Political MoJo

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 23, 2013

Mon Dec. 23, 2013 10:12 AM EST

A team of U.S. Army AH-64D Apaches from the 1-151 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, S.C. National Guard, take off from Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla., as part of an integrated live fire exercise with the U.S. Navy George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group, December 16, 2013. While working with the Navy for this exercise, the 1-151 ARB mission was to find, fix and destroy small boat targets. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Jamie Delk)

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Miami and Los Angeles Sue Banking Giants Over the Sub-Prime Mortgage Debacle

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 10:03 AM EST

Some of the cities hardest hit by the sub-prime mortgage crisis are fighting back with lawsuits against the banks whose predatory lending fueled the collapse of the housing market. Most recently, the city of Miami filed three separate suits against Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Citigroup, claiming their lending practices violated the federal Fair Housing Act and cost the city millions in tax revenue.

The cases, all of which were filed in the Southern District of Florida, focus on the banks' treatment of minority borrowers. According to the city, minority residents were routinely charged higher interest rates and fees than white loan applicants, regardless of their credit history. They were also stuck with other onerous terms—such as prepayment penalties, adjustable interest rates, and balloon payments—that increased their odds of falling into foreclosure.

It's no secret that some big banks discriminated against minority borrowers during the housing bubble. Racial bias ran so deep inside Wells Fargo's mortgage division that employees regularly referred to subprime mortgages as “ghetto loans" and African American borrowers as “mud people," according to testimony from former bank officials. In 2011, Bank of America paid $355 million to settle a Justice Department lawsuit, charging that its Countrywide Financial unit steered hundreds of thousands of minority borrowers into predatory mortgages.

Lawyers for the city of Miami, which is roughly 60 percent Latino and 20 percent African American, argue that these discriminatory practices are one key reason that the fallout from the sub-prime lending frenzy hit the city so hard. "The State of Florida in general, and the City of Miami in particular have been devastated by the foreclosure crisis," reads the city's complaint. "As of October 2013, the State of Florida has the country’s highest foreclosure rate, and Miami has the highest foreclosure rate among the 20 largest metropolitan statistical areas in the country." The city is seeking compensation for the drop in real estate tax revenue due to foreclosures, which have further depressed property values, and for the cost of providing municipal services to abandoned homes.

In a written statement to the Miami Herald, Wells Fargo called the discrimination claims “unfounded allegations that don’t reflect our corporate values,” while Citigroup insisted that it “considers each applicant by the same objective criteria.” Bank of America also defended its lending practices as fair and said it had "responded urgently" to assist customers during the financial crisis.

Miami isn't the first city to take on the banking giants. Earlier this month, Los Angeles—which claims to have lost more than $78 billion in home value due to foreclosures—sued Citigroup, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo on the same grounds. Richmond, California, a working-class Bay Area suburb, plans to rescue borrowers whose mortgages are underwater by seizing their properties using eminent domain. Homeowners will remain in their homes and be given new loans for amounts that reflect current values. And the city will have a fighting chance of shoring up its dwindling tax revenue. It's a good deal for everyone—except the bankers behind the housing implosion.

When Having Condoms Gets You Arrested

| Sat Dec. 21, 2013 6:00 AM EST

Last week, Mother Jones' Molly Redden wrote about a recent Human Rights Watch report, "In Harm’s Way," which argues that aggressive policing in New Orleans is contributing to the city’s soaring HIV/AIDS rates. One tactic that Human Rights Watch found to be particularly problematic: the police harassment of suspected sex workers for possessing condoms.

Transgender women reported the police calling them a "thing," a "whore," and "a disgrace to America" while searching them for condoms.

At the heart of the matter is the vague definition of the crime of "loitering for prostitution," which invites arbitrary arrests and discriminatory policing. According to the report, police in New Orleans use the possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution, even if they don't witness the crime underway. The result? Of the report’s 169 interviewees, all of whom had exchanged sex for money, drugs, or life necessities, more than a third said that they had carried fewer condoms out of fear of police harassment. More than a quarter had had unprotected sex due to the fear of carrying condoms.

Testimonies in the report describe police harassing sex workers, threatening arrest based on condom possession, and, in some cases, confiscating the condoms altogether. Transgender women reported the police calling them a "thing," a "whore," and "a disgrace to America" while searching them for condoms. Cleo, a 36-year-old woman, said, "In the French Quarter [in March of this year] I was at [a bar] with a man and the cops asked only the trans women to go outside and they searched us. If we had condoms we got arrested for attempted solicitation." 

