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James Tomsheck poses in his office in Washington in June 2009. At the time, he was assistant commissioner for internal affairs with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. (AP)

Former Border Protection Insider Alleges Corruption, Distortion In Agency

Aug 28, 2014

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Carrie Johnson

Two months ago, James Tomsheck was pushed out of his job as internal affairs chief for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

At the time, authorities criticized him for not doing enough to discipline agents.

But now Tomsheck tells a very different story: about a culture that goes out of its way to evade legal restraints.

Use of force by law enforcement agents along the Southwest border has drawn attention and criticism recently, after reports that Border Patrol agents shot and killed unarmed migrants and faced no consequences.

Since 2010, 28 people have been killed by agents and officers. Tomsheck says he believes about a quarter of the incidents are highly suspicious.

"I believe the system was clearly engineered to interfere with our efforts to hold the Border Patrol accountable," he says.

When asked how that could happen, he responded: "Some persons in leadership positions in the Border Patrol were either fabricating or distorting information to give the outward appearance that it was an appropriate use of lethal force when in fact it was not."

Things like exaggerating the threat an unarmed migrant posed, he says. Or claiming a migrant was on the U.S. side of the border, when he was actually in Mexico.

And in describing how Border Protection leaders forced him out after eight years on the job, Tomsheck doesn't mince words:

"I think there's every indication that my removal from the position ... was an effort to identify a scapegoat."

A scapegoat, he says, to silence criticism that few, if any, agents face justice for killing unarmed migrants on the border.

What's wrong overall, Tomsheck says, is the culture. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Border Protection agents and officers thought of themselves as an extension of the military. "The phrase was frequently used — a 'paramilitary border security force' or a 'paramilitary homeland security force.' "

One that he says operated outside normal legal bounds. "I believe that has caused them to believe that they are separate and distinct from the federal law enforcement community," he says. "And not bound by the same constitutional restraints regarding use of force."

For some of the very same reasons, CBP leaders recently brought in an FBI agent to review use of force, launched more training programs, and said they'd try to jump-start an internal affairs unit that allegedly lost its way under Tomsheck.

For his part, Tomsheck says he supports reforms to ensure the CBP is acting within the law. That includes putting body cameras on agents to capture images of their interactions with people on the border and bringing in independent investigators to review use-of-force complaints.

The internal affairs unit he ran for eight years is now headed by an FBI agent, brought in by management to lead a sweeping review of operations.

Tomsheck suggests he start by looking for corruption within the Customs and Border Protection ranks.

A significant number — 5 or 10 percent — of agents and officers, he says, are likely to be corrupted by money or family ties.

"That is a number which I believe is a conservative estimate based on the number of unsuitable persons who have entered the agency by virtue of hiring surges, most of which occurred after 2006," he says.

Hiring surges so urgent that the CBP failed to administer polygraph exams to job candidates. Exams that he says could have rooted out past criminal behavior or connections to drug cartels and human trafficking networks.

Before the polygraphs, Tomsheck says, about 20 percent of candidates got weeded out as unsuitable. But after the polygraphs became a regular part of screening, that number rose to more than half.

Now he's the one with human resource problems. After being ousted for allegedly failing to do enough to investigate misconduct, Tomsheck filed a complaint with the federal whistleblower office. He's speaking out now to try to clear his name.

"To hear it suggested that I didn't properly discipline persons — when I know that neither myself or anyone in the office of internal affairs has anything to do with discipline — was quite difficult to hear," he says.

Tomsheck says he prepared reports on use of force and other misconduct, which he says was part of his job. By his account, higher-ups are the ones who were supposed to make decisions about whether to investigate abuse and corruption.

A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection says he can't discuss personnel issues. But he says the agency is committed to openness and accountability.

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The cavity in this rock will carry the GPS instrument package and its battery pack across the desert. (Richard Norris)

An Icy Solution To The Mystery Of The Slithering Stones

Aug 28, 2014

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View of the partly flooded Racetrack shortly after the Dec 20, 2013 event in which hundreds of rocks carved trails in the mud, as they were pushed along by floating ice.

