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When the FBI shoots someone, including a bystander or hostage, it investigates itself

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By Ken Dilanian and Kevin Monahan

HOUSTON — It seemed like a tragic mistake.

A young father, held for ransom, was shot and killed in January 2018 — not by his kidnappers, but by an FBI agent trying to save him. The agent had fired into a dark room where the hostage had been tied up alone.

But a dramatic twist came in October: The Houston police chief, whose department investigated the incident, announced that the FBI agent’s story didn’t add up.

“Our investigative findings do not support the description of how the shooting occurred by the shooting agent,” Chief Art Acevedo told reporters.

For more on this story, watch NBC’s “Nightly News” tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET.

Two law enforcement sources familiar with the matter told NBC News that the FBI and federal prosecutors are examining whether the agent gave a false account, whether he acted negligently, and whether the pre-dawn raid by heavily armed FBI personnel was properly planned and executed.

But relatives of the victim, Ulises Valladares, say they’ve been told nothing. They say they don’t know the agent’s name or whether he’s still on duty. They have filed a wrongful death lawsuit, which is pending.

Ulises Valladares with his son, Junior. Photo blurred by source.Courtesy of the Valladares Family

The Houston case became the latest in a series of incidents in which an FBI agent’s actions with his gun have come into question, according to a review of public records by NBC News. And it underscored what critics say is a troubling culture of secrecy at the nation’s main federal law enforcement agency.

New FBI data obtained exclusively by NBC News shows the bureau found fault with the actions of agents five times in 228 shooting incidents from 2011 to the present. Eighty-one were intentional shootings of people, 34 were intentional shootings of animals, and 113 were accidental discharges. None of the five “unjustified” shots resulted in a death or injury to a person, bureau officials said.

FBI officials refused to discuss any of the internal investigations into each shooting or answer any questions about whether agents were disciplined. They declined to comment on the Houston case.

By determining that the actions of the five agents were unjustified, FBI officials said, the bureau was not saying that an entire shooting was unjustified. In fact, none of the five questionable shooting actions by agents led to an injury or death, officials said. It is possible, they said, for multiple agents to have shot to death a suspect in a manner that followed all the rules, only to have one agent fire a shot that was deemed improper.

“Each round is evaluated,” one FBI official said.

The home where Valladares was held hostage and killed in Houston, Texas.NBC News

Aside from the Houston incident, other recent FBI gunfire has come under scrutiny:

  • In August, an FBI agent was acquitted of federal criminal charges that he lied about firing his weapon in a 2016 standoff with right-wing extremists in Oregon. The FBI declined to comment on any disciplinary investigation.
  • In June, an FBI agent — off-duty but armed with a handgun — accidentally shot someone in a Denver nightclub after he did a backflip that dislodged his weapon. He pleaded guilty to third degree assault and was sentenced to two years probation. The FBI would not discuss his status at the bureau.
  • In 2016, an FBI agent shot a 31-year-old man during a military-style raid to serve a warrant on a different person. The FBI says the man was armed; his family, which has filed a wrongful death lawsuit, disputes that and adds that he was blind in one eye and disabled. The FBI declined to comment on the case.
  • In 2015, the FBI terminated an agent who fired his weapon from a second-story apartment in Queens, shooting an unarmed man as he tried to burglarize the agent’s car on the street below.

FBI officials would not comment on any of those cases, but said that of the five cases in which the actions of agents were faulted, one included the Oregon case and another, the backflip discharge.

“I think the public should be concerned where we have government agents using force without appropriate accountability, and that accountability requires transparency,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program. “Unfortunately, the FBI’s process is not only not independent — it’s the FBI investigating itself — but it’s not very transparent.”

FBI officials disagree, describing their investigative process as meticulous and fair. But the bureau has declined to follow the lead of many of America’s largest police departments, which publish annual reports detailing each use-of-force incident. New York City police, for example, report how often a firearm was discharged, who was hit, and under what circumstances. Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., do the same. Houston publishes statistics about officer-involved shootings.

The bureau’s inspection division produces an investigative report for each agent-involved shooting, but the only time the bureau made some of those public in recent years is after the New York Times sued under the Freedom of Information Act, resulting in a story published in 2013.

The redacted records the Times obtained showed that from 1993 to early 2011, FBI agents fatally shot about 70 people and wounded about 80 others. Each one of those shootings was deemed justified.

The bureau’s public affairs office declined a request by NBC News for copies of investigative reports for shootings that occurred subsequent to those reflected in the Times data. An FBI spokeswoman instructed a reporter to file a Freedom of Information Act request — a response to which can take years, due to an enormous backlog. NBC News filed a request, but the FBI turned down an appeal for expedited processing. NBC News argued that the public had an urgent need for more information about FBI shootings, but the bureau disagreed.

