An introduction

To new followers and old friends.

Hello and welcome. Some of you reading this will have discovered me through my coverage of the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis. Others might be wondering why I’m writing a re-introduction to myself. The answer: More than 1,000 people followed me on Twitter in the week and a half I was in Minneapolis, and I want them to see a sampling of my work. 

For the uninitiated, I’ve been reporting on American crime, life and death for 10 years, since I began at my hometown newspaper in Peoria, Illinois. From there, I worked at a newspaper in northern Minnesota where I covered issues affecting the Native American community, primarily homelessness, and then had a tiny stay at a paper in North Dakota before setting out as a freelancer in 2013. Since then I’ve covered police shootings and unrest in Ferguson and across the country, crime, police killings and misconduct in Chicago, national breaking news events including the Las Vegas massacre, extensive immigration coverage from the border, money-in-politics watchdog journalism, and, of course, the never-ending story of American death. I write regularly for The Daily Beast, and have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, Esquire, the Guardian and more. Recently, I’ve also written some food and lifestyle features for Heated Mag and InsideHook.

Just before Minneapolis, I covered the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, a little more than an hour south from my home in Savannah.  

I planned to spend this summer working on Unsolved Georgia, an investigation I launched in November of the murders of more than 600 women killed throughout the state since 1976. But because that project means so much to me, and because I want to do right by the victims, I’ve put Unsolved on hold. That’s because the story of the moment —police killings and the activist response to them, which will now become a focal point of the race for the White House — would drastically overshadow any progress I could have made in investigating hundreds of unsolved murders. 

I’ll now be focusing my efforts on police killings. Having covered so many of them over the years, I’m particularly well-suited to take on this assignment, which will entail diving into the more than 460 fatal police shootings — to say nothing of other fatal altercations — that have occurred as of mid-June.

This is my newsletter, Where Do We Go From Here, which often contains the extras from my stories. I’m heading to Atlanta now to cover the killing of Rayshard Brooks. Thanks for stopping by. 

The killing of Ahmaud Arbery and why it didn't need to happen

Arbery was killed when his killers didn't call for help. They and others believe that was their right.

The pain and anger never really go away. They just simmer underneath the lid of the pot. But sometimes the heat gets turned up and the cook doesn’t know, and when he goes to take the lid off the whole thing goes boiling over.

At various times the cook has been law enforcement agencies, entire cities and some whole states. At all times the cook is just the guy manning the stove for the kitchen in the restaurant of the United States of America, which is badly managed and has been for years.

Black America’s pain and anger — over slavery, segregation, voter suppression, police shootings and a general sense that many African-Americans remain second class citizens — is always simmering. It sometimes goes boiling over when a killing brings all those issues back to the surface, which is what is happening right now in Brunswick, Georgia.

Last night, hundreds of people protested in front of the home of a white man who gunned down a black man for little reason other than that the black man was running in the white man’s neighborhood, I reported yesterday at The Daily Beast. The shooter’s father, an ex-cop himself and a former investigator with the local district attorney, must never have been a great investigator because he could point to zero evidence that the dead black man was the same person who had stolen twice from the neighborhood. It was just a hunch, and when Arbery ran by that day the father, Gregory McMichael, figured he was the thief plaguing the Satilla Shores neighborhood in suburban Brunswick.

Gregory’s son, Travis, is Arbery’s killer. There’s a complicated timeline that has yet to be fully straightened out — and probably won’t be unless Gregory decides to talk to me again or until this case goes to trial — but the timeline of Arbery’s last moments are available on video for all to see. They show the 25-year-old running around to the front of Travis’ truck where he meets the younger McMichael. A shot rings out, then the pair appear to the left of the truck, clearly fighting and struggling over the shotgun. They briefly go off-screen and a second shot is heard. If you look closely, you can see a cloud of blood splatter floating through the air from their direction. Then back on screen, a continued struggle, and the final shot into Arbery before he collapses and Travis walks away.

After that, Travis yells something that’s unintelligible. (I’m having the video and audio slowed down and analyzed with forensic-level audio plugins to try to determine what Travis said and other unanswered questions from the video.) Then, the video stops.

