SUCKING IT UP

FORT WORTH WEEKLY

AUG. 29, 2012

BY GAYLE REAVES

Tom B. Saunders’ family has been ranching for five generations. Surface tanks and wells provide water for the cattle and horses on the Twin V Ranch near Weatherford. He’s got a couple of gas wells on the land too, and he’s not at all opposed to the drillers.

But he’d sure be opposed to selling any of his groundwater to them these days, as he did a few years ago.

“Right now, I’d say, ‘Boys, pray for rain and wait ’til it does. Because I’m not going to sell you any water. My livestock comes first.’ ”

Across much of the West and Southwest, farmers, ranchers, other landowners, and water authorities are having to make those same sorts of calculations. In a growing number of counties in Texas, as well as in big stretches of Colorado and other states, drillers are a growing force in the water market.

In some Texas counties, according to a report from the Texas Water Development Board, the drilling industry now uses more water than farmers and ranchers. In Montague County northwest of Fort Worth, noted Hugh MacMillan of the nonprofit environmental group Food & Water Watch, the state water board “anticipates that the gas industry will use … more than twice what is expected to be used for irrigation and livestock” and almost as much as municipal users. In Stephens County, “drilling and fracking the Barnett Shale is expected to consume more than three times the consumption for irrigation and livestock.”

In Colorado recently, when a major water district held an auction of “surplus” water diverted from the Colorado River, haulers supplying the drilling industry outbid farmers and ranchers. When ranchers and farmers can buy water, it will be more expensive — not only because of competition from gas drillers, of course, but because of continuing drought, shrinking reservoirs, growing populations, and dropping groundwater levels in many parts of the country.

                       

Mace: “As you get down to the local level, (water use by gas drillers) becomes more of an issue.” Courtesy Robert Mace

“Really, we have plenty of water in Texas, but the days of cheap water, of easy to develop water, are gone,” said Ron Kaiser, professor of water law and policy at Texas A&M University. Although groundwater supplies of fresh water are dwindling — alarmingly, in some places — there are “huge amounts of brackish groundwater” under Texas he said. That water is far too salty to drink, “but we have the technology to make it very [drinkable],” he said.

Who can afford that technology? Cities, probably, he said, by raising rates. But “agriculture can’t pay those prices.”

Questions about the effect of widespread shale gas development, using millions of gallons of water per well, on water supplies aren’t confined to Colorado or a few counties in Texas. Nationally and internationally, environmental and water rights groups are beginning to raise concerns. In September, activists in several countries are planning a “Global Frackdown” event to draw attention to those and other problems they see with shale gas drilling.

A national poll by the Civil Society Institute, released a few weeks ago, found that three out of four Americans — including 61 percent of Republicans — are worried about shortages of clean water, want federal action to address increased drought, and have made the connection between energy industries and water usage.

Heather White, general counsel for the Environmental Working Group, which has worked with the Civil Society Institute on many projects, said that water quantity and quality are the “number-one environmental issue” for people in this country.

Even in states like Texas and Louisiana, where the oil and gas industry is so powerful, she said, people are starting to question the exemptions for those industries from so many laws that other businesses must follow and that affect water supplies.

“Americans are waking up,” White said. “It’s Washington that’s out of step.”

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In the broad picture, hydraulic fracturing as part of gas drilling accounts for less than one percent of water usage across Texas.

The problem is that water isn’t distributed evenly across the state — it’s a very local proposition.

“As you get down to the local level, [water use by gas drillers] becomes more of an issue,” said Robert Mace, deputy executive administrator for science and conservation at the Texas Water Development Board.

The agency, which underwrites water development projects for local government bodies, doesn’t take any position on the use of Texas’ water by gas drillers. Board officials know the issue is out there, but they haven’t tried to track the conflicts. In Texas, water politics are always about who has it and who doesn’t, and the fights historically have been fierce. With much of Texas — and more than half the counties in the country — in drought status, the battles will only get bloodier.

The drought hasn’t been as severe in 2012 as it was last year — the state’s worst drought ever recorded — but it hasn’t gone away. Texas is like the proverbial frog in the pot, Mace said: “The heat has been turned down from high to medium” — but the implication is that the state’s water resources are still getting cooked.

In a presentation he made this week, Mace noted that the state definitely is not prepared for a “drought of record,” like the one that lingered on in Texas in the 1950s.

Even in the big picture, the impact of shale gas drilling is being felt. According to a recent report by two University of Texas researchers with the Bureau of Economic Geology, drilling in dry areas of the state could contribute to lowering groundwater levels and reducing some stream flows. They estimated that net water usage for fracking in Texas could roughly triple by 2030 and then decline.

But the big picture “obscures water conflicts at the county level,” said MacMillan, the researcher with Food & Water Watch. (The nonprofit promotes development of safe, sustainable water supplies.) According to the Texas studies, he said, fracking usage is expected to outstrip agricultural use in some counties. And with much of the countryside still in the grip of a major drought that’s not expected to fade anytime soon, that could set up real conflicts.

Theoretically, Texas’ groundwater conservation districts have the power to regulate who gets to pull water. In practice, Texans’ strong tradition of private property rights makes that tough. A major court decision earlier this year, involving the Edwards Aquifer, narrowly limited — but did not deny — the government’s ability to regulate groundwater extraction.

That power may be put to the test again, over the question of limiting groundwater use by gas drillers. While the oil and gas industry is exempted from many water-use regulations, observers believe there’s a chance that the drillers may still be subject to some regulation. That could get tested first in South Texas, where the Eagle Ford shale drilling play is occurring in an area where groundwater levels, mostly in the Carrizo Wilcox aquifer, have been dropping significantly. Although most of the drop is due to irrigation and cities’ water usage, fracking is also a factor.

Kaiser, the A&M professor, said that although fracking’s effect statewide is “pretty small,” in drier areas, gas well activity could indeed be a factor in lowering water tables and making water wells go dry.

The parts of the state that are the most at risk, he said, are the small cities west of I-35. Bigger cities have gone out and acquired water supplies, he said, and some, like El Paso, have built desalinization plants. But in some parts of West Texas, the Ogallala Aquifer has been pumped so low that farmers can no longer afford to drill deep enough to use it, and “little cities are really scrambling.”

Tom Saunders, the Parker County rancher, isn’t in favor of much intervention by government to regulate things like who gets the water. But he has seen the problem developing.

