No explanation for noose as NASCAR completes investigation

(Reuters) – NASCAR said on Thursday it had completed it’s own investigation into the noose found in the garage of Bubba Wallace, the only Black driver competing in the top series, without determining who did it or how it got in the stall.

An FBI investigation into the incident that put a global spotlight on NASCAR determined on Tuesday that no federal crime had been committed.

The noose, a symbol connected to lynching and America’s slave history, found in Wallace’s stall at the Talledaga Superspeedway on Sunday may have been there since last October.

NASCAR continued to conduct its own probe in an effort to discover how the noose got into the garage and how it went unnoticed for so long.

While NASCAR said it was able to roughly pinpoint when the noose was made, there was no way given garage access and procedures at the time to determine with any certainty who tied it and why.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps said the noose was not in place when last October’s race began but was created at some point during that weekend.

“We have completed our own investigation,” confirmed Phelps during a conference call on Thursday. “I could speculate but it would not do any good.

“I know we like complete resolution here and have all the answers but based on all the video and photographic evidence and all the interviews we were not able to determine who crafted the noose.

“I know that’s not fulfilling, I wish there was more we could do but we can’t so we have drawn this matter to a close.”

NASCAR said in wake of the incident it had conducted a sweep of all 29 tracks the series visits and 1,684 garage stalls and found 11 with pull down ropes tied in a knot and only one noose.

Going forward, Phelps said NASCAR would conduct routine sweeps of garages and install additional security cameras.

NASCAR will also consider changes to its code of conduct and sanctions and mandate all members involved in the sport complete sensitivity and unconscious bias training.

“Our ultimate conclusion from this investigation is to ensure that this never happens again,” said Phelps. “That no one walks by a noose without recognising the potential damage it can do.”

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Christian Radnedge)

Senate opens controversial probe of Trump-Russia investigation

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican allies of President Donald Trump attacked the FBI’s probe of his 2016 presidential campaign on Wednesday, but failed to get a key witness to agree that former U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation was unfounded.

At the opening hearing in a Republican-led Senate probe that Democrats called politically motivated, former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein defended his 2017 decision to appoint Mueller to investigate Russian election interference and numerous contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“I still believe it was the right decision under the circumstances,” Rosenstein told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“All the charges that were filed were legitimate,” he said when asked about cases filed against a half-dozen campaign officials and Trump associates.

The committee is examining the surveillance of Trump campaign officials during the FBI investigation code-named “Crossfire Hurricane,” which led to Mueller’s appointment.

Trump and his Republican allies say the president’s campaign was treated unfairly by officials involved, including former FBI Director James Comey.

“This investigation, Crossfire Hurricane, was one of the most corrupt, biased, criminal investigations in the history of the FBI,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham said.

But the panel’s top Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein, warned that Senate Republicans were trying to help Trump attack both the Russia probe that overshadowed his presidency and Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee who was vice president at the time of Trump’s campaign.

“Congress should not conduct politically motivated investigations designed to attack or help any presidential candidate,” she said.

The Justice Department inspector general found numerous errors in the Crossfire Hurricane probe, including mistakes in seeking surveillance approval, but no political bias.

Rosenstein said he was unaware of problems with warrants allowing surveillance, saying he would not have given his approval had he known at the time.

(Reporting by David Morgan, Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball; editing by Grant McCool, Alistair Bell and Tom Brown)

Italy probes “insane” prices for coronavirus masks, sanitizers

MILAN (Reuters) – Italian authorities have begun an investigation into rocketing online prices for hygienic masks and sanitizing gels following the coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy, two senior magistrates said on Tuesday.

Italy has seen the biggest outbreak of the disease in Europe, with more than 260 cases and seven deaths reported, most in the prosperous north of the country.

“We have decided to open an investigation after media reports of the insane prices fetched up by these products (masks and gels) on online sales websites in the last two days,” Milan deputy chief prosecutor Tiziana Siciliano told Reuters.

As the disease has spread, many pharmacists say they have run out of hygienic masks and hand sanitizers, and many people have resorted to online sites where prices have shot up.

“The price of masks online has risen from one cent to 10 euros each and a one-liter bottle of disinfectant that last week was on sale for 7 euros, was up to 39 euros yesterday,” Siciliano said.

Sales of hand sanitizer gels in Italy rose to 900,000 packs in the first six weeks of 2020, a nine-fold rise over the previous year and are expected to reach 1 million by the end of February, research institute Nielsen said on Tuesday.

“Sales of hygienic hand gels have gone through the roof. The shelves of big retailers (hypermarkets, supermarkets, cash and carry, specialist pharmacists and discounters) have been cleared out,” Nielsen said.

As the emergency has spread, police have also issued warnings that criminals posing as health inspectors have been using false identity papers to try to gain access to people’s houses to steal money or other valuables.

($1 = 0.9227 euros)

(Reporting by Emilio Parodi; editing by James Mackenzie and Mark Heinrich)

Mass shooting puts Thai army officers’ side deals under scrutiny

By Panu Wongcha-um

NAKHON RATCHASIMA, Thailand (Reuters) – A Thai soldier’s killing of 29 people in a rage over a housing deal involving his superior officer has brought attention to the business dealings of army personnel in a country that just emerged from direct military rule.

Thailand’s army chief has promised to investigate and also acknowledged a wider problem of inappropriate business deals involving army officers and their subordinates, vowing to root out the practise.

The military, which staged its latest coups 2006 and 2014, wields extraordinary power in Thailand and proclaims its discipline to justify repeatedly overthrowing elected governments, but the killings on the weekend put a spotlight on some of its own members’ questionable dealings.

Sergeant Major Jakrapanth Thomma was meeting on Saturday with his commanding officer and the officer’s mother-in-law to discuss their dispute when he opened fire, killing both of them. He then drove to his army camp, a Buddhist temple and a shopping mall, gunning people down until security forces killed him on Sunday morning.

Hours before, Jakrapanth had posted on Facebook denouncing people who cheated others to become wealthy.

“Do they think they can spend the money in hell?” Jakrapanth asked.

The military has a long tradition of involvement in business and it has been an open secret that some officers branch out into private business deals.

