Political MoJo

Obama Administration Sued for Refusing to Disclose Data on Student Loan Debt Collectors

| Tue May 20, 2014 1:27 PM EDT

President Barack Obama has taken several steps over the past few years to address the $1 trillion problem of student loan debt. He's pushed loan forgiveness programs and efforts to help borrowers reduce payments. One thing that apparently isn't factoring into his plans, though, is reining in abusive debt collectors that the Department of Education hires to collect student loans debt when people can't pay.

More than $94 billion of the nation's student loan debt was in default as of September 2013, according to a March report from the Government Accountability Office. And the percentage of people defaulting on school loans has increased steadily for six years in a row. In 2011, the Department of Education paid private debt collectors $1 billion to try to collect on that debt—a number that is expected to double by 2016. The tactics used by those debt collectors range from harassing to downright abusive. In March 2012, Bloomberg reported that three of the companies working for the Department of Education had settled federal or state charges that they'd engaged in abusive debt collection.

Consumer advocates have found that the debt collectors routinely violate consumer protection laws when trying to collect on student loan debt, which is especially problematic given that some of those firms are supposed to be helping borrowers "rehabilitate" their loans to reduce their debt burden. The student loan collectors have vast power, including the ability to garnish wages and seize tax refunds—tools not normally available to companies collecting ordinary consumer debt.

In March 2012, the Department of Education said it was reviewing the commissions it paid debt collectors in the wake of complaints that the contractors were abusing borrowers. But so far, there's not much evidence that anything has changed. The GAO report found that the Education Department still does little to oversee student-loan debt collectors, and has done little more than provide "feedback" when alerted to abuses.

The National Consumer Law Center has been highlighting the problems with student-loan debt collectors for a few years now, and watchdogging the Department of Education's work in this area. Or at least it's been trying to. Since 2012, the non-profit advocacy group has filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests for information about the government's relationships with student-loan debt collectors. But so far, the Obama administration has stonewalled the requests. On Monday, after more than year attempting to peel back the secrecy around the debt collection contracts, NCLC filed a lawsuit demanding that the Department of Education comply with the Freedom of Information Act and release the data.

“Collection agencies routinely violate consumer protection laws and prioritize profits over borrower rights,” says Persis Yu, an attorney with NCLC. “Abuses by these debt collection agencies cause significant hardship to the millions of students struggling to pay off their federal student loans. Taxpayers and student loan borrowers have a right to information about the impact of the Education Department’s policy of paying outside debt collectors on the rights of borrowers. The Education Department should not insulate itself from public scrutiny.”

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 20, 2014

Tue May 20, 2014 8:48 AM EDT

A Soldier from the U.S. Army 20th Special Forces Group tries to squeeze through a hole in a building during Emerald Warrior 2014, Camp Shelby, Miss., May 5, 2014. Emerald Warrior is the Department of Defense's only irregular warfare exercise. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jodi Martinez)

Georgia Supreme Court: Lethal-Injection Secrecy Helps Keep Executions "Timely and Orderly"

| Mon May 19, 2014 6:12 PM EDT

On Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a remarkable ruling in a case challenging a Georgia law that designates the source and composition of its lethal-injection drugs as a state secret—one that can be kept hidden from everyone: the condemned, the public, and, most notably, the courts themselves.

That the state's high court would rule against a death-row inmate is hardly surprising. Georgia courts have rarely voted to spare anyone from execution. But that it would keep the courts ignorant of what goes on in the state's death chamber seems like an unusual abdication of judicial power.

Before passing its secrecy law, Georgia illegally imported expired drugs from a London company called "Dream Pharma," and used them in two executions.

Georgia passed its secrecy law in March 2013 after its supply of pentobarbital, its primary execution drug, expired. Officials were having trouble getting more, thanks to an export ban by the EU and the refusal of international pharmaceutical companies to sell the drugs for the use in executions. The new law was challenged on behalf of a prisoner named Warren Hill, sentenced to death after killing another inmate while serving a life sentence for murdering his girlfriend. His execution was put on hold last summer, pending the outcome of the challenge.