There are lots of legal issues in this case: The citizen’s arrest statute, Georgia’s stand-your-ground law, and the state’s open carry rules will all play a role. But the bottom line is that this never needed to happen. If Arbery really was a thief, as the McMichaels say they believed, a response from law enforcement might have netted a different result. The McMichaels could have called the police. Sure, Arbery could have reacted to police officers the same way he did with Travis. But the cops would have had badges and uniforms. Arbery would have known who they were. As it stands, Arbery — whatever he was doing in Satilla Shores that day — was confronted by two armed white men, not in any uniform, wielding guns at him.

He was then presented with the choice none of us ever want to grapple with: fight or flee. Arbery apparently chose to fight which, ironically, is his right under Georgia law. That law will now determine the fate of the McMichaels, who made their own choice that day. They chose to take matters into their own hands instead of calling the police, and choices have consequences.  

Who to blame

It's a simple list: the president, his administration, Republicans and you, if you voted for him.

Every day I sit on my back deck and watch the elderly in their walkers and scooters go down Habersham Street to get groceries at Kroger, where some of them will contract coronavirus, get sick and possibly die. We’ve put up flyers offering to get their groceries for them but no one has called yet. An older woman told me yesterday that “the good thing about this virus is that it’s about to get hot and the heat will kill it.” Two men in their late 60s insisted that only people over 80 should not be going out in public.

“Not us,” they said.

This is what happens when there is not just a vacuum of leadership — as displayed so efficiently in recent weeks by the president and his administration — but a purposeful downplaying of the crisis in an attempt to spin the news to bolster Trump’s chance at re-election.

People will die because of this.

We should have seen this coming because what we are witnessing is the natural result of a government that has been dismantled and remade to do one thing above all else: protect Donald Trump’s ego.

The lack of preparedness for even becoming president; the belief that the whole of government was a waste of time, money and resources; the idea that only Donald Trump could fix all of our nation’s ills; the breaking down of the bureaucracy, replacing dedicated civil servants with inexperienced political sycophants — all of it is, in large part, why we’re where we are today. It is why the three babbling heads of Fox & Friends who, like most of the network, the president and his party, lied to you for weeks about the threat of this virus, must sit six feet apart from each other. It’s why many of you are sitting at home right now. It’s why some of our parents and grandparents will die. It’s why we will likely now enter into a recession.

If you voted for Donald Trump, you voted for this. You chose him because you believed, like he told you, that only he could fix it. You should have known better. All the evidence from a lifetime of his cons and failures was available to you, but you ignored it. You ignored it because you were scared, or you’re a racist, or you don’t have much fulfillment in your life so you saw him as someone who was sticking up for you, or you have a terrible job and you thought this successful man could help make you more successful. You were wrong about all of those things, and now we’re all paying the consequences.

This pandemic would have been bad under any president but the unflinching lights of time will show that it was worse than it needed to be because of the man that 63 million of you chose to put in the White House. 

Some of you will say that this isn’t helpful, me saying this. That this is a time when we should be coming together for the common good. But, no, you don’t get to say that. Because the common good is what Trump has worked against for the last three years. If you voted for him, you voted against the common good. 

Three weeks ago the president, the Republican Party and their allies in the media were telling you that this virus was a “hoax,” or that the media was simply “weaponizing” it to take down Trump. Now, you are sitting at home on the advice of scientists, experts and career government officials who — despite the best efforts of the trio above — still go to work every day to keep you safe. 

Three weeks ago we had the “greatest economy in the world,” the president incessantly reminded us. On day three of the quarantine, the Treasury Secretary is warning of 20 percent unemployment, and three years of stock market gains have been wiped out. 

Four years ago, Trump told us all that he was the only one who could fix it. Now, we know that the only thing he was ever capable of was breaking it.

***

For those of you who have been following my posts on Instagram and Facebook about Unsolved Georgia, my project documenting the murders of hundreds of women here, thank you for your patience. As with most things in this country and world right now, I’m pushing back the launch of the project until the worst is behind us. Until then, be safe and healthy.

These proceedings

In the latest chapter of the Right's grievance wars, Republicans want you to believe an impossible story.

In recent weeks, I’ve become very good at identifying the congressman who’s speaking at any given moment, despite my back being turned to the TV while I work at my desk. I’ve memorized their voices because I’ve sat through dozens of hours of the impeachment hearings. This is a luxury reserved for a small class of people that includes journalists, pundits, politicians and their staffs, and all the people who make a living by paying attention to and documenting the news of each day.

