Mojo - March 2009

Vilsack Outs a Bad Contractor: Where Do We Find Stan Johnson?

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 2:36 PM EST
Who is Stan Johnson? That was the mystery in the White House press room on Wednesday morning.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Director of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano spoke on behalf of the Obama Administration's new initiative to eliminate waste and abuse from federal contracting. As part of his speech, Vilsack mentioned that he had learned of a USDA contract worth $400,000 that career officials in the department had flagged as "unnecessary." Vilsack was vague, saying only that the contract had come late in the Bush Administration and was likely awarded due to contacts. He added that the contract included questionable international travel.

Pressed by reporters for additional information, Vilsack looked to Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, as if asking for permission. When Gibbs did not object, Vilsack revealed that the contract had gone to a man named Stan Johnson, a major operator in Iowa who Vilsack, former governor of Iowa, said he knew personally. (One assumes Vilsack will not be invited to the next Johnson family dinner party.) So the question is, who is Stan Johnson and what did he do (or not do) as part of his "unnecessary" federal contract?

A little bit of online sleuthing reveals that Johnson is primarily a poobah at Iowa State University, having once headed ISU's Center for Agricultural and Rural Development and the university's extension school. Other credits on a lengthy resume: Board of Directors of the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development, executive director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, and chair of the Board of the DC-based Institute for Policy Reform.

Not bad for a guy who got his start studying agricultural economics at Western Illinois University. One can see how Johnson had the contacts he needed to get a sweetheart deal from the US government. So what was the contract? USAspending.gov, a website that stores info on federal contracts and grants, says that a man named Stan Johnson has a $20,000 contract with the Forest Service in Alaska. That's not likely to be the right man. Clearly more information is needed. Mother Jones spoke to the USDA main office, which said it is gathering information for reporters, and left a message for the press staff at the Forest Service. We'll let you know if we hear more.

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Do You Think Bills Should Be Read Before They Are Passed?

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 11:42 AM EST

It's a dirty little secret of Capitol Hill's: lawmakers frequently vote on bills they haven't read, either because they don't want to spend the time or because the majority party, hoping to ram through a contentious piece of legislation, demands a vote immediately after a bill's final version is produced. Now, a petition is circulating that aims to change that. Readthebill.org has a simple demand: "Congress should change its rules to require that non-emergency legislation and conference reports be posted on the Internet for 72 hours before debate begins."

That 72-hour period would give lawmakers enough time to determine if they really support a bill. Perhaps more importantly, it would give everyday citizens and public watchdogs enough time to hunt for hidden provisions, kickbacks, and conflicts of interest. Take a look at some bills that got rushed through Congress here; they include the stimulus bill, FISA, and the PATRIOT Act. You can sign the petition here.

A Bouncing Rush Limbaugh

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 5:41 PM EST

Have you ever wanted to see Rush Limbaugh bounce? If so, Americans United for Change has made your dream come true. Trying to exploit the recent news story about GOP chairman Michael Steele apologizing to the radio host after calling his broadcasts "ugly" and "incendiary," this progressive advocacy group has put out another ad targeting the conservative kingpin of the airwaves, who has said he would like to see President Obama fail. And in this spot, Limbaugh jiggles at the end.

By the way, the White House seems delighted by the Rush-Steele dust-up. At the very end of Tuesday's press briefing, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs quipped, "I was a little surprised [at] the speed with which Mr. Steele, the head of the RNC, apologized to the head of the Republican Party." Meow.

Bush Executive Powers: The More You Learn, the More Horrifying It Gets

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 2:54 PM EST

Michael Isikoff of Newsweek breaks down the recently released Bush Administration legal memos and finds that the Bush Administration essentially gave itself the powers of a dictatorship.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Justice Department secretly gave the green light for the U.S. military to attack apartment buildings and office complexes inside the United States, deploy high-tech surveillance against U.S. citizens and potentially suspend First Amendment freedom-of-the-press rights in order to combat the terror threat, according to a memo released Monday....

In perhaps the most surprising assertion, the Oct. 23, 2001, memo suggested the president could even suspend press freedoms if he concluded it was necessary to wage the war on terror. "First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully," Yoo wrote in the memo entitled "Authority for Use of Military Force to Combat Terrorist Activity Within the United States."

