Where COVID-19 is spreading fastest as U.S. cases rise 46% in past week

By Chris Canipe and Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – The United States saw a 46% increase in new cases of COVID-19 in the week ended June 28 compared to the previous seven days, with 21 states reporting positivity test rates above the level that the World Health Organization has flagged as concerning.

Nationally, 7% of diagnostic tests came back positive last week, up from 5% the prior week, according to a Reuters analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

The World Health Organization considers a positivity rate above 5% to be a cause for concern because it suggests there are more cases in the community that have not yet been uncovered.

Arizona’s positivity test rate was 24% last week, Florida’s was 16%, and Nevada, South Carolina and Texas’s were all 15%, according to the analysis.

Thirty-one states, mostly in the U.S. West and South, reported more new cases of COVID-19 last week compared to the previous week, the analysis found. Florida, Louisiana, Idaho and Washington state saw new cases more than double over that period.

In response to the new infections, Louisiana and Washington state have temporarily halted the reopening of their economies. Washington also mandated wearing masks in public.

Florida ordered all bars and some beaches to close. Idaho was not immediately available for comment.

Nationally, new COVID-19 cases have risen every week for four straight weeks. While part of that increase can be attributed to a 9% expansion in testing, health experts have also worried about states relaxing stay-at-home orders that had been credited with curbing the outbreak.

State officials across the country report the same trend in the new cases: People under 35 years old are going to bars, parties and social events without masks, becoming infected, and then spreading the disease to others.

Cases continue to decline in Northeast states, but some Midwest states that had new infections under control are seeing cases once again rise, including Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

 

(Reporting by Chris Canipe in Kansas City, Missouri, and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

Strong quake hits Nevada but no immediate reports of injury, damage

(Reuters) – A strong earthquake with a magnitude of 6.5 struck a remote, sparsely populated area of Nevada about halfway between Reno and Las Vegas early on Friday, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

There were no immediate reports of damage and casualties, according to a Nye County Sheriff’s dispatcher.

The temblor occurred about 35 miles (57 km) west-northwest of Tonopah, the seat of Nye County, at a depth of 4.7 miles (7.6 km), the USGS said on its website.

It could be felt as far away as Sacramento, California, 350 miles away, according to social media posts.

Nye County, about 200 miles north of Las Vegas, includes a portion of Death Valley National Park. It has 43,000 residents spread out over an area that is roughly equivalent to the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combinded.

(Reporting by Shubham Kalia in Bengaluru and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Steve Orlofsky)

Florida, Nevada may be hit hardest by coronavirus economic shock: study

By Howard Schneider

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Florida beaches remained packed with partying college students as the coronavirus crisis gathered force, and the Republican governor was slow to impose social distancing in a tourist-dependent economy.

That may come back to haunt the U.S. state – and not just in the form of a sky-rocketing case load. According to a newly released study by Oxford Economics, Florida is among the states most vulnerable to the economic shock being caused by the pandemic. (https://reut.rs/34cmzs3)

Oxford ranked the 50 U.S states and Washington D.C. using 10 measures its economists felt could make a local economy more vulnerable, including the share of the population over 65, dependence on retail sales, and the importance of the tourist industry.

Maine, with its proportionately older population and comparatively large number of people who are self-employed or work in small businesses, is considered the most vulnerable state economy, according to Oxford. Nevada, with its massive casino-based tourism industry, was second, while rural Vermont was third.

Florida is the only heavily populated state near the top of the list, with a comparatively large share of its 21 million residents over the age of 65, and an economy that is relatively dependent on retail sales and tourism.

The state’s COVID-19 case load topped 10,000 last week and it is adding a thousand cases a day. Governor Ron DeSantis imposed a statewide “stay at home” order that took effect Friday, weeks after some U.S. states.

“We see what’s going on in New York now, we see that people are dying,” Rick Scott, the Florida senator, told Fox News Channel on Saturday. “People are taking this very seriously now.”

States such as New York and California that have so far had the heaviest COVID-19 case loads may actually be among the more economically resilient, the Oxford team found.

“Lockdown and containment measures are the key determinants of first-round economic impacts of the coronavirus, but structural economic vulnerabilities determine the severity of second-round impacts,” Oxford lead economist Oren Klachkin wrote. Long-term results could depend on the strength of local government budgets and health systems.

Economists are struggling to get a grip on the potential aftermath of the crisis as it continues to deepen. Companies cut more than 700,000 jobs from their payrolls in March, a likely understated measure of rapidly rising unemployment: More than 6 million people filed for unemployment benefits in the week ended March 28 alone.

President Donald Trump initially downplayed the dangers of the virus and did not quickly recommend nationwide health orders. Local governments, which vary widely in their finances and ability to cope, had different initial responses to the threat, a fact that could shape the ultimate outcome of the crisis nationally.

