Mojo - May 2012

Final Wisconsin Recall Debate a Bruising Stalemate

| Thu May. 31, 2012 10:19 PM PDT
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, left, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

After avoiding confrontation in his first debate with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Gov. Scott Walker punched back hard and often on Thursday night in second and final debate of Wisconsin's bruising, cash-soaked recall campaign. Walker ripped Barrett as weak on crime and suggested he was clueless when it came to a plan to jump-start Wisconsin's economy. Barrett, meanwhile, kept up his attacks on Walker's integrity by highlighting the so-called John Doe investigation that has resulted in criminal charges against three former Walker aides, a Walker campaign donor, and a political appointee.

"I have a police department that arrests felons. He has a practice of hiring them," Barrett said in one of the night's most memorable lines.

The debate, ably moderated by Milwaukee broadcast journalist Mike Gousha, veered from the investigation swirling around Walker to job creation in Wisconsin to right-to-work legislation to the impacts of Walker's Act 10 legislation that curbed collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions. Both candidates sounded sharp and on message, yet it's unclear if either said anything groundshaking enough to win over undecided voters.

Walker repeatedly said that his economic reforms, including his anti-union legislation, were benefitting Wisconsin's schools and businesses. He also stood by the newer set of jobs figures he released, claiming they showed progress in the state. "I realize this undermines the whole focal point of your ads for the last few months, but the facts are the facts," Walker said. "Wisconsin gained jobs in 2012, we gained jobs in 2011."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

MoJo’s FBI Informants Story Wins Major International Award

| Thu May. 31, 2012 11:00 AM PDT

That clinking sound you hear is the toasting at MoJo's offices at the news that our "Terrorists for the FBI" project has won the international Data Journalism Award in the investigative category. (Read it here.) "This story is, by far, the best investigative piece" among the finalists, the jury said. "It shows the significant effort required to gather large amounts of data, analyze it, and deeply investigate the individual cases. The analysis discovered a clear pattern on how the FBI generated terrorist plots from sting operations. The investigation proves that conclusion, not only with numbers, but also with in depth analysis and reporting in the field."

The result of an 18-month investigation by reporter Trevor Aaronson in collaboration with the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California-Berkeley, the story started from the observation that in many of the high-profile terror prosecutions—the Portland Christmas tree bomber, say, or the Bronx synagogue bomber—it was actually a government informant who provided the jihadist rhetoric, the plot, the money, and even the explosives or weapons. Curious about this pattern, Aaronson reviewed every terror prosecution since 9/11—cases involving 508 defendants in all—and scoured thousands of pages of court documents. Aaronson's data were refined, expanded, and comprehensively fact-checked by a team of reporters and editors, then turned into an online database and compelling visualizations by MoJo's developers and designers.

Among the investigation's findings: 

  • Nearly half the prosecutions involved the use of informants, many of them incentivized by money (operatives can be paid as much as $100,000 per assignment) or the need to work off criminal or immigration violations. (For more on the details of those 508 cases, see our charts page and searchable database.)
  • Sting operations resulted in prosecutions against 158 defendants. Of that total, 49 defendants participated in plots led by an agent provocateur—an FBI operative instigating terrorist action.
  • With three exceptions, all of the high-profile domestic terror plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings. (The exceptions are Najibullah Zazi, who came close to bombing the New York City subway system in September 2009; Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, an Egyptian who opened fire on the El-Al ticket counter at the Los Angeles airport; and failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.)
  • In many sting cases, key encounters between the informant and the target were not recorded—making it hard for defendants claiming entrapment to prove their case.
  • Terrorism-related charges are so difficult to beat in court, even when the evidence is thin, that defendants often don't risk a trial.

You can analyze the data yourself (parsing them by, say, state or alleged terrorist group affiliation), view fact sheets on individual defendants, and peruse our interactive charts. And, of course, you can read the other stories in our "Terrorists for the FBI" package, including a profile of radical-turned-informant Brandon Darby, and an investigation of the FBI's "proxy detention" program under which Americans are interrogated, and allegedly tortured, by overseas security forces.

