Mojo - August 2010

Watchdogs Worry about Obama's New Ethics Czar

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 8:57 AM PDT

The newly appointed White House czar for ethics and transparency, Bob Bauer, is raising alarm bells among good government groups who've pointed to his history of defending unchecked special interest spending in elections. Bauer, currently the White House counsel, will be replacing Norm Eisen, who is leaving to become the ambassador to the Czech Republic. As the Washington Independent explains, Bauer has a long history of helping both interest groups and the national party committees get around campaign finance regulations and fight against disclosure requirements:

According to campaign finance reform advocates, Bauer’s biggest transgression comes from his time as lead counsel for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was then that the national party committees exploited a series of loopholes allowing the parties to raise unlimited amounts of “soft money” from corporations and individuals. “It took us ten years to reverse much of the damage that [Bauer] wrought with soft money loopholes,” says Craig Holman, a legislative representative for Public Citizen. “It was his arguments before the [Federal Election Commission] on behalf of the Democratic Party — that was where the soft money loophole first started breaking. And once he got that little hole in the dam, then all these election lawyers just ran with it.”

The “soft money” loophole — which let the national parties use unlimited funds for certain costs unrelated to national elections — had existed since the late 1970s. Under Bauer’s watch, both parties started to exploit it, in earnest.

Watchdog groups accuse Baeur of later working to undermine the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act—also known as the McCain-Feingold Act. They also point to his more recent role in helping EMILY's List challenge the FEC's attempt to limit contributions to non-profit advocacy organizations classified as 527 groups.
 

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Rick Scott, The Bail-Out Man

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 8:23 AM PDT

Rick Scott, the wealthy Republican running for the Florida governor's seat, has a bailout problem. No, he doesn't support using trillions in taxpayer money to save failing banks. But he does have a habit of bailing out on big-time campaign events, a nasty habit that's coincided with a drop in the polls just a few days before Tuesday's primary election.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports that Scott, a former big-time hospital executive, bailed out of an event hosted by the Boca Raton Republican Club where he would've appeared alongside his primary opponent, Florida attorney general Bill McCollum. A record crowd had turned out, organizers said, to see the two candidates side-by-side. As it turns out, that's an arrangement that Scott has seemingly avoided when he feels like it.

Earlier this month, Scott dodged a forum with McCollum hosted by the Christian Family Coalition, even though he willingly delivered a speech of his own at the same CFC setting earlier in the day. And Scott also dodged a televised debate hosted by Leadership Florida and the Florida Press Association pitting him against McCollum. 

Here's more from the Sun-Sentinel on Scott's latest bailout:

Club president Margi Helschien said Scott's staff had repeatedly confirmed his appearance, and did a walk-through of the venue earlier this week at the Boca Raton Marriott.

Helschein said Scott's staff confirmed at 1 p.m. Thursday that he would be at the event. At 4 p.m., she got a call from the Scott campaign saying he was in the Panhandle and wouldn't show up.

The campaign offered up the candidate's mother, Esther Scott. Helschein accepted, figuring she could provide people with some insight into her son.

"What better person to know a candidate than their mother," she said.

Scott's aversion to tough questioning apparently extends to reporters as well. Earlier this summer, Scott's staff "barred a Miami television reporter from his campaign bus for the offense of asking Esther Scott a few questions about her son," the Sun-Sentinel reported.

The latest Quinnipiac poll for Florida's GOP gubernatorial race shows McCollum out in front, 44 percent to 35 percent. The Broward New Times has five pretty hilarious reasons of their own for why the tall, bald-headed Scott skipped the Boca Raton event. (Hint: Number three is "Jet lag from trips to the planet Krypton.")

Newt Gingrich and the "Ground Zero Mosque"

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 8:05 AM PDT

Obviously right-thinking people realize that the ginned-up "controversy" over the "ground zero mosque" is among the dumbest things that we, as a nation, have ever spent this amount of time on. (That's one reason why President Obama shouldn't have said anything about it.) The proposed "mosque" is not a mosque, is not at Ground Zero, and is right near an actual, bona-fide mosque that has been in the neighborhood for decades. And don't we have more important things to be worrying about?