New Orleans isn’t the only place where Human Rights Watch has documented condom confiscation. Last year, the organization examined the police treatment of sex workers in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, and found that police in all four cities were using condoms as evidence of prostitution.

From last year's report, "Sex Workers at Risk":

Police use of condoms as evidence of prostitution has the same effect everywhere. Despite millions of dollars spent on promoting and distributing condoms as an effective method of HIV prevention, groups most at risk of infection—sex workers, transgender women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth—are afraid to carry them and therefore engage in sex without protection as a result of police harassment. Outreach workers and businesses are unable to distribute condoms freely and without fear of harassment as well.

Over the past year, some places have made progress. In June, New York became the first state to pass a law prohibiting the use of condom possession as evidence of prostitution-related crimes. In Washington, DC, the Metropolitan Police started distributing "condom cards" and leaflets to sex workers and community health groups (Example text: "Individuals are allowed to carry as many condoms as they want. There is no 'three condom rule'"). In February, the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS identified the usage of condoms as evidence of prostitution as one of several "HIV-specific criminal laws" that are "fueling the epidemic rather than reducing it."

Whether or not the New Orleans Police Department will act on the report remains up in the air. Last week, dozens of people in New Orleans marched in front of City Hall holding signs saying "Prevention Not Punishment." A New Orleans Police Department spokesperson has told local media that "to date, we have no record of the allegations made in this report."

Following the Dark Money Would Be Easier if This Goverment Agency Did Its Job

| Fri Dec. 20, 2013 11:02 AM EST
A screenshot of the Priorities USA Action 2012 ad "Stage" attacking Mitt Romney.

A recent headline over at the Atlantic captured the mood when it comes to the state of money in American politics: "There's No Way to Follow the Money." The author, former Reuters editor Lee Aitken, was referring to the web of "social welfare" nonprofit groups moving hundreds of millions of dollars in dark money all around the country with the goal, ultimately, of influencing elections and shaping policy. Aitken has a point: As deep as reporters dig, it's harder than ever to track where the money's going, how it's being spent, and who's taking a cut along the way.

Following the dark money isn't any easier when timid or dysfunctional watchdogs plainly fail to do their jobs. Fingers point most often to the Federal Election Commission, which is at the moment an underfunded, ideologically divided, broken institution. But a new Sunlight Foundation analysis identifies another culprit: the Federal Communications Commission, the nation's top cop when it comes to TV, radio, and broadband.

Here's the back story: Tucked inside the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, a landmark piece of legislation better known as "McCain-Feingold" after its two sponsors, was a new requirement that local TV stations make available to the public information about political ad buys, including how much was spent and what candidates or issues were mentioned in the ad. Post-Citizens United, spending on political ads has exploded—$5.6 billion was spent in 2012, a 30 percent increase from 2008. Broadcasters' ad data can provide journalists, campaign staffers, activists, and anyone else with detailed and useful information on the ads running all over the country.

The problem? TV stations are ignoring the law, leaving the public in the dark.

A Sunlight Foundation analysis of 200 randomly-chosen ad buys by PACs, super-PACs, or nonprofits found that fewer than one in six actually disclosed the name of the candidate or specific election referenced in the ad. The most important fields on the ad buy paperwork are blank, and the TV stations that are so eager to rake in all those revenues aren't prodding the ad buyers to fully disclose what they're doing.

The FCC could crack down on this if it wanted. Sunlight's Jacob Fenton explains why the agency isn't acting:

TV stations could be penalized for leaving out disclosure information, but the FCC has shown little appetite for doing so. Although occasional enforcement checks took place in the years after the reforms were adopted, more recently the FCC has fallen back on a "complaint driven" process. In other words, the agency won't act unless someone asks it to. But because the vast majority of the political ad filings are hidden away in file cabinets at broadcast stations, available only during business hours when most voters are working, few people ever see them, let alone complain.

Steve Waldman, an Internet entrepreneur and journalist who worked as a senior advisor to former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, said the nation's communications watchdog was leery of getting stuck with the unenviable position of campaign cop. "When it comes to political stuff, there's extra sensitivity at the commission because it's the one area where Congress jumps up and down and says, 'If you do that we're going to come and slap you in the head,'" Waldman said.

