Political MoJo

How a Mexican Citizen Allegedly Funneled $500,000 of Illegal Money into US Elections

| Thu Jan. 23, 2014 10:58 AM EST

This week, the FBI and Department of Justice busted a Washington, DC-based political consultant and an ex-detective turned private security contractor in a money-in-politics scandal seemingly ripped from the pages of All the President's Men.

According to a criminal complaint filed in the US district court in southern California, a wealthy Mexican national allegedly funneled more than $500,000 into local and federal campaigns in the San Diego area. That, of course, is illegal. Federal law bars foreign nationals from making contributions to political candidates. So the Mexican businessman—who is unnamed in the complaint—allegedly used retired San Diego detective Ernesto Encinas, political consultant Ravneet Singh, and an unnamed straw donor to inject his money into several California-based elections.

The Mexican businessman and his co-conspirators are accused of making illegal campaign expenditures in support of four different candidates. To support a San Diego mayoral candidate, the Mexican and the ex-detective set up a super-PAC and guided $100,000 in foreign money through a shell corporation into the super-PAC. In another case, the Mexican businessman gave $380,000 to a straw donor (who was identified as an American citizen in the complaint), and the straw donor then cut checks to assorted campaigns and political committees in the San Diego area.

None of the candidates who received the Mexican businessman's support are named in the complaint, but two of them are believed to be San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and former mayor Bob Filner. Dumanis and Filner faced each other in the city's 2012 mayoral primary. In December, Filner was sentenced to 90 days in home confinement, three years' probation, and fines totaling nearly $1,500 for assaulting three women while serving as San Diego mayor.

Then there's Ravneet Singh, the DC consultant who founded the company ElectionMall, which provides digital media services for political campaigns. Around February 2012, the Mexican businessman paid Singh and ElectionMall about $100,000 for Internet ads and key word placements to help elect a San Diego mayoral candidate. The money was transferred into ElectionMall's account by a Mexican company, and the online ad spending never appeared on expenditure records as it should have under state and federal campaign laws.

Later that year, in October, Singh and Encinas, the ex-detective, approached a general election candidate in San Diego's mayoral race candidate offering social media services to the candidate's campaign. When asked how much those services would cost, the complaint says, Singh and Encinas responded that it was "taken care of." Soon after, ElectionMall received another $190,000 from the Mexican-based company. Because the candidate's campaign was never billed, the complaint alleges that Singh, ElectionMall, and Encinas "facilitated illegal in-kind contributions" in violation of campaign law.

You can read the full Justice Department complaint against Singh, ElectionMall, and Encinas below. And you can wonder who will play the Mexican businessman, the ex-detective, and the consultant in the movie.

 

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 23, 2014

Thu Jan. 23, 2014 10:57 AM EST

Spartans from 1st Platoon, Alpha Battery, 4th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division fire their M777 howitzer to calibrate on Forward Operating Base Lightning, Afghanistan, Jan. 15, 2014. The 4th Battalion, 25th Artillery Regiment are currently deployed to Regional Command East in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. (Photo courtesy of Regional Command-East)

Bush-Appointed Judge Rules that No-Fly List Makes Some Americans "Second-Class Citizens"

| Wed Jan. 22, 2014 9:06 PM EST

A Virginia man who claims that as a teenager he was detained, interrogated, and abused in Kuwait at the behest of the Obama administration (a story I wrote about here) has won a key victory in his lawsuit against the government. A George W. Bush-appointed judge allowed Gulet Mohamed's case to move forward on Wednesday, ruling that by putting him on the no-fly list (and thus infringing on his right to return home to the US), the government made him "a second class citizen."

Judge Anthony Trenga of the US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, ruled that the no-fly list's "impact on a citizen who cannot use a commercial aircraft is profound," restricting the right to travel and visit family, the "ability to associate," and even the ability to hold down a job. Inclusion on the list also "also labels an American citizen a disloyal American who is capable of, and disposed toward committing, war crimes, and one can easily imagine the broad range of consequences that might be visited upon such a person if that stigmatizing designation were known by the general public," Trenga added. Here's another key excerpt:

In effect, placement on the No Fly List is life defining and life restricting across a broad range of constitutionally protected activities and aspirations; and a No Fly List designation transforms a person into a second class citizen, or worse. The issue, then, is whether and under what circumstances the government should have the ability to impose such a disability on an American citizen, who should make any such decision, according to what process, and by what standard of proof.

