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17 Explosive BuzzFeed News Investigations That Made Waves In 2019

The beloved global wildlife charity that funds guards who have raped and killed indigenous people. Sexual misconduct accusations against the world's most famous self-help guru. Chaos and carnage across the US in Amazon's sprint for next-day delivery. The hidden campaign to dig up dirt on Trump's enemies in Ukraine. And Robert Mueller's secret memos. A year of BuzzFeed News investigations.

Posted on December 20, 2019, at 10:26 a.m. ET

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1. WWF Funds Guards Who Have Tortured and Killed People

Tim Lane / Guy Shield for BuzzFeed News

In this jaw-dropping investigation, Tom Warren and Katie J.M. Baker laid bare the human cost of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s war on poaching — exposing how one of the world’s most cherished charities has funded shocking human rights abuses against some of the most impoverished people on the planet. Their revelation that anti-poaching rangers funded and equipped by WWF have tortured, raped, and killed indigenous people living on the fringes of conservation parks across Asia and Africa had instant impact. US lawmakers launched a bipartisan investigation to determine whether the government funded wildlife guards accused of atrocities, prompting the Department of the Interior to place conservation grants worth $125 million under review, while the Government Accountability Office opened its own probe. The UK’s Charity Commission also launched an inquiry, and the German government froze funding for the charity. WWF is conducting its own investigation, led by a former UN human rights commissioner, and the charity has already introduced sweeping reforms to help prevent further abuses.

Warren and Baker kept reporting. They got their hands on no fewer than four secret reports proving WWF was warned repeatedly that rangers funded by the charity were committing heinous abuses against indigenous people. They obtained documents proving definitively that millions of dollars of US taxpayers’ money had gone to guards accused of those abuses. And in October, they found the proof that the charity’s top executives — Director General Marco Lambertini and Chief Operating Officer Dominic O’Neill — knew of the scandal at least a year before it was exposed by BuzzFeed News.

Read the full series here.

2. The World’s Most Famous Self-Help Guru Accused of Sexual Misconduct

Akiko Stehrenberger for BuzzFeed News

From the moment Jane Bradley and Katie J.M. Baker began reporting out a tip about possible sexual misconduct by the self-help megastar Tony Robbins, they faced a Herculean task. Robbins commands a world both insular and utterly devoted to him. His fans back him and his teachings with zealous vigor, and the employees and volunteers who run his events are often his most fervent followers. He is secretive, forbidding footage of his seminars to reach the public outside of his PR team’s strict control. He is rich. And he is famously litigious.

But Bradley and Baker did not flinch. They published a yearlong investigation based on leaked recordings, internal documents, dozens of interviews, and sworn witness statements revealing how the self-help guru has berated abuse victims, subjected his followers to unorthodox and potentially dangerous techniques, and stands accused of sexual misconduct by multiple former female fans and staffers.

In the aftermath of their story, Simon & Schuster scrapped a planned book by Robbins, and readers deluged our tips line with new allegations. Baker and Bradley went on to publish sexual misconduct accusations from four more women, unearth video of Robbins using racial slurs, and reveal documents showing he punishes followers by making them drink an unidentified brown liquid “designed to have a lasting effect”.

The final installment in their series revealed allegations that Robbins sexually assaulted a high schooler at a summer camp where he taught in the 1980s — corroborated with testimony from the alleged victim, two eyewitnesses, contemporaneous journal entries, and more than 40 former staff and campers who said they heard about the alleged assault at the time.

Robbins, who has denied all the accusations and accused BuzzFeed News of “flat-out lying,” responded by filing a claim for libel in Ireland where, his lawyers warned, “the defamation law will be much more favorable." BuzzFeed News stands proudly behind this rigorously reported series. Read it in full here.