There’s not much drilling going on his home ranch right now, or in Jack County, where the family leases more land. But when the shale gas play was more active (because gas prices were higher), gas drillers were “sucking the [surface water] tanks dry” on the Jack County land, he said, where the water-use decisions weren’t up to him.

“They were paying us for it, but if it didn’t rain, we were short of stock water,” he said. Finally, he said, he talked the gas drillers into sinking their own water well so they’d quit using his stock water — which worked until they burned up their water pump.

“The underground water is going to be very critical, a crucial thing one of these days, because usage is getting bigger with the population,” he said. “These aquifers are just dropping.” Two of his seven windmill-pumped wells went completely dry during the worst of the drought last year, he said. He had to redrill them about 70 feet deeper to hit good water. But he uses that underground water as little as possible, he said.

The Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District includes Parker and Montague plus Hood and Wise counties. According to records from the district, between 2009 and 2011 groundwater use by the oil and gas industry quadrupled in Montague and substantially increased in the other three counties. But in Montague, water usage by the oil and gas industry, in each of the three years covered, was 10 times that of public water systems.

Jillian McDonald, public relations coordinator for the conservation district, said officials are in the process of gathering information on 108 water wells across the Upper Trinity, in order to better gauge in the future what is happening to groundwater levels, which have been steadily declining. She said the state sets criteria for how far apart water wells must be and how far from property lines. Gas well companies are treated no differently than other water users, she said.

McDonald said the district strongly encourages water conservation.

Saunders is all for that.

He wishes others would plan more for the long run. When a new neighbor drilled several water wells and put a surface tank at each well, he said, he explained to the man how much water he was going to lose to evaporation. “I said, man, you’re not only using what’s under your land but what’s under everybody else’s as well.”

Saunders said more people should install cisterns to collect rainwater off their roofs. “It’s the purest water you can get,” he said.

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In Colorado, activists bared it all to express support for their beloved river, which they believe is threatened in part by gas drillers’ need for water. Photo Courtesy New Belgium Brewing

As with so many other controversies involving shale gas, many Texans feel like they’re at the center of the drilling, but — despite the exertions of Barnett Shale activists — nowhere near the center of efforts to examine, critique, and possibly change that industry.

It was in places like New York and Pennsylvania that fracking’s threats to water quality first drew national attention several years ago. And now the competition for water between drillers and other users in Colorado is drawing more attention to that dilemma.

Gary Wockner, director of a group called the Save the Poudre Coalition, has been watching the fracking water usage with concern. His group’s mission is to protect the Cache la Poudre River.

He noted the auction this year in which water haulers serving gas drillers outbid farmers and ranchers for water diverted by a conservancy district from the Colorado River.

The Northern Water Conservancy District, Wockner said, is proposing to divert 60 percent of the water from the Cache la Poudre into a massive “off-channel” reservoir. The district says it needs the water to serve future population growth, Wockner said, “but we see it as a bait-and-switch” because the cities that will buy the water are also planning to sell a lot of it to drillers.

The plan would destroy wildlife and habitat, he said, and also wreck the significant part of the region’s economy based on recreation on that river — fishing, kayaking, rafting, and the like. “The rivers are already in terrible shape this year because of the drought,” he said. The Cache la Poudre flows through the city of Fort Collins, which, with the county and state, has spent millions of dollars protecting open space along the river, building bike paths, and maintaining a natural corridor. “If you drain the river, you really destroy [that] investment,” he said.

And just like in Texas, Wockner said, the available water in Colorado “has already been allotted and counted for. If new users come in, they take water away from someone else — primarily from the farmers and from the rivers.”

Wockner: “If new users come in, they take water away from someone else.”

Wockner also pointed out a report released in June by a conservation group called Western Resource Advocates, providing new data on the volume of water actually being used by shale gas development. In the study, based on information from Colorado, researchers concluded that estimates of water used in fracking vary widely, but that just in that one state, the industry uses enough water to serve a small city each year.

In fact, the debate over fracking and aquifer depletion has become international. In an article that appeared a few weeks ago in Nature magazine, scientists introduced a new system for better estimating groundwater reserves. And they warned that almost a quarter of the world’s people live in areas where aquifers are being depleted. Those areas include most of the world’s key farming regions — including the High Plains of the United States, where levels of the huge Ogallala aquifer have been shrinking for decades.

Wenonah Hauter, of Food & Water Watch, said the overuse of scarce water supplies by the energy industry was really driven home for her earlier this year at the first Global Water, Oil & Gas Summit — in Dubai.

Her group had gotten interested in water scarcity as an issue several years ago, she said, “and the more we learned, the more it became our main concern.” That interest in turn alerted them to high water usage by the fossil-fuel industry, she said.

But in Dubai, the issue was really laid out. The industry representatives “were very honest about the amount of water to be used,” Hauter said. “There was no pretense about natural gas being a transition to renewable [forms of energy]. This was about getting every drop out of the ground.” There are plans to use fracking on the ocean floor, she said.

At the conference were companies seeking to profit from water scarcity and also from cleaning up pollution caused by fracking and other fossil fuel processes, she said.

Resistance to shale gas development is also growing in other countries, Hauter said. France has banned fracking in most cases, as has Bulgaria, she said, plus at least one state in Germany. The “Global Frackdown” grassroots event planned for Sept. 22 will focus on the local situations in many places around the world.

“It’s an international movement,” Hauter said. “People are terrified about what will happen to their water.”

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Accounting for Anguish

Accounting for Anguish

FORT WORTH WEEKLY

By Gayle Reaves

Kim Emigh didn’t particularly want to be the one to say no. His strict adherence to ethics had already brought him trouble at Worldcom. He’d had to change jobs within the giant telecommunications company to avoid bosses who didn’t appreciate his meticulous attention to their deals.

For years, he’d seen the limos provided by vendors arrive at the Worldcom’s Richardson offices to whisk a manager nicknamed Mr. Free Lunch away to dine at The Mansion or other exclusive restaurants, week after week. He’d witnessed first-hand the anger of executives when he questioned statements from their favorite subcontractors who were asking payment for, say, 10 workers who somehow had only five Social Security numbers among them. He’d had other managers ask him for advice on how to carry out corporate directives that he thought were unscrupulous.

But up until that day in December 2000, nobody had asked him to do anything that he believed would break the law. This time, he believed, what the company wanted him to do could be construed as tax fraud. He sent word of his concerns up the corporate chain, and the reply came back down: Do it anyway. Emigh, a budget and financial analyst with eight years experience in the telecom industry, and an excellent record at Worldcom, knew he couldn’t. And he feared he knew what would happen as a result.

