From the Washington Times
Top secret: What food stamps buy
Taxpayers kept in dark about $80B a year
by Luke Rosiak
Americans spend $80 billion each year financing food stamps for the poor, but the country has no idea where or how the money is spent.
Food stamps can be spent on goods ranging from candy to steak and are accepted at retailers from gas stations that primarily sell potato chips to fried-chicken restaurants. And as the amount spent on food stamps has more than doubled in recent years, the amount of food stamps laundered into cash has increased dramatically, government statistics show.
But the government won't say which stores are doing the most business in food stamps, and even it doesn't know what kinds of food those taxpayer dollars buy.
Coinciding with lobbying by convenience stores, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program in conjunction with states, contends that disclosing how much each store authorized to accept benefits, known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), receives in taxpayer funds would amount to revealing trade secrets.
As a result, fraud is hard to track and the efficacy of the massive program is impossible to evaluate.
As the House debates the once-every-five-years farm bill, the majority of which goes to food stamps, there is a renewed and fervent call from a broad spectrum of camps that the information - some of the most high-dollar, frequently requested and closely held secrets of the government - be set free.
“We can't release it based on federal rules. If it were up to us, I wouldn't have a problem releasing the information. It's taxpayer money,” said Tom Steinhauser with the division of benefit programs for the Virginia Department of Social Services.
The District said it would be illegal to tell the newspaper how many food stamp dollars were flowing to each local vendor, but first offered to sell The Washington Times the information for $125,000.
“Why don't you just pay the charges? Your paper has a lot of money,” said David Umansky, spokesman for the District's chief financial officer.
Told that the newspaper would not pay, the CFO's office then said that only JP Morgan, to which it contracted out operations, had access to the store totals and that the office had never looked at them. After six months of the local government attempting to extract the information from JP Morgan, the District finally said that releasing the information would be illegal.
States instructed not to tell
Maryland denied The Times' request for data under the Freedom of Information Act, saying the information belonged to the federal government, which instructed states not to release it.
Legislation seemingly designed to protect the industry goes so far as to say that anyone who releases the amount of food stamp dollars paid to a store can be jailed.
Profiting from the poor's taxpayer-funded purchases has become big business for a mix of major companies and corner bodegas, which have spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress and the USDA to keep the money flowing freely.
The National Association of Convenience Store Operators alone spends millions of dollars on lobbying yearly, including $1 million in the first quarter of this year.
In February, 7-Eleven hired a former aide to House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, to lobby on “issues related to the general application and approval process for qualified establishments serving SNAP-eligible recipients.”
The USDA is notoriously secretive about who receives its money, relying on weak legal reasoning, said Steve Ellis of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
“USDA hides behind a specious proprietary data argument: The public doesn't want to know internal business decisions or information about specific individuals' finances,” he said. “The USDA sees retailers, junk food manufacturers and the big ag lobby as their customers, rather than the taxpayer.”
The agency also has no idea what type of food the benefits are buying, even though the combination of universal bar codes and benefit cards makes that entirely feasible.
“It's one of those questions that frankly those of us who have been working on this issue have been struggling with a long time because we need to see the data. The industry looks at it as proprietary. The USDA doesn't track where that money goes,” said Beth Johnson, a former Senate Agriculture Committee and USDA staffer who now consults for the Snack Food Association.
She noted that stores have breakdowns of products bought with food stamps but declined to share them with the USDA.
The junk food lobby appreciates the informational void.
Susan Smith of the National Confectioners Association, a candy trade group, dismissed assertions that food stamp recipients commonly buy candy and soda as “anecdotal info,” while declining to call for the collection of statistics.
The government is “keenly interested” in what types of food the $80 billion purchases, but has not made an effort to track it.
“USDA is preparing to update a study of the feasibility of capturing detailed purchase data from over 200,000 retailers that redeem SNAP benefits, and continue to explore other options to gather information on SNAP participants' diet quality,” Jimmie Turner, a spokesman for the USDA, said by email.
The demand for the information has been festering for years.
Last year, the Argus Leader, a South Dakota newspaper, sued the USDA for the information, and the USDA has fought fiercely in court filings that have stretched through this month to prevent disclosure.
This month, the public-interest group Eat Drink Politics called on the USDA to release the totals by retailer and for Congress to require the USDA to determine what types of food are purchased.
