August 13, 2010

Background checks for oil spill workers

Posted: 11:20 AM ET

Jackson County, Mississippi, Sheriff Mike Byrd told CNN he was shocked when he met with the local head of BP security as the company was cranking up beach clean-up operations. The sheriff was told BP wasn’t doing background checks on oil-spill clean-up workers.

"I said, 'You're kidding me,' Byrd recalls telling the BP official.

Now, Byrd says, that lack of screening has resulted in a convicted sex offender being charged with raping a co-worker.

A CNN investigation into the incident reveals a web of corporate finger-pointing after basic background checks were not done on those hired to remove oil from the beaches in and around Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Byrd said he told the BP official that "you're going to have every type of person coming in here looking for a job and you're going to have the criminal element in here and we're not going to know who we're dealing with if we don't do background checks on these people."

Byrd believes if a simple background check had been done, the alleged rape could have been prevented. Charles Rundy Robertson, the man charged in the case, had failed to register as a sex offender. He was also on probation for a felony. Yet, because no background checks were done, he was hired as a supervisor.

In a statement to CNN, BP spokesman Robert Wine said, "BP does conduct full checks on its employees, and under normal business conditions can make it a part of the contract for full backgrounds to be conducted by our long-term contractors. This was not done for all contractors in this response; the responsibility lies with the employing company for their own staff.”

The company that hired workers for BP’s clean-up efforts was Aerotek. We spoke with the general counsel for Aerotek who told us, “We are not liable for anything that happens. Once we deliver the people to be supervised by our client, we don't have anything to do with them anymore."

Sheriff Mike Byrd said he asked BP’s local head of security why no background checks were being performed, and his response was, “…there’s so many of them [employees], we were told to do drug screens and that was it.”

Do you think more should have been done to prevent criminals from being hired for BP’s clean-up operation along the Gulf Coast? Also, Sheriff Byrd told CNN, he would have done the background checks for free. So, why do you think the companies involved still refused to have the checks performed?

Filed under: Abbie Boudreau • Uncategorized

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July 27, 2010

Scammers, Be Gone!

Posted: 05:31 PM ET

Twitter: @AbbieCNN

Why isn't more being done to stop online imposters who steal photos of soldiers they find on the Internet, and then fraudulently post them on dating websites to scam women out of money? Sometimes these scammers even use photos they find of soldiers who were killed while at war.

We reached out to the Army, the Secret Service, the FBI, the State Department, Federal Trade Commission and the National White Collar Crime Center to find out if anyone was trying to track down these scammers. All say, unfortunately, there is little they can do. Of course, the feds can take your complaint, but they say they are not actively pursuing the imposters, mostly because they are operating from outside the United States and are very mobile, often from internet cafes.

I can only imagine how frustrating that must be for both the women who are scammed and the soldiers whose names and photos have been stolen. The reason the Army says it cannot go after these scam artists is because the soldier is not the perpetrator, which means the crime does not fall under the Army's jurisdiction.

Since we began reporting this story, we've heard from other soldiers and high-ranking Army officials who say they feel helpless. They don't understand why more cannot be done to stop these online imposters.

What do you think should happen? And for you computer geniuses out there, is it really that hard to track down these scammers and to put an end to this?

If you want to report a scam like this one, the Army recommends you contact one of the following entities:

Federal Trade Commission:
By phone: 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338) or TTY, 1-866-653-4261
By mail: Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580

Internet Crime Complaint Center:

Report the theft to one of your local law enforcement agencies:


United States Secret Service:

United States Postal Inspection Service:

United States Army Criminal Investigation Command:

United States Navy Criminal Investigative Service:

United States Air Force Office of Special Investigations:

Filed under: Abbie Boudreau • Special Investigations Unit

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July 19, 2010

Dating Scams Flourish Online

Posted: 05:41 PM ET

We’ve all heard of people getting scammed out of large sums of money by opportunists making phony pitches over the phone, by mail or by e-mail and via online websites.

