Armstrong Williams, a key adviser to GOP presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson.
When Ben Carson gets into trouble because his statements about his past or his policy views are challenged, Armstrong Williams, a trusted Carson aide and friend for more than 20 years, charges in to try to spin the campaign to safety. At Tuesday night's debate, Carson flip-flopped on the minimum wage and insisted that China was somehow involved on the ground in Syria. The next morning on MSNBC, Williams, a talk show host who owns a PR firm, was insisting that Carson had not backtracked on the minimum wage but had evolved and that unnamed sources had told Carson about the Chinese in Syria. Again and again, Williams, who has long been Carson's business manager, speaks for Carson, a candidate who claims he is running on honesty and integrity.
Yet a decade ago, Williams played a leading role in a government ethics scandal. In 2005, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that Williams engaged in "covert propaganda" to promote a George W. Bush administration initiative. The Department of Education in 2004 handed a $188,543.48 contract to Williams, through the PR firm Ketchum, to push President Bush's No Child Left Behind education legislation—an effort that included media appearances in which Armstrong touted the initiative without disclosing he was on the administration's payroll.
The GAO report followed a January 2005 USA Today story revealing that Williams—a leading African American conservative and Clarence Thomas protégé, and a syndicated columnist—won this lucrative contract from the Department of Education. His responsibilities included "regularly comment[ing] on the NCLB Act during the course of his broadcasts," interviewing then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige on his shows, producing ads promoting the NCLB, and encouraging other black media outlets to cover the law, according to the GAO report. But Williams never told audiences or those who booked his appearances on other networks about this arrangement.
The day after the USA Today article appeared, Williams told the Washington Post that he understood "why some people think it's unethical," and said it was a "fair assessment" if people thought his opinion has been purchased by the government. He also said he was truly supportive of the law, and that he wouldn't be accepting such contracts in the future. His acknowledgement didn't stop Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) from asking the GAO to examine the arrangement and determine whether any rules had been violated.
The GAO initiated an investigation and concluded, "We find that the Department [of Education] contracted for Armstrong Williams to comment regularly on the No Child Left Behind Act without assuring that the Department's role was disclosed to the targeted audiences. This violated the publicity or propaganda prohibition for fiscal year 2004 because it amounted to covert propaganda."
In his 2005 interview with the Washington Post, Williams said the Department of Education had approached him with the contract offer.But in its report, the GAO, citing a Department of Education inspector general report, said Williams had approached the secretary of education with the idea in March 2003. This happened at a time when the Bush administration was under fire for commissioning other covert domestic and foreign propaganda. Williams told then-Nation Washington bureau chief (and current Mother Jones Washington bureau chief) David Corn that there were other unnamed right-wing pundits being paid to shill for government positions, but never identified them.
Armstrong's syndicated column was subsequently pulled from the Tribune Media Services, and his TV show was temporarily dropped from at least one network. Williams eventually agreed to a $34,000 settlement with the US government, but he did not admit to any wrongdoing in the case and did not face any criminal charges. Williams has gone on to become a very successful businessman; he owns seven television stations, according to Breitbart News. The conservative website adds that Williams angered a lot of conservatives in October when he called for taxpayer money to be used to hire the Fruit of Islam, a paramilitary arm of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, to stabilize dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago and Baltimore.
Williams and the Carson campaign did not respond to questions about the episode.
During the period between his 18 years in Congress and his two terms as Ohio's governor (2011-present), GOP presidential hopeful John Kasich hosted "From the Heartland," a Fox News show where hediscussed a variety of social and political topics with guests. The show aired from 2001 until 2007 and in February of that final year, Bill Nye the Science Guy and David Sereda – a UFO activist and the director of a 2005 documentary called "Dan Akroyd Unplugged on UFOs"– were on the show to discuss a "Heartland Special Investigation into UFOs."
Kasich then introduced his guests and let Sereda talk about his "exclusive" footage of alleged UFOs over Lake Erie. After Sereda talked about the footage, Kasich jumped back in.
"Alright, Bill Nye, you're the science guy," he said. "You gotta be a little bit wacky to think that UFOs are down here, and that some people believe that folks have actually got on these ships? I mean, tell us, you're the science guy."
Nye could barely conceal his contempt.
"What we always say in the skeptical community, we encourage you to to evaluate the quality of the evidence," Nye said, before bemoaning the fact that in all the billions of photos taken each month, "you think you'd get one good picture, just one good picture! Those pictures, to me, are lights in the sky."
