What’s race got to do with It? Most vulnerable populations victimized by predatory behavior in bail bond industry

This week’s Policy Watch story on alleged criminal and predatory behavior in North Carolina’s bail bond industry contains a particularly illuminating example of the way in which minority communities can be harmed by systems that push poor and underrepresented people into dangerous black market situations.

From the affidavit of FBI agent Andrew F. Romagnuolo in the case of Phillip Armachain, who was at the time the only bail agent in Cherokee, North Carolina:

“Phillip Sampson Armachain, Sr. (Armachain) is a bal bondsman and an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI). The cherokee Indian Police Department (CIPD) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have learned that enrolled members of the EBCI doing business with Armachain are sending their per capita casino distribution checks to Armachain as collateral for personal loans and to replay bond fees. Additionally, three women have disclosed that they participated in sexual intercourse or other sexual acts with Armachain in return for their bond fees or to have their personal loans from Armachain paid. Armachain is also known to loan money at an interest rate of one hundred percent. Armachain directs individuals that receive loans to change the address of delivery of their per capita casino distribution check to his Post Office Box (P.O. Box) – 1091, Cherokee, NC. Armachain also requests power of attorney from the loan recipients in order to cash the per capita checks.

During 2015, over one hundred and fifty enrolled members of the EBCI listed a delivery address of P.O. Box 1091, Cherokee, NC, as the location their ECBI per capita casino distribution check be mailed to. The distribution occurs twice a year in June and December. Approximately 300 per capita checks were mailed to P.O. Box 1091, Cherokee, NC, in 2015.”

Native American women are among the nation’s most sexually victimized populations.

A 2016 study from the National Institute of Justice found  84 percent of Native American women reported experiencing violence in their lifetime. That’s more than 1.5 million native women. More than half of those cases were some form of domestic or sexual violence.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 26 percent of single-race American Indian and Alaska Native people were living in poverty in 2016 – the highest rate of any race group. For the nation as a whole, the poverty rate was 14.0 percent. Nineteen percent of the single-race American Indian and Alaska Native people who lacked health insurance coverage in 2016, according to census numbers. For the nation as a whole, it was 8.6 percent.

Armachain was accused of providing loans to poor women who had few other options — and charging as much as 100 percent interest. He was also charged with extorting sex from women who owed him money either for the personal loans he is alleged to have provided as usurious interest rates or in exchange for bail bonds.


Low levels of perfluorinated compounds detected in Durham drinking water; new statewide monitoring system proposed

The Duke University women’s rowing team practices at Lake Michie in spring 2016. Lake Michie is a drinking water source for Durham; recent tests show low levels of perfluorinated compounds in the water. (Photo Lisa Sorg)


In early spring, Lake Michie stirs to life, with fishers and the Duke University women’s rowing team taking to the water at dawn. The 480-acre reservoir near Bahama is not only a source of largemouth bass, but it is also a boating destination, and it provides Durham with 30 million to 35 million gallons of drinking water each day.

Testing by the City of Durham’s water department detected low levels of perfluorinated compounds in both Lake Michie and the Little River, another drinking water source, near Treyburn. The levels ranged from 2.4 parts per trillion to 7 ppt.

Treated water from the Brown plant, which flows from the thousands of taps in Durham, also had low concentrations of the compounds — PFOA, PFOS and PFB — ranging from 2.7 ppt to 4.8 ppt. (The Williams plant is offline until later this year for renovations.)

Vicki Westbrook, assistant director of water management, announced the findings last night at a GenX forum sponsored by the Sierra Club and NC Central University School of Law. The city had just received the results within the previous 24 hours.

These are not the same compounds as GenX, which has been found in public drinking water systems in New Hanover and Brunswick counties, and private wells in Bladen, Cumberland and Robeson counties. But PFOA, PFOS and PFBs are cousins to GenX; at high levels, exposure has been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, liver and immune system damage, and thyroid changes. Still, there is little scientific data on the health effects and safe levels of perfluorinated compounds.

