On Tuesday night, Newt Gingrich, the Republican who was forced to resign as House speaker in the late '90s and who now is a top Donald Trump surrogate, got into a row with Fox News host Megyn Kelly. Toward the end of a segment on the presidential election, the often combative Gingrich started grousing about the media paying too much attention to all the women who have accused Trump of sexual assault (after a video emerged of Trump bragging about committing sexual assault). Kelly defended the media's handling of this story: "We have to cover that story, sir." What about a Hillary Clinton speech in which she referred to open borders? Gingrich retorted. "That is worth covering," Kelly said.
Gingrich then angrily exploded: "Do you want to go back to the tapes of your shows recently? You are fascinated with sex and you don't care about public policy. That's what I get out of watching you tonight." Kelly shot back: "I am not fascinated by sex. But I am fascinated by the protection of women." Gingrich became irate and dared Kelly to say "Bill Clinton" and "sexual predator." She did not take the bait, and shortly after that, Kelly said goodbye to Gingrich and asked him to "spend some time" working on his "anger issues."
The exchange blew up Twitter and was the talk of the politerati. On Wednesday morning, as Trump was holding an event in Washington, DC, to promote his new hotel, with Gingrich one of the few notable GOPers in attendance, he congratulated Gingrich for tangling with Kelly (with whom Trump once feuded).
Following the ribbon-cutting ceremony in the hotel lobby, Mother Jones asked Gingrich about his emotional face-off with Kelly. "Do you really think that Megyn Kelly was overly fascinated with sex by asking about [the sexual assault accusations regarding Trump]?" we inquired. Waving his hand, Gingrich replied, "I'm not going to talk about that."
We followed up: "But given that you guys impeached a president" about a matter involving sex—Gingrich interrupted, "It speaks for itself. It speaks for itself." He and his (third) wife then walked away to eat lunch at the hotel restaurant.
With less than two weeks to go before the presidential election, Donald Trump spent Wednesday morning not worrying about making America great again but about preserving his business empire.
As Trump took the stage for the grand opening of his new hotel in Washington, DC, it wasn't clear whether he would be talking about the election or just praising this new venture. It was a throwback to the Republican primary, when campaign events and Trump product placement went hand in hand. (At a press conference at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago in March, Trump bragged about his business prowess by listing products that have borne his name over the years—Trump steaks, Trump vodka—as the cable networks aired the event live.)
The hotel opening was listed on his campaign website and staffed partly by campaign employees. But with election day around the corner, Trump seemed more interested in basking in the glow of the media cameras to hype this project—and his kids, Ivanka, Donald Jr., and Eric, who were there for the occasion. He had given up a morning of campaigning in a swing state for this. On the same day, Mike Pence, was holding a rally in Utah, a state Republicans should be able to take for granted but where Trump has been slipping in the polls.
"With a notable exception of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, this is the most coveted piece of real estate in Washington, DC," Trump said to a full room ofVIPs in business suits and dresses. The well-attired attendees, who clapped when Trump entered the room, did not look like folks upset with NAFTA and who were eager to see the Washington swamp drained. One VIP was a woman who works for a major consulting firm in Washington who recently booked meeting rooms at the hotel for an event in April. The rates were low, she said, as many companies in the capital shy away from the Trump hotel because of Trump's campaign. "There are a lot of people who will not want to have anything to do with this place," she said. She noted that her firm is hoping that by the time of its event, Trump will have "calmed down."
With more than two hundred journalists in the ballroom covering the odd event, Trump claimed that the hotel showed that he can get things done. He declared, "My theme today is five words: 'under budget and ahead of schedule.'" (That is actually six words.) Trump then pivoted from hailing his hotel to assailing Obamacare. The health care program "is in free fall," he said. The "military is depleted," he added. Finally, he congratulated Newt Gingrich, one of his surrogates, for a combative interview with Fox News host Megyn Kelly on Tuesday night.
Though the ballroom was packed with camera crews and reporters, Trump's days of getting uninterrupted air time on major cable networks are over. None of the cable networks paid much attention to his event Wednesday. It stood in stark contrast to the last big event he held at the hotel.
That was September 16, and Trump was riding high. The polls showed him neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton, and he tricked the media into giving him a free 45-minute infomercial for his new Washington hotel. He had invited the press to the hotel, with a soft opening underway, for what was billed as a major statement on birtherism. The word was that Trump would finally declare that he believed Obama was a US citizen, after years of championing the conspiracy theory that the president was born in Kenya. Instead, Trump used about half an hour of the free media coverage to promote the hotel and showcase military veterans supporting his campaign. Eventually, he made about 20 seconds of remarks regarding his supposed abandonment of birtherism (which hardly seemed genuine).
