Trump border wall

Trump Still Authorizing Contracts For Border Wall — On Land That Government Doesn’t Own

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

LA GRULLA, Texas — The federal government said it needed Ociel Mendoza's land on the outskirts of this tiny Texas town — and it couldn't wait any longer.

Each additional day of delay was costing the government $15,000 as contractors waited to begin construction on the border fence slated to go through Mendoza's ranch, the Department of Justice argued in court filings. By Nov. 24, the tab for the delay had reached nearly $1.6 million, the land acquisition manager for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in an affidavit.

Read NowShow less
Trump border wall

Federal Records Show Trump’s Border Wall Costing Billions Extra

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

On the same day in May 2019, the Army Corps of Engineers awarded a pair of contracts worth $788 million to replace 83 miles of fence along the southwest border.

The projects were slated to be completed in January 2020, the Corps said then. Four months into this year, however, the government increased the value of the contracts by more than $1 billion, without the benefit of competitive bidding designed to keep costs low to taxpayers.

Read NowShow less
Rio Grande border wall, McAllen Texas

New Engineering Report Warns Privately Funded Border Wall Will Fall

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

It's not a matter of if a privately built border fence along the shores of the Rio Grande will fail, it's a matter of when, according to a new engineering report on the troubled project.

The report is one of two new studies set to be filed in federal court this week that found numerous deficiencies in the 3-mile border fence, built this year by North Dakota-based Fisher Sand and Gravel. The reports confirm earlier reporting from ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, which found that segments of the structure were in danger of overturning due to extensive erosion if not fixed and properly maintained. Fisher dismissed the concerns as normal post-construction issues.

Read NowShow less
border wall, Donald Trump

If Trump ‘Disagreed’ With Private Border Wall, Why Did He Award Its Builder Big Contracts?

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

President Donald Trump complained via Twitter on Sunday that a privately constructed border wall in Texas was a bad idea and poorly done — not mentioning that his administration has awarded the builder a $1.7 billion contract to build more walls.

With the backing of Trump supporters, Tommy Fisher built a 3-mile border fence along the Rio Grande, calling it the “Lamborghini" of fences. But just months after completion of his showcase piece directly on the banks of the river, there are signs of erosion along and under the fence that threatens its stability and could cause it to topple into the river if not fixed, experts told ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.

Read NowShow less
border wall

Eroding Private Border Wall Will Get Inspection Just Months After Completion

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

The builder of a privately funded border wall along the shores of the Rio Grande agreed to an engineering inspection of his controversial structure, which experts say is showing signs of erosion that threatens its stability just months after the $42 million project was finished.

Tommy Fisher, president of North Dakota-based Fisher Industries, had bragged he could build faster and smarter than the federal government, calling his wall design method a “Lamborghini," compared with the government's “horse and buggy."

Read NowShow less
border wall

Privately Funded Border Wall May Soon Collapse

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

Tommy Fisher billed his new privately funded border wall as the future of deterrence, a quick-to-build steel fortress that spans 3 miles in one of the busiest Border Patrol sectors.

Unlike a generation of wall builders before him, he said he figured out how to build a structure directly on the banks of the Rio Grande, a risky but potentially game-changing step when it came to the nation's border wall system.

Read NowShow less
Border Patrol Makes Many Arrests Deep In The Heart Of Texas

Border Patrol Makes Many Arrests Deep In The Heart Of Texas

By Jeremy Schwartz, Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — Jaime Zaldana was driving to work on Interstate 35 through the San Antonio suburb of Schertz on a winter morning in 2010 when his red pickup passed a U.S. Border Patrol unit on the side of the highway. He was 150 miles from the nearest border crossing, in Eagle Pass.

The agents would later write that Zaldana and two co-workers “appeared to be startled” and looked “straight ahead,” never acknowledging them — reason enough, they claimed, to pull the truck over. Zaldana was eventually deported as an undocumented immigrant, but not before the U.S. government paid $25,000 to settle his claim the agents stopped him only because of his ethnicity and race, according to public court documents.

Most Texans probably think of the Border Patrol as doing what the agency’s name suggests: interrupting illegal activity along the line separating the U.S. from Mexico. Yet over the last decade, agents have regularly made arrests deep inside Texas, according to an Austin American-Statesman investigation into the little-known realm of the Border Patrol’s interior enforcement operations.

