When you grant access to a $ 4 billion fund and give fund participants relative autonomy in how they use those funds, ne’er-do-wells will sniff their way to the honey pot. Keeping them out can be a challenge. So goes the story of the federally administered Schools and Libraries Program, better known as E-Rate.
Established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, E-Rate is a federal subsidy that helps schools and libraries–particularly those in disadvantaged areas–pay for telecommunications services (e.g., Internet access). The program runs a $3.9 billion fund today.
Schools and libraries that want to take advantage of E-Rate simply need to follow the program’s bid and approval process. Participants oversee the bidding process and choose their service provider. While participants are required to choose the most cost effective provider, there isn’t much of a check on whether they actually do: they need only self-certify that they chose the most cost effective bid.
E-Rate participant autonomy has been a problem as the program regularly faces allegations of fraud and abuse. These concerns prompted a GAO study and senate hearings in the early 2000s. Former Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-PA) told the New York Times, “You couldn’t invent a way to throw money down the drain that would work any better than this.” After the GAO reported its findings (2004), U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, said, “Unscrupulous vendors … fleeced the program while underserved communities and telephone customers pay the price.” Over the past decade, there have been a number of investigations and enforcement actions, resulting in civil as well as criminal penalties, including jail time for a few program profiteers.
Some noteworthy fleecing includes:
- The Atlanta Public School system misspent nearly $73 million in E-rate dollars giving contracts to vendors without requiring they go to the lowest bidder. The former technical director who ran the APS E-rate program, was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for accepting nearly $300,000 in bribes from vendors.
- Puerto Rico wasted more than $100 million in program funds and its secretary of education was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $4 million.
- In the Chicago Public School system, some $8.5 million in equipment was stockpiled (better yet, the CPS and E-Rate were essentially paying twice for equipment that was never installed!).
- A company in the San Francisco Unified School District was required to pay $20.7 million in fines and restitution.
More recently, schools and libraries in the Chicago and New York City areas have been investigated for violating the competitive bidding process and taking E-Rate funds without actually providing E-Rate services. Those investigations are still underway, with dramatic raids last March.
Adding to the temptation for ne’er-do-wells are the millions of dollars left on the table in E-Rate funds each year. According to EducationDive, some $245 million in funds went unclaimed in 2014. It is almost hard to blame profiteers for seeking out what they perceive as free money, especially when they have so much control over the process.
There may be a lot of good intentions behind E-Rate. But in its current form and function, E-Rate is but one more example of a poorly administered federal funds that attract those able to game the system.
What a difference two words can make. Just ask the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) or Americans for Prosperity (AFP), two organizations that filed separate lawsuits against the same defendant, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, over the same issue: whether Harris’s office had the right to access the organizations’ donor information. (The cases are Center for Competitive Politics v. Harris and Americans for Prosperity v. Harris.)
The plaintiffs’ arguments in each case were basically the same: the state’s request to access donor information would violate the first and fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution. But there the similarities stopped: the CCP never got to trial, whereas the AFP did—and won! Was the CCP the victim of a miscarriage of justice? Nah. It all came down to two words: “as applied.”
You know the saying “go big or go home?” Well, unfortunately the CCP did both: it tried to get the court to rule that Harris’s probe of donor information would be unconstitutional for all organizations. The AFP took a different approach: it asked the court to call the probe unconstitutional “as applied” to the AFP alone.
The AFP’s narrower approach enabled the court to provide relief without upsetting Harris’s authority and potentially affecting thousands of other organizations. Courts generally hesitate to invalidate a state’s actions when they can provide individual relief to the plaintiff instead. If the CCP had taken this course, it might have had a flying chance. But now it had the added burden of proving how the state’s actions would adversely affect all organizations subject to the same request.
Meanwhile, the AFP coasted without having to prove any such thing. All it had to show was how the state’s request had already affected the organization and could continue to do so. This was no fun task, though. Several individuals testified that they suffered reprisals, assaults, and even death threats due to their association with the AFP—a strongly conservative organization. Clearly, being publicly linked to the AFP could lead to serious fallout. For her part, Harris tried to argue that the state would keep donor information confidential, but the AFP was able to show how this had failed before, citing over one thousand instances of donor information being improperly disclosed on the AG’s own website!
The AFP showed that the risk of scaring, and therefore discouraging, would-be donors was real. The chilling effect on individuals’ freedom of association would be too steep a price to pay for a nominal benefit to the state.
