Welcome to the LSIS Investigative Journal

Welcome to the LSIS Investigative Journal

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Federal judge vacates CDC’s nationwide eviction moratorium

Federal judge vacates CDC’s nationwide eviction moratorium
Court rules agency lacks legal authority to impose it

The Washington Post
By Kyle Swenson
Staff Writer
May 5, 2021

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday ruled that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overstepped its legal authority by issuing a nationwide eviction moratorium, a ruling that could affect millions of struggling Americans.

In a 20-page order, U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich vacated the CDC order, first put in place during the coronavirus pandemic under the Trump administration and now set to expire June 30.

“It is the role of the political branches, and not the courts, to assess the merits of policy measures designed to combat the spread of disease, even during a global pandemic,” the order states. “The question for the Court is a narrow one: Does the Public Health Service Act grant the CDC the legal authority to impose a nationwide eviction moratorium? It does not.”

The Biden administration has indicated it will appeal the decision. The ruling does not affect state or local eviction moratoriums. In Washington, D.C., for example, the city government’s ban on all evictions remains in place.

Landlords and property owners have consistently challenged the CDC order, arguing the policy sets an undue financial burden on business owners.

“We’ve argued from the beginning that the CDC lacked statutory authority to impose this, and we’ve had multiple courts agree with us on that,” said Luke Wake, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation who has represented landlords in similar cases. “Today’s decision again vindicates our argument.”

Housing advocates, however, argued the new ruling only throws more confusion into an already chaotic policy space. Despite the moratorium, evictions have continued because of loopholes and differing legal interpretations.

After Wednesday’s decision, tenants’ rights advocates called for the Biden administration not only to defend the policy but to step up legal protections that will keep people in their homes. According to the Census Bureau, 1 out of 7 renters recently reported they were behind on payments.

“While this latest ruling is written more starkly than previous ones, it likely has equally limited application impacting only the plaintiffs who brought the case or, at most, renters in the district court’s jurisdiction,” said Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “The [Department of Justice] should immediately appeal and the Biden administration should continue to vigorously defend and enforce the moratorium, at least until emergency rental assistance provided by Congress reaches the renters who need it to remain stably housed.”

Within hours of the decision, the Justice Department indicated that in addition to an appeal, the government planned to ask for a stay of the decision, meaning the moratorium would remain in place while the appeal was argued.

“The Department of Justice respectfully disagrees with today’s decision of the district court,” Brian M. Boynton, acting assistant attorney general for the department’s civil division, said in a statement. “In the department’s view, that decision conflicts with the text of the statute, Congress’s ratification of the moratorium, and the rulings of other courts.”

Landlords and property owners cheered the decision Wednesday. For months, industry advocates have argued that the moratorium was too harsh, hurting legitimate business owners and leaving property managers without the tools to oust problem tenants.

“Eviction moratoriums are dangerous, detrimental policies that harm housing affordability, housing providers and our residents,” Robert Pinnegar, president and chief executive of the National Apartment Association, said Wednesday. “The government must end enforcement of the CDC order and begin communications now to stakeholders, including judges, to prepare them for its ending.”

Since the moratorium’s early days, both tenants and landlords have wondered whether the action was the right policy tool for the job.

As the pandemic spread across the country, leaving economic damage and job loss in its wake, an estimated 40 million Americans were facing eviction, according to an August 2020 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program, and the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project.

A month later, the CDC rolled out a moratorium halting evictions for tenants who could not meet their monthly rent obligations because of the pandemic. The order applied only to individuals making $99,000 annually, or $198,000 for couples.

But both tenants and landlords quickly found fault with the order. The policy’s wording left room for legal interpretation, giving local judges latitude to apply the moratorium as they saw fit. New guidance issued in October did little to clarify the situation, triggering a series of legal challenges by landlords.

Since last year, six federal judges have weighed in on the ban, with three ruling it illegal and three supporting its legality.

