Police report alleging domestic assault filed by Erick Bennett's ex-wife.
Political consultant Erick Bennett, who is challenging moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins in Maine's GOP primary, was convicted in 2004 of assaulting his wife. When his criminal past resurfaced, he crafted an unusual response: He said that his fight to against his conviction showed that he was a man of determination and principle. "The fact that I have been jailed repeatedly for not agreeing to admit to something I didn't do should speak to the fact of how much guts and integrity I have," he told the Bangor Daily News in December. Though the assault conviction has received media coverage, the full details of the case have not drawn much attention. Police records and court documents obtained by Mother Jones describe the incident, and suggest that Bennett may have trouble escaping his past.
In early 2004, Erick, his then-wife Angela, their two-year-old twins, and Angela's eight-year-old son from another relationship were living in a motel room in Bangor, because a recent fire had damaged their apartment. Here is Angela's description of what happened on January 16, according to the report she filed with the Bangor police. (The department redacted some names for privacy reasons.):
On Friday night, January 16, 2004, in the evening, my husband Erick Matthew Bennett assaulted me repeatedly while we were at the [REDACTED]. He did this in front of our [REDACTED]. [REDACTED] witnessed the entire assaults. First, Erick's friend [REDACTED] had called to invite Erick and [REDACTED] to watch football the Sunday coming. I asked why [REDACTED] never invited all of us, since [REDACTED] was also married and I got along with [REDACTED]. He stated, "Because [REDACTED] doesn't like you." I asked why. And he said "because he thinks you're irrational." I said he shouldn't say those things in front of [REDACTED] and I also said that [REDACTED] hardly knows me and I don't want [REDACTED] around someone who says he doesn't like me. Erick got off the bed, put both hands around my neck, squeezed my neck and said "Leave me alone." A little later we were laying on separate beds. He was reading a Flex magazine. I said I would like to have the check my [REDACTED] sent (to help us because of our house fire 1/9) so I could start a savings account for us in the morning. I was feeling extremely nervous because he had squeezed my neck a little earlier. He got up as if to go to his coat to get the check but instead turned around toward the bed and I just knew we was gonna come after me so I got up to head for the bathroom saying, "Please Erick I'm sorry" but he grabbed me and got me on the floor and pressed me down. Then he started saying "What are you doing? Sit still? Why are you doing this?" As if I was fighting back and he needed to defend himself. At times when I could turn my head I could see him looking over at [REDACTED] to see if he was watching. The [REDACTED] were really upset [ILLEGIBLE] the ground. He pushed my head into the floor and held it there. Finally somehow he stopped and said, "Sit on the bed, I just want to talk to you." Then he poked me in the head and said in a mean tone "Why do you do this?" I didn't answer. He clapped both his hands over my ears. I knew I couldn't argue with him or he would hurt me worse. This isn't the 1st time he has hurt me. He tries to find excuses to hurt me. Fighting back makes him say I am the crazy one and he has to defend himself. So I didn't argue or fight back at all. At one point our [REDACTED] came close and held [REDACTED] on the bed but Erick wouldn't stop. He hit me in the head again and again blaming me for everything. He smacked me upside the head and I was terrified. I even ran out of the room into the cold with the [REDACTED] but it was 30 below that night and the office was over across the way and I was so terrified I went back in. He then said "See [REDACTED] so crazy." Yet he was so calm. I could see he was in control of everything. He knew what he was doing and then telling the [REDACTED] I need meds. I stayed another week. He acted as if nothing happened. The day after I said "I am so sore." His response was "Are you getting the flu?" (!) I left when he told me Friday 1/23/04 that he would "kill me" if I kept "running my mouth." "I will kill you—I hate your f____n guts." I am too terrified to even set foot in [REDACTED].
A little over a week after the incident, Angela took the couple's children and drove to her parents' house. She reported the alleged assault to the Bangor police in early February of that year. "I finally feel strong enough to press charges against him," Angela wrote in the police report. The couple went to court in early May. After a one day trial, a judge found Erick guilty of assaulting Angela and sentenced him to 60 days in prison. The judge then waived the sentence, and ordered a year's probation and the completion of a batterer's intervention program.
Erick told the court he never hurt Angela. According to court records, "Erick testified that…Angela wearing high heels, tripped over her own legs and that Erick attempted to catch her, but failed, and they fell to the floor." He told Mother Jones, "She came at me and started hitting me in the chest. I put my hands up and stopped her, and she fell…I tried to not land on her hard, and I didn't. I did lay there a second because she was freaking out." As for the charge that he threatened to kill her, Erick insists, "I don't know what you're talking about."
