Nicole Lafond

Nicole Lafond is a news writer for TPM based in New York City. She is also currently earning a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and previously worked as an education reporter at The News-Gazette in Champaign, Ill. Follow her on Twitter @Nicole_Lafond.

Articles by Nichole

After an Associated Press journalist reported this weekend that seven of Houston’s 41 Superfund sites were flooded with several feet of water, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a lengthy statement countering the claims and attacking the reporter.

The reporter, Michael Biesecker, visited seven of the 41 toxic waste sites impacted by Hurricane Harvey’s flooding in Houston and reported that all seven had been “inundated” by water.

The EPA had yet to visit any of the sites, according to the AP story, which noted a study completed under former President Barack Obama’s administration that concluded flooding at these sites could cause the spread of toxic materials.

The EPA responded with a statement calling the reporter lazy for “reporting from the comfort of Washington” even though Biesecker was in Houston and calling the story “incredibly misleading.”

The EPA also attacked Biesecker’s previous reporting and tried to debunk his story, saying the agency had viewed, but not visited, all the toxic waste sites through “aerial imaging.”

Read the full statement below:

Yesterday, the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker wrote an incredibly misleading story about toxic land sites that are under water.

Despite reporting from the comfort of Washington, Biesecker had the audacity to imply that agencies aren’t being responsive to the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey. Not only is this inaccurate, but it creates panic and politicizes the hard work of first responders who are actually in the affected area.

Here’s the truth: through aerial imaging, EPA has already conducted initial assessments at 41 Superfund sites – 28 of those sites show no damage, and 13 have experienced flooding. This was left out of the original story, along with the fact that EPA and state agencies worked with responsible parties to secure Superfund sites before the hurricane hit. Leaving out this critical information is misleading.

Administrator Pruitt already visited Southeast Texas and is in constant contact with local, state and county officials. And EPA, has a team of experts imbedded with other local, state and federal authorities, on the ground responding to Harvey – none of which Biesecker included in his story.

Unfortunately, the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker has a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story. Earlier this summer, he made-up a meeting that Administrator Pruitt had, and then deliberately discarded information that refuted his inaccurate story – ultimately prompting a nation-wide correction. Additionally, the Oklahoman took him to task for sensationalized reporting.

If you’re reporting on this misleading story then below is a statement from the EPA.

“Once again, in an attempt to mislead Americans, the Associated Press is cherry-picking facts, as EPA is monitoring Superfund sites around Houston and we have a team of experts on the ground working with our state and local counterparts responding to Hurricane Harvey. Anything to the contrary is yellow journalism.” – EPA Associate Administrator, Liz Bowman

The Hill reports EPA finds 13 Superfund sites possibly damaged after Harvey. “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said Saturday that 13 Superfund sites have been flooded or could be facing damage as a result of Hurricane Harvey. The agency said that two of the sites, which are areas that are polluted with hazardous material and require extensive cleanup, had been inspected and do not require immediate cleanup. Eleven sites have proven to be inaccessible for response teams, however the agency said teams are in place to inspect the areas once flooding from the storm subsides. In total, the EPA said that it had conducted initial assessments at 41 Superfund sites in impacted areas using ‘aerial images’ and contact with with those responsible for regular cleanup activities.”

In June, the editorial board at the Oklahoman reminded their readers of the sensationalized reporting that comes from the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker. “The disdain that some in the media have for President Trump and members of his administration is evident regularly. Recent coverage related to EPA administrator Scott Pruitt provides an example of interest to locals because of Pruitt’s Oklahoma ties. … An Associated Press story from Washington last week about emails Pruitt sent and received as attorney general did what it could to further establish Pruitt as a minion for the oil and gas industry — which environmentalists see as dead set on ruining the earth as we know it. The AP, a wire service used by media outlets around the world including The Oklahoman, said the emails ‘underscore just how closely’ Pruitt ‘coordinated with fossil fuel companies’ as Oklahoma’s AG, ‘a position in which he frequently sued to block federal efforts to curb planet-warming carbon emissions.’ That’s quite an opening paragraph. Pruitt didn’t just work with energy companies while attorney general — he worked ‘closely’ with ‘fossil fuel companies’ (the ultimate bogey men) to essentially keep global warming from abating. … The fact Pruitt regularly corresponded and dealt with energy industry officials as attorney general of a state where energy is the No. 1 industry should not be surprising nor should it, by itself, be considered nefarious.”

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The White House on Wednesday cleaned up comments President Trump made, when he claimed he had seen the “horror and devastation” of Hurricane Harvey “first hand” when he hadn’t.

It was widely reported that the President did not visit any of the most severely flooded parts of Texas during his visit to the state this week because he said he didn’t want to pull resources from search and rescue efforts.

