Political MoJo

Jury Finds Tea Party Senate Candidate Who Rand Paul Endorsed Misled Investors to the Tune of $250,000

| Mon Feb. 24, 2014 12:50 PM EST

On the stump, Greg Brannon, the tea party candidate in North Carolina's competitive Senate race, preaches personal responsibility and rails against out-of-control government spending.

So a recent jury verdict that held Brannon responsible for misleading two investors who gave him a quarter million dollars is quite a blow to the image Brannon has tried to craft of a crusader for better financial decisions in government.

Brannon, a full-time OB-GYN, is best distinguished from the rest of the GOP primary candidates vying to replace Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan by his extreme beliefs: He has said public education "does nothing…other than dehumanize" students and that food stamps are "slavery." Recent GOP primary polls have Brannon trailing the front-runner, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, by single digits. Endorsements from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and conservative leaders such as RedState editor Erick Erickson have given Brannon a significant fundraising boost.

His legal troubles are linked to Neogence Enterprises, a defunct technology company Brannon cofounded several years ago. The company tried to develop a smartphone application which Brannon pitched as a "social augmented reality network connecting people, places and things" and a once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity. Last week, a civil jury concluded that Brannon had led two investors to believe that Verizon was considering preinstalling the application on certain smartphones. (The Raleigh News & Observer first reported the verdict.) Although Neogence pitched Verizon, the cellphone carrier never, in fact, made that offer.

The jury cleared Robert Rice, Neogence's former CEO, of similar wrongdoing. Brannon's case defense probably foundered due to emails he sent bragging of Neogence's potential partnership with Verizon. "I know all of you are BUSY!!!" Brannon wrote in one email. "I need you to give a few minutes to look at this potential. THANK YOU for your TRUST!! Greg."

The two investors who brought the suit are a former classmate of Brannon's from medical school, Larry Piazza, and the husband of one of Brannon's patients, Sam Lampuri. In court, Lampuri, a Raleigh plumber who gave Brannon $100,000, testified that Brannon "pretty much spoke about Neogence every time my wife was in stirrups." Brannon must now repay Piazza and Lampuri a total of $250,000 plus interest.

Brannon has boasted about his personal connection with his patients before. In a fall 2013 fundraiser for Hand of Hope, his nonprofit crisis pregnancy center, Brannon said, "When I see little girls that come here, boyfriends that do show up are my favorites. Then I can whoop on them with love. How many people have we got married over the last 20 years just by riding that boy's rear end?"

Brannon's campaign did not respond to requests for comment last week. In the run-up to the trial, Brannon told the News & Observer, "I can't wait for my day in court." After the verdict, he said, "I cannot wait to go to the appeal process."

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Kansas Senate Candidate Milton Wolf Posted X-Rays of Gunshot Victims on Facebook Page

| Mon Feb. 24, 2014 12:44 PM EST

Things were looking up for Kansas Republican Senate candidate Milton Wolf two weeks ago, when the New York Times reported that his opponent, incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts, didn't have a residence in Kansas and had been couchsurfing on his friend's recliner on his rare visits to Dodge City. Not good! But since then, it's been all bad news for the tea party radiologist—and second cousin (once removed) of President Barack Obama. I reported on Wolf's history of over-the-top comments on his Twitter account and in his regular column at the Washington Times, where he compared his cousin to Hitler and Mussolini. Now the Topeka Capital-Journal has the contents of his since-discontinued Facebook page—where Wolf regularly posted gruesome x-rays of gunshot victims, often with dark attempts at humor appended:

Wolf and others viewing these Facebook postings relentlessly poked fun at the dead or wounded. The gunshot victim, Wolf joked online, wasn't going to complain about the awkward positioning of his head for an X-ray. In a separate Facebook comment, Wolf wrote that an X-ray of a man decapitated by gunfire resembled a wounded alien in a "Terminator" film and that the image offered evidence people "find beauty in different things."