“It is actually quite common for senior military officers to be involved in real estate, especially in Thailand’s rural areas,” said Paul Chambers, a politics expert at Naresuan University in northern Thailand.

The military is one of the largest land-holders in some provinces, controlling vast bases that also can be mini-cities unto themselves.

“Many officers tend to want to supplement their meager salaries with money they can easily make through military power regarding real estate,” Chambers said.

Military discipline is regularly extolled by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who launched the last coup in 2014 and last year retained power by leading a pro-army party to victory in an election opposition parties said was engineered to cement army influence.

One prominent opposition group, the Future Forward Party, has openly opposed military influence over politics, arguing for changes in the military-written constitution, an end to conscription and cutting the army budget.

‘INJUSTICE’

Army chief General Apirat Kongsompong has said he will set up a direct line for soldiers who feel they are being exploited by superior officers.

“The cause and reason for the perpetrator in this incident were the injustice he received from his commanding officer and relatives,” Apirat said in a press briefing on Tuesday.

He also acknowledged wider reports of officers exploiting a system of military housing loans and welfare schemes for personal gain.

“There are cooperation between units and private contractor that lobby for deals,” Apirat said

“I know about this and I want to assure that in the next three months some generals and colonels will lose their jobs,” he said.

Details of the deal that enraged Jakrapanth are not clear, but it appears to have involved his purchase of a house, brokered by the mother-in-law of his commanding officer, Colonel Anantharot Krasae.

Police told Reuters that Jakrapanth argued he was owed 50,000 baht ($1,600) by the mother-in-law, whose husband said she had already given the money to an agent who failed to pass it on to the soldier. Members of the family did not respond to messages from Reuters.

However, lawyer Atchariya Ruangrattanapong, said the dispute may have been over a larger amount – 375,000 baht ($12,000) – and said he has been approached since the shooting by 20 other members of Jakrapanth’s unit complaining about the same scheme.

“Apart from this group, I have been informed that there are hundreds of other soldiers who are scammed in a similar situation,” said Atchariya.

‘CLOSED KINGDOM’

Defense Ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantrawanit acknowledged reports of officers profiting from sweetheart deals but said the issue was endemic in society.

“All this is an ongoing problem that not just the army but also the government faces,” Kongcheep said.

But the military has a lack of transparency beyond other institutions that makes it easier to exploit the system, said Anusorn Unno, a lecturer at Thammasat University.

“The army is like a closed kingdom,” Anusorn said.

“Those with higher ranks have the advantage in doing business within this closed system.”

The Bangkok Post said in an editorial that questionable personal deals were “the tip of the iceberg” and argued the military budget should be subject to independent audits, instead of the internal ones established by the last ruling junta.

“Without allowing greater external audits, the army risks harboring more and more shady operations.”

(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Exclusive: ‘Grieving nations’ to discuss legal action against Iran over downed airliner – Ukraine

By John Geddie and Aradhana Aravindan

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Five nations whose citizens died when an airliner was shot down by Iran last week will meet in London on Thursday to discuss possible legal action, Ukraine’s foreign minister told Reuters.

Speaking at the sidelines of an official visit to Singapore on Monday, Vadym Prystaiko said the countries would also discuss compensation and the investigation into the incident. All 176 people on board the flight died in the crash on Wednesday, minutes after the plane took off from Tehran airport.

Prystaiko said suggestions from Iran that the Ukrainian International Airlines plane was downed as it flew near a sensitive military base during a time of heightened tensions were “nonsense”. He said Tehran had agreed to hand over the plane’s black boxes to Kiev for investigation.

“We have created this group of foreign ministers from the grieving nations. On Jan 16, we will meet in person in London to discuss the ways, including legal, how we are following this up, how we are prosecuting them (Iran),” Prystaiko said.

He said the five nations also included Canada – which had at least 57 passport holders aboard the doomed flight – Sweden, Afghanistan and a fifth country which he did not name. Canada has previously said that these four countries and Britain had established a coordination group to support victims’ families.

Many on board were Iranians with dual citizenship.

After days of denials, Iran said on Saturday its military had shot down the plane in a “disastrous mistake”. Prystaiko said Ukraine was not informed by Iran that it would be taking responsibility before that public announcement.

Tehran said its air defenses were fired in error while on alert after Iranian missile strikes on U.S. targets in Iraq, and that the airliner was mistaken for a “hostile target” after it turned toward a sensitive military base of the elite Revolutionary Guards near Tehran.

“This is nonsense because our plane was recorded and confirmed – was going within the international route which was given by the dispatchers…Nothing was extraordinary,” Prystaiko said, adding that investigators said the pilot’s last words were “everything is ok on board and I am switching to auto pilot.”

“I have seen this information on media that our plane changed the route…Yes, because it was hit by rocket! It was already dying.”

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, in a rare step, apologized to the nation and accepted full responsibility. Senior Guards commander Amirali Hajizadeh said he had informed Iran’s authorities on Wednesday about the unintentional strike, a comment that raised questions about why officials had publicly denied it for so long.

Prystaiko said all involved had to be held to account.

“What we don’t want is somebody like the soldier, very low level, to be pointed and told that that is the guy who pushed the button…This is the Iranian government’s responsibility,” he said, speaking in English.

“We have to dig out who gave the order, who pushed the button. Everything…all these people should be punished.”

He said that Ukrainian investigators – many of whom were involved when a Malaysian airliner was shot down over eastern Ukrainian territory held by Russia-backed separatists in 2014 – should be central to the investigation.

“We want to have the full investigation of the recordings on the black boxes themselves to be done by Ukrainian specialists,” he said, adding that France and the aircraft manufacturer Boeing should also be involved.

“They (Iran) committed to give it (black boxes) to us. What we are not having is a particular date when it will happen. We are pushing for immediate release of the black boxes.”

(Reporting by John Geddie and Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore; Editing by Peter Graff)

Bosnians outraged by alleged abuse of children with special needs

By Maja Zuvela

SARAJEVO (Reuters) – Sarajevo’s prosecutor has launched an investigation into the alleged abuse of children with special needs at a state-run care home in Bosnia, after a lawmaker made public photographs and a video showing children tied to beds and radiators.