Under the law Georgia just upheld, the public has no right to obtain the name of any person or company, even under seal in a legal proceeding, who manufactures or sells an execution drug. It also lets state authorities hide the identities of doctors who participate in executions—a professional ethical breach. The secrecy requirements may also be an effort to protect state officials from embarrassment; in 2010 and 2011, the state was shamed by news that it had been illegally importing expired drugs with limited potency from "Dream Pharma," a London company operating out of the back of a run-down driving school.

Georgia actually used those drugs in two executions before the Food and Drug Administration stepped in and confiscated the supply. But what happened during those executions is one reason Hill wanted more information on the source of the drugs that would be used to kill him. In the first case, the condemned man, Brandon Rhodes, kept his eyes open through the entire process, an indication that the painful paralyzing drugs were administered while he was conscious. During the other state-sanctioned killing, inmate Emmanuel Hammond kept his eyes open, grimaced, and seemed to be attempting to talk. 

The high court dismissed these concerns, and insisted that the confidentiality law "plays a positive role in the in the functioning of the capital punishment process." The court admitted that releasing more information might help satisfy concerns that executions are humane, but found that it was more important that the secrecy made the process "more timely and orderly."

Really, the court said that.

Dissenting judges argued that the ruling creates a "star chamber" situation, which prevents constitutional scrutiny of the execution process.

Two justices dissented loudly, arguing that the ruling creates a "star chamber" situation the courts have long fought to avoid—one that prevents the courts from scrutinizing the execution procedures to ensure they don't violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The dissent also points out that the majority ruled against Hill on the grounds that his concerns about potentially contaminated or illegally procured execution drugs were solely "speculative." But Hill's claims are speculative, the dissenters wrote, precisely because the court is refusing him the right to information that might make them more concrete. In short, they wrote, there was no way Hill could win, and the majority decision clearly violated his rights to due process.

The decision paves the way for the state to continue making itself a a poster child for why the death penalty is on its way out. In 2002, the US Supreme Court banned the execution of mentally disabled people, and Hill, with an IQ of 70, falls into that category. But Georgia doesn't like being told what to do. So while its lawyers continue to haggle over Hill's mental state, Georgia may move on to another inmate first: Robert Wayne Holsey, who was convicted of killing a police officer in 1997, even though his court-appointed lawyer, a severe alcoholic, consumed a quart of vodka every night during his trial.

Cases like these suggest that there's a lot about its capital punishment system that Georgia might prefer to keep secret—not just the drugs it's using.

 

The Dick Cheney/Rand Paul Feud Continues—And They're Both Wrong

| Mon May 19, 2014 12:40 PM EDT

This past weekend, former Vice President Dick Cheney made yet another media appearance to denounce President Barack Obama. But Cheney also used the opportunity to continue his feud with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kent.), who is mulling a bid for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. On the friendly turf of Fox News Sunday, Cheney was asked about Paul's 2009 damning accusation—reported last month by Mother Jones—that Cheney used the 9/11 attacks as an excuse for the Iraq war so that Halliburton, the military contractor Cheney once led, would reap a large profit.

Cheney replied,

Well, before I ever took the job as vice president, I totally severed all my ties with Halliburton, at considerable financial cost. I had no relationship at all with the company throughout the time I was vice president. I didn't even talk to them. We kept a totally arm's length relationship. So he obviously is not familiar with the facts.

Paul's statement was harsh; he essentially had claimed that Cheney had betrayed the nation, exploiting a national horror and causing widespread death and destruction (including the deaths of thousands of Americans) to enrich his corporate cronies. When questioned by ABC News' Jon Karl about his Cheney comment, Paul insisted, "I'm not questioning Dick Cheney's motives." But that's precisely what Paul had done. And Paul had accomplished what not many could do: he evoked sympathy for the former vice president, who had led the Bush administration's campaign to rally public support for the Iraq war with false claims about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's ties to al Qaeda.

It's been easy for Cheney and his defenders to dismiss Paul's over-the-top, conspiracy-theory-like assertion. But on Fox News, the ex-veep, too, went too far. He maintained that he had no financial ties with Halliburton while he was George W. Bush's number-two and made a personal sacrifice by trading his CEO badge for a White House job. But that's not entirely accurate.

