Mojo - September 2011

Perry Defends In-State Tuition For Undocumented Immigrants

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 9:19 PM EDT

At Thursday night's Fox News/Google debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry stood firm on his decision to allow in-state tuition for undocumented students at state universities, despite harsh criticism from his rivals. 

At this point, all of Perry's opponents have recognized that he's vulnerable to attacks from the right on immigration, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) took a swipe at Perry immediately when the topic of immigration was brought up. Bachmann said she would build a border fence on "every mile, every inch" of the southern border, and said "illegal aliens" shouldn't get any government assistance. Both were veiled swipes at Perry, who has also dismissed the idea of a border fence as unworkable. 

When it came time to respond however, Perry defended his decision, saying, "we need to be educating these children because [otherwise] they will be a drag on our society," adding that if you don't sympathize with the plight of undocumented immigrants brought here as children, "you don't have a heart."

Perry's answer got a decidedly mixed response from the audience, some of whom clapped, some of whom booed loudly. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum took the bait, accusing Perry of being "soft" on illegal immigration, and saying it was wrong to give undocumented immigrant students "preferential treatment." Mitt Romney seconded Bachmann on the border fence, and said it was wrong for Perry to grant in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrant students. This is the one issue where Romney is on Perry's right—he vetoed a similar proposal as governor of Massachusetts. 

The problem for Perry is that despite his stated opposition to the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform, the moral arguments he uses to defend his actions in Texas double as justifications for policies he says he opposes. And the GOP primary audience knows it.

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Herman Cain Repeats EPA Dust Myth

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 9:07 PM EDT

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is worried that the EPA is going to regulate farm dust. So worried, in fact, that he pledged to eliminate the EPA during Thursday's presidential debate.

"It's out of control," Cain said. "The fact that they have a regulation…to regulate dust…says they've gone too far."

Cain's not alone in this (mistaken) belief that the Obama EPA is going to issue fines on dirt. It's one of the tea party-right's favorite EPA conspiracy theory. Sadly, it's not true. Despite much outrage on this subject in Congress, the agency has said repeatedly that it isn't issuing new rules on dust.

Yes, the EPA is revisiting its dust standards—but those standards have been in place since 1987. In April, the EPA issued an evaluation of particulate matter pollution standards, because the report is a requirement under the Clean Air Act. And while the report suggested that dust standards should be tightened, the EPA has no plans to "regulate" dust any time soon.

The EPA certainly isn't going to do so by January 2012, as Cain falsely claimed. Even if they intended to, the rule-making process would take a lot longer than that. And, for whatever it's worth, the Bush administration EPA actually did issue dust regulations.

Ex-Perry Aide Jay Kimbrough Sacked, Waves Pocket Knife, Apologizes

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 4:45 PM EDT

Gov. Rick Perry's chief of staff, Jay Kimbrough, was fired on Wednesday from his position as deputy chancellor of the Texas A&M University, the governor's alma mater. The stated reason? Kimbrough wasn't needed anymore—at least not at the cost of $300,000 a year.

The firing, which came on Kimbrough's 64th birthday, surprised him. But he appears to have been prepared, in a Boy Scouts sort of way. Here's the Texas Tribune:

In the process of discussing his termination with Ray Bonilla, the system's general counsel, and Scott Kelly, the deputy general counsel, Kimbrough, a Marine Corps veteran who nearly died in Vietnam and speaks often of his military history, mentioned—he says in jest—that he always carries a knife.

"I was just joking," said Kimbrough, who acknowledged that he revealed the pocketknife during the discussion. "I was just saying I was not going to be intimidated." About an hour later, while he was making phone calls from his office, he said, university police officers arrived and told him he needed to leave.

Kimbrough said it's not unusual for security to be called in when someone is terminated involuntarily, and that he didn't think it had to do with the knife. "Sure I displayed it, yes," he said. "But I do that 20 times a week. I do it when someone needs to cut a watermelon."

He said he did not threaten anyone: "Absolutely not."

The A&M system's spokesman, Jason Cook, told the Tribune that it is standard procedure to have police on stand-by in such a situation. He said no police action was taken and that no police reports have been filed "at this time."

Later Wednesday night, Bonilla emailed Kimbrough to say the security presence was “done as a routine precaution in employment matters of this nature,” but said Kimbrough should not try to return to the building.

Perry, for his part, maintains close ties with A&M. With Kimbrough? Not so much, it would appear. Anyway you slice it, getting fired on your birthday sucks.

Expanding The Drone War In Somalia

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 4:30 PM EDT
The answer to all our problems?

Responding to the news that the Obama administration intends to increase its use of drone strikes in Somalia, my colleague Kevin Drum shrugged "endless war becomes more endless." It's worth remembering though, how Somalia became such an prominent part of America's global battlefield. 

