Mojo - November 2010

Missing Figures in Indian Country

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 4:00 AM PST

Native American crime statistics are notoriously scattered or simply non-existent, so luckily for me, Mac McClelland, a former fact-checker, neatly annotated her investigative steps behind this issue's "A Fistful of Dollars." The stirring piece highlights Indian Country's fragmented justice system and the services offered by a Pawnee man, who is routinely hired to avenge crimes that have gone unpunished. Melissa Tatum, research law professor and associate director of the University of Arizona Indigenous Peoples Law & Policy Program, explained to me that many available stats are based on national surveys, which fail to carve out the realities of the Indian demographics.

Currently, tribes have little penalizing authority, and most crimes just go unpunished. And though Tatum confirms the federal government's efforts to make culturally sensitive legislation (as seen in the recently penned Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) [PDF], she foresees a problem in trying to make a one-size-fits-all policy for Indian nations. She explains that tribes vary in geography, history and culture, and therefore, crime problems. To complicate matters, she says there are varying degrees of cultural retention among tribes which affects their justice systems similarly.

"The federal government needs to look to each tribe and each geographic area [and let them] decide for themselves what is appropriate," Tatum explains. "It's listening to each tribe and each culture about what would work for them. And realizing that there's not going to be an ability to find one nationwide solution, but there's going to have to [be] flexibility." Tatum believes the TLOA has potential to fill some of the data gaps and could work to prove Indians' competence to maintain law and order in their own communities, because it seeks to standardize crime-gathering in Indian Country, and encourages data-sharing within the tangled maze of bureaucracies that oversee tribal lands [pdf]. So, if nothing else, at least it could create some reliable data set so tribal, and federal, authorities know what they're dealing with.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 22, 2010

Mon Nov. 22, 2010 3:30 AM PST

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Danielle Robles, from the Paktia Provincial Reconstruction Team, provides security during an engineering mission in Rabat, Afghanistan, on Nov. 7, 2010. The team facilitates the Afghan government’s ability to provide public services and development projects with the goal of weakening insurgent influence. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Barry Loo, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

Ron Paul: Abolish the TSA

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 5:30 PM PST

Kevin Drum and Nick Baumann have already weighed in on the great-TSA-junk-groping-and-porn-scanner-freakout of 2010. Now, Texas Rep. Ron Paul has introduced legislation to fix the problem. Or simply fix one problem by creating a whole host of other problems; it's unclear, really. Thankfully, the bill is only 106 words long, which means that 1.) its opponents won't be able to dramatically wave a copy of the legislation on the House floor, and 2.) I can just copy and paste the bill below, in its entirety:

No law of the United States shall be construed to confer any immunity for a Federal employee or agency or any individual or entity that receives Federal funds, who subjects an individual to any physical contact (including contact with any clothing the individual is wearing), x-rays, or millimeter waves, or aids in the creation of or views a representation of any part of a individual's body covered by clothing as a condition for such individual to be in an airport or to fly in an aircraft. The preceding sentence shall apply even if the individual or the individual's parent, guardian, or any other individual gives consent.

Paul might oppose physical violations of our civil liberties, but other liberties are fair game—which, as Adam Serwer notes, has sort of been the big elephino in the room during this whole debate. For instance, Paul told Fox News' Neil Cavuto afterwards that he supports profiling—so long as it's the privately owned airlines, and not the government employees doing the sorting. I wouldn't bet on the bill passing, but it should, if nothing else, make for a great campaign ad the next time he runs for president.

And if you haven't already, check out Nick's five-step plan for a saner TSA.

Under Fire, Foreclosure King Resigns

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 3:55 PM PST

It's all unraveling for David J. Stern, the South Florida foreclosure attorney who built a once-formidable foreclosure empire only to see it crumble in recent months. On Friday, DJSP Enterprises, Stern's publicly traded foreclosure processing company, announced his resignation as president and CEO. Replacing him is Stephen Bernstein, a prominent real estate executive in Florida. It's Bernstein's job now to turn around a company that's lost 96 percent of its initial market capitalization of $300 million in less than a year. The company has never recovered from an unexpected dip in business that caused DJSP's stock to plummet this spring. DJSP's stock value has hovered around $.50 a share for the past week.

