Border Patrol condemns secret Facebook group, but reveals few specifics

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox. Long known for its insular culture and tendency toward secrecy, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is saying little in the aftermath of news reports exposing a vulgar and hateful Facebook group for current and retired Border Patrol agents, including supervisors. While CBP officials have publicly condemned the offensive social media posts, they’ve disclosed few details about the steps the agency has taken to identify employees who behaved inappropriately online and hold them accountable. The agency, which is responsible for policing the nation’s borders and official ports of entry, declined to say how many employees CBP has disciplined or how many remain under investigation.

Inside the secret Border Patrol Facebook group where agents joke about migrant deaths and post sexist memes

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox. Members of a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents joked about the deaths of migrants, discussed throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress visiting a detention facility in Texas on Monday and posted a vulgar illustration depicting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaged in oral sex with a detained migrant, according to screenshots of their postings. In one exchange, group members responded with indifference and wisecracks to the post of a news story about a 16-year-old Guatemalan migrant who died in May while in custody at a Border Patrol station in Weslaco, Texas. One member posted a GIF of Elmo with the quote, “Oh well.” Another responded with an image and the words “If he dies, he dies.”

Created in August 2016, the Facebook group is called “I’m 10-15” and boasts roughly 9,500 members from across the country.

Years ago, the Border Patrol’s discipline system was denounced as “Broken.” It’s still not fixed.

Perhaps the most far-reaching idea was to reclassify the more than 40,000 Border Patrol agents and customs officers as “national security employees,” just as all FBI agents and employees at a number of other Homeland Security agencies currently are. Taking away their status as civil servants, the thinking went, would make it easier to fire corrupt and abusive employees. It was, to be sure, an extreme measure. But the panel, a subcommittee of a larger Homeland Security advisory council, had been created late in President Barack Obama’s second term because U.S. Customs and Border Protection seemed in crisis, and the panel subsequently determined that the agency was plagued by a system that allowed bad actors to stay on the payroll for years after they’d engaged in egregious, even criminal, misconduct. Because of civil service protections, a Border Patrol agent who’d been disciplined for bad behavior could challenge his or her punishment through four rounds of escalating appeals before taking the case to an arbitrator or a federal hearing board.

TurboTax and H&R Block saw free tax filing as a threat — and gutted it

Despite signing a deal with the IRS that pledged they would help tens of millions of Americans file taxes for free, tax software giants Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, and H&R Block instead deliberately hid the free option and actively steered customers into paid products, according to an internal document and five current and former employees of the companies. H&R Block explicitly instructs its customer service staff to push people away from its free offering, according to internal guidance obtained by ProPublica. “Do not send clients to this Web Site unless they are specifically calling about the Free File program,” the guidance states, referring to the site with the company’s free option. “We want to send users to our paid products before the free product, if at all possible.”

Steering customers away from TurboTax’s truly free option is a “purposeful strategy,” said a former midlevel Intuit employee. For people who find TurboTax through a search engine or an online ad, “the landing page would direct you through a product flow that the company wanted to ensure would not make you aware of Free File.”

When the Free File program launched 16 years ago, it was extolled as the best sort of collaboration between government and private enterprise.

If Trump’s border wall becomes reality, here’s how he could easily get private land for it

On March 15, President Donald Trump vetoed Congress’ attempt to stop him from declaring a national emergency to build a wall along the United States’ border with Mexico. His construction plans still face court challenges. But if the effort survives, you can expect this to happen in the near future: The federal government will begin seizing private land to build the wall, a process known as eminent domain. It’s a fundamental power, laid out in the Fifth Amendment. The government can take your land to build public works, but it has to pay you “just compensation” — the amount that a willing buyer would pay a willing seller to purchase the property.

Former Trump officials are supposed to avoid lobbying. Except 33 haven’t.

In his first 10 days in office, Trump signed an executive order that required all his political hires to sign a pledge. On its face, it’s straightforward and ironclad: When Trump officials leave government employment, they agree not to lobby the agencies they worked in for five years. They also can’t lobby anyone in the White House or political appointees across federal agencies for the duration of the Trump administration. And they can’t perform “lobbying activities,” or things that would help other lobbyists, including setting up meetings or providing background research. Violating the pledge exposes former officials to fines and extended or even permanent bans on lobbying.

Report voting, ballot access programs through Electionland

Report voting, ballot access programs through Electionland

In 2016, ProPublica partnered with newsrooms around the country to tell the story of voting experiences. ProPublica is doing it again this year, and this time NM Political Report is a partner. The project focused on the problems people had when trying to vote—from long lines to harassment, to finding out your name is not on voting rolls and anything else that impacted casting your ballot.The project relies on regular citizens to be the eyes and ears on the ground—which is where you come in. To help out, sign up by texting VOTE to 81380. Or you can reach out on WhatsApp at +1 850 909-8683, Facebook Messenger at http://m.me/electionland or tweeting @Electionland.

The hidden money funding the midterms

Allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used a blind spot in campaign finance laws to undercut a candidate from their own party this year — and their fingerprints remained hidden until the primary was already over. Super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited sums of money in elections, are supposed to regularly disclose their funders. But in the case of Mountain Families PAC, Republicans managed to spend $1.3 million against Don Blankenship, a mustachioed former coal baron who was a wild-card candidate for a must-win West Virginia Senate seat, in May without revealing who was supplying the cash. The move worked like this: Start a new super PAC after a deadline for reporting donors and expenses, then raise and spend money before the next report is due. Timed right, a super PAC might get a month or more undercover before being required to reveal its donors.

New Mexico senators speak out over order they say would hamper nuclear safety board

New Mexico’s senators are asking Congress to block a Department of Energy order that would limit a federal board’s access to information about nuclear facilities and could hinder its ability to oversee worker health and safety. In a letter sent Wednesday to the leaders of a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall also asked their colleagues to block impending staff cuts and a broad reorganization at the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. New Mexico is home to three of the 14 nuclear facilities under the board’s jurisdiction: Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. “We feel strongly that these two matters facing the [safety board] and its future must be suspended while Congress and the public have time to review and offer constructive feedback” on how to maintain and improve the board, the senators wrote to Sens.

Immigrant youth shelters: “If you’re a predator, it’s a gold mine”

Just five days after he reached the United States, the 15-year-old Honduran boy awoke in his Tucson, Arizona, immigrant shelter one morning in 2015 to find a youth care worker in his room, tickling his chest and stomach. When he asked the man, who was 46, what he was doing, the man left. But he returned two more times, rubbing the teen’s penis through his clothing and then trying to reach under his boxers. “I know what you want, I can give you anything you need,” said the worker, who was later convicted of molestation. In 2017, a 17-year-old from Honduras was recovering from surgery at the shelter when he woke up to find a male staff member standing by his bed.