Wolf declined in an interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal to clearly answer questions about whether he continued to place images of deceased people on the Internet. He asked to keep copies of the Facebook posts shown to him, but when denied, he walked away.

The story is tough, but the video is just brutal:

Citizens United Takes Another Swing at Campaign Finance Rules

| Mon Feb. 24, 2014 12:41 PM EST

Four years ago, the Supreme Court issued its decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, upending the nation's campaign finance laws by equating corporations' speech to that of ordinary citizens. In subsequent rulings based on that reasoning, lower courts overturned limitations on donations to political committees, paving the way for the era of the super-PAC. Since then, outside campaign spending has skyrocketed.

Now Citizens United, the conservative group behind the case that bears its name, has set its sights on a new target: the IRS. Citizens United, a 501(c)4 non-profit that produces conservative films, is upset about a set of proposed rules the IRS issued in late November to clear up confusion about what counts as political activity for non-profit groups. Non-profits that are organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code are supposed to be "social welfare" organizations, but they're allowed to engage in some political activity as long as it isn't the majority of their work. But until recently, it's been unclear what exactly counted as political activity. The new IRS rules would fix that problem by defining issue ads, voter registration, events with candidates near the elections, and a litany of other actions as political activities. But Citizens United sees this IRS effort to restrict politicking by non-profits as an attempt to limit free speech.

"I can commit with certitude that Citizens United will not sit by while any government agency tries to violate our First Amendment rights," David Bossie, president of the group, said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity last Friday. "We have a proven track record of winning, and we're not afraid to take the fight to them. You'll see a Citizens United v. IRS."

It's not particularly surprising that Citizens United would be upset by these new restrictions. 501(c)(4)s have become a favorite vehicle for high-dollar donors to channel funds into political causes while remaining anonymous. Groups like the Koch Brothers' American for Prosperity have exploited these loopholes to turn their so-called social welfare organizations into campaign operations, running campaign ads to bolster their favorite candidates.

Citizens United's argument against these rules got a boost from Congress last month. A small provision slipped into the giant omnibus spending bill bars the IRS from using its funds to "target" citizens and organizations from exercising their First Amendment rights or ideological beliefs. Tax experts are worried that 501(c)4 groups, including Citizens United, could exploit that provision to win a court ruling barring the IRS from investigating non-profits' political activities.

Reformers Launch $1 Million Ad Blitz Demanding "Fair Elections" Bill in New York State

| Mon Feb. 24, 2014 11:05 AM EST

A leading group in the fight against today's big-money politics plans to spend $1 million during the next four weeks on a TV, online, and mobile advertising blitz pressuring New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and state legislators to pass a bill aimed at amplifying the voices of small-dollar donors in statewide elections.

Public Campaign Action Fund, the group behind the new push, has released its first ad, "Liberty," seen above, that compares New York State politics to the rusting, dilapidated Statue of Liberty circa the 1980s. "Broken. Corroded. Polluted," the ad says. "New York state elections are in the same condition the Statue of Liberty once was, because big money interests are drowning out the voices of ordinary voters." The ad goes on to ask, "It took four years to restore Lady Liberty, so how long will it take to clean up our state elections?" Public Campaign Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit funded by a mix of foundations, unions, and individual donors, has also launched a website, CleanUpAlbany.com, that promotes so-called fair elections, which would match small-dollar donations raised by candidates six times over with public money. The goal is to encourage lawmakers to engage with more people of modest means and not just wealthy campaign donors who can easily write five- and six-figure checks.

Progressives and other campaign reform types have for several years made New York State their top target for passing a fair elections bill. A reform proposal died in the state Senate last year. But in 2014, there is widespread support for campaign finance reform. The bipartisan Moreland Commission, convened by Cuomo in 2013 to investigate corruption in New York politics, recommended fair elections as a way to combat the "culture of corruption in Albany," the capital of New York State. Gov. Cuomo, a potential 2016 presidential contender, included a statewide public financing bill in his most recent budget proposal. (Should Cuomo run, he could feel pressure from the left on the issue of campaign finance reform: Another 2016 hopeful, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, recently stumped for a national public financing bill.)  