Trenga ruled that the government, which argued that Mohamed should go through the Department of Homeland Security's notoriously Kafkaesque no-fly list redress process before suing, had not made its case. "The current record," he wrote, "is inadequate to explain why judicial involvement before a person is placed on the No Fly List is either unnecessary or impractical, other than perhaps within the context of an emergency." In other words, the government should let the courts review placements before they happen—not wait for citizens to exhaust every avenue for complaint.

"We applaud this decision as a clear rebuke of the government's use of the no-fly list as applied to Americans," Gadeir Abbas, Mohamed's attorney, said in a statement released Wednesday evening.

Wednesday's was the second no-fly list ruling in as many weeks: on January 15, a court in San Francisco ruled that a former Stanford University doctoral student was not a national security threat and should be removed from the list.

You can read the whole Mohamed decision here:

 

In the Bay Area, Anti-Google Protests Get Creepy

| Wed Jan. 22, 2014 8:38 PM EST
Google street view detail from the Counterforce flier. (Image cropped and house number redacted by Mother Jones.)

So, the Bay Area's tech backlash has come to this: At 7 a.m. yesterday, activists showed up on the doorstep of Google engineer Anthony Levandowski to protest, well, pretty much everything. They're holding the guy behind the self-driving car responsible for gentrification, destructive gold mining, Chinese sweatshops, government surveillance, and, more generally "the unspeakable horror" of helping "this disastrous economic system continue a bit longer."

A flyer distributed by the activists, who call themselves "The Counterforce," left little doubt that their fight is personal. "Preparing for this action, we watched Levandowski step out his front door," it reads. "He had Google Glasses over his eyes, carried his baby in his arm, and held a tablet with his free hand. As he descended the stairs with the baby, his eyes were on the tablet through the prism of his Google Glasses, not on the life against his chest. He appeared in this moment like the robot that he admits that he is."

Here's Why You Don't See Romney Reacting to the 47 Percent Video in "Mitt"

| Wed Jan. 22, 2014 5:37 PM EST

"I think I'm a flawed candidate," says Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, in director Greg Whiteley's behind-the-scenes documentary Mitt, which premieres on Netflix on Friday. The film, which spans six years and two Romney presidential runs, offers some intimate moments of the Romney family on the campaign trail. We get to see Mitt privately acknowledging that his image was boiled down to "the flippin' Mormon," the family playing in the snow, Ann Romney talking about her horse, and Mitt ironing his tux sleeve while wearing it.

But if you're looking for a more thorough political history of the 2012 campaign and the GOP candidate, you'll notice (as we previously pointed out here) a few things missing: Bain outsourcing jobs, self-deportation, Romneycare, Obamacare, the decision to pick Paul Ryan as running mate, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," Afghanistan, Iraq, varmint-shooting, cheesy grits, abortion, China, "binders full of women," Benghazi, "corporations are people, my friend," and a whole lot more.

Furthermore, Whiteley's film doesn't include any scenes revealing how Romney and his team processed the release of the 47 percent video—news that came to reinforce Romney's political persona. The reason? Limited access—and, according to Whiteley, the fact that the goal in making the movie wasn't to please political junkies.

It Took Ariel Castro to Get Ohio to Start Taking Away Rapists' Parental Rights. Here Are the States That Haven't Yet.

| Wed Jan. 22, 2014 11:58 AM EST
Ariel Castro in custody.

Last summer, when Ariel Castro was on trial in Ohio for kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder, he made an unusual request to the judge: He wanted parental rights to visit the six-year-old daughter he had conceived through rape. Given the magnitude of the charges—Castro was ultimately sentenced to life without parole, plus 1,000 years in prison, before committing suicide in September—the judge denied the request. But Ohio has no law on the books preventing alleged or convicted rapists from seizing parental rights of the children they may have conceived through rape. That could soon change. Last week, the Ohio House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill, inspired by Castro, that would prevent this scenario in the future. And Ohio isn't the only state to take action on this. If Ohio enacts the bill, it will join a number of other states that have done so in the last year: Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, and Illinois. There is also a bipartisan bill pending in the House that would give financial incentives to states that pass these laws.

