Blogs

Memo to PMCs: Dodge the Tax Man, Answer to Waxman

| Fri Apr. 25, 2008 9:45 AM EDT

Blackwater-Helo.jpgHenry Waxman's Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, a persistent thorn in the side of private military and security firms, has zeroed in on a new target: the use of foreign tax havens by government contractors operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The investigation follows recent reports that KBR has used an offshore subsidiary to avoid paying hundreds of millions of dollars in payroll taxes, as well as MoJo's reporting on Blackwater's Barbados-based sister company, Greystone, whose local address and telephone number in Bridgetown trace back to a firm that specializes in shielding corporate revenues from U.S. tax authorities.

This week, Waxman's committee fired off letters to 15 companies, including KBR, Triple Canopy, DynCorp, CACI, Science Applications International Corporation, EOD Technology, and the Prince Group (the holding company that owns Blackwater and Erik Prince's other business ventures), asking whether these contractors have any "subsidiaries or other affiliated entities that were incorporated in any of the 39 foreign jurisdictions designated as tax havens by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development"—and demanding detailed information on their foreign subsidiaries and affiliates if the answer to that question is yes.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

John McCain's Miserable Record on Hurricane Katrina

| Fri Apr. 25, 2008 9:22 AM EDT

John McCain's Time for Action tour arrived in New Orleans Thursday, where McCain toured the hurricane-damaged 9th Ward and criticized both the Bush Administration and Congress for its handling of the disaster. Lamenting the pace of recovery, McCain said, "I want to assure you it will never happen again in this country. You have my commitment and my promise."

But McCain's record on Hurricane Katrina suggests that he was part of the problem, not the solution. McCain was on Face the Nation on August 28, 2005, as Katrina gathered in the Gulf Coast. He said nothing about it. One day later, when Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, McCain was on a tarmac at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, greeting President Bush with a cake in celebration of McCain's 69th birthday. Three days later, with the levees already breached and New Orleans filling with water, McCain's office released a three-sentence statement urging Americans to support the victims of the hurricane.

Disneyland-Style Theme Park Set for Baghdad. Honest to God

| Thu Apr. 24, 2008 2:54 PM EDT

iraq-disneyland.jpg Satire becomes reality. In the preview for "War, Inc." that Bruce posted below, private contractor John Cusack executes a war for the American government and then watches bewilderedly as a hip-hop star and her entourage invade the country right behind him. Soon English-language billboards and bumper stickers are everywhere.

That's ridiculous, right? An over-the-top display of how the encroachment of American culture and capitalism works. Leftist Hollywood hysteria.

Guess again, sucker:

[Llewellyn] Werner, chairman of C3, a Los Angeles-based holding company for private equity firms, is pouring millions of dollars into developing the Baghdad Zoo and Entertainment Experience, a massive American-style amusement park that will feature a skateboard park, rides, a concert theatre and a museum. It is being designed by the firm that developed Disneyland. "The people need this kind of positive influence. It's going to have a huge psychological impact," Mr Werner said.
The 50-acre (20 hectare) swath of land sits adjacent to the Green Zone and encompasses Baghdad's existing zoo, which was looted, left without power and abandoned after the American-led invasion in 2003...

Success seems improbable at best. Resentment is sure to be created. How about some of the naivete and over-confidence that got us into so much trouble with this war in the first place? Do you have any of that for us, Mr. Werner?

Bacteria Artist Off the Hook?

| Thu Apr. 24, 2008 12:57 PM EDT

Last week's Yale abortion senior art project stunt highlights the public outcry art can inspire. While Aliza Shvarts was ridiculed for being everything from "hopelessly bourgie" to "weird and gross," the jeers lobbed upon her in the blogosphere were nothing compared to the nightmarish federal investigation endured by SUNY-Buffalo art professor Steve Kurtz. In 2004 Kurtz was accused of bioterrorism while preparing for an educational art exhibit about genetically modified foods, an incident that showcases the absurd turns art can take in life.

The FBI and Bush administration may be ending their four-year mission to bring charges against Kurtz, who came under scrutiny after authorities discovered bacteria cultures in his house after his wife's unfortunate (and, as it turns out, unrelated) death. On Monday, a U.S. district judge dismissed the charges of mail and wire fraud, the only indictment the Feds could make stick. There's no word yet if the prosecution will appeal. But Kurtz's named "coconspirator," Dr. Robert Ferrell—who sent Kurtz the bacteria and who had also been charged with mail and wire fraud—didn't come away unscathed. He pleaded guilty last October to lesser charges after a series of health problems ensued from the stress of the investigation.

Read more about the case and the documentary it inspired here.

—Joyce Tang

Holy Wars: Evangelicals Attempt to Exclude Non-Christians From National Day of Prayer

| Thu Apr. 24, 2008 12:29 PM EDT

161992803_f87db32131.jpg

In 1952, when Harry Truman called for a National Day of Prayer, now celebrated annually on the first Thursday of May, it was meant to encourage Americans of all faiths to pray with one another in whatever way felt best to them. It would be an ecumenical celebration of faith that would draw people together in common religious and spiritual contemplation. One can only imagine what Truman would think of this year's event, the planning for which has been marred by bitter squabbling over who should be allowed to participate.

