Marian Wang

As new food safety threat emerges, U.S. regulators still steps behind

The E. coli outbreak in Germany—identified by scientists as a new deadly strain of the bacteria—has by now killed at least 17 people and spread to 10 countries. And while it hasn’t yet hit United States, the outbreak has highlighted longstanding gaps in the U.S. system for identifying such threats.

A former U.S. Department of Agriculture official told the Washington Post that the spread of this strain would be a “major disaster” for the U.S. food industry and for public health. “The regulatory framework is a couple of steps behind,” the ex-official said.

Though there are hundreds of strains of E. coli that appear to be harmless, U.S. regulators have for years known about several strains that do cause potentially fatal illnesses. But their focus—as well as that of the food industry—has largely been on just one strain, a version known as e. coli 0157. The New York Times says regulators “largely ignored” six other strains that have also caused outbreaks and deaths. Here’s what the Times reported last year:

Although the federal government and the beef and produce industries have known about the risk posed by these other dangerous bacteria for years, regulators have taken few concrete steps to directly address it or even measure the scope of the problem.

For three years, the United States Department of Agriculture has been considering whether to make it illegal to sell ground beef tainted with the six lesser-known E. coli strains, which would give them the same outlaw status as their more famous cousin. The meat industry has resisted the idea, arguing that it takes other steps to keep E. coli out of the beef supply and that no outbreak involving the rarer strains has been definitively tied to beef.

The problem isn’t just that food producers aren’t required to test for what public health experts call the “big six” E. coli strains. Doctors also rarely check for the strains and only 5 percent of medical laboratories are equipped to test for them, meaning that some sicknesses caused by these six strains likely go undiagnosed.

And now of course there’s a seventh strain spreading in Europe—one that scientists have said is “super-toxic.” 

In recent years, Congress and the federal agencies have made efforts to update the U.S. food safety system. The Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law this year requires the Food and Drug Administration to write rules that could help prevent produce contamination. USDA has also been doing research on the other six E. coli strains to develop tests for them in beef, but it’s unclear whether those tests will be required, as food safety advocates hope

Also unclear is whether the federal agencies in charge of changing the food safety system will be adequately funded. As the Associated Press and others have noted, Republican proposals to cut the FDA’s budget and the USDA’s inspection budget could cut into efforts to update the system.

This story appeared originally at ProPublica

Automakers’ Bailout and Bankruptcies Shortchanged Accident Victims

As part of their government-brokered bankruptcies, American auto giants Chrysler and General Motors were released of some legal liability for product defects, the Wall Street Journal reported today. As a result, the automakers do not have to pay out damages to car accident victims who had lawsuits pending or had already won damages before the companies filed for bankruptcy.

Chrysler and GM went on government life support during the financial crisis and were bailed out with more than $60 billion in taxpayer dollars. While the cash infusion may have saved jobs and averted the collapse of the American auto industry, the restructuring process left thousands of accident claimants with little to no legal recourse.

A University of Pennsylvania law professor and bankruptcy expert told the Journal that it’s an unusual case of the government picking winners and losers. With mixed legal precedents on the issue, federal bankruptcy judges prioritized certain lenders—the U.S. Treasury, for one, received huge ownership stakes in the two companies—and left car accident victims in the lurch. The Journal explains what happened behind the scenes:

Leaving behind product-liability claims didn’t initially raise red flags for the president’s auto task force, said people familiar with the negotiations. In part, that was because such methods had been used in other bankruptcy sales. But also, setting aside more money for accident victims, these people said, could have prompted complaints from others who felt shortchanged by the restructurings, at a time when government bailouts were unpopular.

Unable to recover damages from the car companies, some victims and victims’ families have tried to sue other parties. (Bloomberg noted this phenomenon in 2009.)

“They will sue the GM dealer that sold the car because they sold a defective product, or they will sue the owner of the roadway, claiming that the pavement was the problem,” auto-safety expert Daniel Melcher told me. Melcher said the companies’ protection from liability has had a significant effect within his industry.

