2010 - %3, October

Honeybee Collapse (Partly) Solved!

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 12:36 PM EDT

And now for some genuinely good news. It appears that we've finally figured out whether it's a virus or a fungus that's reponsible for the collapse of honeybee colonies over the past few years. Answer: it's both.

Researchers on both sides say that colony collapse may be the first time that the defense machinery of the post-Sept. 11 Homeland Security Department and academia have teamed up to address a problem that both sides say they might never have solved on their own.

....Human nature and bee nature were interconnected in how the puzzle pieces came together. Two brothers helped foster communication across disciplines. A chance meeting and a saved business card proved pivotal. Even learning how to mash dead bees for analysis — a skill not taught at West Point — became a factor.

....Research at the University of California, San Francisco, had already identified the fungus as part of the problem. And several RNA-based viruses had been detected as well. But the Army/Montana team, using a new software system developed by the military for analyzing proteins, uncovered a new DNA-based virus, and established a linkage to the fungus, called N. ceranae....The Army software system — an advance itself in the growing field of protein research, or proteomics — is designed to test and identify biological agents in circumstances where commanders might have no idea what sort of threat they face....The power of that idea in military or bee defense is immense, researchers say, in that it allows them to use what they already know to find something they did not even know they were looking for.

So there you have it. Academic researchers teamed up with Army software designed to identify biological agents on the battlefield to figure out what was going on. Now all that's left is to figure out just how this virus/fungus combo works and whether there's any way to fight it.

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Today's Grim Employment Report

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

Do I have to do a post about today's employment report? I do? Fine: it sucks. Private sector job growth was anemic, just as it has been since falling off a cliff in May, and shows no signs of picking up. Public sector job growth, thanks to state and local layoffs, was negative, just as it has been since falling off a cliff in June. As a result, total job growth was tiny, far too small even to keep up with population growth. At the rate things are going right now, unemployment is going to stay near double digits for a very, very long time.

Too negative, you say? You want some good news, you say? Here it is:

While job creation remains scarce, there could be a silver lining. Expectations are growing that the Federal Reserve will try to stimulate the economy by stepping up its purchases of government bonds. The gloomy jobs report could give the Fed more incentive to act.

Jason Pride, director of investment strategy at wealth management firm Glenmede, said "by not being stronger, (the jobs report) gives them the window of opportunity to take action."

Any other good news? Well, the stock market broke 11000 and the teen apparel sector posted strong growth as part of "brisk" back-to-school sales. So buck up, folks. Prosperity is right around the corner.

The Ghost of Congress Future

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 11:39 AM EDT

"GoolsbeeGate" is a look at things to come if Republicans take over the House in November. I can't wait. It sounds like a worthy successor to the Clinton Christmas card investigation. 

NJ Democrats Behind Fake Tea Party Candidate

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 11:25 AM EDT

Democratic operatives close to Rep. John Adler say that the New Jersey congressman's campaign recruited candidate purportedly representing the "New Jersey Tea Party" as third-party spoiler. The Courier Post reports:

Congressman John Adler's campaign and the Camden County Democratic Committee recruited "NJ Tea Party'' candidate Peter DeStefano to confuse conservative voters and hurt Adler's Republican challenger this fall, Democratic operatives say.

"The goal was to take 5 percent of (Republican Jon) Runyan's vote,'' said a Democrat with direct knowledge of the Adler campaign and CCDC operations…Adler, who is in a knife-fight with Runyan in the conservative-leaning 3rd district, is aware of the DeStefano plan, Democrats said.

Questions about DeStefano first surfaced over the summer, when it became apparent that local tea party activists had never heard of him before he announced his candidacy. This isn't the first time that Democrats have tried to use "Tea Party" candidates as spoilers this election cycle. In Michigan, the state Supreme Court invalidated a "Tea Party" Party that Democrats had set up to back third-party candidates in scores of races across the state.

Republicans have a long history of such shenanigans, typically propping up the Green Party in recent election cycles. In Arizona, a Republican operative was particularly brazen in recruiting three homeless people to run for state office. And in Texas, Republicans spent a half-million dollars in an effort to put the Texas Green Party on the ballot in the state race—backed by sketchy operatives who also tried to help Ralph Nader in the 2004 race.

Such dirty tricks obviously have a chance of backfiring, so the Democrats really shouldn't be in a rush to match the GOP in resorting to such tactics. And it looks particularly bad when the candidate himself seems to be complicit.