The situation has produced a quick flowering of research on pandemic economics, with most studies finding that stricter health measures taken early on lead to deeper, but shorter, economic downturns and faster recoveries.

There are political as well as economic implications.

Florida, for example, is an important battleground state in the U.S. electoral system, and the perceived success or failure of efforts to control the virus and support local businesses and households could influence Trump’s reelection chances.

IHS Markit U.S. regional economist Karl Kuykendall also ranked Florida among the more vulnerable states, using a different methodology focused on estimated declines in employment and economic output. The state may lose about 8% of its jobs by the end of the year, he calculated.

The manufacturing heavy “rust belt” states from Pennsylvania to Michigan, also politically important constituencies that swung the 2016 race for Trump, are in line to take similarly heavy hits to employment, Kuykendall estimated.

Personal finance site WalletHub.com used a broader set of metrics, including work from home capacity and local financial strength, for another ranking.

Florida is in the middle of that pack because of its comparatively few small businesses and stronger state finances, WalletHub found. It said Louisiana was most “exposed,” with Maine and Nevada also high on the list. Among the more populous states, Pennsylvania and Illinois were in WalletHub’s top 10.

None of the studies accounted for the help coming to households, businesses and local governments from the $2.3 trillion emergency rescue package approved by Congress in late March, or the wide set of programs established by the Federal Reserve.

The combined aim of those efforts is to offset the economic impact of the virus. Officials are focused now on whether the aid can reach where it is needed fast enough to matter.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider: Editing by Heather Timmons and Daniel Wallis)

Most Americans huddle indoors as coronavirus deaths keep spiking

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Four new states imposed sweeping stay-at-home directives on Wednesday in response to the coronavirus pandemic, putting over 80% of Americans under lockdown as the number of deaths in the United States nearly doubled in three days.

The governors of Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Nevada each instituted the strict policies on a day when the death toll from COVID-19 shot up by 925 to more than 4,800 nationwide, with 214,000 confirmed cases, according to a Reuters tally.

President Donald Trump said he saw no need for the federal government to issue a nationwide decree, with 39 states and the District of Columbia now requiring residents to stay home except for essential outings to the doctor or grocery store.

He also told a White House briefing on Wednesday he was considering a plan to halt flights to coronavirus hot spots.

“We’re certainly looking at it, but once you do that you really are clamping down on an industry that is desperately needed,” Trump told a White House news briefing.

Such a plan might conceivably shut down traffic at airports in hard-hit New York, New Orleans and Detroit.

“We’re looking at the whole thing,” Trump said of curtailing domestic flights already greatly reduced as demand has fallen.

White House medical experts have forecast that even if Americans hunker down in their homes to slow the spread of COVID-19, some 100,000 to 240,000 people could die from the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

A Pentagon official who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said the U.S. Department of Defense was working to provide up to 100,000 body bags for use by civilian authorities in the coming weeks.

Since 2010, the flu has killed between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans a year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 1918-1919 flu pandemic killed 675,000 in the United States, according to the CDC.

A healthcare worker walks outside a newly constructed field hospital in the East Meadow of Central Park during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 1, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid

New York state remained the epicenter of the outbreak, accounting for more than a third of the U.S. deaths. Governor Andrew Cuomo told police on Wednesday to enforce rules more aggressively for social distancing.

“Young people must get this message, and they still have not gotten the message. You still see too many situations with too much density by young people,” Cuomo, a Democrat, said in imposing rules to close playgrounds, swing sets, basketball courts and similar spaces.

“How reckless and irresponsible and selfish for people not to do it on their own,” Cuomo said.

CALIFORNIA CASES SURGE

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told a news conference the city was contracting with hotels as part of a massive effort to add 65,000 additional hospital beds by the end of the month.

De Blasio, also a Democrat, said the city had arranged to add 10,000 beds at 20 hotels, which have lost most of their guests as travel has stopped.

“This is going to be an epic process during the month of April to build out all that capacity,” de Blasio said. “But this goal can be reached.”

California saw the number of coronavirus cases surge by roughly 1,300 over the day before to nearly 10,000 as Governor Gavin Newsom warned that even as stay-at-home policies appeared to be having some effect, the state would run out of intensive- care hospital beds equipped with ventilators within six weeks.

Newsom said California could still manage to “bend” the state’s infection curve more, saving the need for additional beds, if residents were rigorous in staying home and avoiding contact with others.

“We are in a completely different place than the state of New York and I hope we will continue to be, but we won’t unless people continue to practice physical distancing and do their part,” the Democratic governor told a news conference in the state capital, Sacramento.

But Americans under lockdown and largely unable to work struggled with making ends meet as rent came due on Wednesday, the first day of the month.

In Oakland, California, Alfa Cristina Morales said she had been surviving on money saved for a U.S. citizenship application since losing her job at a coffee shop. Morales had sought unemployment benefits to support her two-year-old son.

“We’re worried that it won’t be enough,” she said.

