge of what happened. He proposed that they be paid for their work directly from a would-be donor rather than by the committee. Gates told the vendors that the inaugural committee had received pledges of more money than was initially targeted, and, therefore, he wished to reduce the publicly reported sum raised.
Gates did not respond to a request for comment. Last February, he pleaded guilty to unrelated charges of lying to the FBI and conspiracy, as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry.
Over the summer, Gates was cross examined about his work for the inauguration in the trial of his former boss, Paul Manafort. Gates conceded that he might have charged personal expenses to the committee. “It’s possible,” he said.
In a separate episode this year, a U.S. lobbyist pleaded guilty to helping a Ukrainian businessman and member of Parliament buy tickets to the inauguration, in violation of rules barring the committee from taking foreign money. The inaugural committee was not accused of wrongdoing in that case.
After her husband’s failed heart transplant at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center last year, Judy Kveton received an anonymous letter that left her in tears. It claimed that the physician who performed her husband’s surgery was allowed to continue operating even though he’d had “mishap, after mishap,” and despite warnings to hospital administrators that “he was not competent.”
Now, nearly two years after David Kveton’s death, his widow and adult children are citing the unsigned letter, an expert review of medical records and an investigation by ProPublica and the Houston Chronicle in a lawsuit against the hospital and its affiliated medical school.
In the complaint, filed late last month in Harris County District Court, Judy Kveton alleges that her 64-year-old husband died as a result of mistakes by Baylor College of Medicine doctors and St. Luke’s nurses during and after his transplant in January 2017.
It asserts that hospital leaders should not have allowed the surgeon to continue operating after receiving complaints about his performance. And it accuses the hospital of fraudulently marketing its heart transplant program, exaggerating the quality of its outcomes and “luring” patients “into a deadly situation.”
Officials from St. Luke’s and Baylor declined to comment for this story. In an email to reporters, hospital spokeswoman Marilyn Gerry wrote, “Our prayers remain with the Kveton family, however, we are unable to comment on litigation.”
Kveton’s story was detailed in an investigation in May by ProPublica and the Chronicle that found a high rate of patient deaths and unusual complications following heart transplants at St. Luke’s in recent years. Several physicians had left the renowned heart program after raising concerns about its lead surgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Morgan; a couple of cardiologists were so concerned that they began referring some patients to other hospitals for transplants.
In a previous statement, St. Luke’s defended the care it provided to Kveton and other patients who died or suffered complications after receiving new hearts: “Heart transplant patients often are very sick individuals who have undergone years of prior heart procedures, and sometimes even previous transplants or device implants to keep their heart beating, and often battle other illnesses and diseases — all of which can complicate a heart transplant,” the hospital wrote.
Morgan is named throughout the complaint but is not listed as a defendant. Through an attorney, he declined to comment on the lawsuit. In a previous interview and in responses to written questions this year, Morgan defended the quality of care provided at the heart program.
“We are all committed to providing heart transplant patients the most effective treatment options to meet their needs, and our recent record bears that out,” Morgan wrote in May.
Morgan performed David Kveton’s heart transplant on Jan. 25, 2017, about a year after joining the heart program as its surgical director.
By the time Kveton’s surgery was complete early the next morning, his new heart was struggling, according to the lawsuit. That was likely because it took Morgan and his team too long to implant the heart, the lawsuit alleges, leaving the donor organ on ice for more than four hours and increasing the risk for a complication known as graft failure.
Morgan didn’t mention the problem when he spoke with family members after the surgery, the lawsuit says. Morgan recalled the conversation differently in a written response to questions in May.
“After the surgery,” he wrote, “I thoroughly explained to Mrs. Kveton that her husband was critically ill and was on a lot of medication to keep his blood pressure up.”
Despite the initial problems, the donor heart began to rebound, according to the lawsuit. But before long, David Kveton suffered another serious setback. Medical records show that a nurse turned Kveton in bed, according to the lawsuit, “despite the fact he had an open chest.” That caused pacing wires to become detached from his new heart, medical records show, and caused his blood pressure to plummet.