Emigh (pronounced Amy) called a woman he knew near the top of the Worldcom pyramid, an assistant to Worldcom’s chief operating officer. Of course the directed actions were not Worldcom policy, she said — and indeed, the company did not put the changes into effect while Emigh worked there. She thanked him profusely for bringing the matter to her chief’s attention.

“I said, ‘Sue, I’ll get fired over this.’ She said, ‘Oh, nobody would do that.’ ”

No? Two months after Kim Emigh blew the whistle — internally — on the accounting impropriety, MCI Worldcom laid him off — the only full-time worker he knows of to be let go during that round of “reductions.”

When he came home that day and told his wife, Janet, the bad news, they both still held onto hope that MCI top brass would reverse the decision. Janet had a temporary secret from Kim — she was pregnant with their third child, but she wanted to tell him that news on a happier day. As it turned out, she couldn’t wait that long. Kim Emigh didn’t work again for 14 months — months during which he saw one job possibility after another disappear because, he believes, of what employers were told or not told when they called Worldcom for a reference. The couple nearly lost their house. They cashed in their children’s college funds to stay afloat, sold investments at rock-bottom prices, and scraped by with the help of family and friends. Emigh was weeks away from being vested in the Worldcom retirement program when the company let him go.

Emigh, now 44, fears he will never rebuild the financial security he was once able to offer his family. And he certainly will never forget the 14 months of fear in his kids’ eyes — especially the night he found his son crying in his bed, convinced that he and his sister would be taken away from Kim and Janet because he’d seen in a Disney movie that that’s what happened to poor kids.

When Emigh was let go, Worldcom was still a phenom, riding the wave of telecom growth that had crested in the late 1990s. Now he has a new job, but Worldcom is in a world of hurt. Its stock is selling at bargain basement prices; dealmaking CEO Bernard Ebbers, who has $366 million in unsecured loans from the company, has resigned. The company is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Some analysts are predicting bankruptcy. Company officials deny the bankruptcy prediction but say they may have to sell assets or merge with another company.

Worldcom officials declined to comment on Emigh’s treatment or his allegations because he has filed suit against the company. His story of accounting improprieties — his judgment on that is backed up by several experts — may seem small potatoes compared to the company’s other woes. But it reaches close to the top of the Worldcom empire. Also, it seems to fit with a larger pattern of alleged questionable accounting that has resulted in the broad-ranging SEC investigation. His story sheds light on how, once again, the managers of a corporation with a giant presence in Texas may have put greed ahead of principles, leaving investors, customers, and straight-arrows like Kim Emigh on the losing end.

Worldcom, now one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies, was built as much by deals as by telephone switches and wireless signals. Formed as a long-distance phone service carrier in 1983 by a couple of Mississippi businessmen, the company over the years has merged with or acquired close to 70 other long-distance carriers, fiber optic networks, internet providers, and transmission companies. In 1997 it announced a merger with MCI Communications, in what was then the largest such transaction in history. Worldcom now serves customers in more than 65 countries, with local and long distance phone, internet, and wireless services. The company web site says it is the world’s largest provider of global data and internet services.

Emigh, who had built his telecommunications résumé with four years at Nortel and Ericsson, was originally hired in 1996 by MCI as a budget analyst in the company’s network systems deployment division, based in Richardson. He did business studies on multi-million-dollar switches and other equipment that the company engineers proposed, in order to decide whether they would be profitable investments, then oversaw procurement of the equipment. From the first year, he said, he saw things that troubled him, especially cozy relationships with vendors and loose controls over spending.

“Back then we had a ton of money. They used to say MCI was spending like a bunch of drunken sailors,” he said. “During the first year, the things I saw that troubled me were so commonplace, I thought, am I overreacting? They were so common it was like, ‘who cares?’ ”

After the merger with Worldcom, he said, policies became much stricter. But he still continued to see relationships and situations that troubled him.

In about 1998, Emigh was named team leader of a project to develop a new budget system. It landed him in the soup.

Emigh said the vendor that had the contract to develop the new system was one that several bosses were particularly chummy with — to the point that one Worldcom manager took vacations with a top official of the vendor company. “At first we were just getting exorbitant bills for not much product,” he said. “No one wanted to be involved with this. It looked to me like somebody was either getting kickbacks or we were pretty darned stupid.”

Worldcom was buying hardware as well as contract labor from the company; Emigh said the vendor would charge Worldcom for new equipment and provide used equipment, or deliver equipment without packing slips or in smaller amounts than invoiced. Many of the vendor’s employees involved in the contract worked off-site. That also raised red flags. Emigh said he learned that a bartender at a restaurant frequented by Worldcom and vendor employees was put on the project’s payroll as a contract worker, at a rate that amounted to $120,000 annually, for doing clerical work.

“I brought that up and I got reamed out,” Emigh said. Bosses agreed to correct the situation, but Emigh was told to keep his nose out.

Once, Emigh said, he was given a statement of work for the vendor’s contract employees that amounted to $250,000. “You’ve got 10 contract employees at about $25,000 each,” he said. “They listed them with Social Security numbers. It would say they were working off-site. However, several of the Social Security numbers were repeated on the list.” And of the 10, five were already registered with the company as on-site contract workers, being paid $10,000 a month. “They were getting paid twice,” Emigh said.

Again, he made no points with his bosses for questioning the expenditures. Shortly after that, Emigh found he had been left off a list of managers eligible for stock options. Even though a higher-level executive remedied that problem, Emigh saw the handwriting on the wall. “That was when I knew, I’ve got to get out of here,” he said. In July 1999, he was able to move to another section within Worldcom, where he was in charge of financial and business analysis for another part of the network systems division.

His old boss had a parting thought for him. “The last words he said to me were, ‘I’ll have your effing job.’ ”

By the fall of 2000, Emigh had been promoted five job grades at Worldcom. In four and a half years with the company, according to his performance evaluations, he had consistently exceeded his bosses’ expectations. He was making about $80,000 a year, not counting stock options that he’d been awarded.

Worldcom, on the other hand, once riding so high, was beginning to experience the same problems as other telecommunications companies. Their markets were leveling out; competition was growing increasingly fierce.