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said a six-week-old baby had died from COVID-19, in what he called “a reminder that nobody is safe from this virus.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told Fox News that Broward County would likely allow two cruise ships with coronavirus outbreaks carrying a total of 2,500 people to dock in Fort Lauderdale, despite his misgivings about potentially contagious foreign nationals.

“We were concerned about a deluge into the hospitals, but I think it turns out that there will probably be some who need to go, but it’s very manageable and the local hospital system thinks that they can handle it,” DeSantis, a Republican, told Fox.

At Fort Lauderdale, Floridians aboard the ships would be taken home and flights arranged for foreigners, he said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu, Tim Ahmann, Daniel Trotta, Maria Caspani, Nathan Layne, Stephanie Kelly, Peter Szekely, Lisa Shumaker, Sharon Bernstein, Jeff Mason, Mohammad Zargham, Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)

Democrats turn to Nevada, South Carolina after Sanders’ New Hampshire win

By John Whitesides and Amanda Becker

MANCHESTER, N.H. (Reuters) – Democrats vying for the right to challenge U.S. President Donald Trump turned their focus to Nevada and South Carolina after Bernie Sanders solidified his front-runner status with a narrow victory in New Hampshire, with Pete Buttigieg close behind him.

While Sanders, a U.S. senator from neighboring Vermont, and Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, finished first and second in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary respectively, the contest also showed the growing appeal of U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who placed third after surging over the past few days.

Two Democrats whose fortunes have been fading – U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Vice President Joe Biden – limped out of New Hampshire, finishing fourth and fifth respectively amid fresh questions about the viability of their candidacies.

New Hampshire was the second contest in the state-by-state battle to pick a Democratic nominee to face Trump, a Republican, in the Nov. 3 election. Sanders and Buttigieg finished in a virtual tie in the first contest last week in Iowa and won an equal number of delegates – who formally vote at the party’s convention in July to select a nominee – in New Hampshire, according to early projections.

The campaign’s focus now begins to shift to states more demographically diverse than the largely white and rural kickoff states of Iowa and New Hampshire. The next contest is on Feb. 22 in Nevada, where more than a quarter of the residents are Latino, followed a week later by South Carolina, where about a fourth are African-American.

After that, 14 states, including California and Texas, vote in the March 3 contests known as Super Tuesday, which will also be the first time voters see the name of billionaire former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg on the Democratic presidential ballot.

Democrats must decide whether their best choice to challenge Trump would be a moderate like Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Biden or Bloomberg – or a candidate further to the left like Sanders or Warren.

Only one of the candidates has public events planned on Wednesday. Bloomberg, a billionaire media mogul, plans rallies in Chattanooga and Nashville, Tennessee.

With an eye toward a potential general election campaign against Trump, Bloomberg on Wednesday also announced the opening of a campaign office in New Hampshire headed by Democratic strategist Liz Purdy.

Bloomberg also picked up endorsements from three black members of the U.S. House of Representatives after he came under scrutiny over his past support for a policing tactic known as stop and frisk, which disproportionately affected racial minorities.

In New Hampshire, Sanders had 26% of the vote and Buttigieg had 24%. Klobuchar had 20%, Warren 9% and Biden 8%.

Buttigieg on Wednesday said his strong results in Iowa and New Hampshire showed he had momentum going forward, “settling the questions of whether we could build a campaign across age groups and different kinds of communities.”

Buttigieg, who would be the first openly gay U.S. president if elected, still faces questions about what opinion polls show is his weakness with black voters, one of the most loyal and vital Democratic voting blocs.

‘A WHOLE NEW LOOK’

Asked about how he could gain the confidence of racial minority voters, Buttigieg told MSNBC he was focused on economic empowerment and suggested he had learned lessons, sometimes “the hard way,” as mayor of South Bend. He pointed to a plan he released last summer aimed at fighting racism.

“I think we’re getting a whole new look from black and Latino voters who have so much riding on making sure that we defeat Donald Trump, because they are among those with most to lose if they have to endure yet another term of this president,” he told MSNBC.

In a sign of the growing rivalry between Sanders, 78, and Buttigieg, 38, supporters for the senator booed and chanted “Wall Street Pete!” when Buttigieg’s post-primary speech was shown on screens.

“This victory here is the beginning of the end for Donald Trump,” Sanders told supporters in Manchester, New Hampshire, late on Tuesday.

The Democratic field shrank to nine main candidates after businessman Andrew Yang and U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who had trailed in the polls and performed poorly on Tuesday, dropped out.

Biden, 77, who was once the front-runner in the Democratic race, stumbled to his second consecutive poor finish after placing fourth in Iowa. He is certain to face growing questions about his ability to consolidate moderate support against a surging Buttigieg and Klobuchar.

Klobuchar’s campaign said it was spending more than $1 million on ads in Nevada.