Erick appealed the ruling, arguing that the court had not allowed his lawyer to question Angela thoroughly as to why she had taken a week to leave Erick and about three weeks to report the incident to the police. Erick's lawyer contended this additional interrogation would have shown than Angela was lying about the assault. The state Supreme Court shot down the appeal later that year.
Angela and Erick divorced in 2005. She could not be reached for comment on this story.
Bennett claims that one reason he's running for office is to try to change domestic-violence laws that he contends enable fraud. "Anything can be considered domestic assault in Maine," he says. Bennett adds: "All I would have to do is go to the police station and write down something. Then, once I get on the stand, I just need to recite that…And that is enough to get you convicted of domestic assault…I never saw it coming."
Christopher Almy, the district attorney for Penobscot County, where Bennett's trial was conducted, counters that obtaining a domestic-assault conviction in Maine "is not that simplistic. It's like any case: If there's going to be a conviction, you have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, you have to have witnesses provide credible evidence. The judge would have to believe what the witnesses have to say… It's about the same anywhere in the country."
"We have excellent judges here," says Jim Aucoin, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case against Erick. "If they found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, I'm sure it happened."
The chair of the Maine Republican Party, Rick Bennett (no relation), has denounced Erick Bennett's candidacy. "The Maine Republican Party stands firmly with Gov. [Paul] LePage, a leader in the battle against domestic violence, and the hundreds of Maine lawmakers who have put partisanship aside on this important issue," he says. "The Maine Republican Party expects its candidates to uphold the law and promote the sanctity and security of family life. Domestic violence is a gravely serious issue, and actions speak louder than words."
Bennett, who mounted a failed campaign in 2011 for mayor of Portland, says he won't be hindered by his criminal record. "Once [voters] look past…the domestic-assault conviction," he insists, they'll appreciate what he stands for. If elected, he says, he will not "pass…laws that take away our rights."
The health insurance exchanges set up under Obamacare are required by federal law to help millions of uninsured Americans register to vote. But the Obama administration is refusing to fully comply with that law, according to two voting rights organizations.
Here's what the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has to do with voting: The 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), known as the Motor Voter law, requires departments of motor vehicles and other agencies that provide public assistance to offer voter registration services. The new health care exchanges fall under this requirement, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The federally run exchange (which was set up to provide a health insurance portal for residents in states where Republican governors refused to establish their own insurance marketplaces) and several state-run exchanges provide a link to the federal voter registration website in their health insurance applications. But the Motor Voter law requires that covered agencies do more than this, and in the case of Obamacare, that means the navigators hired by HHS who walk uninsured Americans through the sign-up process must also offer to guide applicants through the voter registration process. Yet in a letter sent to the White House on Thursday, voting rights groups Demos and Project Vote charge that HHS is not complying with this aspect of the law.
"This looks like [the administration is] running from a political fight," says Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota and author of Health Care Reform and American Politics.
Last week, 100 House Dems asked House Speaker John Boehner to cancel this week's legislative recess and keep the House in session to hash out legislation that would renew expired unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. Instead, Boehner traveled to unemployment-plagued Nevada for a fundraiser.
The state's Democratic lawmakers were quick to pile on. "Speaker Boehner skipped town to fundraise in Nevada instead of scheduling a vote to extend unemployment insurance benefits that thousands of Nevadans rely on," says Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.). As long as Boehner was in town, Horsford says, he should have "take[n] the time to explain to unemployed Nevadans why he continues to ignore them."
"Once again, Speaker Boehner has chosen politics over the people," adds Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.). He "would do well to take time from his fundraising schedule to meet with families in District One and hear their struggles to put food on the table, pay their mortgage, and put gas in the car."
Boehner attended a Las Vegas Country Club luncheon last Friday to help raise cash for the re-election of Nevada GOP Rep. Joe Heck. The cost was $2,600 a head for a roundtable plus lunch—$1,000 for lunch only.
Dozens of Democrats are pushing back against an Obama administration effort to curb racial discrimination by car dealerships.
In late March, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—the consumer watchdog agency dreamt up by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)—issued new, voluntary guidelines aimed at ensuring car dealerships are not illegally ripping off minorities. Since then, 13 Senate Democrats, including Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.); and 22 House Dems, including Reps. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Florida) and Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), have joined 19 House and Senate Republicans insigningletterstotheagency objecting to the anti-discrimination measure. Consumer advocates and congressional aides say the lawmakers' backlash against the anti-discrimination rules is unjustified, and that Dems have backtracked on civil rights in this instance because of the colossal power of the car dealership lobby, which has spent millions lobbying Congress in the months since the CFPB issued these new guidelines.
Auto dealers "wield enormous amounts of power," one Democratic aide explains. "There's one in every district. They give a lot of money to charity. They're on a bunch of boards. They sponsor Little Leagues."