Public Campaign's proposal for a statewide fair elections program is modeled after New York City's system, which matches small donations with public grant money. That system helped Bill de Blasio win the city's 2013 mayoral Democratic primary and eventually become mayor. This type of matching system is popular among reformers right now because it doesn't seek to limit contributions to candidates or outside groups, restrictions that are likely to be struck down at a time when the Supreme Court is likely to overturn such limits. Instead, as Public Campaign Action Fund Executive Director David Donnelly put it, a fair elections bill aims to "raise up the voices of everyday people in our political process."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 24, 2014

Mon Feb. 24, 2014 10:59 AM EST

FORT CARSON, Colo. – Paratroopers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C., climb over a hill in order to secure an airfield near Fort Carson's Camp Red Devil training area, Feb. 6, 2014, and defend it from opposing forces from the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, during a joint deployment readiness exercise. The Soldiers were conducting the exercise with Soldiers from Company A, 1st Bn., 68th Armor Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division and included integration with various Joint Task Force Carson units and civilian support agencies. Both units conducted the joint exercise to train in support of the XVIII Airborne Corps’ global response force mission. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Terrance Payton, 3rd BCT Public Affairs, 82nd ABN Div.)

Openly Gay NBA Player Jason Collins Signed by Brooklyn Nets

| Sun Feb. 23, 2014 9:39 PM EST

The NBA will have its first openly gay active player. Jason Collins, who came out in Sports Illustrated last April, signed a 10-day contract Sunday with the Brooklyn Nets. When Collins steps on to the court, it will be the first time an athlete who is widely known to be gay will have played in an NBA, NFL, NHL, or MLB game.

Collins announced he was gay when, after a slew of injuries, he wasn't on any team's roster and he remained unsigned until the Nets recently reached out to him. Collins will likely make his first appearance in the Nets' Sunday night game against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Collins' NBA return comes as former University of Missouri football player Michael Sam is working out at the NFL Combine and preparing for the league's May draft. Sam, who came out in February, is looking to be the first openly gay player in the NFL. John Amaechi became the first former NBA player to come out in 2007, though he did so after his five-season career was over. Glenn Burke, who played baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics from 1976 to 1979, may have been the first openly gay player in any major American professional sport—though reporters at the time kept Burke's sexuality under wraps and the Dodgers even tried paying him to take part in a sham marriage. (Burke refused.)

Collins received the public backing of many NBA stars when he came out last year. That support continued during the signing process, with new teammate Kevin Garnett telling reporters, "I think it's important that anybody who has the capabilities and skill level [gets] a chance to [do] something he's great at. I think it would be bias, and in a sense, racist, if you [were] to keep that opportunity from a person." Collins will wear jersey number 98 with the Nets in honor of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student whose brutal 1998 beating and death made him a gay rights martyr.

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Has Venezuela Turned Into a War Zone? (Updated)

| Fri Feb. 21, 2014 7:46 PM EST
Boris Vergara/Xinhua/ZUMA

This post has been updated.

Student protesters have filled the streets of many Venezuelan cities for the last two weeks to express their dissatisfaction with the socialist government, the deteriorating economy, and the violence that plagues the country. In the past few days the situation has worsened, as crackdowns from the National Guard and attacks from paramilitary groups have left at least six people dead so far.

Who are the protesters? Venezuela's opposition party is unified by the desire to end the reign of "chavismo," the socialist system devised by Hugo Chávez, and continued, albeit less handily, by his successor, Nicolás Maduro. The emergent leader of the protests is Leopoldo López, a Harvard-educated descendent of Simón Bolívar, and the former mayor of a Caracas municipality. He turned himself over to government forces after Maduro publicly demanded his arrest; López has called for more protests from prison. Also prominent in the opposition is María Corina Machado, a congresswoman in the National Assembly.