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A century ago, miners working in California's Death Valley reported seeing boulders on the desert floor with long trails behind them — as if the stones had been pushed across the sand. But, despite 60 years of trying, no one ever saw what moved them.

Now scientists think they've solved the mystery of the "slithering rocks of Death Valley." Using GPS tags pasted to the boulders, and a video camera, a geologist from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and his engineer cousin have evidence that broad, jagged panes of melting ice push the stones across the desert, nudged in one direction or another by the breeze. The team details their results in the current issue of the journal Plos One.

For decades, scientists trekked out to a dry lake bed in Death Valley called Racetrack Lake, to see these rocks for themselves. Some of the stones weigh as much as 500 pounds. And many do indeed leave a long trail in the sand; some paths are straight, some zigzag. "They do things like ... take high-angle turns," says Richard Norris. "Sometimes they reverse course."

Norris, a geologist at Scripps, was just as puzzled as everyone else when he first saw the rock trails. Some were even parallel, as if the rocks had moved in tandem. "They are just going every which way out there," he says, "but in a very regular kind of fashion — like they're moving in fleets."

Fleets of boulders mysteriously sliding across the lake bed, or playa ... a small community of scientists became rather obsessed with the phenomenon. "Every couple of years," Norris says, "somebody goes out there and tries to figure out what's going on."

Some scientists said windstorms were behind it. In 1953, a guy landed a plane on the lake bed and tried moving the rocks with the wash from his propellers. No go. Though a few stones rolled, they didn't slide. The trails were clearly not the sort made by rolling rocks.

Another group thought, "It's ice!" Temperatures get below freezing on the playa in winter. Maybe the rocks were ice-skating. But no one observed it.

Norris and his cousin had an idea: What if we put GPS trackers on those rocks, and video cameras around them?

Didn't anyone think they were nuts?

"Oh well, kind of," Norris admits. "I think that a lot of people thought, 'Why are you putting GPS trackers on rocks?'"

But it paid off. Here's how Norris remembers that December day at the lake bed, just before dawn: "It was beautiful sunny conditions —this sort of light breeze blowing, that was not even strong enough to blow your hat off."

Rain had fallen the day before, he says, and, overnight, a thin sheet of ice had formed on the desert surface.

Then the sun came up.

"And at that point the ice began to melt out in the center of the playa," Norris says, "and the ice began to pop and crackle all across the playa surface as the ice began to move."

Sheets of ice — thin, but 40 or 50 feet across — were sliding atop a film of melted water. "It's basically being like a tugboat or a bulldozer," Norris says. "It's pushing the rocks very slowly along."

Not that slowly. The rocks slid several feet per minute along the muddy desert floor. By the end of the day, some had moved hundreds of feet. And by noon, the ice and water had evaporated, leaving behind, in the now-dry sand, the furrowed trails that marked each rock's journey.

Norris's group tracked and filmed this migration - and witnessed it with their own eyes.

He says the right conditions — rain followed by cold and sunshine, a steady wind, and mud that's just slippery enough — coincide very rarely. He was lucky. But the effort was worth it.

"It's so much fun!" he says. "Pretty much everybody was out there because it was a neat problem, and it was fun to do. And I think there's no purer form of science than that."

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Jim Norris shot this video (sped up here) of a rock moving in Death Valley on January 9, 2014. The darker, central section is a sheet of floating ice, pushing the rock.

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Copyright(c) 2014, NPR
Artist Paul Harding's take on Jack "The King" Kirby, which is featured on the special edition beer brewed for a Kirby Day celebration at Schmaltz Brewery in Clifton Park, New York. (Paul Harding)

Raising A Birthday Glass To Comics King Jack Kirby

by Jessica B. Marshall
Aug 28, 2014

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View of the partly flooded Racetrack shortly after the Dec 20, 2013 event in which hundreds of rocks carved trails in the mud, as they were pushed along by floating ice.