As Politifact.com noted a few years ago, when Cheney became vice president, he pocketed a $34 million payout from Halliburton. In fact, because he probably sold stock options at an opportune time, he profited enormously because the stock price was at a high:

It's not clear when Cheney sold his stock options, but it likely was within weeks of his being named to the ticket -- a period when Halliburton shares hit their 2000 peak, in the low-to-mid $50 range. By November 30, 2000, the stock had fallen to $33 a share. If he'd waited until then to sell, his payday would have been one-third lower, or roughly $14 million rather than $22 million.

Moreover, when Cheney was veep, he continued to receive deferred payments from Halliburton. In 2004, the New York Times reported, "Mr. Cheney’s financial disclosure statements from 2001, 2002 and 2003 show that since becoming vice president-elect, he has received $1,997,525 from the company: $1,451,398 in a bonus deferred from 1999, the rest in deferred salary." And at that time, Cheney still held some stock options in the company.

As vice president, Cheney repeatedly contended he had no continuing relationship with Halliburton. In 2003, he declared, "I've severed all my ties with the company, gotten rid of all my financial interest. I have no financial interest in Halliburton of any kind and haven't had, now, for over three years." But a report issued that year by the Congressional Research Service undermined Cheney's claim. It found that if a public official retained unexercised stock options and collected deferred salary—as Cheney did then—the official had "retained ties" to the company.

So when Cheney now says that he had nothing to do with Halliburton while he was vice-president, he is contradicted by the Congressional Research Service. Maybe he wasn't in contact with his old pals at the firm, but he continued to bank millions of dollars from the company as it obtained Iraq-related contracts from the US government.

In this ongoing scuffle pitting a GOP establishment heavy (who's a hawk) against a possible insurgent Republican presidential candidate (who's an intervention skeptic), both are wrong. When Paul assailed Cheney, he went too far and joined the ranks of the tin-foil-hats crowd—and then he tried to claim he had not said what he said. In defending himself, Cheney misrepresented his financial relationship with Halliburton. This mud-wrestling match has yet to produce a winner, but it is showing that each participant has a problem with accuracy.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 19, 2014

Mon May 19, 2014 8:53 AM EDT

Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, provide outboard security after offloading from a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter during a mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan, May 1, 2014. The company operated in Tagvreshk Village, an area with suspected Taliban forces with the intent to disrupt any lethal aid. After hours of operating within the area, the infantrymen extracted from the area the same way they arrived. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Joseph Scanlan/Released)

60 Years Ago the Supreme Court Told Schools to Desegregate. Here's How Fast We're Backsliding.

| Sat May 17, 2014 8:12 AM EDT
A 1973 Charlotte, N.C., first grade class that was integrated through a school busing program.

Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. The changes required by Brown v. Board of Education decision were not immediate, but they were profound and lasting. Today, schools in the South are the least segregated for black students in the nation.

Of course, that doesn't tell the whole story. In honor of the Brown anniversary, UCLA's Civil Rights Project released a report that analyzes the progress of desegregation since 1954. According to the report, starting in the 1980s, schools began to ditch integration efforts and shift focus to universal education standards as a way to level the playing field for students in unequal schools. In 1991, when the Supreme Court ruled that school districts could end their desegregation plans, it put the nail in integration's coffin.

Black students integrating a Clinton, Tennessee, school in 1956 Thomas J. O'Halloran/Library of Congress
In New York state, 65 percent of black students attend schools that are 90 to 100 percent minority, as do 57 percent of Latino students.

Today, the picture of American schools is far different than what the 1954 ruling seemed to portend. The UCLA report notes that Latino students are the most segregated in the country. In major and midsize cities, where housing discrimination historically separated neighborhoods along racial lines, black and Latino students are often almost entirely isolated from white and Asian students—about 12 percent of black and Latino students in major cities have any exposure to white students. Half of the students who attend 91 to 100 percent black and Latino schools (which make up 13 percent of all US public schools) are also in schools that are 90 percent low-income—a phenomenon known as "double segregation." And the Northeast holds the special distinction of having more black children in intensely segregated schools (where school populations are 90 to 100 percent minority) in 2011 than it did in 1968. In New York state, for instance, 65 percent of black students attend schools that are intensely segregated, as do 57 percent of Latino students.