For a story, we’re now checking into reports about thieves who steal people’s online photos and then post them on dating websites. The scammers create a fake profile, dupe vulnerable people into responding and ultimately getting drawn into what they think is a romantic relationship.

One man who says his photo was posted on a dating site without his knowledge told us he gets a dozen e-mails a week from women all over the world who’ve fallen for his online imposter. He told us one of the women got scammed out of $50,000 and was devastated to find out he was happily married. He says the ordeal has taken a heavy emotional toll on his family who keep hearing from victimized women and he can’t find a way to bring the scam to an end.

We’re wondering how widespread this is around the country. Let me know if anything like this has ever happened to you on Internet dating websites. I’ve heard some real horror stories, and I’ll share some more details with you when we’re ready to air our report in the next week or two.

Filed under: Abbie Boudreau

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July 13, 2010

Should Sex Offenders Get U.S. Passports?

Posted: 03:23 PM ET

I was reading through a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report about how thousands of registered sex offenders are being issued U.S. passports.

Apparently, the State Department cannot legally deny registered sex offenders from getting a passport. (Though it can legally prevent people from getting passports who have been convicted of "sex tourism" crimes, thanks to a 2008 statute that has cracked down on sex offenders who travel to other countries for the explicit reason of committing sex crimes.)

Still, according to GAO, of the 16 million people who received passports during fiscal year 2008, about 4,500 of them were registered sex offenders.

According to the State Department, that number is "very misleading,"
considering sex offenders made up only a fraction of a percent of the 16 million passports that were issued during that period of time.

GAO cites 30 case studies in its report. Many of the offenders mentioned in the report had multiple sex offenses, and used their passports to travel to foreign countries known for sex tourism activity.

This is one case study that GAO documented in its report:

"In the early 2000s, the offender was convicted of two counts of unlawful sexual contact with a minor under 14 years old. The offender pled guilty to molesting two boys, ages 8 and 11. Both victims were friends with the offender¹s son and occasionally spent the night at the offender¹s home. The offender entered his son¹s room during sleepovers and molested the victims while they were sleeping. The offender currently has child support debt of about $21,000 and owed child support at the time the passport was issued.
The offender traveled to Mexico after receiving his passport."

According to GAO, there is no sex offender registry in Mexico.

Here's my question: Do you think registered sex offenders should be allowed to receive U.S. passports?

Filed under: Abbie Boudreau • Special Investigations Unit

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July 8, 2010

Send us your ideas

Posted: 10:04 AM ET

By Abbie Boudreau

Special Investigations Unit

@Abbie CNN

I was just looking at different news websites. Mainly mainstream – cable and network. It was interesting to see what headlines were front and center.

Around 7 p.m. on Wednesday, I checked Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, CBS News, and NBC Nightly News.

These are the various headlines:

FOX News: “Feds: Terrorists Planning NYC Subway Attack Linked to U.K. Cell”

CNN: “Arrest made in serial killings that stretch over decades”

MSNBC: “Thousands evacuate as Rio Grande floods”

ABC News: “Russian and U.S. Diplomats Exploring Elaborate Spy Swap”

CBS News: “Does Israel’s Netanyahu Trust Obama?”

NBC Nightly News: “Extreme Heat Tests Grit of Power Grid”

The top stories are all very different, and it makes me wonder what kind of news that people are most interested in. Terrorists or serial killers? Extreme heat or flooding in the Rio Grande? Russian spies or Netanyahu? Maybe all of these topics interest you – or maybe none of them do. It’s all very subjective.

I often think about the types of stories I want to report, but I’m even more interested the kind of reporting people want me to focus on.

What many people do not realize is that a large number of my stories come from tips. I always take time to read and think about the story ideas that are sent to me. Of course, it’s impossible to report on every tip that comes my way, but every once a while we spot a gem – a story that will have an impact – a story people will remember.

