In January, McDonald's announced that it will begin the transition to sustainable beef in 2016. The plan was met with skepticism, since it didn't actually define "sustainable." In the weeks that followed, McDonald's continued working with a group called the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) to come up with a working definition of the term, and on Monday, GRSB released a draft of its definition for public comment. In addition to McDonald's, GRSB's new set of sustainability guidelines will also be implemented by the group's other members, which include Walmart, Darden Restaurants (the parent company of Olive Garden and Red Lobster), Cargill, Tyson Foods, and the pharmaceutical company Merck.
Despite its name, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is not so much an environmental organization as a meat industry group. Its executive committee includes representatives from McDonald's, Elanco, and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Just two environmental groups—the World Wildlife Fund and Netherlands-based Solidaridad—are part of its executive board. Cameron Bruett, president of GRSB and chief sustainability officer for JBS USA, a beef-processing company, said that McDonald's, along with other members, helped come up with the organization's "sustainability" definition and guidelines.
"I don't know if there's any justification for banning antibiotics in feed," said a GRSB spokesman.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the group's leadership, theGRSB's guidelines are short on specifics. Instead, the group provides a definition for sustainability that is open to members' interpretation. The plan says, for example, that sustainable companies must provide "stable, safe employment for at least the minimum wage where applicable" and institute "where applicable, third-party validation of practices by all members of the value chain." But it doesn't doesn't specify which third-party groups should conduct audits, and doesn't explain how workplaces should be monitored to prevent labor violations. In its section on climate change, it says that GRSB members should ensure that "emissions from beef systems, including those from land use conversion, are minimized and carbon sequestration is optimized." But it does not include any specific examples of target emissions standards or grazing policies.
Also absent from the plan is any mention of the beef industry's use of antibiotics. In the United States, four-fifths of all antibiotics go to livestock operations. McDonald's uses antibiotics to "treat, prevent, and control disease" in its food-producing animals, according to a McDonald's spokesman.
Using antibiotics to prevent disease—rather than only to treat infections—has been criticized by some food-safety experts. But the new plan doesn't recommend that members ditch the practice. "I don't know if there's any justification for banning antibiotics in feed, I know that's popular in some media circles, I haven't seen the scientific evidence," said Bruett. Yet studies have shown that antibiotic-resistant bugs can jump from animals to humans. In February, several experts told Mother Jonesthat McDonald's couldn't call its beef plan sustainable unless it addressed the overuse of antibiotics in livestock. When asked about whether McDonald's will continue to be given antibiotics under the new sustainability plan, a McDonald's spokesman referred Mother Jones tothis statement from February, saying "We take seriously our ethical responsibility to treat sick animals" and indicated that the company will continue to review its policy.
GRSB says that the lack of details in the plan is intentional; it "deliberately avoids" metrics that could be used to measure progress in sustainability, instead leaving it up to local roundtables to tailor the recommendations to specific regions. Bruett noted that "You could come out with a global standard, but it would simply be ignored, and it wouldn't lead to improvements among members." He adds, "There's all the discussion about sustainability, but it's by people who have very little knowledge or participation in the livestock industry...you'll never achieve [improvement] unless you have producer participation or support."
But Dr. David Wallinga, the founder of Healthy Food Action, a group of health professionals dedicated to promoting good nutrition, points out that while it's true that one-size-fits all metrics don't always work, without specifics, policies are "largely unenforceable." He adds, "I suppose it's good that McDonald's is taking on the task of setting guidelines for sustainable beef, [but] a few foundational blocks are missing."
On Tuesday, senior US officials reported that Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which has been missing since March 8, was diverted using a computer system that was most likely manipulated by someone in the cockpit of the plane. The news doesn't discount the theory floated by Wired that an electrical fire forced the pilots to divert their course. But it has increased the scrutiny surrounding the plane's captain, 53-year-old Zaharie Ahmad Shah, and first officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, 27, whose homes have been searched by Malaysian authorities.