In any case, I just wanted to note the role of former Speaker of the House and supposedly "serious" Republican "idea man" Newt Gingrich in all this stupid, hateful stupidness. Last week, Gingrich started making a habit of comparing the proposed "mosque" (actually a community center called the Cordoba House or Park51 project) to "putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum." I hope I don't have to explain just how offensive everything about that comment is. Gingrich is also scheduled to speak at crazy Muslim-hater (and Malcolm-X-is-Obama's-dad theorizer) Pam Geller's September 11th rally against the "mosque" project alongside Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders, who wants to ban the Koran and make Islam illegal.*

People who think that Gingrich is a "serious" "idea man" and a credible candidate to lead the GOP into the next decade should consider his role in the "mosque" controversy and remember that he is also the person most responsible for perhaps the only stupider thing that we as a country have spent this much time on: the impeachment of Bill Clinton for lying about a blow job. All this while Gingrich himself was himself cheating on his (second) wife. But of course, it "doesn't matter" what Newt does—America needs him too much: "People need to hear what I have to say. There's no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn't matter what I live." 

*UPDATE, 11:30 a.m. Tuesday: Gingrich has backed out of appearing—and Geller may have exaggerated his involvement in the first place. Here's ThinkProgress:

Gingrich spokesperson Joe DeSantis told Politico that the Gingrich—who has been an outspoken opponent of the Islamic center—"is not scheduled to be at this rally. He is not speaking." DeSantis said Gingrich’s staff had only agreed to send a video message, not make an appearance, but that too has now been canceled, but Gingrich won't say why.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 20, 2010

Thu Aug. 19, 2010 9:11 PM PDT

 

Soldiers with Company F, “Fierce Company,” 52nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion, 12th Field Artillery Regiment, 4th SBCT, 2nd Infantry Division, United States Division-Center, listen to a convoy brief on Aug. 16 at Contingency Operating Base Adder, Iraq, during their final convoy out of theater. Photo via the US Army.

After MoJo Story, Soldier Gets Home Back

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 11:42 AM PDT

A few folks have been asking me on Twitter, so I figured MoJo readers were owed an update on Michael Clauer, the Texas soldier who lost his $300,000 home over an $800 debt while he was serving in Iraq.

When I wrote about the Clauers' plight in May, it hadn't yet received any national attention. But reader response was swift. The article garnered over 650 comments on MotherJones.com, plus thousands more on Huffington Post and other sites that linked to our investigation. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. [Read the original story here.]

I exchanged emails with the Clauers' lawyer, Barbara Hale, earlier this month, and she told me the case has been resolved. As of now, it looks like Michael, his wife May, and their two children will get their home back. The financial terms of the settlement are confidential.

The Clauers were saved by a law called the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which essentially forbids foreclosing on active-duty troops. If Michael hadn't been on active duty, the Clauers might not have had any legal recourse. Of course, they really shouldn't have had to deal with lawyers in the first place. Whatever happened to being neighborly? Here's an excerpt from the original story:

Michael went on active duty in February 2008 and was sent to Iraq. After he shipped out, his wife May slipped into a deep depression, according to court documents. "A lot of people say that the deployment is more stressful on the spouse than the actual person who's being deployed," Michael, 37, says in an interview with Mother Jones. May Clauer had two kids to take care of—a ten-year-old and a one-year-old with a serious seizure-related disorder. In addition, she was worried sick about her husband. Michael's company was doing convoy security in Iraq—an extremely dangerous job. "It was a pretty tough year for the whole company," he says. "We had IEDs, rocket attacks and mortar attacks, and a few soldiers that were hurt pretty bad and had to be airlifted back to the States."

Seeking to avoid hearing about the situation in Iraq, May stopped watching the news. She rarely answered the door, and Michael says he couldn't tell her when he went "outside the wire"—off-base. May also stopped opening the mail. "I guess she was scared that she would hear bad news," says Michael. That was why she missed multiple notices from the Heritage Lakes Homeowners Association informing her that the family owed $800 in dues—and then subsequent notices stating that the HOA was preparing to foreclose on the debt and seize the home.... In May 2008, the HOA sold the Clauers' home for a pittance—$3,500—although its appraisal value was $300,000, according to court documents. The buyer then resold the house to a third person. (Select Management Co., the company that manages Heritage Lakes, declined to comment for this story.)