It was a strong case—unlike the defendant’s. Harris claimed that accessing donor information was in the state’s best interest; reviewing the findings would help uncover potential irregularities tied to fraud, waste, or abuse. Maybe it would—but it doesn’t pass the “exacting scrutiny” test, which requires states to protect their interests by the least restrictive means in situations like this. More importantly, Harris could not produce any evidence or testimony to corroborate her argument that access to donor information was important to state law enforcement. Although several state-employed investigators and attorneys took the stand, none could claim that they needed, or even used, donor information to do their work—and if they did need it, they could generally get it elsewhere. This evidentiary failure undercut Harris’s arguments and called into question the state’s overall scheme.
In the end, it was not a tough decision: with so strong a case by the plaintiff, and so weak one by the state, the court sided plainly with the plaintiff. It could have gone a step further and declared the state’s actions broadly unconstitutional, but instead it judged the state’s actions to be improper as applied to the AFP alone. This was a good idea, because Harris will have a harder time challenging the decision on appeal.
So the AFP trial didn’t set a huge precedent for everyone—but that’s kind of the point. If you’re going to file suit, and there’s a path of least resistance, take it. Those sweeping courtroom victories you see in the movies are rare. In real life, justice takes baby steps.
E-Rate funding, capped yearly at $3.9 billion, helps eligible institutions cover costs of Internet service. Participants can save anywhere from twenty to ninety percent of their Internet expenses—the precise amount being dictated by the economic standing of both the participating institution and the school district where it is located.
E-Rate and three other programs are part of the Universal Service Fund (USF), a system of subsidies born out of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as a way to ensure affordable telecom rates across the country. Although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversees the USF, the fund is managed by a nonprofit corporation called the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC).
Detailed information on how to apply for E-Rate can be found in the Schools and Libraries Program overview. Basically it works as a bidding process. An applicant fills out FCC Form 470, requesting specific services, and submits it to the USAC. The USAC then issues an RFP for telecom providers who want to bid for the requested services. After 28 days, the applicant can study the bids. When it selects one, it requests E-Rate funding by filing FCC Form 471 within a deadline set by the FCC (for FY2016 it is May 26).
The discount rate is generally determined by the size of the population, in the applicant’s school district, that qualifies for the National School Lunch Program. The applicant must also file Form 486, listing services for which funds are requested and ensuring compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act.
There are limits to what E-Rate can cover. The applicant is solely responsible for end-user equipment, like hardware and software, and also for any non-discounted portions of Internet services.
While it is a great opportunity to save money, E-Rate isn’t a free-for-all. To discourage abuse and misuse of the program, the FCC requires applicants to comply with a series of rules, notably:
- Compliance with state and local law. It’s not enough to follow the FCC standards only.
- Applicants cannot seek discounts for services not requested. In other words, services listed on Form 471 must match (or not exceed) services requested on Form 470.
- Fair, competitive bidding. Applicants are responsible for ensuring an open, fair, and competitive bidding process to select the most cost-effective provider.
- Document retention. Applicants must save all competing bids for services to demonstrate they selected the most cost-effective bid, with price being the primary consideration. Records should be kept for at least ten years after the last date of service delivered.
- CIPA compliance. Applicants must confirm compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires schools and libraries that receive federal funding to employ Internet filters that protect children from harmful content.
In spite of these rules, the wealth of funds in the E-Rate program can attract abuse. In response, the FCC created the USF Strike Force in 2014 and tasked it with combatting waste, fraud, and abuse of the USF programs. Federal agents have shown that they are serious about investigating alleged abuses. One widely publicized case in Ramapo, NY, recently led to several raids. We will look at that case and others like it in upcoming posts.
Does the federal government have the right to seize a domain name without notice? With growing frequency, the feds have seized the domain names of thousands of websites for alleged criminal wrongdoing. The latest example is the seizure earlier this week of 67 website domain names for the alleged illegal sale and distribution of counterfeit and prescription drugs.
There still is little information publicly available on the recent seizure. The Justice Department issued a short new release with a statement from U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles, in which he noted,
It’s important for consumers to understand the significant risks involved in purchasing pharmaceutical drugs from these websites. The generic versions of these prescription drugs are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and cannot be distributed in the United States legally. To be safe and effective, prescription drugs must be taken under the care and supervision of appropriate health care professionals; not purchased off the internet from unknown and unregulated foreign sources.