The downfall of DJSP, which handles non-legal processing work for Stern's law firm, stems largely from David Stern's own fallout with some of his biggest clients, both in Washington and on Wall Street. After media reports, including MoJo's own eight-month investigation exposed the questionable, dubious practices at Stern's firm (one former employee called it a "legal sweatshop") and widespread evidence of rampant corner cutting and even alleged fraud, the scrutiny of Stern's multimillion-dollar operation increased. Soon after MoJo published its story on Stern in August, the Florida attorney general announced a probe into Stern's firm to see whether bogus paperwork had been cooked up to speed up the foreclosure proceed and churn out more profit.

Before long, facing pressure from members of Congress and the public, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the taxpayer-rescued government housing corporations who'd previously counted Stern among their retained attorneys, stopped doing business with him. It was a major blow to Stern; so important (and lucrative) to him were Fannie and Freddie that he referred to them as his "babies." Citigroup, GMAC, and Wells Fargo followed Fannie and Freddie's lead soon after. As a result, Stern's new business plummeted by more than 90 percent, he wrote to employees in a November letter. His operation has laid off more than 400 of its 1000-plus employees in recent weeks as a result of the slowdown in foreclosure referrals, and is expected to fire even more.

Stern began building his foreclosure empire, which today stretches from Florida to Puerto Rico to the Philippines, nearly two decades ago, in a North Miami Beach office with "ugly blue carpet and pink walls," he once recalled. Over time, though, he built, fine-tuned, and expanded his foreclosure law firm, adding new employees and finding new ways to speed up the foreclosure process. Foreclosure mills like Stern's get paid by the case, so the faster they plow through cases, the more money they make.

But as Stern's firm grew and grew, it allegedly began to play fast and loose with due process and the law. As I reported,

Beyond the backdated assignments, employees told me that the firm routinely doctored legal filings. Case chronologies—the timeline of important events in a foreclosure—were changed "all day long" to create the appearance of propriety, notes a former Stern paralegal. Internal documents show that the firm attempted to push cases through the courts even when key documents like the assignment of mortgage—or the mortgage contract itself—were missing from the file. "Need to re-set. No original loan docs," a Stern attorney wrote in a July 2008 memo after being rebuffed at a Tampa court hearing. At a Stern hearing in April, Pinellas County Judge Anthony Rondolino got so fed up with bad behavior by the mills, he declared, "I don't have any confidence that any of the documents the court is receiving on these mass foreclosures are valid."

That same month, a Fort Lauderdale attorney filed a class-action lawsuit against Stern and his firm, accusing them of racketeering and claiming the firm deliberately hid the true ownership on mortgages in cases involving "tens of thousands" of homeowners. A second suit, filed just days later, claimed that Stern's firm had refused to hold up a foreclosure on a couple in Port St. Lucie, even after it was clear that they hadn't had so much as been late with a payment.

Those practices eventually caught up with Stern. The financial health of DJSP Enterprises had gotten so bad lately that, in a financial filing, the company revealed it had defaulted on both its office rent and a $15 million line of credit with Bank of America. You couldn't miss the irony.

While Stern still retains control of his firm, the Law Offices of David J. Stern, the future's unclear for Stern and his publicly traded outfit.

Two Clinton-Era Laws That Allow Cruel and Unusual Punishment

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 2:04 PM PST

If the lame duck Congress is looking for legislation to pass before the Republicans take hold, it should look no farther than two laws passed as part of the so-called War on Crime, which gives the War on Terror a run for its money when it comes to violating Constitutional and human rights.