After that event, Trump was pleased with how he had bamboozled the media, and the press fumed. "We got played," CNN's John King admitted. Ultimately, this stunt may have backfired on Trump. It became a turning point in his media coverage. Major news outlets called his birther statement—in which he blamed Clinton for starting the birther charge—a lie. And when Trump gave a tour of the hotel that day to the photographers and videographers in his press pool, without any reporters, the pool decided to destroy the footage. Shortly after this episode, Trump's campaign began tanking, following his poor performance at the first debate and the appearance of a video of him bragging about sexually assaulting women.
After the September birtherism event ended, the stage on which Trump had touted his new hotel literally collapsed as the cameras were still rolling—a perfect metaphor for what happened that day between Trump and the press. On Wednesday morning, the stage did not fall apart. But it seemed as if Trump might have realized that his electoral prospects had. He appeared more fixated on trying to save his brand, which has been harmed by the divisive and insult-driven campaign he has mounted. After the ribbon-cutting ceremony in the hotel lobby, Ivanka was hobnobbing with well-wishers and accepting congratulations. Mother Jones asked her if her father's presidential bid had damaged the Trump brand. She just smiled and quickly walked away.
On April 2, 2015, I sent an email to Hillary Clinton's campaign spokesman, Nick Merill, asking for comment about UFOs, specifically about the idea that a Clinton presidency would be a boon to those in the UFO community. He replied that Clinton's "non-campaign" (this was 10 days before the campaign officially launched) had "a strict policy of not commenting on extraterrestrial activity. BUT the Truth Is Out There."
I found the response funny—anybody with even a vague knowledge of The X-Files would immediately recognize the line—and I quoted it in mystory, "ETs for Hillary: Why UFO Activists Are Excited About Another Clinton Presidency," which laid out why a Hillary Clinton presidency mightbe good newsfor those committed to finding out what's going on with extraterrestrials' interaction with the planet Earth.
This all came back up earlier this week in one of WikiLeaks' daily releases of John Podesta's stolen emails. WikiLeaks published the exchange, in which Merrill passed my query to Clinton campaign chairman Podesta. "You can't make this stuff up," Merrill wrote. He then asked ifPodestawould prefer that Merrill politely decline to comment, "or say that our non-campaign has a strict policy of not commenting on extraterrestrial activity?" Podesta, to his everlasting credit, threw me a bone. "Go with the latter but add the truth is out there," he wrote. I included his response at the end of my story.
This may be only the beginning of my appearances in Podesta's email.I pestered him and the Clinton campaign for answers related to a profile I wrote about Stephen Bassett, America's only registered lobbyist on UFO and extraterrestrial issues, with a mission to force the US government to come clean about human interactions with extraterrestrials. Key to Bassett's plan is getting Clinton to address why she and her husband engaged with the late Laurance Rockefeller over the course of several years in the mid-1990s, as the philanthropist worked hard to force the US government to disclose "The Truth" about extraterrestrials. At the time, John Podesta was a senior White House staffer and likely had a front-row seat to any Rockefeller-Clinton interaction that might have occurred.
Neither Podesta nor the Clinton campaign responded to questions for that story. But both Podesta and Clinton have spoken seriously about UFOs and extraterrestrials at several points during her campaign. In March, Clinton told Jimmy Kimmel that if elected president, she'd double down on her husband's efforts to ferret out the truth about UFOs. That interview was four months after a previous Clinton appearance on Kimmel's show, where she wished the UFO issue had come up, but it didn't, according to a separate Podesta email. "He didn't end up asking her about UFOs!" a campaign communications person emailed Podesta after the interview. "She was very disappointed. She practiced UAPs for 5 minutes beforehand." (UAP stands for "unidentified aerial phenomena," which is the term used by the more scientific wing of UFO buffs and researchers.) Clearly Clinton was ready and willing to talk about UFOs in a serious way. She also told a New Hampshire reporter in December 2015 that she thinks "we may have been (visited already). We don't know for sure." She acknowledged that Podesta had made her pledge to get the information out as president.
The UFO-related material in Podesta's email box has spawned dozens of stories, ranging from Podesta's discussion with the late NASA astronaut Edgar Mitchell about the reality of extraterrestrial life to former Blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge's regular communication with Podesta about the topic. Podesta's email box shows UFO talk going back to at least 2008, when Faiz Shakir, then the vice president of the Center for American Progress, emailed Podesta with the subject line "UFO questions coming up." He linked to a couple of stories about his connection to the issue. Podesta's response set the tone for his reactions to future UFO emails over the years: calm, confident, and forward-looking.
"The American people," he wrote, "can handle the truth."
This story was originally published by Gristand is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
We fact-checked Donald Trump's latest comments on renewable energy. Turns out, they're not all true.
The Republican presidential nominee appeared on Herman Cain's radio show on Tuesday, and he had quite a bit to say about wind and solar power, and birds too. Here's part of the transcript, courtesy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, with our fact-checking notes added in brackets:
TRUMP: Our energy companies are a disaster right now. Coal. The coal business is—you know, there is such a thing as clean coal [False]. Our miners are out of work—now they're just attacking energy companies like I've never seen them attack anything before.
