PORT BYRON, New York — Six weeks before Chris Johnson was born in 1974, the U.S. government issued a warning about a substance that would nearly kill him 30 years later.
The substance was silica, a component of rock and sand that is the scourge of miners, sandblasters and other workers who breathe it in. When pulverized into dust, it can cause silicosis — a scarring of the lungs that leads to slow suffocation — as well as lung cancer.
This was no newly discovered hazard. The ancient Greeks and Romans were mindful of it. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins launched a national campaign against it in the 1930s after the knifelike particles dispatched hundreds of tunnel workers in West Virginia.
The 1974 warning by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said the workplace exposure limit for silica put people in danger. NIOSH urged the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to cut the limit in half.
OSHA finally did so in 1989, only to see its work undone by a court decision. It didn’t try again until 2011. In the interim, Johnson became a bricklayer and developed acute silicosis after a five-month job that enshrouded him in dust. He’s 40 and, on paper, can expect to survive less than five years.
As Johnson’s experience shows, inaction has consequences. Silica — which OSHA says threatens 2.2 million workers, mostly in construction — is a striking example of the government’s failure to properly regulate toxic substances in American workplaces. The silica rule still isn’t finished. If it is enacted despite industry protests, it will be only the 37th health standard issued by the agency in its 44-year history.
It’s an ignominious record given the human and economic costs of work-related disease in the United States. According to a widely cited University of California, Davis, study, an estimated 53,000 people died in 2007 from on-the-job exposures — outnumbering those killed in suicides, motor vehicle accidents, falls or homicides. More than 400,000 others got sick. The price tag: an estimated $58 billion. OSHA puts the annual toll at more than 50,000 deaths and 190,000 illnesses.
An 18-month investigation by the Center for Public Integrity has found that the epidemic of occupational disease in America isn’t merely the product of neglect or misconduct by employers. It’s the predictable result of a bifurcated system of hazard regulation — one for the general public and another, far weaker, for workers. Risks of cancer and other illnesses considered acceptable at a workplace wouldn’t be tolerated outside of it.
For years, the best OSHA has been able to do is set chemical limits so that no more than one extra cancer case would be expected among every 1,000 workers exposed at the legal maximum over their entire careers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standards for the public are 10 to 1,000 times more protective. The real gap is often worse, a former OSHA official says.
“I can’t see any justification for treating people that differently,” said Adam M. Finkel, who heads the Penn Program on Regulation at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and was director of health standards programs at OSHA from 1995 to 2000.
Among the Center’s findings:
• Most of OSHA’s 470 chemical exposure limits are, by the agency’s own admission, grossly outdated and don’t protect workers from a variety of ailments. Cancer, for instance: The agency’s own analyses of 16 substances estimate that cancer risks associated with legal exposures to workers over their careers are as high as six in 10. Analyses of an additional 31 exposure limits by the Center and Finkel found cancer risks above 1 in 10 for nearly half of the chemicals.
• The vast majority of the tens of thousands of chemicals made or used in the U.S., including some very common and toxic substances, have no workplace exposure limits. The lung-ravaging food flavoring diacetyl. The widely used herbicide glyphosate, recently named a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization. The agents in chemotherapy drugs, hazardous to the health care workers preparing and handling them.
• Even apparent success stories — rare cases in which chemical limits were tightened — can be Pyrrhic victories. OSHA’s own calculations suggest, for example, that the cancer risk for hexavalent chromium, a metal used in specialty paints and coatings, was as high as one in three at the limit in effect from 1971 to 2006. At the current, stricter standard, the risk is still as high as one in 22, OSHA acknowledges.
• Sampling for chemicals has fallen over the last three decades as workplaces multiplied but OSHA’s staff levels stagnated. Even so, OSHA still finds exposures above legal limits, a Center analysis found. One in six samples containing hexavalent chromium, taken after the 2006 rule change, topped the limit of 5 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Samples containing lead, a brain-damaging metal that can accumulate on a worker’s clothing and hurt the whole family, have exceeded the limit 40 percent of the time since 1984.
• NIOSH last did a nationwide workplace exposure survey more than three decades ago because it has not had the funding to update it. Critical information on both old and emerging chemical hazards across industries is missing, putting regulators and researchers at a disadvantage.
A profound toll
Job-related illness is a slow-motion tragedy few seem to understand or acknowledge. Its victims usually die one by one, out of public view, though disease clusters emerge on occasion.
More than 50 cases of bladder cancer, for example, have been tied to a small Goodyear chemical plant in Niagara Falls, New York, far above the expected number in the general population. NIOSH investigators identified the suspect chemical years ago: ortho-toluidine, used to keep tires from cracking. Exposures in the plant weren’t extreme; in fact, they were “well below” the legal limit, the investigators reported.
