Mojo - February 2012

Sweden Moves to End Forced Sterilization of Transgender People

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 8:00 AM EST
Love Georg Elfvelin and Ulrika Westerlund delivering a petition to representative of the Swedish PM Fredrik Reinfeldt. Source: AllOut.org.

Swedish trans people and LGBT activists have something to celebrate this week, as the country—one of 17 in the European Union that requires sterilization for people who wish to switch genders on legal documents—may soon repeal the requirement. As I reported previously, Sweden's liberal and moderate members of parliament expressed desire to remove forced sterilization last month, only to be blocked by an opposing coalition of conservative political groups led by the Christian Democrat Party. Now, according to the Swedish paper The Local, the Christian Democrat Party appears to have reversed its stance, making way for the repeal.

On February 18, The Local reported that Christian Democrat leader Göran Hägglund and others in the party "outlined the party's new position in that it now wants the law changed and the sex-change sterilization requirement removed." Why the sudden change in opinion? When the Christian Democrats and others announced that they would not support repealing forced sterilization, the news sparked outrage on the internet and among advocacy groups, sending shockwaves through international media. One petition by AllOut.org received nearly 80,000 signatures. The public pressure seems to have achieved some success.

 

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Occupy vs. Tea Party: The Google Smackdown

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 7:00 AM EST

In the battle for America's attention, the Occupy movement rocketed past the tea party this fall and remains in the lead, though not by much anymore. Here's a chart from Google Trends comparing the dueling movements' Google hits (top graph) and news mentions (bottom graph):

(The letters A-F are automatically generated by Google Trends)

Here's my best guess of what accounts for the peaks:

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 24, 2012

Fri Feb. 24, 2012 6:57 AM EST

US Army Staff Sgt. Tom Maahs, from Maple Shade, N.J., who is with the Task Force Paladin explosive ordinance disposal unit, inspects the site of an IED through his rifle scope on a street near the wood market in Gardez on February 18, 2012. US Army photo by Spc. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD.

Alaska Releases Second Batch of Palin Emails—Without Telling Requesters

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 7:12 PM EST
Oops, we forgot to tell you.

Three and a half years ago, I triggered the Sarah Palin email saga, when shortly after she was picked to be John McCain's running mate, I filed a request for "all emails sent and received by" Palin during her entire tenure as governor of Alaska. Last June—after other media outlets and citizen activists had joined the effort to pry these records out of Alaska state hard drives—the state released 24,199 pages of emails that covered only part of Palin's time as governor, up through September 2008. The state promised emails from the subsequent 10 months—up until her surprise resignation in July 2009—would be released later. That day came today—but, oddly, without any notice to me or other requesters.

The state turned over 34,820 pages of email only to the Associated Press (withholding almost 1,000 emails). This dump also included emails supposedly inadvertently left out of the initial release. I and the other requesters—including MSNBC.com, the Anchorage Daily News, the Washington Post, ABC News, and CNN—should have been informed of the release and provided copies of the material. But we've been frozen out.

This development is particularly curious, given that prior to the original release, the state of Alaska devoted much time to discussing all the details of that release with all the requesters. It was a rather elaborate process that entailed—to the state's credit—much communication and coordination. This time, the state has improperly just handed the emails to the AP, without any interaction with the other requesters. This is a selective release and certainly not in keeping with the spirit, if not the actual dictates, of Alaska's open-records act. 

Andrée McLeod, a citizen watchdog in Alaksa who has long pursued Palin records, fired off an angry email to Gov. Sean Parnell (who served as Palin's lieutenant governor), state Attorney General Michael Geraghty, and Randall Ruaro, who handles public records requests within the governor's office. It says:

Why was I not notified that the emails were available for release in response to my records request?

It is absolutely unfathomable that you have released the emails in such a disparate manner solely to the Associated Press, before anyone else.

This is totally egregious and smacks of cronyism.

I've sent my own note to these officials:

As the original requester, I am quite surprised I received absolutely no notice of the release of this second batch of Palin emails—especially after all the coordination that went into the initial release. This strikes me as a selective release. Like other requesters, I would like an explanation as soon as possible.

Palin is not much in the news these days, but it's not up to the state of Alaska to decide to whom to release these records. This move has a fishy smell to it.