They want everything to be wind and solar. Unfortunately, it's not working on large-scale [False]. It's just not working [False]. Solar is very, very expensive [False]. Wind is very, very expensive [False], and it only works when it's windy [False].
TRUMP: Someone might need a little electricity—a lot of times, it's the opposite season, actually. When they have it, that's when you don't need it. So wind is very problematic [False] and—I'm not saying I'm against those things. I'm for everything. I'm for everything.
TRUMP: But they are destroying our energy companies with regulation [False]. They're absolutely destroying them [False].
CAIN: But their viability has to be demonstrated before you shove it down the throats of the American people. That's what you're saying.
TRUMP: In all fairness, wind is fine [True]. Sometimes you go—I don't know if you've ever been to Palm Springs, California—it looks like a junkyard [False]. They have all these different—
CAIN: I have.
TRUMP: They have all these different companies and each one is made by a different group from, all from China and from Germany, by the way—not from here [False]. And you look at all these windmills. Half of them are broken [False]. They're rusting and rotting. You know, you're driving into Palm Springs, California, and it looks like a poor man's version of Disneyland [False]. It's the worst thing you've ever seen [False].
And it kills all the birds [False]. I don't know if you know that…Thousands of birds are lying on the ground. And the eagle. You know, certain parts of California—they've killed so many eagles [False]. You know, they put you in jail if you kill an eagle. And yet these windmills [kill] them by the hundreds [False].
The exchange first started when Kelly pointed to several polls, including one by Fox News, indicating Hillary Clinton leading in a number of key swing states, prompting Gingrich to allege the media was biased against the Republican nominee.
"Let me point out something to you," Gingrich said. "The three major networks spent 23 minutes attacking Donald Trump that night and 57 seconds on Hillary Clinton's secret speeches. You don't think this is a scale of bias worthy of Pravda and Izvestia?"
But it was when Kelly then turned to broach the allegations of sexual misconduct against Trump, describing the real estate magnate as a "sexual predator," that Gingrich appeared to lose control.
"You're fascinated with sex and you don't care about public policy," he said.
"You know what, Mr. Speaker," Kelly responded, visibly taken aback. "I'm not fascinated by sex but I am fascinated by the protection of women and understanding what we're getting in the Oval Office and I think the American voters would like to know..."
Some prominent Trump supporters took to Twitter to commend Gingrich:
.@NewtGingrich just destroyed @MegynKelly. Shows she is totally biased against Mr. Trump & not very smart. Mr. Trump has long known!!
Conservative pundit Amanda Carpenter, who just hours before penned a Washington Post piece asking why men in her own party refused to defend her against Trump's sexism, said that the "Kelly File" encounter proved her point:
Gingrich accuses Kelly of being obsessed with sex and then immediately demands she obey his command to mouth specific words about sex. Yech.
President Barack Obama's approval rating is the highest it has been in 45 months, and Republicans have taken note. In Ohio, Sen. Rob Portman is running an ad boasting of his work with the Democratic commander in chief "to break the grip of heroin addiction." In California, Rep. Darrell Issa—who once called Obama "one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times"—is sending out mailers with Obama's face on them, touting his work with the president "to protect victims of sexual assault."
How scared is an unpopular Issa that Doug Applegate will beat him? Scared enough to use a photo of Obama on a mailer pic.twitter.com/DqXUGStSZs
There is a problem with that strategy, though, which is that Obama seems determined to spend the last two weeks of the election laying waste to every Republican who ever crossed him. Though Obama was a liability to Democrats in the 2014 midterms, his renewed popularity has made him the most sought-after advocate for Hillary Clinton and down-ballot Democrats this fall. At rallies and in fundraisers in battleground states and swing districts, Obama has ripped into Republican lawmakers with a mix of exasperation and disdain, mocking their belated rejection (or continued support) of Donald Trump and casting the GOP presidential nominee as the logical endpoint of eight years of toxic hostility.
Issa, who is facing his most competitive race in years, was the most recent Republican to feel his wrath. At a fundraiser in La Jolla on Sunday, Obama trashed the California Republican for his mailer. "Issa's primary contribution to the United States Congress has been to obstruct and to waste taxpayer dollars on trumped-up investigations that have led nowhere," he said. "This is now a guy who, because poll numbers are bad, has sent out brochures with my picture on them touting his cooperation on issues with me. Now that is the definition of chutzpah."
Earlier on Sunday, while campaigning in Las Vegas for Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto, Obama attacked her opponent, Republican Rep. Joe Heck, for renouncing Trump only after a tape surfaced of the nominee bragging about sexual assault. "Catherine's been a national leader in the fight against sex trafficking of teenage girls and violence against women and passed laws to make sure the penalties are tougher for predators, expanded sex offender registries, gave victims the right to sue their captors—and the other guy supported Donald Trump," Obama said.
"What the heck! What the heck! Heck no! Heck no. Heck no. Come on! Come on!"