The FBI recently launched a campaign to encourage police departments to publicly disclose information on their use of force, as part of a national database the bureau is seeking to build. A video on the FBI website featured local officials promoting the program.

“Any time that information is not readily available, that breeds skepticism. Skepticism leads to distrust,” Sheriff Bob Gualtieri of Pinellas County, Florida, says on the video, as stirring music plays in the background.

“What that data really does is allow us to be transparent in the force that we use in our everyday situations,” Gina Hawkins, chief of police in Fayetteville, N.C., says on the video. “This transparency is not all the time easy. It may involve us owning up to we could have made a better decision. … To be transparent is what builds the trust of the community that we work for.”

FBI officials said the bureau itself would also submit information to the database, but that no data has yet been made public.

How the FBI investigates itself

Bureau officials, declining to be named for the record, told NBC News that the evidence gathered in shooting investigations includes interviews with the agents involved. The agents are required to answer questions — in a formal interview with a lawyer representing them.

The evidence is often shared with local prosecutors, and is then turned over for examination by the FBI’s Shooting Incident Review Group, which meets quarterly and votes on whether the agents’ actions in each shooting incident were justified.

Frank Figliuzzi, an NBC News law enforcement analyst, spent 25 years at the FBI, including a stint as chief inspector, leading investigations of agent-involved shootings. He was a nonvoting member of the incident review group.

Ulises Valladares of Conroe, Texas.via Facebook

Even when the use of lethal force has been deemed valid, he said, “these reviews frequently identify tactics, methods or conduct that can be improved upon.”

At times, he said, an agent’s use of deadly force may have clearly been within FBI policy, but the reviewers find that he or she should have employed different tactics or approaches that could have precluded the deadly confrontation.

In those cases, a review of practices, training, counseling or even discipline is recommended — but that is not reflected in the FBI data on whether shootings are deemed justified, he said.

“This accounts for a seemingly low percentage of FBI shootings being found to be ‘out of policy,'” he added. In many cases, “a comprehensive review may have found that best practices were not followed, despite a ‘good shoot’.”

Justice delayed?

In the Houston case, Acevedo told reporters the agent said he stuck his M4 rifle through the window of the house where Valladares was bound on the couch. The FBI was storming the residence to free the hostage, who had been seized by men who said his brother owed them money.

Somebody inside grabbed the rifle, the agent told police, leading him to fear that he would lose control of it. He fired two shots, striking Valladares, the only person in the room.

At his news conference in October, Acevedo said he no longer believed that story. The chief didn’t say what he thinks really happened, so as not to disrupt the pending federal investigation into the matter. He declined an NBC News request for an interview, and federal prosecutors declined to comment.

Acevedo told reporters in October that he didn’t understand why the federal investigation was taking so long, given that the Houston Police Department turned over its findings in April.

“I’ve always say, justice delayed is justice denied,” he said. “For everyone involved. For the FBI agent — and his family — I would hate to have something like this hanging over me. For the family of Mr. Valladares, who want to know exactly what happened.”

From left, Jimmy Tony Sanchez, Nicholas Chase Cunningham and Sophia Perez Heath.Conroe Police Department

Valladares’ 13-year-old-son, whom NBC News is not naming, does want to know. His mother died of cancer the year before. He was there the day the armed men took his father. They tied him up, as well, and he wriggled free to call for help.

“He’s kind of at a loss,” said the woman now raising him, Brooke Pearce, his older half-sister. “His heart’s definitely hurting.”

Pearce had to withdraw from nursing school to raise her younger brother along with her own child. More than a year after the shooting, she is still waiting to learn how the FBI agents who came to rescue her brother ended up killing him.

“I don’t feel like anything was handled appropriately. You’re not really reassured that the person was reprimanded or if they were given any additional training or even if they’re still out there with a gun running at people’s homes in situations like this.”



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British Steel in urgent £100M loan talks after EU FREEZES them out in latest Brexit blow

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BRITISH Steel is in desperate need of a £100million Government bail-out loan after being frozen out of an EU scheme by Brussels in the latest blow to Brexit.

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House Democrats give IRS until April 23 to hand over Trump’s tax returns

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By Leigh Ann Caldwell, Alex Moe and Kalhan Rosenblatt

House Democrats have given the Internal Revenue Service a new deadline to hand over President Donald Trump’s tax returns days after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said his department would miss the original deadline of April 10.

In a letter to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig sent Saturday by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., Democrats gave a second and final deadline of April 23 for six years of Trump’s personal and business tax returns. The lawmakers could go to court to seek the returns if the IRS does not turn them over.

“To date, the IRS has failed to provide the requested return and return information despite an unambiguous legal obligation to do so … Please know that, if you fail to comply, your failure will be interpreted as a denial of my request,” Neal wrote in the letter.

The letter also states that there is “no valid basis to question the legitimacy of the Committee’s legislative purpose,” citing Supreme Court instructions that Congress’ power to investigate is “broad.”