UPDATE: After AP reported it had a copy of the second set of Palin emails, the Anchorage Daily News contacted the governor's office and was informed that the state was mailing discs with the material to various requesters. (I have yet to be told that by the state.) The newspaper quickly arranged to get a copy of the discs directly from the governor's office and has started posting the individual emails on its website. It's apparently a slow and painstaking process—partly because of the manner in which the data was compiled—and as of late Thursday night (Washington time), the ADN had only been able to post 148 of the individual emails. At this rate....

UPDATE II: By Friday morning, the Anchorage Daily News had uploaded about 7400 of the Palin emails—and they're searchable. Its reporters were just about to dive in and start looking for nuggets. You can, too, here.

Your Daily Newt: "How Do You Have a Private Life?"

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 6:44 PM EST
Former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich feeds a panda.

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

Newt Gingrich once told an interviewer that he's been fighting to save Western Civilization since 1958, so it shouldn't come as a total surprise that he spends most of his waking moments attempting to extrapolate grand, sweeping meanings from incredibly mundane items (Popsicles, for instance). As he told Atlanta magazine, his plans to save America often left little time for anything else:

"If you said to me, 'What are your hobbies?' they would be reading, going to the movies, going for long walks, animals and the outdoors. But the truth is when I read, I am reading about something that relates. When I go to the movies—I saw Parenthood the other day—I think, 'What does that tell me about America?' In a sense, I am almost always engaged. And that has a disadvantage to really break out of that and stop to think, All right, how do you have a private life?"

All of which gives some much needed context to Gingrich's confession, to CBN's David Brody last spring, that his extramarital affaiirs were "driven by how passionately I felt about this country."

Corn on "Hardball": Do Santorum's Satanic Plot Remarks Cross a Line?

Thu Feb. 23, 2012 2:34 PM EST

David Corn and former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum's controversial claim that Satan has targeted the US. "If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age? There is no on else to go after other than the United States," Santorum said in a speech at a Catholic University in Florida in 2008. Four years later, Santorum still stands by his belief in a satanic plot against the US, and he's begun indentifying people who he believes are also intent to destroy America: Obama, college-educated elites, and even Protestant churches. Will Santorum's hardline religious beliefs rally his conservative supporters, or alienate them?

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Glenn Beck's Favorite Gold Company Forced to Refund $4.5 Million to Customers

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 1:54 PM EST
Glenn Beck shilling for Goldline in 2010.

As Glenn Beck goes, so goes his favorite gold company. For years, the Santa Monica-based precious metals company, Goldline International, has helped keep the conservative talk show host on the air by sponsoring his radio show and now-defunct Fox News show. Goldline stuck with Beck even after most of his other advertisers fled in light of the host's increasingly inflammatory rhetoric. Beck, for his part, lavishly praised the company, telling listeners and viewers that he personally bought gold from the company and calling its executives "people I trust."

Those were the golden days. Since Beck's Fox News heyday, his fortunes and Goldline's have fallen sharply. Beck parted ways with Fox in June, and in November prosecutors in Santa Monica charged six of Goldline's executives with fraud and accused the company of running a bait-and-switch operation that lured customers into buying overpriced antique coins as investments—coins that Beck promoted on his shows. Mother Jones documented this scam in a 2010 story about the company and its relationship with Beck. The former New York congressman Anthony Weiner helped bring national attention to the company's business practices. Beck went on the defensive, attacking Weiner and defending his favorite gold dealer.

On Wednesday, the Santa Monica city attorney obtained a judgment and injunction against Goldline that requires the company to radically overhaul its practices and to stop deceiving customers about prices, among other things. The company must refund up to $4.5 million to defrauded customers, and pay $800,000 into a fund for future claims. The judgment also requires the company to give up one of the staples of its marketing tactics, and one that was hyped routinely by Beck: the idea that the government's coming for your gold. For years Beck and Goldline insisted customers should buy its "numismatic" (or antique) coins rather than standard government-issued bullion because, they claimed, in 1933 President Franklin Roosevelt had ordered the government to confiscate private citizens' gold bullion; antique coins were spared from the seizure. The claim was a huge stretch, as was the notion Beck perpetuated that Obama was plotting to seize Americans' gold. Now, Goldline has to quit talking about bullion confiscation lest it face further trouble from prosecutors.

To make sure that the company abides by the injunction, Goldline has to pay the cost of hiring a former federal prosecutor to monitor its operation. The monitor will have full access to company records and will perform undercover test calls to ensure that the myth of the 1933 gold confiscation has been banished from Goldline's sales pitch.