There has been much speculation recently about Shah, from his Muslim religion—friends say he was not especially committed to it—to his support for Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of Malaysia's popular opposition party. A Malaysian court convicted Ibrahim of sodomy charges on March 7, the day before the flight disappeared, a charge his supporters contend was trumped up by Malaysia's ruling party. Some have theorized that Ibrahim's conviction was possibly a motivating factor in the plane's disappearance. There's a lot of conflicting and erroneous information about Shah out there (for instance, it appears he did not attend Ibrahim's trial, as has been reported), but a Facebook page that appears to belong to the aviator provides some useful insight into his politics and interests.
The page was taken down sometime on Sunday or Monday, but reappeared late Tuesday afternoon. (Facebook would not comment on the record about why Shah's account went dark. The social-media company generally removes accounts if they're reported for violating its Community Standards, or if they are subject to a series of unauthorized login attempts.) Mother Jones consulted with five Malaysian speakers to translate some of the posts and comment threads, which in a few cases include words like "terror" and "extremist" that turn out to be far less inflammatory than they appear to English-speakers. Shah's Facebook page shows that he was, not surprisingly, a flying enthusiast who posted a photo of a flight simulator that he built and was upgrading. As Quartz notes, Shah's digital footprint also suggests that "he was far from being a religious fanatic. If anything, he seems to have veered towards atheism." A YouTube channel associated with Shah includes several videos on the subject.
Here are some noteworthy posts from Shah's Facebook page:
In the post below, Shah is commenting on an article in which Taib Mahmud Ibrahim, the former chief minister of the Malaysian state of Sarawak—whom the NGO Global Witness accused of supporting corruption in the logging business—is accusing Anwar Ibrahim of working with the NGO to spread the corruption allegations. According to USA Today, Shah is one of many Malaysians who supported opposition to the National Front coalition, Malaysia's dominant party that has ruled the country for decades. Shah reportedly campaigned for Ibrahim, who is free pending his appeal. According to Slate, Ibrahim is a "nonviolent man who supports a pluralistic and democratic Malaysia." Human Rights Watch contends that the sodomy charges against him were "politically motivated persecution" and the government wanted to remove Anwar "by hook or by crook."
According to the translators, the comments above the article (in light gray) say: "@anwaribrahim is guilty again? Taib, you rule Sarawek, you distribute licenses, you conduct deforestation, you are rich, yet Anwar is guilty, my oh my." Four of five Malaysian speakers consulted by Mother Jones said that when Shah uses the term "terror," he is actually using a Malaysian slang term for amazing (i.e., "Anwar is amazing!"). As one translator explained, the expression is "most likely in a sarcastic manner, saying that Anwar is so amazing, that he can do what the article claims he has done." Another translator agreed that, he's sarcastically remarking how "'terror' clever or amazing, or how smart Anwar Ibrahim is, to be honoured with such baseless accusations!" The fifth speaker says that the phrase can be interpreted as: "True terror, this Anwar!" but that he's "trying to be sarcastic."
Here's another post where Shah expresses his displeasure with the ruling party:
In another post, Shah says: "Najib, together with Datuk Seri Ridzwan Sulaiman, are those that the authorities are looking for...Lahad Datu, [a town in Malaysia.]" Najib Razak is the prime minister of Malaysia. Datuk Seri Ridzwan Sulaiman is a man that was being sought by Malaysian authorities last year in connection with funding hundreds of radical militants from the Philippines who terrorized villagers in Lahad Datu in February 2013—a few months before Malaysia held elections. As one translator explains, some Malaysians felt that the incident was a plot by the prime minister to flex power in the region, whose citizens are not sympathetic towards the ruling party.
Here, Shah says that this is the last session on his flight simulator with his instructor, Captain Zainal, before he is going to upgrade his PC. The flight simulator seized from Shah's home is reportedly being investigated by authorities, although American investigators have not yet been given access to it.