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Jessica B. Marshall

If you've seen Guardians of the Galaxy, you know Groot — the singing, dancing, crime-fighting tree. Groot was created by comics legend Jack Kirby, who's also responsible for Captain America and the co-creator of the Avengers and the X-Men. Kirby died in 1994, but his birthday on August 28th has become something of a national celebration for comic book fans.

In the back room of a brewery just outside Albany, a small group of comic shop owners and comics creators gathers around a sketch of Kirby. The likeness peers intensely out from the page, inking pen in one hand, pencil clenched in his lips. But it's not in a comic book. It's the label on a bottle of beer.

"I just wanted to capture sort of his artistic power," says artist Paul Harding. "Sort of an extreme view looking up from his drawing surface." Harding is the sculptor behind a lot of the action figures you see in stores. He drew the image of Kirby. The the group is slapping it on limited edition beer bottles in preparation for Kirby Day. As they work, they trade tales of the legendary Jack "The King" Kirby.

Fellow party organizer Ron Marz says Kirby's artwork scared him as a kid. "I was really kind of weirded out by the square fingers and the tortured poses on all the characters. But I couldn't look away from it either."

Marz has written for Silver Surfer, Green Lantern and Witchblade, as well as the famous DC vs. Marvel Comics crossover series of the mid-1990s. "Anybody working in the industry now, whether you're a writer or an artist, stands on Jack Kirby's shoulders," he says.

But if you don't know comics, you may not know Kirby. You probably know his more media-friendly partner, Stan Lee, who tends to get more credit from both fans and publishers for creating the Marvel Universe. Kirby preferred the introspective quiet of his drawing board.

Comics shop owner John Belskis was lucky enough to meet Kirby once at a convention. The King was sitting in the artist's alley by himself, completely overlooked while convention-goers flocked to celebrities like Lee and Image Comics founder Rob Liefeld. "I thought to myself, this is ridiculous. This is like, a comic legend, and there's nobody here," he says.

It was toward the end of Kirby's life, when he suffered from arthritis, and would not sign his work for fans. But Kirby and his wife Roz made an exception. "Roz kind of told me, give me the pages, and they went behind a curtain and when they came back out, the pages were signed," he recalls. "Did she sign them, did he, I don't know, it didn't matter at that point."

Belskis and company wanted to make sure Kirby and his contribution to pop culture were remembered. Their celebration springboards off a small national movement to celebrate his birthday started by Kirby's granddaughter in 2012. "The comic community at large understands and cares. Fandom, guys with shops, creators, everybody."

Once all the labeling is done, the crew will pack the bottles into cases, ready for the birthday bash. Notable comics creators will be there, and they plan to auction off one-of-a-kind items like a statue of Groot. All proceeds will go to the Hero Initiative, a fund that helps provide a financial safety net for struggling comic book creators.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit

Jim Norris shot this video (sped up here) of a rock moving in Death Valley on January 9, 2014. The darker, central section is a sheet of floating ice, pushing the rock.

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR
Wetzel's Pretzels employee Emperatriz Orozco hands out free samples at the Westfield Valley Fair Mall. (NPR)

A Mall With Two Minimum Wages

Aug 28, 2014

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The boundary line between the city of San Jose and the city of Santa Clara runs through the Westfield Valley Fair Mall.

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The Westfield Valley Fair Mall straddles two cities. One side of the mall is in Santa Clara, but walk a few feet down the mall, and you're in San Jose. In 2012, San Jose voters agreed to raise the city's minimum wage from $8 to $10 an hour.

Philip Sandigo manages a shoe store on the $8-an-hour side. When San Jose raised the minimum wage, he lost about half his staff.

They went to the stores on the side of the mall that paid $2 an hour more.

Sandigo asked the owners of the shoe store if he could raise wages, but they said no. Almost two years later, it's still a struggle to hire new employees.

"We get the bottom of the barrel here," Sandigo says. "Not really focused. ... One guy came in high the other day."

