iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — A new report alleges that the Department of Veterans Affairs spent $20 million between 2004 and 2014 on costly artwork.
The expenditures included more than $1 million for a courtyard with a large sculpture at a Palo Alto veterans facility; $330,000 for a glass-art installation; and $21,000 for an artificial Christmas tree, according to the report.
Open The Books, a nonprofit that claims to be the world’s largest private database of government spending, in conjunction with Cox Media used government data to examine the Veterans Affairs Department's (VA) spending on art for their facilities in the decade ending in 2014.
Much of the spending occurred at a time when veterans were experiencing lengthy waits for treatment at VA facilities. After as many as 40 veterans died while seeking care at the VA's Phoenix Healthcare System, the federal agency's inspector general found in 2014 that lengthy waits for treatment might have contributed to the deaths but did not definitively cause them.
The Veterans Affairs agency admitted publicly around this time that its health care operations were overwhelmed and understaffed.
Now this new report is sparking fresh anger from both veterans and lawmakers.
Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican, wrote Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald on July 26, demanding a “moratorium on art spending by the VA.” In his letter, Kirk mentioned that a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing last fall highlighted what he said were excessive expenditures, $6.3 million, by the VA on artwork at the Palo Alto Healthcare System.
A spokesperson for the Palo Alto facility told ABC News that it had more than $4 million in art contracts in 2013 and 2014, including for an installation on the side of a parking garage. The installation, meant to honor blind veterans, featured quotes by Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt in Morse code that light up. The irony, critics point out, is that a blind veteran would be unlikely to see the massive artwork that cost $280,000.
Sen. Kirk wrote in his letter to the veterans affairs secretary, “The VA has not taken the directive over a year ago to stop excessive, non-veteran spending on artwork."
“A Congressionally approved process needs to be formally instated, so the American people are informed on how their tax dollars are spent," he wrote.
The VA told ABC News that the department is developing a national art policy that will cover the commissioning of artwork.
“While we must be stewards of taxpayer dollars, we also know that providing comprehensive health care for patients goes beyond just offering the most advanced medical treatments. Artwork is one of the many facets that create a healing environment for our nation’s Veterans. We want an atmosphere that welcomes them to VA facilities, shows them respect and appreciation, honors them for their service and sacrifice and exemplifies that this is a safe place for them to receive their care,” the VA said in a statement.
The American Legion also defended the VA’s spending, saying the agency “only used money to purchase upgrades for hospitals that Congress approved and authorized.”
“We don’t want our hospitals looking like the inside of prisons,” Louis Celli, director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation at the American Legion said in a statement.
The VA operates the nation’s largest health care system, with over 1,700 health care facilities.
Its 2017 budget request is for $182.3 billion, and the department – the second largest U.S. government agency – serves more than eight million veterans, according to a VA website.
ABC News was not able to independently verify every contract that the report by Open the Books and Cox Media identified. Furthermore, the report did not delineate what other purchases could have been included in a contract that was also stipulated for artwork. However, ABC News was able to confirm that VA contracts showed spending of hundreds of thousands of dollars for individual sculptures and art installations at some facilities.
In addition, the statement that the VA provided to ABC News did not dispute any figures in the report.
Andrew Andrzejewski, CEO and founder of Open The Books, told ABC News he thinks there’s “a lot more” spending on art than the $20 million his organization found. He’s called for an investigation into Veterans Affairs procurement practices.
Andrzejewski has also questioned why the art gracing the walls of VA facilities is not designed and made by veterans themselves.
“Veterans tell me [theirs are] the stories that resonate with other veterans, not picturesque landscapes and sculptures they can’t see,” he said.
That’s not to say some of the art installations were not designed with veterans in mind.
Creative Machines Inc. was commissioned to build sculptures at a California facility for $305,000. A spokesperson for the company told ABC News that the firm interviewed veterans to capture their stories. Those accounts will be integrated into three, 10-foot tall, freestanding, stainless steel sculptures. Creative Machines Inc. also noted that the contract budget has since the start of the project been reduced to $286,500.
iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — A wildfire on California's northern coast is gaining ground one week after it started, threatening an expanding number of homes and businesses. The blaze has destroyed 41 homes, seven of them in the last day, as it approaches 30,000 acres in size, with only 15 percent contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.