“We have beaten the odds every step of the way,” Klobuchar, 59, told supporters in Concord. “Because of you, we are taking this campaign to Nevada. We are going to South Carolina. And we are taking this message of unity to the country.”

 

(Reporting by John Whitesides, James Oliphant, Simon Lewis, Michael Martina and Amanda Becker in New Hampshire, additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Scott Malone, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)

Special Report: ‘Scam PAC’ fundraisers reap millions in the name of ‘heart-tugging’ causes

By Jarrett Renshaw and Joseph Tanfani

Birmingham, Alabama (Reuters) – From unmarked strip-mall offices in small-town Alabama, the calls go out across the United States, meant to talk people into giving money for heart-tugging causes like helping breast cancer patients or the widows of fallen police officers.

Even as they charmed millions from credulous donors, a dozen former callers for two major fundraisers told Reuters that they knew their companies would be keeping the vast majority of it. And the groups they were raising money for weren’t charities at all, but political action committees, which normally are set up to gather funds for candidates or political causes.

“The motto was, ‘Leave your morals at the door,’” said Alexander Lefler, 21, who worked for nearly a year at a call center southeast of Birmingham, Alabama, describing what he saw as high-pressure and deceptive tactics. “We kind of all understood what we were doing was wrong, but I needed a place to live.”

The call centers in Alabama, along with others in Nevada, New Jersey, and Florida, raise money on behalf of “scam PACs,” slang among critics for political action committees that purport to support worthy causes but in reality hand over little of the money for political – or charitable – purposes. Instead, the bulk of the money is kept by fundraising firms or the people running the PACs.

Through interviews with the former callers and donors, reviews of call scripts and visits to three call centers in Alabama, Reuters has obtained rare access into the world of these for-profit fundraisers, a tiny but lucrative niche of the multi-billion-dollar U.S. telemarketing industry.

These so-called “scam PACs” and their fundraisers exploit the gray zone between U.S. election finance and state charity fundraising laws, regulators told Reuters. They often are set up as super PACs, groups which in recent years have been empowered by the courts to raise and spend money in unlimited amounts, with little regulation.

But “scam PACs” are not like other political action committees. Rather, they and their fundraisers present the PACs as charities, suggesting they support veterans, firefighters or victims of deadly diseases, for instance.

In fact, “scam PAC” operators and fundraisers are often old hands of the charity world, with a history of run-ins with regulators, state and federal records show. Some fundraisers work in both worlds, raising money for charities and PACs.

When organizations operate as political action committees, however, they are not subject to the laws governing charity fundraising, according to federal and state regulators and telemarketing industry officials. (See related story https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-fundraisers-scampacs on regulation of “scam PACs”)

In return for tax-exempt status, charities generally must register with states, disclose their key employees and account for how the money is spent – in some cases by providing audited financial statements.

Not so for “scam PACs.”

“It is a way for them to get around the charity laws – that’s exactly what they’re doing,” said Stuart Discount, chief executive of the Professional Association for Customer Engagement, a trade association for direct marketers.

“Scam PAC” telemarketers who use aggressive tactics in the charity realm also face less risk of scrutiny or sanction when they turn to PAC fundraising, regulators and former callers said. Callers told Reuters they easily made the switch, working in the same buildings, for the same bosses, using similar scripts.

Though “scam PACS” have no standard definition and can’t be definitively counted, a review of Federal Election Commission records suggests they account for a sliver of the some 6,800 PACs in the country. Even so, Reuters identified a loose network of fundraising companies and PACs that quickly grew into a money-making force, with some ranking near the top fundraisers in the period stretching from January 2017 through mid-2019.

Starting with a group of eight fundraising operations that earned at least a half-million dollars each during this period, Reuters traced interconnections among them and 31 PACs. Generally, those in the informal network portrayed themselves as charitable, gave little to the causes they promoted and relied principally on small donors. Most were super PACs, but several were traditional political action committees, which have contribution limits.

All told, the PACs took in $83.1 million during the 2 ½ year period examined by Reuters, about 82% of which went to the eight fundraising companies, according to the campaign disclosures required by the FEC.

The PACs examined for this article typically handed over less than 10% of their take – sometimes less than 1% – to candidates or causes, Reuters found. Aside from the lion’s share that went to for-profit fundraisers, many of the PAC operators took a slice for salaries and overhead.

Two of the fundraising companies identified by Reuters employed jail inmates and ex-cons as telemarketers, according to interviews in Alabama with several former employees, as well as court records.

Reuters interviewed a dozen donors to PACs in the informal network. All said they thought they were giving to a charity. Alex Angelides, a 31-year-old engineer from Arlington, Virginia, donated $600 to a super PAC called For a Better America, which spent 90% of its money on fundraising alone.

It’s infuriating,” said Angelides, who learned from Reuters that it was a PAC that got his money. “It would’ve been nice to know that my money was going to a PAC, not a charity, and that it wasn’t going to actually help police and firefighters directly.”