That mistake was exacerbated, the lawsuit says, because Morgan or his surgical assistant had failed to connect backup pacing wires to the heart during the transplant, a violation of the standard of care.
“Mrs. Kveton was never told this event occurred,” the lawsuit states, “but the medical records show that after this event the heart was no longer improving but instead was getting much worse.”
The downward spiral that followed is detailed in Kveton’s medical records: A day after the nurse turned him over, doctors inserted a balloon pump into the donor heart, an attempt to increase its pumping strength, but improvement was marginal. Three days later, a CT scan revealed Kveton had likely suffered a stroke, though family members say they were not told.
Kveton suffered another stroke and endured additional surgeries before family members made the decision to remove him from life support on the morning of Feb. 2, about a week after his transplant.
John Brothers, the Houston lawyer who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Judy Kveton and her children, said his clients aren’t motivated by money.
“Judy has always been about answers, accountability and change,” Brothers said. “This is really just another step in that process.”
The lawsuit follows months of changes at St. Luke’s.
On June 1, two weeks after the Chronicle and ProPublica investigation was published, the hospital suspended the heart transplant program to study what led to two additional patient deaths. The program reopened two weeks later after officials said they made staffing and policy changes.
Later that month, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced it was cutting off federal funding to the program after concluding the hospital had failed to fix problems that endangered patients. St. Luke’s is appealing the decision.
And in October, the hospital announced it had hired a new administrator to oversee its transplant programs and had recruited two additional heart surgeons, effectively replacing Morgan as the program’s surgical director.
Morgan remains on the faculty at Baylor, where he holds the academic title of chief of cardiothoracic transplantation and circulatory support.
ProPublica Illinois has launched its first Facebook group: Driven Into Debt: Chicago Drivers Navigating Vehicle Ticket Troubles. It’s for people affected by Chicago’s vehicle ticketing policies and practices, including those struggling with debt or bankruptcy. Others interested in learning more about the issues are also welcome.
We want to hear your stories and learn from your experiences, all to inform our reporting, and to build a forum for community members to share information.
We hope you can help us.
The group will be moderated by ProPublica Illinois reporter Melissa Sanchez and WBEZ digital editor Elliott Ramos, who have collaborated on several ticketing investigations. If you join, you’ll be able to communicate with them, as well as get the scoop on our soon-to-be-launched interactive database about ticketing.
Melissa and Elliott have been talking recently on the radio about their work, which revealed that Chicago’s vehicle ticket and debt collection policies disproportionately affect low-income and minority motorists and have led many of them into massive debt and even bankruptcy.
Listen on WBEZ: Melissa and Elliott talk about the city of Chicago’s decision to create a task force to address the impact of ticketing. From Melissa: “Maybe this will be the beginning of a change … but I’m also conscious of the fact that sometimes things get task-forced to death.”
Listen on The 21st: The two reporters discuss how their work prompted the city to throw out 23,000 duplicate sticker tickets and whether that will help people. From Elliott: “For a lot of these individuals, it might seem nice to say we’re going to dismiss all of these tickets. A lot of the damage was already done. Their licenses were suspended. Some of them declared bankruptcy. And many of them lost their cars.”
This article was produced in partnership with The Southern Illinoisan, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
WELLSTON, Mo. — Twenty-two years ago, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development seized control of the public housing authority in Wellston, one of Missouri’s poorest towns. The authority had been beset by mismanagement, financial problems and unsafe buildings.
The goal of the federal takeover was to stabilize the authority and then return it to local control.
That hasn’t happened. Instead, the authority, still under federal control, is broke and its residents are being pushed out. The authority will be shut down on Jan. 1.
The move will be a crushing blow not only to some families who do not want to leave the city, but to Wellston itself. Some 400 public housing residents — a fifth of the city — are set to lose their homes sometime next year. They will receive vouchers that they can use to subsidize rent in the private market, but there’s a lack of affordable housing options in Wellston and limited choices in the St. Louis area.