“What’s been happening on the technology side is that these companies had a massive party,” said telecommunications analyst Brian Modoff. “There was huge pressure to continue to meet” the zooming projections of earlier years. But rather than facing the fact that their business was slowing down, he said, some telecommunications companies began taking shortcuts — and using accounting practices to make themselves look better. In recent months, major players like Global Crossing, challenged on how they record their revenues, have also become the subject of SEC investigations.

In November 2000, Worldcom’s network systems engineering had already spent the money it had budgeted for capital expenditures for the year. Near the end of the month, a senior manager sent down word that the company should stop processing payments to network systems vendors and suppliers for the rest of the year. Emigh thought the order was wrong — that Worldcom was causing problems for companies that had already delivered merchandise — some of it worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — in good faith. When he heard of complaints from vendors, he sent them on to his bosses, with stiff comments about the company’s honoring “our legal and moral commitment.”

To Emigh, that was bad business. But it’s certainly not unheard of. The vice president of one computer company, whose salesman was among those pressing for payment on overdue bills at that time, said last week that Worldcom was not a bad customer — and that they’d had much worse problems getting paid by other giant companies.

Paying slowly also wasn’t illegal. But Emigh was convinced that the next request to come down from upper management was.

The directive came down on Dec. 12, 2000, from Frank Guckes, an accounting manager, but at the behest, his e-mail said, of Worldcom’s chief technical officer, Fred Briggs. The order, in essence, was for all labor associated with capital projects in the network systems division to no longer be charged to a capital project but to be booked as an expense. The e-mail also went to other divisions in the company.

Most non-accountants’ eyes glaze over at this point, but the distinction is one that can paint a false picture of a company’s financial situation. If money spent on labor is part of a capital project, it is part of an asset — not an expense. In the long run, if capital items are booked as expenses, it reduces a company’s net profit and, therefore, its taxes. It’s the opposite problem from one that investigators typically see — but still one that could have legal repercussions.

Emigh estimated that the directive could have affected $35 million in capital labor spending — and possibly much more, depending on what was done in divisions outside his own.

A forensic CPA, a former SEC investigator, and a securities lawyer all said that what Worldcom was asking Emigh and other managers to do was, at the very least, improper.

If the facts presented by Emigh are true, said CPA Scott Barnes of Dallas, “this was a very disturbing attempt to override internal controls” in Worldcom. “As a forensic accountant, these are definitely the indicia of intended fraud.” The criteria for fraud — that a company was going to make material false statements that it knew to be false, and which, if relied on by potential investors, could have damaged the investors — are present, he said.

Emigh’s position, Barnes said, “is the appropriate one. The last thing you want to do is mischaracterize capital expenses or to shield actual transactions from management. Depending on the dollar figure, this could have been material to [Worldcom’s] bottom line.” If the directive had been carried out, and the improper accounting not fixed, he said, Worldcom’s taxes could have been reduced. The high level from which the directive originated makes it even more serious, he said.

Carr Conway, a former SEC investigator now with the Dickerson Financial Investigation Group in Colorado, said the directive, if it had been carried out, could also have drawn interest from the SEC because the Foreign and Corrupt Practices Act requires American companies to keep accounts that accurately depict a company’s transactions. “What they were asking him to do was to misclassify entries into the books,” he said. “Certainly the SEC would be interested in that.”

Investors apparently have Emigh to thank for the policy not going into effect. He voiced his objections to it but, again, was told to implement it anyway. Not wanting to get his immediate bosses in trouble for questioning the orders of their superiors, Emigh went around them. He called Sue Dean, an assistant to Ron Beaumont, Worldcom’s chief operating officer, and told her of his concerns. The following day, another e-mail went out saying that the new policy would not be implemented “until we receive additional clarification.”

A few minutes later, Sue Dean sent Emigh an appreciative e-mail. “On behalf of myself and corporate accounting, I want to thank you for making us aware of this,” she wrote. “I checked with corporate accounting to be sure there was no corporate directive and that our ‘gut’ senses were correct.” She then set the ball rolling “to notify the field that it was totally unacceptable not to pay for items received, and that capital should be capitalized.”

“The only way we will succeed as a company is for the right corporate decisions to be made and I appreciate your knowing what they are and letting us know when it appears otherwise,” she said.

Apparently, not everyone appreciated it. The same day, Emigh got another e-mail from Mike Smith, the director who had once threatened to get Emigh fired. Smith asked if he knew who had told Sue Dean about the directive. Emigh — maybe as straight an arrow as Worldcom had ever seen — admitted that he had been the one.

“The next morning when I got to work I had had a page” from Bob Spry, one of his immediate superiors. Spry told him he had committed an infraction by not carrying out the directive on capital labor. He told Emigh that Joe Cook, a senior vice-president, was ordering that he be formally reprimanded and punished.

“I was told, ‘Joe Cook is going to get you.’ ”

He went home and told Janet, “This is going to be bad. But I have a responsibility to the shareholders and to myself.”

Emigh had assumed that, like the first time he had riled superiors by pointing out accounting problems, he could solve his problem by simply moving to another job within Worldcom. Near the end of January, he asked his immediate boss whether he thought the current anger against him would blow over. “He said, ‘Prepare for the worst.’ I said, ‘Oh, am I going to get fired?’ He just nodded.”

On March 2, 2001, 10 weeks after blowing the whistle, Emigh was notified that he was being laid off. He said that, as far as he has been able to find out, he was the only full-time worker and certainly the highest-level manager affected by the move — all the other laid-off employees he heard about were part-time, contract or clerical workers.

Worldcom said the 375 workers laid off at the Richardson office were part of a company-wide restructuring that affected about 3,700 workers, including employees at all organizational levels.

The layoff began the worst 14 months of their lives for Emigh and his family. On several occasions, Emigh was called back for repeat interviews on jobs and then — as soon as the prospective employer checked his references with Worldcom — was told the job had been given to someone else. Several times, recruiters told him that Worldcom simply would not return phone calls — an odd attitude for a company that allegedly let Emigh go for reasons unrelated to the quality of his work.

One possible job was with a company where a member of his church worked. Emigh went back for follow-up interviews. Then he got a phone message from the new company’s recruiter. “We’re having no luck” getting Emigh’s ex-boss at Worldcom to call back, the recruiter said. Another possible job down the tubes.

Janet was newly pregnant and hadn’t worked since their oldest child, Caitlyn, then about 8, had been born. With no employer to kick in a share, the costs for health insurance — even more important with Janet’s pregnancy — went through the roof. At one point, Emigh even applied for a job as a garbage collector, but the company wouldn’t hire him because he was overqualified. Money the couple had saved to buy a piece of land in Arkansas, where Janet’s family lives, went first. College funds for Caitlyn and her younger brother Luke had to be sacrificed to meet mortgage and utility payments and keep food on the table.

