Laura Sullivan

Note: An audio version of this story aired on NPR's Planet Money. Listen to the episode here.

Laura Leebrick, a manager at Rogue Disposal & Recycling in southern Oregon, is standing on the end of its landfill watching an avalanche of plastic trash pour out of a semitrailer: containers, bags, packaging, strawberry containers, yogurt cups.

None of this plastic will be turned into new plastic things. All of it is buried.

On the edge of the Mississippi River, the small historic city of Kimmswick, Mo. has an archaeological site with mastodon bones, Levee High Apple Pie at its famous Blue Owl Restaurant, and a volunteer mayor, Phil Stang.

What it doesn't have right now is money.

"They think I'm kidding but I'm not," Stang says. "I [will] have to go and do crazy electronic stuff like GoFundMe pages, or start a lemonade stand ... something."

Trish Pugh started an Ohio trucking company with her husband in 2015. Even for a small business, it's small — they had two drivers, counting her husband, until they let one go because of the coronavirus crisis.

And so her company applied for a loan under the first, $349 billion round of the Paycheck Protection Program, which the federal government had set up to rescue small businesses.

It didn't go well.

Banks handling the government's $349 billion loan program for small businesses made more than $10 billion in fees — even as tens of thousands of small businesses were shut out of the program, according to an analysis of financial records by NPR.

The banks took in the fees while processing loans that required less vetting than regular bank loans and had little risk for the banks, the records show. Taxpayers provided the money for the loans, which were guaranteed by the Small Business Administration.

Editor's note: NPR will be publishing stories from this investigative series in the weeks and months ahead, even as we focus our current coverage on the coronavirus pandemic. But here's a look at some of our key findings. You can watch the full documentary film from this investigation on the PBS series Frontline.

President Trump escalated the trade fight with China this week, saying he will steeply increase tariffs on Chinese products this Friday.

But while the White House projects a unified front in favor of wielding tariffs as a weapon against China, it wasn't always this way.

Early in Trump's presidency, close advisers fought bitterly over whether tariffs would help — or devastate — the U.S. economy, those advisers told NPR and the PBS show Frontline.

Technology theft and other unfair business practices originating from China are costing the American economy more than $57 billion a year, White House officials believe, and they expect that figure to grow.

Yet an investigation by NPR and the PBS television show Frontline into why three successive administrations failed to stop cyberhacking from China found an unlikely obstacle for the government — the victims themselves.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency failed to properly prepare for last year's hurricane season and was unable to provide adequate support to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico and other areas, an internal report released by the agency concluded.

Updated at 5:50 p.m. ET

A month after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan stepped off a helicopter in the town of Ceiba with a mission: Get relief supplies to people in need.

He and FEMA's regional administrator, Thomas Von Essen, told the town's mayor and other mayors from across the island that generators, plastic roofs and tarps would be there within days.

"There are 50,000 more blue tarps coming in over the next week," Buchanan said. "So these will all get pushed to all the mayors."

Before Hurricane Maria hit last September, Puerto Rico was battered by the forces of another storm — a financial storm.

The island's own government borrowed billions of dollars to pay its bills, a practice that Puerto Rico's current governor, Ricardo Rosselló, now calls "a big Ponzi scheme."

But it didn't fall into financial ruin all on its own: Wall Street kept pushing the Puerto Rican government's loans even as the island teetered on default, with a zeal that bank insiders are now describing with words like "unethical" and "immoral."

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This story was reported in partnership with PBS Frontline's podcast, The Frontline Dispatch. You can listen to the extended podcast version of the story here.


Pearlie Mae Brown's wooden house is listing a little. The screen door is broken, and another screen door is nailed sideways over a window.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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An $8 billion federal program to build housing for the poor is so lacking oversight that virtually no one in government knows how it is working, a government auditor testified before Congress today.

"IRS and no one else in the federal government really has an idea of what's going on," said Daniel Garcia-Diaz, an auditor with the Government Accountability Office while testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance. "These are basic accountability requirements we would expect of any program, especially one as important as this one."