In a few cases, states have released subsets of the information, triggering the anger of the USDA.
In two years, Wal-Mart received about half of the $1 billion in SNAP expenditures in Oklahoma, the state revealed to the Tulsa World, as Eat Drink Politics noted.
In the District and other urban areas, much more is likely spent at corner stores where junk food is more abundant and fraud is more common. If a small corner store reported high levels of food stamp sales, that could be an obvious indicator that it was accepting customers' food stamps and giving back cash, a common scheme.
Eat Drink Politics called on the House to mandate that the USDA begin tracking food types and release store totals, calling them “critical to effective evaluation.”
The Senate passed a version of the farm bill Thursday that lowers food stamp spending by $4.5 billion. But no one in either chamber has proposed an amendment to require the USDA to reveal where the remaining money is going.
Border Patrol agents set for corruption trial
Brothers worked for Border Patrol
by Elliot Spagat
SAN DIEGO — Raul Villarreal was long a public face of the Border Patrol, frequently appearing on television news as an agency spokesman and acting as a dangerous human smuggler in a public service announcement intended to warn Mexicans about the dangers of entering the U.S. illegally.
Prosecutors contend now that he knew the smuggler's role well because he really was one.
Mr. Villarreal and his older brother Fidel, a fellow former agent, are accused of smuggling hundreds of migrants in Border Patrol vehicles. Federal prosecutors say the brothers were tipped they were under investigation in June 2006, prompting them to flee to Mexico.
Shortly after settling in Tijuana, a district police commander in the Mexican border city who allegedly shuttled the Villarreals' customers in squad cars was killed in a hail of about 200 bullets. The brothers were arrested in Tijuana in October 2008 - more than two years after abruptly quitting the Border Patrol - and extradited to the U.S. to face charges of human smuggling, witness tampering and bribery.
The case, which goes to trial next month in San Diego, is one of the highest-profile corruption cases to sting the Border Patrol since it went on a hiring spree during the last decade. The brothers, now in their early 40s, have pleaded not guilty to all counts.
The Border Patrol has suffered a string of such embarrassments since doubling its size over the last seven years to more than 21,000 agents. Its national strategy released last month emphasizes that even one misguided agent is unacceptable and outlines steps to combat corruption.
Criminal indictments against employees of Customs and Border Protection - which oversees Border Patrol agents and other border security officials - have increased each of the last four years to 60 in fiscal 2011, according to the Department of Homeland Security inspector general. There have been 232 indictments from October 2007 through April 2012.
The Villarreal case is unusual for the level of detail disclosed in recent pretrial briefings.
The family came to the U.S. from the central Mexican state of Jalisco in 1984, when the brothers were teenagers. Raul knew no English as a 14-year-old but quickly became fluent. He volunteered to read to children at libraries and collected food for the homeless, joining the Border Patrol in 1995 after earning a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from San Diego State University.
Raul “pursued and achieved what is known to be the American Dream,” wrote David Nick, his attorney.
Fidel excelled as a student, got police training at community college, studied aviation at National University and joined the Border Patrol in 1998. His family says he had a habit of calling police to report graffiti in the neighborhood.
As adults, the Villarreal brothers lived with their parents and siblings at a house they bought for $140,000 in 1996 in National City, about 10 miles from the border. Letters from family and friends say they were devoted to their parents, a diabetic mother and a father with a heart condition.
The investigation began in May 2005 with an informant's tip to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Investigators installed cameras on poles where migrants were dropped off, planted undercover recording devices, put tracking instruments on Border Patrol vehicles and followed a smuggling load by airplane.
The prosecution also relies on accounts of purported accomplices and illegal immigrants. One 24-year-old Brazilian woman said she paid $12,000 to be taken across the border in “a police car.”
The woman said a police official in Tijuana drove her to the border to a U.S. “immigration police” officer in a white camper. The officer wore a green uniform, hat and sunglasses and drove about 15 minutes before ordering the migrants to wait in roadside brush for another ride to a San Diego drop house.
From Google News
Rethinking how we use race-base data from traffic stops
by Karen Aroesty
We call it bias-based policing. You think of it as racial profiling. The former is unlawful. The latter is an inaccurate representation of a difficult problem addressed by statute in the state of Missouri for 12 years.