Goodyear, which made changes to its factory after the problem came to light, said in a statement that all but one of the 54 bladder-cancer cases identified through its own screening program involved workers who came to the plant before 1990.
“While the ortho-toluidine exposure levels in the plant have generally been far below the permissible exposure limits, engineering controls were put in place in the 1980s to further reduce levels in the plant,” the company said.
Steve Wodka, a lawyer in New Jersey who represented about half the Goodyear victims in claims settled out of court, said he knows of 62 bladder cancer cases from the plant. He calls that cluster “probably the best example of the inadequacy of the system.”
Ortho-toluidine is in a family of chemicals — aromatic amines — known since the 1930s to cause bladder cancer, Wodka said. Yet its exposure limit of 5 parts per million, adopted by OSHA in 1971, was fashioned only to protect workers from the chemical’s acute effects, not cancer.
“It remains the law of the land today,” Wodka said.
The blight of disease contracted on the job isn’t confined to factory workers. It consumes hairdressers, grocery store meat-wrappers, scientists and people in a variety of other professions. Many are stricken by middle age.
The panoply of illnesses, from nerve damage to dementia to virulent cancers, takes a profound toll on workers and their families. Careers are lost, finances shredded, marriages tested. In some cases, workers opt for macabre, last-ditch procedures to try to save their lives.
“They basically clean you out like a fish,” cancer victim Mike Dennen, who worked in asbestos-contaminated textile factories, said of his 2013 surgery. “They tell you before surgery you can end up without a bladder, you can end up without your intestines.”
Federal regulators are overwhelmed by the scope of the problem, which didn’t materialize by chance. Congress has exacerbated the situation by refusing to fortify the weak 1970 law specifying what OSHA can do. Trade groups have challenged health standards in court while workers lose their lives. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget is a vortex that sucks in proposed agency rules and doesn’t spit them out for months — or years.
David Michaels, head of OSHA since 2009, speaks frankly about the results.
“With a few exceptions, OSHA’s standards to protect workers from chemical exposures are weak and out of date, or simply non-existent,” he said in a recent interview.
“We know workers get sick at levels below 500 parts per million,” Michaels said. “We can’t do anything about that.”
OSHA’s exposure limits almost all date to its founding in 1971, he noted, when the agency adopted 1960s-era voluntary numbers embraced by industry. Few have been updated since, and only those few became full standards with specific technological and medical requirements.
“The law under which OSHA operates … forces us to go through a very, very complex, onerous process for regulating any individual chemical,” Michaels said. “It takes many years and millions of dollars in studies to issue one standard. And that’s why we’ve got only a few dozen standards.”
An ancient hazard
Silicosis and other dust-related diseases, the 1974 NIOSH document reported, “have probably existed since man began to dig into the earth’s crust.” Silica was a cruelly efficient killer of stone-cutters in the 17th century; slicing through the workers’ lungs during necropsy was “like cutting a mass of sand,” a Dutch physician reported in 1672. It silenced 19th-century sandstone masons in England long before they reached old age.
Silica also precipitated America’s worst industrial disaster: the deaths of more than 750 workers — many African-American — who drilled a water-diversion tunnel through silica-rich rock near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, in the early 1930s. Death estimates reached as high as 2,000, but the full count will never be known. Sick workers were booted out of company housing. Some who died on site were carted off to unmarked graves.
Four decades after that, in December 1974, Christopher Scott Johnson was born in Auburn, New York. His life almost perfectly tracks silica’s tortured regulatory history.
The month of Johnson’s birth, OSHA published an “advance notice of proposed rulemaking,” indicating movement toward a new silica standard. That effort fizzled due to a lack of funds, according to the head of OSHA at the time.
Silica-related death and disease continued. As bad as things were in foundries and other dusty, fixed establishments, where workers legally could be exposed to twice the NIOSH-recommended silica limit, construction was far worse. Employers in that sector could subject workers to five times the recommended limit without breaking the law.
That’s still the case.
Johnson landed in the construction category in 1993. He became a bricklayer, also known as a mason, following in the footsteps of two uncles. He crafted sidewalks and floors with bricks and stone, and helped repair and put up buildings.
“I was very happy with my job,” he said in an interview at his home in Port Byron, west of Syracuse. “I felt fulfillment.”
Johnson said he was oblivious to silica’s destructive properties. That didn’t matter until he was assigned a job in Rome, New York, in April 2004. Standing on hydraulic lifts, Johnson and his co-workers at a small contracting firm removed and replaced damaged brick from the façades of three apartment buildings operated by the Rome Housing Authority.