Questions about the existence of UFOs has prompted their study for decades, even within the US government. Kasich approached the topic in an evenhanded manner, asking Sereda to separate ridiculous "conspiracy" theories from "what could be real."
"I rely on the expert witness testimony," Sereda said, listing a former Air Force pilot and the late astronaut Gordon Cooper, who claimed that he and a camera crew filmed a UFO landing on a dry lake bed in California in 1957.
"Guys, we're out of time, this debate could go on forever," Kasich saidat the end of the segment. "And guess what? I think we're going to end up having it again."
He was right. Last weekend an alleged missile launchspotted over Los Angeleswas seen by some as another example of possible UFO activity and inspired another round of UFO debate. Kasich's campaign did not respond to questions about the "Heartland" segment.
The Michigan state capitol building. Michigan scored dead last on a new ranking of state anti-corruption measures.
In Missouri, a lawmaker who pushed through a bill that prohibited cities from banning plastic bags in supermarkets also happened to be the director of the state's Grocer's Association. New Mexico lawmakers passed a resolution that exempted their emails from public scrutiny. The governors of Virginia and Oregon, and house or assembly speakers in Alabama, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and New York were charged or convicted of corruption. There may be lots of good government laws, but corruption, influence peddling, and lack of government accountability are in fact very difficult to prevent across all 50 states.
That's according to the State Integrity Investigation, a sweeping project released today by the nonprofit investigative reporting group the Center for Public Integrity. The Washington, DC-based Center worked with experienced journalists in every state (but not the District of Columbia) to assess state government rules and systems that were in place between January 2013 and March 2015. The journalists combed through records and laws, using 245 specific "indicators" that measured transparency and accountability, for example public access to information or state lobbying disclosure laws. Good government experts in each state, and later editors at Global Integrity, a government watchdog that tracks governmental accountability around the world, then reviewed the assessments for consistency and accuracy. Each state was assigned an overall letter grade, but also scores on 13 subcategories that include political finance, election oversight, lobbying, and ethics, among others.
"All together, the project presents a comprehensive look at transparency, accountability, and ethics in state government," CPI writes in its overview of the project. "It's not a pretty picture."
That might be putting it mildly. C was the highest grade and Alaska earned it with a score of 76. Only two other states received grades higher than a D+, the report notes, and 11 states flunked (see all states and associated data here). Michigan was at the bottom of the class. Its score was 51, an F, mostly because of issues with ethics and access to public information.
Paula A. Franzese, an expert in state and local government ethics at Seton Hall University School of Law and former chairwoman of the New Jersey State Ethics Commission, told CPI that the project's findings are disappointing but not surprising because ethics oversight is not a priority for state legislatures. "It's not the sort of issue that commands voters," she said.
This is the second time that CPI and Global Integrity have teamed up to do the State Integrity Project; the first was in 2012. Since then, the grades of many states have gotten worse, but some of that decline is also due to changes in methodology.
The entire project is worth your time, so please go read it, but here is some data on the overall grades each state received, plus a quick look at state scores in a few subcategories. (Click on each map to go to the data sources and other state-specific views).
A little more than a year ago, my former colleague Erika Eichelberger wrote about the fact that, for many, the rent is simply too damn high (I chipped in with some pretty charts illustrating an ugly problem). This story has been told time and time again, but a recent report from Bloomberg takes it one step further, at least for those of us lucky (or unlucky) enough to be entering the job market while living in San Francisco or New York City.
"The Starter Apartment Is Nearly Extinct in San Francisco and New York," according the the article's headline. Citing data compiled by real estate listings site Trulia, Bloomberg points out some depressing statistics: In San Francisco, 91 percent of one-bedroom apartments rent for more than $2,000 per month. It's almost as bad in Manhattan, where 89 percent of one-bedroom apartments will set you back $2,000 month.
Trying to find a two bedroom? In San Francisco, almost every two-bedroom apartment rents for more than $2,000 (98 percent). Many are more than $2,500 (96 percent), or $3,000 (91 percent). More than half the two-bedrooms in San Francisco will put you back $4,000 per month. Take a look:
Obviously this applies to certain parts of these cities and, indeed, if you read through Trulia's report, it breaks the data down by neighborhood. For instance, take a look at the interactive map of San Francisco below, which breaks down the cost of 1-bedroom units:
Here's one for New York City:
So yes, chances are you can still find something, somewhere. But the point is that for many of us, that dream of life in the big city—for a reasonable amount of money and in a convenient location—is just that: a dream.