A protest in the Bosnian capital demanding the regional government take action drew several hundred people on Thursday. Nearly 2,000 people have meanwhile signed a complaint to the Sarajevo prosecutor about alleged abuse and neglect at the Pazaric care home, near the city.

Protesters in front of government buildings carried placards reading “Tie me if you dare” and “Children to schools, not chains”.

The prosecutor’s office said it has opened a case relating to the alleged abuses at the request of Federation Prime Minister Fadil Novalic.

Sabina Cudic, of the Nasa Stranka opposition party, shared the photographs and video in the parliament of the autonomous Bosniak-Croat Federation on Wednesday, describing conditions for the children at the home as “modern-day slavery”.

The home’s manager, who took over early this year, told a news conference on Wednesday that the photographs of the children had not been taken during his tenure and that care standards have improved, with a ban on “fixing” restraint.

Cudic told parliament that 27 out of 149 employees at the home were trained economists rather than qualified carers, and that night shifts were covered by only one person, often not medically trained.

An ombudsman, Jasminka Dzumhur, said her office had repeatedly warned about poor conditions in Bosnian care homes.

“We demand that professionals deal with our children — this is only the beginning of our fight,” said Edo Celebic, representing parents of children with special needs at Thursday’s protest.

Lawmakers agreed after Cudic’s evidence to form a working group to collect evidence and to discuss its report next week.

The Pazaric home care has been under scrutiny for months over suspected historic financial misconduct. Some staff have been replaced but protesters said the government-appointed managing and supervisory board should also go.

The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, said the abuse allegations were “profoundly shocking” and urged the authorities to bring those responsible to justice. The European Union’s delegation in Bosnia said it was appalled.

The scandal adds to acute public dissatisfaction with Bosnia’s health and care network and its inefficient multi-layered government system.

“The system does not support us, they give nothing to our children,” said Mirsada Begovic, a mother of a disabled child who was among protesters on Thursday.

(Additional reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Key backer of Syrian ‘White Helmets’ found dead in Istanbul

Key backer of Syrian ‘White Helmets’ found dead in Istanbul
By Ali Kucukgocmen

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The British founder of an organization that trained the “White Helmets” emergency response group has been found dead in Istanbul, five years after the group was set up to perform rescue work in rebel areas during the Syrian civil war.

The body of James Le Mesurier, founder of the Mayday Rescue group, was found early on Monday near his home in central Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, a neighbor said. The Istanbul Governor’s Office said an investigation had been launched.

A security source told Reuters it was believed that Le Mesurier had fallen from the balcony of his home office and his death was being treated as suspected suicide.

The White Helmets, known officially as Syria Civil Defence, have been credited with saving thousands of people in rebel-held areas hit by bombing by government and Russian forces in Syria’s more than eight-year-old civil war.

White Helmets members say they are neutral. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers, including Moscow, describe them as tools of Western propaganda and Islamist-led insurgents.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Twitter on Friday that the White Helmets help “the most dangerous terrorist groups” and that Le Mesurier was a former British agent with reported “connections to terrorist groups”.

Ambassador Karen Pierce, UK Permanent Representative to the UN, described Le Mesurier as a “true hero” when she was asked about his death by reporters.

“The causes of death at the moment are unclear. We will be looking very closely to see how the investigation goes. I hope the Turkish authorities will be able to investigate thoroughly,” she said.

“The Russian charges against him, that came out of the foreign ministry that he was a spy, (are) categorically untrue. He was a British soldier,” she added.

Mayday Rescue, a not-for-profit organization, began its operations in 2014 and established an office in Istanbul in 2015 to support its Syria project. Its projects have been funded by the United Nations and various governments, its website said.

A former British army officer, Le Mesurier was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth in 2016 for services to Syria Civil Defence and the protection of civilians in Syria.

The security source said Le Mesurier’s wife told police that she and her husband had taken sleeping pills around 4 a.m. and went to bed. She said she was later woken by knocking on the door and discovered that her husband was lying on the street surrounded by police, the source added.

A diplomat told Reuters the circumstances around the death were unclear.

Mayday Rescue did not immediately respond to an emailed query.

Syria Civil Defence on Twitter expressed “our deepest sorrow and solidarity” with Le Mesurier’s family. “We also must commend his humanitarian efforts which Syrians will always remember,” it said.

(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Timothy Heritage)

Deaths, bad outcomes elude scrutiny at Canada’s indigenous clinics

Deaths, bad outcomes elude scrutiny at Canada’s indigenous clinics
By Allison Martell

TORONTO (Reuters) – Ina Matawapit was barely conscious – intoxicated and suffering from a blow to the head – when police drove her to the North Caribou Lake clinic in Ontario, Canada, one summer evening in 2012.

The nurse at the federal government-run clinic, the only source of emergency care in this remote indigenous community, told the officers the 37-year-old could sober up in jail, according to testimony at a 2018 inquest. Minutes after leaving the clinic, the police sped back. Matawapit had no pulse and could not be revived.

At the inquest, the nurse testified that in sending Matawapit on to jail, she had been following a standard protocol for intoxicated patients in the northern reserves. Government officials testified there was no such thing.

The coroner found that in the nearly six years between the death and the inquest, there was no evidence of any formal review of the case “or any learning from the events of that evening” akin to typical procedures in hospitals or emergency rooms. Matawapit’s death, attributed to heart disease, likely would have passed under the radar but for the fact that she died in police custody, which made the inquest mandatory.

Over at least nine years, the Canadian federal government has not consistently tracked, let alone investigated, poor outcomes at clinics on indigenous reserves, according to a Reuters analysis of documents, including internal reports and meeting notes obtained through public records requests.

Record-keeping on deaths and other critical incidents at the clinics, which provide basic and emergency care to about 115,000 people, has been erratic and fragmented, Reuters found. The incidents often are detailed in separate provincial computer systems, when they are tracked or reported at all.

As a result, there is no way for the federal government to know how often patients die or suffer injury at the clinics or how that compares to the rest of the Canadian health system.