Between 2005 and 2013, agents apprehended more than 40,000 subjects at the nine most inland Border Patrol stations representing locations as far as 350 miles from Mexico — an average of more than 10 per day, according to numbers obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

In numerous cases, the arrests occurred more than 100 miles from the border, a blurry line of demarcation drawn a half-century ago. Some resulted from the same controversial roving highway patrols that nabbed Zaldana, in locations not typically associated with border enforcement: San Antonio, Odessa and San Angelo.

While the agency has insisted the 100-mile line doesn’t limit its activities, courts have ruled that agents need stronger justification to stop motorists the farther they are from the border. And critics say roving interior patrols inevitably lead to agents pulling over motorists based only on their racial appearance, resulting in unconstitutional stops of American citizens and legal residents — the Border Patrol says it does not keep track of the numbers of those stops.

Judges have voided Texas stops because of agents’ flimsy pretexts, though the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which adjudicates immigration cases, doesn’t track that number, either. Advocates say the number of decisions understates the reality because immigrants rarely challenge the stops.

“You ask yourself: What else do (Border Patrol) agents have to go on besides race?” said San Antonio immigration attorney David Armendariz, one of the few attorneys nationally to regularly pursue such cases. “What does an immigrant without papers look like? Because your average immigrant without papers looks like your average Hispanic.”

The Border Patrol will reveal few details about its work far from the border. Yet evidence suggests the government might have moved to limit its scope in Texas in recent years.

As recently as 2012, roving patrols made up the principal activity of agents in such places as San Angelo, 130 miles from border, according to court documents reviewed by the Statesman. That same year, however, the agency proposed shuttering six interior stations in Texas, including San Angelo’s, and shifting the agents to the Mexican border.

Members of the Texas congressional delegation have so far resisted such deactivations, which lawmakers have said would weaken law enforcement efforts in rural areas, and they have funded the stations through the budget cycle ending Dec. 11. In the meantime, Shawn Moran, spokesman for the national union representing Border Patrol employees, said the agency has ordered agents to “do as little interior enforcement as they possibly can.”

In recent years, the Border Patrol has aggressively resisted revealing information about its more controversial operations. The agency has deflected media requests for information regarding fatal shootings and its use of force policy, leading to questions about its handling of those incidents.

In response to the Statesman‘s requests seeking details of the agency’s enforcement actions far from the border, it provided only general numbers on arrests — and those only after the newspaper formally appealed the agency’s initial refusal to respond to a Freedom of Information request.

Those numbers show apprehensions have fallen steeply in the Texas interior to 1,459 last year, down from 4,448 in 2010 and 9,234 in 2005. During the same time, staffing levels at those interior stations have remained relatively stable — ranging from 47 to 66 agents over the last decade. The agency wouldn’t reveal staffing levels or apprehension numbers at individual stations.

But in important ways, the information fails to provide a full picture of the agency’s activities deep within the state.

Officials wouldn’t provide the location of the interior arrests, for example. So, while all of the substations are close to, or beyond the 100-mile zone, it is impossible to determine which apprehensions occurred beyond that line. Nor would the agency say how many of the inland arrests were the result of roving patrols, rather than checkpoint stops or joint operations with other agencies.

Others seeking information about the agency’s work away from the border have also encountered obstacles. American Civil Liberties Union chapters in Arizona and Washington state sued the Border Patrol last year in an attempt to obtain roving patrol information in those states. A congressional effort to require annual reports of the Border Patrol’s interior activities failed earlier this year.

The Border Patrol also says it doesn’t track how many U.S. citizens or legal residents it pulls over during its roving patrols far from the border. The agency denied a Statesman request to visit an interior station and speak with agents.

But the 2012 deposition of one veteran Border Patrol agent in San Angelo, obtained by the Statesman, provides perhaps the most detailed account yet of how the agency’s officers operate far from the border.

The agent testified that he spent much of his time patrolling roads, pulling over work crews of illegal immigrants traveling to and from such places as Austin and Houston. But only about half of his roving patrol stops resulted in arrests, he said, suggesting that large numbers of American citizens and legal residents might have been stopped and released by Border Patrol agents over the last decade.

Border Patrol spokesman David Vera told the Statesman that agents “enforce the nation’s laws while preserving the civil rights and civil liberties of all people. … (Customs and Border Protection) does not tolerate racial profiling or agent misconduct and appropriately investigates allegations of wrongdoing.”

In a court filing, Armendariz argued that the Border Patrol’s use of roving patrols resulted in “willful and abusive traffic stop-type seizures of Latino drivers in and around central Texas.”