According to the translators contacted by Mother Jones, the exchange below translates to the following:
As Quartz notes, "Shah's Facebook page is filled with images of him whipping up meals and eating them with his family. He seems to have been especially fond of noodle dishes, and his pictures suggest that he experimented with creating his own concoctions."
A newly recruited militia unit takes an oath of allegiance to the people of Crimea.
This article is being updated as news breaks. Click here for the latest.
Russia has deployed 10,000 troops to multiple locations along the Ukraine-Russia border, deepening fears that the simmering crisis in the Crimean peninsula is about to escalate into full-scale warfare. In London on Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to broker a last-minute deal with Russia's foreign minister to ratchet down the crisis, but their talks "ended inconclusively," according to the New York Times. This weekend, voters in Crimea, an autonomous region of about 2 million in southeastern Ukraine, will vote on a referendum that would give citizens the option of asserting independence from Ukraine, or becoming part of Russia. (Remaining part of Ukraine isn't an option.) The United States and European Union leaders have called the referendum back-door annexation," which would bring international consequences. Here's what you need to know about the current state of play. Check back frequently, since we'll update this post as events unfold.
Western leaders are furious: On Thursday,GermanChancellorenacted as early as Monday, if Crimea chooses to secede.
.@JohnKerry: We believe this referendum violates international law and is illegal under #Ukraine's constitution.
If Crimea joins Russia, it could take Ukrainian gas and oil reserves with it: Russian exports account for about one-third of Europe's gas consumption and those pipelines run smack through Ukraine. As Mother Jones' James West points out, "Russia has long been able to use Ukraine as an energy choke point." On Thursday, Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported that authorities in Crimea have been securing offshore gas and oil in the region. Crimean parliamentary speaker Vladimir Konstantinov reportedly said: "These deposits and the platform fully become the property of the Republic of Crimea…We have guarded them. These are our fields and we will fight for them."
Putin is cracking down on Russian press:Julia Ioffe reports in The New Republic:
What began just days before the Olympics with a Kremlin attack on Dozhd, the last independent television station in Russia, has now extended to Lenta.ru, arguably the best news site in Russia. On Wednesday, the site's editor-in-chief was fired and replaced with a Kremlin loyalist, and the whole staff quit in protest. Yesterday, the Kremlin went full-China on the Internet, the holy of holies of the Russian opposition. Using some flimsy legal pretexts, it banned access to various oppositional news sites, to the website of Moscow's biggest radio station, and to the blog of Alexey Navalny, who is currently under house arrest.
Russia maintains that it's not going to invade: Earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia is not planning to annex Crimea and he would leave it up to citizens in the region to determine their future. He also said force would only be used as "a last resort." As recently as Friday, Russian officials have maintained that an invasion is still off the table:
LONDON (AP) - Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov says Russia has no plans to invade southeastern Ukraine
But Western leaders aren't optimistic that Putin will back down from annexing Crimea, after the referendum vote. According to the New York Times, "As of Friday, there had been no sign that President Vladimir V. Putin was prepared to take the 'off ramp' that the Obama administration has repeatedly offered." Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov declared on Friday that Russia and the United States "have no common vision" about the crisis.
UPDATE, March 14, 2014, 3:00 p.m. EDT (Dana Liebelson): The Pentagon is sending 25,000 ready-to-eat meals to Ukraine, according to the Associated Press. Two US representatives have asked President Obama to put names of Russian officials responsible for human rights abuses on the Magnitsky list, a public list of Russians created in 2012 as part of the Magnitsky Act, to punish Russian officials who have committed human rights violations. Members of the list are prohibited from entering the US or using the US banking system.
UPDATE 2, March 14, 2014, 3:35 p.m. EDT (Hannah Levintova):Mimicking the language used to justify their invasion of Crimea, the Russian foreign ministry has issued a warning that they reserve the right to intervene in the city of Donetsk to protect lives after a series of clashes Thursday night led to at least one death and dozens of injuries.