Tom Wheeler, who just replaced Genachowski, saw his Senate confirmation vote held up by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, over the issue of political ad disclosure. In a statement, Cruz said he lifted the hold after Wheeler said he'd make political ad funding disclosure "not a priority."

It's not all bad news on the political ad transparency front. In August, a judge ruled that the FCC could proceed with a plan to require several hundred broadcast stations located in the nation's 50 largest cities to post their ad files online. Sunlight, among others, is working to make those files accessible and easily searchable to anyone with an Internet connection.

In the campaign finance world, that's progress. But it's enough. The FCC and the TV stations themselves need to feel more pressure to ensure that those ad files comply with the law. It's one of the few useful tools we have nowadays for following that shadowy money trail.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 20, 2013

Fri Dec. 20, 2013 10:31 AM EST

An M1A2SEP Abrams Tank from Company C, 1st Battalion, 64th Armor Regiment ‘Desert Rogues’, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, sits ready while others complete the night portion of the Gunnery Table VI in the background at Red Cloud Range, Dec. 12. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Richard Wrigley, 2nd ABCT, 3rd ID, Public Affairs NCO)

Why Is This Disgraced Prosecutor Still Allowed to Practice Law in Texas?

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 6:24 PM EST

When I read Innocence Lost, Pamela Colloff's fabulous piece on the case of Anthony Graves, a man convicted of murder in Texas, I walked away convinced that Graves hadn't done anything wrong—indeed, he was exonerated in 2010 after 18 years behind bars—but that Charles Sebesta, the former Burleson County DA who pursued the case so zealously, had done something horrific.

The DA who put Anthony Graves on death row knowingly withheld key evidence and obtained false  statements from witnesses.

In 2006, the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling confirming that Sebesta had not only withheld powerful exonerating evidence in the Graves case, he also had obtained false statements from witnesses. In the past, Colloff has reported how Sebesta had allegedly used threats to scare Graves' alibi witness from testifying. He also bullied Charles Carter, a key witness, into testifying against Graves by threatening to prosecute Carter's wife. (Carter, who was prosecuted and convicted for the killings, had repeatedly insisted that Graves had nothing to do with the crimes.)

So how was it that an innocent man could be sentenced to die while the prosecutor who deliberately screwed him (to paraphrase the Fifth Circuit) suffered no legal consequences? One could imagine a world in which such egregious legal misconduct, given that it landed a man on death row, would qualify as attempted murder. At the very least, wouldn't Sebesta's actions be cause to take away his law license?

Not in Texas.

In a followup piece on Wednesday, Colloff asked the Texas Bar why it had failed to discipline Sebesta, and what she learns is surprising. Sebesta's website claims, among other things, that "the State Bar cleared Sebesta of any wrongdoing in the case" and that the Bar's grievance committee had determined that "there was no evidence to justify a formal hearing." In fact, as Colloff discovers, the Bar never actually reviewed his case.

Not that it would have punished Sebesta anyway. Colloff quotes from the Texas Tribune: "In ninety-one criminal cases in Texas since 2004, the courts decided that prosecutors committed misconduct, ranging from hiding evidence to making improper arguments to the jury. None of those prosecutors has ever been disciplined."

At the press conference announcing Graves' release, the special prosecutor called in to review Graves' case said Sebesta had handled it "in a way that would best be described as a criminal justice system's nightmare." Bill Parnam, who succeeded Sebesta as Burleson County DA, addressed the reporters next: "There's not a single thing that says Anthony Graves was involved in this case. There is nothing." 

Read Colloff's piece here.

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Pussy Riot and Arctic 30 "Hooligans" to be Released From Russian Prison

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 4:30 PM EST

The two jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot are set to be released from prison following an amnesty bill passed by the Russian parliament last night. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were convicted of "hooliganism" and sentenced to two years in prison after they staged a protest against Putin and the Russian Orthodox church last year.

Also likely to be released are the members of the "Arctic 30," a group of Greenpeace activists who staged a protest against drilling in the Arctic by boarding a Russian oil rig in September. The activists have spent two months in jail under charges of hooliganism. Peter Wilcox, the American captain of the Greenpeace ship that was raided by Russian authorities, says that while he's happy to be going home, "I should never have been charged and jailed in the first place."