The protests started in the western border city of San Cristóbal, where students took to the streets on February 2 to express discontent with rampant crime. The forceful reaction of the authorities prompted other students in other cities to protest in solidarity. The protesters are largely from the middle class.

Maduro's leadership has proved ineffective, and the economic policies he inherited from Chávez, including the nationalization of many industries, have wreaked havoc on the Venezuelan economy; these days, people are struggling to find the bare necessities. The scarcity index has reached an astonishing 28 percent, meaning that toilet paper, flour, and other basics simply might not be in stock. Maduro has threatened to raise gas prices, which were kept artificially low for 15 years because increasing them is politically disastrous. Inflation has more than doubled in the past year. Finally, the insanely high homicide rate, 39 deaths per 100,000 people in 2013, has many Venezuelans fed up with the status quo.

How is the government responding? Maduro, who narrowly beat opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in the election after Chávez's March 2013 death, has swiftly cracked down on broadcast media coverage of the protests. The Colombian channel NTN24, which was covering the violence in the streets, has been taken off the air. Maduro expelled the CNN team today by revoking their press credentials.

Reports of paramilitary groups (known as colectivos), riding around on motorcycles and terrorizing protesters and civilians "tend to be exaggerated," said David Smilde, a University of Georgia sociologist and senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America who returned from Venezuela yesterday. Though it is surely happening (with low quality video evidence to back it up), "that phenomenon appeals to the middle class's worst nightmare of having these armed poor people on motorcycles."

"The bigger problem," Smilde continued, "is actually the government troops. The National Guard is the one that is doing the most violence, shooting on protesters and buildings. They tend to be very unprofessional. They don't think in terms of civilian policing, so they will often fire on people who are fleeing. These are people who are 20 to 22 years old and oftentimes they end up being violent. I don't think it's necessarily state policy to repress voters. But the state could definitely make it clearer that there should be no violence."

In a dramatic video, armed men reportedly from SEBIN, the Venezuelan intelligence agency, stormed the opposition party HQ. Reports have also surfaced of detainees being beaten, and Human Rights Watch has called for the international community to condemn the violence against protesters and journalists.

How serious is the crisis? While some residents of Venezuela's biggest cities, like Caracas, San Cristóbal, Mérida, Valencia, and Maracaibo decry the "war zone" in the streets, for many in Venezuela, life continues as normal. "From the outside it always looks like the whole country's in flames, but of course life goes on and most things are up and running," Smilde said.

However, San Cristóbal appears to be headed toward more dramatic confrontation. The Andean college town of 650,000, situated near the border with Colombia, has been heavily barricaded by opposition protesters. The government has cut off internet service to the city. Government paratroopers are on the way. And the opposition isn't backing down, said Juan Nagel, editor of the blog Caracas Chronicles, during a phone interview with Mother Jones.

What's going to happen next? So far it seems like the protests have not achieved support from the poor, who long have identified as chavistas. As Capriles, still the opposition's biggest name, told The Economist, "For the protests to be effective, they must include the poor."

Capriles has urged protesters to gather tomorrow en masse, and march peacefully. From prison, López passed a note to his wife, calling for more protests, a message that rapidly spread through social networks. "Tomorrow will tell what the future's going to be," Smilde said. If the turnout is huge and violence breaks out, Venezuela may be headed for prolonged unrest. If not, he said, things may "fizzle out."

UPDATE, Saturday, February 22, 6:30 p.m. ET (Benjy Hansen-Bundy): Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets today, some to protest Maduro's government, others to support it. The AFP reported at least 50,000 opposition protesters marching in the streets of the Sucre neighborhood of Caracas. A pro-government rally, also in the capital, marched "against fascism." Though today's protests were largely peaceful, Al Jazeera has reported at least eight deaths and more than 100 injuries since the protests began on February 2.

