Mojo - June 2010

A Kinder, Gentler Blackwater?

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 8:46 AM PDT

Jeff Stein reports this morning that the company formerly known as Blackwater has been awarded a CIA contract worth about $100 million to provide security in "multiple regions." This comes days after the company landed a $120 million State Department contract for work in Afghanistan. Stein's piece includes an interesting quote from an official who defends the government's decision to provide Blackwater 2.0 with more work, given the litany of abuses and scandals in the firm's recent past:

"Blackwater has undergone some serious changes," maintained a U.S. official who is familiar with the deal and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss it freely.

"They’ve had to if they want to survive. They’ve had to prove to the government that they’re a responsible outfit. Having satisfied every legal requirement, they have the right to compete for contracts. They have people who do good work, at times in some very dangerous places. Nobody should forget that, either."

If Blackwater (which is currently up for sale) only now has to prove it's a responsible, legally compliant company, you have to wonder what type of standard government contracting officers were applying previously, as they handed the firm (and its affiliates) contract after contract despite serious questions about its conduct. The offical Stein quotes is echoing the line Blackwater's new management team has been pushing —that the company has been reformed, chastened by the mistakes of its past. It may even be true. Otherwise it's a shrewd, if predictable, PR campaign.

In February, when he was called before a Senate committee to answer for the misconduct of employees of a Blackwater-created shell company named Paravant, Fred Roitz, a senior VP at Xe (as the company is now known), insisted [PDF] the company had truly been transformed into a model corporate citizen: "These changes in personnel, attitude, focus, policy and practice, ownership, and governance represent a break from the past. The new Xe Services remains committed to our nation’s critical missions. We are equally committed, however, to a culture of compliance that in all circumstances reflects a responsible US government contractor." Following the hearing, I approached Roitz to pose a couple questions about his testimony and Xe's new corporate culture. I'd barely introduced myself when he refused to speak with me, brushing past trailed by an entourage of lawyers and crisis management specialists. It sure seemed like the old Blackwater to me.

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Oil Spill Paranoiac Wins GOP Candidacy

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 8:39 AM PDT

The conspiracy theory wing of the Tea Party scored a substantial victory last night, with Bill Randall prevailing in a runoff for the Republican candidacy in North Carolina's 13th Congressional district. In case you missed it, Randall has suggested that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf wasn't precipitated by non-existent safety inspections, a culture of self-regulation, a federal regulator in bed with the industry, etc., etc. Instead, Randall believes, the BP and federal government may have colluded to cause the Horizon rig to explode, crumble into the water, and begin spewing millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf each day. Last month, Randall had this to say about the spill:

Personally, and this is purely speculative on my part and not based on any fact, but personally I feel there is a possibility that there was some sort of collusion. I don't know how or why, but in that situation, if you have someone from a company violating a safety process and the government signing off on it, excuse me, maybe they wanted it to leak.

Now, Randall isn't the only public figure to claim to smell something funny about the spill. Former FEMA chief, Michael "Heckuva job, Brownie" Brown claimed Obama wanted the Deepwater spill to occur so he could shut down offshore oil drilling, and bloviator-in-chief Rush Limbaugh voiced his approval. But unlike his paranoid cohorts, Randall isn't a washed-up bureaucrat or a talking head—he's now the GOP's top candidate for a US representative.

Randall's defeat of moderate GOPer Bernie Reeves comes as somewhat of a surprise, but his chances this November against Democratic incumbent Brad Miller aren't that great. That is, unless he can convince North Carolinians that one of the biggest environmental catastrophes in US history was an inside job.

Sanders: Energy Proposals "By No Means Strong Enough"

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 7:06 AM PDT

A White House huddle with senators on energy and climate policy was canceled this morning, as the president is now slated to meet with rogue General Stanley McChrystal. This leaves the Senate no closer to a decision on energy and climate policy than it was last week following a Democratic caucus meeting on the subject. It's still not clear what the energy package will look like and whether it will include a cap on carbon dioxide.

Now, one of the Senate's most liberal members is getting fed up with the pussy-footing on energy. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pressed Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on the subject yesterday, arguing that the legislation on the table so far is "by no means strong enough."

In a letter to Reid, Sanders argued that any legislation responding to the Gulf oil disaster should do more to move the US away from fossil fuels. It "makes no sense at all" to use energy and climate legislation to promote coal and nuclear power, he wrote. His letter calls for an $8 billion to $13 billion a year investment in renewables, a ban on new offshore drilling, and a national renewable energy standard that would require 25 percent of energy to come from renewable sources by 2025.