The Border Patrol’s authority to stop and search is almost unlimited at the border, where agents can question subjects without providing a reason or obtaining a warrant. They also enjoy wide latitude at checkpoints located close to the border.

The law allows Border Patrol agents to make warrantless stops at “a reasonable distance” from the border, defined as 100 air miles from the border by the Justice Department in 1953. But the actual limit of Border Patrol’s authority is blurry, its policies peppered with vague directives.

Federal rules technically allow agents to operate beyond the 100-mile line by asking permission from top agency brass in the event of “unusual circumstances.”

“Chief Patrol Agents can submit operations orders … when they believe certain vulnerabilities exist that require the reasonable distance from the border to be greater than 100 miles for a certain amount of time and/or in a certain geographic area,” Vera said.

It is unclear, however, whether such special permission is given case by case, or as a blanket approval for a specific period of time or geographical area. The agency didn’t answer questions about the policy. Yet some inland operations appear to be permanent and ongoing: In Texas, the agency has half a dozen stations well beyond the 100-mile mark.

Agents working far from the border also must have both a “reasonable certainty” that a suspect recently crossed a border as well as a “reasonable suspicion” that he or she is engaged in criminal activity, which can include being in the country illegally.

Courts have identified eight separate factors that agents can cite to make stops, including proximity to the border, recent trafficking activity and number of passengers. Traffic violations alone don’t provide justification for a Border Patrol stop, nor does race or ethnicity. Several courts also have ruled that the farther away from the border, where motorists have a greater expectation of privacy, the stronger the Border Patrol’s justification for the stop must be.

Yet generally, judges have interpreted those standards broadly, permitting agents to stop suspects, for example, because of a tip that they’d recently crossed the border. Especially heavily loaded trucks have also been adjudged reason enough for a stop, including one case in which agents spotted a spare tire in the back seat of a truck to make room in the covered bed, which sagged noticeably under the weight of what turned out to be human cargo.


Border Patrol agents have stopped motorists deep inside Texas on much more questionable pretexts.

In 2012, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared unlawful the apprehension of an undocumented immigrant driving on Interstate 20 near Odessa, 170 miles from the border, after dismissing agents’ claims the stop was warranted because the truck’s passengers avoided eye contact.

Nor did the court buy the agency’s claim it had reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle because an agent had observed one of the passengers pointing to an open field. “This passenger could have been pointing to anything: an animal, a tree, etc.,” the judges wrote.

In 2007, a Border Patrol agent on roving patrol in San Antonio — about 130 miles from the Mexico border — stopped a Guatemalan immigrant based on his apparent nervousness and the appearance of his “cheekbones, jaws, ears, and forehead.” The agent said the facial features gave the man the look of an “OTM,” or Other Than Mexican immigrant.

In declaring the stop illegal, immigration Judge Glenn McPhaul wrote that the arresting agent couldn’t answer “how one Hispanic person might stand out from another as an illegal alien when the Hispanic population is so high in San Antonio.”

Border Patrol agents operating in the state’s interior have cited other vague suspicions to stop drivers. In 2010, agents stopped four men driving on FM 187 in the Hill Country town of Vanderpool, 90 air miles from the border crossing in Del Rio.

“The typical drivers on these roads are very friendly and courteous, especially when they see our marked Border Patrol vehicles,” one of the agents said in a sworn statement. “Instead of waiving (sic) to me like the typical drivers in the area, the driver’s facial expression changed immediately upon making eye contact with me.”

One of the passengers was Alejandro Garcia de la Paz, a 24-year-old graduate of Harlandale High School in San Antonio whose parents had brought him to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 1 year old. With few relatives remaining in Mexico, he worried about returning to a country he didn’t remember.

“I guess they just want to get the most people out of here that they can,” Garcia de la Paz said. “We’re already here, already working. It’s not like we came from Mexico yesterday.”

Garcia de la Paz is currently protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. His federal lawsuit claiming an illegal stop is pending.

In San Angelo, 130 miles from the border, roving patrols constituted the principal activity of agents, according to Border Patrol agent John Finney, whose 2012 deposition in a deportation court case provides a rare description of the agency’s otherwise hidden operations.

Finney said he mainly looked for groups of men in work trucks with “tools … maybe bags, luggage … ice chests.” The vast majority of targets were Hispanic. “Maybe not 99 percent, but in the high nineties,” he said.