3. The Real Cost of Amazon’s Next-Day Delivery

Michelle Thompson for BuzzFeed News

In its relentless bid to offer ever-faster delivery at ever-lower costs, Amazon has built a national delivery system that has brought chaos, exploitation, and danger to communities across America. Ken Bensinger and Caroline O’Donovan identified scores of deaths, injuries, and accidents caused by the sprawling, decentralized network of vans delivering Amazon’s packages. And they revealed how, when workers are abused or underpaid, when overstretched delivery companies fall into bankruptcy, or when innocent people are killed or maimed by errant drivers, the system is purpose-built to allow Amazon to wash its hands of any responsibility.

Days after Amazon’s deadly track record was revealed by BuzzFeed News and a separate investigation by ProPublica, three US senators, including Elizabeth Warren, decried Amazon’s disregard for safety and demanded information about how its network of contractors operates. The retail giant refused to answer the senators’ questions — but it rapidly severed its contracts with three major delivery companies whose chequered safety records had been spotlighted in our reporting.

4. The Secret Campaign to Dig Up Dirt on Trump's Enemies in Ukraine

Erik Carter for BuzzFeed News

Months before the impeachment inquiry got underway, Michael Sallah and Tanya Kozyreva exposed how two unofficial envoys reporting directly to Rudy Giuliani waged a secret back-channel campaign in Ukraine, urging officials to investigate the Democratic 2020 frontrunner Joe Biden and seeking to discredit the special counsel’s inquiry into Russian meddling in US elections.

Working with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Sallah and Kozyreva exposed a whirlwind of private meetings in which Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman gathered repeatedly with top officials in Kyiv and set up meetings for Giuliani as they turned up information that could be weaponized in the 2020 presidential race, while at the same time dining with the president and pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into Republican campaigns.

That investigation was cited in the whistleblower’s complaint that went on to spark the impeachment inquiry. In October, Sallah and BuzzFeed News political reporter Emma Loop obtained unprecedented access to scores of bank records from private business accounts controlled by Parnas and Fruman that revealed a whirlwind of spending at high-end restaurants, an infamous strip club, and five-star hotels as the two operatives carried out their secret campaign. The two men were arrested the following day on campaign finance charges and subpoenaed by House Democrats as part of the first impeachment inquiry in a generation.

5. The Lies Michael Cohen Told to Protect the President

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

This January, Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier reported that President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials. The sources said the president had personally instructed Cohen to tell Congress the negotiations ended months earlier than they actually did in order to obscure his involvement at the height of his presidential campaign, when he had repeatedly claimed he had no business in Russia.

The story was based on detailed information from senior law enforcement sources, including notes from an FBI interview of Cohen which said: “DJT personally asked Cohen to say negotiations ended in January and White House counsel office knew Cohen would give false testimony to Congress.” But soon after it was published, the office of the Special Counsel investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russia issued a rebuttal. “BuzzFeed's description of specific statements to the Special Counsel's Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen's Congressional testimony are not accurate,” it said.

The following month, Cohen testified before a congressional committee that Trump “told” him to lie to Congress “in his way,” using a coded style of speech that he said was familiar from past interactions. Shortly afterward, Cohen’s attorneys sent a lengthy memo to lawmakers, including more than 100 pages of documentation, that stated Cohen’s false testimony was based on “Trump and associates’ overall and intense effort to persuade Cohen to commit crime of lying to congress.”

When Mueller released his final report in April, it found that Cohen had lied at what he believed to be the president’s behest, that the president knew he was giving false testimony, and that the president’s lawyers encouraged that testimony. Trump’s attorney told Cohen to “stay on message, and not contradict the President,” Mueller wrote. But the report concluded that the totality of the evidence “to us does not establish the president directed or aided Cohen's false testimony.”

As our editor-in-chief Ben Smith wrote in an update to the original story: “Our sources — federal law enforcement officials — interpreted the evidence Cohen presented as meaning that the president “directed” Cohen to lie. We now know that Mueller did not. There may still be more to learn about the evidence that was gathered, what was and was not included in the report, and how those final determinations were made. As part of that effort, BuzzFeed News has filed more than two dozen Freedom of Information Act requests relating to the Mueller investigation.”