The federal government’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch (FNIHB), which funds 79 clinics and manages 50 of them, is hampered in identifying potentially harmful patterns and preventing future mistakes, documents and interviews with medical experts indicate.

Whether turning away apparently intoxicated patients in the northern reserves – described in the coroner’s verdict as the “northern protocol”- has been a widespread practice is difficult to say. Reuters was able to find one other similar death, detailed in Manitoba police records, that occurred five months after Matawapit’s. The federal government enacted a policy saying it was “not appropriate” to hold intoxicated patients in cells – but only after last year’s inquest brought the issue to light.

Reuters’ findings come as the country is in the midst of a public reckoning with the legacy of settler colonization, a hotter issue today than in nations such as the United States and Australia where European settlers also displaced local peoples.

With an indigenous population that is growing and gaining political clout, Prime Minster Justin Trudeau came to power in 2015 promising “reconciliation” with aboriginal people. Reduced to a minority government in this week’s election, he needs the support of other parties to govern and will face pressure from the left to address poverty, poor housing and health problems that are especially acute on remote reserves.

It will not be an easy task. Even reviewing critical health care incidents could be a challenge because of the multiple jurisdictions and providers involved, said Michael Green, a professor at Queen’s University who was once chief of staff at a small northern hospital that often received patients from clinics in indigenous communities.

But “without review, there’s no opportunity to learn and make the system safer for everybody,” he said.

Staff at FNIHB, part of Indigenous Services Canada, say they strive to provide the best possible care and have been working on a replacement reporting system, slated to roll out next year.

The effort, which documents show began in 2014, has been planned behind closed doors and has not previously been reported, although pilot programs are running in Manitoba and Alberta.

Documents reviewed by Reuters indicate the system is designed to provide national case tracking and a consistent process for investigating and following up on cases.

Robin Buckland, executive director of primary healthcare at FNIHB, said the current system is “not a bad policy” but the agency is working to build an environment in which staff members can learn.

“It’s taken a long time,” she said. “But we want it to be right, and we want to implement it well.”

Reuters was not able to reach the nurses involved in treatment described in this story.

“We truly believe that nurses are working hard to deliver the best health care possible, under difficult work conditions,” said Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represents permanent staff nurses and other civil servants.

‘SECOND-CLASS CITIZENS’

For years, indigenous communities have complained about poor treatment on remote reserves, which are often hundreds of miles from top-tier or specialized medical services in major cities. Matawapit died in a community more than 300 km (186 miles) from the nearest major highway.

For a map of reserves see: https://tmsnrt.rs/32uE3yk

These federally funded clinics, usually called nursing stations, struggle to retain nurses, often filling gaps with the help of private staffing agencies.

Services there need more government scrutiny, not less, some critics say.

“We are treating members of the First Nations communities as second-class citizens,” said Emily Hill, a senior staff lawyer with Aboriginal Legal Services, which represented the Matawapit family at the inquest. “This is a large government health service. You would expect there to be layers of oversight and accountability.”

Documents reviewed by Reuters show FNIHB staffers have repeatedly called for a modern reporting system for poor or unexpected outcomes.

The FNIHB started to track critical incidents in 2006. By 2010, however, a federal audit found that “monitoring and analysis at both the national and regional level is not occurring.”

Four years later, a FNIHB working group said that a common national policy was needed with “clear processes for reporting and tracking” incidents, according to meeting notes reviewed by Reuters.

In 2016, an internal report by a member of the working group looked at how other public organizations, including federal prisons, reviewed outcomes. Every policy was found to be more “robust” than the one at FNIHB.

The report, reviewed by Reuters, said that while some patient safety incidents had been recorded in a national database between 2006 and 2014, regions had stopped using it because of the difficulty in collecting data.

Federal policy focused mainly on nurses’ well-being, not patients’, the report said.

The nurse at the Matawapit inquest illustrated that point, testifying that a debriefing after the patient’s death was geared “more to how we were feeling as opposed to what we did.”

A SIMILAR DEATH

On November 28, 2012, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in God’s Lake Narrows, Manitoba, responded to a report that Tracy Okemow, 31, was drinking and threatening suicide. Police found her next to two empty pill bottles labeled “metformin,” a diabetes drug, according to a police review of the incident seen by Reuters. She agreed to go to the local nursing station.

The nurses told officers they had consulted with a doctor off the reserve who felt her “consumption of medication was not of concern and she could be incarcerated until sober,” according to the police report.

Okemow spent the night in jail. A witness later told police that she seemed to be in agony. In the morning, she was flown to a Winnipeg hospital, where she died the next day of metformin toxicity, the report said.

There was no inquest or federal inquiry. “In the case of Ms. Okemow, the death occurred outside of a federally operated facility – therefore FNIHB did not undertake a formal review,” Indigenous Services Canada said in a statement.

Off reserve, healthcare is under provincial jurisdiction.

‘THEY BRUSH US OFF’

The federal government has reviewed some patient deaths, often after they draw media attention. Documents reviewed by Reuters show officials have found serious systemic problems, including nurses who are stretched thin and do not always appreciate the seriousness of patients’ symptoms.

After two children died from complications of strep infections in 2014, an internal review looked at a “sampling” of young people who had died, and called for better recruitment and retention of nurses, as well as more physician services.

A 2018 review looked at a 15-month-old toddler seen on a Saturday night for a seizure and infections. The nurse on duty did not consult a doctor, and the child died the next day. The report called for better oversight of nurses, as well as changes to shifts and staffing to address fatigue.

FNIHB’s Buckland said the agency is working to improve hiring and retention amid a global shortage of healthcare workers.

In Manitoba, the family of Tyson McKay is suing the federal government, alleging that the 32-year-old man died of a heart attack 31 hours after visiting a clinic complaining of chest pain in 2015. The suit alleges the nurse did not perform the appropriate tests that could have diagnosed his condition.

In a court filing, the government said a staffing agency was responsible for ensuring the nurse was qualified. The staffing agency defended its care and referred questions to the government.

Kelvin McKay, Tyson’s 41-year-old brother, has been going to the clinics since childhood. He said he sees a pattern.

“Nurses come in and out of our community, and they fail to take the time to get to know our people, and they think we come in with fake illnesses. They brush us off. And that’s not how it’s supposed to be.”

