As the ABC News Brian Ross Investigative Unit looks forward to uncovering information you need to know and exposing wrongdoing by the powerful in the new year, we’ve taken a moment to look back at a few of our hardest-hitting reports and investigations from 2015. Check out the list below, and remember you can always stay up-to-date by following @BrianRoss and @ABCInvestigates on Twitter, by checking in with the Investigative Unit on Facebook at Facebook.com/BrianRossInvestigates, or by signing up for our breaking investigative news alerts on the right side of the Brian Ross Investigative Unit homepage here. And if you have any tips about ongoing stories or something you think we should investigate, you can send them in by here.
Year of Terror
With grotesque symmetry, 2015 began and ended with horrific terrorist attacks that took the lives of innocent civilians and sent shockwaves throughout the world -- the January attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France and the December massacre at an office party in San Bernardino, Calif. In between, Paris was struck again in November in a suspected ISIS-directed plot that killed 130 people, and the month before more than 200 people were killed when a plane was destroyed mid-flight above Egypt, in addition to numerous incidents in the West with smaller death tolls. In each case and as part of ABC News’ full network coverage, the Brian Ross Investigative Unit uncovered information about the perpetrators of the attacks and probed any links to broader terrorist organizations -- most recently revealing that not only did U.S. intelligence expect to see an attack like the one that struck Paris in November, but that ISIS has established a new unit dedicated to external operations, an ominous development for the year ahead.
Buying Your Way Into America
Did you know that a foreign national can grease the wheels towards citizenship in the U.S. as long as he or she is wealthy -- and U.S. officials are concerned that suspected criminals, forgers, spies and terrorists could take advantage? Under the EB-5 visa program, an immigrant who invests $500,000 in an approved project designed to create American jobs can take a shortcut to legal residency in the U.S. A Brian Ross Investigation in February, based in part on interviews with five Department of Homeland Security whistleblowers, revealed that officials overseeing the federal EB-5 visa program have ignored pointed warnings from federal agents and approved the visas for some immigrants suspected of wrongdoing. Internal records showed that officials inside the DHS had begun looking into the possibility that the EB-5 program was “abused by Iranian operatives to infiltrate the United States,” among other serious concerns.
America’s Friends in Iraq and Their Purported War Crimes
“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster.” German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche died more than a century ago, but his words became troublingly relevant after the Brian Ross Investigative Unit reported in March that some U.S.-trained and equipped Iraqi military units -- including some key to taking down the terror group ISIS -- were themselves under investigation for committing some of the same atrocities as the terror group. The investigation, conducted by the Iraqi government, was launched after officials were confronted with numerous allegations of “war crimes,” based in part on dozens of ghastly videos and still photos reviewed by ABC News that appear to show uniformed soldiers from some of Iraq’s most elite units and militia members massacring civilians, torturing and executing prisoners, and displaying severed heads. In some U.S. military and Iraqi circles, the Iraqi units and militias under scrutiny are referred to as the “dirty brigades.”
Child Danger in the Home: Window Blinds
The home video is hard to watch, but luckily has a happy ending. A toddler, Gavin Walla, is seen silently strangling at the end of a looped window blind cord he had been playing with in the family room. His mother screams, drops the camera and races to save her son. But for the quick action of his parents, Gavin would have likely become another of the hundreds children who have been killed or injured in strangulation incidents since the government first identified window blind cords as a hidden hazard 30 years ago – one that the despite the known threat, continues today, as reported in an ABC News investigation in November.
The Ex-Speaker and the Boy He Allegedly Abused
In Steve Reinboldt’s 1970 high school yearbook, wrestling coach and future Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert wrote that Steve was his “great, right hand man” as the student equipment manager of the Yorkville, Illinois wrestling team. But Steve was also a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of Hastert, Steve’s sister, Jolene Burdge, said in an interview with Brian Ross broadcast in June. It was the first time an alleged Hastert victim was identified by name after he was indicted for lying to the FBI and violating federal banking laws to cover-up past misconduct.
“[Hastert] took [Steve’s] belief in himself and his kind of right to be a normal person,” Burdge said in June. “Here was the mentor, the man who was, you know, basically his friend and stepped into that parental role, who was the one who was abusing him… He damaged Steve I think more than any of us will ever know.”
Hastert didn’t respond to the allegations from Burdge. In October, he pleaded guilty to one financial crime.
In the Hands of ISIS
By the beginning of 2015, ISIS had brutally murdered three American hostages, leaving only one, 26-year-old Arizona native Kayla Mueller, alive. Hope for her rescue was dashed, however, in February when the White House announced Mueller had been killed. But the story got even darker in August, when ABC News reported that counter-terrorism officials believed the young woman had been repeatedly raped by ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The deaths of Mueller, as well as the other American and Western hostages at the hands of ISIS, and the accidental killing of an American al Qaeda hostage Warren Weinstein by American forces in January prompted the U.S. government to announce sweeping changes to its handling of hostage situations, including when it comes to the question of families paying ransom for their loved ones.
“These families have suffered enough,” President Obama said when announcing the changes in June.
Gay CIA Contractor Fearful of Own Men
He spent 13 years on secret missions around the world for the CIA, but when former Navy SEAL Brett Jones looked into his cell phone camera and pressed “record” in July, he was scared.
“The reason I’m making this is, in the event that something happens to me, there’s evidence I’m in Afghanistan working as a contractor for the CIA,” he says quietly in the shaky video, stealing glances around him. “I don’t feel it’s very safe for me to be here. I don’t feel like I can work with these guys.”
Jones, the only contractor with the CIA’s paramilitary Global Response Staff (GRS) who has come out publicly as gay, told Brian Ross in an ABC News investigation broadcast this summer that what had him so terrified was a disturbing pattern of harassment he had suffered and the homophobic, racist and sexist behavior he had seen from his own teammates – both contractors and CIA officials in Afghanistan. It was behavior Jones felt he had to expose, even if it cost him his job, or even his life.
The Donald and the ‘Advisor’ With Past Mob Ties
The business card from 2010 identifies Felix Sater as a “senior advisor to Donald Trump,” but according to a 2013 video deposition, Trump hardly knew him and wouldn’t recognize the guy if they were sitting in the same room. But a few powerful people might recognize Sater -- specifically federal prosecutors who accused him back in 2000 of racketeering and alleging that he and others had “enlisted the help of individuals affiliated with organized crime families of La Cosa Nostra to protect and promote their criminal activities.” Sater avoided prison after FBI agents testified at his sentencing hearing that he had become an important government witness on both mob-related and national security matters, heralded by federal agents for his cooperation.
More than a decade later and as the media spotlight shines on Trump, the current frontrunner in the Republican primary race, the famous businessman is seeking to minimize his ties with his alleged former “senior advisor,” as reported in an ABC News investigation in December.
An attorney for Trump said the title was not reflective of Sater’s actual role. It was common practice in the real estate industry, he said, to provide business cards and bestow titles “in order for brokers to be able to make initial introductions.”
ABC News Fixer Helps Dozens, Saves $1000s
The ABC News Fixer, Stephanie Zimmermann, this year continued her dogged campaign on behalf of the American consumer this year, saving viewers tens of thousands of dollars, from helping a Colorado woman whose refrigerator attacked her with projectile ice cubes to bringing a woman back from the “dead,” legally speaking. Since joining ABC News and the Brian Ross Investigative Unit, the ABC News Fixer has saved viewers nearly $350,000. Do you have a consumer issue you think she could help you with, click here to tell her!