Kentucky Groups Sue for Clean Water Act Enforcement

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 11:15 AM EDT

A coalition of environmental and citizen groups is filing suit against three mining companies in Kentucky for violations of the Clean Water Act, after an investigation into state records found the companies willfully, and regularly, ignoring pollution limits at or near mining sites.

After digging through records at the state's Division of Surface Mine Reclamation and Enforcement, the groups say they found more than 20,000 violations for just these three firms—ICG Knott County, ICG Hazard, and Frasure Creek Mining, a subsidiary of Trinity Coal. The companies regularly noted that they had exceeded pollution limits in their self-reported quarterly filings, but they also often failed to submit reports or falsified monitoring data. In one case the groups cite, the data on manganese levels at one test site was 40 times the legal limit. Overexposure to the element has toxic effects and can impair motor skills and cognitive function.

The groups say they are filing suit because the state office has not enforced the law. Donna Lisenby, who works for the environmental group Appalachian Voices, described literally blowing the dust off stacks of reports from the companies that did not appear to have been actually reviewed by anyone in the state office. Or at least, they were not reviewed thoroughly; she also described reports that appeared to have the same data copied and pasted from previous months, and reports that were dated before the testing was actually conducted. "Unless coal companies have invented a time machine, it's just not possible to submit test results for August and September that were taken in July," she said.

The records were obtained using a Freedom of Information Act request. Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For the Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, and Waterkeeper Alliance jointly filed the notice of intent to sue on Thursday, though they must wait 60 days before moving forward with the actual suit. The goal, the groups said, is to push the companies to comply with the law, and for state officials to actually enforce that law. The groups estimate that the companies would have been subject to $740 million in fines had the law been enforced.

"Our state officials have closed their eyes to an obviously serious problem," said Ted Withrow, a member of Kentuckians For the Commonwealth. "These are not small exceedances—some are over 40 times the daily maximum. This should have been a red flag."

Franken Says: No Foreign Money, Thank You

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 10:16 AM EDT

Hot on the heels of his letter to the Federal Election Commission, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) hosted a conference call on Thursday to discuss his request for an investigation into allegations that the US Chamber of Commerce is using foreign money to pay for attack ads against progressive candidates running for office.

Franken's request is based on a recent report from the progressive blog ThinkProgress. The Chamber is a 501(c)(6) organization, a status that allows it to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money without disclosing its donors. It has committed a whopping $75 million towards ads attacking progressives running for office, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Virginia Democrat Rep. Tom Perriello. The Chamber also runs a number of foreign chapters, known as Business Councils or "AmChams," that represent American businesses with overseas interests.

But the group has also ramped up an aggressive campaign to raise cash from foreign companies controlled by foreign governments, who send money either directly to the Chamber or to their local AmChams. Campaign finance laws prevent foreign corporations from getting involved in American elections. When the money comes into the Chamber's coffers, ThinkProgress alleges, it is "commingled to the Chamber's 501(c)(6) account which is the vehicle for the attack ads."

With ThinkProgress editor-in-chief Faiz Shakir and researcher Lee Fang also on the line, Franken insisted that there's enough reasonable doubt about how the pro-business lobbying group spends the membership dues it collects from foreign affiliates to warrant a thorough investigation. He was careful to point out, though, that the Chamber may not have done anything illegal.

"Let's be honest here: money is money. It's fungible," he said. "And when the Bahrain Petroleum Company sends the chamber $10,000, the $10,000 in American money the Chamber was going to use for office furniture can now go to a new attack ad on Barbara Boxer for her stand on clean energy."

But Franken also intends to hold the FEC's feet to the fire, and convince the commission to review its regulations allowing foreign companies to spend money on elections through special election committees formed by American citizens.

"Congress has got to act here by passing the DISCLOSE Act," he said, referring to the proposed law requiring funders of attack ads to identify themselves, and "close all loopholes" that allow US-based companies under foreign ownership to spend on elections.

The Chamber's spin department has been on overdrive ever since ThinkProgress' report was posted. Shakir said that it has issued statements to Politico and the Washington Post, among others, and has published a number of blog posts on its website looking "to sow some confusion amongst reporters." The basic facts, he says, show that the Chamber has funneled some $300,000 in foreign funds into election spending.

American City Business Journal's Keith Kent-Hoover pointed out that neither ThinkProgress nor the Senator have the "smoking gun" to support their allegations.