This was a major endeavor for Mother Jones—unlike some of our larger peers, we don't have a roomful of computer-assisted-reporting specialists. Instead, we relied on equal parts shoe-leather and innovation; to be honored for it by our global peers is a dream come true. Follow us at @MonikaBauerlein and @ClaraJeffery as we tweet the World News Summit from Paris, drunk with excitement (and, um, surely nothing else).

Beto O'Rourke: It Wasn't About Drugs

| Thu May. 31, 2012 10:24 AM PDT
Texas congressional candidate Beto O'Rourke (D).

Of the 133 incumbent congressmen who have faced primary challenges from non-members so far in 2012, 130 of them have won. On Tuesday, former El Paso city councilman Beto O'Rourke scored one for the challengers when he knocked off eight-term Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes. It was close—O'Rourke avoided a runoff by just 213 votes—and not entirely expected. As one political consultant told the El Paso Times, "Usually you have to have a gay sex scandal or a federal corruption indictment for an incumbent to lose." Observers, myself included, framed the race in part as a referendum on the Drug War, because of his and Reyes' contrasting viewpoints on federal policy. But in an interview on Wednesday, O'Rourke sought to define the victory in more conventional terms.

"What's interesting is you guys always pick marijuana—I think, frankly, because it's sensational and it's kind of exciting to people," O'Rourke says, referring to my profile of the race and a similar piece in the Huffington Post. "It has not once been an issue of any significance at all. Call 100 El Pasoans and you might find two or three who made their decision based on that issue." Instead, he says, he won by emphasizing a bread-and-butter economic agenda. "They were the issues that you might not be surprised but are the same anywhere," he says. "We have 10 percent unemployment [and] more than 30,000 people out of work. We have a V.A. that is supposed to serve nearly 80,000 veterans. It was recently ranked the worst in the country. People can't get in to see the doctor; they can't get the care they deserve. We need a full service V.A. hospital."

But the idea that the War on Drugs could be a non-issue in the primary is itself noteworthy. For years, drug policy has been a third rail, and O'Rourke hopped all over it. It's the subject of his 2011 book, Dealing Death and Drugs, and was the impetus behind his only major showdown with Reyes prior to campaign—the congressman's behind-the-scenes efforts to scuttle a city council resolution calling for a re-examination of the War on Drugs (as detailed in my earlier piece). Reyes tried very hard to make O'Rourke's views on marijuana a factor in the race, but it didn't catch.

"What [Reyes] did, as you know, is took a principled position that many of us have in this community about the fact that the Drug war has failed us and particularly failed Ciudad Juarez and our effort to find something better for everyone who's affected by this failure, and made it about 'Beto wants your kids to take drugs,' 'Beto wants to legalize drugs,'" O'Rourke says. "One of his surrogates who stood in for him at a debate said that I wanted to legalize crack cocaine. So he tried to but people are smarter than that, the voters are smarter than that and they see through to what the real issues are..."

O'Rourke's campaign had some help in the final week of the campaign from the anti-incumbent super-PAC, Campaign for Primary Accountability, whose attack ads Reyes blamed for his defeat. O'Rourke demurred when asked about the group's influence, noting that exit polls conducted during early voting—before the CFPA revved up its ad campaign—showed O'Rourke beating Reyes at a clip nearly identical to the final margin. Still, in a race that close, the PAC didn't need to move mountains—only a couple hundred votes.

O'Rourke will face businesswoman Barbara Carrasco, the Republican nominee, in the November election, but he's widely expected to cruise to victory in a district that gave 66 percent of the vote to President Obama four years ago.

Will Scandal-Plagued Election Clerk Supervise Walker Recall in Key County?

| Thu May. 31, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
A protester holds up a sign to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Republican Kathy Nickolaus may be the only county clerk known by name across Wisconsin—and not for a good reason.

Last year, Nickolaus, the top election official in Waukesha County, a solidly Republican suburb outside of Milwaukee, blamed "human error" for the late discovery of more than 14,000 missing votes in a bruising state Supreme Court race. Those votes erased liberal favorite JoAnne Kloppenburg's lead in the race, handed victory to conservative incumbent David Prosser, and later led to an expensive recount. This April, Nickolaus resorted to posting election results on strips of grocery-receipt-like paper after the county's reporting system failed on election night.