“HUD, nationally, you failed us and you’re putting us in a worse predicament,” Mayor Nate Griffin told a HUD official during a closed-door City Council meeting in late November. A reporter stood outside the room and could clearly hear the discussion.
What’s happening in Wellston is emblematic of HUD’s longer-term shift away from public housing, advocates and even some HUD officials say. For years, the federal government has cut funds to public housing programs. The Trump administration has doubled down on those trends by proposing massive cuts to programs that pay for operations and repairs.
Diane Yentel, president and chief executive officer of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said she and fellow advocates sense that, under President Donald Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson, the department is retreating from its core mission of supporting public housing.
“We’ve been hearing this for a few months and seeing signs,” she said. Yentel noted that HUD recently sent a letter to housing authorities nationally calling on them to look toward the private sector to help fund expensive repairs under a program started under the Obama administration, or to demolish and sell old buildings and issue residents Section 8 vouchers, which help subsidize their rent in the private sector.
Struggling rural communities and small cities often aren’t able to participate in these programs because they can’t attract the interest of private developers and suffer from a critical shortage of private rental options.
HUD’s failure in Wellston also shows the difficulty the agency has had in recent years turning local authorities around, even when it is in charge.
HUD has put housing authorities in administrative receivership only about 20 times since 1985, when it first did so in East St. Louis, Illinois, across the Mississippi River from Wellston. In August, The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica revealed that Carson had ended HUD’s 32-year federal receivership of East St. Louis’ housing authority and hailed it a success last year, even though most of the small city’s properties had recently failed their federal inspections.
In 2016, HUD took over a troubled housing agency based in Cairo, Illinois, the state’s southernmost town. Confronted by the housing authority’s mounting financial problems and unsafe living conditions, HUD last year decided to shutter two large public housing complexes there, saying they were beyond repair.
Most recently, federal officials have discussed the potential of placing the New York City Housing Authority, the nation’s largest, into receivership after a raft of problems. Citing what happened in East St. Louis and Cairo, 11 members of New York City’s congressional delegation recently wrote to Carson opposing a HUD takeover in their city.
Wellston would mark the second time that the agency has exited a receivership by abolishing a housing authority (the first was in Orange County, Texas, in 2004), and the first time HUD has proposed demolishing or selling all of the public housing complexes in the process.
During the closed-door City Council meeting last month, Daniel Sherrod, a HUD Midwest regional official, blamed the authority’s financial woes on a recent spate of copper wire thefts from air conditioning units, vandalism and apartment fires, which drove up insurance costs, and on tenants who had racked up hundreds of dollars in past-due rents.
But ultimately, he said the authority’s aging buildings are in need of extensive repairs and “the federal government is not investing money in public housing like they used to.”
In a statement on Thursday, HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said his agency began making plans to return the housing authority to local control in 2017, to be overseen by a board of commissioners appointed by the mayor and trained by HUD. But increased security risks around the properties and the withdrawal of a top executive director candidate necessitated a “change in strategy,” he said. Brown declined comment on Sherrod’s statement behind closed doors about the challenges posed by years of federal budget cuts to housing authorities like Wellston’s.
More generally, HUD officials have said they are trying to transform public housing, moving away from their reliance on decades-old dilapidated structures in need of massive repairs and toward public-private partnerships. Carson has suggested raising tenant rents and has held listening tours to encourage more private landlords to accept vouchers as public housing complexes are sold or demolished.
HUD’s departure comes as the agency’s inspector general prepares to send teams of agents out to examine dozens of “troubled” housing authorities nationwide, which it has never done before, officials said. HUD labeled the Wellston Housing Authority as troubled in 2015. It barely passed an assessment the following year.
This summer, the inspector general released a stinging report criticizing HUD for waiting so long to take action in Cairo, where residents lived for years in unsafe buildings as local managers misspent federal funds. Officials at HUD headquarters refused to sign off on a takeover as they worried over political repercussions, the financial cost of receivership and a lack of staff knowledge about how to run a housing authority, the report said. “Ultimately, we want to help HUD to prevent the next Cairo,” said Darryl Madden, spokesman for the Office of Inspector General.