This claim was viewed as so extreme that it was essentially (and secretly) revoked—but not until October of last year, seven years after the memo was written and with barely three and a half months left in the Bush administration...

The newly disclosed Oct. 23, 2001, memo was in response to a request from Gonzales, at the time President Bush's top lawyer, and Haynes, who was chief counsel at the Pentagon, to determine if there were any restrictions on the use of the U.S. military inside the country in targeting terror suspects. The Yoo memo essentially concluded there were none. The country, he argued, was in a "state of armed conflict." The scale of violence, he argued, was unprecedented and "legal and constitutional rules" governing law enforcement—such as the Fourth Amendment prohibition on "unreasonable" searches and seizures—did not apply.

More on this from Kevin Drum.

Trepidation Abounds About Obama's CTO

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 2:42 PM EST

We just put up a piece about Barack Obama's still-missing Chief Technology Officer, and how transparency and technology activists are growing pessimistic about a position they once had very high hopes for. Here's a taste:

While Obama has already given the CTO homework—he or she is tasked with writing recommendations for an Open Government Directive that will implement Obama's transparency agenda—the position remains unfilled, long after many activists thought it ever would. (As it stands, Obama and his staff are struggling with the White House's outdated technology.) Last weekend, attendees of the Sunlight Foundation's Transparency Camp, a gathering of top members of the open government and technology communities, were genuinely befuddled. None in this tight-knit community could identify the frontrunners for the position, and few had explanations for the delay. Multiple in-the-know sources griped that the CTO will likely be a neutered position, lacking budgetary powers or a direct line to the president, and that the Obama team does not appear to have resolved basic questions, including where the CTO will reside on its organizational chart. (One report suggests the CTO is currently being slated for the president's Domestic Policy Council.) The general attitude was pessimistic—no one believed that the CTO would be a high-level position capable of improving the use of technology across executive branch departments or of convincing hidebound bureaucracies to use technology to make their operations and decisions more accessible to the public.

Read the whole thing here.

Pelosi's Switch on the Dem's Pitch for Health Care

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 12:52 PM EST

On Tuesday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with a bunch of journalists and bloggers from assorted progressive media outlets. As they asked her about the stimulus package, health care, and her relationship with the White House, she mainly stuck to talking points and hailed President Barack Obama, his budget, the stimulus legislation, and the policy agenda she enthusiastically shares with the White House. She declined to bash Rush Limbaugh (or even talk about him), and said she had no plans to apply pressure on Republican legislators from districts that Obama had won in November.

But what was intriguing was how she foreshadowed the health care reform fight to come. With the White House holding a health care summit this week, the Democrats in Congress are gearing up for the titanic legislative challenge of passing a major health care reform package. In years past, the champions of health care reform have relied on a simple slogan: There are 40 million Americans without health care coverage, and they deserve it. (Now, it's 48 million.) Yet Pelosi noted that delivering insurance to this group of Americans will not be the political or rhetorical centerpiece of the latest health care reform effort.

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Want a Second Home for the Price of a Scooter? Try Detroit

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 4:45 PM EST

In a Chicago Tribune article about the 15 (!!) people who are seeking to become Detroit's mayor, there is this little nugget:

The median price of a home sold in Detroit in December was $7,500, according to Realcomp, a listing service.

Not $75,000. Remove a zero—it's seven thousand five hundred dollars, substantially less than the lowest-price car on the new-car market

The city's bond rating is now at junk status, and when one mayoral candidate was asked to explain a 14 percent drop in the murder rate, he said, "I don't mean to be sarcastic, but there just isn't anyone left to kill." What a charming town.

President Obama, Appoint Carl Malamud!

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 1:02 PM EST

Carl Malamud is a badass. If you are a techie or a transparency geek, you probably already know who he is. If you've never heard of him, he is an internet pioneer who has worked for decades, at times using renegade means, to make government information public. He fought to make the information in the SEC's "EDGAR" database free and public (which it now is) and is currently leading a similar fight over the court records database PACER.