Finney also described how he determined if people were acting suspiciously: If motorists did a “classic double take” when they saw him on the side of the road, Finney said he would often follow them, observing them from behind or from a parallel lane, sometimes slowing down for the vehicle to pass before speeding up again to gauge facial expressions and movements.

In court filings, Armendariz argued Finney’s tactics might cause a driver to act suspicious: “This bizarre behavior no doubt bewilders most drivers.”

The strategy yielded mixed results. Finney estimated that “a little better than 50 percent” of stops based on such reasonable suspicion were of undocumented immigrants and so resulted in arrests — a low record of success, Armendariz wrote in response: “By his own admission, Mr. Finney gets it wrong and stops U.S. citizens or persons in lawful immigration status almost half the time.”

At least two immigration judges have questioned the agency’s use of inland roving patrols. In 2010, immigration Judge Bertha Zuniga declared unconstitutional the stop of an immigrant pulled over in San Angelo because he appeared Latino, writing: “To allow roving-patrol stops of all vehicles in San Angelo, Texas, carrying Hispanic-looking persons without further evidence of suspicious activity would subject residents to ‘unlimited interference with their use of the highways.’ ” That same year, immigration Judge John D. Carte made the same ruling in a San Antonio case.

Roving patrol stops of U.S. citizens also sparked a 2012 lawsuit by the Washington state ACLU, which accused the agency of failing to establish reasonable suspicion before stopping motorists in the Olympic Peninsula. According to the lawsuit, the Border Patrol’s actions often seemed “based on nothing other than the ethnic and/or racial appearance of a vehicle’s occupants.”

Last year, the Border Patrol settled the lawsuit without admitting wrongdoing and agreed to provide its agents in the area with additional training in constitutional privacy rights. The agency also agreed to publicly disclose its traffic stop information for 18 months. According to that data, in the year following the settlement, Border Patrol made only seven roving patrol stops in the area.

MCT Photo/Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times

Interested in more national and political news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter.

National Guard Played Many Roles During Border Deployment

National Guard Played Many Roles During Border Deployment

By Jeremy Schwartz, Austin American-Statesman

For much of its history, the National Guard’s border mission has been a political football, alternately thrown by Democrats and Republicans.

When President George W. Bush introduced the effort in 2006, the mission was supposed to last no more than two years while the Border Patrol beefed up its ranks. Critics lambasted the $1.3 billion effort as a waste of resources, especially since troops weren’t allowed to make arrests.

Instead, National Guard troops acted as lookouts and built miles of roads and fencing.

In one 2006 National Guard press release, the troops trumpeted their role in seizing more than $3.2 million worth of marijuana at the Falfurrias Border Patrol checkpoint. While Border Patrol agents caught the load, the Guard’s job consisted of “Unloading the cargo, which consisted of frozen broccoli.”

When the program ended toward the close of Bush’s second term, some experts said it had done little to deter illegal immigration. Border governors, however, called it a success and demanded that the troops remain.

President Barack Obama revived the plan in 2010, sending 1,200 troops to the border, including 285 to Texas, under Operation Phalanx, beginning a series of renewals and extensions that have lasted until today. Republican critics have panned the plan as insufficient. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), asked for 6,000 troops. In a letter Gov. Rick Perry (R) famously hand-delivered to Obama when he stepped off Air Force One in Austin in 2010, Perry demanded 1,000 troops for Texas alone; he repeated that demand last month.

Obama’s revitalization of the mission was viewed in some quarters as an attempt to jump-start negotiations for immigration reform, something that didn’t materialize. “Phalanx was seen as appeasement, as a bargaining chip for a broader effort,” said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Meacham said the National Guard border mission has been emblematic of an ad hoc, seat-of-your-pants approach to border security in the absence of a comprehensive immigration reform. “These are stopgap measures,” he said. “These are not long-term solutions to the problem.”

At the end of 2011, Obama announced that he was slashing the number of troops to 300 across the border and fundamentally changing their mission. The move was met with condemnation among Texas Republican leaders.

“Cutting National Guard troop levels at the border is dangerous to America’s national security, and I urge President Obama to reconsider this ill-advised decision,” Perry said at the time. “We need more, not fewer, boots on the ground.”

Yet by most metrics, the streamlined version has been more effective. “Personally, and I’ve been working the border for 10 years, I didn’t think it would be as successful as the mission we were doing with people on the ground,” said Maj. Gen. William “Len” Smith of the Texas National Guard. “But in fact it’s been almost doubly successful.”