Donetsk is a primarily Russian-speaking city in eastern Ukraine, not far from the Russian border. The clashes began yesterday after hundreds of demonstrators chanting Pro-Russian slogans broke through a police cordon and stormed a separate group protesting Russia's invasion of Crimea and calling for "a united Ukraine."
Here's video of the incident heating up:
UPDATE 3, March 14, 2014, 8:06 p.m. EDT (Eric Wuestewald): Another two people were reportedly killed and five injured during clashes in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv Friday. There have been conflicting reports over who was injured and who was responsible for the attack, but many are alleging armed pro-Russian groups or the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector may have provoked it.
Kharkiv is Ukraine's second largest city after Kiev, and historically, was the country's first Soviet capital. Like Donetsk, it's also close to the Russian border. As a result, large pro-Russian rallies have been common, which some are predicting could become a litmus test for the future direction of the country.
Update 4, March 15, 2014, 4:15 PM EDT (Dana Liebelson): 60 Russian troops in six helicopters have crossed into Ukraine, according to Ukrainian officials, taking control of the village of Strilkove and leading to the first reports of Russian invasion outside of Crimea. The New York Timesreports that troops also seized a gas plant and "the action was Russia’s most provocative since its forces took over Crimea two weeks ago." Ukraine's acting leader Oleksander Turchinov said: "The situation is very dangerous. I'm not exaggerating. There is a real danger from threats of invasion of Ukrainian territory. We will reconvene on Monday at 10am."
Update 5, March 15, 4:45 p.m. EDT (Hannah Levintova): Earlier today, 50,000 people took part in a "peace march" in Moscow against Russia's intervention in Crimea. Protestors marched waving both Russian and Ukrainian flags, and then gathered on the Prospect Sakharova, where massive anti-Putin rallies took place in 2012. Some protestors chanted: "The main enemy is the Kremlin. No to fascism, no to imperialism."
Here's a Russian-language newscast showing the march:
Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who stepped down from his post in February, wrote a statement today about the situation in Ukraine on Facebook. Here's an excerpt:
Putin's recent decisions represent a giant step backwards. Tragically, we are entering a new period with some important differences, but many similarities to the Cold War. The ideological struggle between autocracy and democracy is resurgent. Protection of European countries from Russian aggression is paramount again. Shoring up vulnerable states , including first and foremost Ukraine, must become a top priority again for the US and Europe. And doing business with Russian companies will once again become politicized. Most tragically, in seeking to isolate the Russian regime, many Russians with no connection to the government will also suffer the effects of isolation. My only hope is that this dark period will not last as long as the last Cold War.
Update 6, March 16, 5:30 a.m. EDT (Hannah Levintova):Several NATO websites were hit by cyber-attacks in the hours preceding the start of referendum voting in Crimea. A group calling itself "cyber-berkut" took credit for the attack, saying they targeted NATO for its interference in Ukraine. "We will not allow NATO occupiers in our homeland," the collective wrote on their site. Their name references the berkut, an especially-feared faction of Ukraine's police force used by ousted President Viktor Yanukovych that has since been disbanded. A NATO spokeswoman wrote on Twitter that the integrity of NATO data and systems was not effected and that experts were working to restore the sites.
Update 7, March 16, 11:30 AM EDT (Dana Liebelson):As the referendum vote wraps up in Ukraine, a German research group, GfK, has conducted early polling that anticipates a landslide vote for secession, with 70% of Crimeans participating in the vote choosing to join Russia; 11% choosing increased autonomy within Ukraine. There are also reports of Russian and Ukrainian troops building up near the border. Here is a video posted by The Wire of Russian tanks moving towards southwest Russia:
Update 8, March 16, 2:15 p.m. EDT (Eric Wuestewald): RT is reporting that 93% of those who participated in the Crimean referendum voted to seceed from Ukraine and become part of Russia, according to exit polls. Official results are expected later. Crimea's Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov has responded to the news by announcing Crimea would join Russia in "as tight a timeframe as possible."