Obama's criticism of Heck wasn't even really about Joe Heck. It was an attempt to have the last word on the personal and political fights of the last eight years—to take the conspiracy theories and obstruction that dogged his presidency from day one and throw them back in Republicans' faces:
Here's the thing. For years, Republican politicians and the far-right media outlets have pumped up all kinds of crazy stuff about me. About Hillary. About Harry. They said I wasn't born here. They said climate change is a hoax. They said that I was going to take everybody's guns away! They said that while we were doing military exercises that we've been doing forever, suddenly this was a plot to impose martial law. This is what they've been saying for years now! So people have been hearing it they start thinking well maybe it's true! And if the world they've been seeing is I'm powerful enough to cause hurricanes on my own and to steal everybody's guns in the middle of the night and impose martial law—even though I can't talk without a 'prompter—then is it any wonder that they end up nominating somebody like Donald Trump?
And the fact is that there are a lot of politicians who knew better. There are a lot of senators who knew better but they went along with these stories because they figured you know what this'll help rile up the base, it'll give us an excuse to obstruct what we're trying to do, we won't be able to appoint judges, we'll gum up the works, we'll create gridlock, it'll give us a political advantage. So they just stood by and said nothing and their base began to actually believe this stuff. So Donald Trump did not start this. Donald Trump didn't start it, he just did what he always did which is slap his name on it, take credit for it, and promote it. That's what he always does. And so now, when suddenly it's not working and people are saying wow this guy's kind of out of line, all of a sudden these Republican politicians who were okay with all this crazy stuff up to a point suddenly they're all walking away. Oh, this is too much. So when you finally get him on tape bragging about actions that qualify as sexual assault and his poll numbers go down, suddenly that's a deal-breaker. Well what took you so long! What the heck! What took you so long! All these years!
Obama's revenge tour didn't stop there. Speaking last week in Miami, Florida, Obama appeared to take a certain amount of glee in going after the Sunshine State's Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. After finishing his riff about Republicans who knew better enabling a toxic political movement, Obama went out of his way to twist the knife just a little bit more.
"How can you call [Trump] a con artist and dangerous and object to all the controversial things he says, and then say, 'But I'm still gonna vote for him'?" Obama said. "Come on, man. Come on, man! You know what that is, though? It is the height of cynicism. That's the sign of somebody who will say anything, do anything, pretend to be anybody, just to get elected. And you know what? If you're willing to be anybody just to be somebody, then you don't have the leadership that Florida needs in the United States Senate."
Portman, the Ohio Republican who is running those ads boasting of his work with Obama, also came in for the Obama treatment after withdrawing his support for Trump this month. "But he has supported [Trump] up until last week?" Obama asked at a Democratic Party dinner in Cleveland in early October. "So I guess it was okay when Trump was attacking minorities and suggesting that Mexicans were rapists, Muslims were unpatriotic, and insulting Gold Star moms, making fun of disabled Americans. I guess that didn't quite tip it over the edge. Why was that okay? And now he says he will vote for the vice presidential nominee instead—except that guy still supports Donald Trump!"
You can hear the exasperation in his voice:
"So if Trump was running around saying I wasn't born here, they were okay with that as long as it helped them with votes," he continued. "If some of these folks on talk radio started talking about how I was the anti-Christ, 'yeah you know, it's just politics.' You think I'm joking!"
As an example of how deep into the conspiracy swamps conservatives had gone, Obama mentioned Jade Helm, a training exercise in Texas that triggered right-wing paranoia in 2015. "We did a military exercise—the Pentagon does these periodically—in Texas; suddenly, all of a sudden the folks in Texas were all like, 'They're gonna take over right now!'" he said. "I'm serious! And then the senator down there said, 'Yeah, we better look into that.' And the governor says, 'Well, I, you know, I don't know!' What do you mean you don't know! What does that mean? Are—really? You think that like the entire Pentagon said, 'Oh, really, you want to declare martial law and take over Texas, let's do it under the guise of routine training missions?'"
The "senator" Obama was referring to was actually a congressman, Rep. Louie Gohmert, but the point stands. The election is personal for Obama. It is not just about his legacy, but about the terms on which his legacy was achieved. And finally he's got the wind at his back.
Until the election, we're bringing you "The Trump Files," a daily dose of telling episodes, strange but true stories, or curious scenes from the life of GOP nominee Donald Trump.
Donald Trump has a long track record of pushing officials in New York and other cities to yield to his demands, but he doesn't always get his way. Take the case of an old building in Los Angeles that he bought a stake in, where the local school board thwarted Trump's attempt to build yet another massive tower.
Rather than agreeing on a sale price with the district, the Los Angeles Times reported, Trump decided to fight. Trump launched a years-long battle as he first lobbied to keep the property, then agreed to sell when he needed cash in 1991, and finally waded into a complicated legal battle with the city as both parties squabbled over how much the land was worth. Trump complained during one deposition obtained by the Times that the "fools" on the school board had taken the hotel from him "as viciously as in Nazi Germany." And he griped: "I assumed that the people essentially teaching the kids were not stupid. They turned out to be very stupid."