About 2,000 structures surrounding the wildfire are in danger, according to authorities, and the fire has also damaged power lines and interrupted electrical service. Several hundred people in nearby communities have left the area under mandatory evacuation orders.
The fire continues to grow despite the efforts of more than 4,000 firefighting personnel who have been mobilized to the area, in addition to 392 fire enginess, 14 helicopters, 67 bulldozers and six air tankers, according to Cal Fire.
iStock/Thinkstock(ASPEN, Colo.) — The nation's top intelligence official called the hacking of the Democratic National Committee to potentially influence the upcoming U.S. election "a serious proposition," but he urged an end to "the hyperventilation over this."
"Was this to just stir up trouble or was this ultimately to try to influence an election? Of course, that’s a serious -- a serious -- proposition," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said at the annual Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado, Thursday.
Not only did the hack apparently allow the cyber operatives to steal opposition research on Republican nominee Donald Trump, but many suspect it led to the theft of internal messages that show efforts by DNC officials to undermine Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders during the primary season. Those damaging emails have since been released by WikiLeaks, agitating Sanders supporters at the start of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia.
"We don't know enough [yet] to ... ascribe a motivation, regardless of who it may have been," Clapper said.
Clapper said the U.S. government is not "quite ready yet" to "make a public call" on who was behind the cyber assault, but he suggested one of "the usual suspects" is likely to blame. According to government sources, Russia is the most likely culprit.
Asked whether Russia might have intentions to undermine the U.S. political process, Clapper said Russian President Vladimir Putin is "paranoid" about the potential for revolutions in Russia, "and of course they see a U.S. conspiracy behind every bush, and ascribe far more impact than we’re actually guilty of."
"They believe we’re trying to influence political developments in Russia, we’re trying to affect change, and so their natural response is to retaliate and do unto us as they think we've done to them," he added.
In fact, according to Clapper, cyber warfare is not "terribly different than what went on during the heyday of the Cold War," just with different tools and "a different modality." And, he said, the U.S. intelligence community is now "at war" with Russia, conducting operations every hour of every day against Russia and other adversaries.
Nevertheless, Clapper said he's "taken aback a bit by ... the hyperventilation over" the hack of the DNC, adding in a sarcastic tone, "I'm shocked somebody did some hacking. That’s never happened before."
The American people "just need to accept" that cyber threats and computer-based attacks are a major long-term challenge facing the United States, and he said Americans should "not be quite so excitable when we have yet another instance of it."
ABC News(PHILADELPHIA) -- The father of one of 14 American Muslims who died serving in the U.S. Armed Forces in the ten years that followed the 9/11 attacks, took direct aim at Donald Trump Thursday night during a speech at the DNC, suggesting the GOP presidential candidate brush up on the Constitution.
"If it was up to Donald Trump, he never would have been in America," said Khizr Khan, whose son Humayun S. M. Khan, was killed by a car bomb in Iraq in 2004. "Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims. He disrespects other minorities, women, judges, even his own party leadership. He vows to build walls and ban us from this country. Donald Trump, you’re asking Americans to trust you with their future."
With his wife at his side, Khan then said, taking out a pocket copy of the Constitution, "Let me ask you: have you even read the United States Constitution?"
He also told Trump to visit Arlington National Cemetery and look at the graves of soldiers of all faiths, crying out, “You have sacrificed nothing!”
Khan said of his son, a University of Virginia graduate, “Our son had dreams too…but he put those dreams aside the day he sacrificed his life."
He encouraged Americans to "take the time to get out and vote, and vote for the healer...not the divider."
In another nod to Trump, he said, “We cannot solve our problems by building wall sowing division. We are stronger together and we will keep getting stronger when Hillary Clinton becomes out president."
iStock/Thinkstock(BALTIMORE) -- The Baltimore police officers who were charged in connection with the death of Freddie Gray are all back to work in paid administrative positions after charges were dismissed against the three remaining officers involved, according to the officers' attorneys and the Baltimore police union.