For a graphic on clinics on indigenous reserves often distant from major cities, click https://graphics.reuters.com/CANADA-HEALTH-NURSINGSTATIONS/0100B2H81S6/canada-map.jpg

(This story refiles to add dropped word in paragraph nine)

(Additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg; Editing by Denny Thomas and Julie Marquis)

‘Day of Fire’: Blazes ignite suspicion in Amazon town

By Stephen Eisenhammer

NOVO PROGRESSO, Brazil (Reuters) – A maverick journalist in this isolated Brazilian ranching town warned his readers last month that the surrounding Amazon was about to go up in flames.

Queimadas, or burnings, are nothing new in Novo Progresso, located on the frontier where Brazil’s farmland edges the Amazon rainforest in the northern state of Para. Locals say farmers annually use fire to illegally clear pastures or newly deforested areas.

But the Aug. 5 article in the online Folha do Progresso was eerily specific about an upcoming “Day of Fire.”

It said growers and ranchers were planning to set a coordinated series of fires in the forest and nearby land on Saturday, Aug. 10, inspired in part by President Jair Bolsonaro. Brazil’s right-wing leader has vowed to open the world’s largest rainforest to more development. Punishment of environmental crimes has plummeted on his watch.

When the day came, the number of fires tripled from the prior 24 hours. Government data recorded 124 blazes, compared to just six on Aug. 10 last year.

Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to a request for comment. In an Aug. 25 message on Twitter, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said Bolsonaro had ordered a “rigorous” probe to “investigate and punish those responsible” for the Novo Progresso fires.

State and federal police have since descended on this rough-edged town of 30,000. Some residents are not pleased with the sudden attention. Most farmers approached by Reuters declined to be interviewed. Many dismissed the Folha do Progresso story as rubbish, the invention of a fabulist.

“For you outsiders, we’re all criminals here,” one rancher said, declining to give his name.

Adecio Piran, the reporter who wrote the article, told Reuters he temporarily went into hiding after receiving death threats. He stands by his story.

According to prosecutors investigating the case, Brazil’s government did not move aggressively to prevent the conflagration, despite forewarning.

Prosecutor Paulo Oliveira said he notified Brazil’s environmental agency, Ibama, about the Folha do Progresso article on Aug. 7. The agency responded on Aug. 12, two days after the “Day of Fire,” saying it lacked the police support needed to investigate the matter, according to copies of the correspondence between Ibama and Oliveira reviewed by Reuters.

Ibama did not respond to a request for comment.

Army troops were dispatched to the area weeks later. By last Wednesday, there were about 200 soldiers camping on a dusty patch of land used for country fairs on the edge of town.

As Reuters drove the long road into town on Aug. 30, smoke still hung heavy in parts. Charred tree trunks and ash littered the ground where jungle recently stood.

Brazil’s Environment Ministry declined to comment for this story. Salles, the minister, has said previously that overly restrictive environmental policies have incited rural dwellers to resort to illegal logging and mining to make a living.

The “Day of Fire” is part of a brutal wave of destruction in Brazil’s rainforest this year. Some 6,404.8 square kilometers (2,472.91 square miles) have been despoiled, double the area felled at this point last year and larger than the U.S. state of Delaware.

Images of the Amazon burning have sparked international condemnation of the environmental policies of Bolsonaro, who has dismissed those concerns as outsiders meddling in Brazil’s internal affairs.

Townspeople in Novo Progresso bristled with resentment at the arrival of federal police and the military. Cattle traders complained it was bad for business.

Madalena Hoffmann, a former mayor of Novo Progresso, said she did not know if the Aug. 10 fires were intentionally coordinated. She said deforestation has gone too far. But like many here, she blames the government for imposing environmental rules so complicated and strict that farmers feel they must break the law to ply their trade.

“Fundamentally it’s the government’s fault,” she said.

‘ABANDONED’

Novo Progresso dates to the early 1980s, when Brazil’s military dictatorship lured families here with the promise of land and opportunity.

The armed forces, where former Army captain Bolsonaro got his start, viewed the largely uninhabited Amazon as a vast, resource-rich asset vulnerable to invasion or exploitation by foreigners. The military built roads and encouraged settlement.

But by 1985, the dictatorship had fallen. The newly democratic government began what would become a very different policy towards the Amazon: conservation.

“We were abandoned,” said Moises Berta, a 59-year-old rancher. Sipping coffee under a dawning sky at a bakery popular with farmers, he said he moved to Novo Progresso as a young man in 1981 with hopes of starting a successful farm.

Berta said the government has left him and others in the lurch by failing to grant clear titles to lands they have worked for years. Possessing the title to one’s farm makes it easier to obtain financing and eventually sell it. Without it, ownership is difficult to prove, making illegal activity such as cutting down forest easier to get away with.

In Brazil, land ownership can be granted by demonstrating the property is being used constructively, is not owned by someone else, and is not located in a protected area – standards Berta says his holdings meet.

But 38 years after arriving, Berta still does not have the title for his ranch beside highway BR 163, a vital artery for transporting soy and cattle, despite repeatedly trying to register it with the federal government.

He might not have the rights to his land, but holding up his phone, Berta showed a document pertaining to four open cases against him from Ibama, the environmental watchdog. Asked what laws he had allegedly violated, he grinned. “I have no idea,” he said.

Ibama declined to comment on Berta’s cases, passing a request from Reuters to the Environment Ministry, which did not respond.

The town’s farmers union says 90% of farmers and ranchers here do not have their land formally recognized by the state. Locals say the process is complicated and that officials are unresponsive. Documents need to be presented in person at an office a five-hour drive away.

Incra, the government body responsible for issuing land titles, said in an emailed statement it was aware of the backlog in the Amazon and that “measures were being developed to promote the emission of the required titles.”

Farmers were further incensed by the 2006 creation of a vast reserve to the west of Novo Progresso called the Jamanxim National Forest, which they say has strangled their ability to expand. The federal government was trying to slow deforestation that had cleared much of the forest in neighboring Mato Grosso state and was heading north toward Novo Progresso along BR 163.