The work, which lasted through September of that year, generated “a tremendous amount of dust,” Johnson said. “You’re in a basket that’s maybe six feet wide and two or three feet deep, so you’re pretty much stuck right there.”
The workers were given disposable paper masks, known by experts to be ineffective against microscopic silica particles. The one half-face respirator on the job had a broken strap, “so we didn’t really use it,” Johnson said.
They had tools to suppress the dust: Their diamond-bladed, 14-inch demolition saws came equipped with hose attachments for “wet cutting.” But the project manager for the housing authority refused to allow the practice, fearing it would “make too much of a mess,” according to an affidavit given by a former co-worker in a lawsuit Johnson later filed against the authority. OSHA rules, moreover, don’t require it.
Johnson did “about 90% of the saw cutting and grinding on the job,” his former colleague said in the affidavit. “In fact, he was often so covered in dust we nicknamed him ‘Dusty.’”
Jim Baldwin, who joined the housing authority as executive director years later, said he would have allowed wet cutting “because of the danger caused by the inhalation of the fine dust.”
“Not having proper respirators on the job was certainly a factor in the worker’s illness,” he added by email. “For that I would have shut the job down until that equipment was made available and was being used.”
There is no way to know how much silica Johnson inhaled. But the current rule for construction is so weak, even employers that stay within the legal limit can be “sentencing someone to death from lung disease,” said Celeste Monforton, a lecturer at George Washington University and a former Labor Department analyst and adviser.
By the time the Rome job ended, “something was not right with me,” Johnson said. He was short of breath, losing weight rapidly, unable to do simple tasks without exertion. “I had no clue what was going on.”
The answer came early in a three-week stay at the University of Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital in December 2004. Johnson’s parents drove him there after his right lung collapsed following a biopsy, and further tests showed he had acute silicosis triggered by mixed dust exposure.
He underwent an unusual procedure called a lavage, in which his lung was flushed of sticky material filling up the air sacs and robbing him of oxygen. He stayed on a ventilator for nine days.
“None of the doctors really even knew if he was going to pull through or not,” said his wife, Beverly.
The procedure didn’t help much. Johnson continued to struggle for air as he rested fitfully at home in early 2005. He was a candidate for a double lung transplant, a prospect he found unappealing once he learned the odds of survival: less than half of patients would live five years, and less than a quarter would survive 10.
He opted instead for a second lavage at the Cleveland Clinic in May 2005. This one took. By 2006 his lung disease had stabilized, though it hadn’t been cured.
Internist and lung specialist Dr. William Beckett treated Johnson in Rochester and was so struck by the severity of the young mason’s condition that he co-authored an article about it for a medical journal. In an interview, he noted the banality of the substance that had gummed up Johnson’s lungs.
“This is not an unusual material. It’s not exotic,” Beckett, now affiliated with Harvard Medical School and Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said of silica. “It’s something that everybody is around, but the people who cut through it or work with it are susceptible to getting disease from it.”
Beckett chaired an American Thoracic Society committee that called for a stricter OSHA silica limit in 1997. To his dismay, the old one is still in place.
“There are many, many, I’m sure, young men in the United States who are doing the same kind of job [Johnson did],” he said, “and probably getting the same kinds of exposures.”
Forty years of futility
OSHA’s 40-years-and-counting quest to keep silica from killing workers is a study in inertia and frustration. The agency tried to tighten exposure limits for silica and 375 other substances in a 1989 rule, but a federal appeals court struck it down, saying the analyses OSHA used to justify the rule weren’t detailed enough.
It took OSHA nearly two decades to regroup, even though it deemed silica a regulatory priority in 1995 and 2002. In the meantime, evidence hardened that silica could cause lung cancer in addition to silicosis.
It’s unlikely any group of workers has felt the sting of lax silica controls more than sandblasters, who use pressurized guns to shoot sand at corroded surfaces to prepare them for painting. The sand breaks apart as it strikes metal, creating clouds of dust laced with invisible shards of quartz that scar the lungs.
NIOSH, noting available alternatives such as nut shells and sawdust, suggested in 1974 that sandblasting with silica be banned. Britain and a swath of mainland Europe had already done so by that point.
But industry groups in the United States, like the euphemistically named Silica Safety Association, composed of purveyors and beneficiaries of sandblasting, lobbied successfully in the 1970s to fend off a ban, predicting economic hardship.
In February 2011, OSHA finally sent a proposed silica rule to the Office of Management and Budget for vetting. It emerged 921 days later in 2013. OMB officials will not say why it took so long; 90 days, plus a single 30-day extension, is supposed to be the maximum unless the rulemaking agency asks for more time.