The EPA has established a health advisory goal of 70 parts per trillion a combination of PFOS and PFAS, but there is no enforceable regulatory standard for them under the Clean Water Act or the Safe Drinking Water Act. Some states, though, have established their own legal limits for PFOAs. Vermont has set its threshold at 20 ppt for PFOA , while  New Jersey has proposed limits of 14 ppt, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Westbrook said the source of the contamination is unknown. The city has surveyed all of its industrial users, she said, and none reported the use of these compounds. Nor do Lake Michie or Little River receive industrial or wastewater discharges. No biosolids or sludge are currently being applied in northern Durham and southern Person counties, she said. That leaves air emissions and atmospheric deposition as the culprits. The compounds can leave the stacks at an industrial facility, travel on the wind and fall to the ground or into water.

Of the three compounds found in Durham’s water supply, only PFB is still commercially produced. It is used in flame retardants, metal plating, pesticides and water-repellant coatings.

The Town of Cary recently tested its drinking water and found levels of PFB ranging from 3.6 ppt to 3.9 ppt; Durham’s one result was higher, at 4.8 ppt.

Eighteen utilities in Alabama, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Colorado have detected levels of PFB above EPA health advisory goals in their drinking water, according to the Environmental Working Group database.

The EPA has required companies to phase out PFOA, used to make Teflon, and PFOS, an ingredient in Scotchgard. Nonetheless, the compounds remain ubiquitous in the environment, and people can be exposed to them in numerous ways, including microwave popcorn bags.

There was little public awareness of perfluorinated compounds and GenX until last year, when the Star-News of Wilmington reported on findings in the Cape Fear River by NC State University researchers. Since then, state lawmakers have tried but failed — for political reasons — to pass substantive legislation to fund the NC Department of Environmental Quality to tackle the problem of emerging contaminants statewide.

Late last year, Duke University scientists Lee Ferguson and Heather Stapleton found a variety of perfluorinated compounds in Jordan Lake, the drinking water supply for Cary and other southern Wake County communities. Ferguson, who was on the Sierra Club panel, said the only way to “avoid being taken by surprise” by the presence of emerging contaminants is to conduct routine non-targeted monitoring — looking for chemical compounds, both known and unknown, in water.

It requires expensive high-resolution mass spectrometers, as well as staff trained on that equipment, which DEQ does not have. Ferguson said he and other academic scientists have met with DEQ, EPA and several state lawmakers to pitch a bill to fund the NC Emerging Contaminant Observatory. “It’s an early warning alarm system,” Ferguson said, similar to one in Basel, Switzerland, that would detect water contamination in real-time.

“What other perfluorinated chemicials are being used?” Ferguson said. “It’s environmental wack-a-mole.”


Go Backstage: How I reported the complex 540 toll road story. (BTW, deadline is today to comment on project)

Go Backstage is an occasional series explaining to readers the process of reporting and writing stories. The purpose of the series is to help readers understand the nuances of journalism and to add transparency to the process. If you’d like to know how a previous environmental story was reported, and the decisions that went into it, contact me at


Carol Hinske was my first gift from the journalism goddesses. She was sitting in a front porch swing at her mobile home, which meant I didn’t have to intrude by knocking on her door. I had checked the weather forecast, which predicted a unseasonably warm, sunny Sunday afternoon — perfect, I speculated, for finding people in their yards at Blue Skies Mobile Home Park to talk with about how the 540 toll road would upend their lives. Carol Hinske appeared, friendly, open and talkative.

When I begin any story, I literally pull out a blank sheet of paper (I’m old-school) and divide it into two headings: “People” and “Documents/Data”. Both aspects are equally important, but without people, there is no narrative, just a dry college research paper. And without data and documents, there are only anecdotes.

People draw readers into a story (notice I started this one and the original piece with Carol.) People are also essential to my reporting because environmental justice is an important component of my work. Although southern Wake County, part of which is the proposed route for Complete 540, is largely affluent, there are pockets of underserved communities. Blue Skies Mobile Home Park, near Apex, is one of them.

