Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer


Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent several years hanging out with angry white people who occasionally don tricorne hats and come to lunch meetings heavily armed.

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Stephanie covers legal affairs and domestic policy in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She is the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. A contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, and a senior writer at the Washington City Paper, she was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a Washington Monthly article about myths surrounding the medical malpractice system. In 2000, she won the Harry Chapin Media award for reporting on poverty and hunger, and her 2010 story in Mother Jones of the collapse of the welfare system in Georgia and elsewhere won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

Is Herman Cain Hiding Behind a Settlement Agreement?

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 2:24 PM EDT
2012 GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain.

GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain has emphatically denied that he ever sexually harassed anyone. He says that he was falsely accused by the women referred to in the blockbuster Politico story Sunday alleging that he had made inappropriate sexual advances and engaged in other unseemly behavior towards women while serving as head of the National Restaurant Association (NRA).

Cain may think this line of attack is a sensible media defense strategy, given that the settlement agreements between the women who said he harassed them and the NRA are confidential. But according to at least one prominent employment lawyer, calling his accusers fabricators could open Cain up to a defamation lawsuit, especially if it turns out their allegations have substance. Debra Katz, a DC employment lawyer who frequently represents plaintiffs in sexual harassment cases, says that if she were advising those women, she might suggest a counter-offensive. "These women have potentially got a claim against him. That's potentially defamatory," she says of Cain's comments.

Katz notes that no one knows what the actual allegations are against Cain, so it's hard for the public to really know what happened. But Katz says Cain's media strategy has the potential to backfire on him. "Herman can continue talking," she says, but "he’s going to get himself in trouble in this."

If Cain was really falsely accused, Katz notes, there is one way that he could clear the air about the allegations: make the settlement agreements public. The NRA reportedly paid off at least two women who complained about Cain's behavior, and in exchange, the women signed confidentiality agreements promising not to talk about their allegations publicly and left the organization. The details of many of their charges, as well as the amounts they were paid, have not been made public. At the National Press Club Monday, Cain reiterated that his former employer has a policy against releasing personnel information, so it can't produce the documents that might back him up.

The settlement agreement makes it difficult for the women themselves to speak publicly or to instigate a change to the terms of the settlement agreement, which may carry serious financial penalties for breaching it. But Katz says that there's not much stopping the NRA from doing so, despite what Cain says. In fact, she says, NRA could also disclose many details about the allegations the women made, without revealing their names, without even violating the agreement. Cain probably just needs to ask them to do it.

"There are many way they can legally find ways to disclose the information without violating the agreement," she notes. Not releasing the details, she says, is simply "a convenient way to duck the allegations." 

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Tea Party Leader to Herman Cain: Do Your Homework

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 11:45 AM EDT

GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain was in DC this morning, ostensibly to talk about his "9-9-9" tax plan at the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). While the Washington press corp was circling like vultures in the hopes of getting a crumb of a quote about the sexual harassment allegations now dogging Cain's campaign, tea party activists, who've been some of his strongest supporters, tuned in to actually listen to Cain talk about his policy proposals. And they weren't impressed by with they saw.

During the discussion, Cain was asked a specific question about whether or not his tax plan would lead to double taxation of certain types of income. Cain couldn't answer the question, and deferred to his new economic adviser, Rich Lowrie, an Ohio "wealth management adviser." The deflection outraged Kellen Guida, the founder of the NYC Tea Party who's been active in tea party politics since the movement's beginning. He tweeted angrily:

Later, he added:

Guida told me afterward that he was disappointed with Cain's ability to defend his own, bold tax plan.

Guida says he is not the only person in the tea party movement who wonders about Cain's depth of understanding of major policy issues. "I was on the phone with an organizer the other day who was ranting and raving about his inability to articulate a policy position on anything," he said, explaining that it's becoming a common sentiment among the tea party base, even as Cain is actively trying to engage tea partiers to shore up his ground operation.

Guida thinks that Cain's policy problems may be more damaging than the sexual harassment allegations that have surfaced, which he thinks, on their own, won't have much of an impact on Cain's support among tea partiers. What those allegations will do, he suspects, is exacerbate the problems Cain has in defending his own proposals, as was the case with the tax questions at AEI. "If you’re running for president, you have to be able to answer those questions," he said.

OWS Beats The Tea Party—In Google Searches

| Fri Oct. 28, 2011 6:48 AM EDT

Tea party activists have been very adamant that their movement, which started with spontaneous public protests in 2009, has nothing at all in common with Occupy Wall Street. Tea partiers insist that OWS doesn't really speak for regular Americans—the way they say their movement does. But now comes data, albeit rather unscientific, that offers evidence that Americans are much more interested in OWS than they ever were in the tea party.

The Google Politics and Elections team has teased out some comparisons between tea party-related Google searches and OWS searches to see which group had more demand at their peaks. The results? "Occupy Wall Street" has been a far more popular search term than "tea party."

Google Politics and ElectionsGoogle Politics and Elections


The Google team also looked at the volume of media coverage for each movement. By that measure, OWS isn't quite keeping up.

They write:

Despite big leads in polls and search traffic for Occupy Wall Street, it is almost in a dead heat with the Tea Party for the volume of news coverage. Using Advanced Search in Google News we found that between October 7 and last week, Occupy Wall Street only barely bests the Tea Party when we examine the number of news pieces covering each movement: 29,000 to 22,000.