We are a tiny minority. Most Americans will get their impeachment news in highly-distilled snippets, either from their local newspaper, which will run AP wire of the day’s developments, or their local television station, which will lean on their parent networks to tell the story. Beyond that, Americans will have their choice of partisan publications, websites and networks to learn of everything that happened in Washington while they were at work. 

Few will spend days on end watching the hearings live, like I have, to reach the fullest understanding of what has been transpiring for the last three weeks. 

What they’ve missed is actually pretty simple, and perfectly-suited for the failed both-sides coverage that daily journalism provides to most Americans. Democrats and Republicans are telling two stories. The first, the one that we know because a handful of witnesses have gone under oath to attest to it, is that Donald Trump extorted the president of Ukraine in an attempt to disparage his biggest political threat, Joe Biden. The second, the one that no one ever mentioned until after Trump was caught in his failed shakedown, is that he was actually trying to root out corruption in Ukraine, an issue he cares deeply about. 

Only one of these stories is true, but to know that you’d have to have been paying deep attention to this saga since at least September. The impeachment hearings will not inform you that the second story, the Republicans’ story, is complete and utter bullshit. Only the months and years worth of reporting on Ukraine that have become so much the focus of the American political world in the last three months will tell you that. And most Americans don’t have the time for such intensive reading.

So Republicans are capitalizing on this, exploiting the complexities of this story to hoodwink the ill-informed. But their flailing attempts to defend Trump are available for all to see, and they’re constantly evolving.

***

In order, here are Republicans’ defense of the president so far:

  1. He didn’t extort the president of Ukraine. In fact it was a “perfect” call.

  2. Ok maybe Trump did extort Zelensky, but that’s his right as president in order to achieve his foreign policy goals.

  3. He ended up giving him the military aid eventually (after he got caught, they always fail to note) so no harm, no foul. And besides, that’s more than Obama did.

  4. Zelensky publicly said he felt “no pressure” from Trump, so there you have it.

And now, now that Republicans are being confronted by Democrats who are pointing out the many flaws in Republicans’ ever-changing defense of the president, they’ve come up with what they believe is their best story yet:

  1. Ok, Trump did extort Zelensky, but he did it to make sure he was “the real deal” and was actually going to take on corruption in Ukraine. Also the Bidens should be investigated.

Ensuring Zelensky was “the real deal” is Rep. Jim Jordan’s favorite line at the moment. He and every other Republican in Congress want Americans to believe that Trump held up the aid because he had great concerns about Zelensky’s commitment to attacking corruption. The major problem with this story is that no one really said this until weeks after the transcript of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky was released.

If this was their primary defense, one would think they’d have said so back in September. But it isn’t. The Donald Trump, Corruption Crusader story Americans will hear in aggregated form through the media until the Senate eventually votes against impeaching Trump (which they will), has not been Republicans’ primary defense because it is not true. This is a story that no one came up with until after Trump had been caught.

Republicans still employe defenses 1 - 4 occasionally. Mostly they revert to “Zelensky said he felt no pressure.” As in last week, when Rep. Louie Gohmert said, “I’ve never sent anyone to prison in a case where the victim didn’t know they were the victim,” referencing both his days as a judge and Zelensky’s public comment.

But, like many victims of many crimes — including women who have been sexually assaulted by powerful men, like the three dozen who’ve accused Trump himself of doing — Zelensky is prohibited by fear of retaliation from speaking out.

He is the head of a vulnerable, fledgling democracy that is almost entirely reliant on the U.S. to fight a hot war against Russia, and yet Gohmert expects him to tell the world that, yes, he actually did feel pressure from the man who holds the purse strings that keep Ukraine free. 

***

Republicans have decided that the Donald Trump, Corruption Crusader defense is a hill they’re willing to die on. It’s a good defense for them because no one can really prove or disprove it — to do so you’d have to know what was in Trump’s heart. Somewhere in there, Republicans insist, is a long-held belief that Ukrainian corruption must be stamped out, and he’d be the one to do it. 