“There should be more transparency on this to protect consumers,” he said.

The committee’s treasurer, attorney Chris Marston, told Reuters the purpose of the PAC was to raise money “ in support of candidates who would help police and firefighters.”

“I’m sure the [call] scripts didn’t misrepresent anything,” Marston said. “I can’t speak to people’s understanding or what the scripts said.”

Few other top officers at these fundraising firms and PACS would speak to Reuters on the record. Those who responded denied their marketing was deceptive and defended their business model and compensation.

“I don’t think you understand how hard it is to fundraise,” said Forrest Sandusky Baker IV, a telemarketing professional. Baker said he founded Salt Lake City fundraising firm American Public Resource because he hoped to support worthy goals like helping veterans. The firm was paid nearly $3 million from 2017 through mid-2019 for its work raising money for PACS that spent anywhere from 0% to 7% on their promoted causes.

Baker said his employees never try to dupe donors and that he can’t control what his clients, the PACs, do with the money he raises.

“My job is to deliver a message, and try as best as I can to make sure I’m not working for a scumbag,” he said.

Richard Zeitlin, the biggest fundraiser in the loose network identified by Reuters, told a reporter in a brief interview that he had closed down all of his call centers, saying “I wanted a change in direction.” Asked about ex-employees’ claims of deception in his companies’ PAC fundraising practices, he declined to discuss specifics.

“How do I know you are telling the truth or the people who talked to you are telling the truth?” he said.

Last summer, after coming under fire from state and government regulators for alleged deception in fundraising for charities, he defended his reputation on a website called richardzeitlintruth.com.

While acknowledging that every industry has its “bad apples, he wrote: “To this day it strikes me as odd that an industry that has over the years hired hundreds of thousands of people (perhaps millions), many of whom had trouble holding down more traditional day jobs, would become such a punching bag for the government and the media.”

ANONYMOUS OFFICES, UNCLEAR OWNERSHIP

In a small Alabama town at the edge of the Talladega National Forest, next to a Chinese restaurant, stands a shop with mirrored windows and no signs.

The call center in Sylacauga, visited by Reuters last year, was operated by Las Vegas-based TPFE Inc, a firm controlled by Zeitlin. Like many such telemarketing centers tucked away in strip malls or office parks, it offered no clues to what went on inside.

Federal campaign records tell part of the story. In the 2 ½ year period examined by Reuters, records show, TPFE and three other Zeitlin firms earned more than $27.6 million for PAC fundraising.

For instance, the operation raised $16.8 million for PACs founded by Robert Piaro of Fredonia, Wisconsin, which purported to support police, veterans and people with breast cancer. About 82% of the money, $13.8 million, went to Zeitlin’s firms, while Piaro collected $190,613 in salary from the PACs, according to the records.

One Piaro committee, Americans for the Cure of Breast Cancer, garnered $1.6 million in donations through Zeitlin’s fundraising operations and made one charitable contribution, $10,000 to the Susan G. Komen Foundation – less than 1% of the total raised, campaign filings show.

JoAnn Coleman, 63, a construction engineer from Gaithersburg, Maryland, said she was particularly vulnerable to a pitch for the breast cancer PAC.

“I had breast cancer, so they knew how to get me,” she said. When she later realized it was a PAC telemarketer, she felt exploited. “What a racket, oh my God.”

Piaro declined to comment.

On his website, Zeitlin said his firms’ revenue – which he described as 80% to 90% of the proceeds – “may seem high” but actually is standard for the industry and is needed to offset high costs for technology and “intensive time-consuming labor.”

As a fundraiser for charities, Zeitlin ran into trouble with regulators.

In 2018, the Federal Trade Commission sued Zeitlin for allegedly deceptive practices in charity fundraising, but the case has been suspended because a grand jury was investigating, according to court documents. The FTC declined to comment.

Zeitlin told Reuters he was not the target of the grand jury investigation. He said only that it was based in Florida; Reuters could not determine the specific jurisdiction.

Neither Zeitlin nor his attorney would comment on the FTC lawsuit. Zeitlin, whose operations also have been examined by the Center for Public Integrity and other media outlets, said on his website that he’s “never been accused, indicted, tried or convicted of anything.”

Some political fundraising operations change locations frequently, operate under different names or dissolve and resurface under another name, making it difficult to trace their ownership, activities and connections to one another.

Reuters also could not ascertain the ownership of another large fundraising operation with a call center in Hoover, Alabama, some 45 miles from Zeitlin’s center in Sylacauga. Reporters visited the center last summer, though it has since closed.

Going by various names, the fundraising operation has worked for some of the same PACs as Zeitlin’s firms have and has employed some of the same people, according to internal PAC records, state corporate filings, employee interviews and deposition testimony in a civil case unrelated to this article. It also has roots in charity fundraising.

