Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer

Reporter

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.

Glenn Beck shilling for Goldline in 2010.

As Glenn Beck goes, so goes his favorite gold company. For years, the Santa Monica-based precious metals company, Goldline International, has helped keep the conservative talk show host on the air by sponsoring his radio show and now-defunct Fox News show. Goldline stuck with Beck even after most of his other advertisers fled in light of the host's increasingly inflammatory rhetoric. Beck, for his part, lavishly praised the company, telling listeners and viewers that he personally bought gold from the company and calling its executives "people I trust."

Those were the golden days. Since Beck's Fox News heyday, his fortunes and Goldline's have fallen sharply. Beck parted ways with Fox in June, and in November prosecutors in Santa Monica charged six of Goldline's executives with fraud and accused the company of running a bait-and-switch operation that lured customers into buying overpriced antique coins as investments—coins that Beck promoted on his shows. Mother Jones documented this scam in a 2010 story about the company and its relationship with Beck. The former New York congressman Anthony Weiner helped bring national attention to the company's business practices. Beck went on the defensive, attacking Weiner and defending his favorite gold dealer.

On Wednesday, the Santa Monica city attorney obtained a judgment and injunction against Goldline that requires the company to radically overhaul its practices and to stop deceiving customers about prices, among other things. The company must refund up to $4.5 million to defrauded customers, and pay $800,000 into a fund for future claims. The judgment also requires the company to give up one of the staples of its marketing tactics, and one that was hyped routinely by Beck: the idea that the government's coming for your gold. For years Beck and Goldline insisted customers should buy its "numismatic" (or antique) coins rather than standard government-issued bullion because, they claimed, in 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt had ordered the government to confiscate private citizens' gold bullion; antique coins were spared from the seizure. The claim was a huge stretch, as was the notion Beck perpetuated that Obama was plotting to seize Americans' gold. Now, Goldline has to quit talking about bullion confiscation lest it face further trouble from prosecutors.

To make sure that the company abides by the injunction, Goldline has to pay the cost of hiring a former federal prosecutor to monitor its operation. The monitor will have full access to company records and will perform undercover test calls to ensure that the myth of the 1933 gold confiscation has been banished from Goldline's sales pitch.

Adam Radinsky, the head of the consumer protection unit at the Santa Monica city attorney's office said of the injunction:

This is a new day. Consumers in California and elsewhere, many of whom invested thousands of dollars and their life savings in the belief that the gold they were buying was a valuable and safe investment, will now get substantial relief. No one should have to suffer from predatory and deceitful sales practices. Whether they are buying gold or anything else, consumers expect a fair deal. We insisted that Goldline give them just that. We hope this case is a wake-up call to other large coin dealers and to other businesses. They need to know that it’s against the law to mislead consumers with false fears and misinformation. And consumers need to be especially careful when investing in this uniquely unregulated industry.

This is the second time that a gold dealer associated with Beck has been sanctioned by prosecutors. In December 2010, Santa Monica prosecutors put the Superior Gold Group into receivership, freezing its assets and seeking restitution for its customers. Prosecutors alleged that the outfit had engaged in deceptive practices similar to Goldline's, and had also taken money from customers and then failed to deliver any coins.

Goldline is trying to put a unique spin on the injunction. It issued a press release declaring, "All Charges Dismissed, Goldline Announces; Precious Metals Company Will Continue to Set Standard for Customer Disclosures." The company highlighted the fact that the prosecutors had dismissed the criminal charges against its executives and it claimed that prosecutors only turned up a handful of dissatisfied customers in their investigation. The company also noted that the judgment was not a finding of wrongdoing, which the company expressly denied.

"This is a great outcome for our customers and for the company," said Goldline CEO Scott Carter. "Customers have chosen Goldline for over 50 years because of our high quality service, transparency, fairness and reputation of integrity. Goldline is proud to raise the bar once again by enhancing disclosures and procedures that are unprecedented in the precious metals industry."

But Yuri Beckelman, a former staffer for Weiner who worked on the Goldline investigation, felt vindicated by the injunction. He said in an email:

Goldline can try to spin it any way they want. But when you have to agree to change your business model and then pay a court ordered attorney to monitor your progress for the next five years, you're admitting that what you were doing was wrong. While the millions in refunds Goldline was ordered to make will be meaningful to the people that were ripped off, the executives got off easy, and they know it.