They’re going to die on the hill of that defense because they’re now saying they’re a part of its completely untrue core: Jordan and others are going on the record each day saying they support the withholding of aid to make sure that Zelensky was “the real deal.” They’re on record as saying that the Bidens should be investigated — “This Burisma stuff, there’s something happening there,” Gohmert insisted last week. But there’s a very simple reason Americans shouldn’t believe Republicans when they say there’s enough smoke for Biden to be investigated: they looked at that same smoke for eight years and never did anything about it.

Following these proceedings, Americans will have even more evidence that Republicans’ final defense, this fantastical story of Trump crusading against corruption first and exposing the Bidens’ role in it second, is a farce. Once the Senate votes not to impeach Trump, they’ll have the numbers and momentum they’ll need to launch a full investigation of Biden and Burisma. But they won’t.

Republicans will get away with that obvious hypocrisy for the same reason they’ve convinced generations of working class Americans to vote against their own interests in electing the GOP to be the majority party in this country: grievance. Republican voters won’t bat an eye when the Congress in 2020 fails to take up an investigation of the Bidens because those voters are conditioned to understand that this is all about winning. The lack of an investigation won’t matter because they’ll have won — they’ll have staved off the impeachment of Trump, who was being attacked by people who hated him. People who hated them. 

Photos in order: Carter for president, ‘76 at Pinkie’s in our new home of Savannah. A monument to the Confederate dead in nearby Forsyth Park. Sunset from a few thousand feet over the city’s west side. The new direction I briefly mentioned in my August post closing out my tenure as an immigration reporter is nearly upon us. More on that in a post in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading.

Chris Collins: the congressman who never stopped being a businessman

Stock tips, private loans, helpful legislation. In six years in Congress, Collins did it all — for himself.

Here are some of the things Chris Collins has done since being elected to Congress six years ago:

  • Get sweetheart stock deals for his fellow lawmakers so they could invest in his company

  • Introduce at least five bills that would have helped the company make more money

  • Propose cuts to a federal program that helps poor hospitals which would have made his company more money

  • Asked a government scientist to talk to researchers at his company to help them develop a drug worth billions of dollars

Here are the things Chris Collins has been punished for: Nothing. 

With the announcement yesterday that Collins will plead guilty to the insider trading charges he faces in Manhattan, that will change. With his resignation that followed, he’ll likely avoid punishment for all his misdeeds as a member of Congress, many of which I’ve reported on over the last several years.

Back in Dallas, there was a big board in my office that I could close the doors to when I didn’t want to look at the various facts and connections of something I was investigating. For the four months before I moved to Savannah I’d left it open, because every time I walked by I wanted to be reminded of the work that remained before my editor and I could publish our next Collins story. Call it negative motivation. 

We didn’t obviously didn’t make it — and the details of that story, which I’ll get to shortly, are more odd than damning. Those details are just part of an endless flood of stories and facts regarding Collins and other super wealthy members of Congress that shows this government is more disconnected from the lives of the average American than perhaps ever before. 

That’s in addition to being one of the richest and most corrupt governments in American history. Donald Trump has obviously done much to embed more corruption than ever in Washington, and the irony is lost on no one that Chris Collins was the first member of Congress to endorse Trump for president. 

Now that Collins has resigned from office, whatever investigation the House Ethics Committee was planning to launch or had already launched — I could never tell, and no one there would answer that question — will almost surely disappear. 

That means Collins will not be held accountable for all of the ways in which he tried to enrich himself with the power of his office while taking in a salary that is more than double what the average American makes. He is the absolute definition of a scumbag politician, and if he serves a single day in prison for his crimes it will have been well-deserved.

***

Collins is worth an estimated $43 million and ranks as the 13th wealthiest member of Congress. Before his indictment and while serving as the representative of New York’s 27th district he made money from or served on the board of more than a dozen private companies. Making $174,000 a year as a member of Congress, Collins never stopped being a businessman. 

He didn’t have to. There are currently no rules preventing lawmakers from doing business with — or owning and operating! — private companies. (Although HR-1 has a provision to change that, which I’ll detail in a forthcoming newsletter.) So Collins was free to sit on committees that regulated the very industries in which his companies operated. If that weren’t enough, Collins supported or introduced five bills — one for nearly every year he served in Congress — that would have made his companies more money.

This is all well-documented, but in the spring I stumbled upon something in Collins’ financial disclosures that wasn’t. 