Shirley Dobson, wife of James Dobson, the conservative founder of Focus on the Family, is this year's chairperson of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a non-governmental organization based in Focus on the Family's offices in Colorado Springs and charged with organizing various events. According to Jay Keller, national field director of the Interfaith Alliance, Dobson has made a point of "excluding Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Buddhists, and even mainline Christians" from the National Day of Prayer.

Thanks to Dobson, this year's task force volunteers are required to sign pledges, stating: "I commit that NDP activities I serve with will be conducted solely by Christians while those of differing beliefs are welcome to attend." Volunteers must also affirm that they "believe that the Holy Bible is the inerrant Word of The Living God" and that "Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only One by which I can obtain salvation and have an ongoing relationship with God." Such oaths violate the non-sectarian nature of the National Day of Prayer and clearly align "a government-sponsored event with a particular Christian denomination, in violation of the basic provisions of the First Amendment to the Constitution," says Keller.

John McCain Officially Most Absent Member of the Senate

| Thu Apr. 24, 2008 11:08 AM EDT

We've written before about the fact that John McCain has more or less abdicated all of his responsibilities in the Senate while running for president. The man almost never votes anymore: he once went five consecutive weeks without voting. Now we learn that he's the Senate's top absentee, passing Democratic Senator Tim Johnson of North Dakota, who suffered a brain hemorrhage in December 2006 and was unable to return to the Senate until last fall, in terms of votes missed. I guess it takes time to suggest doing nothing about America's economic crisis.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Mr. Prince Goes to Hollywood (aka "War, Inc.")

| Thu Apr. 24, 2008 10:41 AM EDT

Opening in a few short days at the Tribeca Film Festival—War, Inc., the first Hollywood comedy about private military contracting.

Banks Give New Meaning to Protection Racket

| Thu Apr. 24, 2008 9:12 AM EDT

Payday loans have gotten a lot of bad press lately as state governments attempt to crack down on the "legal loansharking" outfits that make very short term loans with interest rates going as high as 500 percent. But a new study by Marc Anthony Fusaro, a professor of economics at East Carolina University, found that the overdraft loans given by banks these days make payday lenders look like a bargain. In their "bounce protection" programs, banks will cover checks and ATM withdrawals that exceed customers' balances so they don't incur fees from merchants for bounced checks. This "courtesy" service, which most customers never ask for, comes at a huge cost.

Insufficient fund fees have become a major cash cow for banks, particularly during the latest credit crisis. The Center for Responsible Lending has found that with an average fee of $34, overdraft protection loans generate more than $17 billion a year for banks. About half the fees are triggered when people use debt cards for a small purchase, which the bank allows even though they have no money in their account.

Fusaro looked at overdraft protection as a form of a short-term loan and found that people who occasionally bounce checks (between 1 and 10 times a year) pay interest rates exceeding 6,000 percent. Chronic bouncers in the study, who make up a small percentage of bank customers, paid more than $3,000 in fees annually for the privilege. The average size of the overdraft was pretty small, between $90 and $300. The most extreme case in the study was one poor soul who had a $3 overdraft outstanding for one day, which resulted in an intereste rate of 260,245 percent, a hefty surcharge for using a debt card for a latte.

Riff Q&A: Yoav

| Wed Apr. 23, 2008 6:30 PM EDT

mojo-photo-yoav.jpgOne of the more intriguing artists on this weekend's Coachella festival lineup, Yoav is Israeli-born, South Africa-raised, and now London-based. His complicated background might remind you of the Argentinian-Swedish José González, and they also share a focus on the acoustic guitar (as well as diverse musical influences). But while González turns bleak tracks like Massive Attack's "Teardrop" into plaintive ballads, Yoav incorporates effects and treatments into his guitar work to create original music that somehow straddles the line between folk and minimal electronica, with an accessible pop straightforwardness. His debut album, Charmed & Strange, features sounds that you wouldn't expect to hear come out of a guitar: staccato blips, hip-hop thuds, and, on a haunting cover of The Pixies' "Where is My Mind," eerie whines and soft echoing tones. The Riff caught up with Yoav between gigs and tossed a couple quick questions his way.

Carbonfund.org: Seattle Man Offsets Entire Life; Onion: Please Give Our Headline Back

| Wed Apr. 23, 2008 3:00 PM EDT

offset.jpg

A typical American life offers no shortage of carbon sins to offset. Eco-conscious consumers can offset their air travel, their weddings, even their offspring. But so far, no one (that we know of, anyway) has gone whole hog and offset everything they've emitted, ever.

Enter Brad Mewhort, 33-year-old vegan, pedestrian, and apologetic air traveler. Earlier this month, carbon offset nonprofit Carbonfund.org announced that that the Seattle sales rep had just finished scrubbing his imprint from the Earth by donating the last $1,500 of a $3,000 contribution to the group. The three grand covers emissions even from family car trips when Mewhort was young, as well as all of the plane trips he must take for his job, and the recent journey to Antarctica that convinced him it was time to take action.

"I was absolutely amazed by what I saw there," says Mewhort. "It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I love penguins, I always have, and they're more incredible than I expected. Their habitat is directly threatened by the impacts of human activity. I decided that I don't want to be personally contributing to this destruction. I decided to purchase offsets as soon as I could."