“The party that we all know is responsible can’t be sued, so people play lawyer games of who else we can sue. They have to go somewhere else to get compensation for the accident.”

Chrysler and GM told the Journal they sympathize with claimants but emphasized that many stakeholders also sacrificed as the companies fought off collapse—jobs were lost, dealerships closed, and lenders weren’t fully repaid.

Chrysler announced this week that it repaid the government loans it took out two years ago, and GM made a similar announcement last year. But as Politifact notes, those claims were a bit misleading.

The U.S. Treasury still holds a stake in Chrysler that it intends to sell, and an Obama administration official has said that the government doesn’t expect to fully recoverabout $1.9 billion in remaining investments. And while GM has paid back the $6.7 billion in bailout loans, it did so using other taxypayer money. Meanwhile, the government still owns a huge percentage of the company and may never be made whole on that investment.

Inform our investigations: Do you have information or expertise relevant to this story? Help us and journalists around the country by sharing your stories and experiences.

Link to article

Fannie and Freddie’s Regulator Opposes Making Mortgage Giants Subject to FOIA

Government-controlled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bailed out by taxpayers, but their regulator opposes making them subject to greater transparency requirements under federal public records laws.

Edward DeMarco, acting director of the companies’ now-regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, told lawmakers last week that Fannie and Freddie “did not cease to be private legal entities when they were placed into conservatorship,” according to MarketWatch. (Read DeMarco’s testimony [PDF].)

His argument? Making the companies subject to the Freedom of Information Act would ultimately cost taxpayers:

The mandates that FHFA as conservator preserve and conserve the property and assets of the Enterprises and minimize losses to the taxpayers, may be undermined by subjecting the Enterprises to FOIA, as they will incur significant operational and compliance costs in establishing and administering a function to respond to such information requests. FOIA requests made to the Enterprises would also lead directly to added legal administrative burdens on FHFA, as conservator.

The FOIA blog, a blog dedicated to news about the Freedom of Information Act, has argued that making the mortgage giants subject to FOIA will save money in the long runbut surmised that regulators don’t want the extra scrutiny.

Meanwhile, DeMarco voiced concerns about another proposal that would limit how much taxpayers are on the hook for Fannie and Freddie’s legal expenses.

Fannie and Freddie have spent $160 million and counting on legal fees since the government took them over. That’s money that’s gone to defending the companies and their ex-execs against fraud claims, and as the New York Times reported in January, that sum remained secret until just a few months ago when Fannie, Freddie and the FHFA disclosed it at the request of lawmakers.

DeMarco has defended billing taxpayers for the legal fees, saying that forcing employees to pay their own legal expenses and would make it harder for Fannie and Freddie to attract talent.

As the Associated Press notes, it is common for companies to cover their executives’ legal expenses unless they’re found guilty of wrongdoing. Of course, it’s not common for taxpayers to be paying for it.

Overall, taxpayers have spent more than $160 billion so far bailing out the two mortgage giants.

Inform our investigations: Do you have information or expertise relevant to this story? Help us and journalists around the country by sharing your stories and experiences.

Link to article

E-mails Show Drug Company Used Third-Party Medical Groups to Influence Regulators

Brand-name drug manufacturers have long used controversial tactics to keep their generic competitors off the market, but a new report by the Senate Finance Committee sheds light on how one firm leveraged hidden financial ties with reputable medical groups to undermine its generic rivals.

Facing what it called “an imminent threat” to its brand-name blood thinner, Lovenox, pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis launched an advocacy campaign to influence the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to delay generic competitors, according to the report. It did so by contacting medical societies and researchers, urging them to write in to the FDA—or in one case, to write an advertorial for The Wall Street Journal—to raise safety concerns about generics.