Many of the recent challenges, including the case featured in Wednesday’s decision, have hinged on the CDC’s authority. Backers of the moratorium argue that although the action is outside the typical scope of the agency, Congress’s decision to extend the moratorium in December should have been taken as a sign legislators approved.

“Congress was trying to preserve the status quo by keeping the moratorium in effect through the presidential transition,” said Eric Dunn, director of litigation for the National Housing Law Project. “Well, that implies that Congress was approving that the CDC has the authority.”

Whether the recent decision will trigger a wave of evictions is unclear, advocates say. “There are now numerous conflicting court rulings at the district court level, with several judges ruling in favor of the moratorium and several ruling against,” Yentel said.

Dunn argued that the policy has become so confused by now that the moratorium’s impact has been weakened, particularly in jurisdictions without state or local protections.

“Practically, all these decisions have already made it so the CDC protection is basically a lottery ticket for tenants,” he said. “If you qualify you can sign the declaration and it may protect you or it may not. The judge may decide it applies to you or her or she may decide it does not.”

Wednesday’s ruling came as the Biden administration is in the midst of a massive project aimed at alleviating the economic stress pressing both landlords and tenants. As part of the American Rescue Plan enacted in March, the federal government is doling out $21.6 billion to local and state governments for rental and utility relief.

That money joins the $25 billion in aid set aside in December by Congress to help renters hit hard by the pandemic’s economic consequences. Eliminating the CDC protection would hurt families at the very moment they are beginning to repay pandemic debt, argued Emily Benfer, a Wake Forest University law professor and co-creator of the COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard with the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

“Without this critical public health measure, the eviction floodgates would open, placing millions of families in jeopardy, thwarting efforts to control the pandemic, and impeding $46 billion in eviction prevention assistance,” Benfer said. “We know eviction spreads covid-19, we know it disrupts access to health care and we know it’s increasing health inequity among Black and Latinx people. The moratorium stops all of these harms.”





Woman loses nearly £113k in dating site romance fraud

Woman loses nearly £113k in dating site romance fraud

BBC News

A woman says she is facing bankruptcy after losing just under £113,000 to a scammer she met on a dating site.

Rachel Elwell, from the West Midlands, said the man, who claimed he lived nearby, told her he had gone abroad for an engineering contract in Ukraine.

He convinced her with documents and pictures he needed money for issues that had cropped up and stated he had been taken captive by loan sharks.

Ms Elwell, 50, said there was no guarantee of any money coming back.

Asked why she had given money to a man she had never met, the export manager, of Brownhills, said: "When he said to me his life was in danger and I didn't hear from him, I thought he'd been murdered.

"Can you imagine feeling you're responsible for whether someone lives or dies?"

Ms Elwell said after he had contacted her on 1 January claiming to live in Cannock, his "picture looked nice", he "seemed to like the same things as me" and "seemed quite an open and genuine guy".
'All a lie'

The man told her they would have to wait weeks to meet as he would need to stay in Ukraine, but later phoned claiming laws in that country had changed due to Covid and he now had to pay tax before any of the engineering work began, Ms Elwell said.

Telling the story to BBC Radio WM, Ms Elwell said she had been told work had stopped on site and matters "appeared very legitimate", but later she had "reluctantly" sent him money.

She stated at one point a supposed tax office had sent a letter to him, which she had a copy of, and added: "They said... 'you need to pay 160 thousand'. So he cashed his pension in, sold his car, borrowed money and I helped him.

"I mean at this point I think it was about £45k I'd sent him to help him with the tax bill."

According to Action Fraud, romance or dating fraud is where criminals dupe people into sending them money by gaining their trust and convincing them they are in a genuine relationship.

In order to stay safe from such scams, it advises people to:

    Be suspicious of any requests for money from someone they have never met in person, particularly if they have only recently met online
    Speak to family or friends to get advice
    Perform reverse image searches on profile pictures, as they may not be genuine. A reverse image search can find photos that have been taken from somewhere else

Anyone who believes they have been a victim of romance fraud, it said, should report it to their bank immediately and to Action Fraud.