As the rejections piled up, the financial stress turned into personal stress. Neither of the adults could sleep: Kim would get up in the middle of the night to surf the employment sites on the internet looking for a job. He’d find Janet up before him, walking the floor.

“I’d find myself getting up in the middle of the night and just bawling,” Janet said. During the days, “I did a masterful job at hiding my feelings. Kim was here every day, all day. I had to keep up a façade. I couldn’t say anything to him or the kids.” She had no appetite, but with the baby on the way she forced herself to eat. “I had to take notes just to make sure I ate what I needed for the baby. I felt sometimes like I was just eating cardboard,” she said. At one point, late in her pregnancy, she actually started to lose weight.

The kids understood why they couldn’t go out to eat pizza with their friends after soccer games any more, and knew not to complain for fear of hurting their dad’s feelings. Luke, who was 6 when his father lost his job, began to have a series of allergic reactions so serious that at one point his throat swelled shut. “It’s been way too long, Daddy. You need to get a job,” he told Kim at one point.

Janet said she “ran a lot of interference” with the kids, letting them know with a look if something they were about to say would upset Kim. “You could make him feel bad so easily,” she said.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 added another depth to their misery. Already having to sell investments, the Emighs found they had to sell at fire-sale prices in the recession that followed, because they had no other choice.

Then there was the night that Emigh walked into his son’s room and found him crying in bed. Luke told his dad that he was scared about being taken away from Caitlyn and his parents. He’d just watched a television show in which the kids from a poor family were farmed out to different foster homes.

“I hugged him and told him, ‘Son, nothing will ever separate us,’ ” Emigh said. He can barely tell the story without crying himself.

With help from both their families, and from friends, they kept the mortgage paid and the lights on. Janet’s mom told her she was putting a little something in Janet’s purse for gas money — but it turned out to be $1,000. After baby Mirana arrived in November, one of Janet’s sisters “single-handedly kept us in diapers,” Janet said.

“I tell you what, through this whole thing, if you didn’t believe in God at the beginning, you sure would by the end,” she said. A “secret Santa” bought gifts for their children at Christmas. At one point when they were close to losing the house, a $1,000 payment arrived unexpectedly in the mail — partial restitution, paid through the county, by a young man who had burglarized their house five years earlier. And then Janet’s brother, who had lived with the couple for a few years early in their marriage, told her that he would help them with the house payment, for as long as they needed. “It was just wild, the things that get you through,” she said. “You’re always on the very edge.”

A month ago, Emigh found a job as a comptroller of accounts for a company that provides facilities services such as building maintenance, uniforms, and food service. He had the same reference problems with Worldcom as he did in other interviews, but his new boss told him, “I’ve hired hundreds of people, and I think I can tell whether to hire you without references.”

Emigh rushed home to tell Janet the news. At 9 a.m., standing in their kitchen, they found a bottle of André champagne in the refrigerator and popped the cork to celebrate.

The new job pays about $60,000 — good money, but substantially less than his old salary, and it involves a lot of traveling. In a month’s time, he said, he’s spent more time away from his family than he did in the preceding 11 years combined. Still, he said of the job, “it’s a miracle that I got it.”

The Emighs are friendly, low-key people. But when they start talking about the price they believe they and their children have paid because Kim stood up for what he believed in, the bitterness tumbles out in a rush of words. They have a “mountain of credit card debt” — tens of thousands of dollars’ worth — to pay off, and feel as though, in their 40s, they are starting over again financially.

“Your kids have been through what you’ve been through. You can never go back and be the person you were prior to it happening,” Janet said. “The things that happened have changed you.

“I look at businesspeople now and wonder if they’re destroying people’s lives like these couple of men did ours. Am I the first person they destroyed the lives of? I’ve so badly wanted to walk up to them and put the pictures of my three children in front of them and say, do you feel good about destroying their lives, for nothing? For nothing.”

Talking about what the months of unemployment did to his kids reduces Emigh to tears. But most of the time, it’s not easy for outsiders to tell how overwrought he has been. Out of town during his first week on the new job, he threw up every night in his hotel room. “I’m like a duck sitting on a pond, but paddling furiously beneath the surface,” he said.

When Worldcom laid off Kim Emigh, they offered him a severance package that totaled about $7,000 in take-home pay. Emigh was outraged at his treatment and knew he wanted to sue. But it wasn’t easy, at first, to find a lawyer to represent him. Fearful he would end up with zilch if he didn’t find an attorney, Emigh signed the agreement not to sue, which was a requirement for receiving the severance check. When attorney Bob Goodman agreed to take the case, Emigh revoked the agreement — well within the 45-day period allowed by law, Goodman says, and perhaps, depending on who is counting, within the 21-day limit that Worldcom argues is the rule. Thus far, the company’s defense to the lawsuit has addressed only the question of whether Emigh gave up his right to sue. A hearing has been set in Dallas state district court for May 20.

Goodman and other attorneys say that, under some conditions, an ex-employee in Emigh’s shoes would be entitled to accept severance and sue anyway. But, despite his family’s at-times desperate need for money, the Worldcom check is still sitting on top of Emigh’s refrigerator, uncashed. “Someday when I step up in front of a judge, I want to be able to say, here’s the check,” he said.

Emigh is asking for $35 million in actual and punitive damages against Worldcom. If he gets a judgment, he said, he will keep enough to pay for the actual value of his lost wages and stock options. The rest, he said, he’d use to “start a nonprofit group that protects the rights of whistleblowers and decent working people.” (Whistleblower statutes protect only people who work for government agencies, not private employers.)

Even if Emigh won a judgment for every cent he’s seeking, Worldcom has much bigger worries these days — but springing perhaps from similar sources.

“The larger picture for Worldcom and MCI is that they are in a business that is in trouble and getting worse,” said Pat Brogan, a telecom analyst with the Precursor Group, an investor-side research firm. “The economics of the industry are miserable. The spotlight being shined on its accounting practices is putting a drag on the industry. A lot of the growth and hype that was surging the industry in the late ’90s may have been fueled by accounting practices.”

The SEC in March asked Worldcom for an unusually broad range of documents going back to January 1999, including documents having to do with the $366-plus million in loans to Ebbers. A New York Times story noted that the agency “appears to be looking into many of the business practices that helped Worldcom emerge from obscurity,” including deals that were completed using the value of Worldcom’s high-flying stock.