Complicating matters, nearly 500 farmers were already inside the reserve when it was created. Most refused to leave, creating a standoff that has yet to be resolved.

Many of the Aug. 10 fires occurred inside the Jamanxim National Forest, the most deforested reserve in Brazil this year, government figures show. Over 100 square kilometers of rainforest there have been cleared since January, an area nearly twice the size of Manhattan.

JOURNALIST IN DANGER

Agricultural interests support an amnesty that would see farmers inside the Jamanxim stay. They have found allies in the Bolsonaro administration.

On Sunday, at a nearby country fair, Special Secretary for Land Affairs Nabhan Garcia told farmers they would get their titles. The administration, he added, was reviewing the “embarrassment” of conservation areas and indigenous lands expanded under previous governments.

State police have so far interviewed about 20 people in connection with the “Day of Fire,” a person with direct knowledge of the case told Reuters. No one has been charged or arrested. State police did not respond to a request to confirm the information.

Prosecutors say they suspect organizers used Whatsapp to coordinate fires along BR 163 to show public defiance of environmental regulations. The Jamanxim forest blazes, they say, were likely the work of land grabbers.

“That’s a coordinated invasion to force the area into farmland,” a second law enforcement source told Reuters. The people requested anonymity as they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Piran, the journalist believes he is still in danger. A pamphlet denouncing him as a liar and extortionist who lit the fires himself has circulated around town. While no longer in hiding, he still avoids going out at night. Police have asked state prosecutors that he be enrolled in a witness protection program.

(Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer, additional reporting by Amanda Perobelli; Editing by Brad Haynes and Marla Dickerson)

Special Report: Death and politics roil a Georgia jail

FILE PHOTO: The Chatham County Jail sits at sunset in Savannah, Georgia, U.S., May 2, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Ned Parker, Jason Szep and Linda So

SAVANNAH, Ga. (Reuters) – In the summer of 2016, Georgia’s Chatham County hired jail monitor Steven Rosenberg with a mission: scrutinize the county jail’s healthcare services after a string of deaths.

In the previous 30 months, seven inmates had died at the Chatham County Detention Center, shaking public confidence. The last healthcare provider lost its contract in June 2016 after some of its own staff accused it of improper practices.

Chatham County sought a fresh start, signing a multiyear contract worth $7 million annually with a small Atlanta company, CorrectHealth LLC. The county wanted to know whether the new provider was taking the steps needed to prevent deaths.

But after several trips to the jail that summer through winter, Rosenberg’s team delivered four scathing reports. They described staff shortages, unclear health guidelines and failures to give inmates prescribed medications. Such failings, they warned, could trigger “potential loss of life.” Indeed, that September, six weeks before the second report was issued, an inmate strangled himself with a telephone cord. The death came after the monitors warned that the facility lacked written policies for suicidal inmates.

In late December, Rosenberg pressed CorrectHealth and Quick Rx, the jail’s pharmacy operator, to open their books for inspection; his firm was hired to assess the company’s compliance with the contract and tally penalties for shortcomings. Before the day was out, the county sheriff barred Rosenberg from the detention center.

Both companies were politically connected in Savannah. CorrectHealth, and its president’s wife had donated $5,000 to the election campaign of Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher. CorrectHealth also had hired a state senator to run the jail’s dental clinic. And pharmacy operator Quick Rx was owned by a powerful member of the Georgia House of Representatives.

Rosenberg’s team was allowed back three weeks later, but the skirmish was the start of a standoff between the monitor on one side, and county and company on the other. Within a year, the county terminated the monitor’s contract, at the sheriff’s request, and waived $5 million in fines the monitor had recommended imposing on CorrectHealth. Wilcher rebuffed a plan to hire a new provider.

Instead, commissioners in June 2018 handed CorrectHealth a new three-year deal worth $22 million. During the bidding process, Reuters found, CorrectHealth shared inflated budget costs with its competitors, allowing it to make a cheaper offer.

FILE PHOTO: An inmate on suicide watch sits while prison officers talk to him at the Chatham County jail in Savannah, Georgia, February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

FILE PHOTO: An inmate on suicide watch sits while prison officers talk to him at the Chatham County jail in Savannah, Georgia, February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The Chatham County Detention Center’s troubles offer a look into the challenges American communities face in holding accountable the private companies that have been entrusted with managing healthcare services at a growing number of jails and prisons. The failed reform effort in Savannah also speaks to the power of local politics, in a county where two state officials had a piece of the jail medical contract.

After the county terminated Rosenberg’s contract in October 2017, medical and guard staff shortages persisted and medicines continued to go missing. Six inmates have died – five by their own hands – since CorrectHeath took over three years ago.

Wilcher said in a February interview he was “happy” with CorrectHealth. He declined to answer all follow up questions and referred Reuters to the county attorney, who did not reply.

CorrectHealth did not respond to interview requests or questions sent in writing. Quick Rx told Reuters it won the work on merit, not politics.

The United States incarcerates more prisoners than any other wealthy democracy, and an increasing number of local jails, housing over 700,000 inmates, contract with for-profit healthcare companies. The companies offer local governments ways to control jail spending and manage a notoriously unhealthy population.

Yet the for-profit industry operates with little local or national oversight, monitored only if localities volunteer to seek review by non-government accrediting groups. Despite the Georgia jail’s continued problems with suicides, it received coveted accreditations from a national industry body for inmate medical and mental health care.

“Healthcare providers do what they want to do. There’s often nobody monitoring the contract,” said U.S. Justice Department consultant Steve Martin, a former Texas Corrections Department general counsel who has inspected some 500 prisons and jails.

FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES

Carlo Musso, an emergency room doctor who founded CorrectHealth in 2000, has built an operation that now holds 41 contracts at jails across Georgia and Louisiana, with 2017 operating revenue of nearly $45 million. He is also a generous donor to politicians and sheriffs and a fundraising stalwart for the Georgia Sheriffs Association. Musso, his wife and companies donated $363,000 over a dozen years to Georgia politicians seeking state office, records show.