Today, Malamud has another campaign. He wants to become the Public Printer of the United States, i.e. the head of the Government Printing Office (GPO). In today's world, the GPO probably ought to be renamed the Government Publishing Office, because its responsibility to print hard copies of thousands of documents is complimented by publishing just as many files in electronic formats. Malamud realizes he could do incredible things if he were the man who made government information public. He's laid out a platform at yeswescan.org. (His home on the web is here.) The coolest bit from the platform:

6. Rebooting .Gov. There is no reason why the U.S. Government should not be one of the top 10 destinations on the Internet! GPO should work with the rest of the U.S. Government to radically change how we present information on the Internet. Some of the initiatives would include installing a cloud for .gov to use, enshrining principles of bulk data distribution into legislation, and a massive upgrade in the government's video capabilities.

Remember when the Bush Administration would do things like put a guy who believed in the abolition of the Department of Energy in charge of the Department of Energy? Putting a government transparency advocate in charge of the GPO would be like that, except the exact opposite. You can read more about Malamud's plans for animating the .Gov empire here. You can read more about his broader platform here. Appointing Malamud would be one of the most progressive things President Obama could do to support open government. Let's hope it happens.

Blackwater's Prince Abdicates

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 12:22 PM EST

First Blackwater lost its big State Department contract to do security work in Iraq. Then it changed its name to Xe. Now the controversial firm is replacing its head man. On Monday, Erik Prince, who founded the company, announced that he was bailing out as chief executive office and was appointing a new CEO and a new president. From AP:

The management shake up, he said, was part of the company's "continued reorganization and self-improvement."

Prince founded Blackwater in 1997 and last month the company changed its name to Xe, pronounced like the letter "z," in an effort to repair its severely tarnished name and reputation.

The company has had a contract to protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq, but the State Department announced it would not rehire Blackwater after its current contract with the company expires in May. The company has one other major security contract, details of which are classified.

A report by a House committee in October 2007 called Blackwater an out-of-control outfit indifferent to Iraqi civilian casualties. It said that Blackwater had been involved in nearly 200 shooting incidents since 2005.

In January, five Blackwater security guards pleaded not guilty to federal manslaughter and gun charges. A federal judge in Washington on Feb. 17 denied motions to dismiss the case against the guards, accused in a September 2007 shooting that left 17 Iraqis dead and another 20 wounded in a Baghdad's busy Nisoor Square.

Could it be that by renaming the company and removing himself as its frontman, Prince is hoping to keep the firm-formerly-known-as-Blackwater afloat and in line for big-ticket US government contracts? That might explain all these changes. But Blackwater's baggage is so heavy that these moves still might not allow it to escape its past.

But there's a more important question: who will do Blackwater's work once it is gone from Iraq? That has not yet been announced by the State Department. There are some obvious candidates, other private security firms. But one former CIA officer now working in Iraq in a private capacity tells me that these companies may not be up to the task and that a precipitous shift from Blackwater could cause problems of its own. In other words, in the Blackwater tale, there still may be no good exit strategy.

Support Senate Disclosure Parity, Again

| Mon Mar. 2, 2009 12:39 AM EST

A little less than a year ago, I asked you to support the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, calling it "no-brainer legislation." The bill, introduced repeatedly by Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) over the last several years to little effect, would modernize the way in which Senate candidates file their campaign fundraising disclosures (and bring Senate candidates into line with House candidates and presidential candidates).

Well, the bill has been reintroduced and has more support than ever. This may be the year (finally!) that the Senate puts transparency over secrecy on the key issue of campaign contributions. If one of your senators is on this list of cosponsors -- Akaka, Alexander, Bennett, Bingaman, Brown, Cardin, Chambliss, Cochran, Dodd, Durbin, Feinstein, Grassley, Harkin, Isakson, Kerry, Leahy, Levin, Lieberman, Lugar, McCain, Nelson (NE), Reed, Reid, Rockefeller, and Schumer -- don't bother making any phone calls to them. But if you don't see your senators here, consider picking up the phone and letting them know how you feel. When an industry's interests are at stake in a bill, there are always lobbyists buzzing around Capitol Hill telling lawmakers how to vote. But when it comes to transparency, and bills that protect the public interest, there is no one to voice an opinion but you.