Continuing the story, Ms Elwell said the man had claimed two "heavies" had turned up and he had been locked in a cellar. He sent her pictures purporting to show him there.

She added he claimed to have been released after money had been sent, but he had told her he would not have his passport, which had been taken from him, until interest had been paid.

On the day the man told Ms Elwell he was due to fly back, 16 March, she went to Heathrow airport and got an email from supposed airport officials saying he had been arrested.

    Romance fraud on rise in coronavirus lockdown
    Romance fraudsters 'preying on lonely' in lockdown
    Latest West Midlands news

She said she had then approached Border Force officials who said, "look, it's a scam".

She went to his supposed house in Coventry to meet his daughter and housekeeper/nanny, but "no such people lived at that house".

Ms Elwell said: "It was in that moment that I knew it was all a lie."

A spokesperson for West Midlands Police said: "Rachel's case is a prime example of romance fraud, her case highlights how much these scammers affect people's lives."



Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Woman hit by car must take responsibility for jaywalking across five-lane road, California court says

Woman hit by car must take responsibility for jaywalking across five-lane road, California court says


Legal Newsline
By Daniel Fisher
May 5, 2021

LOS ANGELES (Legal Newsline) - A California condominium complex that failed to provide enough parking spaces for visitors isn’t liable for the injuries of a woman who was hit by a car after she parked offsite and attempted to cross a busy five-lane thoroughfare, an appeals court ruled.

While landowners in some cases can be liable for accidents that occur off their property, the Second Appellate District held in an April 30 decision, plaintiff Anaeis Issakhani bears responsibility for jaywalking across the street instead of using a marked pedestrian crosswalk a short distance away.

“It was the visitor’s decision—rather than the landowner’s—to select an offsite parking space on the far side of a busy street,” the appeals court ruled.

Issakhani went to visit a friend at the Shadow Glen condominiums in Los Angeles in June 2014. She followed someone into the parking lot and drove around for two or three minutes without finding a parking spot, then drove off and parked on the other side of the five-lane street. A car hit her as she tried to cross, causing a traumatic brain injury and multiple skull fractures.

Issakhani sued in June 2016, claiming the complex owner failed to maintain the required number of parking spaces and that “created a foreseeable risk of harm” for guests. The trial court granted summary judgment, finding the condo complex didn’t owe Issakhani a duty under common law or city ordinance, and she couldn’t prove the complex caused her injuries.

The Second District upheld the dismissal. Shadow Glen was built in 1979 on land that had been rezoned from single- and two-family housing. As a condition of the change to multifamily zoning, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance requiring guest parking of half a space per unit in addition to one space per unit for occupants. The project ultimately was built with 170 parking spots, 13 more than necessary, but only six were marked as “visitor” spaces.

The plaintiff argued the complex was liable because it violated the ordinance requiring 34 guest spots, and it was foreseeable visitors would park offsite and attempt to jaywalk their way back to Shadow Glen. The appeals court said that was too much of a stretch.

“Whether a duty of care exists is not a matter of plucking some immutable truth from the ether,” the appeals court observed. The main question is whether “public policy” supports it. Landowners can be held liable for injuries that occur off their property, for example, such as when an onsite parking lot encourages drivers to make a dangerous left-hand turn on a public street. But the California Supreme Court foreclosed any such duty for failing to provide enough parking in a 2017 decision, Vasilenko v. Grace Family Church, stating categorically that landowners “are not required to provide parking for their invitees.”

The appeals court cited several earlier court decisions that refused to assign liability to companies for traffic injuries plaintiffs tried to blame on lack of parking. While it is foreseeable people will attempt dangerous street crossings if they can’t park their cars on-site, the appeals court concluded, the pedestrian is ultimately responsible for what happens. To rule otherwise, the court said, would require landowners to build expensive underground garages, bulldoze part of their properties, or maybe force employees and residents to park elsewhere to accommodate visitors.