On the $10-an-hour side of the mall, stores like Wetzel's Pretzels have different problems. Suddenly, the shop had to pay the lowest-wage workers more — 25 percent more. That was great for the employees, but a challenge for the owner, Yvonne Ryzak.

Ryzak had a few options. One was to sell more pretzels. She did the math and it came out to selling 250 or 300 more every two weeks. But she didn't start selling more pretzels just because the minimum wage went up in San Jose.

Another way to deal with the wage hike was to cut staff. But Ryzak figured that would lead to long lines and lost sales.

She could also raise her prices. But the other pretzel shop on the lower-wage side of the mall made that difficult.

In the end, Ryzak raised her prices a little bit and made up the rest by cutting into her profits.

Ryzak says she's fine with raising the minimum wage. She just wishes it was the same everywhere — across the mall, California, and the entire country.

Since 2012, the minimum wage rates in the mall have changed again: Santa Clara's minimum wage is now $9 an hour; San Jose's, $10.15.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit

Jim Norris shot this video (sped up here) of a rock moving in Death Valley on January 9, 2014. The darker, central section is a sheet of floating ice, pushing the rock.

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR
Bob O'Connor, a Foster Farms veterinarian, holds an 11-day-old chick at a ranch near the town of Merced, in California's Central Valley. (NPR)

How Foster Farms Is Solving The Case Of The Mystery Salmonella

Aug 28, 2014

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This Foster Farms ranch near Merced, Calif., had higher prevalence for salmonella, so the company started testing everywhere to find it. It turned out the contamination was concentrated inside the houses.

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Foster Farms, California's biggest chicken producer, has been accused of poisoning people with salmonella bacteria. After an outbreak last fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to shut down three of the company's plants.

Since then, though, the company has reduced its rates of salmonella contamination dramatically. Some food safety experts are now saying that the whole poultry industry should now follow this company's example.

The company is also taking the lead in figuring out a food safety mystery: How in the world do tests detect salmonella frequently on cut-up chicken parts but not on whole chicken carcasses?

Foster Farms recently gave me a small peek inside its anti-salmonella campaign.

Bob O'Connor, a veterinarian who's worked at the company for the past 17 years, drove me to a ranch near the town of Merced, in California's Central Valley. It's an enormous operation, with dozens of long, narrow chicken houses lined up on dry, bare dirt.

Foster Farms owns and operates this complex, as it does most of its chicken-raising farms. Other major poultry company rely on contract farmers, an arrangement that has drawn much criticism.

Inside one of the houses, thousands of little chicks are walking around on the floor. They're 11 days old, cute and apparently healthy. But O'Connor says there's a lot that you can't see. "I cannot look at this flock of birds and say to you that these birds have salmonella in their gastrointestinal tract," he says.

Yet in most cases, it's safe to assume that some do. Scientists have tested some flocks of chickens in the U.S. and Europe and found salmonella in anywhere from 7 to 70 percent of all live birds.

That's disturbing, because people eventually will eat them. Fully cooking chicken does kill the bacteria. But if salmonella on raw chicken gets on your cutting board and then contaminates, say, some carrots, it can make you really sick.

For years, now, the poultry industry has been struggling to limit the presence of salmonella. These chicken houses, for example, are designed to keep out wildlife, like mice or wild birds, that carry the bacteria. When chickens are slaughtered, the carcasses are washed with antimicrobial solutions.

According to USDA regulations, no more than 7.5 percent of the chicken carcasses coming from a chicken plant can test positive for salmonella.

Foster Farms — which turns out millions of pounds of chicken meat every week — usually does much better than that. "We had zero percent on most of our carcass sampling" for the past three or four years, says O'Connor.

The company's executives thought that they were doing really well.

Then, last summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found evidence that chicken from Foster Farms had caused a wave of salmonella infections. More than 600 people had gotten sick.

Inspectors from the USDA arrived at Foster Farms plants, and this time, they went much further than the standard safety test. Instead of just testing whole chicken carcasses, they took samples of what most consumers actually buy: the cut-up parts, such as breasts, thighs and wings.

