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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.

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 a 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 involving people or objects, 34 were intentional shootings of animals, and 113 were accidental discharges.

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. None of the five questionable shooting actions by agents led to a 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.

“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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Grilled by children, Feinstein tries to teach lesson in politics

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By Dennis Romero

U.S. Sen Dianne Feinstein, D-California, isn’t backing the Green New Deal, and she wasn’t shy about letting a group who does support it know it — even if they are children.

A group of schoolchildren visited the senator at her San Francisco office Friday and urged her to get on board with the renewable energy legislation. But the conversation quickly turned into somewhat of a confrontation, and Feinstein has been criticized online for the tone she took. Edited video of the 85-year-old lecturing more than a dozen kids went viral Friday.

One girl implored the senator to back the Green New Deal and argued that the government can afford it. “We have tons of money going to military,” the girl told the lawmaker.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Feinstein said. “I know what I’m doing. You come in here and you say it has to be my way or the highway. I don’t respond to that.”

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Bigger is not better. Small dollars online are gold for Democrats taking on Trump.

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By Alex Seitz-Wald

WASHINGTON — The most coveted donor for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates may not be a Wall Street financier or Hollywood producer, but a grade school teacher in the Midwest who chips in $25 a month to her favorite candidate.

Small dollars are a bigger deal than ever because they can help organize and engage a large and committed group of supporters who invest more than just money in a campaign.

“Small-dollar donors are going to be a pivotal part of this election, both strategically and practically,” said Erin Hill, executive director of ActBlue, Democrats’ central clearinghouse for online donations. “Small-dollar donors don’t just give — they also vote, volunteer and tell their friends why they care about a candidate.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., proved that his supporters, or at least 225,000 of them, are still committed when he raised a whopping $6 million on Wednesday, the day after launching his presidential campaign.

Rufus Gifford, who served as national finance director for President Barack Obama’s re-election effort in 2012, called the haul “truly remarkable,” noting on Twitter that he was skeptical Sanders could match his 2016 effort: “I was wrong.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., announced raising $1.5 million on her first day in the race, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she brought in $1 million in her first 48 hours. The other candidates have not released numbers, but FEC data shows Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., raised about $300,000 online through ActBlue on New Year’s Eve, when she announced her exploratory committee.

Sanders, of course, had a head start thanks to his previous presidential run, which helped him grow a donor pool the size of every other perspective candidate combined, according to a recent New York Times analysis.

But the good news for the rest of the current field of White House hopefuls is that there is now more opportunity than ever for left-leaning candidates to tap into grassroots fundraising — if they know how to.

“As donors get younger and younger, and people get more and more used to the internet, and campaigns get savvier and savvier, there is very real money available,” said Teddy Goff, who was a top digital strategist on presidential runs by Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Goff recalled that as recently as 2012 people would call into the Obama campaign to make sure it was safe for them to donate online.

Now, thanks to Amazon and everything else that Americans do online, digital financial transactions have become second nature. And thanks to President Donald Trump, Democratic voters are eager to open their digital wallets.

In last year’s midterm elections, ActBlue processed more than $1.6 billion in online donations, up from $782 million in 2016 and $335 million in 2014 — a five-fold surge in four years. (Republicans just last month established their answer to ActBlue after years of false starts.)

And as donating online has become frictionless for Democrats, the party has grown increasingly hostile to traditional modes of funding campaigns and to big money in politics.

For the first time, the Democratic National Committee will allow candidates to qualify to take part in the party’s debates if they can secure donations from 65,000 people in at least 20 different states. In the past, only candidates who registered a certain amount of support in the polls were allowed to participate.

“Because campaigns are won on the strength of their grassroots, we also updated the threshold, giving all types of candidates the opportunity to reach the debate stage and giving small-dollar donors a bigger voice in the primary than ever before,” DNC chairman Tom Perez said in a statement announcing the change.

That’s already altering some campaigns’ strategies, with lesser-known candidates like Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, pursuing that path to the debate stage.

Tara McGowan, the founder and CEO of the Democratic digital firm Acronym, said smart campaigns make donors “feel a sense of ownership” in the campaign and give them other meaningful ways to engage, like by volunteering or posting on social media.

“You run the risk of thinking of digital outreach as an ATM for the campaign,” she said. “You’re missing a real opportunity to help amplify your message if you’re not engaging people who are already raising their hand.”

Meanwhile, big donors simply aren’t as valuable as they once were, excluding groups that can take unlimited contributions like super PACs — and almost every major 2020 candidate has sworn off them already.