Photo: Steve Hillibrand via WikiCommons

Interested in national news? Sign up for our daily newsletter!

Fort Hood Shooting Focuses Attention On Military Mental Health

Fort Hood Shooting Focuses Attention On Military Mental Health

By Jeremy Schwartz, Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — As the second-highest-ranking officer in the U.S. Army, retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli was briefed on all soldiers who killed themselves during the military’s burgeoning suicide crisis between 2008 and 2012.

With numbing regularity, mental health professionals made notes indicating that the troubled soldiers weren’t a threat to themselves or others — judgments often made just days before the suicide.

“The diagnostic tools we have are so crude that even the best-trained providers made (erroneous) determinations,” the former vice chief of staff of the Army said in an interview with the Austin American-Statesman. “It should be sobering.”

That scenario played out with tragic results last week in the case of Spc. Ivan Lopez, the Fort Hood soldier who killed three of his fellow soldiers, wounded 16 others and killed himself. A month before the rampage, a psychiatrist examined Lopez and concluded he showed “no sign of likely violence,” according to Secretary of the Army John McHugh.

In the wake of the killings, the second mass shooting to rock the post in five years, Fort Hood officials have once again promised a thorough review of the post’s mental health system and fixes if outside investigators find gaps. But Lopez’s case suggests that the underlying problem goes deeper than any shortages of mental health professionals or shortcomings in prevention efforts.

Despite unprecedented investment in its mental health program, military and medical leaders still lack a basic understanding of what causes individual soldiers to kill themselves and, far less commonly, others.

The scale of the problem is potentially vast. In 2011, there were nearly one million service members or veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who had been diagnosed with a psychological condition and nearly half had received diagnoses for multiple conditions ranging from major depression to anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Young veterans are particularly vulnerable to fatal mental health outcomes and, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, are killing themselves at rates four times higher than the overall U.S. population of the same age.

But Chiarelli, who now heads the One Mind for Research nonprofit, said medical experts have a hard time accurately diagnosing post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, the two signature wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I hate to say it, but it’s almost a crapshoot, even for the best-trained (providers),” said Chiarelli, whose nonprofit is seeking to develop more scientific diagnostic methods such as biological markers for brain and psychological trauma.

And determining whether a troubled soldier will become violent is even more difficult, especially for soldiers without a history of incidents. “Our best predictor is still past violent behavior,” said John Klocek, director of the Baylor University Psychology Clinic who works with service members and veterans. “It’s a tough thing to predict.”

What’s clearer is that history has had a tendency to repeat itself at Fort Hood. Four years before Fort Hood Commander Lt. Gen. Mark Milley vowed to plug holes in the post’s mental health system, his predecessor, Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, similarly pledged to bolster behavioral health programs after the post’s first mass shooting in 2009. And indeed, the following years were marked by significant investments in mental health at the sprawling post, one of the nation’s largest.

At the time, the military was staggering under a devastating shortage of counselors — more than 1,000 were lacking, top officials said — and an escalating suicide epidemic that would only grow in later years.

The post was short about 50 mental health professionals before the Nov. 5, 2009, shooting, in which Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and wounded 30 in a paroxysm of jihadist violence. The shortage was blamed for Hasan’s continued promotions despite poor evaluations.

In the aftermath of that shooting, Fort Hood officials moved quickly to plug holes; within three weeks, the post had added 75 to 80 mental health providers. Militarywide, the number of behavioral health providers, most of them civilians, increased 43 percent between the end of 2009 and 2013, according to information the military provided to USA Today. Fort Hood officials didn’t respond to questions about staffing levels.

Since the 2009 shooting, Fort Hood has made other changes, including embedding behavioral health providers with units. The mental health officers, who wear uniforms and deploy with the units they serve, are meant to be more approachable for soldiers who might balk at seeking out help through the post’s medical center.

The post has also changed how it responds to suicides. In 2011, it began including deceased soldiers’ immediate supervisors in fatality review boards in an attempt to better understand what happened.

And, like the rest of the Army, Fort Hood instituted a slew of suicide prevention efforts, including interactive role-playing exercises and intensive classes in so-called “suicide first aid.”

Despite the improvements, Fort Hood has been rocked by periodic mental health crises since the Hasan shooting. A year afterward, the post suffered through a record-breaking year of suicides, in which 22 soldiers killed themselves, including four over a single summer weekend.