"If they're giving money to the same 501(c)(6), and that 501(c)(6) is spending money on ads, and money is fungible, it would be logical to assume that that money is being spent because it's all part of the same pool," Franken responded. The Chamber's inability to explain how it segregates foreign money from election spending, he added, merits an investigation.

Watch some clips of MoveOn.org's rally outside the Chamber of Commerce:

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Greasing the Political Pipes, TransCananda-Style

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 9:38 AM EDT

In Nebraska this week, the state's governor and attorney general quietly returned sizable campaign donations from TransCanada, the company looking to build a massive pipeline clear across the state. The donations to Republican Gov. Dave Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning not only looked bad, since the company is seeking approval to build a portion of its 1,980-mile pipeline across the state, but could also be illegal, since TransCanada is, as the name suggests, a foreign corporation.

Heineman and Bruning each accepted $2,500 for their re-election campaigns, which they returned earlier this week after the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission raised concerns about the legality of the donations. The Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club is calling for an investigation by the Federal Election Commission. "Since state elected officials were the recipients of these contributions and federal election laws are involved," said Ken Winston, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, "the investigation needs to be conducted by federal officials."

FEC laws bar foreign companies "from contributing, donating or spending funds in connection with any federal, state, or local election in the United States, either directly or indirectly."

The company insists that the donations were on the up-and-up; it has an office in Omaha and is incorporated in Delaware. "The contributions were legal," Jeff Rauh, a spokesman for TransCanada, told the Lincoln Journal-Star. "The contributions were returned out of an abundance of caution."

But the Nebraska watchdog reports that the donations drew attention because they listed incomplete and inaccurate addresses, and gave the street address of the company's Alberta office.

Even if it is technically legal, it certainly highlights TransCanada's desire to grease the works in the state. While the decision on whether TransCanada can build the pipeline will ultimately come from the Department of State, state elected officials will likely weigh in on eminent domain law and the safety precautions the company will need to take.

This is just the latest controversy over the proposed pipeline, which would cross Nebraska and five other states as it carries oil from Alberta to Houston. In July, the company sent threatening letters to landowners despite the fact that its massive pipeline project has not been approved at the federal level. Heineman has largely avoided the subject of the pipeline in public remarks, saying it's a "federal regulatory issue" and not something the state government should be involved in. So much for that.

A Factchecker Walks Into a Gun Rights Conference...

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Please Do Not Display Weapons: "In consideration of other guests and staff please do not openly display weapons. While in your guest room, all weapons must be concealed." —Hyatt Regency sign at the Gun Rights Policy Conference in Burlingame, California.

Steve Goode is the fourth man in the hotel who offers to take me to a gun range. At 63, the mostly deaf National Rifle Association instructor wears high-powered digital hearing aids and owns a low-powered shotgun he uses for trap-shooting. Fortunately, "you don't need to hear to shoot," he tells me at this year's Gun Rights Policy Conference in Burlingame, California. Like the other white, male boomers crammed into a Hyatt ballroom one recent weekend, Goode registered for the two-day-long event (with added poolside reception!) because he's riled by handgun regulations cropping up in states across the US—especially in Illinois, where he lives. The waiting periods to get a gun permit, the training, the registration, the background checks, the restrictions on where, how, and which firearm and ammo he can use—all these not only threaten his hobby but his ability to defend himself, he says—and he's becoming more politically active this fall as a result.

He's one of 760 pro-gun, anti-regulations travelers here to learn about everything from how to win a legislative gun debate—"THEY win if you say 'pro gun.' YOU win if you say 'pro rights,'' instructs "The Politically Corrected Glossary" handout (PDF)—to why he should distrust the United Nations, to the legal strategies he can successfully use to carry concealed handguns in public parks, college campuses, and public housing. Among the 50-plus speakers on the lineup are the lead counsel in the Chicago Supreme Court case, the director of Doctors For Responsible Gun Ownership, the heads of Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, and pro-gun professors, authors, and journalists. On the "Diversity Among Pro-Gunners" panel, Nikki Stallard—the transgender representative of Pink Pistols, an LGBT-led advocacy group for carrying concealed weapons in public places—announces at the podium:"We have an interest in getting the gay community more pro-gun." If LGBTs become the face of concealed weapons rights, Stallard surmises, media attacks on the pro-gun lobby "will come across as attacking the gay community." Her suggestion is met with roaring cheers.