Al Shabab, the Somali-based al Qaeda affiliate whose remarkable success in recruiting American citizens has frustated law enforcement officials, emerged in its current form only after 2006, in the aftermath of a Bush administration-backed Ethiopian invasion meant to displace the Islamic Courts Union. That intervention merely destabilized Somalia further and empowered Al Shabab. The government that succeeded the relatively stable ICU ended up being run by a former ICU member anyway, and Al Shabab ended up controlling much of the country. So all the Bush-backed intervention did was make things exponentially worse. 

As Jeremy Scahill reported in August, however, that wasn't even the beginning of the cycle. The ICU, which was displaced because the Bush administration feared that their Islamism would align them with al Qaeda, emerged as a response to American-backed warlords who were targeting and killing suspected Islamic militants for money in the hopes of ever-more lucrative American sponsorship.

Somalia is being devastated by a terrible famine afflicting the region, but the expansion of the drone war suggests that US policymakers still see the country much as it did five years ago—as little more than a security problem that can be solved by the targeted application of violence. History suggests otherwise, and not just in Somalia. 

Bill Clinton Knocks Rick Perry on Israel Comments, Forgets His Own Past

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 3:41 PM EDT
Bill Clinton's 2004 autobiography "My Life" in Hebrew.

Texas Governor Rick Perry attracted plenty of criticism for his statements this week regarding President Obama's stance on the Palestinian Authority's push for UN statehood recognition. Among the critics was Bill Clinton, who accused the Republican presidential hopeful on Thursday of cynically practicing "good politics" by siding with "militant subgroups in Israel" and pandering to pro-Israel Jewish voters. The former president had this to say on MSNBC's Morning Joe:

There's an enormous reservoir of support for Israel in the Christian evangelical community, and a lot of them believe — as some of the more militant subgroups do—that God meant for all Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] to be in the hands of Israel...I'm sure there are hundreds of thousands of people that have never missed church on Sunday in Texas who believe it.

Clinton also lambasted Perry and Republicans for caving in to the Israeli leadership, allowing them to "do whatever [they] want" and to "keep the West Bank."

However accurate an assessment that may be, there is, unfortunately, a hypocrisy to Clinton's critique that was left unacknowledged. During his 1992 presidential campaign, the man from Hope wasn't shy about playing the same kind of "good politics" when it came to locking down the "pro-Israel" vote. Clinton outflanked George H.W. Bush on the right by vehemently opposing Bush's plan to have settlement freezes as a condition for $10 billion in loan guarantees to resettle Soviet Jewry. Oh, and he also declared to an audience of New York Jewish leaders in March 1992 that Bush was "ever so subtly" undoing "the taboo against overt anti-Semitism."

In other words, Clinton slamming Perry on this issue would be akin to Clinton weighing in on the Troy Davis debacle and forgetting about the execution of Ricky Ray Rector he oversaw as governor of Arkansas (which is actually something Clinton had the gall to do on Thursday, too).

Perry's condemnation of Obama's foreign policy and Clinton's rebuttal both show that exercising these "good politics" on Israel is one of the few things both sides of the aisle can still agree on.

Arizona AG: We Love Latinos! Can't Get Enough of 'Em!

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 3:00 PM EDT
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne

On Wednesday, the US District Court for the District of Columbia threw out a challenge to the Voting Rights Act (VRA) mounted by a coalition of conservative legal groups from Shelby County, Alabama. The group sought to render unconstitutional Section 5 of the VRA, which requires states with ugly racial histories—like Alabama—to pre-clear any proposed changes to their election laws with the Department of Justice in order to assure that minority voting rights aren’t being trampled. Pre-clearance, Shelby County argued, amounts to a violation of states' rights. The court didn't agree.

The Shelby County decision, authored by George W. Bush appointee John Bates, doesn't bode well for a similar suit filed by Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne in August. The Grand Canyon state was inducted into the pre-clearance gang in 1975 for failing to publish ballots in Spanish.

In an interview with Capitol Media Services on Wednesday, Horne admitted the odds are against Arizona. His suit draws on many of the same arguments presented by the plaintiffs in the Shelby County case; moreover, the same judge, Bates, will be presiding over the Arizona case. But Horne believes that his case has a shot in front of the Supreme Court, and doesn’t think that Arizona's current voting laws discriminate against minorities, telling Capitol Media Services that "there is no evidence of ongoing problems" in Arizona.

To back up his point, Horne argues that the percentage of Latinos registered to vote isn't "significantly different than their share of the voting-age population." But according to a 2008 study by the William C. Velazquez Institute, 19 percent of the state's eligible voters are Latino, while only 14 percent of its registered voters are Latino. That means Latinos are under-registered relative to their share of the voting-age population. Whites don't have that problem: 88 percent of the state's eligible voters are white, and 88 percent of its registered voters are white.