6. The Mueller Memos

BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

This year, BuzzFeed News sued the US government to see all the work that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team kept secret in its investigation into ties between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. In five separate Freedom of Information Act lawsuits pioneered by Jason Leopold, we pried loose all the subpoenas and search warrants that Mueller’s team executed, as well as all the emails, memos, letters, talking points, legal opinions, and interview transcripts his inquiry generated.

Mueller’s 448-page report released last April was the most hotly anticipated prosecutorial document in a generation, laying out the evidence of Russia's interference in the 2016 election and the Trump administration’s efforts to obstruct the inquiry. The report, however, reflected only a small fraction of the billions of primary-source documents that the government claims Mueller’s team may have amassed over the course of its two-year investigation. Those documents are a crucial national legacy, a key to understanding this important chapter in American history. But the public has not been allowed to see any of them. Until now.

In November, in response to our lawsuit which was joined by CNN, the Justice Department released the first installment of documents: hundreds of pages of summaries of FBI interviews with witnesses. Among the many revelations was a heavily redacted copy of Michael Cohen’s FBI interview, in which he told investigators it was “not his idea” to write a statement to Congress containing lies about Trump Tower Moscow, and he had been told to do so by the White House. A second installment was released in December, and further tranches will be made public every month for at least the next eight years.

7. The Secret Plans for Trump Tower Moscow

BuzzFeed News; Wikimedia; Getty Images; Trump Tower rendering provided to BuzzFeed News

The plan was dazzling: a glass skyscraper that would stretch higher than any other building in Europe, offering ultra-luxury residences and hotel rooms and bearing a famous name. Trump Tower Moscow, conceived as a partnership between Donald Trump’s company and a Russian real estate developer, looked likely to yield profits in excess of $300 million.

The tower was never built, but when it became a focal point of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Trump’s relationship with Russia, the president and his representatives dismissed the project as little more than a vague notion. Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said in January that “no plans were ever made. There were no drafts. Nothing in the file.”

But hundreds of pages of business documents, emails, text messages, and architectural plans, obtained by BuzzFeed News told a very different story – revealing that Trump Tower Moscow was a richly imagined vision of upscale splendor on the banks of the Moscow River. And a cache of internal Trump Organization documents show how the negotiations over the tower unfolded at the height of the election campaign as Trump heaped praise on Putin.

8. Insurance Companies Are Paying Cops to Investigate Their Own Customers

Ross Mantle for BuzzFeed News

A cozy alliance between insurers and law enforcement has turned the justice system into the industry’s hired gun and left innocent customers facing prison. This devastating investigation by Kendall Taggart found that Erie, State Farm, Farmers, and other giant home and auto insurers across America have co-opted law enforcement to intimidate and prosecute their own customers — tactics that can help companies boost their profits and avoid paying claims. In some cases, insurance giants even cover the salaries of dedicated public prosecutors, police detectives, and investigators whose caseloads consist primarily of insurance fraud referrals from those same companies. The result is that dozens of premium-paying customers across the United States have faced jail for doing nothing more than filing insurance claims for damages to their property.

9. How Police Failure to Solve Shootings Fuels Cycles of Violence Across America

Joan Wong for BuzzFeed News

A yearlong investigation by the Trace and Jeremy Singer-Vine at BuzzFeed News found that police are failing to solve shootings in cities across America, fuelling widening cycles of violence in which shooters are left free to strike again and some victims are driven to seek their own justice. The story spotlighted the case of Devon Little, himself the victim of an unsolved shooting, who went on to become part of a cluster of nine gun crimes, all linked by a shared victim or suspect, that would leave at least seven victims over the next 20 months. As the spiral intensified, Little would be shot a second time. He would also become the only person arrested and sentenced to life in prison for any of the shootings — a conviction he appealed, insisting that he was railroaded by detectives’ perfunctory investigation. Little was freed last month after a second jury found him innocent in a retrial of his case that featured evidence first reported in the investigation by the Trace and BuzzFeed News.