The court also rejected arguments the complex was liable for violating the city ordinance that rezoned the property for development. While some laws and ordinances establish public policies that can give rise to negligence claims if they are violated, this property-specific ordinance doesn’t suffice, the court ruled. The plaintiff’s lawyers attempted to conflate a duty of care, which is between two parties, and a standard of care, which sometimes can be established by an ordinance.


Biden's Labor Department rescinds Trump-era rule affecting gig workers

 Biden's Labor Department rescinds Trump-era rule affecting gig workers

Reuters Business News
May 5, 2021
By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden’s Labor Department on Wednesday rescinded a Trump-era rule that would have made it easier for U.S. businesses to classify workers as independent contractors instead of employees under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

“By withdrawing the independent contractor rule, we will help preserve essential worker rights and stop the erosion of worker protections that would have occurred had the rule gone into effect,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in a statement.

“Too often, workers lose important wage and related protections when employers misclassify them as independent contractors,” he said.

Shares of companies that employ gig labor such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash immediately pared gains in pre-market trade. Uber Shares traded down 0.02 percent, Lyft was down 0.75 percent and DoorDash fell 1.27 percent in early trade.

Walsh told Reuters in an interview last week that a lot of U.S. gig workers should be classified as “employees” who deserve work benefits. His comments signaled a shift in policy and hurt stocks of companies that employ gig labor.

Gig workers are independent contractors who perform on-demand services, including as drivers, delivering groceries or providing childcare - and are one-third more likely to be Black or Latino, according to an Edison Research poll.

Walsh said in the interview that his department would have conversations in coming months with companies that employ gig labor to make sure workers have access to consistent wages, sick time, healthcare and “all of the things that an average employee in America can access.”

The rule by former President Donald Trump’s administration, finalized in early January before he left office on Jan. 20, would have hampered workers’ ability to earn a minimum wage and overtime compensation - protections offered under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

It was supposed to take effect in March, but did not because it was being reviewed by Biden’s Labor Department. The withdrawal will be effective on Thursday.

An Uber spokesman said last week that an overwhelming majority of app-based workers want to stay independent, because it allows them to work when, where and how they want with flexibility no traditional job can match.

The FLSA includes provisions that require covered employers to pay employees at least the federal minimum wage for every hour they work and overtime compensation at not less than 1-1/2 times their regular rate of pay for every hour they work over 40 in a workweek. FLSA protections do not apply to independent contractors.

“The independent contractor rule was in tension with the FLSA’s text and purpose,” the Labor Department said.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Tabloid Hired Gun Tells of Shady Hunt for Meghan Markle Scoops

 Tabloid Hired Gun Tells of Shady Hunt for Meghan Markle Scoops

The private investigator says the British tabloid The Sun paid him $2,055 in 2016 for private information about the couple, their family and friends that had been taken from a restricted database.

The New York Times
By Sarah Lyall and Mark Landler
March 18, 2021

It was the autumn of 2016, and The Sun, Britain’s most popular daily tabloid paper, was on to a juicy story: Prince Harry, the rakish younger son of Prince Charles, was dating an American actress named Meghan Markle. Royal news was dull at the time — Harry’s older brother, Prince William, was already married — so any development in Harry’s love life qualified as a major scoop.

But what was there to learn about Ms. Markle, and which of the bare-knuckled British tabloids would get there first?

The Sun’s New York-based U.S. editor turned to a trusted source for quick help: Daniel Portley-Hanks, a veteran Los Angeles private investigator known as Danno, whose résumé includes several stints in prison and decades of clandestine work for a range of clients, including several British tabloids.