The school board eventually won the dispute, knocked down the hotel, and built a wildly expensive K-12 campus that opened in 2010. And Trump, defeated, sold his stake in the partnership in 1998 and never tried to build a major building in Southern California again.
In a new peer-reviewed study, Swedish researchers tracked the dietary choices and health outcomes of a group of more than 2,800 adults over several years, adjusting their results for a range of factors like age, gender, family history of diabetes, and caloric intake. They found that people who drink 400 milliliters or more of soda daily—that's 13.5 ounces, just a bit more than a standard 12-oz. US serving—are 2.4 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who did not drink these beverages. And people who drink 1,000 milliliters (33.8 oz, less then three US servings) had a 10 times higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
As the authors note, these findings are the latest in a massive weight of research (see here, here, and here, for example) tying sugary drink consumption to diabetes.
And get this: They found roughly equal results for people who drink Big Soda's preferred alternative to sugar-laced beverages—artificially sweetened ones. That conclusion bolsters a rapidly expanding literature indicting "diet" soda, which I go into here and here.
Meanwhile, the industry has launched a robust effort to beat back efforts to impose soda taxes. Vox recently calculated that Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and their industry group, the American Beverage Association, have spent a combined $30.8 million to campaign against ballot initiatives in US cities this year. The American Beverage Association has even enlisted progressive hero Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in its efforts to battle tax fights in San Francisco and Oakland:
While campaigning against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination earlier this year, Sanders came out against a proposed soda tax in Philadelphia, which ended up being enacted. In the months since, though, he has changed his stance, and he recently rebuked the ABA for using him in advertisements.
Meanwhile, Clinton, who publicly supported the Philadelphia tax, was privately pressured by Coca-Cola execs to tamp down her support for such measures, a trove of leaked emails published by the group DC Leaks suggests. As Politiconotes, the email correspondence between Coca-Cola officials and campaign insiders "reveals the deep connections the soda giant enjoys in Hillary-land at multiple levels, which the company leaned on to urge Clinton to walk back her support for soda taxes last April."
Another email dump, analyzed here by the group Ninjas for Health, shows Coca-Cola execs strategizing ways to defeat soda taxes from Oakland and Philadelphia to the United Kingdom, France, Israel, and Bosnia Herzegovina.
Like Bernie Sanders, I've long been ambivalent on soda taxes, because I'm allergic to any measure that falls most heavily on the pocketbooks of low-income people. But the public health case against soda has gotten so strong that I'm convinced. After all, taxes must really be an effective tool for turning people away from soda, or the industry wouldn't be fighting them so hard, on so many fronts.
This summer, 81,000 homes in Pittsburgh received a worrisome letter about their water. The local utility "has found elevated levels of lead in tap water samples in some homes," it said. Seventeen percent of samples had high levels of the metal, which can cause "serious health problems."
The situation was bad enough to attract the attention of Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who helped expose the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. "The levels in Pittsburgh are comparable to those reported in Flint," he said in an interview with local TV station WPXI.
This was surprising because until this year, Pittsburgh's lead levels had always been normal. So what happened?
First, a bit of background: In 2012, the city faced a dilemma. Though it had clean water, its century-old water system desperately needed repair. And its utility, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, was plagued by administrative problems. Residents complained of bad customer service and unfair fees. And after a series of poor financial decisions in the 2000s, PWSA was hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.
Pittsburgh isn't alone: Public utilities around the country are trying to make ends meet with dwindling public funding and increasingly outdated infrastructure. Many, like Pittsburgh, turn to private management companies to help out.
Pittsburgh's utility called in Veolia, a Paris-based company that consults with utilities, promising "customized, cost-effective solutions that reflect best practices, environmental protection and a better quality of life." Veolia consults or manages water, waste, and energy systems in 530 cities in North America, with recent contracts in New York City, New Orleans, and Washington, DC. Last year, the company, which operates in 68 countries, brought in about $27 billion in revenue.
Pittsburgh hired Veolia to manage day-to-day operations and provide an interim executive team, helping the utility run more efficiently and save precious public dollars. Under the terms of the contract, Veolia would keep roughly half of every dollar the utility saved under its guidance.
Under the leadership of Jim Good, a Veolia executive serving as interim director, PWSA began making sweeping changes—and they seemed to be working: Within a year, call waiting times for concerned customers dropped by 50 percent. Thanks to new fees for commercial buildings, new customers, and other assorted changes, the utility saved $2 million.
According to a 2013 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Veolia changed PWSA's culture, too: Instead of traditional top-heavy management, Good checked in with employees over pizza and burgers every week. At a staff barbecue in 2012, "I told them that we were there to work with the employees as their partners," he later told the Post-Gazette. "I provided assurances that there wouldn't be any layoffs and that together we could achieve anything."