Rep. Darrell Issa's "Religious Freedom" Sausage Fest

There's something surreal about watching a congressional hearing in which a room full of men spend a morning publicly discussing birth control, menstrual pain, ovarian cancer, and migraine headaches. But Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, convened just such a hearing on Thursday.

The hearing, entitled "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama administration trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?" was striking for its lack of female voices. Democrats on the committee had attempted to include at least one female viewpoint, that of Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown University, a Catholic university whose health plan doesn't cover contraception. But Issa deemed Fluke "not qualified" and plowed ahead despite the obvious flaw of holding a hearing on birth control coverage that doesn't include a single member of the population most likely to use it.

Democrat Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) protested the glaring omission in her opening statement: "What I want to know is, where are the women? I look at this panel, and I don’t one single individual representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive health care services, including family planning. Where are the women?"

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) expressed outrage over the nature of the hearing, which not only excluded women but also witnesses who didn't agree with the Catholic Church.  Aiming his criticism at Issa, he said,

I think everyone understands what is going on here today. The Chairman is promoting a conspiracy theory that the federal government is conducting a “war” against religion. He has stacked the hearing with witnesses who agree with his position. He has not invited the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Charities, Catholics United, or a host of other Catholic groups that praised the White House for making the accommodation they made last week. He has also refused to allow a minority witness to testify about the interests of women who want safe and affordable coverage for basic preventive health care, including contraception. In my opinion, this Committee commits a massive injustice by trying to pretend that the views of millions of women across this country are meaningless, or worthless, or irrelevant to this debate.

The rhetoric at the hearing got so one-sided that, at one point, the Democratic women on the committee actually left the room, with DC Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) denouncing Issa's hearing management as akin to that of "autocratic regimes."

The hearing dragged on, with Republicans providing plenty of fodder for future Democratic campaign ads blasting them for being anti-women, with Democrats responding with actual science on the many ways that birth control pills can save lives, not just prevent pregnancy. And on it went, in a proceeding that made it hard to believe it's 2012 and not 1912. After three hours of testimony and questions, the committee took a break, and then returned for a second panel of witnesses. That panel included two women. But of course, they were opposed to birth control requirements, too.

Rep. Dan Burton's Legacy: Lots of Sick Kids

Dan Burton is wrong about vaccines and autism.

So Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) is finally retiring, after two decades in Congress. He's got a notable record of craziness, having doggedly pursued President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal while knowing full well he'd had an affair himself and even fathered a child out of wedlock. He famously claimed to have shot up a "head-like object" (likely a melon or a pumpkin) to try to re-create the alleged "murder" of former Clinton deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, who committed suicide. But Burton doesn't get enough credit for what may be his lasting legacy: helping turn Americans away from life-saving childhood vaccines.

Burton has said he believes one of his grandchildren became autistic after receiving a childhood vaccination. As a result, he spent many years and lots of congressional resources trying to investigate the alleged link between the two. In 2000, he held a circus-like hearing in which he provided a very high profile platform for the now entirely disgraced British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who helped spawn the myth that vaccines cause autism. Wakefield has since lost his medical license for allegedly falsifying the medical histories of the children he claimed had gotten autism from vaccines, among other issues.

As Wakefield's now-discredited, fabricated data started to raise questions in the medical community, Burton defended him, saying in 2002: "Dr. Wakefield, like many scientists who blaze new trails, has been attacked by his own profession. He has been forced out of his position at Royal Free Hospital in England." In 2007, Burton argued that autistic children should be eligible to receive compensation from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, even though there was no evidence of any link between vaccines and autism.

Burton's official endorsement of Wakefield's science has had a wide-ranging impact. He gave high-level approval to an utterly false theory that ended up persuading thousands of American parents not to immunize their kids, leading to a resurgence of a lot of preventable diseases. Whooping cough has surged nationally, largely because of vaccine refusal. In places like California, where lots of parents refused to immunize their kids, whooping cough became epidemic. In 2010, four babies needlessly died as a result. Measles outbreaks are also becoming more common.

So lest people get nostalgic for Burton's good ol' days of shooting up watermelons, keep in mind that his form of kookiness had some very deadly consequences.

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