However, the officers still don't have their normal police powers, like making arrests. They will also face an internal affairs review that will determine whether or not they should be fired or disciplined.
The decision to dismiss the charges against Officers William Porter, Garrett Miller, and Sgt. Alicia White brought to an end one of the most closely watched police prosecutions in the country. Three other police officers were acquitted of all charges in separate bench trials by Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Barry Williams, including Officer Caesar Goodson, who faced the most serious charge of depraved-heart murder.
Baltimore’s Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has requested that police in Montgomery County and Howard County conduct the internal review. The two agencies will conduct their own interviews, take statements and complete an investigation to determine whether the officers violated any office polices or procedures. At the conclusion of the investigation, the findings will be presented to Commissioner Davis and his staff, who may hold an administrative hearing to determine what disciplinary actions need to be taken.
Four of the officers who were charged with felonies were suspended without pay last year, but they can seek back pay while the internal review is conducted. Earlier this month, the city agreed to pay Goodson more than $87,000 in back pay after he was acquitted in June.
Gray died one week after he suffered a fatal spinal injury in the back of a police transport van in April 2015. Shortly after, Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced the charges against the six officers involved in Gray's arrest.
Though the criminal investigation into Gray’s death is officially closed, prosecutors are standing firm in their belief that Gray’s death is a homicide.
“We do not believe that Gray killed himself. We stand by the medical examiner's determination that Freddie Gray’s death was a homicide," Mosby said Wednesday during a press conference.
The Baltimore police union yesterday called Mosby’s comments “outrageous” and “uncalled for,” saying they believe Mosby has her own agenda.
“The best investigative unit in this country found no wrongdoing, and I can guarantee you, when they investigated that because there was an in-custody death, there was no stone left unturned,” Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of the Police Lodge 3, said.
“Not one of these officers woke up wanting to do anything negative to anyone,” Ivan Bates, an attorney for White, said.
“Everybody wanted to find out what happened to Freddie Gray. The Baltimore City Police, they did the investigation, and they said it was investigation. The Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office had an opportunity to do an in-depth investigation, and they did not,” Bates said. “It is the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office that has denied justice to the Gray family, denied justice to these officers."
Lead Prosecutors Speak Out
The lead prosecutors involved in the Gray case broke their silence Thursday, one day after Mosby announced she was dismissing the charges.
Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow and Deputy State’s Attorney Janice Bledsoe were tasked with trying to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers were negligent and criminally liable for Gray’s injury and subsequent death.
“I don’t think that we felt we were rushing, I don’t think we felt that there was material that was overlooked,” Schatzow said during a press conference Thursday morning. “We pieced together theory from facts.”
He added: “We can’t know what happened to Freddie Gray unless the people involved tell us what happened to Freddie Gray.” His comments echoed Mosby’s, who, in her decision to dismiss the remaining charges, slammed the Baltimore Police Department for being too biased.
“As you can see, whether investigating, interrogating, testifying, cooperating, or even complying with the state, we've all borne witness to an inherent bias that is a direct result of when police police themselves,” Mosby said.
In a statement, the Baltimore Police Department defended its investigation of the Gray case. "As the quality of this investigation has been called into question, [we] want to remind our residents that over 30 ethical, experienced, and talented detectives worked tirelessly to uncover facts."
Five of the six officers are suing Mosby and Maj. Samuel Cogen of the Baltimore Sheriff’s Office, the law enforcement officer who filed the charging documents against the officers. The lawsuits allege false arrest, false imprisonment, defamation, and other assertions. Mosby and Cogen have not commented on the lawsuits.
iStock/Thinkstock(ORLANDO) -- A Florida man who was arrested for alleged drug possession says that what police thought was methamphetamine was actually just glazed doughnut crumbs.
"It's a terrible feeling to go to jail when you have not done anything,” Dan Rushing, 64, of Orlando, told local ABC affiliate WFTV. "I just don't want this to happen to somebody else."
Rushing said police found the crumbs of his bi-monthly Krispy Kreme treat in his car, and mistook the icing flakes for drugs after he was pulled over for a traffic violation.