For Democrats, big checks also can come with a political cost, especially if they’re written by people who work in certain industries that have been targeted by the left, such as finance, fossil fuels and pharmaceuticals.

While large donors may expect something in return for their largesse, from a photo-op with the candidate to an ambassadorship to France, someone who gives $5 is not counting on much more than a feeling of connection to the candidate and solidarity with other small donors.

For instance, Warren has recalled how during her first run for the Senate in 2012, a young man approached her on a subway platform late one night to tell her he was working extra hours to donate to her campaign every month.

“I felt as if he’d hit me with a spear right between the ribs,” Warren wrote in her book, “A Fighting Chance.” “Good Lord — this kid was working until nearly 11 o’clock on a Saturday night and he was sending me money? I smiled weakly and said something along the lines of: ‘Uh, I’m doing OK in the campaign. Maybe you should keep your money. I’ll be fine. Really.'”

But she says he looked back and replied: “No, I’m part of this campaign. This is my fight, too.”

The first big fundraising test for every candidate will come at the end of March, when they have to file their first quarterly reports to the FEC. Early fundraising numbers are heavily scrutinized by party insiders and the media as a sign of a candidate’s strength, and historically they have been a better predictor of success than early polls.

As Democrats fight their primary race and chase small-dollar contributors, they’re not alone.

Trump’s forces have spent more than $4 million on Facebook ads since November alone to expand their list of supporters, and 75 percent of the money his campaign raised in the most recent quarter came from donors who give $200 or less.

“Realistically,” ActBlue’s Hill said, “our nominee is going to need to be primarily funded by grassroots donors in order to beat Trump, who already has widespread small-dollar donor support.”



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Cohen said to be providing new information to federal prosecutors in NY

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 / Updated 

By Tom Winter, Ken Dilanian, Jonathan Dienst and Monica Alba

President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen, facing jail in just over two months, has been speaking with and providing information to federal prosecutors in New York, according to three people familiar with the matter.

According to those sources and public statements, Cohen was questioned about a donor to the president’s inaugural committee, Imaad Zuberi, who is a political fundraiser with a history of donating to both Republican and Democratic candidates.

In addition, the sources said Cohen has discussed matters relevant to the Southern District of New York’s investigation into certain members of the Trump Organization and the Trump Inaugural Committee, investigations that have previously been reported publicly.

The New York Times first reported the discussions, which sources confirm occurred in January, on Friday evening. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.

Lanny Davis, an attorney and spokesperson for Cohen, said in a statement to NBC News: “We cannot comment on any matters that are still under investigation by the Special Counsel or the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.”

However, Davis added, “I can say that Mr. Cohen is interested in cooperating with and assisting the SDNY team in any way they believe is helpful.”

An inaugural committee spokesperson declined to comment.

The White House referred questions to the Trump Organization, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Michael Cohen leaves Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 21, 2019.Susan Walsh / AP

Zuberi has previously been mentioned in reports surrounding the investigation into the Trump Inaugural Committee. His spokesperson has previously told the Washington Post that Zuberi’s funds did not come from a foreign donor and that the money he gave was his own.

Friday’s revelations have to do with a proposed consulting agreement between Cohen and Zuberi, an agreement Zuberi’s spokesperson said was never completed.

Steve Rabinowitz, a spokesman for Zuberi, said his client “received what I would call a speculative contract from Cohen to consult on a new, small private New York real estate fund they had spoken briefly of, but that never came to be.”

Rabinowitz said his client issued a check to Cohen as part of initiating the agreement and said Zuberi recently searched his records and found a $100,000 handwritten check to Cohen that was issued in February 2017.

“The check was never cashed and by March [of 2017], Cohen and Zuberi would not speak again,” he said.

“Imaad [Zuberi] did not pursue Cohen; it was the other way around,” Rabinowitz said. “And their would-be relationship fell apart when Zuberi didn’t sign the contract, not when Cohen didn’t cash the check. And how could he? They didn’t have a deal.”

Cohen, who pleaded guilty on charges related to tax evasion and campaign finance fraud, faces a three-year sentence and is expected to report to prison May 6.

Cohen pleaded guilty in August 2018 to the charges brought by federal prosecutors in New York — six counts related to his personal finances and two related to campaign finance violations involving hush money payments to two women who said they had affairs with Trump.

Federal law allows prosecutors to seek a reduction in a jail sentence post-conviction and even post-sentencing for cooperation in an ongoing investigation.

A public court filing from prosecutors indicating that Cohen is cooperating or indicating that they seek a reduction in his sentence has not been made, and there’s no indication that there’s a formal agreement.

Cohen is expected to testify before several committees of Congress next week.



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