The White House released a statement reaffirming its opposition to the referendum and called on members of the international community to condemn and "impose costs" on Russia's actions:
The United States has steadfastly supported the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine since it declared its independence in 1991, and we reject the “referendum” that took place today in the Crimean region of Ukraine. This referendum is contrary to Ukraine’s constitution, and the international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention that violates international law.
Update 9, March 16, 4:50 p.m. EDT (Hannah Levintova): The AP, along with several of Russia's state-fundednews networks, are reporting that with about 50 percent of ballots counted, more than 95 percent of Crimea's voters have opted to join Russia and secede from Ukraine. Reports are also coming out saying that some journalists were prohibited from entering the polling stations to observe the vote count.
Update 10, March 17, 10:15 a.m. EDT (Dana Liebelson): Since the referendum, European Union foreign ministers have imposed travel restrictions and frozen the assets of 21 officials from Ukraine and Russia. In the mean time, Crimea has moved quickly to join Russia: Crimean lawmakers have passed a resolution declaring that Ukrainian laws no longer apply in Crimea. Crimean legislators have also adopted the Russian ruble as an official currency and plan to move Crimea to Moscow Standard Time, according to CNN. Russia has proposed putting together an international group of diplomats to solve the political crisis, but has issued proposals that are unlikely to be accepted by the international community, according to the New York Times—such as allowing Crimea to "determine its own destiny."
On Monday morning, President Obama announced a new executive order that imposes sanctions on "named officials of the Russian government, any individual or entity that operates in the Russian arms industry, and any designated individual or entity that acts on behalf of, or that provides material or other support to, any senior Russian government official." So far, seven Russian government officials are on the list: Vladislav Surkov, Sergey Glazyev, Leonid Slutsky, Andrei Klishas, Valentina Matviyenko, Dmitry Rogozin, and Yelena Mizulina. The Treasury Department has issued sanctions against four other individuals "for their actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine." Those individuals are Crimea-based separatist leaders Sergey Aksyonov and Vladimir Konstantinov; former Ukrainian presidential chief of staff Viktor Medvedchuk; and former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych.
Update 11, March 17, 10:45 a.m. EDT (Dana Liebelson): In a televised statement, President Obama said that Vice President Joe Biden will depart tonight to Europe to meet with NATO allies, and the President will be traveling to Europe next week. Obama said that in wake of the sanctions announcement this morning, his administration will continue to calibrate the US response depending on whether Russia chooses to escalate or deescalate the crisis. Obama reiterated that he believes there is still a path to resolve the crisis diplomatically, requesting that Russia pull its forces in Crimea back to their bases; deploy additional international monitors; and continue to work with the Ukrainian government. Obama says the United States will offer economic support to Ukraine, noting that, "The United States stands with the people of Ukraine and their right to determine their own destiny."
Update 12, March 17, 2:45 p.m. EDT (Hannah Levintova): Putin has just signedan order making Crimea an independent state. The presidential press service declared that the order enters into force with Putin's signature.
Earlier today, NATO announced that it is pulling out of a US Army Europe training exercise that was to take place in Russia this summer, but that a similar exercise to be held in Ukraine will go on as planned. Ukrainian leaders have also announced that the country's military will not be pulling out of its bases in Crimea despite a truce agreement with Russia that gives them until March 21, this Friday, to do so.
"Crimea was, is, and will be our territory," Ukraine Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh said while speaking at the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center today.
Update 13, March 18, 6:45 a.m. EDT (Ben Dreyfuss): On Tuesday, Putin notified the Russian parliament that he intends to annex Crimea and make it a part of the Russian Federation. In the words of the New York Times, Putin's actions "effectively [upend] the agreements that served as the foundation of a post-Cold War order in Europe."