But he tweeted Wednesday morning, expressing greater sympathy for those impacted by the story after witnessing the damage himself.

Local and White House pool reporters who followed the President’s stops in Corpus Christi and Austin, Texas Tuesday quickly called out Trump for his remarks, claiming he didn’t see any of the worst flooding that has occurred in cities like Houston.

On Wednesday, the White House clarified what Trump meant by his statements, saying the President met with all the officials who witnessed the damage themselves.

He met with a number of state and local officials who are eating, sleeping, breathing the Harvey disaster,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters in a press gaggle Wednesday.

“He talked extensively with the governor, who certainly is right in the midst of every bit of this, as well as the mayors from several of the local towns that were hit hardest. And detailed briefing information throughout the day yesterday talking to a lot of the people on the ground — that certainly is a firsthand account,” she said.

White House counselor Kelly Anne Conway echoed those comments on “Fox and Friends” Thursday morning, saying Trump plans to “get closer to the affected areas” when officials say it’s “appropriate to do so.”

“So the President will go, he will ask Congress for money depending on where the needs are,” she said.

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During an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo Wednesday night, top White House aide Kelly Anne Conway bashed the network for trying to politicize suffering victims, refused to talk about how climate change may have caused Hurricane Harvey and then proceeded to brag about the President’s plans for tax reform, job creation and protecting the U.S. border.

Conway dodged questions about what President Donald Trump will do to get Republicans in line to vote for a disaster relief package for victims of Harvey— and keep them from politicizing the funding discussion like some did with Hurricane Sandy. She then proceeded to call out Cuomo and CNN for “playing politics” with the tragedy, despite the network’s continuous coverage of the storm since it approached land last week.

“I answered that already. I think you’re playing politics now with something like a tragedy and Harvey. I’ve answered your questions. The money will be there. We hope that Republicans and Democrats will come together not politicize this,” she said. “I think instead of having the same conversation five different ways over the course of the first three or four minutes of this interview, you could be putting up 1-800 numbers or websites or giving people information about pet rescues or diapers or meals.”

Changing topics, Cuomo asked Conway about climate change, which many climatologists say had an impact on the strength of Harvey. In response, she accused the host of trying to be an “amateur climatologist” who was trying to keep the interview from being about what the White House is doing to help victims of the massive flooding.

“Chris, we’re trying to help the people whose lives are literally underway and you want to have a conversation about climate change. I mean that is— I’m not going to engage in that right now because I work for a President and a vice president and a country that is very focused on helping the millions of affected Texans and god forbid Louisianans,” she said.

“Imagine if we could find ways to reduce the number of the storms. Imagine if we could find out why a 100-year storm happens to happen every other year,” Cuomo shot back.

She then accused him of putting “words in my mouth” and proceeded to list everything the Trump administration has done to aide those in need.

Conway abruptly changed the topic to tax reform.

“Right now, I know that many Houstonians and those living in and around that city are either uninsured or underinsured. They’re facing a lack of housing,” she said. “So we’re going to look at the human factor for quite a while now. If you want to talk about issues also in the news, we could talk about, oh, the President’s play at historic tax reform today in Missouri, Route 66, the heart of American manufacturing and America’s gateway to the west at one point, where he has promised to simplify the tax code that we spend billions of hours and dollars trying to comply with it every year.”

She then jumped into a tangent about how Trump’s tax reform plan will help middle class Americans despite reports that his proposal will provide big tax cuts to the wealthy. 

When asked about a federal judge’s decision to temporarily block the implementation of a tough order against sanctuary cities in Texas while the state handles recovery and relief efforts, she blamed Congress for Trump’s lack of clarity on what he wants to do about DACA immigrants and said “it’s high time” the U.S. protect it’s borders.

“The President has expressed sympathy for many of the so-called Dreamers, they refer to themselves as Dreamers. … He’s also made very clear that he wants an immigration system that respects the law and that is fair, fair to everyone involved,” she said. “We have spent billions of dollars over the years helping other nations protect their own borders. And many Americans agree with him that it’s high time we respect our own.”

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At a hearing on the President’s voter fraud panel Wednesday, a federal judge called the commission’s failure to meet transparency requirements ahead of its meetings “incredible,” prompting the commission to apologize.

Last month, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a lawsuit against the panel for its failure to follow federal laws that require all documents and agendas surrounding a presidential advisory committee’s meetings to be made public ahead of time.

At Wednesday’s hearing, U.S. District Judge Colleen ­Kollar-Kotelly found that the commission only released its agenda and proposed bylaws ahead of its meeting on July 19, but commissioners showed up to the meeting with binders full of reports from the Heritage Foundation that the public had not seen yet, The Washington Post reported.