The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), passed after the Oklahoma City bombing with broad bipartisan support, undermined habeas the corpus rights of US prisoners long before the Bush Administration sought to withhold them from "enemy combatants." AEDPA placed severe limitations on prisoners' ability to challenge death sentences—or life sentences, or any unjust convictions—in federal courts, even when they had new evidence of their innocence.

Under AEDPA, proof of "actual innocence" does not necessarily prohibit the execution or continued incarceration of prisoners. (A recent Supreme Court decision in the Troy Davis case questioned, but did not eliminate, this reality.) And while the pace of executions has slowed in recent years in spite of the AEDPA, the law still stands in the way of appeals by many prisoners across the country who might have just grounds for seeking to have their convictions overturned.

Retired Republican Rep. Warns Party: Ignore Climate at Your Own Risk

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 1:29 PM PST

Sherwood Boehlert, the former Republican House member from New York , penned an op-ed in the Washington Post today taking members of his party to task for denying climate change. Boehlert represented New York's 24th District in Congress from 1983 until he retired in 2007, and is now a special adviser to the Project on Climate Science.

Like his fellow Republican Bob Inglis of South Carolina, Boehlert is baffled by the position of his colleagues:

It is a stance that defies the findings of our country's National Academy of Sciences, national scientific academies from around the world and 97 percent of the world's climate scientists.
Why do so many Republican senators and representatives think they are right and the world's top scientific academies and scientists are wrong? I would like to be able to chalk it up to lack of information or misinformation.
I can understand arguments over proposed policy approaches to climate change. I served in Congress for 24 years. I know these are legitimate areas for debate. What I find incomprehensible is the dogged determination by some to discredit distinguished scientists and their findings.

Boehlert continued that the "natural aversion to more government regulation" should not be used "as an excuse to deny the problem's existence." He also warned that it's short-sighted. "My fellow Republicans should understand that wholesale, ideologically based or special-interest-driven rejection of science is bad policy," he said. "And that in the long run, it's also bad politics."

Both Boehlert and Inglis stand as rare examples in their party today; as a comprehensive survey of the scene from the Center for American Progress notes, the breakdown of the incoming class on the subject is pretty bleak:

Well over half (55 percent) of the incoming Republican caucus are climate zombies. Thirty-five of the 46 (76 percent) Republicans in the U.S. Senate next year publicly question the science of global warming. Of the 240 Republicans elected to the House of Representatives, 125 (52 percent) publicly question the science.

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Rep. Jack Kingston Announces Approps Chair Bid

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 11:47 AM PST

Since the 2010 midterms, Republican lawmakers have gone to war over earmarks. In the Senate, the battle culminated in pro-earmark Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's concession to Sen. Jim DeMint's call for a (non-binding) ban on earmarks from GOP senators on Monday.

Despite the House's similar ban on earmarks, the debate in the lower chamber hasn't generated the same fireworks as it has in the Senate. With candidates for the chairmanship of the appropriations committee—which directs a sizable chunk of federal money, including earmarks—touting their fiscal conservative bonafides in their pursuit of the gavel. But some of the top candidates for the job, including California's Jerry Lewis and Kentucky's Hal Rogers, have garnered pretty pork-friendly reputations over the years. 

In a letter to the members of the House Republican Conference, Georgia Republican Jack Kingston threw his hat in the race for committee chair. Kingston, the fifth-ranking Republican on the committee, cites his spotless conservative credentials, including perfect ratings from FreedomWorks and the Eagle Forum, and his record of cutting spending as the chairman of the Legislative Branch Subcommittee [of the Appropriations committee] "when Republican spending was at its worst." And on earmarking, he cites his 2007 bill calling for a moratorium on earmarks and bipartisan hearings on reforming the practice.

While federal spending has spun out of control, earmarks "got out of hand numerically and in the quality or the substance of them...and [are] things that the federal goernment should not be involved in," Kingston told Mother Jones recently. Given the tea party's momentum, Kingston's anti-earmark and fiscal conservative credentials could make him an attractive candidate for the powerful approps committee post.