When a dealership makes a car loan, it often sells the loan to a bank or credit union, which, in return, allows the dealership to mark up the interest rate. Here's the problem: Some dealerships have been accused of charging higher rates to black and Hispanic customers, potentially costing consumers millions of dollars in overcharges. The CFPB's anti-discrimination guidance reminds lenders that they are liable under federal law if car dealerships they work with charge higher interest rates to minority borrowers. The guidance suggests that lenders help prevent discrimination by educating dealers, increasing oversight, and either capping dealership interest rates or requiring dealers to charge a flat fee.
Auto dealers are up in arms. If lenders follow the CFPB's advice, dealership profits could fall by hundreds of dollars per car sold, according to the Department of Justice. Car dealer trade groups claim that the CFPB has not adequately proved that discrimination is a problem in the industry. Dealerships have spent millions lobbying Congress over the past year, including on this very issue. Many Democrats have the auto dealers' back. In their letters to the CFPB, Dems claim that they appreciate the CFPB's goal of curbing discrimination by car dealerships. But they echo the dealers' arguments, and demand that the CFPB provide the detailed methodology it uses to determine that some dealers may be discriminating.
If lawmakers don't trust the feds' definition of discrimination, they can also look to the courts. In December, the DOJ and the CFPB reached a $98 million settlement with Ally Financial and Ally Bank over claims that Ally's markup policies resulted in illegal discrimination against over 235,000 minority borrowers. At least seven class-action lawsuits have been filed over the past 14 years that allege auto-dealers unfairly overcharged minorities. And "nothing has really changed in the marketplace" to force auto lenders and dealerships to change their practices, says Chris Kukla, the senior counsel for government affairs at the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit consumer rights group.
Car dealers have also complained that regulating the interest rates dealerships can charge will increase costs for consumers. Consumer advocates disagree: "I don't believe…[dealers'] ability to mark up prices…in any way benefits consumers," says Stuart Rossman, director of litigation the National Consumer Law Center, an advocacy group. Jeff Sovern, a law professor and expert in consumer law at St. John's University in New York, adds that the low prices some customers have been paying may have been subsidized by the higher prices paid by minorities. "It's not usually considered a defense that the beneficiaries of racism should keep the lower prices that other groups pay for," he says.
So why the outcry amongst Democrats? Congressional aides and consumer advocates say that the auto dealer industry's lobbying efforts are intense. "Dealers are a powerful lobby," Kukla says. "These people sell things for a living. They're good at advocating."
"I'm not surprised that any politician" would cave to the dealerships, Rossman adds. The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), an industry trade group, hasspent$3.1 millionon lobbying in 2013, according to lobbying disclosure forms. "The dealerships made a very concerted push to get [members of Congress] to sign those letters" criticizing the guidance, Kukla says.
None of the 35 Democrats responded to requests for comment for this story, nor did the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers, another industry trade group. NADA declined to comment.
The oddest aspect of Democrats' push back on the CFPB anti-discrimination measures, advocates say, is that in issuing the guidance, the CFPB didn't actually create any new regulation or law. "The funny thing is that… [the CFPB] is getting hit…because someone is actually enforcing rules already on the books," says the Dem aide.
On Wednesday, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) introduced a bill that would force recipients of food stamps to show a valid photo ID to buy food. Anti-hunger advocates say that because many poor people cannot afford to purchase government IDs, the requirement would make it harder for low-income Americans to eat.
Vitter says the bill is designed to cut down on fraud. "Using a photo ID is standard in many day-to-day transactions, he said upon introducing the bill. "My bill will restore some accountability to the program so it's not ruined for people who use it appropriately."
But it's not that simple. Vitter's bill would also prevent many Americans from using the nutrition aid they're eligible for. "Many poor people do not have photo ID's, and it costs money they do not have to get them," Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the advocacy organization Coalition on Human Needs, told the Times-Picayune on Wednesday. "Senator Vitter's proposal will be especially tough on elderly and poor people who do not have the documents needed to get their photo ID, and who will struggle even to get to the necessary offices. They will wind up going without food."
This is just the latest assault in the long-running GOP war on the food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Last year, Vitter drafted an amendment to the Senate farm bill—the five-year legislation that funds nutrition and agriculture programs—that would ban those convicted of certain violent crimes from ever getting food stamps. The amendment, which the Senate approved, would have "strongly racially discriminatory effects," according to the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
In 2013, House Republicans passed a version of the farm bill that would cut $40 billion from the food stamps program. The House farm bill also contains GOP-backed provisions that would impose new work requirements on food stamp recipients, and that would give states financial incentives to kick people out of the program.
The final version of the farm bill, which is a compromise between the Senate and the House versions, is reported to contain $9 billion in cuts to SNAP.