A list of discussion topics circulated by the panel vice chairman, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, was also not publicly disclosed ahead of time, she said.

She called the panel’s defense that it didn’t know it had to post documents prepared by individual commissioners ahead of meetings “incredible.”

“You didn’t completely live up to the government’s representations,” Kollar-Kotelly reportedly told Justice Department lawyers at Wednesday’s hearing. “I want to know what things are not going to be covered” by the government’s pledges.

The panel’s attorney then apologized for what she called an error by staffers.

It was truly an honest misunderstanding on the part of the commission with respect to its obligations to share information,” attorney Elizabeth Shapiro said. “It was not an attempt to hide anything. It fully intends to be as transparent as possible. ... I wanted to convey our apologies and our sincere regret for that.”

The lawyers’ committee suit is one of seven pending lawsuits against President Donald Trump’s voter fraud panel, which has requested public voter data from all 50 states.

At least 30 states have said they would at least partially comply with the request. Many state leaders have objected to the committee’s request because they view it as an attempt to reveal personal voter information and suppress voting rights.

Trump created the commission after repeatedly claiming that millions voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election, causing then-opponent Hillary Clinton to win the popular vote. Commission leaders have consistently denied that Trump’s complaints are why the panel was created.

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Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who represents the state’s 36th Congressional District, revealed during a phone interview with CNN Wednesday that he and his family are “absolutely trapped” in their house in Woodville, Texas.

“I am absolutely trapped in my house. I don’t have a way to get out until we have floodwaters recede here. I’m in my home and we could not get out unless a helicopter plucks me out of here or I get in my boat and launch it,” he said. “But we’re fine, these waters are going to recede hopefully sometime this evening. And we’re doing well.”

He said his house is located behind a creek that serves as a flood stage and it has “completely blocked our exit to get out of here.”

“My family’s here, I’ve got one of my children and my grandchildren with me. … But we’re not worried about it at all. We’re worried about other folks who may have their lives in danger throughout this nine-county district,” he said. “I’m just one of hundreds of thousands of people in this district and across this part of our state that are just being inflicted by this terrible storm, tropical storm and former Hurricane Harvey.”

When host Jim Acosta asked if he needed CNN to send any resources his way, he declined, saying he was sure the water would recede soon.

As a lifelong resident of “this part of the country,” Babin said he’s seen plenty of tornados, hurricane and flood events, but has never seen anything like what Harvey has provoked.  

People from Florida, from all over have pitched in to help us with this huge storm, which covers an unbelievable amount of geographic territory and has such massive population centers that it’s going (to) turn out to be, in my opinion and many others, if not one, but maybe the most expensive natural disaster storms in our history,” he said. 

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President Trump’s constant criticism of journalists and the media is a “dangerous” attack on the freedom of the press, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights said Wednesday.

During a news conference in Geneva, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein spoke about Trump’s recent remarks against the media, from claiming journalists don’t love America at a really in Phoenix to criticizing their coverage of his response to a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this month.

Zeid called Trump’s rhetoric “stunning,” Reuters reported.

“It’s really quite amazing when you think that freedom of the press, not only sort of a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution, but very much something the United States defended over the years is now under attack from the President,” he said. “It’s sort of a stunning turnaround. And ultimately the sequence is a dangerous one.”

Focusing specifically on the news outlets that have been the most frequent focus of Trump’s attacks, like CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post, Zeid said calling the organizations “‘fake’ does tremendous damage.”

“And to refer to individual journalists in this way, I have to ask the question is this not an incitement for others to attack journalists?” he said, referencing a recent assault against a reporter from The Guardian who was body slammed by a politician for asking a question.

“The President prides himself as a taboo breaker, indeed his supporters see him as such. But at the time I expressed my feeling that this was grossly irresponsible, because it has consequences, it emboldens those who may think similarly to sharpen their assaults on these communities,” he said.I almost feel that the President is driving the bus of humanity and we’re careening down a mountain path. And in taking these measures, at least from a human rights perspective, it seems to be reckless driving.”

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Houston megachurch pastor Joel Osteen on Wednesday defended his church’s decision to not initially open its doors to people affected by the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, which dumped record rain on the region.

When the hurricane made landfall over the weekend, the church was closed due to flooding, but online critics expressed frustration with the church and Osteen. Many posted photos that showed very little standing water in the church parking lot.

Dear Houstonians! Lakewood Church is inaccessible due to severe flooding! We want to help make sure you are safe….

Posted by Lakewood Church on Sunday, August 27, 2017

Some criticized Osteen for his decision, given the size of the church and the fact that many other places of worship opened their doors to victims.