The medical groups—the Society of Hospital Medicine and the North American Thrombrosis Forum—each received more than $2.3 million from Sanofi between 2007 and 2010. A Duke University researcher who wrote the FDA received more than $260,000.  None of the letters mentioned financial ties to Sanofi. (The Journal first reported on the two groups’ letters to the FDA last year, sparking the Senate investigation.)

ProPublica has reported on the ways that drug and device makers have sought to influence professional medical societies and health advocacy groups through millions in donations and advertising revenue at conferences. And while we’ve repeatedly raised questions about how the corporate cash influences these groups, there are limits to what reporters can expose about all that happens behind the scenes.

But Senate investigators have subpoena power, and they’ve produced a report  drawing on Sanofi documents and e-mails between the drugmaker and these supposedly independent medical groups. It’s worth reading in full. Here’s some of the e-mail correspondence between Sanofi and the CEO of the Society of Hospital Medicine after the drug company encouraged the group to contact the FDA. From the report, emphasis ours:

SHM has no history of making similar comments to the FDA or any government agency of this kind. While the Ec [Executive Committee] might be supportive they may feel this is not something that SHM has the expertise or knowledge to say much about. . . . That being said when something is important to any of our partners (like Sanofi) that we have a long term relationship with we want to give any issue that is important to our partner careful consideration.

The Society of Hospital Medicine did end up sending a letter to the FDA. The group’s CEO sent Sanofi a draft of the letter and he even asked for the name and address of the intended recipient at the FDA.

A senior manager at Sanofi, in an internal e-mail, later listed the letter as a “key accomplishment” for Sanofi’s public relations team.

E-mails also show Sanofi representatives worrying about keeping the appearance of these groups’ independence for fear that Sanofi’s involvement—if reported—could tarnish the groups’ credibility.

After the North American Thrombrosis Forum wrote an advertorial for Lovenox that ran in the Journal, a public relations firm hired by Sanofi e-mailed the piece to some reporters. That set off some alarm bells for one Sanofi spokeswoman, who worried that Sanofi’s involvement might be too obvious: “I’m a little concerned about how this activity by an agency of ours can be perceived by the media, in terms of any s-a [Sanofi-Aventis] involvement in this activity,” she wrote. (A reporter inquiring about the adasked about the financial ties between Sanofi and the NATF. She was told to ask the NATF.)

The Society of Hospital Medicine told the Journal that the group has new transparency policies, and “if we were writing the FDA now, we would be very clear about our relationship with any partner, including financial support.” The North American Thrombrosis Forum told the Journal that Sanofi’s funding was not intended “to shape public policy.”

As for the Duke University doctor, Dr. Victor Tapson, the Project on Government Oversight posted one of his letters [PDF] to the FDA. Worth noting, as POGO did, that it’s on Duke University letterhead. Tapson told the Journal that parts of the Senate report were “very incorrect,” but didn’t explain further. (Read our story on med schools and their policies on doctors receiving payments from pharmaceutical companies. Here’s Duke’s policy.)

As for Sanofi, it maintains that the comments from the experts “brought legitimate and important patient safety facts and considerations to the attention of the FDA,” the Journal reported.

The FDA approved the first generic version of Lovenox in July of last year.

Keeping generics off the market costs consumers and the government billions in potential savings every year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The agency has strongly opposed the industry practice known as “pay for delay,” whereby drug companies intent on protecting their monopoly on a particular drug pay off generics companies to get them to drop their patent challenges.

Drug companies have argued that the practice of reaching these settlements doesn’t prevent competition once the patents expire—something happening for several major brand-name drugs over the next few years. The FTC, however, has said the practice costs consumers and the government more than $3 billion annually.

Foreclosure contractors face new scrutiny from states

While federal and state officials investigating flawed foreclosures [1] have largely focused on holding the banks accountable and bringing relief to wronged homeowners, officials in a few states have begun targeting the more obscure middlemen of the foreclosure scandal.

Prosecutors in California and Illinois have sent subpoenas [2] to Lender Processing Services, one of the largest firms that processed mortgage documents for the banks. (Read more about LPS in our guide to who’s who of the foreclosure scandal [3].)