"I think it's great that more states are getting on board and passing legislation addressing the parental rights of men who father through rape," says Shauna Prewitt, a Chicago lawyer. She says her daughter was conceived through rape, and the father attempted to seize custody rights while she was pressing charges against him. "We've seen a sharp uptick in interest, which I largely contribute to states finally understanding that this is a real problem."

The Ohio bill, if signed into law, would make it so that rapists are unable to seize inheritance or parental rights of children they conceived through the rape (they do, however, still have to pay child support). A spokesperson for Ohio State Rep. Nickie Antonio, a Democrat who is one the bill's sponsors, says that she expects the legislation to be referred to a Senate committee as soon as this week.

At least 24 states now have laws addressing the custody of children conceived through rape. Two additional states have provisions on the issue that only apply if the victim is a minor or, in one of those cases, a stepchild or adopted child of the rapist. Another three states don't explicitly address conception, but restrict the parental rights of a father or mother who sexually abused the other parent. And among those states that do have laws, many require proof of conviction, or have unique exceptions to the rule. Utah, for example, allows convicted rapists to continue sharing custody if they are living with the mother and the child. Here's a map showing the breakdown of these laws by state (click on each state for more information):

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 22, 2014

Wed Jan. 22, 2014 11:15 AM EST

Cpl. Chase Roesner, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense specialist with Combat Logistics Regiment 17, 1st Marine Logistics Group, pops a capsule of tear gas to train Marines aboard Camp Pendleton, Calif., Jan. 7, 2014. Marines received training on conducting reconnaissance and identifying potential CBRN threats, operating equipment designed to protect personnel from chemical threats and decontamination procedures to ensure Marines do not become casualties. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Shaltiel Dominguez/ Released)

Nevada Dems Slam Boehner for Fundraising off Nevadans Rather Than Extending Their Unemployment Benefits

| Wed Jan. 22, 2014 7:00 AM EST

Last week, 100 House Dems asked House Speaker John Boehner to cancel this week's legislative recess and keep the House in session to hash out legislation that would renew expired unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. Instead, Boehner traveled to unemployment-plagued Nevada for a fundraiser.

The state's Democratic lawmakers were quick to pile on. "Speaker Boehner skipped town to fundraise in Nevada instead of scheduling a vote to extend unemployment insurance benefits that thousands of Nevadans rely on," says Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.). As long as Boehner was in town, Horsford says, he should have "take[n] the time to explain to unemployed Nevadans why he continues to ignore them."

"Once again, Speaker Boehner has chosen politics over the people," adds Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.). He "would do well to take time from his fundraising schedule to meet with families in District One and hear their struggles to put food on the table, pay their mortgage, and put gas in the car."

Boehner attended a Las Vegas Country Club luncheon last Friday to help raise cash for the re-election of Nevada GOP Rep. Joe Heck. The cost was $2,600 a head for a roundtable plus lunch—$1,000 for lunch only.

The Obama Administration Wants to End Racial Discrimination by Car Dealers. Why Are 35 Dems Getting in the Way?

| Tue Jan. 21, 2014 4:34 PM EST

Dozens of Democrats are pushing back against an Obama administration effort to curb racial discrimination by car dealerships.

In late March, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—the consumer watchdog agency dreamt up by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)—issued new, voluntary guidelines aimed at ensuring car dealerships are not illegally ripping off minorities. Since then, 13 Senate Democrats, including Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.); and 22 House Dems, including Reps. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Florida) and Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), have joined 19 House and Senate Republicans in signing letters to the agency objecting to the anti-discrimination measure. Consumer advocates and congressional aides say the lawmakers' backlash against the anti-discrimination rules is unjustified, and that Dems have backtracked on civil rights in this instance because of the colossal power of the car dealership lobby, which has spent millions lobbying Congress in the months since the CFPB issued these new guidelines.

Auto dealers "wield enormous amounts of power," one Democratic aide explains. "There's one in every district. They give a lot of money to charity. They're on a bunch of boards. They sponsor Little Leagues."