...At no point did anyone from the HOA—which is, after all, composed of the Clauers' neighbors—appear to have tried to visit May Clauer's house to talk to her about the problem. "The HOA board members...don't live very far from me at all," Michael Clauer says. There were "neighbors owing much more than us [who] were notified in person of pending foreclosures, but my wife only received a few letters." David Schechter of the Dallas/Fort Worth television station WFAA, which first reported this story, notes that the "Clauers' HOA says homeowners are free to call them, but they do not call or visit homeowners when there's a problem. They're only required to send a certified letter."

If folks from the homeowners association had bothered to knock on May Clauer's door, they might have avoided all this—the legal fees, the negative press attention, and the (surely large) settlement costs. But they didn't, and they paid the price. Fred Rogers would be ashamed. 

Here's an interesting postscript: When I asked whether the homeowners association that foreclosed on Clauer admitted wrongdoing, Hale emailed back "Heck No!" Homeowners associations have enormous power. In 33 states, they can foreclose without a court order over a few hundred dollars in unpaid dues. The process in Texas is especially quick—just 27 days. Texas HOAs have been bedeviled by allegations that they are taking advantage of the law. Some have even been accused of specifically targeting people who own their homes free and clear—like the Clauers did—so that they can flip the house and make a profit. Until the laws are reformed so that it's harder to take people's homes over a few hundred bucks, you're going to keep seeing these sorts of stories. At least this one had a happy ending.

This post has been extended since it was first published.

This Week in National Insecurity

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 9:55 AM PDT

Whichever side of the fence you land on, chances are you agree that America's not a very secure nation these days: economically, electorally, or physically. So we grabbed our lensatic compass, rucksack, and canteen, then mounted out across the global media landscape for a quick recon. Whether you're scared because our military isn't good enough—or you're scared because it's too good—here's all the ammunition you need, in a handy debrief.

In this installment: Zombie ants may spell your doom; explosives with no regard for your feelings; the Manchurian Obama gets a cash infusion; we "leave" Iraq, "blast" Afghanistan, and "talk" with WikiLeaks; and the Brits invent Terminator Crotch Pants!

The sitrep:

The United States government's national threat level is Elevated, or Yellow. You're welcome.

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Taxpayer Cash for Aide's DWI Trip?

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 7:19 AM PDT

A month and a half ago, it emerged that an aide to Sen. David Vitter (R-La.)—an aide handling women's issues, no less—had pled guilty in 2008 to threatening to kill his girlfriend and attacking her. With a knife. ABC News broke the story about Brent Furer, who subsequently resigned from his position, and who, in addition to the attack charges, had been arrested three times for driving under the influence and once for cocaine possession.

Now, a follow-up investigation into the aide's record raises a new issue: Did taxpayer money fund one of Furer's trips to Louisiana for a DWI-related court hearing? The Advocate of Louisiana found that expense reports in Vitter's office show that two trips Furer made to Louisiana in 2007 and 2008 coincide with dates the aide showed up in court for a December 2004 DWI arrest. (A Vitter spokesman told The Advocate that Vitter "did not know about any Baton Rouge DWI incident until it was reported in the press just this past June...It is standard for our Washington legislative staff to visit Louisiana periodically for meetings.")

More on Furer from The Advocate:

The US Senate’s expense records show Vitter’s office account was billed $634.20 for transportation for Furer leaving Washington, DC, on Oct. 12, 2007 to New Orleans and returning on Oct. 18, 2007.

Furer appeared in court on Oct. 17, 2007, according to Baton Rouge City Court records, then was referred to the probation division.

The US Senate records also show that Vitter’s office expense account was tapped for $746 for Furer’s transportation from Washington, D.C., to Baton Rouge and New Orleans leaving Aug. 5, 2008, and returning Aug. 14, 2008.

Furer signed a probation agreement in Baton Rouge on Aug 7, 2008, attesting that he would fulfill the conditions of the sentence.

A bench warrant was issued on Furer in connection with the last DWI for failure to appear in court on June 1, 2009, according to city court records. The hearing was to consider his non-compliance with the terms of his sentence.