As we’ve noted [4], the firm—which helps handle more than half of all U.S. mortgages [5]—has been accused of using the same “robo-signing [6]” practices as the major banks, such as signing and notarizing documents that appeared inaccurate or invalid. Bank employees have testified under oath that they relied on LPS to vet the information [7] in foreclosure documents.

LPS has had its share of legal troubles over its mortgage processing. Michigan’s attorney general announced an investigation last month [8] into potentially fraudulent mortgage documents processed by an LPS subsidiary. (LPS has said that it discontinued [9] the practices used by the subsidiary.) Along with the big banks, the firm recently received an order from federal regulators to correct problems with its processing of mortgage documents. (Read that consent order [10].)

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan also sent a subpoena to Nationwide Title Clearing, another firm contracted to provide mortgage services to banks. As we’ve noted [11], Nationwide Title Clearing employees have testified to robo-signing thousands of mortgage documents—known as assignments—that establish the ownership of a mortgage loan and are key to establishing who has the right to foreclose on a homeowner.

Nationwide Title Clearing said in a statement that its procedures have been “thoroughly audited and examined for accuracy [12]” and that it would cooperate with any investigation. LPS declined to comment.

The latest actions on foreclosure problems as an attempted comprehensive settlement by all 50 state attorneys general has hit a few roadblocks. As we noted in our cheat sheet on bank investigations [1], the negotiations have been hampered by disagreement with the banks over the size of penalties as well as some disagreement among the attorneys general—at least eight of whom have opposed any settlement that would require banks to cut borrowers’ mortgage debt.

Bloomberg reports that Bank of America has also received independent scrutiny [13] from the attorneys general of Utah and Connecticut accusing the firm of invalid foreclosures [14] and insufficient loan modifications [15]. Utah warned that it would sue [14].

Drug industry influence: Watchdog says overmedication in nursing homes is troubling

Nursing homes are unnecessarily administering powerful antipsychotic drugs to many elderly residents, including residents with dementia, according to a new report by the Health and Human Services inspector general.

The Food and Drug Administration in 2005 mandated that drug makers issue warning labels on atypical antipsychotics, noting that the drugs—which are generally FDA-approved for treating schizophrenia and bipolar disorder—increase the risk of death for elderly patients with dementia. Yet when the government examined 1.4 million Medicare claims from 2007 for atypical antipsychotics for elderly nursing home residents, the government found that 88 percent of the time, the drugs were prescribed to individuals diagnosed with dementia.

Doctors and nursing homes aren’t the only ones to blame, according to HHS Inspector General Daniel Levinson. The report itself does not specifically examine ties between doctors, pharmacies, and nursing homes, but in a statement accompanying the report, Levinson faulted drug companies for aggressively—and illegally—marketing these products to doctors for treatment of dementia and other off-label uses. (It’s not illegal for doctors to prescribe drugs for off-label uses, but it is for drug companies to promote them as such.)

“Despite the fact that it is potentially lethal to prescribe antipsychotics to patients with dementia, there’s ample evidence that some drug companies aggressively marketed their products towards such populations, putting profits before safety,” Levinson said.

He noted that a number of drug companies have been accused of illegally promoting these drugs off-label to doctors and pharmacies, including those that serve nursing home residents. Some of the lawsuits have settled, but Levin said those settlements alone don’t negate the effects of years of off-label promotion.

“Money can’t make up for years of corporate campaigns that market drugs with questionable benefits and potentially deadly side effects for vulnerable, elderly patients,” according to Levinson.

The report also faulted the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency that oversees Medicare and Medicaid, for failing to hold nursing homes accountable for unnecessary use of antipsychotic drugs. Unnecessary uses can include inadequate rationale for using the drug as well as excessive doses, excessive duration, and inadequate monitoring of patients to whom the drug was given.