"If we are serious about combating global warming, moving to energy independence and creating millions of jobs in the future, we must transform our energy system away from fossil fuels," Sanders wrote. "At the very least, any serious energy bill must include funding for energy efficiency and sustainable energy that is on a par with the amounts provided for nuclear and coal."

The Senate is still expected to take up a package after the July 4th recess. At this point, what the Senate's energy package looks like depends a lot on what the White House has to say about it, and that's a major unknown. "I think it's pretty clear we have to do something; the question is, what do we do?" Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters yesterday. "And a lot of that depends on what the White House is going to do to help us get something done."

Sen. Vitter's "Women's Issues" Aide Attacked Girlfriend. With a Knife.

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 6:23 AM PDT

File this story in the so-outrageous-it-can-only-be-true folder. An veteran aide to Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), whom Vitter has tapped to handle women's issues, turns out to have pled guilty in 2008 to charges relating to a knife attack on an ex-girlfriend. Brent Furer, ABC News reports, was accused of threatening to kill the woman, putting his hand over her mouth, and cutting her hand and neck. Nonetheless, ABC says, Furer, who also has an open warrant in his name in Louisiana for a driving while intoxicated charge, still collects his $54,000, taxpayer-funded salary through the Senate.

For "Diaper Dave" Vitter, who was exposed in 2007 as a client of the DC Madam, the revelations about his women's issues aide again highlights the gulf between the senator's statements and his actions. Vitter's office told ABC that Furer was put on leave from the office while a court handled the 2008 case, and that "further significant disciplinary action" had been taken as well. Still, Furer did eventually return to work in the Louisiana senator's office.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 23, 2010

Wed Jun. 23, 2010 2:00 AM PDT

 

US Army Sgt. John Russell from Amelia, Va., gives a small child medical care, on June 9, in Loger province, Afghanistan. Russell is assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. Photo via the US Army.

Which Court Decisions Support Gay Marriage?

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 11:25 AM PDT

What's Loving v. Virginia all about? Or Romer v. Evans? During last week’s closing arguments in the closely-watched legal challenge to California's Prop. 8, attorney Ted Olson referenced these and a string of other US Supreme Court rulings in support of same-sex marriage. SCOTUS will most likely cite these same cases in determining the (un)constitutionality of Prop. 8 and other state laws banning gay marriage. Here's a quick breakdown of these and other cases that challenged some popular yet discriminatory laws.

Loving v. Virginia
In 1958, Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, an interracial couple that married in Washington DC, were arrested when they returned home to Virginia. Their crime: violating the state’s ban on interracial marriage. Their one-year jail sentence was suspended on the condition that they leave the state and not return for 25 years. The Lovings left, but took their case to multiple courts, including Virginia's Supreme Court of Appeals (now called the Virginia Court of Appeals), which ruled in favor of the state's right to ban and penalize interracial marriages. In 1967, SCOTUS overturned the decision, ruling that the interracial marriage ban violated the Fourteenth Amendment's protection of individual liberties.

Wait. Why couldn’t they get married?
The law's supporters said it was "God's will" that people of different races not be married—which sounds familiar. At the Lovings trial, a judge actually said: "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

What’s this got to do with gay marriage?
Swap gender for race, and the injustice is evident. SCOTUS also noted that "the freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men." (My emphasis.) Nowhere in the ruling does it say, "This applies only to heterosexuals."

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(VIDEO) Steele: "George Bush Created a Lot of Jobs"

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 11:09 AM PDT

Courtesy of Joe.My.God and ThinkProgress, here's an awesome video of Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele trying to set the record horribly crooked on Dubya and job creation:

Is Steele right? There was a net gain of 3 million jobs over GWB's eight-year tenure. But no, that's not a lot. What Steele fails to note is, that's the worst year-over-year output of any presidential administration since the government started recording job creation. Even Gerald Ford stumbled through a single term of economic stagnation and managed to create almost 2 million jobs. His dad, George H.W. Bush, created 2.5 million in a four-year period, during a recession. (Bill Clinton created 23.1 million.) And Dubya's record also doesn't take into account continued job losses after he left office, which are largely attributable to an economic crisis his administration precipitated.