Other interesting takeaways from the Google search crunching: Searches for "tea party" peak each year around tax time and then peter out again. And while New York would seem like the obvious hot spot for people searching for OWS news, the state actually ranks third in OWS searches, behind Vermont and Oregon.

The Google search numbers dovetail with public opinion polls showing that OWS is twice as popular with regular Americans than the tea party. They may also reinforce what the tea partiers have been saying all along: the two groups have nothing in common.

Rick Perry on Birtherism: Just Kidding!

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 2:04 PM EDT

Rick Perry's brief moment as a birther has ended. The Texas governor and GOP presidential candidate has officially backtracked from earlier controversial comments suggesting that he thought it was possible that President Obama might not have been born in Hawaii. At a fundraiser in Florida Wednesday morning, Perry claimed that when he said that stuff about Obama, he was "only kidding around." Perry's quick end to his flirtation with "birtherism," the movement of kooky activists who've spent the past three years challenging Obama's citizenship, came just in time, it seems, to put some distance between Perry and guys like Darren Huff.

Huff is a Georgia birther and Oathkeepers member who was arrested last year for trying to carry out a "citizens arrest" of some court officials in Monroe County, Tennessee. Their offense? Refusing to indict Obama for not being a citizen. On Tuesday, Huff was convicted of a federal firearms offense in connection with the episode and is awaiting sentencing.

The case got its start when, last year, birthers issued a nationwide call to support Tennessee birther Walter Fitzpatrick III, who had appeared before a Monroe County grand jury in December 2009 and asked them to indict "Barry Sotero," as the birthers call Obama. After failing to win the indictment, he began waging a small war on courthouse officials, as well as the grand jury foreman, whom Fitzpatrick tried to arrest. Court officials pressed charges against Fitzpatrick for the harassment and he was eventually charged with assault and resisting arrest. In April 2010, Fitzpatrick had an arraignment hearing, and his supporters called for birthers everywhere to storm the courthouse to conduct more citizens' arrests. Huff showed up to support the cause, but he was intercepted by the FBI, which apparently had been keeping tabs on him. In his possession were a loaded Colt .45 in a hip holster, and an assault rifle with more than 200 rounds of ammo in his truck. Not only did Huff get arrested, but Fitzpatrick lost his trial and last month ended up being sentenced to six months in jail for his crimes.

Folks like Fitzpatrick and Huff have been on the Secret Service's radar for quite a while, as I reported last year. And they are just one example of why the GOP establishment desperately doesn't want to the party associated with the birthers, as evidenced this week when everyone from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush to Karl Rove to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour clamored to decry Perry's birther comments. Apparently, even Republican nuttiness has its limits.


Virtual Classes, Real Cheating

| Wed Oct. 26, 2011 6:23 AM EDT

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has been crisscrossing the country over the past year touting the benefits of virtual education for elementary and secondary students—and for cash-strapped state budgets. (I wrote a lengthy story about that enterprise here.) Earlier this month at a summit he convened in San Francisco, his new advocacy group, Digital Learning Now, outlined the steps he thinks states should take to expand digital learning in public schools. Among the requirements are such controversial things as repealing teacher-student ratio requirements or teacher credentialing mandates, as well as letting more for-profit providers have a crack at public school money. He also recommends that states mandate that proficiency tests be taken online or digitally. Bush will be checking up on the states over the next year and "grading" them on how well they follow his recommendations. One thing Bush's education summit and state report cards don't address, though, is what states ought to do to prevent cheating in online classes, which has become a chronic problem.

Even as states rush to embrace Bush's vision of "21st-century learning," the National Education Policy Center this week released a new policy paper on virtual K-12 education. Researcher Gene Glass and colleagues noted that one of the biggest issues dogging virtual K-12 education is "authenticity of student work." That cheating would be a problem in classes where there are only computers and no teachers seems sort of obvious. Anyone could be doing the work and taking the tests in those classes, after all. And there's little to prevent kids from simply Googling their way to an A.

Glass cites a school in Ohio run by K12 Inc., a large for-profit online provider, in which about half the students were discovered not to even own a computer, raising serious questions about how they were completing all the work they'd supposedly done. They also highlight the case of North High School in Denver, which earlier this year was profiled by the alt-weekly Westword in a story that suggested the school was allowing students to cheat on online classes for "credit recovery" that allowed them to graduate and boost the school's dismal profile.

In 2010, the school's graduation rate, previously among the worst in the state at 48 percent, soared to 64 percent after the online credit recovery classes had been implemented. But Westword didn't find that the online classes were just so fabulous that kids embraced them and suddenly succeeded where they'd failed in a regular classroom. Instead, they found multiple instances where the students weren't doing any of the coursework in the classes at all but were passing their final exams with flying colors.

Former school staffers reported that students were using their iPhones to find the answers to the multiple-choice questions. Others simply took the tests over and over again (which they could do online) until they figured out the right answers through the process of elimination, and then passed the answers on to friends. The company providing the online classes at North High? Apex Learning, one of the major donors to Jeb Bush's digital-ed lobbying campaign. Is it any wonder Bush doesn't want to talk about cheating?

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