It’s really easy to send me a story idea if you would like me to take a look at it. Send me a tweet saying you have a story idea, and I will write you back a direct message. Or you could always post a comment on my blog.

If you don’t have a specific story idea in mind, I am still interested in the topics you think reporters should be focusing on the most? What would your headline read?

Filed under: Abbie Boudreau • Special Investigations Unit

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July 7, 2010

Lindsay Lohan's soon-to-be fellow jail inmate

Posted: 04:57 PM ET

By Abbie Boudreau

CNN Special Investigations Unit


What do Lindsay Lohan and this man have in common?

Starting July 20, actress Lindsay Lohan will check into Los Angeles County jail to start her 90-day sentence for missing alcohol counseling sessions in violation of her probation.  And already, it’s been widely reported that her three-month stint behind bars may be shortened because of jail overcrowding.

Here’s what I find so interesting.

There’s an inmate named Richard Fine who is sitting in a jail cell in L.A. County wishing he could leave, and free up some space for someone else.  He’s 70 years old, and has been serving time for more than a year. 

Fine is a former attorney who once worked for the Department of Justice. As we first reported in May of 2010, Fine is now being held in contempt of court after he refused to turn over financial documents and answer questions when ordered to pay an opposing party's attorney's fees, according to court documents.

Fine says his contempt order masks the real reason why he's in jail. He claims he's a political prisoner.

 "I ended up here because I did the one thing no other lawyer in California is willing to do. I took on the corruption of the courts," Fine said in a jailhouse interview with CNN.

For the last decade, Fine has filed appeal after appeal against L. A. County's Superior Court judges. He says the judges each accept what he calls yearly "bribes" from the county worth $57,000. That's on top of a $178,789 annual salary, paid by the state. The county calls the extra payments "supplemental benefits" - a way to attract and retain quality judges in a high-cost city.

Fine says the judge who put him in contempt of court had received supplemental benefits from the county.
Fine believes the judge should have removed himself from a case involving the county. But that didn’t happen.  Fine says he thinks that is the underlying reason the judge slapped a  contempt order on him.

"The reason I'm here is the retaliation of the judges," Fine says. "They figured they're going to throw me in jail and that way they feel that they can stop me."

So far, neither the judge involved in this case, nor Fine seem to be willing to work things out, and end this 16-month imprisonment.  This could go on indefinitely. 

Fine actually gets an entire cell to himself. 

Jail officials tell us he is in solitary confinement for his own protection, since the general population can be dangerous.  In fact, Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the L. A. County Sheriff's Department, says Fine's jail cell could be used for a “violent offender.”

I am not placing any judgment on what should or should not happen in Lindsay Lohan’s case or that of other celebrities who have broken the law. But the issue of jail overcrowding has been in the California spotlight for years. And it makes me wonder how many other non-violent L.A. County jail inmates are taking up cell space that could be used by other people who really should be locked up.

Here's the original story.

Filed under: Abbie Boudreau

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July 6, 2010

Imprisoned soldier's wife pleas for justice

Posted: 03:53 PM ET

Twitter: @AbbieCNN

Battlefield justice or murder?

That question was the focus of our CNN investigative documentary, "Killings at the Canal: The Army Tapes," which aired last November. The documentary was about three U.S. soldiers who shot and killed four Iraqi detainees in 2007.

Their families say the so-called "catch and release" program was not working, which was why these soldiers killed the four, unarmed Iraqi detainees. One of the soldiers, who was later convicted of premeditated murder, told Army investigators that killing the four detainees had likely saved countless American lives. It was an emotional story to report, and one that brought in thousands of responses worldwide.

We often hear from people who wonder what happened to the three convicted soldiers.

We know two of them had their clemency requests denied. All three are serving long sentences at Fort Leavenworth.