When entering underserved communities, though, I try very hard not to exoticize or romanticize or inadvertently disrespect the residents by casting them as an Other. Yes, the residents of Blue Skies, some of whom are native Spanish speakers, have fewer resources than many people in North Carolina. That makes them vulnerable to external forces beyond their control.

But we share more commonalities: Carol and I, as it turns out, are both from the Midwest. She used to work as a proofreader and a typesetter, skills people needed a long time ago to work at newspapers. With my parents, I lived in a single-wide mobile home (called a “Honeymoon Special” because it was designed for newly married couples) until I was 6, although I was privileged because the trailer had been placed on family land.

Carol declined to be photographed, so I scouted the neighborhood for other people that seemed to capture the spirit of the place. The children in the photo, two Black boys dancing in the street and playing football, were doing what a lot of kids would on a sunny day: kicking around the neighborhood. My friends and I used to do the same.

But Blue Skies’ households composed only about 15 percent of the 210-plus that would be uprooted by the toll road. I needed to widen the scope of the people to include the wealthier residents. I attended two public information sessions and a public hearing — my work entails a lot of meetings — and there I heard from more people. Many of them clearly had means, but were still losing not only part of their life’s investment, but also their sense of place, memories, community connections and identity: most of what makes us intrinsically human. Loss is not a contest.

One of the indelible moments occurred when I gathered with several property owners around a map of the route. One man’s property, he learned right then, was safe. I told him that some folks at Blue Skies, less than a mile away, would be uprooted. He said, “I don’t care about them! I care about me!”

I’m not sure if he intended his remark to sound as callous as it did. I didn’t include that detail in the original story in case it misrepresented his character.

I also interviewed and quoted officials from the NC Department of Transportation, GoTriangle and other officials to include institutional voices in the story.

A forest just west of Blue Skies Mobile Home Park that had been clear-cut by
the owners, presumably since it’s in the path of the proposed toll road. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Now for the document part: The toll road’s Final Impact Environmental Statement is 93 pages long, short by these standards. But these documents tend to be extremely dense and they take a while to digest. I read it two or three times over as many days. I had several questions — some that raised more questions — about air quality that I posed to DEQ. I had other questions — again that raised more — that I posed to DOT. I examined bus route schedules, current and proposed, to see if traffic could be reduced through mass transit. I read property records to find out who owned what.

I also read scientific literature about the Dwarf Wedgemussel, an endangered species that lives in Swift Creek, and which could be further imperiled by construction of the toll road. I could not find, in the time available, a Dwarf Wedgemussel expert, so I had to rely on documents.

Environmental reporting is rooted in both people and place, and I always need a “feel” for the landscape before I can write. So I analyzed the route map and highlighted that area on my old-school North Carolina Gazeteer. I drove (in my Prius, of course) the route three times — about 150 miles round-trip in total.  I saw immense housing developments being built in Garner, and ramshackle roadhouses I wish I’d had time to stop by. None of those details made it into the story. To keep the prose lean, a lot of observations wind up on the cutting-room floor.

During my final trip along the route, though, I received my final gift. I pulled to the shoulder off Highway 50 to photograph Swift Creek, home of the Dwarf Wedgemussel. That’s when I saw a bald eagle soaring above the treetops. The experience took my breath away and reminded me that we have so much of the natural world to be grateful for — and so much to lose.




Education, News

Teacher: #NeverAgain student protesters don’t have “mush for brains”

Photo credit: Ryan Monroe

With students nationwide planning a march on Washington, D.C., Saturday to demand gun reforms, scrutiny of K-12 students’ activism following the Parkland shooting has been on the rise.

Just in time, a South Carolina teacher and regular columnist for The Charlotte Observer has offered a stirring defense of these students,  many of whom participated in walkouts last week as well.

From Kay McSpadden’s column:

A day after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, survivors found their voices. In addition to meeting the press with eloquence and poise, they created the Twitter hashtag #NeverAgain, began organizing a national rally to protest gun violence in schools, and created a GoFundMe page to raise money to support it.