Mr. Portley-Hanks logged in to TLOxp, a service with a vast database of restricted information about individuals and businesses, and pulled up a trove of details — home addresses, cellphone numbers, Social Security numbers and more — about Ms. Markle, her parents, her siblings and her ex-husband. He then sold it to the U.S. editor, James Beal, for $2,055, according to an invoice reviewed by The New York Times.

Armed with this information, The Sun jumped into high gear, producing a stream of gossipy, thinly sourced “exclusives” over the next week. One discussed how Harry, desperate to go out with Meghan after first meeting her earlier that year, “pursued her and besieged her with texts until she agreed to a date.” Another featured an unflattering interview with Ms. Markle’s half sister, Samantha, who described Ms. Markle as an ambitious, callous social climber who all but ditched her family when she became famous.

Mr. Portley-Hanks, now 74 and retired, said his data also put the Sun onto the trail of Ms. Markle’s father, Thomas Markle, a former Hollywood lighting director, who fell out with his daughter in a bitter exchange of letters and interviews that would continue to play out in the tabloids even after Ms. Markle married Prince Harry, in 2018.

Licensed private investigators like Mr. Portley-Hanks have the right to access such information on behalf of clients to use, for example, in civil and criminal cases. But it is a violation of U.S. privacy statutes for people to pass these reports on to news organizations. (U.S. news outlets can research some information on TLOxp and similar services, but only have access to a limited set of data.)

“There’s lots of things you can use these reports for — but not this,” said Paul M. Schwartz, an expert in privacy law and professor at Berkeley Law School.

A statement from TransUnion, which owns the TLOxp service, said: “Safeguarding information is TransUnion’s top priority. This individual was not permitted to share information obtained from TLOxp with any third party.”

Mr. Portley-Hanks’s role in providing information to The Sun was first uncovered by Graham Johnson, a former British tabloid reporter who now writes for Byline Investigates, an online publication financed by donations and focused on malfeasance in the British tabloids.

After the phone hacking scandal of 2011, which began with the hacking of the cellphone of a murdered 13-year-old girl and ultimately revealed the underhanded and illegal ways that British tabloids obtain their juiciest scoops, much of the British news media stopped covering the issue; Byline Reports has stayed with the topic.

The scandal and ensuing legal penalties were supposed to put an end to such practices. Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who wields vast influence in Britain through his ownership of The Sun and The Times of London, a more respectable broadsheet newspaper, promised that his papers would no longer use private investigators — except under extraordinary circumstances and then only with permission from the top editors.

But according to Mr. Portley-Hanks, some journalists didn’t take it seriously.

At one point, The Sun “sent me a letter I had to sign that said I wouldn’t use any illegal methods to locate people or do background checks,” he said in an interview. “Then the reporters came back to me and said, ‘But if you want to get work, keep doing what you’ve been doing,’ with a nod and a wink.”

In the case of Ms. Markle, “I strongly believe that James Beal knew that what I was providing him was obtained illegally,” Mr. Portley-Hanks said in an affidavit that he provided to lawyers for Harry, who is suing the Sun and another tabloid, the Daily Mirror, on unrelated charges of phone hacking.

News Group Newspapers, which publishes The Sun, said it had made a “legitimate request” of Mr. Portley-Hanks to research details on Ms. Markle and her relatives, using databases for which he had a license. “He was instructed clearly in writing to act lawfully and he signed a legal undertaking that he would do so,” it said in a statement. The company said that it was also speaking on behalf of Mr. Beal.

None of the information supplied by Mr. Portley-Hanks raised concerns about illegal practices, the company said, adding that it did not request Ms. Markle’s Social Security number — which is more restricted information — and did not use it for any purpose.

In Britain, legal experts said, the tabloids have moved carefully since the 2011 scandal, which forced Mr. Murdoch to shut down another of his tabloids, The News of the World, and torpedoed his takeover of a satellite broadcaster, BSkyB.

“There is, at present, no evidence that has come to light that they continued any illegal activities since 2011,” said Daniel Taylor, an expert in privacy law.