Apart from trimming the silica exposure limit to the NIOSH-recommended number for all workers, the proposed standard would require employers to control dust with methods such as water or vacuum systems and provide medical monitoring for highly exposed workers. OSHA predicted it would save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis per year.
The Labor Department held 14 days of hearings in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 2014. Among the witnesses was construction worker Santiago Hernandez, who’d come to the United States five years earlier from Tlaxcala, Mexico, expecting to find safer conditions.
Instead, he said in written testimony, “things are actually much worse here than in Mexico. ... The protections you receive here are useless. Employers give you a little paper mask that, when you finish, is just as dirty and dusty on the inside as on the outside.”
Dale McNabb, a tile setter from Warren, Michigan, spoke of developing “breathing problems at night” in his 20s. “By the time I was 30 I felt it more. I could hear my labored breathing and wheezing, and it shocked me.”
In 2008, when he was 42, he volunteered to use a grinder to remove thinset — a mortar made of cement and sand — from a wall over the course of several weeks. “At the end of the project I was feeling pretty bad,” McNabb testified. Tests showed “shadowing in my pleural membrane so severe that the membrane was almost opaque, and there were several lesions on my lungs.”
“When I get exposed to dust now — and not just silica dust, any dust — it feels like I have a plastic bag around my head and someone’s trying to pull it shut on me,” McNabb said. He got a job as a shuttle bus driver, then in financial services, and is thankful he can work. But the stress that followed his health crisis left a lasting mark. “In the end, silica exposure cost me my job, my health and also my marriage.”
Industry witnesses also shared doleful stories — what would happen to companies if they had to comply with the proposed rule.
The American Foundry Society, disputing OSHA’s cost estimates, said the standard would eat up 10 percent of the industry’s revenue and “threaten the viability of foundries across the country.”
The American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s main trade group, said the silicosis death rate has dropped more than 90 percent since 1968. Neil King, a lawyer for the council, blamed newer cases on exposures “that occurred decades ago” and more recent exposures that far exceeded the current limit — something that happens regularly, he said.
And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 3 million businesses, suggested that OSHA ought to take more time on an effort already four decades old.
“We have serious concerns about this rulemaking being rushed,” said Henry Chajet, a lawyer who spoke for the chamber.
Industry groups have kept up the pressure as the rule inches toward final form. That includes pointed comments from the chamber, a lobbying powerhouse that spent $124 million to press for its members’ interests in 2014 — more than the next four top-ranked groups combined.
OSHA’s economic analysis projected that while affected businesses would spend an estimated $664 million annually to comply with the proposal — about $1,242 for the average workplace — the net benefits would range from about $2.9 billion to $4.7 billion a year, values OSHA applied to avoided disease.
In a congressionally requested 1995 review of past OSHA actions, the since-dismantled Office of Technology Assessment found that the agency tended to overestimate the cost its health rules would impose on industry — often in a big way.
Nonetheless, in March the Construction Industry Safety Coalition, composed of 25 trade groups, said its own study concluded that a new silica standard would cost construction companies nearly $5 billion a year — 10 times what OSHA had calculated for that industry. It could be “the most expensive OSHA standard ever for the construction industry,” the coalition warned.
OSHA is undeterred, Michaels told the Center. “President Obama has made it very clear he is committed to getting the silica standard out while he’s president.” A final rule is expected by the end of 2016, a Labor Department spokeswoman said.
But the Senate Appropriations Committee last week approved an appropriations-bill rider that would require more study before the rule could be issued, which would put the proposal at the mercy of the next president. And even if the rule is enacted, that may not be the final word. Industry almost always challenges OSHA standards in court, which can delay or overturn them.
Reports from public health officials, meanwhile, show that silica remains a workplace menace.
In 2012 NIOSH researchers said they collected 116 air samples at sites in five states where shale deposits were tapped with the oil and gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Vast quantities of high-silica sand are used to hold open fissures underground, allowing the product to flow into wells; the NIOSH team found that nearly half the samples were above the current OSHA exposure limit, creating an “inhalation health hazard.”
Almost 80 percent were above the NIOSH-recommended limit — the number OSHA wants to enact.
Another group of NIOSH researchers reported in June that silicosis deaths, after decreasing for years, are rising again. Silicosis was listed as the underlying or contributing cause of death for 88 people in the U.S. in 2011, down from 164 a decade earlier, but such deaths rose to 103 in 2012 and 111 in 2013.
Those who died during the three-year period included a dozen people younger than 45. Researchers called this “concerning,” saying it suggested that intense exposures, of the sort that sickened Chris Johnson, were occurring. Their data didn’t reflect other illnesses linked to silica, such as lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease.