The spate of suicides spurred leaders to order home visits to all lower enlisted soldiers who lived off-post and a comprehensive review of all soldiers deemed at-risk by their commanders.

After declining in 2011, suicides surged again in 2012, with 20, including a troubling rash of self-killings by senior soldiers at the rank of sergeant and above.

Last year, suicides fell to their lowest level since 2007, though experts caution that it’s not clear whether the new prevention efforts deserve the credit. The Institute of Medicine said in February that there is “insufficient evidence” and a “lack of systemic evaluation” to determine if the myriad of Defense Department programs are working throughout the military.

Ryan Holleran, a former Fort Hood infantry soldier who served from 2010 to 2013, said the post’s mental health system remains difficult for lower enlisted soldiers to access. He said that, despite official directives urging soldiers to seek out mental health help, “any kind of weakness is frowned upon. You are immediately ostracized from the unit.”

Holleran, 28, said he also encountered difficulties getting diagnosed with PTSD, which prevented him from getting the treatment he needed after returning from a deployment to Iraq in 2011. He said that while he was diagnosed with many of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, including anxiety and depression, it was only after he left the service that he received a PTSD diagnosis from the VA.

“It’s clear there is something wrong with the system,” Holleran said.

According to officials, Lopez was also being treated for depression and anxiety, and was under evaluation for PTSD, when he opened fire on his fellow soldiers.

A diagnosis of PTSD, however, wouldn’t necessarily lead providers to predict violent actions from Lopez. “There is not a real strong link,” said Klocek, adding that, while PTSD can increase aggressive behavior, it is nearly always expressed in less violent verbal outbursts or domestic altercations.

But Lopez also complained of a traumatic brain injury, which does affect impulse control and judgment. Texas authorities, concerned about the number of standoffs and shooting incidents involving combat veterans with traumatic brain injuries, have devised training materials for police aimed at de-escalating such tense situations.

Army officials have insisted that Lopez wasn’t wounded during his short, four-month stint in Iraq in 2011, and he apparently never received an official diagnosis, which might have opened the door to more intensive treatment.

Most military traumatic brain injuries, which are caused by concussive blasts to the head, don’t result from combat, despite that popular perception. According to the Defense Centers of Excellence, between 2000 and 2012, 244,217 service members suffered traumatic brain injuries, the majority of which occurred outside the war zone.

“It’s equally as daunting to diagnose TBI, if not more daunting,” Chiarelli said. “It’s a very sad situation, in my opinion.”

afp.com / Jim Watson

Unclear Whether Fort Hood Gunman’s Superiors Knew He Had A Weapon

Unclear Whether Fort Hood Gunman’s Superiors Knew He Had A Weapon

By Jeremy Schwartz, Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas—Fort Hood’s strict personal firearms policies give commanders wide latitude in questioning gun purchases by soldiers they believe might be at risk of harming themselves or others.

But it’s unclear if Spc. Ivan Lopez’s superiors were aware of his March 1 purchase of a semiautomatic pistol at the Guns Galore shop in Killeen. And even if they were aware of it, a psychiatrist concluded just a month ago that Lopez wasn’t a threat to himself or anyone else, Army officials said Thursday.

Rules adopted last year would have given them, as well as the health professionals treating Lopez for anxiety and depression, the ability to question him about the purchase and even require him to turn in his private weapon if they deemed it necessary.

Fort Hood, along with the rest of the military, doesn’t allow most service members to regularly carry firearms while on post. It also requires soldiers to register and declare any personal firearm they plan to bring onto the installation. That requirement largely affects soldiers who live on post and are required to keep their weapons in a gun locker.

Lopez, who lived off-post, didn’t register the .45-caliber pistol he used in Wednesday’s attack, Fort Hood officials have said.

Secretary of the Army John McHugh said Thursday that officials “encourage” soldiers who live off-post to register their guns, but are prevented from requiring such off-post registration by federal law. However, the moment Lopez brought the unregistered firearm past the gate guard he was in violation of the regulation, McHugh said.

Officials say it would have been nearly impossible to detect the gun. After the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, officials increased inspections of vehicles coming onto the massive Army post, where 70,000-80,000 employees and soldiers work. But Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, Fort Hood’s commander, said Thursday that it wouldn’t be feasible to “do a pat down search of every soldier and employee” coming onto the post.