Scott Cleland, CEO of the Precursor Group said the SEC investigation of Worldcom appears to be quite serious. “Generally, when an SEC investigation goes to the subpoena stage, the SEC believes it has enough of a case that all it needs to do is collect the detailed evidence to back up that case. That’s what’s going on right now. They did the subpoena because they wanted to make sure there wouldn’t be destruction of documents or obstruction of justice. If you read the SEC letter, it is frighteningly specific. The agency obviously has informants that are saying, ‘Look right there.’ It is not going to go away any time soon.”

The company posted the SEC’s letter on its web site, along with a statement that the company believes all its policies and practices to be in compliance with accounting standards and laws and that it intends to cooperate with the inquiry.

Worldcom’s stock has lost close to 95 percent of its value since it peaked in 1999. Cleland said Worldcom’s longer-term bonds are currently trading “at a level that suggests the market believes that they are at risk of bankruptcy.

“The market is saying that, in 2003 or 2004, Worldcom is going to have a day of reckoning.”

That’s the same thing Kim Emigh wants

Trading Away Youth

“Trading Away Youth”

Violence Against Women:  A Question of Human Rights

In the early 1990s, foreign desk editor Pat Gaston was trying to formulate a proposal for a worldwide examination of women’s issues. So many staffers were interested that she created a special “basket” in our computer system where we could file articles we found, ideas, etc. What grew out of that, when News management agreed she should go forward, was the most collegial project I have ever worked on. A group of us met, tossed around ideas, researched them, talked some more, and eventually developed the outlines of the project that came to be called “Violence Against Women: A Question of Human Rights.”

            The News sent reporters and photographers around the world to report on the epidemic of gender-based violence and its many forms and causes. The series won the 1994 Pulitzer for International Reporting and many other awards. Women in Texas took it to their hearts, inviting us over and over again to come and speak and describe what we had seen and heard.

            I wrote two stories for the series, in addition to doing much of the early research along with reporter Anne Reifenberg.  “Trading Away Youth” describes the toll that a huge forced prostitution industry in Thailand took on girls and women not only there but in surrounding countries.

TRADING AWAY YOUTH

Impoverished Thai parents sell girls into prostitution

The Dallas Morning News, published: March 21, 1993
By Gayle Reaves 

Staff Writer

NEAR MAE CHAN, Thailand — At an age when many American teens are trying to talk Dad out of the car keys, she sits on the floor of a shabby cottage, trying to talk her frail, gaunt father out of sending her back to a brothel. At 17, she has already worked in three brothels, because of the need to help support her ailing parents.

In the dim interior of the cottage — purchased with her prostitute’s wages — her father argues with social workers who want her to live and study at their shelter. The thatched cottage holds few possessions: a charcoal brazier, a water jug, two battered tin cups — and, on the room’s one table, a television set.

She is their only child, the father says. The brothel agent owns the land on which the house sits, and that day he has threatened to evict them. The father has borrowed more money from the agent, with his daughter’s work as collateral. What will happen to them if they lose her wages?

He does not understand that, soon enough, he may lose her anyway. She has the AIDS virus.

An hour’s drive north of Mae Chan, teacher Jandraem Sirikhampoo calls a group of students to her side. These little girls, she says, were sold as babies by their parents. The buyers are raising them, like livestock, to be sold into prostitution. Most such buyers, she says, have already sold their own daughters.

“It happens quite often,” says Ms. Jandraem, who founded the school for poor children. “The kids know . . . that they have to go to Bangkok at a certain age. They know these are not their real parents.” She is searching for foster families for them, ignoring threats from brothel agents.

These girls and thousands like them are the clouded future of Thailand. A generation of girls is being turned into commerce: They are traded by their families or kidnappers for houses, water buffalo, land, cash, food — and televisions. Many girls now accept prostitution as their fate, the only way to support families whose rural ways of life are disappearing.

Thailand has become the red-light district to much of the world. In a country of 56 million people, relief agencies estimate that there are 2 million prostitutes, up to 800,000 of them children. Perhaps one in 12 women and older children may be involved, and up to 80 percent of the girls in some tribal villages.

Prostitution in Thailand often amounts to slavery: Children cannot give true consent, and many others are held in outright captivity or debt bondage. It can be a fatal servitude. Thailand is the center of what experts say will soon be the worst AIDS epidemic in the world.

Slavery has been internationally condemned since long before the United Nations set out its human-rights manifesto in 1948. But in Thailand, sexual slavery, for the most part, has been internationally ignored.

In the past few years, international and Thai women’s groups and children’s rights groups — plus the fear of AIDS — have led the Thai government to step up raids against sex businesses involving child prostitutes. A bill in the Thai Parliament proposes to increase penalties for pimps and procurers.

But such efforts are hampered by the economic and political strength of the sex industry. Government officials acknowledge that police corruption is a major problem.

“These are organized activities. They are killing a generation,” says Dr. Tawat Wichaidit, secretary-general to Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai. “The traffic in human flesh . . . is no longer a thing that we can tolerate.”

The huge Thai sex industry originally developed to serve U.S. air bases and soldiers on leave from the Vietnam War. It is now a drawing card for male tourists and workers from Japan, Malaysia, Burma, the Middle East, Europe and the United   States.

Nor is the problem confined to Thailand: Prostitution and sexual slavery are on the rise again in China, and Thai prostitutes are exported to Japan and Germany. AIDS researchers say “sex tourism’ is a growing problem in the Philippines, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Kenya and Eastern Europe.

Tourism has become Thailand’s leading industry. The government discourages the marketing of Thailand for sex tourism, but the crowds at the live-sex shows in Bangkok’s Patpong district still seem to rival those at the Buddhist temples.

Sexual services for a price are available all over Bangkok, from the poorest slums to the prime minister’s neighborhood. In this city of 10 million people, separate streets cater to Japanese businessmen, Chinese and Westerners.

Muslim men flock to southern Thailand for the paid sex they cannot obtain in their own countries. In some southern Thai cities, says child-rights worker Sanphasit Koompraphant, “Every day you can see buses coming from Singapore — and their passengers are 100 percent men. In every block, there is a hotel, 20 stories. There is no tourist business there, no industry — only lumber plantations and sex services.”

But foreign trade represents only a small part of Thailand’s prostitution business. Relief workers say 80 percent of the customers are Thai men. AIDS researcher Vicharn Vithayasai says that going to a brothel is as common and acceptable among Thai men as having a beer after work.