Bused to a white school, New York City children face parent protests in 1965. Dick DeMarsico/Library of Congress

Even in the South, where Brown made such a profound difference, school integration is being rolled back. The chart below shows the percentage of black students attending majority white schools in the South over the last 60 years. You can see the progress made after Brown—and how rapidly it's dissolving.

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WATCH: Speaking Benghazi Can Distract From Any Meaningful Conversation [Fiore Cartoon]

| Fri May 16, 2014 10:48 AM EDT

 

 

Mark Fiore is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist and animator whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Examiner, and dozens of other publications. He is an active member of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, and has a website featuring his work.

News Organizations Sue Missouri to Reveal the Contents of Its Execution Drugs

| Thu May 15, 2014 12:49 PM EDT
A gurney in the death chamber in Huntsville, Texas.

The Guardian, AP, and three local newspapers are wading into the death penalty fray with a lawsuit challenging the secrecy surrounding lethal injections in Missouri—one of more than a dozen states that have begun hiding information about their execution drugs. In a complaint filed Thursday morning with the Cole County circuit court, the news organizations argue that the secrecy violates the public's First Amendment right to know how the condemned are being killed. The document specifically references the case of Clayton Lockett, the death row inmate who writhed and moaned in apparent agony after being injected with a secretly acquired drug combinations last month.

Prior to the execution, Lockett—who took a record 43 minutes to die—had argued that withholding the source and contents of execution drugs was unconstitutional because the untested combination could create a level of suffering that violates the Eight Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Other death row prisoners have sued to block their executions on similar grounds, but the new lawsuit appears to be the first to challenge the lack of transparency based on the First Amendment right of access. Below is a snippet from the Guardian's story on the case:

A Guardian survey has identified at least 13 states that have changed their rules to withhold from the public all information relating to how they get hold of lethal drugs. They include several of the most active death penalty states including Texas, which has executed seven prisoners so far this year, Florida (five), Missouri (four) and Oklahoma (three).

Attention has been drawn to the secrecy issue by the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on 29 April....Lockett’s lawyers had argued in advance that he might be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment as a result of the lack of information surrounding the drugs, but the state supreme court allowed the procedure to go ahead having come under intense pressure from local politicians, some of whom threatened to impeach judges.

In the wake of the events in Oklahoma, in which the prisoner writhed and groaned over a prolonged period, the state has agreed to pause for six months before carrying out any further judicial killings to give time for an internal investigation to be completed. President Obama described the Lockett execution "deeply troubling" and has asked US attorney general Eric Holder to review the way the death penalty is conducted.

Until last year, Missouri which is now executing prisoners at a rate of one a month, was open about where it obtained its lethal injection chemicals. But like many death penalty states, its drug supplies have dwindled as a result of a European-led pharmaceutical boycott, and in a desperate move to try to find new suppliers it has shrouded their identity in secrecy.

In October, the state changed its so-called "black hood law" that had historically been used to guard the identity of those directly involved in the death process. The department of corrections expanded the definition of its execution team to include pharmacies and "individuals who prescribe, compound, prepare, or otherwise supply the chemicals for use in the lethal injection procedure."

Since the law was changed, Missouri has put six prisoners to death using what the suit calls "a secret drug formulation obtained from secret sources." Deborah Denno, an expert in executions at Fordham University law school, told the Guardian that the secrecy seems designed to cover up shortcomings in the system. "If states were doing things properly they wouldn't have a problem releasing information," she said. "They are imposing a veil of secrecy to hide incompetence."

The Idaho GOP Gubernatorial Debate Was Total Chaos

| Thu May 15, 2014 10:38 AM EDT
What is even going on here?