The report notes that the federal government paid more than $116 million for claims that violated Medicare reimbursement criteria. These claims were only for the first half of 2007.

The inspector general recommends that CMS assess its safeguards for preventing unnecessary antipsychotic drug use in nursing homes. The agency acknowledged that better controls were needed. In a letter to the inspector general, CMS Administrator Donald Berwick wrote that the agency is “very concerned about the nature of the contractual arrangements” involving nursing homes, the doctors and pharmacies that serve them, and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

We’ve reported on some of those ties in our series, Dollars for Docs. In particular, we highlighted the case of a psychiatrist who served Chicago-area nursing homes and made nearly a half million dollars promoting AstraZeneca’s best-selling antipsychotic.

Pakistan’s Ever-Shifting Stance on Bin Laden Raid

In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, it’s been difficult to figure out exactly where Pakistan stands on the the issue—and exactly how or even whether it plans on investigating its apparent intelligence failures. 

The initial statements were polite. President Obama credited the U.S. counterterrorism partnership with Pakistan, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari reiterated Pakistan’s unified stand against terrorism. But in the days since, the comments from Pakistani agencies and officials have ranged from congratulations on a “great victory” to denunciation of a “cold-blooded” killing by the United States.

The United States had concerns about Pakistan and still has many questions

Some U.S. officials have spoken more candidly than others about concerns that the United States had about Pakistani duplicity. CIA Director Leon Panetta told Time that the United States had chosen not to inform its ally about the raid beforehand because “it was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission. They might alert the targets.”

And White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan also told reporters that it was “inconceivable” that bin Laden didn’t have support in the country, though he wouldn’t speculate about which—if any—Pakistani officials were involved or had prior knowledge about bin Laden’s whereabouts. “Certainly his location there outside of the capital raises questions,” Brennan said.

“It’s a complicated relationship. There’s no question. And we do have our differences,” White House spokesman Jay Carney has acknowledged. Nonetheless, he said that Pakistan has been an “extremely helpful” and important partner for the United States and noted that “the Pakistani government has launched an investigation of its own” into bin Laden’s support network. “We think that’s a good thing,” he said.

A piece in the Washington Post, however, shows Pakistan’s own foreign minister downplaying this supposed investigation:

[Foreign Secretary Salman] Bashir indicated that there would be little introspection inside Pakistan about how and why bin Laden was able to reside here, under the nose of the military. Some Pakistani officials in recent days have said there would be an inquiry into intelligence failures, but Bashir played down that, saying questions about bin Laden were “for historians.”

“I would call it a ‘view,’ ” rather than an inquiry, Bashir said. “I think we are in a constant process of viewing at every level. … This is a routine. So I think we should not try to give it a slant in terms of an inquiry. There’s no such thing as an inquiry.”

Pakistani President Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, has called allegations that Pakistan protected terrorists “baseless speculation.” Top Pakistani officials had long insisted that bin Laden couldn’t be hiding within their borders, with some suggesting that he may have already died.

Pakistan denies prior knowledge of raid but talks up contributions

Aside from the first remarks issued by Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry emphasizing Pakistani resolve to fight terrorism and President Zardari’s op-ed reiterating the same, subsequent statements from Pakistani agencies and officials have indicated some disunity between the two countries and disagreement among Pakistani officials.

A second statement from the Pakistani Foreign Ministry criticized the U.S. operation as an “unauthorized unilateral action” and warned the United States and other countries against taking it as precedent, warning that “such actions undermine cooperation.” From the statement:

The Government of Pakistan expresses its deep concerns and reservations on the manner in which the Government of the United States carried out this operation without prior information or authorization from the Government of Pakistan.

Such criticism from Pakistan has been the government’s standard response to previous instances of U.S. raids within its borders, as we noted.

The government has consistently denied having any prior knowledge of bin Laden’s location but has simultaneously touted its role in providing intelligence that led to bin Laden, claiming that its intelligence agency, ISI, had been sharing information about the compound with the CIA since 2009. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry has also said that Abbottabad and the surrounding area have been “under the sharp focus” of its intelligence agencies since 2003.