The sex industry has outstripped the supply of available Thai women.

Gangs now operate in Burma, Laos, Vietnam and China, luring or kidnapping thousands of girls each year. They are put to work in upper-class “teahouses,” garish bars and hidden brothels. Or they end up in one of the thousands of other businesses — massage parlors, go-go clubs, coffee shops, hotels and shacks, secret and open, grimy and glitzy — from which sex is dispensed in Thailand. More than 40,000 girls and women are believed to have been lured or kidnapped from Burma alone.

It is not only women’s bodies that are being sold — it is their lives. Relief agencies estimate that more than 40 percent of Thai prostitutes are HIV-positive. Thailand is the nucleus of an expected AIDS pandemic poised to rip a deadly path through the future of southern Asia. Tribal peoples will be hit especially hard. Relief workers fear that entire hill tribes in northern Thailand and Burma will be wiped out.

Prostitutes already are dying from AIDS, but little notice is taken, says Mr. Sanphasit, child-rights director for the Bangkok-based Foundation for Children. Thai society “cares much more about the health of the clients . . . (than) about the women who work in brothels,” he says.

AIDS seems not to have greatly reduced business for the sex merchants.

Cyril, a young Frenchman in Bangkok for an extended business trip, sits in an open-air Patpong bar, enjoying the frenzied scene.

In the tawdry neon canyons of Patpong, women workers lounge beside club entrances, sit at cramped sidewalk tables and dance to rock music on raised stages visible through open doors. Touts stop passers-by to display placards listing the sex stunts to be performed inside the clubs. In some clubs, members of the audience are invited to perform in the shows — or to have their sexual experience provided to them at their tables.

Cyril says some of his French friends come to Bangkok for the cheap and available sex, figuring that their chances of contracting AIDS during a short visit are slim. Cyril says he plans to be much more careful — he won’t visit prostitutes.

“I don’t want to risk my life for sex for only an hour,” he says. But — he is tempted. “It’s very difficult to resist,” he says. “Girls are everywhere.”

Everywhere in Bangkok, perhaps. In the northern villages of the Akha tribe, most of the young women are gone.

Village children

Sompop Jantraka, founder of the Daughters’ Education Programme at Mae Sai, estimates that 70 to 80 percent of the girls in Akha tribal villages that he deals with “go to Bangkok’ — northern slang for becoming prostitutes.

In the remote hilltop villages of the Akha, pigs and poverty share the narrow dirt lanes with bamboo-and-thatch homes. Dau came from one such village, from the rice fields, a poor family, an opium-addicted father.

The offer came when she was 12 or 13 — a job in a restaurant that turned out to be a brothel. When the resistance was beaten out of her, the customers were brought to her, five to seven of them the first night. Her fee was $6. She got none of it.

The first time Dau escaped from the brothels, she and two other girls from her village climbed out through a bathroom window and went to the police.

“They tried to convince us we had to return to the brothel,” she says. When the girls refused, police delivered them to their original kidnapper, who promptly sold them to another brothel.

The second time, Dau and her friends made it home. But the brothel agent brought police to threaten their families with arrest unless they repaid him for the girls’ value.

The girls kept running until they found a village whose leader took them to the NewLifeCenter in Chiang Mai. The center, supported by American Baptist and Swedish churches, operates three homes for girls who have survived prostitution or who are at risk of being sold into it.

Now Dau is safe, but her mother is not. Dau found out recently that her father has sent her mother and 9-year-old sister to Bangkok to beg in the streets. She cried for days when she heard the news.

The process of recruiting girls such as Dau for the sex trade is highly organized. Agencies target certain villages and families. Agents advance the girls or their families a lump sum of money, perhaps $800 to $1,600. The young woman is then required to work off twice the original amount of the “loan.”

Some women are paid extra by brothel owners to promote prostitution among younger girls on visits home. But that’s not always necessary.

“Girls come back, they have more clothes, more money,” one father says. Others follow them — or are sent by the families.

“Most of our children are trafficked by their families,” says Mr. Sanphasit. “Families have joined the flesh market.”

Controlling the family flesh trade means going against old habits. Thai children are sold as workers into many industries, not just prostitution.

In Thai society of less than 100 years ago, Mr. Sanphasit explains, “women and children were only property’ of men, to be sold or used as men saw fit. In some respects, the sex business has changed things only by raising the value of girls on the market.

Some parents don’t understand what kind of “jobs” await their daughters. Others do but figure that prostitution is better than a life of deep poverty.

But the problem is not only poverty. As Thai society becomes more industrialized, says Mr. Sompop of the Daughters’ Education Programme, television is teaching people to want more consumer goods. Families that before considered themselves lucky to have homes, food and clothes now are willing to sell their daughters for a motorcycle or store-bought luxuries.

“Where there is a road, there are pimps,” he says. “And television knocks on every door.”

Sex industry expands

In previous centuries, Mr. Sanphasit says, Thai men were allowed more than one wife. Women were not supposed to inquire about their husband’s activities.

With the coming of the Vietnam War, the Thai sex industry expanded to provide American soldiers with prostitutes and “for-rent wives.” By the time the soldiers left, Thai men had found that they liked this new availability of sex. Men and boys no longer needed to sneak off to brothels — they went openly.

Thai men are expected to be sexually experienced, “to have lots of girlfriends,” explains Dr. Vicharn, an AIDS researcher at ChiangMaiUniversity. Workers are expected to provide visiting bosses with women for sex, and men who travel think they “have to have sex with local women,’ he says.

But the culture still retains a strong prohibition against “good” girls and women having sex outside marriage. And Thai women still do not feel comfortable asking their husbands about their sexual behavior.

The resulting demand for sex services, combined with the AIDS crisis, has increased the use of girls in the sex trade. Many male customers believe that the less experienced the girl, the less chance they have of contracting AIDS from her. The sad reality is that girls are more likely to contract and pass on the disease, because the skin and tissue in their bodies is more likely to be torn during the sex act, making them more vulnerable to the AIDS virus.

Beyond that, says Mr. Sanphasit, younger and younger girls are entering the trade simply because of market demand. Foreign pedophiles come to Thailand seeking girls.

And Thai men use girls when they can’t afford women. “It is not abnormal for Thai men to go to child prostitutes,” says Mr. Sanphasit.  It is common.”