The five-decade plunge in silicosis deaths cited by trade groups reflects a shift from manufacturing to service jobs, NIOSH said in a statement to the Center.
“That does not mean that the risk for developing silica-related diseases … is acceptable in those that still work in dusty trades,” the agency said.
‘Scott’s not here’
Last summer, encouraged by his tolerable if imperfect state of health, Johnson tried to get back into masonry. The experiment lasted a few weeks.
“I just couldn’t do it anymore,” he said. “And then I did try to do a factory job, and that didn’t work.”
A stepfather to three boys, Johnson lifts weights, runs on a treadmill and busies himself with household projects. Six feet tall and 250 pounds, he betrays no outward sign of infirmity. Having settled his lawsuit against the Rome Housing Authority, he’s in decent financial shape and is determined to exceed his predicted life span of 45 years.
Still, Johnson said, “I’m affected a lot by my lungs now. I’m constantly getting sick.” A cold that would sideline the average person for a day or two immobilizes him for weeks. “It puts me right down to where I have no energy,” he said.
But Johnson is grateful to be alive. He’s already had more time than some workers struck with silicosis.
Scott Allen Whipps — like Johnson, a mason — died at 38 in 2006, four years after being diagnosed with the disease. His final months were agonizing.
“He coughed non-stop,” said his mother, Judy Schoon of Fergus Falls, Minnesota. “He coughed up blood. He coughed so much that he’d vomit.”
Schoon and her husband Jim, Whipps’s stepfather, witnessed it all firsthand. They’d taken in Whipps during those last months, and his bedroom was next to theirs.
“The goal was always a lung transplant, but he could never get the infection out of his body, so he couldn’t be considered for one,” Judy Schoon said.
One of his lungs turned gangrenous, and shortly after surgery, his condition deteriorated until his hold on life was “very tenuous,” according to a doctor’s report. Whipps would wake screaming in the hospital for his mother. Doctors tried another surgery to save him, to no avail. He died an hour and a half after medical personnel unhooked him from life support, his family telling him to go where the pain would not follow.
It’s been nine years. Judy Schoon still hasn’t processed her son’s early death. Losing a child, she said, is “unnatural.”
“I wake up sometimes,” Schoon said, “and think, ‘Oh — Scott’s not here.’ ”
This story was co-published with Slate.
The Federal Election Commission, a bipartisan agency charged with enforcing and administering the nation’s campaign laws, will next month zoom past a fairly preposterous milestone given its mission: two years without anyone leading its nonpartisan legal office.
Such a power vacuum persists amid what will assuredly become the longest and most expensive presidential race in U.S. history, with candidates of all political persuasions waltzing along the increasingly blurry boundaries of what’s legal during federal elections and what’s not.
The general counsel stalemate is emblematic of the FEC's broader ideological cold war with itself, waged by commissioners who, for example, spent much of a recent public meeting debating whether they’re actually people — or, alternatively, aliens — for the decidedly odd purpose of petitioning their own gridlocked agency to write new campaign finance rules.
Three FEC employees familiar with the general counsel hiring process tell the Center for Public Integrity that conservative commissioners insist on a person who reliably supports political actors’ ability to campaign with minimal restrictions. And they don’t want a bomb-thrower who frequently clashes with them.
Liberals, for their part, refuse to back someone who won’t press for a more tightly regulated election environment. They’d particularly love a general counsel who believes the law compels all organizations — namely nonprofit groups — to reveal their donors when advocating for or against political candidates.
The FEC had, late last year, identified two potential general counsel candidates after what was already an unprecedentedly long search for a top lawyer.
But FEC commissioners couldn’t agree on one of the candidates — it takes four of the agency’s six commissioners to appoint a general counsel — and never put the person up for a formal vote.
The other general counsel candidate accepted a job elsewhere.
Since then, FEC commissioners have made no meaningful progress. Once advertised on the federal government’s jobs website, the general counsel position is no longer posted. The agency’s top Republican and Democrat acknowledged they aren’t formally considering candidates at the moment, and lawyers aren't exactly clamoring to be hired by an agency deemed by its own leader to be "worse than dysfunctional."
“It’s extremely demoralizing to the agency and the employees of the agency not to have anyone in this position,” said Ann Ravel, a Democrat who’s halfway through her one-year term as the FEC’s chairwoman and generally backs tighter campaign finance rules. “There was no appetite from the majority of the commission to fill that position.”
Matthew Petersen, a Republican and the FEC’s vice chairman, said that “all of us will agree it’s far from ideal not to have this position filled” and that he’ll work with fellow commissioners this summer to determine “what would be the best way now to go about filling it.”