It's no secret that all people, including law enforcement officers, harbor racial bias. In 2000, Missouri was the fourth state to pass anti-racial profiling legislation. Thanks to that legislation, promoted significantly by the ACLU-Eastern Missouri, we now have 12 years' worth of data on and attention paid to Missouri vehicle stops.
There has been both collaboration and serious reflection among police and minority/community organizations. But we are concerned that the annual release of data results in unfair demonization of police, and provides little in the way of substantive measures to respond to those ethnic groups who are unfairly targeted.
On the statute's 10 th anniversary, it became clear to ADL that the data, as presented, were, by themselves, ineffective at problem solving. So we convened the Missouri Roundtable on Bias-Based Policing to bring folks together to reach consensus on the gaps in the decade-old legislation.
Police chiefs are at the table: St. Louis County, St. Louis City, Columbia, Kansas City, Springfield and the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Statewide advocates are at the table: NAACP, ACLU, Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, the Springfield Human Relations Commission and the Interfaith Committee on Latin America. University researchers are working with police across the state, and departments are addressing the matter internally with unique approaches.
But communities and demographics have changed. Ten years ago, the immigration debate was utterly different. Today, some communities are trying to deputize police as immigration enforcement agents.
With the release of Missouri's 2012 report, the question is, “What do the data actually show?” While the data are compelling, we want to focus on the root issue: bias and stereotyping.
Police are not unique in their bias, but their role in society means that tensions are higher when they're involved. The key goal of policing is to catch the bad guys. Yet, minorities are stopped and searched more frequently than whites, despite the finding that whites are more likely to commit crimes (as seen in the report's contraband hit rates).
Moreover, data are based on police self-reporting. Are officers acting in their own worst interest? Are the data skewed for other reasons? When do officers fill out their reports? Do they talk to drivers first? What assumptions do they make?
Data analysis about a very human interaction is remarkably difficult. While it is foolish to assert that there is no bias in policing, there are many situations where the report is misleading.
Take Ladue, for instance. It's a great example because the vehicle stop data simply do not reflect the reality on the ground. The number of minority residents is less than 1 percent, but the report suggests that African Americans are stopped 16 times more often based on their percentage of the city population. ut that's an incorrect benchmark, and so the report leaves an impression that brushes the entire department negatively. So what do you know about how the Ladue Police address the issue?
The Ladue Police Department compares each officer's stops against that of similarly assigned officers. This approach helps identify any officer who appears to be targeting drivers of a specific racial group. Given the movement of drivers traveling in and through Ladue, for that city, and many others in the state, this is the most appropriate analysis available.
Similarly, for those communities off a busy highway, this analysis will allow command staff to know if an officer appears to be stopping an inordinately high percentage of drivers from one race or ethnic group over another. Further, some departments are using “early warning systems,” data that show a particular officer needs attention, may require administrative inquiry, needs to be disciplined or terminated.
Better still would be to make direct observations on the streets; that option is expensive and burdensome.
We must look more closely at consent searches. Oftentimes, police stop vehicles but do not have probable cause to search. In those circumstances, officers may ask a driver to consent. Many don't realize they have a choice. Just because an officer asks to search the car, doesn't mean you have to allow it. Part of what we hope updated legislation will accomplish is to enable community advocates to better educate their constituents about these rights.
We must increase anti-bias education for all police officers, more than is required now, and it must be provocative to be effective. Anti-bias education does more than simply challenge personal stereotypes of people, minorities in particular. It disrupts aspects of policing, discretion in particular, that allow bias to negatively impact the traffic stop itself.
Accountability must be real. The statute must address the number of departments that don't report data or report incompletely. Current penalties in the statute are insufficient. Finally, there is no way we can effectively reduce bias in policing without community-police dialogue.
Community-oriented policing has been around since the 1970s, but perhaps mandating community-police partnerships will help both gain understanding of the other, the only way to address how unfair and unlawful treatment actually makes people feel. If you don't know whether your community is engaging formally with its police, find out and then make the commitment to engage. Do not assume your police department doesn't care – that's an easy out. Building such relationships goes way beyond improving police/community relationships, it makes your community more secure.
With an updated statute, we can change more than just research, language, dialogue and training components. We can impact the very way in which people feel about policing and how police feel about those they are charged to protect and serve. After all, if we share anything, we share a goal of creating safe, vibrant, engaging Missouri communities -- it's not called community policing for nothing.
Karen Aroesty is regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, Missouri/Southern Illinois.