“It is not the proper function of the IRS, Treasury, or Justice to question or second guess the motivations of the Committee or its reasonable determinations regarding its need for the requested tax returns and return information,” Neal wrote.

The Ways and Means Committee first sent a formal request to the Treasury Department for Trump’s tax returns on April 3, giving the department a deadline of April 10 to produce the documents.

“I today submitted to IRS Commissioner Rettig my request for six years of the president’s personal tax returns as well as the returns for some of his business entities. We have completed the necessary groundwork for a request of this magnitude and I am certain we are within our legitimate legislative, legal, and oversight rights,” Neal said in a statement.

But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pushed back on the request, saying his department would be unable to meet the deadline.

In a letter to Neal, Mnuchin said the Treasury was continuing to review Democrats’ request in light of “serious issues” about whether the request is proper.

“The legal implications of this request could affect protections for all Americans against politically motivated disclosures of personal tax information, regardless of which party is in power,” Mnuchin wrote, saying he was consulting with the Justice Department about the legality and constitutionality of Neal’s request.



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Designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as terror group could jeopardize U.S. troops

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By F. Brinley Bruton and Ali Arouzi

The White House was looking to shake things up when it designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.

It worked.

“American terrorists killed in bombing,” read a headline in Iran’s official Fars news agency, referring to an attack in Afghanistan that killed three U.S. servicemen. That came just a day afterthe Trump administration’s announcement and represented a marked change in terminology by Tehran.

Iranian lawmakers dressed in military uniforms also chanted “Death to America” during an open session of Parliament on Tuesday. And according to the country’s Mehr news agency, Parliament passed an emergency bill requesting that countries that arrest U.S troops should hand them over to Iran to face trial as terrorists.

President Hassan Rouhani declared that the force’s popularity would only surge in the wake of the designation, saying its members would be more “in the hearts of the Iranian nation” than at any other time in history.

The White House’s decision to put the powerful military unit with deep economic resources that answers only to the country’s supreme leader in the same category as al Qaeda and the Islamic State group came a year after the Trump administration said it was withdrawing from the landmark Iran nuclear agreement.

Richard Nephew, a former director for Iran at the National Security Council who served as a member of the team who negotiated the 2015 deal, said President Donald Trump’s decision to designate the Guard as terrorists would most likely make American operations in the region “much more complicated.”

“If you have terrorists nearby … what do you do with them?” he wrote in an email. “In the U.S. system, we have authorities that authorize military operations against them. The Iranians know that. Are they going to wait to be hit? Or will they hit first?”

This is not a hypothetical scenario: For almost two decades Iran has expanded its influence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. In the process, it has had to operate close to American forces — often as adversaries, but sometimes not.

And the designation raises legal issues, Nephew said.

“What do we do if we capture IRGC officers somehow in Syria or Iraq? Do we turn them loose to the Iranians? They’re terrorists!” he wrote. “And, what do the Iranians do if they capture U.S. ‘terrorists’ in the Persian Gulf as they did in January 2016?”

NBC News reached out to the Pentagon for comment.

Trump called the designation an “unprecedented step” that “recognizes the reality that Iran is not only a state sponsor of terrorism, but that the IRGC actively participates in, finances, and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft.”

Those who opposed the Obama-era nuclear pact — both in Washington and the capitals of U.S. allies in the Middle East — allege it gave Iran cover to pursue its ballistic weapons program and deepen its influence in the region. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have warned for years of Iran’s growing power, and were bitterly disappointed when Obama negotiated it.

On the eve of pivotal elections in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday personally thanked Trump for the designation, as did Saudi Arabia.

But this week’s announcement makes it less likely that Iran will accede to American demands and stop its pernicious activity in the region, according to Ilan Goldenberg, Middle East security director at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington.

“The bottom line is the agreement was working, it was containing Iran’s nuclear program and we had total international support and unity around this issue,” he said.

With the nuclear deal axed, that mechanism for the U.S. to address Iran’s behavior is no longer available.

“We’ve shattered all trust,” Goldenberg said. “You could have had a negotiation on ballistic missiles. You could have had a negotiation on regional behavior. You could have had negotiations on future additional nuclear agreements.”

Sanctions against the Guard could also complicate any attempt by a future president to try to return the United States to the Iran deal, both advocates and critics of the move said.

“This is part of a strategy by Iran hawks to layer on sanctions to make it more difficult for Democrats,” a Republican congressional aide told NBC News when the designation was announced.

Several Democratic presidential candidates have said they favored having the United States re-enter the agreement, and the Democratic National Committee has said it supports a return to the deal.

F. Brinley Bruton reported from London, Ali Arouzi reported from Tehran, and Dan De Luce from Washington.

Dan De Luce, Associated Press and Reuters contributed.



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