Whether or not the sites facilitated the alleged criminal behavior remains to be decided by a judicial proceeding (if the case ever gets to that point). Federal agents can obtain a seizure order based merely upon probable cause set forth in an affidavit. That’s a relatively low bar considering the consequences of domain name seizures.
The only recourse for the sites at this point is to file a petition with a federal court to contest the forfeiture. Contesting a forfeiture is an uphill—and oftentimes protracted—battle. In the meantime the businesses operating through those domain names are effectively shut down, if the seized websites were their main channel of business. Once the feds carry out a domain name seizure, the “offending” sites will show a seizure banner notifying any visitors that the domain name has been seized by federal authorities for violations of federal laws. No business can be done on the site and the chances of visitors returning are slim.
So how is it okay for a domain name to be seized based on the allegation of a crime, before proper notice and hearing? The feds are taking advantage of a process known as an in rem proceeding, whereby they can file suit against the offending property itself for its alleged role in facilitating criminal conduct. Typically in rem proceedings are filed against tangible assets like a car involved in a drug deal or a bank account used to funnel illegal funds. But in recent years, in rem proceedings have been used by both state and federal agencies against domain names in order to crack down on alleged criminal behavior carried out through the websites. Examples include (1) the Justice Department’s “In Our Sites” operation in which it seized the domain names of thousands of sites accused of violating U.S. copyright laws and (2) the state of Kentucky’s attempt to seize 141 domain names of online poker sites.
Despite the increasing use of pretrial domain name seizures, the legality is still hotly debated by civil liberties groups, free market advocates, and international organizations. These groups raise constitutional concerns, such as due process and restraint on free speech, as well as jurisdictional concerns, such as federal or state authority to reach domain names owned by foreign individuals or entities. The biggest issue is that an in rem proceeding is inappropriate against domain names because a domain name is not property – it is a contractual right that, as such, should not be subject to seizure. We will discuss these concerns in more detail in a coming post once we learn more about the Justice Department’s recent actions against the 67 pharmaceutical domain names.
This article first appeared February 29, 2016, on FEE.org – you can access this version here.
Remember Martin Shkreli, the “pharma bro” notorious for raising the price of his company’s life-saving drug by some 5,000 percent? Did you know he was recently arrested for securities fraud (completely unrelated to the drug hike)? It didn’t take long for the Justice Department to go after the universally unpopular rapscallion.
Big government gets a bad rap for being inefficient, but it can cut to the chase rather swiftly when it wants to. In order to stop, or at least dramatically curb, behavior that goes against law or policy — or perhaps just opinion — government enforcement agents know how to employ a show of force and to make an example of someone they deem a wrongdoer. The punishment is public and can be severe.
Setting an Example
A recent show of force can be seen in federal actions against the dietary supplement industry. The industry has exploded in recent years, thanks in large part to the public’s growing love for health and homeopathy. The popularity has, predictably, attracted moneymakers of both the scrupulous and unscrupulous kind.
The government wants to rein in the industry, so to set an example it has come down hard on one company. USPlabs was one of more than 100 makers and marketers of dietary supplements against whom the Justice Department announced it was pursuing civil and criminal cases. But the company had the unfortunate luck to become the government’s example of what it can do to wrongdoers. Not only did the DOJ charge the company; it also indicted several of its executives and froze their assets — from investment accounts to homes to automobiles.
Do the Ends Justify the Meanness?
The government’s heavy hand on USPlabs is the kind of crackdown you expect against organized crime or large drug rings. What were the criminal defendants at USPlabs alleged to have done? Not exactly Sopranos-level stuff: importing ingredients with false certificates of analysis and false labeling, misrepresenting the source and nature of product ingredients, selling products without determining safety, and continuing to sell products after they told agents they would stop.
If the allegations are true, the defendants’ actions were wrong. But public arrests and asset seizure are extreme. How often do people accused of false labeling get perp walked? The DOJ’s tactics look like shock-and-awe theater for the benefit of others.
If there is any doubt whether the government wanted to use its hard-line approach against USPlabs as an example for other companies, look no further than this statement by FDA Deputy Commissioner Howard Sklamberg: “The criminal charges against USPlabs should serve as notice to industry that if products are a threat to public health, the FDA will exercise its full authority under the law to bring justice.”
In other words, makers and marketers of dietary supplements: beware!
You may think the Justice Department performed a public service by coming down so hard on Shkreli and USPlabs. Why should we care if the government crushes some scalawags and discourages others in the process?