But by the end of 2015, the utility had laid off or fired 23 people—including the safety and water quality managers, and the heads of finance and engineering, according to documents obtained through a Right-to-Know request. The PWSA laboratory staff, which was responsible for testing water quality throughout the 100,000-customer system, was cut in half. Stanley States, a water quality director with 36 years of experience at the utility (employees referred to him as "Dr. Water") was transferred to an office-based job in the research department. Frustrated with the move, he retired.
Good maintains that not all staffing decisions were made by Veolia, which was in a consulting rather than management role when the layoffs occurred. Any suggested staffing changes had to be approved by the board, he said.
As the lab staff shrank, PWSA made major changes to its water treatment system. For decades, the city had been adding soda ash—a chemical similar to baking soda—to its water to prevent the pipes, many of which are lead, from corroding and leaching into the water. (Lack of corrosion controls caused lead to leach into the water in Flint.) In 2014, PWSA hastily replaced soda ash with another cheaper corrosion control treatment, caustic soda. Such a change typically requires a lengthy testing and authorization process with the state's Department of Environmental Protection, but the DEP was never informed of the change. Nearly two years later, as news spread about the disaster in Flint, the utility switched back to soda ash.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto puts the blame for the treatment change squarely on Veolia, saying the company never informed the utility's board or the city. Veolia denies responsibility for the change, saying it "did not and would not prioritize cost savings ahead of effective corrosion control methods or water quality."
What is certain is that this spring, the state's DEP cited the utility for breaking state law and ordered immediate lead testing.
Tests this summer—the first since 2013—found that the city's lead levels had crept up and, for the first time on record, exceed federal standards. Seventeen percent of homes had levels above the Environmental Protection Agency's action level of 15 parts per billion.
Many suspect that the change in water treatment chemicals led to the jump in lead levels; the city is currently conducting an internal investigation into the matter.
Stanley States, the former water quality director, believes the staff cuts almost certainly played a role. Lead levels first crept up in 2013 because of a previous change in treatment chemicals, though they didn't exceed federal standards. But without a fully staffed lab, says States, the matter wasn't addressed. "They cut our laboratory in half," he said. "We would have been researching like crazy this lead corrosion problem to see how to correct it."
But Pittsburgh citizens' complaints about Pittsburgh's water goes beyond quality—it's also extraordinarily expensive. In 2013, a year after Veolia was hired, the water board approved a 20 percent rate increase over four years; by 2017, the average residential water bill will be $50 per month—triple the average Midwest cost, according to the Guardian.
Soon after, customers began complaining that their bills were coming erratically and appeared to charge for water residents hadn't used. One vacant property owner was charged for using 132,000 gallons of water in one month—that's about how much a family of four uses in a year. "You don't know if it's going to come in, whether it's late or not, how much it will be, a Pittsburgh retiree told Truthout. "Then you get it and there's a late charge."
In May of 2015, a group of Pittsburgh customers filed a class-action lawsuit against the utility, Veolia North America Water, and the accounting company keeping track of PWSA bills, alleging that new water meter readers installed in 2013 "catastrophically failed and customers have received grossly inaccurate and at times outrageously high bills"—including increases of nearly 600 percent. "PWSA is acutely aware that the billings are wrong but do not hesitate for a moment to issue 'shut off' notices and then arbitrarily turn off water service," read the complaint. PWSA and Veolia declined to respond to the allegations.
Last December, facing the class-action lawsuit, a state citation for changing corrosion controls, and mounting debt, Pittsburgh terminated its contract with Veolia. All told, PWSA had paid Veolia $11 million over the course of the contract.
Earlier this month, the utility announced it was suing the company. According to a press release, Veolia "grossly mismanaged PWSA's operations, abused its positions of special trust and confidence, and misled and deceived PWSA as part of its efforts to maximize profits for itself to the unfair detriment of PWSA and its customers."
Pittsburgh isn't the first municipality to sue Veolia this year. In April, Massachusetts officials sued Veolia, which was managing Plymouth's sewage treatment facility, for allowing 10 million gallons of untreated sewage to spill in and around the town's harbor last winter.
Two months later, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette charged Veolia with fraud and negligence for failing to discover Flint's enduring lead contamination problem after the city hired the company in 2015 to consult on water quality.
"Veolia stated that the water, quote, was safe," Schuette told NPR. "Veolia also callously and fraudulently dismissed medical and health concerns by stating that, quote, some people may be sensitive to any water."
In many cases, critics point to a pattern of Veolia saving utilities money through quick fixes—while ignoring bigger problems. In a phone interview, Kevin Acklin, the chief of staff for Pittsburgh's Mayor Bill Peduto, pointed out that Veolia's earnings are directly tied to the utility's short-term savings. "They had the incentive under the contract to not make capital investments in property, planning, and equipment—to basically not fix the pipes when needed, to pass off those costs to other agencies, including the city and private homes," he alleged. "Ultimately they were fiduciaries for the public authority, but they also served the business needs of a large multinational corporation."
Veolia denies responsibility in both Plymouth and Flint, saying the leak in Plymouth came from a pipe failure that was out of its control, and that the contract in Flint was limited to looking at another chemical called TTHM.