Refutations of Steele's misrememberings are here (at that bastion of lefty socialism, the Wall Street Journal):

Bush on Jobs: The Worst Track Record on Record

and here:

Bush Jobs Record Still Worst Since President Hoover

Really Rich Back to Being...Rich

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 9:26 AM PDT

The housing market is still a mess; foreclosures are mounting; unemployment hovers near 10 percent; and, as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said just today, "Our economy is still going through an incredibly difficult period." All of this stems from one of the worst financial crises in US history, a meltdown of epic proportions from which the country and the world has yet to fully recover.

That is, unless you're really, really rich. Bloomberg reports today that the super wealthy's riches have all but returned to their swollen, pre-meltdown levels, according to a report by Capgemini SA and Merrill Lynch. Of the 10 million people globally with $1 million or more to invest in whatever they want, their wealth rose nearly 19 percent in 2009, to $39 trillion. In 2007, just before the train sped off the cliff, that wealth was $40.7 trillion spread among 10.1 million really rich people. (Let's not mention 2008—these 10 million people's wealth amounted to only $32.8 trillion. A down year, there.)

Here's more from Bloomberg:

The U.S. had 2.87 million millionaires, more than triple second-ranked Germany with 861,500, the report said. The number of millionaires in China soared 31 percent to 477,400, keeping the country ahead of the U.K. with 448,100.

Ultra-high net worth individuals with more than $30 million to invest saw their wealth rise by 21.5 percent in 2009, faster than other millionaires, according to the report, which attributed the gain to a "more effective re-allocation of assets."

Huzzah! Now here's a recovery you can believe in.

Mastermind Behind Arizona Immigration Law Strikes Again

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 8:36 AM PDT

Kris Kobach—the Kansas lawyer behind Arizona's harsh immigration law—has helped put another punitive measure on the books. A small Nebraska town passed a local referendum on Monday to exclude illegal immigrants from jobs and rental homes. The measure, which Kobach helped author, would bar landlords from renting to illegal immigrants, require the city to screen renters for their immigration status, and would require businesses use a federal database to ensure that only legal immigrants are allowed to work. 

Interestingly enough, the city council of Fremont, a town of 25,000, had actually opposed passing the measure, which was passed by a popular vote of about 57 percent. It turns out the Hispanic population has jumped from virtually non-existent to about 2,000 in about two decades—though no one knows how many of these newcomers are actually illegal immigrants. And some reports have suggested that older residents have been the driving force behind the law, concerned that Nebraska communities like Fremont just "no longer look or feel the way they once did." While many conservative legislators in many states have vowed to pass copycat laws in the wake of Arizona, local ordinances may end up getting on the books more quickly, given such deep-seated wariness about immigrants and minority populations in small-town America. 

The Nebraska branch of the ACLU has already vowed to file suit against the measure and block its enforcement, claiming it is discriminatory, promotes racial profiling, and violates federal law. And local opponents fear the legislation will be costly to defend, and they're right to be concerned. Kobach has helped defend similar laws in Farmers Branch, Texas, and Hazleton, Pennsylvania, both of which are still tied up in the court system. Dallas Branch has already racked up $3.2 million in legal fees in defending its anti-immigration law. And it's local taxpayers in these towns who will end up having to bear the burden.

Crackdown Looming for Subprime Student Lenders

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 8:11 AM PDT

Last month, I reported on a glaring omission in the Senate's 1,500-page financial reform bill: private student lenders, once described by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo as the "Wild West" of lending. These lenders, like juggernaut Sallie Mae, who often cater to subprime borrowers, saw the dollar amount of their loans grow from $7.2 billion to $15 billion between the 2003-04 and 2007-08 academic years. Over that same period, the percentage of students with private loans climbed from 5 percent (935,000 borrowers) to 14 percent in 2007-08 (nearly 3 million). Accompanying that growth, though, have been rampant predatory lending complaints, from peddling usurious interest rates to targeting the homeless and other people obviously without the means to pay off tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

Last night, top House lawmakers announced that private student lenders' exemption is all but dead. The House's conferees, who together with top sentators are trying to merge the chambers' two financial reform bills, offered new rules that would subject private student lenders—along with payday lenders, check cashers, and money remitters, among others—to oversight under a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. What's more, House conferees want to mandate that private student lenders get certification from a student's college before giving that student a private loan. This certification ensures that students are actually eligible for loans of any kind, and if so, that they've exhausted all options for receiving federal loan money, which carries lower interest rates and is generally safer than private loans.

These changes proposed by the House would go a long way toward to cracking down on abuses in the private student loan business, while letting the honest lenders who provide a necessary service to students go about their business. Now, it's up to the Senate, who left these lenders off the hook in the first round, to get on board.