Providing a haven

The house is like many others in Bangkok: a two-story structure in a walled garden, off a tiny graveled lane. The only difference is that the 20 or so girls and young women here are all former child prostitutes, being cared for by the Foundation for Children. They sew, practice writing, study.

Among them is 18-year-old Fong. When she was 16, a monk visited her village in southern China. He said she could make $200 a month as a sales clerk in a Burmese border town — a huge sum for a girl who sometimes went hungry.

Instead, after a three-day trek to the Thai-Burma border, she was sold to a brothel agent for $600.

When she saw the money change hands, Fong says, she was terrified. But she didn’t know where she was, she had no money, she didn’t even speak Thai.

Fong was taken to a Bangkok teahouse where a Thai man paid her “owner’ $280 for the privilege of taking away her virginity.

“I almost fainted. I almost killed myself,” she says.

Her value as a virgin spent, Fong was shifted to a massage parlor in the beach resort of Pattaya. There she joined 30 to 40 girls “in a glass room’ wearing numbers, so customers could choose among them.

The brothel owner bought her clothes. The other women “trained” her, she says — how to dress, how to give a man a bath, how to do the required things step by step, so that they became a job.

Like most women in “locked” brothels, Fong received no money except tips. Pimps guarded the doors. If she refused to have sex with drunken customers, she was beaten. If she insisted that they wear condoms and they refused, she was beaten.

One of the few accepted excuses for refusing sex was that a woman was having her menstrual period. But when Fong tried to stretch that excuse more than a few days, she says, the massage parlor owner would make her take off her underwear so he could see whether she was telling the truth.

Fong managed to escape after six months. By bus, she made it back across the country to Mae Sai. But before she could cross into Burma, one of the army of procurers found her and sold her to another brothel. Being recaptured, she says, was almost as terrifying as her first customer.

Eventually, a Taiwanese customer paid the owner of the second brothel $400 to free her and sent her to the Chinese embassy in Bangkok.

Fong is afraid to go home. Her father drinks when he has the money, she says, and then is cruel to his family.

“But I would rather face my drunken father than go on like this,” she says.

In the closed brothels to which kidnapped girls and women are taken, they are held as slaves, underfed and denied medical care. A few years ago, several women in one such brothel died in a fire because they were chained to their beds. One woman escaped from a brothel in the southern town of Songhkla, only to be killed when brothel thugs found her at the city hall, where she had sought refuge.

Like Fong, many such young women are prisoners of ignorance and poverty. They are usually taken to places as far from their homes as possible; if they try to escape, neighbors often will turn them in to brothel pimps.

But increasingly, lures and locks are not needed, for society has convinced many northern and northeastern Thai girls that prostitution is an acceptable and even valued profession.

In the northern city of Chiang Mai, Jackie Pollock teaches English to women in middle-class bars and brothels. Her group, Empower, does not try to “rescue” the women. It seeks to give them skills with which they can control their lives.

Many of the women dream of the customer who will fall in love and take them out of prostitution, she says. In the meantime, they work for years to pay off loans from brothel owners, to support their children, to help their families through sickness and hard times. Like prisons

Some of the worst examples of sexual slavery are found far to the south of Bangkok, in towns such as Ranong, across from the southern tip of Burma. Brothels behind electric fences sell sex to Malaysians and to Burmese and Thai fishermen. The places are staffed mostly by Burmese women, an estimated 1,500 of them.

Zaw Gyi, head of the Burma Information Group in Thailand, says the Ranong brothels are like brutal prisons, complete with underground rooms. Those too ill to work are sometimes killed by brothel owners, he says.

Burmese women are not even safe once they have been freed from sexual slavery. Most come from tribes at war with the repressive Burmese government. Burmese exile groups charge that when their countrywomen are turned over to Burmese authorities, many of the women are executed or sent to prison — especially if they have the AIDS virus. In 1992, reports circulated that Burmese police had executed a group of HIV-positive prostitutes by injecting them with cyanide.

Relief workers have begun to quietly send Burmese women home with family members rather than contact Burmese or Thai immigration authorities. Zaw Gyi complains that Thai immigration police work closely with the gangs that kidnap Burmese women.

Police corruption in Thailand is one of the main stumbling blocks in the government’s attempts to attack sexual slavery. Relief workers say that police not only are paid to ignore and protect the brothels but also are often part-owners.

Police corruption “is the toughest question” in the prostitution equation, says Dr. Tawat of the prime minister’s office.

Dr. Tawat says that corrupt and honest elements within Thai police departments “are fighting each other” and that the government has pledged to do everything it can to reform the system. He is setting up his own team to investigate prostitution-related corruption.

Top Thai police officials say they are serious about tackling the corruption problem. Lt. Gen. Somchai Chaiyavej, assistant director general of Thai police, stressed the willingness of his agency to tackle corruption within its ranks.

“It’s not good for the country,” he said. “We are sincere about stopping the problem.’”

Police officers are being prosecuted in the death of the prostitute in SonghklaCity Hall. But few have been charged with corruption-related crimes.

“The lower ranks collect it (bribe money), divide it up, put it in envelopes and give it to the higher-ups. It’s a feeding system, from the roots up,” says Dr. Saisuree Chutikul, a former Cabinet member and now a government consultant on women’s and children’s issues. “They (police) can’t do anything about it because they are part of it.”

Still, Thailand’s prime minister “will not give an inch” on the demand that child prostitution be rooted out, Dr. Tawat says. The prime minister, he says, seeks nothing less than a new “moral framework for Thai society,” in which the use of prostitutes would no longer be socially acceptable.

He also touted vocational training and small industries that are being established in rural areas, so families can support themselves without selling their daughters.

Relief workers are skeptical of the government’s commitment — and resources — to fight an industry that brings so much wealth. But they welcome the new willingness to discuss it as a serious problem.

There are a lot of big “ifs” in the question of how well the government will succeed in its efforts, says Dr. Saisuree. “But if we give up because of all those ‘ifs,’ then we just sit back and do nothing.”

Happy for now

At the NewLifeCenter, Dau sews and studies. Happy with her life there, she doesn’t think much about what lies ahead. Because of the pressures on her family, she cannot go home permanently.

Dau has the AIDS virus but doesn’t understand its implications. For now, her plans are only to stay at New Life and to make the hat covered with needlework, coins and other trinkets that will complete her traditional Akha outfit.

Married or marriageable Akha women wear a tall hat. Girls and young women not yet ready for marriage wear a flat version.

“I will make a flat hat,” Dau says.