Ousted Texas Textbooks Czar: I Shall Return

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 11:44 AM PST

Texas' textbook standards might not dictate the market like they used to, but the state still has a bigger public school system than just about any other state, so it's a pretty big deal when those standards encourage the teaching of, say, intelligent design or the collected works of Jefferson Davis. And for the last 12 years, the man who's done the most to lead the State Board of Education's rightward shift has been Don McLeroy, a dentist, Sunday school teacher, and board member who thinks liberals have taken the America out of American history and the God out of science.

Last spring McLeroy lost his primary and was thought to be just about done with public education. This week, McLeroy told the Texas Tribune, somewhat ominously, that he'll be back:

"I mean, golly, I love this stuff. You haven't seen the last of Don McLeroy," he says, noting that while he'll watch to see what happens during this legislative session's redistricting process, he'll likely run for his old spot on the board in two years.

Emphasis mine, obviously. But don't expect any fireworks from the Board's final lame-duck meetings. Members are set to discuss mathematics and fine arts, and while math has been subject of controvery in the past, McLeroy expects that debate to be "pretty blah," because—creeping Islamification of our textbooks notwithstanding—how can you politicize algebra?*

Scott Brown: GOP's Health Care Peace-Broker?

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 4:00 AM PST

Thus far, the Republican war against health care reform has been one long, blaring cry to repeal the federal law. Given just how unlikely this outcome would be under the current administration, the GOP's strategy has largely come across as political posturing meant to undermine the Democrats rather than offer any constructive alternatives or changes to the Affordable Care Act.

That was until Thursday, when Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) decided to break away from his party's all-or-nothing call for repeal, proposing a reform that could actually be an improvement on the federal law. Brown has teamed up with Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to introduce legislation that would allow states to opt out of the individual mandate to purchase health insurance more quickly. Under federal health care reform, states can appeal to the federal government for mandate waivers beginning in 2017 if they propose an acceptable alternative. Brown and Wyden want to push the start date to 2014, so that states don't have to go through the motions of complying with the federal law if they have an alternative plan in the works.

The Yes Men Hack the iPhone

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 4:00 AM PST

On Tuesday, a web site popped up to promote the new iPhone 4cf, "the same high quality phone as the original iPhone 4 with the added bonus of taking you one step closer to a world without conflict." The "conflict-free" smartphone marked a departure for Apple, which has been criticized for using "conflict minerals" from war-torn areas such as the Democratic Republic of Congo in its gadgets. Design-wise, the site was a dead-ringer for the main Apple site (more images here), but by the time you got to the part where it called for the citizen's arrest of mining executives, you had to realize something was amiss.

The visually pitch-perfect site had all the hallmarks of the Yes Men. Sure enough, its URL was registered to one "Harold Schweppes" at gatt.org, one of the anticorporate pranksters' early spoof sites. But then, as of yesterday morning, the iPhone 4cf site had vanished. The closest thing to an explanation was a phony Apple press release condemning the site as "fraudulent and fictitious, and entirely the imagination of the group of pranksters who created it."

Where'd it go? It's not like the Yes Men had an ill-gotten iPhone prototype on their hands. And they're hardly afraid of incurring the wrath of corporate America. (Check out their aggressive mockery of Chevron's current PR campaign or their impersonation of the US Chamber of Commerce.) I emailed Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum, who explained that the site was pulled after its "heroic internet provider" got a nastygram from Apple. "Apple's heavy-handed and humorless reaction just shows where their big mechanical (and conflict-mineral-rich) corporate heart is at. More is learned by that than would be by keeping the website up," he wrote.

Bichlbaum said that the iPhone site will soon relaunch somewhere else. That's good, if only because it's a beautiful hoax. But beyond the graphics, the site's content is confusing. It's not immediately clear if it's presenting a "conflict-free" phone as something cool or ludicrous. And while the site is clearly poking fun at Apple's techno-utopian branding, it also praises the company's efforts to keep conflict minerals out of its products as a "step in the right direction."