The passage of the amnesty bill comes amid growing scrutiny of the Putin administration's crack-down on gay rights. In June, Putin signed into law a bill banning the "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors." President Obama announced Tuesday that he and Michelle Obama will not be attending the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Russia this February. Instead, Obama will be sending delegates: tennis champion Billie Jean King and ice hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow, both of whom are openly gay.

Watch the "punk prayer" that got the Pussy Riot members locked in prison:

Grand Old Pajama Party: Pictures of Conservatives in Their Jam-Jams

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 12:15 PM EST

On Tuesday, Organizing for Action, a remnant of Barack Obama's re-election campaign that has been re-purposed to promote the president's agenda, asked its followers to sign up for health insurance over the holidays. The group's pitch featured a bespectacled twentysomething male in pajamas, drinking hot chocolate. On the right, "Pajama Boy" quickly became a meme. At last, conservatives had an opportunity to dismiss political opponents as jobless, lazy, unsexed hippies.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie demanded that the stock image get dressed and do some community service. Texas Rep. Steve Stockman chimed in, too. Pajama Boy is a "vaguely androgynous, student-glasses-wearing, Williamsburg hipster" and "the Obama machine's id" (National Review's Charles Cooke); an "insufferable man-child" and a consequence of the "breakdown of marriage and its drift into the 30s" (Politico Magazine's Rich Lowry); and a representative of "effete, cosmopolitan America" (The Daily Caller's Matt Lewis.) Holy stock photo, Batman!

But a Mother Jones investigation discovered something unsettling. Far from being a divisive cultural wedge issue, pajamas are a normal item of clothing that normal adults wear. Even Republican presidents. The pajamas are coming from inside the White House!

Former President Ronald Reagan:

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

 

Former president Gerald Ford:

Gerald Ford Presidential Library

 

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas):

 

Former president George H.W. Bush:

 

Former President Abraham Lincoln:

David Gilmour Blythe

 

Former President Ronald Reagan (again):

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

 

Daily Caller editor in chief Tucker Carlson:

In their defense, pajamas are hella comfortable.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 19, 2013

Thu Dec. 19, 2013 9:58 AM EST

A handmade Christmas tree welcomes Marines with 1st Marine Division to the Division (Forward) headquarters field mess aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms during Exercise Steel Knight 14 Dec. 14, 2013. The field mess served two hot meals each day during Steel Knight, which enabled 1st Marine Division to test and refine its command and control capabilities by acting as the headquarters element for a forward-deployed Marine Expeditionary Force.

(U. S. Marine Corps photo by CWO3 Benn Barr/Released)

Study: Pretrial Detention Creates More Crime

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 9:31 AM EST

Detaining certain defendants before trial makes them more likely to commit a new crime, according to a recent report.

Many pretrial detainees are low-risk, meaning that if they are released before trial, they are highly unlikely to commit other crimes and very likely to return to court. When these defendants are held for two to three days before trial, as opposed to just 24 hours, they are nearly 40 percent more likely to commit new crimes before their trial, and 17 percent more likely to commit another crime within two years, according to a report released last month by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a private foundation that funds criminal justice research.

"The primary goal of the American criminal justice system is to protect the public," the authors of the report say. "But…the pretrial phase of the system is actually helping to create new repeat offenders."

The report—based on studies of both state and federal courts—also found that the longer low-risk detainees are held behind bars before trial, the more likely they are to commit another crime. Low-risk defendants who were detained for 31 days or more before they had their day in court offended 74 percent more frequently before trial than those detained for just one day. The study found similar results for moderate-risk defendants, though for these offenders, the rate of increase in new criminal activity is smaller. When it comes to high-risk offenders, the report found no correlation between pre-trial detention time and recidivism.

The report noted that recidivism could be curbed if judges made an effort to distinguish between low-, moderate-, and high-risk offenders. "Judges, of course, do their best to sort violent, high-risk defendants from nonviolent, low-risk ones," the report says, "but they have almost no reliable, data-driven risk assessment tools at their disposal to help them make these decisions." Fewer than ten percent of US jurisdictions do any sort of risk-assessment during the pretrial stage.

Not only does unnecessary pretrial detention create repeat offenders, it costs taxpayers a lot of money. Pretrial detainees represent more than 60 percent of the total inmate population in the country's jails. The cost of incarcerating defendants pretrial is about $9 billion.