Mojo - October 2010

Beard v. 'Stache: The Real Alaska Senate Face-Off

| Fri Oct. 15, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

"I am not now, nor have I ever been, anything but a clean-shaven capitalist," Chris Coons, Delaware's Democratic Senate candidate, assured voters in a debate against tea party Republican Christine O'Donnell Wednesday night. This was an odd remark, but one he felt compelled to make after O'Donnell tried to exploit an article he wrote in college jokingly describing himself as a "bearded Marxist." The intersection of beards (and mustaches) and politics appears to be quite a hairy issue. A recent Wall Street Journal article on the presidential prospects of former Bush administration official John Bolton zeroed in on the impact his Walrus-like mustache might have on his chances.

But the facial-hairiest race of them all is in Alaska, where tea partier (and GOP nominee) Joe Miller is locked in a three-way race with incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski, who's running a write-in campaign, and Sitka mayor Scott McAdams, the Democratic nominee. If elected, Miller would be the only US Senator with a beard. (Miller's beard would also become the only senatorial beard with its own Twitter account.) McAdams, who sports a mustache, would join North Dakota GOP candidate John Hoeven (who's favored to win) as the only mustachioed senators.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 15, 2010

Fri Oct. 15, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

U.S. Soldiers with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment discuss their sectors of fire during an area reconnaissance mission off Highway 1 in Zabul province, Afghanistan, Oct. 1, 2010. (DoD photo by Spc. Joshua Grenier, U.S. Army/Released)

Terror Trial Update: No Water Bottles Please

| Thu Oct. 14, 2010 7:45 PM EDT

Read Karen Greenberg's previous coverage of the Ghailani trial here, here, here, and here.

The first morning of the trial of Ahmed Ghailani, the sole Guantanamo detainee to stand trial in a civilian court to date, began with a change in policy. "No newspapers, phones, or liquids" as of today, the security guards informed us as they removed BlackBerrys and bottles of water from our purses and briefcases with latex-gloved hands. But inside the courtroom, little had changed. Mr. Ghailani was wearing his powder blue sweater and coordinating tie. The defense attorney, Peter Quijano, sported his usual designer suit with a silk handkerchief in his breast pocket. The prosecutors stood businesslike at the lectern ready to call their witnesses. The only difference on day two of the trial was the half-empty visitors' area, populated by just over 50 people—families of victims, journalists, interested lawyers, and NGO observers like myself. On opening day the benches had been packed; during the months of pre-trial hearings that preceded it, they were almost entirely empty.

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's ... SUPER PAC!

| Thu Oct. 14, 2010 10:28 AM EDT

A new Super PAC, Alaskans Standing Together, has launched to support Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski's write-in bid to hold her seat. The Sunlight Foundation reports that records from the Federal Election Commission show this to be the first Super PAC receiving money exclusively from corporations. Super PACs are a new development in electoral politics, facilitated by the Supreme Court's decision in Citizen's United, which allowed groups that make independent campaign expenditures to raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations or individuals.

Sunlight found that the PAC has received $805,000 in contributions from nine federal contractors. So far, they have spent $595,000 in support of Murkowski. Sunlight's Ryan Sibly writes, "Alaskans Standing Together filed with the FEC on Sept. 23, 2010, and raised its money in a five day period starting on Sept. 25."

The nine contractors, all Alaska Native corporations, have received hundreds of millions in federal contracts in just the past year. The PAC's ads have all criticized Joe Miller, the tea party candidate that beat Murkowski in the Republican primary. Here's their latest ad:

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 14, 2010

Thu Oct. 14, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

Local Pakistanis load boxes of supplies onto a CH-60 Blackhawk in Khyber - Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, Oct. 5. The flood has affected nearly 20 million Pakistanis, forcing many from their homes. Pfc. Joshua Kruger. Photo via U.S. Army.

Terror Trial Update: Bombing Survivor Testifies

| Wed Oct. 13, 2010 3:59 PM EDT

Read Karen Greenberg's previous coverage of the Ghailani trial here, here, and here.

Just after 2 p.m. EDT yesterday, October 12, it finally happened. The courtroom was full of observers, press, and witnesses. The defendant, Ahmad Ghailani, wearing a light gray sweater and a matching gray plaid tie, warmly greeted both his current attorneys and the team that worked on his behalf at Guantanamo. He seemed to feel he was among friends—a stark contrast to the sentencing two weeks ago of Aafia Siddiqui, the neuroscientist and accused terrorist convicted of attempting to murder her interrogators, who bitterly disavowed her lawyers in open court.