"Every other Wednesday I stop at Krispy Kreme and get a doughnut there, and they found little, four little, flakes of the icing," Rushing said. “They said, 'We found what we thought was crack cocaine in the beginning, but now we think it's methamphetamines.'"
Rushing told ABC News today that he had just dropped his friend off at chemotherapy when he was pulled over by the police. "They said, 'Would you mind if I search your car?' and I said, 'I don't have anything to hide.'"
"Then they said, 'Well do you want to tell me about anything illegal in your car?'" Rushing said he told them he had no idea what they were talking about, and then they produced four doughnut crumbs "no bigger than your thumbnail."
"I kept telling them that's from a Krispy Kreme glazed doughnut," Rushing told ABC News, but says the police officer insisted it was drugs, and that it had tested positive as a controlled substance with their field kit.
"I said I don't know what to tell you about your test but I don't even know what methamphetamines are," Rushing said.
Rushing said he was then arrested and jailed for 11 hours where he was strip-searched and denied his spinal injury medication, which he needs to take every six hours.
"I'm not mad at this officer, but I just don't know where her judgement was," Rushing said.
He said that he has retained an attorney and will be filing a lawsuit against the police department. "The sad thing is I'm finding out a lot of people have gone through this all over the country, a lot of these tests are giving false positives," he said.
According to the Orlando Police Department incident report, Rushing was pulled over after going 42 miles per hour in a 30 mile per hour zone and not stopping before entering a roadway.
The police officer, an 11-year veteran of law enforcement, wrote in the report that she observed "rock like substance on the floor board where his feet were," and that she believed the substance to be "some sort of narcotic."
She conducted two field tests, and both of both came back positive for the presence of an amphetamine, according to the incident report, which also noted: "Rushing was placed under arrest and charged with possession of amphetamine with a weapon." Rushing had a weapons permit for his .38-caliber revolver, but it was confiscated, because under Florida statutes, it is unlawful to carry a weapon while in possession of what was at the time thought to be a controlled substance.
The evidence was submitted to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) for further testing, Sgt. Wanda Miglio of the Orlando Police Department told ABC News today. The results for the FDLE test were negative, so no charges were ultimately filed against Rushing by the State Attorney's Office.
Miglio emphasized that the arrest itself was lawful, "meaning that based on the officer's experience, and the field drug test that came up positive, probable cause existed to make a lawful arrest."
Miglio also added that the "the substance was not in fact found to be krispy kreme flakes. FDLE testing just determined it wasn't a controlled substance."
Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- A man once convicted of the murder of Washington, D.C., intern Chandra Levy will not be retried, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia said Thursday.
The U.S. Attorney's office moved to dismiss the case charging Ingmar Guandique with Levy's murder after the office concluded that "it can no longer prove the murder case against Mr. Guandique beyond a reasonable doubt."
Guandique was convicted of Levy’s murder in 2010, but his conviction was later overturned.
The U.S. Attorney's office said Thursday it will not proceed with the retrial, saying that “recent unforeseen developments that were investigated over the past week led to this decision."
Guandique, who had been incarcerated while awaiting retrial, will, "pending action by the Court," be "released to the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where he faces removal proceedings," the U.S. Attorney's office said.
Levy vanished in May 2001. Her remains were found the next year in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.
DigitalVision/Thinkstock(DALLAS) -- It was a frightening moment for the 130 passengers and six crew members on board an American Airlines flight Wednesday night.
American Airlines Flight 438, an Airbus A321, had just departed from Dallas-Fort Worth en route to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport when flames were seen shooting out of the back of the engine, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
One passenger, who wishes to remain unnamed, shot a video from inside the plane showing emergency crews waiting on the tarmac. The plane made a hard landing, but all passengers and crew members are safe.
American Airlines spokesperson Ross Feinstein said the plane had a mechanical issue, more specifically the compressor within the engine.
The FAA echoed that explanation, saying an engine problem caused "compressor stalls." Compressor stalls are similar to an engine backfiring.
An Airbus A321 can perform safely with only a single working engine.
iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- A Florida man was arrested Wednesday night at New York City's Port Authority Bus Terminal after he allegedly made threats against officers at the Times Square-area transportation hub, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The unidentified 18-year-old man was charged with illegal possession of a firearm, terroristic threat and unlawful possession of marijuana, the PANYNJ said.