In the case of Pittsburgh, Veolia maintains that PWSA's board of directors retained control over the authority over the course of the three-year contract. "Veolia met its obligations and fulfilled the requirements of our contract in a fully transparent manner," wrote a Veolia North America spokeswoman in an email. "We stand behind the work performed on behalf of PWSA."
Yet Pittsburgh leaders can't help but notice that the city's utility is arguably even worse off than it was when it hired Veolia four years ago, with a depleted bank account—half of all earnings are directed to serving debt—and pipes that are still a century old. "The authority is in a pretty precarious financial situation right now, and I can't sit here and point to anything tangible to show the positive legacy of the contract we had with Veolia," says Acklin.
A former PWSA employee was more blunt about it. When asked how to advise utilities considering contracting with Veolia, he warned, "They will come in, rape your water company, and leave with money bags."
In 2013, Mike Morris, a Marine veteran and IT manager from Colorado, co-founded a militia group called Three Percent United Patriots (3UP). This armed faction was an offshoot of the larger three percenter movement, which sprung up after the election of President Barack Obama. The movement's members take their name from the belief that just 3 percent of American colonists were responsible for overthrowing the British in the Revolutionary War, and that it will take 3 percent of today's Americans to bring about the "restoration of the Founders' Republic." Today, 3UP is likely the largest militia in the country, with active branches in more than a dozen states. Morris says membership "exploded" after the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. He boasts that the Colorado branch now has 3,400 members.
After months of training undercover with militias in California, earlier this year I traveled to southern Arizona to join 3UP's Operation Spring Break. At least twice a year, militia members from around the country set up a heavily armed base in the Arizona desert and patrol the US-Mexico border for people entering the country illegally. Morris, also known as Fifty Cal, runs the operations, planning daytime and nighttime missions from his Kodiak trailer in the "forward operating base." When I first met Morris, he only knew me as a low-ranking militia member. I later caught up with him, told him I was a journalist, and asked for an interview.
Mother Jones: How did you get involved in the militia movement and patriot movement?
Mike Morris: I got involved in the militia movement back in the late '90s. I was involved in state militias in Colorado and then got involved in a group called the Tyranny Response Team, which I was one of the original members of.
MJ: What attracted you to the militia movement?
MM: I was always raised to be patriotic; to believe that protecting the nation is my duty. I went into the Marine Corps straight out of high school and when I got out of the Marines, joining a militia seemed like the way to continue serving my country. In 2013, Mitch Nerem and I formed the Three Percent United Patriots, which has become one of the largest national patriot organizations. We didn't plan for 3UP to be this big national organization. We really started by focusing on Colorado. Colorado is built up now to over 3,400 members. We have trainings every week.
MJ: What is the goal of 3UP?
MM: The object for 3UP is to unite patriot groups across the United States and to build a patriot network of shared resources, education, and training. We set out to train people to be able to take care of themselves, protect their families. We are preparing for anything, from bad snowstorms to a blackout. I can tell you what we're not: We're not an organization trying to take over the government. That being said, we do have an interest in trying to preserve what we see as the founding principles of the nation as codified by the Bill of Rights. We're not out looking for some newfound revolution. But we are prepared, should the day come, to defend our nation, defend our neighbors, and defend our way of life. I don't think there's a lot of patriots out there that are looking to run from the fight, but it's not the patriots that are gonna bring the fight.
MJ: Why does 3UP do border ops?
MM: I can tell you this: 3UP's border operations are focused on the drug trade and human trafficking. Personally, I'm not afraid of Mexican immigrants coming over and taking over the country. In fact, we've run across a few folks down there that were immigrants coming in and all we did with them is provide them some water and blankets and offer medical assistance. I'm not saying that we didn't call Border Patrol also. But that's not our focus down there. My focus is on the cartels, the human traffickers that make the people who live in those border communities live in fear.
MJ: You mentioned running into migrants and giving them water and blankets, but I saw guys dump out water jugs they found in the desert.
MM: That was a request of Border Patrol. Border Patrol told us that if we come across any drop points, we should dump the water and take the packs of food and clothing that are left. From what Border Patrol has told us, those water and food drops that we came across were not for immigrants. Those were food and water drops for drug runners. I don't know if you were with us when we found those backpacks, but that was high-dollar stuff in there.
Mike Morris (right) talks with a Border Patrol agent in Arizona. Shane Bauer
MJ: I was there actually when we found that stuff and it was like tuna packets, sardines, and some candy bars.
MM: When I'm saying "high dollar," it may not be considered high dollar for us.
MJ: When I was in Arizona for Operation Spring Break, you seemed to work pretty closely with the Border Patrol. You even made a new contact with an intelligence officer. Have you been in touch with Border Patrol since that operation?
MM: Oh yeah. Pretty much weekly.
MJ: What do you talk about?