Only a little over half of all eligible Latinos were registered in 2008. Maybe the others were scared off by imposing white men sporting black t-shirts emblazoned with this logo and demanding proof of citizenship from Latinos waiting in line to vote. Yes, that really happened.

As for other shining moments in Arizona racial history, Horne decided to dredge up an oldie-but-a-goodie:

[T]he approval by lawmakers last year of SB 1070 is not a sign of ongoing racism in Arizona. Instead, he said, it is designed solely to give state and local police more power to enforce laws against illegal immigration.

Horne said one of the best pieces of evidence he has that Arizona does not discriminate against Hispanics is the fact that voters here elected Raul Castro as governor in 1974. Anyway, he said, including Arizona in the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act is a form of discrimination itself.

"There is data that show that Arizona has as perfectly as good a record as lots of state that are not covered" by [Section 5 of the VRA].

It's not clear what data Horne is referring to. Nor is it clear why he didn't let a sleeping dog like SB 1070 lie. Also notable: Raul Castro (not that one), whose term as Arizona governor expired almost 35 years ago, was elected six months before the state was ordered into the pre-clearance club because of its Spanish-language ballot problem. (Latinos, theoretically, could've pretty ably voted for a guy with a name like Raul Castro whether or not a Spanish-language ballot was available.) The state has not had a Latino governor since.

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The Countrywide Subprime Mortgage Debacle Lives On

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 9:40 AM EDT

Countrywide Financial, Ameriquest, and the other infamous subprime mortgage lenders that helped scuttle the housing market in 2006 and 2007 have all but disappeared from the news, leaving you to think there was nothing left to report about the former home-loan titans. Hardly. Today, iWatch News' Mike Hudson published the first installment of a two-part expose of how Countrywide, once the king of US lenders, allegedly condoned and encouraged fraud by its employees, and intimidated and sometimes fired internal whistleblowers who sounded the alarm about the lender's shady practices.

Hudson tracked down 30 former Countrywide employees who claim the company's brass not only let fraud run rampant under their noses—they even fueled it. What's more, Hudson cites 18 employees who say they were demoted or terminated for alerting higher-ups to sketchy behavior including using scissors, tape, and Wite-Out to churn out fake bank statements; inflating home appraisals; and cutting and pasting the address of one property onto the appraisal of a completely different one. On one occasion, when Countrywide's then-chief fraud investigator, Eileen Foster, a key player in Hudson's story, went hunting for more dubious behavior, an executive called her and said, "I'm goddamned sick and tired of these witch hunts."

It's a sordid tale, one that might never have seen the light of day had Hudson, who literally wrote the book on the subprime disaster, not kept digging long after the rest of the business press went home. Here's more from Eileen Foster's story:

Foster told the agency that instead of defending the rights of honest employees, Countrywide’s employee relations unit sheltered fraudsters inside the company. According to the Labor Department, Foster believed Employee Relations "was engaged in the systematic cover-up of various types of fraud through terminating, harassing, and otherwise trying to silence employees who reported the underlying fraud and misconduct."

In government records and in interviews with iWatch News, Foster describes other top-down misconduct:

  • She claims Countrywide's management protected big loan producers who used fraud to put up big sales numbers. If they were caught, she says, they frequently avoided termination.
     
  • Foster claims Countrywide's subprime lending division concealed from her the level of "suspicious activity reports." This in turn reduced the number of fraud reports Countrywide gave to the U.S. Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.
     
  • Foster claims Countrywide failed to notify investors when it discovered fraud or other problems with loans that it had sold as the underlying assets in "mortgage-backed" securities. When she created a report designed to document these loans on a regular basis going forward, she says, she was "shut down" by company officials and told to stop doing the report.

In Foster's view, Countrywide lost its way as it became a place where everyone was expected to bend to the will of salespeople driven by a whatever-it-takes ethos.

The attitude, she says, was: "The rules don't matter. Regulations don't matter. It's our game and we can play it the way we want."

The entire piece is worth a read. And watch for part two when it lands tomorrow.

Rick Perry's Florida Co-Chair: Gays Cause Tornadoes

| Thu Sep. 22, 2011 9:20 AM EDT
Does this tornado look gay?

Earlier this week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced his leadership team for the "Presidency 5" straw poll in Florida, scheduled for October. Although most of the other major candidates have decided to skip the event, Perry is hoping a strong showing there will give him a boost ahead of the state's important early primary. So what's his strategy for voter outreach? It looks a lot like The Response, the prayer and fasting festival he organized in August at a football stadium in Houston.