"A man to whom the suspect was speaking approached PAPD and said the man had asked him if he wanted to 'off some cops' and claimed he had the gun in the bag," the PANYNJ said in a statement.
The PANYNJ said the suspect had a .38 caliber in a bag he was carrying when he was arrested at 8:35 p.m. Police got a warrant from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, searched the bag and found the weapon.
The police were never directly confronted or threatened by this individual.
As of late Wednesday evening, the suspect was being held at the bus terminal pending removal to the Manhattan Criminal Courts.
iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — The sudden flash of a red light camera in the rear-view mirror can certainly put a damper on a driver's day. But those pesky cameras might have saved lives, a non-profit says.
Cities that switched off their red light cameras between 2010 and 2014 saw a 30 percent increase in the number of fatal red-light-running crashes, a new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study says. Meanwhile, cities that turned cameras on saw 21 percent fewer fatal red-light-running crashes than they would have otherwise, the study says.
Red light cams affect other types of dangerous driving behavior, too: Cities that terminated their camera programs saw a 16 percent increase in all types of fatal intersection crashes, and cities that debuted camera programs saw a 14 percent decrease.
Following criticism that cities' red light camera programs were more focused on making money than saving lives, many cities switched off their cameras. In fact, at least 158 communities have discontinued their programs in the last five years, and though other cities have activated cameras, the total number of cities with red light cameras has fallen from 533 in 2012 to 467 in 2015.
Red-light-running crashes led to 709 deaths and 126,000 injuries in 2014 alone -- and over half of those deaths were innocent bystanders: pedestrians, bicyclists, or occupants of vehicles struck by the red light runner, according to IIHS. But the organization says based on its research, red light cams have saved nearly 1,300 lives through 2014 -- while cities' cessation of red light camera programs has cost an estimated 63 lives, the organization says.
“Debates over automated enforcement often center on the hassle of getting a ticket and paying a fine,” IIHS President Adrian Lund said in a statement. “It’s important to remember that there are hundreds of people walking around who wouldn’t be here if not for red light cameras. Sadly, there are 63 families who are missing a loved one because these life-saving programs were canceled.”
Hemera/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) —The jackpot for Wednesday's Powerball drawing was a whopping $422 million — but there were no winners, a California Lottery spokesperson confirmed to ABC News early Thursday morning.
Now, the jackpot has increased to an estimated $478 million. The next drawing is Saturday.
The jackpot has steadily been increasing, thanks to nearly three months without a winner of the big prize.
The numbers drawn Wednesday were 10, 47, 50, 65, and 68. The Powerball is 24.
The big Powerball prize comes less than three weeks after a player in Indiana won a $536 million Mega Millions jackpot.
KABC(LOS ANGELES) — One person was killed and eight others injured after a car plowed through a Los Angeles home during a bible study session Wednesday evening.
Police said the driver of the car is still on the loose.
The incident happened around 8 p.m., when a female driver sped through the neighborhood and crashed into the house where a group of 11 elderly people had gathered for a prayer meeting, according to police.
Footage from a KABC Los Angeles news helicopter showed a red sedan almost completely inside the Harbor Gateway home, where it apparently came to a stop.
iStock/Thinkstock(KEY WEST, Fla.) -- After a search that covered nearly 4,000 square nautical miles, crews Wednesday found four boaters -- including two children -- who were reported missing Tuesday night when they didn't return from a snorkeling trip off Key West, Florida.
The Coast Guard said the boaters were in good spirits and good health.
A concerned family member contacted the Coast Guard on Tuesday evening after the group -- David Thompson, 48; Adam Kelley, 28; Joshua Thompson, 15; and Evan Thompson, 11 -- did not return from their trip. They had been expected back before 4 p.m. that day, the Coast Guard said.
Search crews found the missing boat Wednesday nearly 40 nautical miles northwest of Key West, the Coast Guard said Wednesday afternoon.
The boaters left Banana Bay Resort in Key West on Tuesday in a 25-foot Grady-White to snorkel about 6 miles north of Key West.
The search was conducted by air and sea, the Coast Guard said.