Further complicating matters is one point on which Ravel and Petersen do agree: The general counsel job doesn’t pay nearly enough.
Congress has ignored requests by FEC commissioners to raise the position’s salary cap — it was last advertised at $147,200 per year, which is hardly workman’s wages, but far less than what prominent private-sector election lawyers make. Consider an assistant general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board stands to earn up to $183,300 annually.
Petersen and Ravel say the position’s relatively modest pay has hurt the agency’s ability to attract good candidates in the first place.
Regardless, general counsel is one of two positions at the FEC (the other is staff director) mandated by federal statutes.
It’s a powerful position. The general counsel’s many functions include overseeing the FEC’s enforcement, litigation, policy, complaints and legal administration divisions. He or she also serves as FEC commissioners’ chief nonpartisan adviser on legal issues, helping determine what matters they prioritize.
It used to be that transitions between FEC general counsels were smooth, even perfunctory.
Until now, the agency had never gone a full year without a bona fide general counsel. Typically, gaps lasted only a few months. Even during times when the FEC lacked a permanent general counsel, commissioners almost immediately designated one of their top staff lawyers as an “acting general counsel.”
And during 2011 — no less a period of ideological turbulence among liberal and conservative commissioners — the commission unanimously appointed lawyer Tony Herman as its general counsel, balancing (among other factors) his history of donating money to Democratic political candidates against his resume representing big business as a private law practitioner.
But Herman quickly grew weary of the commission’s antics. He resigned on July 5, 2013, in part frustrated by constant infighting and the body’s unwillingness to act on variety of legal recommendations his office made to it.
One particularly high-profile matter involved the Herman-led FEC general counsel’s office asserting that conservative nonprofit group Crossroads GPS likely broke federal law by spending too much money on politics. The commission couldn’t muster the requisite four votes needed to affirm Herman’s finding — and dismissed the matter nearly three years after the FEC first began investigating it.
It also sparred with him over how much information his office could share with the Justice Department, which, unlike the FEC, has power to pursue suspected election scofflaws with criminal charges.
Herman is now again a partner at Covington & Burling LLP, one of Washington, D.C.’s more prominent law firms.
“It’s all bad — it’s bad for the agency, it’s bad for the staff, it’s bad for the public,” Herman said of the FEC operating without a general counsel. “It’s a reflection of the polarization at the agency among the commissioners.”
Other former top FEC lawyers concur with Herman.
“There was a sense of shame in the past that doesn’t exist now,” said Lawrence Noble, the FEC’s general counsel from 1987 to 2001 and now senior counsel with the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan campaign reform organization. “It’s clear now [commissioners] don’t want anyone making recommendations they disagree with.”
Said Wamble Carlyle attorney Jim Kahl, an FEC deputy general counsel from 2002 to 2007: “Clearly, it’s going to be a challenge to find a general counsel given the state of relationships over there now.”
In addition to lacking a firm commission endorsement, Baker and Stevenson, who declined to be interviewed, are hurting for help: Two of the FEC’s three associate general counsel positions, like the general counsel post, are also vacant. They’re filled in the meantime on an “acting” basis by lower-ranking attorneys. FEC fine assessments, once in the millions of dollars annually, have dropped to historic lows.
When someone without a commission mandate assumes a general counsel’s duties, “you’ve upset the agency’s balance, and you’ve weakened the ability of that person to fulfill his or her statutory mandate,” said Larry Norton, a partner at Venable LLP who served as FEC general counsel from 2001 to 2007. “You can’t act with strength and independence.”
The size of the FEC’s Office of the General Counsel has also shrunk in recent years.
During the 2008 fiscal year, it housed the equivalent of 119 full-time positions. FEC officials confirmed that figure is now 110, with 101 of those jobs occupied.
Jason Torchinsky, a partner at the Holtzman Vogel Josefiak PLLC law firm who regularly represents conservative political clients before the FEC, singled Stevenson out for praise.
“Lisa Stevenson is doing a fine job of running [the Office of the General Counsel], moving matters along internally and dealing with the litigation and regulatory matters before the agency,” he said.
Other lawyers who regularly work with the FEC disagree.
One is Marc Elias, chairman of law firm Perkins Coie’s political law practice and general counsel for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Elias, who’s represented numerous clients including the Democratic National Committee to the FEC, says that “whatever the ideological differences the commissioners have, the legal department would run much better with a leader.”
What’s to be done about the FEC’s general counsel saga?
At the moment, the various government bodies best positioned to exert external pressure on the FEC are in little hurry to do much.
President Barack Obama could immediately nominate new commissioners, who the U.S. Senate must confirm. After all, five of the FEC’s six commissioners continue to serve despite their terms having expired, with Ravel the only one currently with an active Senate mandate.