In Chatham County, Musso’s chance came in August 2015 when the jail’s healthcare contract opened for bidding. The relationship between the county and the jail’s previous medical provider, Corizon Health Inc, had deteriorated after a string of deaths, straining their ability to work together and ultimately leading to its loss of the contract. In a letter to the county, Corizon said it had been made a “scapegoat” for problems.

Musso promised sweeping change at the Chatham County Detention Center.

That November, the county sheriff at the time died of cancer, triggering a special election. Wilcher, a 40-year veteran of local law enforcement, won in March 2016. Pitching himself as a reformer, he vowed to “make the sheriff’s office great again.”

In June 2016, CorrectHealth won the deal, taking over the jail’s healthcare that August. The county viewed the new tender as a way to improve jail medical care. “The old contract really had no teeth in it,” said Roy Harris, the acting sheriff before Wilcher was elected.

The new contract set requirements for medical staffing and fines for failing to meet them. Intake screenings had to be completed within four hours or the company faced a $500 penalty per violation. Inmates had to receive medications within two hours of their prescription schedule; violations brought $100 fines per case.

As CorrectHealth won the job, Musso promised to retain the jail’s pharmacy firm, Quick Rx, owned by Ron Stephens, a titan of the state Republican Party and two-decade veteran of the Georgia House of Representatives.

Quick Rx had held the jail contract since the 1990s, but faced recent criticism. In 2014, jail medical staff said a pharmacy technician, not a licensed pharmacist, was taking prescription orders in violation of Georgia law, leading to medication errors. Quick Rx denied the allegation, saying it adheres to state laws.

Musso initially wanted to hire another drug supplier, not Stephens’ company, said Karen Cotton, a retired major in charge of jail operations in 2016 with first-hand knowledge of the negotiations. “It was a political thing. Musso had to back off,” she said.

Stephens said his company was hired because it provides “exceptional pharmacy services” at good rates. CorrectHealth did not respond to queries about the hiring.

Musso had also forged a partnership with another politician, State Senator Lester Jackson, a Democrat popular with Chatham’s black community, who had served on the Democratic National Committee from 2009 to 2012.

Jackson owned a dentistry practice, Atlantic Dental Associates, that worked with Musso across the state since 2014. Today, Atlantic runs dental services at 18 jails with CorrectHealth.

Atlantic landed the Chatham County jail’s $197,500 annual dental contract from CorrectHealth a few months before Jackson appeared in pamphlets for Sheriff Wilcher during the white Republican’s campaign for a full four-year term that November. The image of a smiling Jackson shaking the sheriff’s hand cut across racial and partisan lines in the largely Democratic county, which is 41% African-American. It was a blow to Wilcher’s rival, McArthur Holmes, a black Democrat.

“See how politics comes into this thing?” Holmes said in an interview.

Jackson said he did not formally endorse Wilcher, but considers him a friend and did not object to the use of his picture. Holmes never sought his endorsement, he added.

Wilcher won by 10 percentage points, emerging as a steadfast CorrectHealth defender.

THE MONITORS

In July 2016, the county hired Rosenberg’s firm, Community Oriented Correctional Health Services. Founded in 2006, the Oakland nonprofit has served as a consultant to local governments in New York, Florida, California, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., at times called to testify before Congress.

In Savannah, it would assess the jail’s medical operations. If CorrectHealth performed poorly, it would suggest fines. Rosenberg’s account is taken from his team’s confidential reports, which Reuters obtained through an open records request.

Almost immediately, he and CorrectHealth began clashing.

At the end of CorrectHealth’s first month at the jail – August 2016 – the monitors urged the company to craft policies for dealing with mentally ill inmates, and told the county the provider was struggling to hire registered nurses for inmate intake screenings.

Long-running challenges over staffing “have not been rectified by CorrectHealth,” the monitors reported.

Soon, CorrectHealth grappled with its first inmate suicide.

At 5:19 a.m. on September 30, Guy Leonard hanged himself with a telephone cord barely three hours after he was booked. On an intake form, the nurse wrote that Leonard said he had no plans to hurt himself and did not appear intoxicated, though he had been arrested on a charge of public drunkenness.

After the suicide, the nurse changed the original intake form to say Leonard looked intoxicated at booking. The sheriff’s department scolded the medical team in a letter, saying altered forms “will give the appearance of impropriety by CorrectHealth.” The sheriff also fired two guards over their failure to check Leonard’s cell in the hour before he died, while a third officer resigned.

The monitors returned in November and reported that “not all inmates” were getting a full physical and mental health assessment in their first 14 days – a standard recommended by the correctional industry’s medical accreditation body. The reason, the monitors reported, was “staffing shortages.”

They also reported a breakdown in the delivery of prescriptions. Medications ordered for inmates were sometimes missing; at times, an inmate would be listed for the same prescription twice. CorrectHealth told the monitor the Quick Rx records system did not synchronize with its own electronic records, leading to prescription mistakes.

Nearly three months later, the monitors reported that a guard told them nursing staff had falsely claimed inmates were refusing medications, “when they actually just did not have the medication to administer to the patient because it had not been received from the pharmacy.”

The questions over Quick Rx were a potential embarrassment for the sheriff. Quick Rx owner Stephens, the ranking Savannah Republican in Georgia’s state house, had supported Wilcher with a $1,000 campaign donation. Stephens said the two have been friends “for many years” and that he contributes to many local officials.

In February 2017, Rosenberg’s firm recommended $3 million in fines for CorrectHealth over its staffing failures and the late delivery of medicines. By June 2017, the monitors had raised their fine recommendation to $5.2 million.

SUICIDES, QUESTIONS

On March 11, 2017, Demilo Glover, jailed a week earlier after an arrest on a drunk driving charge, told a nurse his medications had been changed and he hallucinated that a little boy had appeared in his room holding a can of green beans, a department report said. The CorrectHealth team moved him to a rear infirmary cell. Throughout the night, he screamed. Earlier, Glover, who described himself as bipolar, told medical staff he had not taken his antipsychotic and antidepressant prescriptions for one to two days before his arrest and made bad decisions when not medicated.

The next morning, March 12, two guards collected his breakfast tray and asked Glover if he was OK. After they left, Glover knotted his bed sheet around his neck and slung it from a pipe. Minutes later, the guards returned to the cell, finding his corpse.