U.S. officials have offered no confirmations of these details, and asked specifically about Pakistan’s claimed contributions, the White House would only say generally that Pakistanis have been helpful in gathering intelligence that led to the operation’s success. 

We’ve done a good bit of reporting on Pakistan’s spy agency and the multiple allegations that at least some within the agency have colluded with terrorists—if not with bin Laden specifically. As we have reported, federal prosecutors in Chicago havequietly charged a suspected ISI officer with helping to carry out the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, in which six Americans were killed.

Despite the complications, the continued questions, and the latest criticisms from Pakistan, the United States has tried to maintain the appearance of unity. The relationship, said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is a “productive one for both our countries and we are going to continue to cooperate between our governments, our militaries, our law-enforcement agencies, but most importantly between the American and Pakistani people.”

Role of Torture in Finding Bin Laden: What We Actually Know

If you’ve been following the latest news on the U.S. operation against Osama bin Laden, you’ve probably read a lot of conflicting accounts. There have been questions about the circumstances in which bin Laden was shot, whether he used his wife as a human shield, and even minor details such as the height of the walls around bin Laden’s compound have varied widely in the news coverage.

“I apologize. Even I’m getting confused,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said during yesterday’s press briefing when asked by reporters to clarify discrepancies in the story of the raid.

The Guardian has helpfully laid out a number of areas in which the narrative of bin Laden’s death has been corrected or has evolved. One of the areas it doesn’t mention is whether enhanced interrogation techniques helped produce the intelligence that led to bin Laden—a subject that many politicians and officials seemed to have already seized on to support their own policy positions. Here’s a closer look at what we know and who’s saying what.

In dispute: Whether “enhanced interrogation” techniques—banned by the Obama administration but approved under Bush—helped the U.S. obtain intelligence from detainees that ultimately led to bin Laden.

Who said what: The former head of counterterrorism at the CIA told Time that tips given by Khalid Sheikh Muhammed and another detainee were “the lead information that eventually led to the location of [bin Laden’s] compound and the operation that led to his death.” Both of those sources, he said, were held at secret CIA prisons and subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.

Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s defense secretary, has also made the argument that waterboarding played a crucial role in obtaining the intelligence. “Anyone who suggests that the enhanced techniques, let’s be blunt, waterboarding, did not produce an enormous amount of valuable intelligence, just isn’t facing the truth,” he said in an appearance on Fox News.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney has also said that it “wouldn’t be surprising” if the intelligence used to find bin Laden had been obtained through the Bush-authorized techniques.

Asked directly about enhanced interrogation, the White House has danced around the question. Take this exchange from yesterday’s press briefing:

Q: Were any results of such techniques used in helping to track down bin Laden?

MR. CARNEY: Mark, the fact is that no single piece of information led to the successful mission that occurred on Sunday, and multiple detainees provided insights into the networks of people who might have been close to bin Laden. But reporting from detainees was just a slice of the information that has been gathered by incredibly diligent professionals over the years in the intelligence community. And it simply strains credulity to suggest that a piece of information that may or may not have been gathered eight years ago somehow directly led to a successful mission on Sunday. That’s just not the case.

Asked the same question again at today’s briefing, Carney said, “The work that was done was primarily by analysts gathering tiny bits of information, putting it together, and creating a body of work that led to the finding of a location where Osama bin Laden was hiding.”

What we know now: It’s a stretch at this point to draw conclusions about the role that enhanced interrogation techniques played in producing useful intelligence leading to bin Laden. Here’s why.

First, with the exception of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, it’s uncertain what kind of techniques were used on the other detainees who gave up information on bin Laden’s courier, reports the New York Times.