The fundraising operation used corporate names including Charity Promotions, from 2013 to 2016, and Charity Appeal, from 2016 to 2018, according to several ex-employee interviews and state filings. The fundraisers later went to work for PACs under the names Politicause and Pledge Assistance, both registered in Wyoming, which requires little disclosure from corporations.

Together Politicause and Pledge Assistance earned close to $20 million between January 2017 through mid-2019 raising money for PACS, campaign finance records show. Those two fundraising firms, whose ownership is not clear, dissolved – Pledge Assistance in July 2018 and Politicause in June 2019, according to Wyoming records.

Interviews and records indicate managers at both firms once worked at a Zeitlin company called Courtesy Call. None of the three managers Reuters was able to identify could be reached for comment.

At the time Reuters visited, the firm’s Hoover call center was jammed with desks and callers on headsets. The otherwise bland office was decorated with posters from the film “Glengarry Glen Ross,” a tale of ruthless telemarketer salesmen set in a real-estate boiler room. “Always Be Closing,” one poster read. “Coffee is for Closers Only,” read another.

LOOKING FOR ‘NATURALS’

In interviews, a dozen former employees of Politicause and Zeitlin’s TPFE described techniques they used to wrangle donations, leaving contributors with the impression they were giving to good causes.

“You are not lying, but you are being extremely misleading,” said Jason Jones, 24, a former employee at Politicause.

Training was minimal, pressure relentless and turnover high, the workers said. If new workers weren’t making sales, they were quickly fired. “It’s a sink or swim environment. They are looking for naturals,” said Jones, adding that good performers could take home $1,000 to $1,500 a week.

Former callers at both TPFE and Politicause said they were given scripts and FAQs that required them to mention that the groups were political action committees but were told by managers to glide past the disclosures about who was calling and how the money would be used.

“They said to pitch it like it was a charity but as quietly and quickly as you can, slip in that it was a PAC,” said Lefler, who worked at TPFE until March.

The callers said they’d already honed their charity pitches and so found it easy to repurpose them for the political committees, appealing to patriotism and what one called “pulling heartstrings.”

One FAQ, given to callers at Politicause and reviewed by Reuters, shaped the fundraising pitch for a super PAC called the American Coalition for Injured Veterans. It “is an organization who (sic) advocates for those who deserve it the most and are often left behind: American Veterans, especially who are homeless and disabled,” the FAQ read.

If the potential donors suspected they had given to the group before, the callers were instructed to say: “I have no way of knowing because we feel that donations are given from the heart, not the hand, so we keep all donation records confidential,” according to the FAQ.

The PAC, organized by Zachary Bass, spent 90% of its take on fundraising, campaign filings show. It spent $103,700 on behalf of House candidates – about 3% of the total, and it has contributed nothing directly to veterans groups.

Bass, who set up several other super PACs, declined to comment.

Across the industry, calls are computer-generated before being routed to telemarketers, something Politicause and TPFE employees said allowed their firms to maximize the number of calls – and to pester people repeatedly.

“They called 4 times in one day. We have told them many times to stop calling us,” one person contacted by Politicause complained to the FTC in April 2019, noting that the household was on a Do Not Call list.

Federal Do Not Call rules do not apply to political or nonprofit fundraising. Reuters obtained FTC complaint records, with names redacted, through a Freedom of Information Act request. The FTC’s response to complaints is not noted in the records.

Pitches at Politicause and TPFE were adapted to avoid allegations of fraud, former callers said, noting that the conversations were occasionally monitored by company compliance officers. At Politicause, for instance, some said they initially were told to say donations would be used to “help” buy new police and fire equipment. But because that suggested donors were contributing directly to purchasing new gear, the callers said they were told by managers to adjust their language.

“We could no longer say, ‘We are helping police officers get body armor,’ but we could say, ‘We are supporting efforts to get them body armor,’” said Jackie Armstrong, 32, a former Politicause employee.

When asked by potential donors how much of the money would go to the cause they were touting, telemarketers said they suggested it was the vast majority.

“‘We are proud to say it’s a 90-10 split,’” Jones recalled saying, leaving out that his company was getting the 90% share. “’We wish it was 100, but we have to keep the lights on.’”

The workers said Politicause managers eventually reined in that practice, requiring them to instead say that at least 10% went to the cause. Callers said they did so quickly and proudly, hoping people wouldn’t catch on.

At TPFE, callers said they told potential donors all proceeds went to “defraying the cost of the appeal [for funds] and to accomplish the mission,” said former employee Jake Adair, 28.

“Just enough to get them to stop asking,” he added.

FROM JAIL TO BOILER ROOM

James Dellinger, 34, said he and other callers got in the door with a remarkable qualification – they were in jail.

While in the Shelby County Jail on a felony charge of stealing a truck, Dellinger said he began working at a center in suburban Birmingham then known as Charity Promotions as part of his government-sponsored work release program. The company later was renamed Politicause.