On the south side of Dallas, Nena Eldridge lives in a sparse but spotless bungalow on a dusty lot. At $550 each month, her rent is just about the cheapest she could find in the city.

After an injury left her unable to work, the only income she receives is a $780 monthly disability check. So she has to make tough financial choices, like living without running water.

A new report by the New York attorney general's office finds that a lack of accountability in the nation's flood insurance program is costing taxpayers millions. The office also announced 50 felony charges against an engineering firm for allegedly writing fraudulent reports in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

The American Red Cross spent a quarter of the money people donated after the 2010 Haiti earthquake — or almost $125 million — on its own internal expenses, far more than the charity previously had disclosed, according to a report released Thursday by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley.

The report also says the charity's top officials stonewalled congressional investigators and released incomplete information about its Haiti program to the public. It concludes "there are substantial and fundamental concerns about [the Red Cross] as an organization."

This story is Part 1 of a two-part series. See our second piece about local recovery programs that are struggling to help homeowners here.

On a cold rainy day last fall, dozens of people gathered in a plaza across the street from New Jersey's state Capitol. They held press conferences and slept overnight in lawn chairs.

Sen. Chuck Grassley is asking federal investigators to give him the names of officials at the American Red Cross who did not cooperate with the government's recent inquiry into the charity.

The American Red Cross is facing new criticism today as government investigators and a congressman call for independent oversight over the long-venerated charity.

Federal legislation is being unveiled that would force the Red Cross to open its books and operations to outside scrutiny — something it has repeatedly resisted.

The American Red Cross, which has often boasted of its transparency, attempted last year to halt a congressional inquiry into its disaster relief work, according to a private letter Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern wrote to Rep. Bennie Thompson.

The American Red Cross has met its deadline to say how it spent almost half a billion dollars in Haiti. But the charity's answers have left at least one senator unsatisfied.

The American Red Cross is under pressure this week to answer detailed questions from Congress about how it spent the nearly half-billion dollars it raised after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Some of those answers might be difficult to come by. New documents obtained by NPR and ProPublica reveal that the Red Cross may not have an accurate accounting of how all the money was spent.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is demanding answers from the American Red Cross on how it spent nearly half a billion dollars in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake that leveled the country.

Grassley sent Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern a list of 17 detailed questions and has given the venerated charity a little over a week to respond. Until now, the Red Cross has declined to address publicly many of the questions the senator is asking.

Haitian journalists pressed an official from the American Red Cross to explain how the charity spent almost half a billion dollars in the country — but got few answers at a news conference this week at Le Plaza Hotel in downtown Port-au-Prince.

When a devastating earthquake leveled Haiti in 2010, millions of people donated to the American Red Cross. The charity raised almost half a billion dollars. It was one of its most successful fundraising efforts ever.

The American Red Cross vowed to help Haitians rebuild, but after five years the Red Cross' legacy in Haiti is not new roads, or schools, or hundreds of new homes. It's difficult to know where all the money went.

Two of South Dakota's largest tribes won a sweeping victory in federal court that could reverberate for tribes across the country.

A federal judge has ruled that the state Department of Social Services, prosecutors and judges "failed to protect Indian parents' fundamental rights" when they removed their children after short hearings and placed them largely in white foster care.

The American Red Cross recently sent NPR and ProPublica a request for corrections to our series of stories detailing problems at the Red Cross, including its response to Superstorm Sandy.

Federal agencies and local police are using a new device to look inside homes and buildings, reports USA Today.

The device, called the Range-R, operates like a stud-finder except instead of detecting studs inside a wall, it detects motion beyond the wall, including breathing as far as 50 feet away.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley starts her second term today. But absent from the inaugural ceremony will be a long-standing tradition: a poem read by the state's poet laureate.

State officials say they cut the two-minute poem for time, but some residents suspect it was the mention of slavery that got it tossed.

Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth has written poems for South Carolina's past three inaugurations. She describes those efforts as "safe."

The poems leaned heavily on nature and animals.

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