With Vitter up for re-election this year, you can't help but wonder whether, or how much, the Furer furor will hurt his campaign. Then again, "Diaper Dave" Vitter has overcome worse.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 19, 2010

Wed Aug. 18, 2010 11:59 PM PDT

 

US Army Pfc. Justin Cobbs, a radio operator assigned to 3rd Platoon, Fox Company, 2nd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, takes a break in a dried riverbed during a dismounted patrol near Combat Outpost Mizan, Mizan District, Zabul Province, on Aug. 16, 2010. Photo via the US Army by Senior Airman Nathanael Callon.

America's Last Best Hope?

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 3:24 PM PDT

In September 1998, I was handed a submission for a proposed book by Chalmers Johnson.  I was then (as I am now) consulting editor at Metropolitan Books. 9/11 was three years away, the Bush administration still an unimaginable nightmare, and though the prospective book's prospective title had "American Empire" in it, the American Empire Project I now co-run with my friend and TomDispatch regular Steve Fraser was still almost four years from crossing either of our minds.

I remembered Johnson, however. As a young man, I had read his book on peasant nationalism in north China where, during the 1930s, Japanese invaders were conducting "kill-all, burn-all, loot-all" operations. Its vision of how a revolution could gain strength from a foreign occupation stayed with me. I had undoubtedly also read some of Johnson's well-respected work on contemporary Japan and I knew, even then, that in the Vietnam War era he had been a fierce opponent of the antiwar movement I took part in. If I didn't already know it, the proposal made no bones about the fact that he had also, in that era, consulted for the CIA.

DOD: Our Bad, We DID Talk to WikiLeaks

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 2:43 PM PDT

The Pentagon is walking back initial denials that it tried to contact WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, in recent days to discuss still-unreleased secret files from the Afghanistan war. And new details divulged by defense officials suggest their middleman for contacting the website was an obscure lawyer based in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Earlier today, Assange told reporters that he'd "received contact" from the military and he'd "welcome their engagement," adding: "It is always positive for parties to talk to each other." But according to Newsweek:

...spokesmen for both the US Army and the Office of the Secretary of Defense denied that any such contacts had occurred. The office of the Army's general counsel, the military service's chief lawyer, has had "no contact with Julian Assange or any representative of WikiLeaks," said Col. Thomas Collins, an Army spokeman.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman went on to say that there was no "direct contact with WikiLeaks," and the DOD's only avenue of communicating with the site was "via the media."

That now appears to be untrue. In discussions with reporters later Wednesday at the Pentagon, Whitman clarified the military's position. According to Stars & Stripes DC bureau reporter Kevin Baron: "DOD just released a letter sent on Monday to an indivudual they 'came across' who was 'purporting' to be an atty for WikiLeaks." Whitman told the assembled reporters that the DOD had scheduled a phone conversation at 10 a.m. on Sunday, "but the atty did not show."

That attorney, who was to have spoken with the Pentagon's general counsel (as Assange had claimed earlier), was Timothy J. Matusheski of Hattiesburg, whose firm owns the website MississippiWhistleblower.com. Matusheski didn't return calls from Mother Jones requesting a comment on Wednesday, but a search of public records does show that he filed a Freedom of Information Act Request with the Justice Department as a representative of WikiLeaks (PDF) on March 10, 2009. The request description, which was incomplete on the public register, appears to have been for "Any comunications [sic] Ed Gillespie, White House Counsel to President George W. Bush from June 27, 2007 to Jan. 20, 2009 would have had with the Justice Department on the subject of restoring diplomatic..." The description was cut off at that point.

In further remarks, Whitman maintained that the Pentagon still had no "direct contact" with WikiLeaks, and the department "will not negotiate some 'minimized' or 'sanitized' version of a release by WikiLeaks." Still, according to Baron, the DOD refused to discuss "if investigators talked to this guy," meaning Matusheski, and "also would not explain how the Pentagon 'came across" this man."

Whether or not Matusheski or the Pentagon clarify their links to reporters, today's developments appear to vindicate Assange's most recent claims about hearing from the DOD general counsel. If the Pentagon-WikiLeaks rivalry is a battle for credibility, the upstart website appears to have won the day, at least.