But Obama has not floated new FEC commissioners since mid-2013, when he nominated Ravel and Republican Lee Goodman, who served as agency chairman during 2014. The White House did not respond to the question about whether Obama will attempt to this year replace current FEC commissioners.
Congress could pass a bill, such as one introduced Thursday by Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., that scraps the FEC’s six-member commission — instituted after the Watergate scandal to defend against partisans dominating the agency — for a five-member body.
An odd number of commissioners — two Republicans, two Democrats and an independent — mirrors Washington state’s reasonably collegial congressional redistricting commission and would be less prone to ideological impasses, Kilmer argues.
“The FEC today makes Congress look comparatively functional,” Kilmer told the Center for Public Integrity. “We, as taxpayers, are paying for an agency in constant gridlock. We can do better.”
But Congress, writ large, isn’t much interested in campaign finance-related bills of late. Most languish in congressional committees and never even get a vote. Kilmer, who has two Republican co-sponsors for the bill, said he’s hopeful both parties will find merit in legislation that makes a government agency more efficient.
Meanwhile, two congressional bodies — the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and the Committee on House Administration — oversee federal election matters, and by virtue, the FEC.
But neither committee has conducted an FEC oversight hearing this year, where lawmakers could formally and publicly question the agency’s commissioners. None are scheduled.
For Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the onus of appointing an FEC general counsel is on the agency’s six leaders.
“It would be preferable to have one in place,” Blunt spokesman Brian Hart said, “but the commissioners need to come to a consensus on a candidate.”
This story was co-published with TIME.
In his forthcoming memoir, Don “DJ” Arneson will most certainly cover the topic of Lobo, the first comic book headlined by a black character that he created in 1965 for Dell Comics. But per an interview in the Lichtfield County Times, a much larger strand will be the impact of a tragic event in 1940:
In line with some popular superheroes’ origins, Arneson lost his father when he was five years old. \"My father’s death was the defining moment,\" he said. \"It ruled my life. It was a hot summer day, your dad goes away. He was killed in a car wreck.\"
Arneson said he compartmentalized the event in his mind. \"I resolved it would stay on one side,\" he said. \"In this way I separated myself from reality. Not in a psychological way but I created a separate reality and an opportunity to see the world from two viewpoints. A dead father was the driving impetus for what I do.\"
Arneson isn’t sure about the claims that Lobo, illustrated by Tony Tallarico and featuring a black cowboy on the cover, failed after just two issues because stores refused to unpack and display the shipped title. For his work, the Connecticut resident was recently honored with a 2015 Lifetime Achivement Award at the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention (ECBACC) in Philadelphia.
He told Times contributor N.F. Ambery that he is currently searching for an illustrator to draw up the comic book panels for his memoir.
[Photo of Michael Dennis with Arneson at the recent ECBACC event via: Instagram]
Trump, during his announcement that he will unsuccessfully run for the Republican presidential nomination, said Mexicans immigrating to America were criminals, rapists and drug addicts. Yes, he actually said this.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” explained The Donald. “They’re sending people who have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.” What a guy.
As a result of NBC severing ties with Trump, CNNMoney reports that the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants won’t be broadcasted on the network. Celebrity Apprentice will still air, but without Trump as a host. The Apprentice is “being reevaluated.”
A group of Southern public media outlets is getting a second shot at a collaborative effort to cover education in the region. The Southern Education Desk received $246,000 in funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting earlier this year, Current reports. The funding goes through April 2016.
The Southern Education Desk first launched in 2011 as part of a larger CPB-backed project to fund local journalism through collaborative Local Journalism Centers, but the funding expired in 2013 and only WBHM, the public radio station in Birmingham, Al., maintained the program.
“I think they were too general around education,” he said. “They didn’t have a clear enough sense around the master narrative. I’m not saying it was a total failure, but it didn’t gel the way other [Local Journalism Centers] did.”
So what went wrong?
The desk faced several challenges, according to Tanya Ott, now vice president of radio at Georgia Public Broadcasting. Ott served as managing director of the desk for most of 2013 while working as news director at WBHM.
To start with, the desk comprised eight stations across five states, making it “if not the largest geographic spread of the LJCs…one of the largest,” Ott said. Furthermore, participants included radio and TV stations and joint licensees, which created challenges in “conceptualizing cross-platform content,” she said.
For most of the two-year cycle for the CPB grant, station reporters also had difficulty balancing station and desk responsibilities, Ott said. At times, journalists were challenged to provide locally focused education coverage while also delivering stories that other partner stations would air.