UPDATE 2, Sunday, February 23, 1:31 p.m. ET (Benjy Hansen-Bundy): One day after he rescinded a CNN reporting team's press credentials, President Maduro said on Friday that they can return to Venezuela. Also on Friday, during a late night news conference, Maduro invited Obama to begin negotiations and settle differences, though his language wasn't particularly amicable. Relations between the US and Venezuela have been frosty under Maduro and under Chávez before him (Chávez once called George W. Bush a "donkey"). Maduro's invitation for talks came just days after he kicked three American diplomats out of the country.

UPDATE 3, Monday, February 24, 1 p.m. ET (Benjy Hansen-Bundy): Protesters took to the streets again Monday morning, setting up roadblocks in major cities and banging on pots and pans. The death toll has reached as high as 12, Reuters reported; though the exact number, and who is to blame, are both disputed. Parts of several cities in the western Táchira state, including San Cristóbal, are heavily barricaded, inaccessible to government forces, and apparently under the control of the student demonstrators. Trash and branches burn in the streets of higher income neighborhoods, where the protests tend to be concentrated. The governor of Táchira, José Vielma, a member of the ruling Socialist Party, has criticized Maduro's management of the crisis. Criticism from within the party is irregular. In a radio interview, Vielma said that the students should have the right to protest peacefully, and that López should be freed. Capriles and Maduro are scheduled to meet today at a routine gathering of governors and mayors; some observers hope this will provide the opportunity to ease tension between the rival parties.

UPDATE 4, Thursday, March 6, 3 p.m. ET (Benjy Hansen-Bundy): The anniversary of Hugo Chávez's death yesterday was marked by disparate scenes: continued violence in the streets as hardcore student protesters and militant members of the opposition barricaded themselves against government forces, and large-scale pro-government rallies, with all the pomp and fanfare of state sponsorship. At least 20 people have died in the clashes. The US House of Representatives condemned the crackdown by Maduro's government in a nonbinding resolution endorsed by 393 votes, with just Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) in dissent. (The measure "deplores.…the inexcusable violence perpetrated against opposition leaders and protesters.")

Last week, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) proposed sanctions against individuals in the Venezuelan government with assets in the United States. They made no suggestion of slowing oil imports from Venezuela, which provides the fourth-largest supply of foreign crude to the US. Despite continued violence, and comments by American celebrities, some observers insist that the situation in Venezuela is different from that in Ukraine, citing evidence that the protests have failed to gain broad-based support among the populous lower classes.

Demonstrators clash with the National Guard on March 6. Manaure Quintero/Xinhua/ZUMA
Maduro at the Chávez parade March 5 Boris Vergara/Xinhua/ZUMA
A protest in Caracas on March 4 Carlos Becerra/NurPhoto/ZUMA
The state-sponsored parade on March 5 Avn/Xinhua/ZUMA
Opposition protesters in Caracas on Friday, February 21 El Nacional/GDA/ZUMA
A barricade in San Cristóbal after Sunday's protest George Castro/Xinhua/ZUMA
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles addresses protesters Saturday El Nacional/GDA/ZUMA
Leopoldo López Miguel Gutierrez/EFE/ZUMA
Boris Vergara/Xinhua/ZUMA
Boris Vergara/Xinhua/ZUMA
Boris Vergara/Xinhua/ZUMA
Nicolás Maduro Venezuela's Presidency/Xinhua/ZUMA

 

It's Not Just Those Emails. Here's The Secret Investigation That Should Worry Scott Walker.

| Fri Feb. 21, 2014 4:27 PM EST
Governor Scott Walker.

This week, the media got the chance to pore over more than 27,000 pages of previously unreleased emails and other documents gathered during a three-year secret investigation of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's staff when he was executive of Milwaukee County. That secret probe—what Wisconsin law enforcement calls a "John Doe" investigation—resulted in charges against three former aides to Walker, a major campaign donor, and a Walker appointee. The John Doe probe figured prominently in Democrats' attacks on Walker during his June 2012 recall election that the governor handily won. Walker himself never faced any charges.