Recently, we got an e-mail from John Hatley's wife, Kim. Her husband is serving a 40-year prison term for the murders. This is part of her e-mail to us:

"I am on a mission to get word out about my husband, (former) Infantry First Sergeant John Hatley who is highly decorated, served 20 years in the U.S. Army, but was sentenced to prison for 'life' for allegedly killing 4 insurgents (enemy combatants) in Baghdad, Iraq at pre-surge, OIF – Operation Iraqi Freedom 06-08. This was a 15-month long deployment at one of the most violent periods in the Iraq war, each day riddled with extreme sectarian violence. This is a case of self-defense, for the 'detainee catch & release policy' was yet another flawed policy, that placed our troops in danger and continues to exist to this day. My husband did everything he could to bring his soldiers back alive. They were all like sons to him. This deployment resulted in six of my husband's soldiers getting killed; 2 by small arms fire and 4 by IEDs – Improvised Explosive Devices."

 Kim Hatley calls her husband a "hero," and she pledges to keep fighting until he is released from prison. The Army says what these three soldiers did that day in Iraq was murder, pure and simple.

 What do you think? Should these soldiers be released? Or do you think they deserve 30 to 40-year prison sentences?

 Here is a link to our full investigation and documentary.

 IF you'd like to read more about John Hatley's case, his website is below.

Filed under: Abbie Boudreau

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June 16, 2010

Internal BP email shows how the company handles a crisis

Posted: 12:52 PM ET

BP’s history provides a window into its corporate culture. In fact, you really don’t have to go back too far – just five years or so.

Texas plaintiff attorney Brent Coon represented many victims and their families after a 2005 BP explosion at a Texas City, Texas refinery, which killed 15 workers and injured 180 others.

Coon’s team uncovered more than seven million internal BP documents. He says most of the documents are BP emails, employee surveys, and other internal documents from the public relations department and chief counsel’s office.

One of those documents is an email that was written only three hours after the Texas City explosion happened. It was circulated throughout the company’s public relations department and to other managers at BP.


The subject line said, “Media coverage and loss of life.” It says, “looks like injuries and loss of life are heavy,” but because the incident happened before a holiday weekend, the PR person notes the media coverage will probably just “go away.”

Then, the last line of the email states, “This is a very big story in the US right now - but the Terry [sic] Schiavo story is huge as well.”

Terri Schiavo was the 41-year-old, brain-damaged, Florida woman whose story about whether her feeding tube would be removed had captivated the country.

BP’s public relations team saw this as positive for the company. Remember, 15 people had died only a few hours before this email was written. The rescue workers were still removing bodies from the scene when this email was sent out.

Sadly, they were probably right. My guess is that most people outside of Texas have never even heard about the 2005 refinery explosion in Texas City. But if we had paid closer attention, perhaps we could have learned a long time ago about BP’s safety problems, and how some employees felt the company placed profit before people’s lives.

Now, because of the enormity of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, this story will not just “go away.”

We wanted to talk to BP about this email to get their side of the story. BP responded with a statement, but did not specifically address the email. Here is part of their response: “BP has worked diligently since the accident in March 2005 to address safety concerns at the Texas City site. BP has spent more than $1 billion at Texas City to address safety concerns since 2005. We continue to work cooperatively with OSHA to resolve these matters. We are determined to learn from this event and get better as a company.”

Filed under: Abbie Boudreau • Special Investigations Unit

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May 26, 2010

Bureaucrats and Bullies

Posted: 04:52 PM ET

It seems like every time we turn around there’s another report about a student being bullied at school. You’d think when a bully gets older, that kind of behavior would somehow go away. But maybe it doesn’t.


Recently, I interviewed a special agent with ATF. He’s been at the agency for nearly 24 years. Most of his time there was spent going undercover. He’s worked on cases involving white supremacist groups and the Hell’s Angels and murder for hire. If anyone were capable of intimidating someone or being a bully, I would think it would be him. But he told me he feels that he is the one being bullied by “bureaucrats” at ATF.

Vince Cefalu has filed a bunch of complaints dating back to 2006. But he says the one that really got him in trouble was his whistleblower complaint.