Several speakers encourage recruiting gay people, women, and minorities into the pro-gun, anti-regulations fold. "People who are the most vulnerable in society benefit the most from having the option to be able to protect themselves," John Lott, the author of More Guns, Less Crime, says. He adds that women, the elderly, and "poor blacks who live in high crime areas" are disproportionately deterred from getting firepower when waiting periods are extended and fees rise. I'm not convinced. The crux of the conference remains rolling back gun restrictions. As Bob, a 51-year-old NRA instructor from Redwood City and a gun owner since he was in high school, tells me during our boxed-lunch recess: "There's no such thing as reasonable regulations when it comes to firearms. The less the government's involved in gun control the better I feel."

"The less the government's involved in gun control the better I feel."

After inviting me shooting, Jeff Knox—a gun owner for 25 years and the director of The Firearms Coalition—tells me that to understand the anti-gun regulation crowd, I have to understand gun culture. "Shooting is something that a lot of guys really love, with the same fervor that you find among golfers, fisherman, and football fanatics. Imagine what would happen if somebody wanted to ban football in the United States!"

"There's also that fundamental liberty core of self-defense," Knox adds. "Let's face it, the bumper stickers are true. In a life or death situation, seconds count, and the police are only minutes away. And that's what it boils down to. If I feel that I have a right to protect my family, who has a right to tell me that I don't?"

But defense from what, I ask him? According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, violent crimes in the US are actually declining nationwide—and the offenders are more often friends and acquaintances (PDF), not strangers busting through women's home windows like the A bus stop billboard image for the gun conference.: Second Amendment FoundationShe's the face of the gun rights conference billboards seen around San Francisco.: Second Amendment Foundationbillboard advertisements for the conference inaccurately display. Add that to Department of Justice data (PDF) showing that most violent crime victims are black, males, age 24 years or younger, and the mostly white, suburban men at this particular gun rights conference are probably safer than they feel. No matter, says Knox. "I don't have guns because I'm afraid. I carry a gun so that I don't ever have to be afraid," adding that even a wee possibility of an assault gaurantees his right to carry. Which is true. The Second Amendment grants folks the right to keep and carry arms, but what about regulations?

"Firearms are like golf," Bob from Redwood City, Phil Graf from Sonoma County, and Goode all tell me, as though they're all working from the same talking points. But golf doesn't involve the sporting equipment used in most US murders. Besides, most products that could result in dangerous mishandling or criminal activity are regulated by the government. Why should guns be the exception, I ask? "Well, things that are protected by the Constitution shouldn't be so heavily regulated by the government," says Alan Gottlieb—the head of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms (CCRKBA) and the founder of the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF), the legal piranha which spearheaded this particular gun rights conference 25 years ago. "Cars can be dangerous, but they're not in the Constitution."

Both Knox and Gottlieb accurately point out that most firearm-related crimes are committed by repeat offenders, not law-abiding citizens. And felons are already barred by federal law from receiving gun permits. Murders, as a result, usually involve once-legal handguns acquired in the black market, not guns shot by their permitted user. As a result, Knox contends of the gun regulations in place: "All they're effective at doing is making it more difficult for me to exercise my rights. Gun control is all aimed at law abiding citizens, and it has no effect on the criminal." Because they haven't committed crimes, the speakers posit, they're immune to committing the crimes that gun regulations are positioned to prevent, not to mention inconvenienced. This faulty logic is endemic here at the conference. 

"Rape is illegal, murder is illegal, robbery is illegal. So if you make it illegal for the criminal to get a gun, does he really care?" Gottlieb asks me. "What happens is that gun control spends all of our resources tracking and regulating the 99 percent of people with guns who don't commit a crime, and the 1 percent who commit the crime we don't do anything about."

I factchecked this, and the answer is: Not exactly. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found that states with tougher gun laws in fact export the guns used in crimes (PDF) at a much lower rate than states with weak gun laws. That is, those illegal guns handled by criminals and confiscated at crime scenes are most often traced back to states that don't do background checks for all guns purchased at gun shows [CLICK HERE FOR MOJO'S ARTICLE ON GUN SHOWS], that don't require purchase permits, that don't prosecute gun dealers who violate background check laws, and that don't allow local law enforcement to approve or deny conceal carry permits. Findings confirm that regulations do deter criminals from getting guns.

Lax background checks in Texas resulted in 400 convicted felons receiving gun permits.