Osteen opened Lakewood Church as a shelter on Tuesday and told CBS News that the doors had always been open.

“The city asked us to be a distribution center. … The city runs the shelters, they asked for a distribution center. … We could’ve been a shelter from day one if they needed that,” Osteen said.

He appeared on CNN and said when the storm first came inland there was significant flooding at the church and it would have been a safety risk to house people there.

“We have floodgates right behind me to the right. It was within a foot of that. So, there was a safety issue for the first day or two,” he said. “We’ve been in this community for 60 years. Tropical storm Allison, we housed 3,000 people. We’ve always been open. There’s a big shelter four miles away, the city shelter that has all the dormitories. Once they filled up, people came here. So how this notion got started that we’re not a shelter and not taking people in was a false narrative.” 

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After President Donald Trump issued a pardon for former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the district court judge overseeing the case has approved Arpaio’s request to cancel his sentencing hearing.

But Judge Susan Bolton hasn’t completely thrown out the conviction, Arizona Central reported.

Arpaio was set to face sentencing in October for his criminal contempt-of-court conviction for ignoring a court order to stop holding people solely on suspicion of being undocumented.

Friday evening, the White House announced that Trump had granted a pardon for the controversial ex-sheriff who has been a Trump supporter since the early days of his campaign.

On Tuesday, Bolton ordered that Arpaio and the Department of Justice, which is prosecuting the case, file a memo on why the case should or shouldn’t be thrown out.

She scheduled an oral argument hearing for both sides to make their case on Oct. 4, which is one day before Arpaio was supposed to be sentenced. 

We look forward to the hearing, and hope that the court will make the appropriate ruling,” one of Arpaio’s attorneys, Mark Goldman, said.

The judge’s move comes just one day after Arpaio’s attorneys called out media companies for reporting that the ex-sheriff was convicted of racial profiling. They said the conviction had nothing to do with race.

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The Guardian political reporter who was body slammed by Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT) says the congressman has refused to sit down with him, despite promises to do so during his sentencing hearing for assaulting the journalist.

Reporter Ben Jacobs tweeted a statement Tuesday evening saying Gianforte’s refusal to do the “promised on-the-record interview” with Jacobs is indicative of the congressman’s “pattern of avoiding responsibility for his actions and refusing to live up to the statements made in what I had thought was a sincere apology,” he said.

Just one day before he was elected to the House, Jacobs approached Gianforte to ask him a question about health care. Gianforte body slammed the reporter and broke his glasses. Prosecutors filed an assault charge later that day.

Gianforte’s campaign tried to place the blame on Jacobs initially, but Jacobs’ audiotape recording of the encounter showed the reporter did not provoke him.

Gianforte issued an apology, was sentenced to 40 hours of community service and 20 hours of anger management and pledged to donate $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists. He also told Jacobs he looked forward to sitting down with him, “if and when you’re ready.”

Two months later, that promise still hasn’t been fulfilled, Jacobs said.

“I will continue to strive to turn this incident into something positive. Civil discourse and press freedoms are non-partisan issues and should form the basic foundation of our political system and society. I regret that Congressman Gianforte doesn’t appear to share these values,” he said in his tweeted statement. “When the Congressman is ready to schedule an on-the-record interview with me, I welcome hearing from him. Otherwise, should we meet in the halls of the Capitol, I hope I can approach him without fear of physical assault.”

A spokesperson for Gianforte’s office told The Hill that Jacobs’ claims were not true, saying the office has been working to arrange a meeting between the reporter and the representative.

“We have been honest brokers in our efforts to arrange for Mr. Jacobs to sit down with the congressman, including providing Mr. Jacobs with possible dates and times for a meeting and asking what Montana beers the congressman could bring for Mr. Jacobs when they meet,” the spokesperson said. “Mr. Jacobs has yet to either accept or decline our offer.”

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After a briefing with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and FEMA administrator William “Brock” Long during his first visit to the hurricane-stricken state, President Donald Trump addressed an impromptu crowd gathered near a fire station in Corpus Christi.

Trump climbed up on a ladder, grabbed a microphone and an amplifier and thanked the “throng of hundreds” for their applause, according to a White House pool report.

“We love you, you are special, we are here to take care of you,” he said. “It’s going well.”

He then remarked on the size of the group gathered.

“What a crowd, what a turnout,” he said, thanking Abbott and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and John Cornyn (R-TX).

“This has been a total cooperative effort. … It’s historic, it’s epic, but I tell you it happened in Texas and Texas can handle anything,” he said, holding up the flag of Texas.

According to the pool report, not everyone gathered were Trump supporters. Some held signs that said “Liar, cheat, racist” and “Latinas against Trump.”

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