These workers were a convenient labor pool – and skilled at getting people to open their wallets, former callers said.

“We were good at slick-talking these people,” said Dellinger, who court records show has been convicted of felonies including the truck theft and other burglary charges.

Some of the workers for TPFE also had felony convictions, according to several former callers and court records. The Sylacauga call center employed work release inmates, an arrangement that apparently ended before 2018, the former callers said.

“What is wrong with giving somebody a second chance?” Zeitlin responded when Reuters asked about his hiring practices.

Both Politicause and TPFE had procedures to keep workers with fraud convictions from handling credit card information, former callers said, although Politicause workers said the rules were sometimes relaxed for high performers.

Zeitlin did not respond to questions about this issue.

Drug abuse was a problem at both call centers, ex-employees said. They said it was not uncommon to find needles in the bathroom or a caller passed out at his desk.

Jessica Blanchard, 23, who worked at Politicause in 2018, said many callers either were addicts from halfway houses or jail inmates on work release.

Former Politicause employee Armstrong said he was fired in 2018, when the call center did charity fundraising, for having drugs at work. A week later, Armstrong said, he was rehired to help raise money for political action committees.

“It’s the only thing in life I’ve ever been (expletive) good at,” said Armstrong, who records show has theft and drug convictions. “Most of the guys that are real good are felons.”

(Jarrett Renshaw reported from Birmingham, Alabama, Joseph Tanfani from Washington; Editing by Julie Marquis)

Area 51 raid morphs into pre-dawn celebration outside secretive U.S. base

By Lisa Richwine

RACHEL, Nev. (Reuters) – A call to “storm” the secretive U.S. military base in the Nevada desert known as Area 51 attracted several dozen revelers to a heavily guarded entrance early Friday, but most did not attempt to enter the site, long rumored to house secrets about extraterrestrial life.

A festive scene emerged around 3 a.m. PT (1000 GMT) on Friday, the date and time a Facebook user had jokingly invited people to run into the base on foot to “see them aliens.” Among the UFO enthusiasts and curiosity seekers, one man wore an orange space suit and some sported tin foil hats and alien masks. A sign in the gathering read “Free E.T. from the government.”

“A bunch of random people in weird costumes standing outside of a government base, why would you want to miss that?” said a YouTube personality who goes by the name Atozy. “That’s a once in a lifetime experience.”

One young woman ducked under a protective gate and was briefly detained by authorities and released. Others stayed outside the perimeter, according to law enforcement officials keeping watch over the crowd.

“They’re just here to see what’s going on,” said Sergeant Orlando Guerra of the Nevada Department of Public Safety Investigation Division. “They’re here to have fun.”

The U.S. Air Force had issued a stern warning to the public not to trespass into Area 51, which it said is used to test aircraft and train personnel.

Jason Strand, 23, said he traveled from Utah to the rural Nevada site as part of a group of nine friends to take in the scene. He said he was not inclined to dart into Area 51.

“We’re came out here to see the dumb people make a run for it,” he said.

Area 51 had long been shrouded in mystery, stoking conspiracy theories that it housed the remnants of a flying saucer and the bodies of its alien crew from a supposed unidentified flying object crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947.

The U.S. government did not confirm the base existed until 2013, when it released CIA archives saying the site was used to test top-secret spy planes.

The documents, however, did not end suspicion about space aliens there.

Area 51 sits about 12 miles (19 km) from Rachel, Nevada, a tiny outpost north of Las Vegas that is hosting a music festival to entertain any UFO hunters or others heading to the region. Some residents had urged the public to stay away because they worried the town of 50 year-round residents would be overwhelmed with unruly tourists.

As of early Friday, a few hundred campsites had been set up by visitors outside the Little A’Le’Inn, an alien-themed motel and restaurant that is Rachel’s only business.

“I’m relieved it’s here,” said Connie West, co-owner of the inn, who had scrambled to set up a campground, bring in portable toilets and otherwise support the influx of visitors. “It’s happening. There was no stopping it.”

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Additional reporting by Omar Younis and Jim Urquhart; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Dozens of CEOs call on Senate to tackle gun violence: reports

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – More than 100 chief executives of some of the nation’s most well-known companies on Thursday called on the U.S. Senate to take action to tackle gun violence, including expanding background checks and strengthening so-called red flag laws, according to media reports.

In a letter to lawmakers, 145 company heads urged meaningful action following a string of mass shootings across the United States that have most recently left communities reeling in Texas, Ohio, Nevada and South Carolina.

“Doing nothing about America’s gun violence crisis is simply unacceptable and it is time to stand with the American public on gun safety,” the letter to the Republican-led U.S. Senate said, according to the New York Times, which first reported the correspondence.

Those signing the missive include the heads of Gap Inc, Levi Strauss & Co, and Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. They also included Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, Uber Technologies Inc, Twitter Inc, and Amalgamated Bank, among others.