Update 14, March 18, 8:15 a.m. EDT (Ben Dreyfuss): Soon after delivering a speech before the Russian parliament, Vladimir Putin signed a treaty with Crimean leaders to incorporate the "Republic of Crimea" and the city of Sevastopol into the Russian Federation. However, as the BBC points out, the rest of the world still considers Crimea a part of Ukraine. "So the 'independent Republic of Crimea' is a Russian invention."
Update 15, March 18, 3:26 p.m. EDT (Eric Wuestewald): Following an attack on a Ukrainian military facility near Simferopol that left at least one dead and two injured, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence has now authorized servicemen deployed in Crimea to use weapons in self-defense. According to the Ministry, the attack was committed by men in unmarked Russian uniforms carrying automatic guns and sniper rifles.
Update 16, March 18, 6:00 p.m. EDT (Hannah Levintova): Kazakhstan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has released an official statement expressing the former Soviet state's support of the Crimea referendum and Russia's decision to annex the territory:
Kazakhstan views the referendum that was held in Crimea as an expression of the free will of the Autonomous Republic's population, and the decision of the Russian Federation under the circumstances is regarded with understanding.
Meanwhile, NATO's secretary general released a statement condemning Putin's decision:
Russia continues to violate Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and remains in blatant breach of its international commitments. There can be no justification to continue on this course of action that can only deepen Russia's international isolation. Crimea's annexation is illegal and illegitimate and NATO allies will not recognize it.
Update 17, March 19, 3:50 p.m. EDT (Hannah Levintova): Ukrainian officials have announced that they're making plans to withdraw troops and their families from Crimea. Andriy Pirubiy, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, also said Ukraine will institute visa requirements for Russians, and will seek UN support in making Crimea a demilitarized zone and removing Russian troops. The speech came after pro-Russian militia stormed and seized the Sevastopol headquarters of the Ukrainian navy on Wednesday.
Russia's military has begun conducting aviation exercises near other former Soviet republics. The drills, which will end in late March, include dozens of warplanes and have started in Leningrad oblast (region), which borders Finland and Estonia, and also in Karelia, which borders Finland. A senior Russian military official told Reuters that the exercises were planned back in December and have no political significance.
At the same time, Russia announced its concern over Estonia's treatment of its Russian-speaking population at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council today. A Moscow delegate compared Estonian initiatives to compel Russians in the eastern half of the country to speak Estonian to similar alleged efforts to curb Russian use in Ukraine. In recent weeks, Russia has echoed these linguistic concerns—emphasizing the need to protect Russian-speakers beyond Russia's borders—in defense of it annexation of Crimea.
During a public speech at the Brookings Institution today, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that Russia's intervention in Ukraine "is the gravest threat to European stability and security since the end of the cold war."
Update 18, March 20, 11:45 a.m. EDT (Dana Liebelson): On Thursday, President Obama announced that he is launching sanctions against 20 individuals, including senior members of the Russian government and "cronies" who hold significant resources in the Russian system, according to White House officials. Sanctions will also be launched against Bank Rossiya, Russia's 17th largest bank, where senior Russian government officials hold accounts. President Obama has also signed an executive order that allows sanctions on "key sectors of the Russian economy," including defense and related material. Obama reiterated that he considers the Ukraine's referendum "illegal" and the move by Russia to annex Crimea "illegitimate." Here's a list of the sanction targets:
Update 19, March 24, 4:30 p.m. EDT (Dana Liebelson): On Monday, the New York Times reported that Russia has been booted from the Group of 8, a diplomatic forum that includes the world's economic powerhouses, including the United States. Russia has been participating in the forum for 15 years. The Group's leaders said in a statement: “We remain ready to intensify actions including coordinated sectoral sanctions that will have an increasingly significant impact on the Russian economy, if Russia continues to escalate this situation."