Adam Radinsky, the head of the consumer protection unit at the Santa Monica city attorney's office said of the injunction:

This is a new day. Consumers in California and elsewhere, many of whom invested thousands of dollars and their life savings in the belief that the gold they were buying was a valuable and safe investment, will now get substantial relief. No one should have to suffer from predatory and deceitful sales practices. Whether they are buying gold or anything else, consumers expect a fair deal. We insisted that Goldline give them just that. We hope this case is a wake-up call to other large coin dealers and to other businesses. They need to know that it’s against the law to mislead consumers with false fears and misinformation. And consumers need to be especially careful when investing in this uniquely unregulated industry.

This is the second time that a gold dealer associated with Beck has been sanctioned by prosecutors. In December 2010, Santa Monica prosecutors put the Superior Gold Group into receivership, freezing its assets and seeking restitution for its customers. Prosecutors alleged that the outfit had engaged in deceptive practices similar to Goldline's, and had also taken money from customers and then failed to deliver any coins.

Goldline is trying to put a unique spin on the injunction. It issued a press release declaring, "All Charges Dismissed, Goldline Announces; Precious Metals Company Will Continue to Set Standard for Customer Disclosures." The company highlighted the fact that the prosecutors had dismissed the criminal charges against its executives and it claimed that prosecutors only turned up a handful of dissatisfied customers in their investigation. The company also noted that the judgment was not a finding of wrongdoing, which the company expressly denied.

"This is a great outcome for our customers and for the company," said Goldline CEO Scott Carter. "Customers have chosen Goldline for over 50 years because of our high quality service, transparency, fairness and reputation of integrity. Goldline is proud to raise the bar once again by enhancing disclosures and procedures that are unprecedented in the precious metals industry."

But Yuri Beckelman, a former staffer for Weiner who worked on the Goldline investigation, felt vindicated by the injunction. He said in an email:

Goldline can try to spin it any way they want. But when you have to agree to change your business model and then pay a court ordered attorney to monitor your progress for the next five years, you're admitting that what you were doing was wrong. While the millions in refunds Goldline was ordered to make will be meaningful to the people that were ripped off, the executives got off easy, and they know it.

Rick and Mitt Give Latinos a Reason to Turn Out for Obama in November

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 12:35 PM EST
2012 GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney didn't just praise Arizona's draconian immigration law during Wednesday night's GOP debate. He said it was a model for the country. 

"I think you see a model in Arizona," Romney told CNN debate moderator John King, listing off an employment verification system, a border fence, and increasing the number of border patrol agents as policies he'd pursue as president. "You do that, and just as Arizona is finding out, you can stop illegal immigration." As my colleague Tim Murphy noted, current top Not Romney contender Rick Santorum didn't just endorse Arizona-style immigration policy, he went as far as to praise Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom the Justice Department recently accused of violating the civil rights of Arizona residents.

Chart: Why the GOP's Gas Price Attack on Obama Is BS

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 7:00 AM EST

Was George W. Bush to blame for this summer 2008 peak? Source: EIA 

Driving back from the mountains this past weekend, I commented to my wife how unusual it seemed that we weren't hearing too much public bitching about $4-a-gallon gasoline, because that's what it costs right now in California. But I spoke too soon. When we returned home, there was the Sunday New York Times with an A1 story on exactly that, describing how the GOP leadership planned to attack Obama on the issue, blaming him for high gasoline prices. 

This is the sort of well-worn populist trick that gets people riled up even when there's no substance to it. I created the chart above using an Energy Information Administration data set on weekly retail gasoline prices (excluding taxes) in selected countries. I used premium unleaded because the numbers were more complete. (Click on the chart to find the raw data.*)

Okay, so what do we see here? Does it look like domestic gas prices (black line) are responding to the policies of one American president or another? Note the peak toward the right: That's the summer of 2008, when George W. Bush was in office. The price crash that follows bottoms out in late-December 2008/early-January 2009, shortly before Obama took over. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 23, 2012

Thu Feb. 23, 2012 6:57 AM EST

Staff Sgt. Carlos Gonzales, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, and Sgt. Ernesto Gallegos assist pilots during a run up of a CH-47F Chinook helicopter on Camp Marmal, Afghanistan, on February 16, 2012. Photo by the US Army.