Judge Kaplan began the Ghailani proceedings, asking the freshly sworn-in jury of 12 members and 6 alternates to stand, raise their hands, and swear to faithfully perform their duties. And before you knew it, after months of pre-trial hearings and whispers that this case might never find its way to court, opening statements were in process. US Attorney Nicholas Lewin, low-key, direct and to the point, squared off against defense attorney Steve Zissou, who was discursive, slightly more emotional, and seemingly confident of his client's innocence.

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Fannie, Freddie Ditch Foreclosure King

| Wed Oct. 13, 2010 2:50 PM EDT

Amidst the country's rapidly snowballing foreclosure debacle, some pretty big news: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have temporarily dropped the Law Offices of David J. Stern as one of their go-to firms for handling foreclosures in Florida. Stern's firm is often referred to as a "foreclosure mill," and has come under fire from defense attorneys, ex-employees, and the state attorney general for a range of improprieties. In August, Mother Jones broke the story about the evidence of wrongdoing and fraud inside the firm, its toxic culture, and its ties to Fannie and Freddie.

In the story "Fannie and Freddie's Foreclosure Barons," I detailed how Fannie and Freddie relied on Stern's firm to handle thousands of foreclosure cases as quickly and cheaply as possible:

Stern's company is one of dozens of mills that now churn through more than a million cases a year for Fannie and Freddie, big banks, and private lenders. Built like industrial assembly lines, the mills employ small armies of paralegals and other low-level employees who mass-produce court filings, run title searches, and schedule scores of hearings and property auctions daily. Meanwhile, staff attorneys appear for dozens of court hearings in rapid succession, pulling plastic filing cabinets on wheels behind them as they dash from one courtroom to the next. Stern and his ilk typically create in-house subsidiaries, which then bill the parent law firm for the various services. "All sorts of crap is loaded on," notes Irv Ackelsberg, a Philadelphia consumer-law attorney.

That model, legal experts and defense attorneys told me, led to plenty of corner-cutting and even allegations of fraud and deception in the foreclosure legal process, including using backdated documents in court. As Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, told me then, the credo of these outfits seemed to be, "How fast can I turn this file?" Rheingold added, "For these guys, the law is irrelevant, the process is irrelevant, the substance is irrelevant."

Not only have Fannie and Freddie suspended foreclosure referrals to Stern's firm, the Wall Street Journal reported, but two major banks—Citigroup and GMAC—have also stopped sending cases to the firm, which is under investigation by the Florida attorney general Bill McCollum. "Pending the outcome of the AG's investigation, Citi is not referring new matters to this firm," read a company statement.

This isn't the first crackdown on Stern's firm and the foreclosure mills since my story was published. In late September, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) sent a letter to the Florida Supreme Court demanding a halt to all foreclosures handled by the four mills under investigation by the attorney general: Shapiro and Fishman, Florida Default Law Group, the Law Offices of Marshall C. Watson, and the Stern firm. Grayson's letter specifically mentioned Mother Jones' reporting on the issue. A few days later, Grayson, Rep. Corinne Brown (D-Fla.), and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chair of the powerful House financial services committee, sent a letter to Fannie that grilled the housing corporation on its use of foreclosure mills. "Fannie Mae seems to specifically delegate its foreclosure avoidance obligations out to lawyers who specialize in kicking people out of their homes," the letter read.

The backlash against Stern followes a recent barrage of criticism and scrutiny of top mortgage companies for using bogus foreclosure filings to seize borrowers' homes. On Wednesday, regulators from all 50 states announced a massive, multi-state investigation into allegedly "deceptive" and "unfair" practices. You can read that statement announcing that investigation below. And you can read Mother Jones' initial investigation into the foreclosure mills and law firms like David Stern's here.