Second, KSM, who was waterboarded nearly 200 times, wasn’t forthright with interrogators, who in fact found him valuable because they saw through his attempt to steer them away from bin Laden’s courier. The same was true for the other CIA detainee, who may also have been subjected to brutal interrogation techniques—the CIA says he was not waterboarded—during his detention.

And third, as we noted yesterday, an official told the Associated Press that the information KSM gave up about the courier was not obtained during waterboarding but under standard interrogation. The Times also reported that the first time KSM was asked about the courier was months after he was waterboarded.

Related: For a rundown of the basics on the death of bin Laden, see our reading guideto help cut through some of the confusing coverage.

Latest Afghan Attacks Highlight Challenges of Training, Vetting Afghan Security Forces

The news out of Afghanistan seems to be almost all doom and gloom: 8 NATO soldiers and one

 were killed Wednesday by a veteran Afghan army pilot who reportedly turned on his trainers.

The Taliban has claimed credit for the shooting, playing into fears of Taliban sleeper agents infiltrating Afghan security forces. Those fears have been stirred by a series of recent attacks as well as the escape of nearly 500 Taliban fights from the largest prison in Afghanistan earlier this week. Reuters has a rundown of recent attacks by rogue Afghan soldiers, police and insurgents dressed in army uniforms.

As for the prison break, the Afghan government has called it a disaster and blamed it on NATO-trained Afghan security forces as well as the Canadian and U.S. security officials who have helped to oversee the jail, according to the Times:

Since the Taliban engineered a major break at the same prison in 2008 — freeing 1,200 prisoners — Canadian forces have mentored the Afghans who run the prison and NATO countries have spent several million dollars upgrading and training the prison administration, according to a Western official in Kabul.

The Afghan defense ministry announced last week that it would apply new scrutiny to Afghan army enrollment “in order to prevent enemies taking advantage,” Reuters reported. NATO has also been touting its efforts to stop the illegal sale of army uniforms and equipment.

News about the Afghan police force hasn’t been much better. This week the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan issued a report noting that recordkeeping by the Afghan interior ministry was so disorganized, the ministry “cannot accuratelydetermine the size” of the Afghan National Police force. [PDF]

As we’ve noted, the United States has spent billions on to train the dysfunctional police force, which has been riddled with high turnover and continued corruption. The report noted that while other countries also contribute to funding th police, the United States has been the single largest contributor, providing about a third of all contributions since 2002.

“The Afghan government has taken many steps to address [Afghan National Police] accountability, but significant risks of fraud, waste, and abuse of donors’ funds willcontinue unless controls are improved,” [PDF] the acting special inspector general, Herbert Richardson, told a wartime contracting panel this week.

Check out President Obama and VP Biden’s 2010 tax returns

Monday was Tax Day, and if you’re miffed and looking for a Tea Party Tax Day event [1] to join, perhaps you should first take a look at what the Obamas are paying in federal taxes. It might provide a bit of consolation.

According to the First Family’s 2010 tax return [2], the Obamas paid in excess of $450,000 in federal taxes—more than the President’s $400,000 salary. Much of the family’s income is from book sales, which slowed over the past year, causing their income to dip from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.7 million last year. As the New York Times notes [3], the Obamas had a tax rate of just over 26 percent.

The Bidens earned about $379,000 in income [4] and paid $87,000 in federal taxes last year—a tax rate of about 23 percent.

That’s more than the average federal income tax rate, which, according to the Associated Press is 9.3 percent [5]. The AP also reported that the richest U.S. households—whose income is officially taxed at 35 percent—paid a tax rate of about 17 percent after factoring in lucrative tax breaks.

In a speech last week, President Obama made clear he would block the extension of the Bush tax cuts [6], which expire at the end of 2012. That would raise the tax rates on individuals making more than $200,000 and households making more than $250,000—and would clearly apply to both the Obamas and the Bidens.

The White House released the tax returns [7] on Monday. We’ve posted them in our document viewer, so if you’re not rushing off to the post office to mail in your own returns, have [2] a look. [4]