What if the government’s show of force comes at the cost of a defendant’s due process rights? Shkreli has said that the feds targeted him because of the drug price hike, looking for anything to stop him. Now he’s been fired and his company has filed for bankruptcy. That’s a pretty high price to pay for being obnoxious.
While deterrence may be an acceptable basis for punishment, it doesn’t justify punishment that exceeds the crime. Arresting executives and seizing their personal bank accounts, homes, and cars in an instance like this is excessive. More commonly in cases like USPlabs, prosecutors will settle with the company, levy a fine against it, require it to institute controls to avoid further wrongdoing, and perhaps require it to be monitored for a while to ensure controls are being observed.
Going after the individual executives as if they were Mafia kingpins goes beyond the pale. Freezing or seizing assets is something that prosecutors more commonly do when those assets are being used to carry out criminal behavior, or when there is a great risk those assets will be disposed of before judicial proceedings. Chances are slim that the executives in the USPlabs matter were planning on liquidating their family homes or cars.
Yet Another Slippery Slope
For those who think the government is on the right side in its show of force, ask yourselves whether the government isn’t pursuing its initiatives (even reasonable initiatives like reining in fraud) a bit brutishly. Making an example of an alleged wrongdoer even before the wrongdoer’s day in court harkens back to techniques used by conquerors in days of old who put heads on pikes to show the subjugated just who was in charge.
And what if the government decides to crack down on behavior not so clearly reprehensible? Say the government decides to put speeding in check by jailing a few folks going modestly over the limit. How many of us would feel safer?
Even when we dislike the targets of prosecutorial zeal, supporting justice is in our self-interest. When the government sets aside due process and proportionality to set an example of other would-be wrongdoers, they are sacrificing justice for the sake of regulatory expediency.
What were you doing Wednesday, November 5, 2014? If you are a staunch Republican, you might have been toasting the election results from the day before, dreamy-eyed and dancing. If you are a staunch Democrat, you might have been scratching your head profusely, thunderstruck and quiet. People across the country were talking politics and policy in a very public way that day. How would the results impact executive actions and legislative initiatives on immigration and healthcare? It seemed as though the democratic process was chugging along. Meanwhile, at the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building in D.C., a little-publicized hearing with potentially far-reaching consequences to your privacy rights was taking place.
The hearing was before the Judicial Conference Advisory Committee on Criminal Rules. The topic for discussion was proposed rule changes to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. The Justice Department had requested the regulatory body modify slightly Rule 41(b), which outlines the terms for obtaining a search warrant. So far so boring, right? And what does any of this have to do with you, a law-abiding citizen? No wonder that the hearing captured little attention. But the slight modification that the DoJ requested is nothing to yawn at. It is a rule change that would give federal investigators sweeping powers to access computers and electronic devices not only of their targets but also of anyone else whose online path crosses investigator initiatives. As civil liberties advocates have pointed out: the rule change could pose a serious threat to Fourth Amendment protections and privacy rights.
Last year, the DoJ requested Rule 41(b) be amended to permit courts to issue search warrants allowing remote access searches of computers and other electronic storage media when the location is concealed. The provision would further allow investigators to seize electronically stored information regardless of whether that information is stored within or outside the court’s jurisdiction. The request, especially when you consider how it would be carried out in practice, is a big leap from current procedure. As it currently stands, Rule 41(b) only allows (with limited exceptions) a court to issue a warrant for people or property within the court’s district. In order to keep a check on investigators and investigations, the rules impose this location limitation, among other limitations. The point is to not give investigators free reign to look in on whomever, wherever and whenever they choose; the point is to limit the impact their investigations could have on people’s right to privacy.
Courts and Congress have made it clear that to comply with the Fourth Amendment, a search warrant that involves surreptitious and invasive tactics must meet a number of rigorous safeguards. These safeguards were outlined in the 1960s when wiretapping and bugging developed as the investigative tools of choice. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down New York state’s wiretapping law, holding that because electronic eavesdropping “by its very nature…involves an intrusion on privacy that is broad in scope,” it should be allowed only “under the most precise and discriminate circumstances.” Berger v. New York, 388 U.S. 41 (1967). The following year, Congress followed the Court’s cue and outlined those “precise and discriminate circumstances” in the Wiretap Act (a.k.a. Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968). For a search warrant to be valid, the issuing judge must work through a number of questions to ensure the warrant will be sufficiently circumscribed to meet the Fourth Amendment’s particularity requirement and that it is based upon probable cause. These constraints help to ensure, among other things, that investigators don’t go on fishing expeditions in pursuit of a crime as well as a criminal or that investigators don’t otherwise misuse their ability to peer into the lives of individuals (say to badger someone with a different political affiliation).