Two witnesses who refused to speak to investigators about Collins had been loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars by the congressman. They also had at one point held millions of dollars in stock in Collins’ Australian pharmaceutical company, Innate Immunotherapeutics, before that stock crashed and they lost big.

But they weren’t the only ones who received loans in the form of rare, private mortgages from Collins. In all, the lawmaker from Buffalo loaned more than $770,000 in private mortgages to investors in Innate.

They include the Michael Hook, Collins’ former chief of staff, who got at least $250,000 from Collins for a mortgage on a home in Cuba, New York, as The Buffalo News first reported. 

What’s odd is that Hook purchased the home in 2013 for $67,000, I found, and it has a current assessed market value of $97,000. Why get a mortgage more than twice the value of a home you already own? That’s something only Hook and Collins can answer, and neither of them ever returned my calls. 

The witnesses, Bill and Marcia Grove, have for years been close to Collins, who served as the best man at their wedding. When the Office of Congressional Ethics in 2017 sought to speak with the couple about Collins’ dealings with Innate, the Groves refused. 

In fact, Collins suggested they not cooperate with the probe.  

“I will admit I told them to go to Wikipedia and to Wikipedia the authority and the leverage the OCE has,” Collins told investigators, “and I would’ve stated definitively that the OCE does not have subpoena power and beyond that, make your own decision,” Collins told investigators. “Get your own counsel; I can’t tell you what to do because I can’t tell you what to do, but make your own decision.”

Collins went on to loan the Groves’ son, Travis, $420,000 for a home not far from his parents in Florida. Travis also owned Innate stock before it came crashing down.

I could never find any specific wrongdoing in all this, no law that Collins was obviously breaking. But it was certainly weird. More than anything, what I took from all this reporting is something that I often conclude after looking through congressional financial disclosures: these people are not like us. Collins’ finances are an endless web of connections and money moving around, and businesses, stock transactions, real estate purchases, loans and promissory notes. This makes him disconnected from the daily lives and struggles of average Americans, who often vote for very rich men like Collins because they see themselves in their wealthy leaders. 

They have hope that they’ll one day be rich like them.

The problem is that people like Collins rig the game for people like Collins, not people like you and I. 

***

In the last four years I’ve spent many a night and early morning working on stories about Collins. Often times this involved reading transcripts of him at committee hearings or in the interviews he sat for with the OCE investigators.

In the silence of a sleeping home, I felt very connected to Collins, like I was coming to understand him. He speaks in an honest and unfiltered way, talking without fear or hesitation because he truly believes he never did anything wrong.

Everything is so innocent and normal in Collins’ view. Lawmakers trading stock tips is just something that people do, he once alluded to. The bills he introduce that would have helped Innate weren’t for that, they were created to help everyone.

When he told investigators how he and Tom Price first discussed Innate, he just laid it all out there, how the whole system works.

“I mean, I – again, when we’re sitting on the House floor, killing time during a 20 motion to recommit, we talk about our kids, and we talk about our vacations and we talk about…the New York Yankees, in my case, my companies. Oh, yeah. So general conversation where if you look at what we’re watching o C-SPAN, nobody sits in their assigned seats and nobody’s paying attention. They all got their phones out and they’re emailing. That’s just what happens. So yeah, it would’ve been a discussion. It could’ve been elsewhere, it could’ve been at a dinner, but primarily Tom and I, you know we’d sit down next to each other on the House floor and chat and so I would’ve …he would’ve asked about the company and I can’t tell you the total context because I can’t remember but, somehow it would’ve been yeah, we’re doing one last offering. And at which point, he said, “I’d like to consider participating. Can you get me the documents?” He’s a sophisticated guy. He knows how private placements go. I said, sure. Write your name down, I’ll have Simon get it to you.”

And that’s how easy it is. Two members of Congress just “sitting on the House floor, killing time.” One tells the other about a company’s hot prospects, then they tell a few more people, then the next thing you know, they’re introducing a bill that will help that company (which Collins and Price did with the 21st Century Cures Act). Now everyone’s happy. And the people who elected them are happy because they’re creating jobs and lowering taxes, or they’re not. Doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that the system stays in place, because it’s the system that actually rules us. We have Chris Collins to thank for being just the latest politician to prove that point.

***

All the photos on this story are mine. The first is from my old office in Dallas. The second was taken on the road in Texas. The third is from a hotel room in Austin.

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