The recently released emails shed new light on the activities of Walker and his aides. Walker had insisted that staffers in his county executive office had been prohibited from doing political work on county time, yet these records show the opposite was true. The future governor and his underlings set up a private WiFi network to communicate with staff on his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, and county staffers used private laptops so that their campaign-related work wouldn't appear on their county computers. The emails also show the degree to which Walker's staff (whose salaries were funded by taxpayers) worked to get him elected governor while on the county clock. As Mary Bottari of PRWatch notes, Kelly Rindfleisch, a former Walker aide who was convicted of campaigning on county time, sent and received a whopping 3,486 emails from representatives of Friends of Scott Walker, most during normal work hours. (Walker, through his spokesman, declined to comment about the emails.)

State and national Democrats want the public to see these emails as part of a Chris Christie-style scandal. But there's a big difference: This case is closed—and it has been since March 2013. So while the emails may result in some unflattering stories and uncomfortable questions for Walker, especially if he later runs for president, there's nothing serious (read: legal) to worry Walker. Christie, on the other hand, faces two active probes of Bridgegate and related matters—one mounted by a legislative committee, the other by a US attorney—that could drag on for months, if not years.

But there is an investigation that should keep Walker up at night: a second John Doe investigation reportedly focused on his 2012 recall campaign. (After Walker targeted public-sector unions following his 2010 election as governor, labor and its allies launched a petition drive to throw Walker out of office via recall election.) John Doe probes are conducted in secret so the public can't know all the details, but leaked documents suggest investigators are looking at possible illegal coordination between Walker's recall campaign and independent groups that spent millions of dollars to keep him in office. Here's how the progressive Center for Media and Democracy wrote about the investigation recently:

The John Doe probe began in August of 2012 and is examining possible "illegal campaign coordination between (name redacted), a campaign committee, and certain special interest groups," according to an unsealed filing in the case. Sources told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the redacted committee is the Walker campaign, Friends of Scott Walker. Campaign filings show that Walker spent $86,000 on legal fees in the second half of 2013.

A John Doe is similar to a grand jury investigation, but in front of a judge rather than a jury, and is conducted under strict secrecy orders. Wisconsin's 4th Circuit Court of Appeals unsealed some documents last week as it rejected a challenge to the probe filed by three of the unnamed "special interest groups" that had received subpoenas in the investigation and issued a ruling allowing the investigation to move forward.

The special interest groups under investigation include Wisconsin Club for Growth, which is led by a top Walker advisor and friend, R.J. Johnson, and which spent at least $9.1 million on "issue ads" supporting Walker and legislative Republicans during the 2011 and 2012 recall elections. Another group is Citizens for a Strong America, which was entirely funded by Wisconsin Club for Growth in 2011 and 2012 and acted as a conduit for funding other groups that spent on election issue ads; CSA's president is John Connors, who previously worked for David Koch's Americans for Prosperity and is part of the leadership at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity (publishers of Watchdog.org and Wisconsin Reporter). Other groups reportedly receiving subpoenas include AFP, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and the Republican Governors Association.

Unlike the first John Doe probe, this newer one seems to have Walker's political operation in its sights. This ought to have Walker and his aides far more concerned than some old emails from his Milwaukee County days.

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

Fri Feb. 21, 2014 11:13 AM EST

Marines shoulder-carry a boat to water during an amphibious operations familiarization drill as part of Exercise Cobra Gold 2014 at Hat Yao beach, Rayong, Kingdom of Thailand, Feb. 12, 2014. Cobra Gold, in its 33rd iteration, demonstrates the U.S. and the Kingdom of Thailand's commitment to our long-standing alliance and regional partnership, prosperity and security in the Asia-Pacific region. The drills were completed by the joint efforts of Royal Thai Marines with Reconnaissance Battalion and U.S. Marines with 3d Reconnaissance Battalion, 3d Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force and the Republic of Korea Marines with 1st Reconnaissance Battalion. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Matthew Troyer/Released)

Can These College Football Players Actually Unionize?

| Fri Feb. 21, 2014 7:00 AM EST
Kain Colter

Last month, football players at Northwestern University took formal steps to organize a labor union and bargain for benefits like guaranteed multiyear scholarships and medical coverage for concussions and other long-term health issues. The first of what will likely be many battles for the unionization effort came this week, with an hearing before the Chicago regional National Labor Relations Board.