At Wellston’s council meeting, Sherrod, who is the HUD director over public housing in Illinois, also mentioned what had happened in Cairo, saying HUD did not want to repeat its mistakes.
“Cairo, Illinois, was a huge failure — a huge failure,” Sherrod said. He told the council that Wellston’s buildings are in better shape than Cairo’s were, but without much hope for federal investment in public housing, the situation could rapidly deteriorate. “Instead of waiting for the housing to fall apart like it did in Southern Illinois, this is the most prudent thing we can do,” he said.
The mayor directed a reporter from The Southern to leave the room after Sherrod announced that his presentation was intended for a closed executive session. But the walls are thin at City Hall, and most of the meeting could be heard from the hallway. (A handful of other citizens in attendance, who were not part of the official presentation, were allowed to stay.)
City officials in Wellston had a decidedly more optimistic view than those at HUD. Like in other cities, Wellston officials felt that they could make additional progress when decisions were being made at a local level, and they wanted the opportunity to try on behalf of their citizens. “It’s pretty much a done deal,” Griffin, the mayor, told The Southern in the fall of 2017, about the prospects of returning the authority to local control. “That is awesome for us.”
But in response to the mayor’s criticism of HUD for allowing the housing authority to fail, Sherrod called it a “combined failure.” He noted that a former housing authority executive director was indicted this August on a federal charge of stealing tenant rent payments and marking relatives’ rents as paid when they were not. She has pleaded not guilty.
“I lost sleep making this decision,” he told them.
In his statement on Thursday, HUD spokesman Brown said Wellston’s mayor and the City Council had unanimously agreed that it is best for the city and its residents to transfer their housing authority’s property to a neighboring housing authority on Jan. 1. He described the plans Sherrod outlined to the council about the demolition and sale of all apartment complexes as “tentative.”
During the closed-door meeting, council members asked if they had a say in the dissolution of the housing authority, and they were told no. That night, Sherrod asked them to approve a resolution that stated they could have their land back after the public housing properties were demolished. The resolution they signed included a line saying they agreed with HUD’s plan, but in an interview Thursday, the mayor said he and other council members were “backed into a corner.
“They told us: You support what we want to do, or you have no say-so about the future of your city’s land — period,” Griffin said.
With the end of the housing authority weeks away, community leaders are concerned about losing so many people at once and how it will affect their hopes of rebuilding Wellston.
“It’s a national policy attack on public housing,” said Farrakhan Shegog, who was among the five members named to an advisory committee late last year as HUD was preparing to return the housing authority to local control.
Wellston is the poorest city in St. Louis County. About 44 percent of residents live below the poverty line, and more than half of the city’s children. The city’s population has shrunk by 75 percent since the 1950s, and its financial struggles have grown more extreme in recent years. In 2015, cash-strapped Wellston dissolved its troubled police department and a neighboring department took over patrolling the streets.
Among those who will have to find a new home is Herman Lee White.
Until he moved to Wellston about 15 years ago, White said he had never lived in public housing. But at the time, White, now 75, said he took stock of his finances — he was then driving forklifts and trucks for a living — and realized this was the only way he could ever retire.
When HUD officials called tenants to a meeting in October to let them know that they may have to move, White was startled and filled with dread at the thought of packing up all of his belongings. As a young man, White wanted nothing more than to move about the country. He marched for civil rights in Mississippi and Alabama. He drove a taxi in Pasadena, California. He built tires for Goodyear in Akron, Ohio. But now, he’s tired of moving.
He assumed this is where he would spend his final years.
Wellston grapples with high crime, he said, but neighbors look out for one another, especially the seniors. Many of them live alone, and White said that if someone hasn’t been seen for several days, a neighbor comes knocking. He worries that he may end up in a neighborhood that is less safe and less familiar. White, who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said his doctor is only a couple of miles away.