The revamped Southern Education Desk will narrow its focus on how it covers education, and it has a goal of producing 10 series on various topics before its funding expire. The first, which was published earlier this month, was on Common Core standards.
Funding, however, remains a challenge as CPB says it doesn’t plan on extending its funding beyond next April. Though the Southern Education Desk is hunting for additional revenue sources, other LJCs have had trouble remaining viable.
RELATED ARTICLEFor public radio and television stations, collaboration around the news proves challengingJuly 15, 2013Innovation Trail is a collaboration between five upstate New York public media outlets covering tech and business, and editor Matthew Leonard told the Lab in 2013 that it has been able to remain active past its initial CPB funding because the participating stations have all contributed money to continue the reporting, and reporters only spend part of their time reporting on collaborative projects. Still, Leonard said, it hasn’t been easy.
“People just see the content out of their radio like it’s Morning Edition or All Things Considered, so it’s very hard to sell the LJC as a brand,” Leonard said. “You’ll likely hear people say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do a 10-part series around universal pre-K’ — around a story idea — then you can get that. But around the LJC itself: ‘Isn’t that attractive and appealing to you as an underwriter?’ Not so much.”
Margaret Bourke-White occupies a hallowed place in journalism history. She was Life magazine’s first female photographer, joining the publication in 1936.
Following closely behind in 1937 as the magazine’s second female staff photographer was German immigrant Hansel Mieth. She went on, alongside eventual husband Otto Hagel, to earn praise for her socially conscious work. A new exhibit of the couple’s work has just opened at the Sonoma County Museum in Santa Clara, CA. Titled “LIFE, Labor and Purpose,” it runs through August 20:
Over the years, the museum has collected over 120 original photographic prints, representing the work of Hansel Mieth and Otto Hagel. It is an important part of the museum’s permanent collection, and while carefully cataloged and preserved, the photographs, with a few exceptions, have never been shown.
Mieth sealed her reputation with photographs of migrant workers and striking San Francisco dockworkers. She and Hagel (who freelanced for the magazine) also went on assignment in 1943 for Life to the Heart Mountain Japanese American internment camp, but the pictures they shot there were never published.
Mieth is also remembered for a 1938 of a Rhesus monkey. The picture was snapped in Puerto Rico. From a 2014 Time magazine revisit:
When Mieth got back to New York, she learned that the joke around the Life offices was that she’d produced a striking portrait of Henry Luce, the founder and publisher of Time, Life, Fortune and other magazines: evidently, some of her colleagues felt that the rhesus in the water looked like their boss.
You might not enjoy her music, but you’re in the minority: Forbes has her ranked as the third highest-paid celebrity in the world, behind Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Those two get punched in the head for a living; Perry makes disposable pop songs. We ask you — who’s the smart one here?
Some person wearing a whistle telling you to do three more laps around the track, or that, yes, you can do that final push-up in your set–that makes sense. But a book coach? It’s not as if all you need to get through your novel is someone standing behind you telling you that when you finish that final paragraph you’ll be golden.
More than the name implies, a book coach is a mix of therapist, editor and personal cheering section. Some people hire book coaches to meet all of those needs; others for just one. Either way, a book coach can deliver what you need, even if you aren’t sure what that is.
Every writer will get something different out of a book coach because every writer has different needs. For example, [Esther] Hershenhorn, [a] children’s book coach, says some writers just need a critique of a picture book. Others need help moving the story to a more meaningful level or help with research so they can better understand their competition. And still others may think they have a book when, in fact, it’s an idea that works better as a magazine story.
For more, including knowing when to hire a coach, read: Why You Should Hire a Book Coach
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Associated Press veteran Karen Mahabir is joining The Huffington Post as managing editor of news. Mahabir most recently served as the AP’s digital products producer.
Mahabir had been with the AP since 2005.
“Karen will lead HuffPost’s assignment desk and help build our global news presence, focusing on the U.S., London and Sydney,” said the HuffPost, in a statement provided to Capital New York.
Melissa Block, who has hosted NPR’s All Things Considered for more than 12 years, is taking on a different role at the company. Block will now serve as a special correspondent, tackling everything from newsmaker profiles to long-form stories on vital issues impacting both the U.S. and the world.
Block will also serve as a guest-host on NPR news programs and develop new podcasts based on her reporting.
“Great reporting combined with compelling storytelling is vital to NPR’s future,” said Mike Oreskes, NPR’s editorial director and senior vp of news, in a statement. “No one exemplifies that blend better than Melissa. As All Things Considered listeners well know, Melissa has an amazing ability for telling the important stories of our age in a way that engages both the heart and the mind.”
Block’s last day providing a soothing voice for All Things Considered will be August 14.