Mojo - February 2010

The Other Paravant Scandal

| Thu Feb. 25, 2010 2:28 PM EST

When salacious details emerge about run-amok contractors, it's easy to lose sight of the big picture—the reason why these scandals keep happening and happening and happening. So what's the big picture, you ask? Great question. Let me tell you. In military parlance, oversight is FUBAR. (If you don't know what that means, look it up.) And the Paravant/Blackwater scandal I've been reporting on for the past few days is a perfect case study in what happens when oversight goes AWOL. Yes, the firm's personnel acted recklessly and knowingly violated military regulations—even the company acknowledges that—but no one bothered to stop them, to enforce the rules in place. As an investigation by Sen. Carl Levin's armed services committee documents, there was mass confusion about who was actually responsible for monitoring Paravant on the ground.

Ultimately Paravant had a contract with Raytheon. Raytheon had a contract with the Army's Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation. PEO STRI, headquartered in Orlando, Florida and without a rep on the ground, says it relied on a Dutch military officer attached to NATO's Combined Security Training Center-Afghanistan. That officer's supervisor told Levin's committee he had "no idea" why anyone would think this officer was responsible for Paravant—in fact, he knew of no one at CSTC-A who was. And things got even more ridiculous from there.

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Reid Demands Climate Bill

| Thu Feb. 25, 2010 12:24 PM EST

Get the latest on environmental politics on Blue Marble:

Reid Bullish on Climate Bill

John Kerry is weirdly optimistic about passing climate and energy legislation this year. Now Harry Reid is calling for a bill ASAP. Might we actually see movement on legislation sometime soon?

Obama to CEOs: A Carbon Cap is Good for You

Barack Obama makes a business case for capping carbon pollution, telling CEOs that the rules will give them long-term certainty and a leg-up in international competition.

Vermont to Shut Down Leaking Nuclear Plant

The Obama administration may pushing for a nuclear renaissance, but up in Vermont, the state senate voted yesterday to close their lone, leaky nuclear plant amid fears that the owners have concealed information about plant safety.

Rockefeller Seeking Delay on EPA Climate Regs

West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller indicated that he intends to introduce legislation to delay the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of greenhouse-gas emissions. While administrator Lisa Jackson earlier this week outlined a slower progression for regulations in response to concerns from Rockefeller and other Senate Democrats, he said that legislation is needed to "provide Congress the space it needs to craft a workable policy that will protect jobs and stimulate the economy."

Live Tweeting the White House Health Care Summit

Thu Feb. 25, 2010 11:23 AM EST

Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, David Corn, is covering Obama's health care summit live. His tweets from the summit are below the video.

Live tweets of the #HCR summit from @DavidCornDC:

More David Corn on Twitter Links

Firing Back in Wall St.'s Reform War

| Thu Feb. 25, 2010 11:07 AM EST

Americans for Financial Reform, a leading advocacy group lobbying for major regulatory crackdowns on Wall Street, released a new ad today coming to the defense of Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), who's been under fire lately for his support for an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency and for generally backing greater reforms of the financial markets. In particular, Tester's been taking a lot of heat from a secretive, deep-pocketed organization called the Committee for Truth in Politics, which has targeted Tester and called the financial reform supported by the Montana senator a $4 trillion bank bailout in disguise. (That language, you'll remember, comes from a memo circulated by consultant Frank Luntz trying to torpedo Wall Street reforms.) Earlier this month, Tester called the committee's attacks on him "flat-out false," and asking to see the source of the committee's funding, which it doesn't publicize. "Our economy almost collapsed a year and a half ago because there were no referees on Wall Street," Tester wrote in a statement. "Montana's Main Street small business owners and families should never have to pay the price of greed on Wall Street."

Here's the ad:

Don't Mess With Texas—or Drink There

| Thu Feb. 25, 2010 8:01 AM EST

When a magazine in Dallas offered me a job last summer, my wife and I jumped at the chance to settle in the city that Molly Ivins once painted red. We had visions of a Lone Star libertarian utopia, where there was enough open space and distrust of government to allow everyone some freedom in choosing their bliss.

Boy, were we wrong. From the hip neighborhoods of Lower Greenville and Deep Ellum to the grittier areas of South Dallas, what we experienced was an over-policed nanny state—exactly the sort of thing you'd expect pro-secession and anti-liberal Texans to hate. But they're not angry, because they're not the target: Few straight white Texans have anything to worry about. That's documented.

Want the full story? Check out my piece in the March/April issue of Mother Jones, "Lone Bar State." The Lone Star State, it turns out, is still a place where "undesirables" can be rounded up, humiliated by authorities, tossed in jail cells, and even have their skulls cracked—legally. It's made possible by a catch-22 in the state's penal code: a public-intoxication law that permits peace officers to go virtually anywhere, anytime, and arrest anyone they want. Except who they really want to arrest, it seems, includes mostly gays, Latinos, and blacks. As one cop told me, "We go after the disenfranchised, the people who can't stand up and defend themselves." Another lawyer who represents folks arrested for PI put it even more bluntly: "If you’re brown and you're around," he says, "you're going down."

Much of that goes down just a few miles from the chic Dallas-area estates of George W. Bush, H. Ross Perot, and a bevy of other prominent, wealthy Texans. Down there, they're fond of saying, "The eyes of Texas are upon you," and obviously they mean it.