Remote access searches of electronic devices are no less invasive than the forms of electronic eavesdropping envisaged in the Wiretap Act. As the Supreme Court recently pronounced in Riley v. California, the search of a modern electronic device such as a smartphone or computer is more intrusive to privacy than even “the most exhaustive search of a house.” 134 S. Ct. 2473, 2491 (2014). The proposed change to Rule 41 could short circuit the procedural safeguards in place and demand we carry out a fiction that somehow remote access searches are not a form of electronic eavesdropping demanding heightened standards (this would be a particularly challenging fiction if you consider that remote access searching could allow investigators to activate a device’s camera or microphone).
While the DoJ’s requested changes would not necessarily override requirements of the Wiretap Act, the Rule 41 amendments could facilitate statutory and constitutional violations. This concern, among a host of others, was well articulated by the American Civil Liberties Union in its comments on the rule change. (If you have the time, it is a worthwhile exercise to review the comments submitted by the ACLU and the Center for Democracy & Technology, among others that outlined the anticipated negative consequences of the proposed rule change.) Chief among the concerns are the risk that investigators’ techniques to gain remote access—such as hyperlinks on public pages (“watering holes”), where users with common interests tend to gather—could subject thousands of non-suspect individuals’ electronic devices to the government’s malware.
It remains to be seen what the Judicial Conference Advisory Committee will decide, whether they choose to rubberstamp the DoJ’s proposed amendments or whether they will stand down and submit the question to public and legislative debate. Considering the DoJ’s request raises significant constitutional questions, we can only hope the Committee recognizes the value of airing the matter before a more public forum where the system of checks and balances remains in place.
Several news publications have been making much ado about a tactic the FBI used in 2007 to locate an individual suspected in a series of bomb-threats to Washington state high schools. The FBI created a fake news article, falsely representing it as an Associated Press publication, and sent a link to the suspect’s MySpace account. The article headline, which was directed at the suspect, was meant to entice him to go to the link. It worked. The suspect clicked on the link, which enabled the FBI to download malware on his computer and identify his location and Internet Protocol address. The suspect was subsequently arrested, charged and prosecuted in state court.
Newspapers and other media outlets have recently decried the FBI’s use of the AP’s name and brand recognition to further its purposes. The AP’s director of media relations noted in an October 2014 statement: “This ploy violated AP’s name and undermined AP’s credibility.” The Seattle Times complained that such action not only crosses the line, but erases it (the statement was made when the paper believed its publication was involved). The controversy is somewhat understandable: journalists want to ensure their perceived independence; they don’t want to be seen as a tool of the powers that be.
But media concern over the FBI’s use of the AP name may be slightly overstated. The FBI did not publish the fake news article for broad dissemination. It directed the article to one suspect only. Nor is it exactly unprecedented for investigators to hold themselves out as something they are not in order to gain the trust of and nab wrongdoers. Should all cool teens (however they self-describe these days) complain that Narcs are undermining their reputation and street cred? Without these undercover operations, a major tool to FBI investigations would be lost, not to mention fodder for the popular television series that made Johnny Depp famous. FBI and other enforcement agencies regularly use deception to catch criminals. Everyone knows this, including the wrongdoers at whom deceptive practices are targeted.
Some argue that there is a colorable difference between impersonating a fake individual or persona and impersonating the press. If the impersonation were on a large scale and were relatively public, the deception would be problematic. People wouldn’t know what journalism was credible and what journalism wasn’t (not that this isn’t already a subject a some debate…). But narrowly-focused operations directed exclusively at suspects who are the subject of a search warrant is a different scenario, and that’s the scenario that appears to be in play here. Where the FBI employs such tactics well enough into an investigation to support a search warrant, including having probable cause that the suspect is involved in criminal activity, using deception, which is an efficient way to locate the individual, doesn’t seem too alarming.
Of course, it is important to emphasize that legal process is everything. If the FBI were to disseminate fake news articles to gain computer access at the launch of an investigation, before it had a target, before it had probable cause, and before it had its actions approved judicially by a search warrant, such tactics would risk impacting innocent individuals and undermining news sources.