Foreclosure Affidavit Joint Statement

 

Dems Defecting in FL Senate Race

| Wed Oct. 13, 2010 2:14 PM EDT

Florida politics, as usual, are a hot mess. Republican tea party favorite Marco Rubio is starting to pull away in his three-way Senate race with Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek and Gov. Charlie Crist (no party affiliation this week). But since the last televised debate—in which Meek and Crist took turns blasting the frontrunner—there's been a not-so-subtle gameplan by Crist's camp to win converts from the Democratic ranks. And it looks like it's starting to work.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.—environmental activist, liberal ex-congressman, brand-name Democrat—endorsed Crist today, calling him "the only candidate who can do what we need to defeat Marco Rubio in November." But that's nothing compared to Meek's long Tuesday. First, Kennedy cousin and Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave Crist his seal of approval. Then, the St. Petersburg Times reported the story of Ellie Forte, an 80-year-old Broward County native and ex-Meek volunteer who's never not voted Democratic in her life; she's now telling all of her friends in the condo community to abandon Meek for Crist. Then, Public Policy Polling released results showing that Crist could match Rubio in a two-way race, while Meek could not. Then, the defensive state Democratic Party chairwoman and enigmatic Cajun operative James Carville held a "train wreck of a pro-Kendrick Meek conference call," raising questions about whether the wheels were falling off of his campaign.

Labor Struggles to Play Catch Up in Spending War

| Wed Oct. 13, 2010 12:45 PM EDT

Fundraising off Democratic attacks on their anonymous donors, outside Republican groups are launching a massive, $50 million ad blitz this week that will exceed what the National Republican Congressional Committee plans to spend on TV ads for the entire election, according to the Wall Street Journal:

The coordinated effort, which the groups have dubbed the "House surge strategy," tops what the official Republican House election committee expects to spend on television ads for the entire contest. It is aimed at the few dozen competitive races where Democratic candidates have significantly more money in the bank than their Republican opponents, eating into one of the Democrats' last financial advantages.

In individual races, such outside money has not only outstripped what the national GOP has spent, but also what the candidates themselves have on hand:

In the Denver suburbs, a $1.5 million ad purchase by the American Action Network will level the playing field for Republican Ryan Frazier, who is taking on two-term Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter. Mr. Frazier had only $252,000 on hand as of July 21, while Mr. Perlmutter had a war chest of $1.3 million.

Labor unions—generally the most reliable and well-funded Democratic allies—are trying to bridge the gap by pouring their own money into swing races. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), for example, announced Wednesday that it will be spending over $300,000 on a TV ad buy attacking the Republican opponent of Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.) on his support for free trade. The problem is that labor's dollars are being stretched, too, by the Democrats' waning prospects across the country. As the Hotline points out, unions weren't even expected to make a big buy in Hare's district, which had been considered a fairly safe Democratic seat, but the Republican surge has put them on the defense there as well.

There's no doubt that most endangered Democrats will welcome whatever help they can get, as the national Democratic election committees have cut off spending in districts they view as unwinnable to prioritize their efforts elsewhere. But labor groups are trailing their big Republican counterparts in terms of overall ad spending: the SEIU has spent a total of $6.3 million on ad buys and the American Federation for State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has spent $7.1 million so far. By comparison, the Chamber has spent $20 million, and American Crossroads has dropped $13.5 million—and that's only what's been reported so far, before the blizzard of spending that accompanies the final weeks of any election.

The yawning spending gap seems to have convinced labor groups that the new campaign finance landscape isn't working to their advantage after all. The AFL-CIO originally supported the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, as the ruling lifted spending restrictions for both corporations and labor unions, and was wary about supporting campaign finance legislation that would require greater donor disclosure.

But having watched the ascendancy of outside GOP goliaths like American Crossroads, labor's holdouts seemed to have changed their tune: AFL-CIO Richard Trumka said this week that he would unabashedly support greater disclosure requirements. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the argument for campaign finance reform, whatever its merits, doesn't seem to be a winning message that will help the Dems catch up in the last stretch of this election cycle—though maybe it could help them change the rules for the next one.

Obama's Attack on Rove Raises Money for Rove

| Wed Oct. 13, 2010 10:26 AM EDT

For days, President Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee have been slamming Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie for pouring millions of dollars from secret sources into House and Senate campaigns via two groups they co-founded, all to benefit Republican candidates. In response, Rove (falsely) accused the president of creating an enemies list. But he really should say, thank you. On Wednesday morning, Jonathan Collegio, communications director of the two Rove/Gillespie groups, sent out an email to reporters, noting that the Obama blasts have been very, very good for the Rove operation:

American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS have raised more than $13.3 million since Barack Obama and the Democrats launched their broadside against us last Tuesday. We have blown through our initial $50 million fundraising goal, with $56 million raised across both groups as of today. We have increased our overall fundraising goal to $65 million.

This additional funding has enabled us to initiate the new $10 million House Surge strategy, as detailed in today’s Wall Street Journal, and dedicate an additional $5 million to our Senate efforts.

In other words, please, Mr. President, hit us again. Please.