“We are writing to you because we have a responsibility and obligation to stand up for the safety of our employees, customers and all Americans in the communities we serve across the country,” they said, according to the Times. The Washington Post also reported the letter.

Lawmakers have struggled to address gun violence after the 2012 killing of 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut stoked the debate over gun control in America.

More mass shootings followed, including at a church in South Carolina, a music festival in Las Vegas and a high school in Florida. This summer, shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas – including in a Walmart – sparked fresh debate.

Walmart Inc and other stores have since called on patrons not to openly carry firearms in their stores, prompting protests from opponents who object to curbing gun rights.

The U.S. House of Representatives, led by Democrats, quickly took up measures addressing gun violence as lawmakers returned to Washington this week. These include three bills that seek to remove guns from people deemed a risk, ban high-capacity ammunition magazines and prohibit people convicted of violent hate crime misdemeanors from possessing firearms.

The Senate, led by President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans, has so far stayed on the sidelines, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looking to the White House for guidance.

On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators said they wanted to revive a failed 2013 bill to close loopholes in the law requiring gun sale background checks, but it remained unclear whether Trump would support it.

Polls have shown that nearly half of all Americans expect another mass shooting to happen soon in the United States.

(Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

California utility to cut power to 27,000 customers to reduce wildfire risk

FILE PHOTO: A lineman from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) works on a power line near a neighborhood destroyed by wildfire in Santa Rosa, California, U.S., October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Utility PG&E Corp planned to proactively shut off power on Saturday to 27,000 customers in Northern California due to an increased risk of wildfires, officials said.

The shut down would begin at 9 p.m. local time in and around the Sierra Foothills, an area spanning parts of Butte, Yuba, Nevada, El Dorado and Placer counties northeast of San Francisco and near the border with Nevada, the utility said on Twitter.

The area includes portions of Paradise, the town that was destroyed by November’s deadly wildfire known as the Camp Fire, which killed more than 80 people.

PG&E said this year it would significantly expand the practice of shutting off power to communities at risk of wildfire when conditions demand it, despite objections from some consumer advocates who said such disruptions can harm vulnerable people such as those who need electricity for medical equipment.

PG&E has been in touch with people in the affected areas who rely on power for their medical equipment, Adam Pasion, a spokesman for the utility, said in a phone interview.

“We certainly recognize the risk and are only doing this in the most extreme circumstances we feel that we need to,” Pasion said.

Earlier on Saturday, the utility shut down power to around 1,600 customers just north of San Francisco, in Napa, Solano and Yolo counties, also due to the risk of wildfires after forecasters said a combination of strong winds, dry conditions and warm temperatures raised the fire danger.

But conditions improved, allowing the utility to begin restoring power to those customers, Pasion said.

The utility sought bankruptcy protection in January after facing billions of dollars in liabilities stemming from the Camp Fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire in modern times.

State investigators concluded that PG&E’s power lines caused the fire, which leveled nearly 19,000 homes and other structures and caused some $16.5 billion in losses.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by David Gregorio and Christopher Cushing)

Prime wildfire weather is sweeping across western U.S.

The Sierra Hotshots, from the Sierra National Forest, are responding on the front lines of the Ferguson Fire in Yosemite in this US Forest Service photo from California, U.S. released on social media on July 22, 2018. Courtesy USDA/US Forest Service, Sierrra Hotshots/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Brutally hot temperatures, fierce winds and arid conditions will sweep across the U.S. West on Wednesday, and the weather may contribute to an already deadly wildfire season.

Temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 C), winds gusting up to 50 miles (80 km) per hour and humidity levels in the teens are in the forecast for many parts of Oregon, California, Arizona and Nevada on Wednesday and into Thursday, the National Weather Service said in a series of advisories.

The service warned that the weather could lead to more of the fires in the region, which have killed nine firefighters and destroyed more than 2,500 homes.

One of the largest, the Ferguson Fire, forced the Yosemite Valley and other parts of Yosemite National Park to close on Wednesday as smoke filled the air in the popular tourist destination.

The Ferguson Fire, which has been burning since July 13 and has claimed the life of one firefighter, had charred about 37,795 acres (15,295 hectares) to the south and west of the park. It was 26 percent contained as of Tuesday night, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The park’s Yosemite Valley, Wawona and Mariposa Grove are to be closed at least through Sunday by the fire operations, the National Park Service said.

More than 3,400 personnel using 16 helicopters and 59 bulldozers have been battling the blaze, which has caused six injuries and led to evacuations in parts of the region.

In all, 73 major wildfires are burning in the United States in an area of about 700,000 acres. Most are in western states, with blazes also in central Texas and Wisconsin, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center.

As of July 24, wildfires had burned through 3.94 million acres this year, above the 10-year average for the same calendar period of 3.54 million acres, it said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, editing by Larry King)