10. A Lobbyist at The Trump Tower Meeting Received Half a Million Dollars in Suspicious Payments

Alex Wong / Getty Images

A Russian-born lobbyist received a series of suspicious payments totaling half a million dollars before and after attending the notorious Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 at which senior Trump campaign officials were offered dirt on Hillary Clinton. Rinat Akhmetshin, a Soviet military officer turned Washington lobbyist, deposited large, round-number amounts of cash in the months preceding and following the meeting. This investigation by Emma Loop, Jason Leopold, Anthony Cormier, Tanya Kozyreva, and John Templon also found that Akhmetshin received a large payment that bank investigators deemed suspicious from Denis Katsyv, whose company Prevezon Holdings was accused by the US Justice Department of laundering the proceeds of a $230 million Russian tax fraud.

11. The New Way to Hack Democracy

John J. Custer for BuzzFeed News

An investigation by Jeremy Singer-Vine — based on an analysis of millions of comments, along with court records, business filings, and interviews with dozens of people — shed light on how the Federal Communication Commission’s deliberations about the regulation of the open web came to be skewed by millions of fake public comments. Two little-known firms working on behalf of the industry group Broadband for America misappropriated names and personal information as part of a bid to submit more than 1.5 million statements favorable to their cause. And the FCC proceeding was not the only public debate to have been compromised. The rise of political impersonation threatens a core aspect of US democracy: the process by which federal agencies canvass public opinion before enacting new regulations. The internet has made it possible for these consultations to be conducted virtually, vastly extending their reach in an apparent leap forward for digital-era democracy. But Singer-Vine found there’s little stopping anyone from submitting statements under fake — or misappropriated — identities

12. If You're Drugged and Raped, the Police May Never Know. Here's Why.

Desiree Rios for BuzzFeed News

Everything about date rape drug tests — from the way they are performed to how the results are interpreted — is deeply flawed. So why does the legal system treat them like gospel? An investigation by Rosalind Adams exposed gaping irregularities in date rape drug testing procedures at hospitals and state crime labs all over the country. No national standards exist for the range of drugs labs should test for, the types of screens they use, or the amount of drugs in the system that should count as a positive result — rendering the outcomes wildly unreliable. But because of the reverence with which scientific tests are often treated, negative results can shatter victims’ credibility, allowing defense attorneys to cast doubt on everything they say, and even leading prosecutors to abandon cases altogether.

13. 48 Male Patients Say a USC Doctor Sexually Abused Them — and the University Was Warned

Clay Rodery for BuzzFeed News

Year after year, for more than 20 years, young men who entered the University of Southern California student health center were sent to Dr. Dennis Kelly. Once the exam room door closed behind them, say 48 former patients who are gay or bisexual, Kelly subjected them to sexual abuse, such as fondling their genitals or making them kneel naked on the exam table for rectal probes. At least five men say they complained to the university — including one who described meeting face-to-face with the director of the health center specifically to warn her about Kelly. USC is already reeling from multiple high-profile scandals, including the nationwide admissions scam in which wealthy and high-profile parents were accused of paying bribes and committing fraud to get their children admitted. The claims that USC was repeatedly warned about Kelly raise sharp questions about how the university investigated threats to its students' well-being, and whether it has done more to protect its own reputation than the safety of its community members. Fifty former patients are now suing USC and Kelly, who has maintained that he always treated patients appropriately.

The story was reported by Sasha Urban for the Beacon Project, an independent student journalism initiative supported by the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to report on USC. The project was cofounded by Mark Schoofs, formerly our Investigations and Projects Editor, who is now an advisor to BuzzFeed News.