A decade ago, the Los Angeles Times published an investigative report exposing that lax background checks in Texas had resulted in 400 convicted felons receiving concealed-handgun permits. And more than 3,000 concealed-handgun licensees had been arrested after receiving their permits. The report led Democratic Sen. Carl Levin (Michigan) to issue this response: "Law abiding citizens, armed with concealed weapons, are too often turning what would otherwise be unpleasant but not catastrophic events, such as fender-benders and commuting hassles, into tragedies."

Knox doesn't buy it. He says things like, "I've never used my gun or drawn it in anger," and, "The gun in my house doesn't increase the odds of a firearms crime occuring in my house because I'm not a criminal, my family aren't criminals, and we're not people who commit crimes." [CLICK HERE FOR MOJO'S EXPOSE ON THE NRA'S FAMILY VALUES CAMPAIGN.] 

This thought process has led one of the conference's biggest sponsors, the California Rifle and Pistol Association (CRPA) to successfully lobby against bills requiring all rifles and shotguns to be registered with the state's Department of Justice. The CRPA has also helped defeat a proposed ban on carrying unloaded handguns in public (licensed hunters would have been exempt). And it helped ensure that more misdemeanors won't be added to the list that prohibits firearms possession for ten years. Now the group has its sights on AB 962, which takes effect February of next year. That bill outlaws mail-order ammunition sales and requires that people purchasing ammunition are fingerprinted and registered at the time of sale so that the California Department of Justice can inspect the records for at least five years. The CRPA's dubbed the bill (PDF) an unnecessary burden for ammunition retailers, potential law-abiding buyers, and law enforcement. Knox says "Registration leads to confiscation." If the government knows about his weapons, it can take them away.

I ask Gottlieb if he thinks some middle ground can be achieved in the guns and regulations debate. "If you want to deny or restrict a person's rights or freedom, our people aren't going to be in on that. That's why this issue isn't ever going away."

In the meantime, Knox says: "I just want to have my guns."

I Was a Teenage Folk Hero's Victim

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

For the first summer in half a decade, Kara Webber didn't have to worry about Colton Harris-Moore crashing a stolen car into the propane tank behind the convenience store she works at. Or emptying out the ATM after-hours with a debit card he'd filched from a neighbor. Or breaking into her home for a quick bite to eat—while she was in the living room. And that, on balance, is a good thing: "He's locked up; we're happy," she says.

Kara explains to me how Colton used to break into her store late at night, then she takes a deep breath: "I mean, kid's an idiot."

Well, sort of. By now you've probably heard about the escapades of Colton, aka "The Barefoot Burglar," aka "the kid who stole all those planes." Raised by his mother in a trailer on Camano, a wooded island about an hour north of Seattle, he graduated from petty theft, to swiping cars, to, eventually and most dramatically, stealing and crash-landing private airplanes. Note the plural. Colton did this five times, at least, the last of which brought him to the Bahamas this summer, and from there, to a federal holding facility outside Seattle.

White House Pushes Back on Spill Report

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

The White House is pushing back against the draft reports the National Oil Spill Commission released Wednesday on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that included scathing criticism of the administration's handling of the disaster. The reports' harshest criticism was directed toward the administration's handling of information about the size of the spill and the extent of the damage.

"This was an unprecedented environmental disaster met with an unprecedented federal response which prevented any of the worst-case scenarios from coming to fruition," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Thursday. "When we had information, we gave it to the public."

He also refuted the report's claim that the Office of Management and Budget blocked another federal agency from releasing estimates about the worst-case scenario for the spill. "No information was altered. No information was withheld. And nothing in the report had anything to do with the robust response," said Gibbs.

Gibbs defended the report's criticism of White House Energy and Climate Adviser Carol Browner for misrepresenting a document outlining where the oil in the Gulf went. "I think it is fair to say that Carol probably did hundreds of hours of interviews and may have misspoke once, which is a pretty darn good track record and one that we made sure was accurate certainly just a few hours later," said Gibbs. In fact, the report lists multiple media appearances in which Browner made the similar claims about the oil being "gone."

Gibbs also maintained that the White House believed the report "represented the fact that there was very good news, that oil had biodegraded, that oil had been skimmed, that oil had been burned, that the very worst-case scenarios that many people thought we would be dealing with never came to fruition, largely because of that federal response." The spill commission's report actually notes that the so-called oil budget didn't actually look at the amount of oil that had biodegraded, and criticized this as one of the "important shortcomings" in the report that the administration "obscured" its public roll out.

Gibbs did acknowledge that the response could have been improved, however. "There isn't anybody in this building or anybody who worked on this that would say we did everything perfectly," said Gibbs.