But today, the eyes of our readers are on Texas.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 25, 2010

Thu Feb. 25, 2010 8:00 AM EST

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US soldiers rest next to a canal during a patrol in Badula Qulp during Operation Helmand Spider in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Feb. 17, 2010. Photo via the US Army.

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Big Banks Shifting Cash to GOPers?

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 6:11 PM EST

The Washington Post reports

Commercial banks and high-flying investment firms have shifted their political contributions toward Republicans in recent months amid harsh rhetoric from Democrats about fat bank profits, generous bonuses and stingy lending policies on Wall Street.

The wealthy securities and investment industry, for example, went from giving 2 to 1 to Democrats at the start of 2009 to providing almost half of its donations to Republicans by the end of the year, according to new data compiled for The Washington Post by the Center for Responsive Politics.

However you cut it, there's still a lot of campaign cash flowing from the banks to each party. But if the GOP were to start carrying even more water for Big Finance and the Dems were to carry less, such a shift could help the Democrats going into the 2010 elections. After all, who wants to be pegged as the favorite of Wall Street?

In the coming months, President Barack Obama and the congressional Democrats are going to have to figure out how to counter a powerful anti-incumbent trend in the electorate and turn the coming congressional elections from a referendum on Obama and the Democrats into a choice between the two parties. The fight over financial reform legislation presents an opportunity for Obama and his Ds. With Wall Street hedging its bets and tilting toward Republicans, it might be easier for the Democrats to distinguish themselves as the party less in the pocket of Big Finance. To do that, of course, they need to pass a strong financial reform measure.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Blackwater Did Rescue Alan Grayson

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 6:10 PM EST

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who made his substantial fortune by suing military contractors and later lambasted them as a lawmmaker, was indeed evacuated from Niger by personnel working for Xe Services (the private security empire formerly known as Blackwater), his spokesman confirms.

Earlier today I reported on the testimony of Fred Roitz, an executive vice president at Xe, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Blackwater subsidiary Paravant. In his prepared remarks, he stated: "Xe Services, through its subsidiary Presidential Airways, provides aviation support and medevac services to Defense Department personnel in Africa. Just last week, our personnel evacuated a congressman from Niger during civil unrest."

This sure seemed to fit the description of Grayson, who was traveling in the country last week when a military coup erupted. The lawmaker was quickly evacuated out the country to neighborhing Burkina Faso. "The flight was arranged through the State Department," Todd Jukowski, Grayson's spokesman, told me. "The Congressman did not know, and frankly did not care, who owned the plane.” Later, Jurkowski followed up with an email confirming that Grayson was flown out of the country on a "Xe helicopter."

I also asked Jurkowski whether the experience had changed Grayson's thinking on the use of private military firms. Jurkowski replied: "The Congressman does not deny that there is admirable work being done by some employees of private contractors.  However, he stands by his criticism of companies who have been found to cheat the American people, defraud our government, and unnecessarily risk the lives of members of our military, all in the name of making a profit."

8 Health Lobbyists Per Lawmaker

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 6:05 PM EST

In 2009, the hordes of lobbyists on Capitol Hill trying to influence the course of health-care reform grew to more than 4,500, representing 1,750 different organizations and companies—from the AARP and US Chamber of Commerce to religious groups and the Business Roundtable, according to a new analysis by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI). Here's a better way of visualizing that lobbying total: For each member of Congress, there are now eight lobbyists involved in health-care reform, up from about six lobbyists per lawmaker as was reported last fall when talks had practically paralyzed Congress. 

As CPI's new data makes clear, just about everyone and their uncle has signed up to lobby on health-care negotiations, which are now entering their final act. Among the top groups deploying their influence-peddlers to Washington are advocacy organizations, like the Chamber and Business Roundtable, as well as hospitals, insurers, and manufacturing companies also sending numerous representatives to lobby House and Senate lawmakers. All told, CPI's new report just goes to show that when huge amounts of money are at stake, powerful special interests like the pharmaceutical and insurance industries are willing to bombarding politicians in order to ensure none of their profits slip away.

Below you'll find an interactive graph, courtesy of CPI, letting you dig into their data a bit more.

Navy Lets Women on Subs: Gays Next?

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 5:55 PM EST

Anyone with an interest in gender equality or fair treatment of gays and lesbians, take note: The Navy announced this week that it will start assigning women to its submarine crews next month. (That is, unless congressional opponents decide to intervene.)

To the uninitiated, that might not sound like a big deal. But it's a true sea change. In fact, it could foretell a faster end to the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy—and even its arcane injunction on women serving in combat roles.

The United States military has always been preoccupied with its hidebound traditions. In that respect, the Navy is like other military branches, only more so, with 21st-century sailors speaking of the Joneses—Davy and John Paul—like immediate family. Within that culture, there's always been an even more heritage-obsessed fraternity: the submarine service. It was officially born in 1900 with its first undersea ship of war, the USS Holland. It was also the first branch to truly go nuclear, with the atomic-powered USS Nautilus in 1955. In all those years, the "silent service" has reveled in its exclusivity, operating as a fraternity for some of the Navy's smartest and ablest sailors.

Except that it's a fraternity no more.

If that were the whole story, what a happy story it would be. But opponents of the move have a possible trump card to play.