What they found is now shaking up the whole poultry industry. Their tests showed salmonella on about 25 percent of those cut-up chicken parts.

David Acheson, a former associate commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration, says this pattern has been discovered at other poultry companies, too. Whole carcasses are largely free of salmonella, but then the bacteria appear on nearly a quarter of the chicken parts.

It's a mystery that the poultry industry is now trying to resolve.

"What happened?" says Acheson. "Did this bug come in from the environment? Did something contaminate it during the process - the equipment, the workers, something weird like that? Or were we missing it the first time?"

Probably, we were missing it, Acheson says.

Here's one theory for how: When those whole carcasses are tested, they've just been chilled to 40 degrees. But in the next stage of processing, when they're cut up into parts, they warm up about 10 degrees. That warmth may release salmonella that was trapped in skin pores of the chilled carcass.

If any salmonella bacteria are present, the process of cutting up the carcass may spread the microbes around, contaminating lots of chicken parts.

No matter how the salmonella got there, though, Foster Farms had to figure out a way to get rid of them, because the USDA was threatening to close three of the company's plants. "We had 72 hours to respond to that, to come up with a plan to control salmonella prevalence on parts," says O'Connor.

Foster Farms brought in outside safety advisors, including Acheson, the former FDA official, who now works as a consultant to food companies. Together, they embarked on a search for the cause of their problem.

They tested slaughtered chickens, and picked up a clue. Birds that grew up on some farms were much more likely to carry salmonella than birds from other farms.

This is why Bob O'Connor has brought me to this farm near Merced. "This particular farm seemed to have more prevalence for salmonella," he says.

So the company started testing everywhere for salmonella. Some experts thought the bacteria might be invading the chicken houses from outside, carried by mice or wild birds or beetles. So the company tested for salmonella on the dirt near the houses, and in the green, irrigated fields nearby.

"Those are vineyards, right there," O'Connor says, gesturing toward toward one field. "Those are almond orchards over there. That's where we went. We literally drag-swabbed through that orchard, through that vineyard."

But they discovered that the further they moved from the chicken house, the less salmonella they found. The contamination, in fact, was concentrated in the houses.

It seems that once salmonella bacteria got established inside those houses, they stayed there, and infected each new flock of chickens that came to live there. "So the interventions that we did for broilers were to really focus on cleaning up the houses themselves," O'Connor says. "The whole entire house was soaped down. Then you disinfect it. And then you let it sit. We let these farms sit for about six weeks without any birds in them."

Foster Farms did a lot of other things, too. It made sure that the breeding hens in their hatcheries were salmonella-free, because if those hens have salmonella, their children will, too. The company put more money into vaccination, and spent more time washing equipment in processing plants.

It took months, but it made a big difference. The share of chicken parts that tested positive for salmonella fell from 20 percent to less than five percent.

Acheson says that's really good. It's setting a new safety standard for the whole industry.

Others, like Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who makes his living suing companies when their food makes people sick, say it's not good enough. "The standard is, it's still OK to have a pathogen on your product that can sicken and kill your customers. And as long as that's the way it is, we're always going to limp from outbreak to outbreak to outbreak," he says.

Marler believes that the FDA should take the same stand against salmonella that it did against another dangerous microbe: disease-causing E. coli.

When the FDA declared these E. coli bacteria illegal adulturants in food, the meat industry complained, but it also found new ways to prevent them from poisoning people. "It used to be 90 percent of my law firm's revenue, and now it's nearly zero. It's a success story," says Marler.

Eliminating salmonella altogether would be difficult — it's much more common in the environment than disease-causing E. coli.

So for now, the FDA is asking companies to reduce salmonella contamination, but it's not requiring chicken meat to be completely salmonella-free.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit

Jim Norris shot this video (sped up here) of a rock moving in Death Valley on January 9, 2014. The darker, central section is a sheet of floating ice, pushing the rock.

Missing some content? Check the source: NPR
Copyright(c) 2014, NPR

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