Wednesday’s mass shooting at Fort Hood, which left four dead and 16 wounded, renewed efforts to repeal military rules that prevent most service members, with the exception of security and law enforcement officers, from carrying firearms on military installations.

U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, blamed the shooting squarely on the policy, which derives from a pair of Department of Defense and Department of the Army directives enacted in the early 1990s. Critics believe that armed soldiers would have been able to stop the shooting earlier.

“This is the third mass shooting on a military base in five years, and it’s because our trained soldiers aren’t allowed to carry defensive weapons,” Stockman said in a statement Thursday. “It’s time to repeal this deadly anti-gun law before it creates another mass killing.”

Fort Hood adopted a slightly stricter version of the directive after the 2009 mass shooting on the post, giving commanders more leeway in requiring information from soldiers seeking to buy guns.

According to a 2013 update to the Fort Hood directive, the registration requirement is used to “protect service members and civilians from accidents or incidents that could result in death or serious injury.”

Deborah Cannon/Austin American-Statesman/MCT

Veterans Charity Charged With Deceiving The Public

Veterans Charity Charged With Deceiving The Public

By Jeremy Schwartz, Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Attorney General’s office has charged the Veterans Support Organization, a Florida-based charity that has come under fire in several states, with deceiving Texas donors by falsely telling them their donations would help needy local veterans.

In a lawsuit filed this week in Travis County District Court, state prosecutors seek to seize funds raised by the group in Texas and bar the group from operating in the state. For several years, the group operated chapters in Austin, Dallas and Houston, sending veterans and non-veterans alike to stand outside of supermarkets and other stores to raise money. According to the lawsuit, the group raised $2.5 million in the state between 2010 and 2012.

The attorney general’s office is also seeking tens of thousands of dollars in fines against VSO president Richard Van Houten and three associates.

In February, the American-Statesman published an investigation into the group, revealing that it gave less than 1 percent of the $7.1 million it raised from the public in 2011 in grants to needy veterans. Members of the Austin and Dallas chapters quit as a group in December after managers said they became aware of how much money the group was sending out of state.

According to the lawsuit, solicitors told members of the public their donations would help needy local veterans. In reality, between 2010 and 2012 the group made grants of less than $57,000 to Texas veterans, or 2.2 percent of what it raised in the state during those years.

State investigators believe that over 70 percent of what the group raised in Texas was sent to Rhode Island and Florida, where the group’s headquarters are.

And while the group claimed it was helping at-risk veterans with a “work program,” state officials called it “nothing more than structured panhandling which they use to solicit funds.”

Texas authorities also took issue with the program’s housing program, which the group touted as transitional sober housing for homeless veterans.

The Statesman revealed that the program rented rooms to its solicitors for $125 a week at a five-bedroom house in far south Austin. According to the lawsuit, VSO leased the house for $1,495 a month, but stood to make $5,000 a month if the house was completely full.

The group deducted rent from its employees’ paychecks and filed eviction notices against solicitors who lost their jobs or were unable to pay rent.

“In contrast to its statement that it was seeking to help ‘homeless veterans,’ in practice VSO was interested in individuals, veterans or not, who could afford to pay for a room,” the lawsuit claims. “In fact for some individuals, VSO noted ‘inability to pay’ as a reason for their departure. An inability to pay would seem to be the rationale for having a housing program to assist veterans, but VSO instead saw it as a reason to displace them.”

Photo: Cosmic Smudge via Flickr

Fort Hood Massacre Building Demolished; Site To Become Memorial

Fort Hood Massacre Building Demolished; Site To Become Memorial

By Jeremy Schwartz, Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas — For the last four and a half years, Fort Hood’s Building 42003 stood frozen in time, mostly untouched since Nidal Hasan entered its doors and opened fire on defenseless soldiers preparing to deploy to war.

The building, home to a soldier readiness processing center, or SRP in military parlance, was considered an active crime scene until Hasan’s court-martial last year, in which he was sentenced to death in the November 5, 2009, mass shooting, which left 13 dead and more than 30 wounded.

On Tuesday, a heavy equipment excavator began tearing the building apart, slamming into its red brick walls and ripping out its innards. The demolition is the first step in transforming the site: Fort Hood officials say the building will be replaced with trees, a gazebo and a plaque memorializing the victims.

The surrounding buildings will resume their role as part of the soldier readiness complex, where soldiers undergo medical checks and fill out legal and financial paperwork before and after deployments.

Photo: Cristian_RH7 via Flickr