Take, for instance, his new co-chair: Pam Olsen, founder of the Tallahassee House of Prayer (dubbed the "prayer lady" in her home state for reasons that should be self-evident) and a leading anti-abortion activist in the state. As Right Wing Watch notes, though, Olsen also believes that gay marriage, and its increasing acceptance among American Christians, is causing destructive natural disasters across the country. Here's what she said back in July:

God is shaking. If anybody looks at the news and has just seen what's been happening recently with the floods, the fires, the tornadoes, God is shaking. Yeah I think you have God shaking, sure you have the Enemy shaking, you have both and I don't want to say oh that's the judgment of God or that's the Enemy. But the reality is God is judging us, and I think it's going to get worse.

It's somewhat unclear why Texas, whose governor supports criminalizing gay sex, would be punished with raging wildfires for having too high a tolerance for gay rights. But Olsen's view is wholly consistent with Perry's other allies on the religious right. The Response, you'll recall, featured a number of controversial pastors who believed that, among other things, 9/11 was God's way of punishing America for tolerating homosexuality and the blackbirds that died suddenly in Arkansas last winter were a harbinger of the End Times.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 22, 2011

Thu Sep. 22, 2011 4:57 AM EDT

Soldiers from Battery A, 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment fired the howitzers on their M109A6 Paladins during the first-ever firing of the Modular Artillery Charge System in the combat zone by an entire Paladin battery March 13, 2011 on Camp Taji, Iraq. The MACS is a newly refined propellant that pushes projectiles out of the barrel of the howitzers. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jon Cupp, 1st BCT, 1st Cav. Div. Public Affairs.

Troy Davis Executed in Georgia

| Wed Sep. 21, 2011 10:00 PM EDT

Despite evidence that threw into question the veracity of testimony that led to his conviction, pleas from a former president and the Pope, and even a last-minute review of the case by the US Supreme Court on Wednesday night, Troy Davis was executed by lethal injection shortly after 11 p.m. on Wednesday in Georgia.

Davis, whose case we wrote about in full detail here, was convicted on 1991 on charges that he murdered a Savannah police officer. Davis had put off eating his final meal in the expectation that he would be granted a stay of execution—as he had three times before in the past—but by Wednesday morning, he had exhausted all of his options, and a standing offer to submit to a polygraph test was rebuffed by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. The final lethal injection was delayed for more than three hours as the state waited to hear from the Supreme Court (which dismissed the appeal without dissent).

By now, you probably know the facts: Of the nine witnesses to the murder, seven have since recanted, and in doing so alleged that they were coerced into identifying Davis. Police tainted the identification process by pointing out Davis' face before he ever appeared in the lineup; new psychological research suggests that the officers went about identifying the suspect in exactly the wrong way. Ballistics evidence used to convict Davis has since been debunked. Another witness has since emerged as a plausible suspect in the murder trial. Three jurors on the case now say that if they knew then what they know now, they would not have voted to convict. Davis was quite possibly innocent, but that was hardly the point. As expressed by the popular Twitter hashtag, the problem was simply that there was #TooMuchDoubt.

Davis' case represented a perfect storm for death penalty opponents. He received support from world leaders and celebrities, including Pope Benedict XVI, Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, former FBI Director William Sessions, Salman Rushdie, and Kim Kardashian. R.E.M., in one of their last acts as a band, asked supporters to sign a petition for clemency. Unlike Duane Buck, the Texas inmate whose sentence was temporarily stayed by the Supreme Court last week, Davis' guilt really was really a matter of debate. Unlike Cameron Todd Willingham, whose 2004 execution was based on debunked forensic science, he had an otherwise clean record and was a reputable character. And perhaps just as importantly, he fit the prototype: Davis, who was black, physically embodied the racial disparities that permeate the criminal justice system, from capital punishment on down to drug sentencing. It was no accident that Amnesty International made him the face of its push to end the death penalty.

Davis' execution is a setback for death penalty opponents—and more broadly, death penalty supporters who know a broken system when they see one. It's also a reminder that for all of the fervor generated by cases like Davis', the overwhelming majority of Americans still support the death penalty, and tellingly, the majority of Americans who believe that innocent people are sometimes executed still support the death penalty. In ruling against Davis, the Supreme Court affirmed what Justice Antonin Scalia stated in 2009: "[T]his court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is 'actually' innocent."

Public policy can be improved (and lives saved) without wading into the furious culture war dispute over capital punishment itself. As the Willingham fiasco led to a reconsideration of the use of forensic evidence, reformers now have another opportunity in the wake of Davis' execution to push more scientific, disinterested witness identification. They can fight split-jury sentencing and raise the threshold required to send someone to death row. (Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal supports ending the requirement in his state that juries be unanimous to secure death warrants; Florida and Alabama are the only two states that don't require unanimity to obtain a death sentence.)

Either way, the debate won't die down any time soon. Next week, the US Supreme Court will consider what course of action to take on the Duane Buck case in Texas.