The proceeding, which will continue at least through the end of the week, has pitted the proposed College Athletes Players Association and former Northwestern quarterback (and NFL hopeful) Kain Colter against Northwestern. While the university reacted much less strongly than the NCAA when the unionization efforts were unveiled—the official university statement made sure to say that Northwestern is "proud" of its students for being "leaders and independent thinkers"—it is still the theoretical employer of Colter and the other players and thus must face off against them before the labor board. (Head coach Pat Fitzgerald is expected to testify Friday.) Here's what you need to know about the hearings and what they mean for college football:

What does the union need to prove to win? The College Athletes Players Association, with the help of star witness Colter, is arguing that football players are employees of the university. The group has some strong arguments in its favor, according to University of Illinois law professor and sports labor expert Michael LeRoy. For one, the players work long hours equivalent to a full-time job. Colter testified that football-related activities take up 40 to 50 hours a week during the season and 50 to 60 hours a week during training camp in the summer. The players' efforts also benefit the university—an economics professor who testified on the union's behalf said that Northwestern's football revenue totaled $235 million between 2003 and 2012, while its expenses added up to just $159 million during that time. "It's a financial benefit, and that's putting it mildly," LeRoy said.

An economics professor who testified on the union's behalf said that Northwestern's football revenue totaled $235 million between 2003 and 2012.

What does Northwestern need to prove? The university's argument is that the players are student-athletes and nothing more. The players receive scholarships worth about $60,000 a year, a university athletics official testified, and a lawyer for the school noted that players also get "a world-class education, free tutoring services, core academic advice, and personal and career development opportunity." While some of Northwestern's other counterpoints lacked substance—school lawyers grilled Colter on whether leadership and other skills learned from the football team helped him get a prior internship at Goldman Sachs, a line of thinking LeRoy called "fairly irrelevant" to whether or not college football counts as labor—perhaps its strongest point is that players signed a scholarship contract, agreeing to their amateur status and therefore waiving their collective bargaining power.

What happens now? No matter which side the Chicago labor board takes, the loser will probably appeal that decision to the national board in Washington, DC. That ruling will likely head to a federal appeals court. The entire process could take years, LeRoy said, which presents a unique challenge for union organizers: There's a chance all the players who signed union cards will have graduated and moved on by the time a final decision comes down. One big question is how other schools and teams will react—while teams at private schools like Northwestern can try to unionize, teams at public schools must adhere to their states' collective bargaining laws. If players at some schools are able to negotiate benefits that players at other schools are not, LeRoy said, it could fundamentally change recruiting, realign conferences, and lead to swaths of state legislation addressing the matter. "It's a huge can of worms," he said. "It's a showstopper."

Who's going to win? LeRoy said he thinks the regional and national labor boards will rule in favor of the players due to the boards' liberal slant, but that the courts will rule against Colter & Co. That won't mean the movement was pointless, though—LeRoy expects the NCAA to compromise on many of the union's core issues by that point. Vitally, the Northwestern players aren't asking for pay for play, meaning the university and the NCAA could provide them with the scholarship and medical benefits they're calling for and still maintain its structure and concept of amateurism. Even a formal union doesn't hold up legally, LeRoy said, we may see a "union substitute" in which the threat is credible enough that the NCAA provides players with more voice and benefits. "I don’t think we’re going to have collective bargaining," he said. "But I think this is a necessary step."