Twice in the months before the suicide, monitors warned that the infirmary’s cells were dangerous for suicidal inmates. When the monitors told Wilcher the infirmary did not have enough nurses, he bristled. The sheriff, they wrote, “does not want to hear about anything having to do with CorrectHealth.”

FILE PHOTO: Jerome Hill climbs the stairs at the Chatham County Detention Center shortly before his suicide in Savannah, Georgia, U.S. in this September 30, 2016 handout photo. Chatham County Detention Center/Handout via REUTERS

On April 3 of that year, Jerome Hill, 36, was arrested for allegedly threatening his girlfriend with a handgun.

Barely 90 minutes after being jailed, Hill said he wanted to kill himself, a department internal affairs report said. At 6:20 p.m. on April 7, guard Sharon Pinckney opened Hill’s cell in the mental health wing to take him for a shower. Hill raced up the stairs to the wing’s second floor and, ignoring her pleas, jumped from the walkway’s railing, landing head first. He died 18 days later, while in a coma at a hospital.

Pinckney told investigators “she did not understand why she was alone dealing with inmates on suicide watch and who had other mental issues.”

The internal affairs report into Hill’s death makes no mention of his meeting CorrectHealth’s psychiatrist in his four days at the jail.

SHERIFF PUSHES BACK

As the deaths mounted, the sheriff began pushing back against the monitor’s scrutiny. In a June 2017 email, an aide to the sheriff told Rosenberg’s team they didn’t need to visit the jail so often.

On August 24, 2017, Wilcher emailed the county manager he “WOULD LIKE TO GET THE COACH [monitors] GONE THANKS SHERIFF.” He contended they hadn’t offered “one piece of advice” on how to correct problems.

Within two months, Rosenberg’s contract was terminated. At the same time, Wilcher was advocating that CorrectHealth’s contract be extended.

As the sides negotiated new contract terms, CorrectHealth balked at the millions in pending fines. At this impasse, county administrators began negotiating with Virginia healthcare provider MHM Centurion. CorrectHealth quoted a contract price of $8.6 million, saying the county had pressed it to hire more staff. But then Centurion quoted the county budget price of $7.1 million, and won the job.

At a county commission meeting October 20, 2017, Wilcher chastised the county. “I am happy with the provider I got,” he said.

Commissioners rebuffed him, voting 6-3 for Centurion. The company was supposed to take over one week later. But suddenly, the sheriff announced he could not finish the background checks for Centurion’s medical staff in time.

Faced with uncertainty, Centurion walked away. In turn, commissioners approved CorrectHealth staying on through June 2018 – ahead of the awarding of a new three-year contract. Centurion declined to comment.

The county waived CorrectHealth’s fines. Just one county commissioner, Chester Ellis, objected. “I think that was a conflict of interest because of the campaign donation,” he told Reuters, citing Musso’s donations to Wilcher.

INFLATED NUMBERS

In April 2018, CorrectHealth bid on a new healthcare tender. Among three bidders, its proposal received the poorest score from a county screening committee, but offered the lowest bid. One reviewer wrote: “1/10 on suicide prevention. Very little detail; Not thorough.”

Wilcher continued to back the company.

Without debate, County Commission Chairman Al Scott called an up or down vote on keeping CorrectHealth in June 2018. The vote was 6-1 in favor, with Ellis dissenting. Scott told Reuters the jail was the sheriff’s jurisdiction, so he followed Wilcher’s suggestion.

During the bidding, Reuters found, the company had inflated the costs of providing medical care when the county requested numbers to provide rival bidders.

Musso told the county he spent just over $1 million on drug costs. However, a Reuters review of CorrectHealth’s invoices from Quick Rx shows the actual spending on drugs in 2017 was $280,000 less. The inflated number allowed Musso to offer a lower bid than competitors. Musso did not answer questions about the conflicting numbers.

As CorrectHealth won the contract renewal, Wilcher hired his own monitor to offer guidance on securing a coveted accreditation from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, an industry body that provides voluntary health standards for jails and state prisons and offers its seal of approval.

“We are not interested in, nor have or will we engage in, ANY activities or work that can be perceived to discredit you, the County, or its contractors,” monitor Ken Ray wrote the sheriff in his proposal. Ray did not respond to interview requests.

That June, NCCHC accreditation teams toured the jail and, two months later, the group sent notice it was granting a preliminary accreditation for the detention center’s healthcare services. The NCCHC also said it was awarding the jail the group’s first-ever certification for mental health services. At the time of its visit, the group said, the jail had not had a suicide in 12 months.

That was true, but the letter omitted the subsequent death of inmate Mosheh Underwood, 24, who hung himself in his cell August 4, 2018.

Upset after a call with his lawyer, Underwood had asked for paper to cover his cell window so he could have privacy to use the bathroom. A guard provided it – despite previous warnings from Rosenberg’s team about letting inmates cover their windows.

An hour later, Underwood, who hanged himself, was found dead.

Jaime Shikmus, the NCCHC’s vice president, said the sheriff’s office was not required to disclose the suicide because it occurred after the surveyors visited.

In the 48 hours before the jail’s certifications were formally unveiled, the sheriff and county worried in internal documents that its standing would be in peril if the organization got a complete picture of its problems.

In one email, jail administrator Todd Freesemann, then the sheriff’s policy and accreditation supervisor, advised Wilcher that the jail “does not have adequate mental health professionals to deal with the volume of mental health requirements.” In another, the county’s attorney warned the sheriff that the lack of registered nurses “jeopardizes your accreditations.”

On February 14, 2019, the news was officially announced. The Chatham County jail had won full accreditation for its mental health and healthcare services, becoming the first local jail to win this honor.

Four months later, a fifth inmate killed himself on CorrectHealth’s watch. Guards and medical staff rushed to resuscitate the inmate, but when they tried to revive his heart with a defibrillator, the first device was broken and the second’s battery was uncharged, a jail report said.

Today, CorrectHealth continues to hold its $22 million contract.

(Additional reporting by Peter Eisler and Grant Smith. Editing by Ronnie Greene)