In the five weeks since, the students have met with Florida legislators, visited with President Trump, canvassed students to register to vote, produced and posted videos critical of politicians beholden to the gun lobby, and clapped back at their critics who dismiss them. For this Saturday they’ve planned Walk for Our Lives, when thousands of young people take to the streets of Washington, DC, Charlotte and cities across the nation.

Those of us who work daily with teenagers aren’t surprised at their resilience and industry. My high school students need only a few hours to produce amazing videos, smart board presentations and printed handouts ready for their classmates when I give an assignment. They are careful researchers, fierce debaters, thoughtful listeners. After the school day is over, they text each other — and me — if they have questions about the literature we are discussing in class. They do not have, as one reader wrote to me recently, “mush for brains.”

Nor are they “being used as tools of the left-wing group to further their own agenda,” as South Carolina’s Governor, Henry McMaster said. Calling the walkouts last week “shameful,” the governor was scornful of student activists leading the charge into politicized territory that adults have been too cowed to enter.

For example, across the nation, thousands of students left their classrooms March 14 and spent 17 minutes praying, reading the names of the victims, carrying signs protesting gun violence, or sitting in silence before returning to class. Some districts treated the walkout as a disruption worthy of punishment and students were suspended, given afternoon detentions and even paddled.

Most school districts, however, recognized the students’ need to be heard and to feel that their voices — and their lives — matter and the walkout was treated as a peaceful expression of genuine concern, a living lesson in a functioning democracy. In my rural school district, where many of my seniors go hunting in the morning before their first block class, students who wanted to walk out went to the gym, listened to the chorus sing “I Choose Love, and ended by joining hands and singing “We are one; we are many different people yet the same. Each difference makes us stronger, each friendship is our gain,” the opening lines of our alma mater.

Those of us who work daily with teenagers also know that kids need time to be kids, and asking them to use their voices as advocates of school safety and reasonable gun reform is unfair. They should be getting on with the business of spring break and prom and studying for final exams. They should be finding their way back to a sense of normalcy.

But the students say they will never feel normal again.

Instead of slowing down and losing their focus, they are fired up. Instead of tiring of pushing against entrenched political inertia, they are fueled with the rage and fury of people who watched their friends and teachers die.

The march on Saturday, which includes a gathering at First Ward Park in Charlotte at 11 a.m., is a harbinger of more activism to come. This generation will continue to raise their voices to speak truth to power.

Courts & the Law, News

Cooper appoints AJ Fletcher’s Circosta to Elections, Ethics Board

Gov. Roy Cooper didn’t waste any time appointing a ninth member to the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

He named Damon Circosta to the seat less than a day after the newly-appointed eight members of the Board nominated him and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell.

“It’s unbelievable to watch Republicans try to rig the rules of a system they’ve already gamed,” said Cooper’s spokesman, Ford Porter. “Damon Circosta is a qualified choice who was put forward unanimously by the Democrats and Republicans on the board.”

The eight Board members — four Democrats and four Republicans — met for the first time Wednesday after Cooper appointed them the previous Friday. They deadlocked five times along party lines before compromising on Circosta, the Democrats’ choice, and Mitchell, the Republicans’ choice.

NCGOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse tweeted after Cooper’s appointment that they were disappointed he would reject a a former Chief Justice associated with the Democratic Party.

“Democrat Election Board members fought transparency, openness and inclusion, and rejected efforts to reach TRUE consensus,” his tweet stated.

Circosta is the Executive Director and Vice President of the AJ Fletcher Foundation. [Disclosure: Policy Watch was originally founded as a project of the Fletcher Foundation in 2004 and became a part of the North Carolina Justice Center in 2007. The Justice Center remains a Fletcher Foundation grantee.]

It’s not yet clear when the full Board will have it’s first meeting, but members said Wednesday there was a significant backlog of work that needed to get done after the Board remained vacant for more than a year.