“They’re putting us at a real inconvenience,” he said. “If you want to shut some of it down, that’s up to you. But we don’t want to move.”
Beyond concerns about the loss of housing here, Shegog said he doesn’t believe that HUD is providing residents the information they need to ensure they receive all the benefits they’re entitled to if they’re forced to move.
In preparing for this action, tenants told Shegog the housing authority has begun eviction proceedings on numerous tenants who owe hundreds of dollars — thousands, in some cases — in back rent, he said. Shegog said that the agency has told these tenants they will not be able to access their rental vouchers until they pay. But most cannot come up with this kind of money quickly, he said.
In a Facebook post announcing his resignation from the advisory committee, Shegog called the plan to move residents and demolish or sell all of the apartments a “manufactured crisis, which HUD played a role in creating.”
A HUD official said the housing authority filed the notices in order to encourage tenants to come into the office to arrange a payment plan.
Legal advocates also have been frustrated with HUD.
“We’re certainly concerned about how fast everything is moving and the fact that it seems like things are happening behind closed doors,” said Susan Alverson, the co-managing attorney of the housing program of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, which represents low-income clients. “Secrecy and lack of transparency is bothersome when we’re talking about federal money and public housing.”
Because the city is so distressed, Quintella Stevenson, who moved in only eight months ago, said she has mixed feelings about HUD’s decision. “Wellston is like a family,” she said of neighbors who watch out for one another, but Stevenson said she also worries about her children playing outside because of crime. Stevenson was among a number of families who said they were excited to learn about being able to access a voucher, because of the flexibility that it provides. But she’s also worried about finding a place large enough for her family of nine in a neighborhood that offers the safety and opportunities she desires for her children.
Most of the nearly 7,000 tenants whose rent is subsidized by vouchers managed by the St. Louis County Housing Authority live north of Delmar Boulevard. The “Delmar Divide,” as it’s known, separates poor, majority African-American communities like Wellston from more prosperous majority white neighborhoods in the southern part of the county.
The divide is stark. Wellston, for all of its challenges, sits just miles from million-dollar mansions, a university campus and premier regional medical facilities. That’s why community leaders see so much potential here.
Losing so many people at once may prove too much, though. “This is the beginning of the end of Wellston,” Shegog said.
A Chicago psychiatric hospital just two days from losing federal funding, potentially forcing it to shut down, will remain open for now, following a judge’s ruling Thursday.
Federal officials had told Aurora Chicago Lakeshore Hospital they would terminate its Medicare agreement on Saturday after a November inspection found the hospital could not ensure its patients were free from sexual and physical abuse and did not have adequate policies and procedures in place to investigate abuse allegations.
Officials learned of the allegations from separate investigations by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune.
In court filings, Lakeshore said that terminating the federal agreement would make the hospital ineligible for Medicare and Medicaid funding, which makes up more than 90 percent of the hospital’s revenue, and would force it to lay off employees and close its doors.
Lakeshore attorneys on Thursday asked U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman for a temporary restraining order to stop federal authorities from pulling the hospital’s funding, saying it had corrected many of the problems and has not yet had an opportunity to appeal the decision.
Coleman gave the government and the hospital a tight schedule to make arguments and said both should consider how to accommodate patients if she denies the injunction request.
Both sides are expected back in court Jan. 2.
Lakeshore, which argued in court filings that it had conducted complete investigations into the abuse allegations, said federal officials set the hospital on a “disastrous course” when they moved to terminate its Medicare agreement.
The hospital filed an appeal with federal officials but was told the earliest the appeal could be heard was February, “at which point Aurora will already be closed and cease to exist,” Lakeshore said in its filings.
Questions about the hospital’s future have swirled for weeks. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois took the state’s Department of Children and Family Services to court to remove all children in its care from the hospital. DCFS, which has agreed to stop sending children to the hospital, had relied heavily on Lakeshore to treat children who needed psychiatric treatment, including some who had been turned away from other hospitals and some who remained at the hospital after being cleared for discharge because DCFS couldn’t find more appropriate placements for them.