Cefalu says he was working in the property department and noticed there was missing equipment. He says he told his superiors about his discovery and they told him to “shut up.” He reported his findings anyway, and he said that is when the retaliation and bullying really began. He became an outcast. He says he was given a desk job, with no real responsibilities. All he does is sit there for eight hours, and then leaves. He says he considers this kind of work, the worst kind of punishment, and feels managers at ATF are trying to bully him into leaving the agency. It hasn’t worked yet.

Kenneth Melson, who runs ATF as deputy director, told me there hasn’t been retaliation since he took over last year. He says he will not tolerate reprisals against employees.

I’m interested in hearing more about adult bullies. Have you ever encountered a bully at work? If so, what happened? Has anyone ever tried to bully you into quitting your job? Do you know of other federal agencies where employees feel bullying and retaliation is a part of the operation?

Filed under: Abbie Boudreau • Special Investigations Unit • Uncategorized

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May 23, 2010


Posted: 09:57 PM ET

When I hear the term “contempt of court,” I right away imagine one of those courtroom dramas on TV, where some guy is yelling at a judge, the judge gets mad, and screams out from behind the bench, “I find you in contempt of court!” The belligerent person screams some kind of obscenity back, and is then handcuffed and hauled away by a bailiff. On TV, he’s let out of jail a day or two later when tempers have calmed down and egos have been set aside. But that’s TV. It’s a much different scenario for Richard Fine who has been held in contempt of court for 14 months now.


Fine is not a criminal – he’s a 70-year-old former Beverly Hills attorney, once known for his bow-tie.
I met him at the L.A. County Jail. He was wearing an orange jumpsuit and was handcuffed.

He considers himself a “political prisoner.” He’s been held in solitary confinement for more than one year (jail officials say that’s because other inmates could harm him), and he says he’s only been outside for about nine hours since he’s been locked up.

According to court documents, Fine is in jail because he refused to produce financial documents and answer questions when ordered to pay the other side’s attorney’s fees. That’s when Judge Yaffe put Fine in contempt of court, until Fine decided he wanted to give the court what it requested.

Well, so far, Fine is not in the mood to cooperate. Fine believes he is being held in contempt for a very different reason. He says Judge Yaffe, and other L.A. County Superior Court judges, have accepted what he calls “bribes” from the county. Fine argues the “bribes” create a conflict of interest for judges in cases where the county is a party to the lawsuit. He feels the judges should be disqualified from those cases.

L.A. County judges really do receive extra benefits from the county on top of their six-figure state salary. It’s a practice common in California that was retroactively made legal, after a 2008 case against L.A. County found the payments unconstitutional.

The county says the extra cash is a type of “supplemental benefit” that helps to attract and retain quality judges in a high-cost city. Fine doesn’t buy that argument, so for the past decade, he’s been going after judges and has tried to expose what he considers a “corrupt judicial system.”

But for the purpose of this blog, let’s put the details of his history aside for a moment, and just focus on why court officials say he’s in jail. It’s because he doesn’t want to hand over his financial records or answer questions. He is being held in what is called “coercive confinement.”

That means, unless he does what the judge wants him to do, he will remain in jail – in his case, indefinitely. It’s like the world’s longest timeout. Fine does not want to cooperate because he says he will lose his chance to appeal his case against Judge Yaffe, if he ever gets out of jail. But when does this stop being productive and start becoming a waste of everyone’s time?

Of course, we tried contacting Judge Yaffe. And of course, he said he did not want to talk to us about this case since it’s ongoing.

What will happen if Fine refuses to cooperate, and Judge Yaffe doesn’t put an end to this? Could this go on for another year, or maybe even more? At what point does “coercive confinement” become nothing more than an indefinite jail sentence.

Oh, and one more thing. In the last couple of months, L.A. County Jail released about 200 inmates before their terms were up because of budget shortages. A spokesman for the jail told me they sure could use Fine’s cell for real criminals.
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