When a dealership makes a car loan, it often sells the loan to a bank or credit union, which, in return, allows the dealership to mark up the interest rate. Here's the problem: Some dealerships have been accused of charging higher rates to black and Hispanic customers, potentially costing consumers millions of dollars in overcharges. The CFPB's anti-discrimination guidance reminds lenders that they are liable under federal law if car dealerships they work with charge higher interest rates to minority borrowers. The guidance suggests that lenders help prevent discrimination by educating dealers, increasing oversight, and either capping dealership interest rates or requiring dealers to charge a flat fee.

Auto dealers are up in arms. If lenders follow the CFPB's advice, dealership profits could fall by hundreds of dollars per car sold, according to the Department of Justice. Car dealer trade groups claim that the CFPB has not adequately proved that discrimination is a problem in the industry. Dealerships have spent millions lobbying Congress over the past year, including on this very issue. Many Democrats have the auto dealers' back. In their letters to the CFPB, Dems claim that they appreciate the CFPB's goal of curbing discrimination by car dealerships. But they echo the dealers' arguments, and demand that the CFPB provide the detailed methodology it uses to determine that some dealers may be discriminating.

The CFPB maintains that the way it detects discrimination in the auto industry should be no mystery to Congress. These methods, which are similar to those used by the DOJ and other federal banking regulators, have been used in voting rights cases, discrimination cases, and jury selection cases for decades, a CFPB spokeswoman notes. Here's how it works: Because customer race and ethnicity data is not available for auto loans, the CFPB uses proxies, including geography and surname, to see if lenders are allowing dealerships to charge higher interest rates to minorities. The CFPB has responded to lawmakers' requests for this methodology in letters, at a public forum on the issue, and on its website.

If lawmakers don't trust the feds' definition of discrimination, they can also look to the courts. In December, the DOJ and the CFPB reached a $98 million settlement with Ally Financial and Ally Bank over claims that Ally's markup policies resulted in illegal discrimination against over 235,000 minority borrowers. At least seven class-action lawsuits have been filed over the past 14 years that allege auto-dealers unfairly overcharged minorities. And "nothing has really changed in the marketplace" to force auto lenders and dealerships to change their practices, says Chris Kukla, the senior counsel for government affairs at the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit consumer rights group.

Car dealers have also complained that regulating the interest rates dealerships can charge will increase costs for consumers. Consumer advocates disagree: "I don't believe…[dealers'] ability to mark up prices…in any way benefits consumers," says Stuart Rossman, director of litigation the National Consumer Law Center, an advocacy group. Jeff Sovern, a law professor and expert in consumer law at St. John's University in New York, adds that the low prices some customers have been paying may have been subsidized by the higher prices paid by minorities. "It's not usually considered a defense that the beneficiaries of racism should keep the lower prices that other groups pay for," he says.

So why the outcry amongst Democrats? Congressional aides and consumer advocates say that the auto dealer industry's lobbying efforts are intense. "Dealers are a powerful lobby," Kukla says. "These people sell things for a living. They're good at advocating."

"I'm not surprised that any politician" would cave to the dealerships, Rossman adds. The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), an industry trade group, has spent $3.1 million on lobbying in 2013, according to lobbying disclosure forms. "The dealerships made a very concerted push to get [members of Congress] to sign those letters" criticizing the guidance, Kukla says.

None of the 35 Democrats responded to requests for comment for this story, nor did the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers, another industry trade group. NADA declined to comment.

The oddest aspect of Democrats' push back on the CFPB anti-discrimination measures, advocates say, is that in issuing the guidance, the CFPB didn't actually create any new regulation or law. "The funny thing is that… [the CFPB] is getting hit…because someone is actually enforcing rules already on the books," says the Dem aide.

"It's not that controversial," Rossman adds.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 21, 2014

Tue Jan. 21, 2014 11:08 AM EST

Marines and sailors with 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, transport a simulated casualty to an evacuation site as part of a medical evacuation drill Feb. 16, 2013 at the Ojojihara Maneuver Area on mainland Japan. During the drill, Marines and corpsmen rehearsed the proper procedures for assessing, treating and transporting casualties from the field to the next level of care. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Terry Brady/RELEASED)