MM: When we coordinate our border operations, we don't hold them secret from the Border Patrol. So a lot of times, prior to an operation, we've already been speaking with Border Patrol. They know we're coming. They may even recommend which weeks they'd like to see us come down. They may even recommend certain areas they want us to be in, certain areas they don't want us to be in, and for the most part we try to honor their requests. The head honchos in Washington, DC, do not support militias operating down on the border. They also do not support their agents being involved with those groups. But I think that you could see down there that there is an interaction. We are not best friends, but there is a mutual respect.
MJ: What else does 3UP do?
MM: One of the founding principles of 3UP is that we should be involved in our communities. We spend just as much time doing community-service-type work as we do militia-type work. We were the largest private organization donating to veterans' assistance last year in the state of Colorado. We delivered something like four tons of food to VFW food closets. We have donation centers all around the state where people can drop off food, blankets, and clothing. We were part of the water relief up in Flint. We were down at the floods in Louisiana. We were first on the scenes for the floods in South Carolina this year. In Colorado, we've done search and rescue. We run a youth corps where we do educational-type things. I want people to understand that the patriot movement is so much more than what gets portrayed a lot of times in the mainstream media. They portray us as a bunch of guys in camouflage running around in the woods that just want to shoot their guns. We're your neighbors. We're people who care about our communities and care about the direction of the nation.
MJ: What do you think of the federal government?
MM: The federal government is becoming tyrannical. I think that they have broadly overreached in many aspects. We see it in the Second Amendment, but we see it in the First Amendment, too. There's talk about what you can say, when you can say it. [Attorney General] Loretta Lynch came out herself and said people who make disparaging comments against Muslims should be charged with hate crimes. We see the federal government getting involved in everything from school lunches to firearms to how you can talk. Twenty years ago, we didn't need all these laws and rules. Things seemed to work just fine.
MJ: What are the most important issues facing the country right now?
MM: How do we break the division between people in the country? How do we break political division? How do we break racial division? That has gotten worse over the last five years. I think that division permeates through everything that's going on in the US today. I think that's part of the Black Lives Matter movement. I think that's part of the ISIS scare. I think it's definitely seen in the presidential elections. When you look at the patriot movement, you see that we aren't all cut from the same cloth. We have different backgrounds, different religions, and different ethnicities. But we've all come together under one premise and that's love for this nation.
MJ: But at the same time, you take steps to make sure that no Muslims enter the group. In one radio show, you talked about how at the border ops they put pork in the food so Muslim infiltrators don't show up. Muslims are a part of the country, so if you are saying that you want unity, how do you reconcile that?
MM: We don't have a rule in 3UP that says no Muslims. I'm not anti-Muslim. I'm anti-radical-Muslim. The same could be said for any group. I really don't care what somebody does in their own yard, in their own house, in their own community, as long as their beliefs don't trump my beliefs. They're free to think and do what they want if it's not affecting me or my neighbors or my kids. You're going to get a lot of different answers on the Muslim question from patriots because it's a touchy subject and it's hard to answer.
MJ: In an interview you did with AmmoLand.com, you talk about America becoming unrecognizable. What do you mean by that?
MM: It seems like every day, you hear about another right being restricted, especially when it comes to the Second Amendment. It's constantly under fire. But it's not even just that. The PC world, as I would call it, I think has gotten out of control. It's gotten to where you can't say or have any opinion that's outside of mainstream media's opinion without being labeled a racist or a -phobe of some type. We're starting to not be a nation of free thinkers. At some point, if we continue in this trajectory, we won't recognize the America that we live in.
MJ: Has 3UP ever had any trouble with the feds or law enforcement generally?
MM: Trouble? No. Have we had encounters? Sure. But they haven't been because we were doing something illegal. So yeah, we had DHS come out to the camp before and just sit down and talk to us, ask us what we were doing. I wouldn't consider that trouble.
MJ: What are your thoughts on the elections?
MM: I'm obviously not a Hillary fan, but I don't know how excited I am about Trump, either. I think the two major parties we have are each as corrupt as the other nowadays. I'm not necessarily saying we all need to go out and vote for Libertarians or the Green Party. We need politicians to go back to being what politicians were supposed to be 100 years ago: servants of the people. One of the things that is destroying the nation is the career politician. Because when you have somebody that's been a senator for 30 years, they're bought and paid for. Alls they are is a special-interest mouthpiece. We shouldn't be making millionaires out of our politicians.
MJ: What do you think about Donald Trump's idea of a wall on the border?
MM: Well, I don't know how well that would work. I think that we need border control. I think that we definitely need to help our Border Patrol by giving them better equipment with better funding. You can build a gigantic wall if you want. It may slow down the traffic, but what it's gonna do is it's gonna slow down the immigrant traffic and that's not the traffic that concerns me the most. A wall is not gonna slow down the drug traffic and it's not gonna slow down the human trafficking because those people have all the money in the world to build tunnels, to buy airplanes. I mean, shoot, they are using submarines off the West Coast. I would like to see us focus on stopping the criminal enterprise that's going on down at the border. I don't think a wall is going to do that.