Federal prosecutors, judges, and other officials at the Justice Department committed over 650 acts of professional misconduct in a recent 12-year period, according to a new report published by a DC-based watchdog group, the Project On Government Oversight. POGO investigators came up with the number after reviewing documents put out by the Department of Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). According to one little-noticed OPR document published last year, a DOJ attorney failed to disclose a "close personal relationship" with the defendant in a case he was prosecuting, in which he negotiated a plea agreement to release the defendant on bond. An immigration judge also made "disparaging remarks" about foreign nationals. POGO contends that this number is only the tip of the iceberg and OPR needs to release more information about this misconduct to the public.
"The bottom line is we just don't know how well the Justice Department investigates and disciplines its own attorneys for misconduct when it occurs," says Nick Schwellenbach, a contributor to POGO. "The amount and types of misconduct DOJ's own investigators conclude has happened suggests more [information] should be public than is already, including naming names of offending prosecutors that commit serious misconduct."
OPR is responsible for investigating ethics complaints at the Justice Department, but the office reports directly to the attorney general. POGOargues that this insular system might not be sufficient to provide effective oversight of prosecutor wrongdoing. Last year, for example, two federal judges issued court orders complaining that DOJ attorneys had misled them about the full scale of the NSA's surveillance activities—but OPR was never aware of the complaints and didn't investigate them even though a former OPR attorney said that they should have triggered an inquiry, according to USA Today.
Between fiscal year 2002 and FY2013, of the more than 650 documented cases of DOJ employee misconduct, 400 were characterized as "reckless" or "intentional" by OPR. In OPR's latest report, from FY2012, the office received over 1,000 complaints and other correspondence about Justice Department employees (over half of these complaints came from incarcerated individuals) and opened 123 inquiries and investigations.
In one case from 2012, a Justice Department attorney falsely told a court that the government didn't have evidence that a key witness suffered from an ongoing mental-health disorder—when the prosecutor did have that evidence, according to OPR. The attorney was suspended for two weeks and the state bar was notified. In another case, an immigration judge presiding over a case where a father and his daughter were fighting removal from the United States was found by OPR to have "engaged in professional misconduct by acting in reckless disregard of his obligation to appear to be fair and impartial" and to have made biased statements against immigrants. The judge was suspended for 30 days.
OPR isn't responsible for disciplining employees; that's up to others in the Justice Department. OPR also no longer publicly names Justice Department employees found to be conducting misconduct, although it did so for a brief period during the Clinton presidency. In 2010, the American Bar Association passed a resolution asking the Obama administration to release more information about Justice Department investigations, potentially including names, but so far, not much has changed.
"The department takes all allegations of attorney misconduct seriously, and that is why the Office of Professional Responsibility thoroughly reviews each case and refers its findings of misconduct to relevant state bar associations when the rules of the state bar are implicated," says a Justice Department spokeswoman. "OPR also regularly provides detailed information on the resolution of complaints to the defense attorneys, judges, and others who send allegations of misconduct to the department."
A bill proposed on Thursday by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) would overhaul how misconduct is investigated at the Justice Department. Right now, only OPR is allowed to look into ethics complaints, instead of the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General, which is widely considered to be more independent. The senators' bill would move that authority to the IG's office. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who supports the bill, says: "When Americans pledge to abide by 'liberty and justice for all,' that does not mean that those pursuing justice can creatively apply different standards or break the rules to get convictions—it means that in America everyone is held equally accountable."