14. A Star Witness Says Prosecutors Knew He Was Lying When He Helped Frame Five Men for Murder

BuzzFeed News

Francisco Vicente swore time after time that one person after another just happened to confess to him that they had committed murder. But the star witness who helped Chicago prosecutors send five innocent men to prison for decades — shattering families, betraying crime victims, and leaving the real killers on the street — told BuzzFeed News he was ready to recant. “I didn’t know nothing about these fucking crimes,” Vicente said, publicly speaking out for the first time in an exclusive interview with Melissa Segura.

Chicago Police beat him until he agreed to help them frame five men for murder, he said, and then prosecutors put him on the stand to tell his lies — rewarding him with good meals, new clothes, and conjugal visits. Vicente has since given much of the same story under oath in a deposition to lawyers representing some of the men he helped convict.

The detectives who Vicente said beat him are Reynaldo Guevara and his longtime partner Ernest Halvorsen, both retired. A BuzzFeed News investigation revealed in 2017 that more than 50 people have accused Guevara of framing them; many say he beat them into confessing. At least 19, including those against whom Vicente testified, have now been exonerated.

15. Trump Says Mar-a-Lago Can’t Find US Workers to Hire. Documents Show Dozens Applied.

Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

Trump often says his resorts have no choice but to hire foreign guest workers — there just aren’t any Americans to take the jobs. But government records obtained by Ken Bensinger, Jeremy Singer-Vine, and Jessica Garrison showed nearly 60 US residents applied for those jobs, and only one was hired. Instead of giving jobs to local workers, the Trump properties applied for permission to bring in more than 375 low-wage workers from abroad on short-term visas. All of the requests were approved by the Department of Labor, the records, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show.

Since being elected, President Trump has held himself up as a fierce defender of American jobs. He has pressured companies to keep struggling US plants open, enacted tariffs against China, and threatened to close the border with Mexico. Earlier this month, Trump complained about the influx of undocumented immigrants from south of the border. “Our country is full,” he said. “Can’t take you anymore, I’m sorry." Yet throughout that time, he has continued a practice — started more than a decade ago — of staffing his high-end resorts with foreign workers. Businesses owned by or bearing the name Trump have sought to hire more than 600 employees through the guest worker program, known as the H-2 visa, since he launched his presidential campaign in June 2015.

16. A Man Was Jailed for 20 Years By NYPD Due to a Single Eyewitness — Who Now Wants to Recant

Andrew Renneisen for BuzzFeed News

Antonio Mallet’s murder conviction rested on testimony from one eyewitness. But Kendall Taggart revealed that witness has now recanted his testimony, claiming NYPD detectives assaulted him and threatened to lock him up if he didn’t blame Mallet for the murder. In an affidavit, signed under oath, Greg Walker stated that he repeatedly told officers he hadn’t seen who shot his friend. But detectives wouldn’t accept that. They told him Mallet was dangerous. They told him they had other evidence against Mallet. And they told Walker that if he didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear, he was the one who would wind up behind bars.

Mallet filed Walker’s account in a New York state court in October as part of an effort to overturn his conviction based on new evidence. The case adds to mounting scrutiny of the NYPD in the wake of an investigation by Taggart that revealed how hundreds of officers kept their jobs after committing serious offenses — from lying to grand juries to attacking innocent people.

17. How the Kremlin's Assassins Sowed Terror Through the Streets of London While British Authorities Scrambled to Stop Them

John Garrison for BuzzFeed News

Putin’s enemy Boris Berezovsky knew the Kremlin was trying to kill him in London, but to the frustration of British authorities, he refused to lie low — or to stop trafficking teenage sex workers into the country on his private plane. A new book based on an investigation into 14 suspected Russian assassinations on British soil first exposed by BuzzFeed News in 2017 connects the deaths to a much wider campaign of Kremlin-sanctioned killing around the world. This exclusive excerpt of From Russia with Blood: The Kremlin's Ruthless Assassination Program and Vladimir Putin's Secret War on the West reveals Scotland Yard’s desperate scramble to shield the disorderly oligarch Boris Berezovsky from a string of audacious murder plots in the heart of London.

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