Idaho Republican Gov. Butch Otter (no relation) is facing a primary challenge this year from Russ Fulcher, a conservative state senator. Idaho is a really conservative place and Otter has angered his party's base by supporting the Common Core math and English standards, so the incumbent isn't taking any chances. When it came time for Otter and Fulcher to debate, the governor insisted on opening up the floor. He argued that all candidates should be allowed on stage, which sounds nice and democratic in theory, but in practice meant that Fulcher had to split time with two people who will never be governor—also-rans Harley Brown and Walt Bayes.

Even before Wednesday's debate started, Idaho Public Television announced that it would broadcast the event on a 30-second delay in anticipation of rampant cussin'. Brown—who wore his customary leather vest and leather hat, has the presidential seal tattooed on his shoulder, two cigars in his right breast pocket, and is missing several prominent teeth—used his closing argument to wave a signed certificate from a "Masai prophet" that confirmed that he would one day be president of the United States. Brown revealed that he supports gay marriage because as a cab driver in Boise he discovered that gay people "love each other more than I love my motorcycle." His closing argument was blunt: "You have your choice, folks: A cowboy, a curmudgeon, a biker, or a normal guy. Take your pick… We're leaving it up to you."

Bayes, who has a beard that extends halfway down his ribcage and resembles a 19th-century gold prospector, also wanted to talk about Biblical prophecy, but mostly just abortion. His credentials for governor are that he once went to jail for homeschooling his 16 children, five of whom went on to become rodeo cowboys. "Everybody, thanks everybody, okay?," he said during his closing statements.

Most of all, he wanted to thank Gov. Otter: "Butch, I want to thank you for making it possible for me to be here tonight. He kind of insisted that me and this other un-normal person could be here tonight."

This exactly the kind of circus the United States tried to break away from:

 

Correction: This post misstated the components of the Common Core State Standards.

Fast-Food Strikes Go Global

| Thu May 15, 2014 9:58 AM EDT
A protester in Seoul, South Korea at a rally Thursday to demand higher wages for fast-food workers.

On Thursday, the fast-food strikes that have been spreading around the country are going global.

Workers at restaurants like Burger King, McDonald's, Wendy's, and KFC are walking off their jobs in 230 cities around the world to demand a minimum wage of $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. Strikers will protest in 150 US cities, from New York to Los Angeles, and in 80 foreign cities, from Casablanca to Seoul to Brussels to Buenos Aires.

In Zurich, some protesters are wearing "sad hamburger costumes." In the Philippines, protestors staged a flash-mob at a Manila McDonald's during morning rush hour.

The wave of strikes—which began in November 2012, when hundreds of workers walked out of restaurants in New York City—has grown quickly over the past year and a half. The idea behind this coordinated international protest was not just to further raise the profile of the fast-food workers' movement. With labor unions declining in clout at home, organizers hope that the powerful international unions can help pressure US-based companies into making changes. Last week, the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations—a labor federation composed of 396 trade unions that represent 12 million workers in 126 countries—held a summit in New York City where fast-food workers and union leaders finalized plans for the global strike.

The massive fast-food protests come a few weeks after a recent report on the industry by the left-leaning think tank Demos found that fast-food CEOs are paid a thousand times more than the average franchise worker, who makes about $8.69 an hour. Fast-food wages have dropped by 36 cents an hour since 2010. More than half of the families of fast-food workers rely on public programs like food stamps and Medicaid. (Check out our calculator to see if you could live on a fast-food wage.)

Though the industry has not yet raised wages by any significant amount, the strikes are having an effect. In a March filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, McDonald’s said worker protests might force the company to raise wages this year. And as Salon's Josh Eidelson reported earlier this month, the National Restaurant Association, the industry trade group, is growing increasingly worried about the fast-food protests, closely monitoring social media for plans of future actions.

And while Congress is unlikely to raise the federal minimum wage any time soon to the $10.10 an hour wage President Obama proposed in his 2013 State of the Union speech, states are taking up the fight. Over the past year, seven states and the District of Columbia have raised their minimum wages, and 34 states are considering bumping up pay for their lowest-paid workers. In late April, the mayor of Seattle proposed a $15 minimum wage.

Scott DeFife, an executive vice president for the National Restaurant Association, dismisses the movement's potential. As he told the New York Times on Wednesday, "These are made-for-TV media moments—that’s pretty much it."