Alaska has the highest per capita rate of reported rapes in the United States, almost three times the national average. Republican Gov. Sean Parnell recently called sexual violence in his state an "epidemic" greater than bear attacks or car accidents. But the number of sexual-assault cases that state prosecutors choose to pursue is low. Only 141 total sexual-assault cases were prosecuted in 2011, according to the latest data. The data doesn't show how many total sexual assaults were reported that year—but the next year, when the state began tracking these numbers, there were 804 sexual assaults reported to law enforcement. Last month, at a House Finance Committee meeting, Alaska state Rep. Mark Neuman (R-Big Lake) criticized Attorney General Michael Geraghty for the low prosecution rate and for not reporting adequate data on sexual assault. In response to Neuman's criticism about sexual-assault prosecutions, Geraghty—who was speaking in support of the state's multiyear initiative to combat domestic violence and sexual assault—blamed victims, particularly those of domestic violence, for refusing to testify (video here at 84:00):
We have a mandatory arrest statute [for domestic violence] in this state, and so…the officer has to make an arrest. Now, it's our job to prosecute and get a conviction. I can tell you, many times—and this is the part of the problem—many victims…change their mind. It may have all been, not a prank necessarily, but a vindictive move by the victim to get back at the perpetrator, her husband or significant other, or whatever. There's a whole gamut of facts that apply in these situations. And it's my job to get a conviction. If the victim won't testify and it's a he-said-she-said, I have to make a decision of where my resources are devoted…the numbers are improving and the rate of [case] acceptance is going up.
In a March 7 letter sent to Geraghty, Peggy Brown, executive director of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (ANDVSA), said that she was "incredibly offended" by the "insensitive and derogatory" comments. "You should…create a climate in which victims have the confidence to step forward and report these crimes; rather than one in which your department dismissively screens out charges, calls victims a 'part of the problem,' shames victims and calls them vindictive," she wrote, noting that, "there are many reasons why victims do not come forward," including "witness tampering, through coercion" in domestic violence cases.
This fiscal year, Alaska dedicated about $10.8 million to stopping sexual assault and domestic violence as part of the governor's "Choose Respect" initiative. But at the hearing, Neuman said the reports coming out of the initiative were lacking data and the numbers weren't reason to celebrate. "Do I think [with] great enthusiasm that we're doing a great job? No, I do not," he said, at one point becoming so impassioned, he said, "I'm trying to calm down here." Geraghty disagreed with that assessment at the hearing, noting, "We go into great detail" in the report, and that sexual assault prosecutions were on the rise. (Earlier in the hearing, John Skidmore, statewide director of the criminal division at the Department of Law, said that the increase in prosecutions was directly related to an increase in sexual-assault reports.)
Rachel Gernat worked as assistant district attorney in Alaska for 12 years until 2011, focusing almost exclusively on sex crimes, and now sits on the governor's council on domestic violence and sexual assault. She says during her work, both past and present, she "often enough" sees cases where prosecutors had enough evidence to move forward on a sexual-assault case, but chose not to. She said that in her experience, "prosecutors are stretched thin and given little support. [New prosecutors] are often sent to practice in bush communities where sex crimes are prevalent. Not only do they have no training on the intricacies of prosecuting sex crimes, but have no experience at all in prosecuting cases."
Gernat adds that, from what she has seen, "of course [victims] are frustrated. They feel like they went through the exam and told their story only to have the case pled out or dismissed. They feel as if they are not believed. This is probably the largest comment about cases that are not accepted or pled out. Often cases are pled because there is no other extrinsic evidence to support the victim's statement." Brown adds that she sees local prosecutors reject cases for a variety of reasons; for example, "if there is a victim who is under the influence of alcohol, unless it's the perfect case, [the local defense attorneys] are not prosecuting."
Richard Svobodny, the deputy attorney general for the criminal division of the Alaska Department of Law, says, "Each year, all prosecutors attend a three-day mandatory conference where training is given regarding prosecution of domestic violence [and] sexual assault…In addition to this yearly conference, mandatory regional training sessions on [these issues] have been attended by all prosecutors and Alaska state troopers." He adds, "I want to stress that communications with people who have a concern about prosecutors not adequately pursuing their duties is encouraged! Once someone has given a specific case example, that case is reviewed." He says he recently reviewed cases in Nome, Alaska [population: 3,757] and "there was no indication that any case was declined because of a 'blame the victim' bias on the part of the prosecutor."
Geraghty said at the hearing that he knows the work isn't done yet. "I don't think I ever characterized this as we're doing a great job. We have a long way to go. It's a marathon."