But Mr. Taylor added, speaking of the tabloids, “There would have been enormous interest in Harry and Meghan, and there is no doubt they would have turned over every stone to make sure they got a competitive edge on their rivals.”

Even as The Sun was printing its early articles about the Harry and Meghan romance, the Sunday Express and other competitors were getting scoops of their own, fanning out across America to talk to anyone remotely connected to Ms. Markle. They staked out houses; they bombarded distant relatives with phone calls; they talked to neighbors; they quoted unnamed “friends” and “pals” of the couple.

Typical of the coverage was an article in The Daily Mail that, loaded with racist innuendo, said that the biracial Ms. Markle was “(Almost) Straight Outta Compton,” and described the L.A. neighborhood where her Black mother lived as full of “tatty one-story homes” and riddled with drugs, guns, gangs and violence.

The Mail article, and the various articles in The Sun, appeared in the first week of November, 2016. Days later, Prince Harry’s office issued an extraordinary statement declaring that Ms. Markle had been “subject to a wave of abuse and harassment” and that “nearly every friend, co-worker and loved one in her life” had been pursued, and in some cases offered money for interviews, by members of the British news media.

The couple have been at war with the tabloids ever since. In addition to Harry’s lawsuit, Meghan filed her own suit against the publisher of the Mail on Sunday, accusing it of violating her privacy by publishing an anguished letter she sent to her estranged father. In February, a High Court in London ruled in her favor.

On Thursday, Harry and Meghan, who are also known as the duke and duchess of Sussex, said in a statement that Mr. Portley-Hanks’ claims showed “that the predatory practices of days past are still ongoing, reaping irreversible damage for families and relationships.”

Harry has often blamed the tabloids for the death of his mother, Princess Diana, who was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997 after a high-speed pursuit by paparazzi. He even attributed his and Meghan’s decision to withdraw from royal duties and leave Britain in part to the unrelenting scrutiny of the news media.

“We all know what the British press can be like, and it was destroying my mental health,” Harry said to the British talk-show host, James Corden, last month. “I was, like, this is toxic. So, I did what any husband and what any father would do — I need to get my family out of here.”

He and Meghan made similar claims in their explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey earlier this month. Mr. Portley-Hanks, who said he had already come to regret his actions, said those comments deepened his sense of remorse for his role in helping to steer the tabloids to Ms. Markle and members of her family.

“I just realized what I was doing was wrong,” he said in an interview from California. “My income was based on other people’s tragedy.”

Mr. Portley-Hanks’ misgivings coincided with his own legal troubles. In July 2017, he was convicted of extortion, and sentenced to 16 months in prison, for his involvement in an illegal gambling organization. Initially hired to run background checks, Mr. Portley-Hanks was paid $7,000 to deface a family grave site in Pennsylvania to intimidate a person who owed money to the gambling ring.

Now out of jail and stripped of his private investigator’s license, Mr. Portley-Hanks is eager to explain the tricks of his trade — honed over two decades when he worked for two American tabloid TV shows, “A Current Affair” and “Hard Copy,” as well as a contractor for numerous British tabloid papers.

Mr. Portley-Hanks claims to have been involved in unearthing or spreading many of the tabloid era’s most sensational stories, from Heidi Fleiss, the “Hollywood Madam” whose high-end prostitution ring had a prominent clientele, to Amy Fisher, the “Long Island Lolita,” who shot and wounded the wife of her lover, Joey Buttafuoco.

He insists he thought little about the people whose privacy he was invading and did not even read the stories that emerged from his tips. His employers gave him names to run through his databases, and he ran them.

“My relationship with tabloid media was purely about my pocketbook,” he said, adding that “Meghan Markle’s name didn’t mean anything to me. I had no idea she was connected to the royal family.”

Anna Joyce contributed research from London and Alain Delaqueriere from New York.