After the April controversy, Nickolaus pledged to step down from handling the county's election operations. But ahead of Gov. Scott Walker's recall election on June 5, the most expensive election in state history, recent evidence suggests Nickolaus still has control over the county's vote-counting. Observers and news reports from the recall's May 8 primary say Nickolaus looked like her usual self on election night. The WTMJ news station reported that Nickolaus "appeared to be very much in charge of the count." Says another observer, who asked to remain anonymous to speak openly: "On election night, Kathy Nickolaus was there, and she made it seem as if she was in control."

Republican county executive Dan Vrakas, who said "the public... lost faith in our election process in Waukesha County" because of Nickolaus' failures, has denied that Nickolaus remains in charge of election operations. But after Nickolaus' involvement in the May 8 primary, Vrakas took to the press to say he was "very disappointed" that she showed up. "I'd prefer that she wasn't here on election night but I can't ban her from the building anymore than I can ban anyone else from the building," Vrakas told the Waukesha Freeman. Vrakas said that a deputy of Nickolaus's had taken control of the vote-counting process.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Corn on "Hardball": Romney and Trump's Unholy Alliance

Wed May. 30, 2012 4:25 PM PDT

David Corn and Salon's Joan Walsh joined host Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the newly minted Romney-Trump alliance and what it says about Mitt Romney's strategy and values.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Where's Mitt Romney's Long-Form Birth Certificate?

| Wed May. 30, 2012 9:11 AM PDT
GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

On Tuesday, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney released his birth certificate. The timing was fitting—it came the same day he was scheduled to appear at a Las Vegas fundraiser hosted by Donald Trump, the real estate magnate and reality television star who has spent much of the last year promoting conspiracy theories about President Obama's place of birth and his intelligence.

Just one problem: The document released by Mitt Romney's campaign is titled "Certificate of Live Birth." This is, to be clear, the same thing as a birth certificate (it just has a couple of extra words in there and the order is flipped around). But according to three years of commentary from top conservative media and politicos, it's not enough. "There's a difference between a birth certificate, apparently, and a certificate of live birth," said Fox News host Jeanine Pirro in a segment last April on the President's supposedly missing paper trail. The President's certificate of live birth, reported Fox and Friends host Steve Doocy, "is not the exact birth certificate." Sarah Palin suggested that the certificate of live birth was insufficient proof of citizenship.

As one leading conservative activist put it, "A 'birth certificate' and a 'certificate of live birth' are in no way the same thing, even though in some cases they use some of the same words." That was Donald Trump.

On Wednesday, Michigan Democrats circulated a video of Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who's seeking the GOP Senate nomination in that state, proposing the creation of a federal birther committee to inspect presidential candidates' birth certificates and determine their veracity. "[W]e lost that debate in 2008, when our presidential nominee said, 'I ain't talking about it,'" Hoekstra says, in response to a question about Obama's birth certificate. Obama did released a certificate of live birth in 2008, so presumably Hoekstra deemed that insufficient.

We missed the press release from Trump, Palin, and Hoekstra demanding Romney come clean with his long-form birth certificate. Maybe they sent it to the wrong address? I'd just hate to think that this four-year-long muckraking quest for more documentation of the President's place of birth was all just a cynical race-baiting ploy or something.

Scott Walker's Campaign Doles Out $100,000 to Legal Defense Fund

| Wed May. 30, 2012 8:14 AM PDT
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The secretive "John Doe" investigation that has led to criminal charges for several of Gov. Scott Walker's former aides just entered its third year, and it shows no sign of ending soon. Reinforcing that notion are new campaign finance reports showing that, in May, Walker's campaign directed $100,000 to a legal defense fund used to pay the governor's costly bills for the attorneys representing him in the John Doe probe.

In the past six weeks, Walker's campaign has directed a total of $160,000 in campaign funds to his defense fund. Walker's campaign must get donors' permission before sending their money to the defense fund; Walker nor his aides have disclosed which donors approved the transfers. Walker is represented by Milwaukee attorney Michael Steinle and Chicago lawyer John Gallo, a specialist in "representing criminal defendants and grand-jury targets," according to his biography.

The John Doe investigation, begun by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm in May 2010, has focused on the activities of staffers in the Milwaukee County executive's office during Walker's tenure. In January, prosecutors charged two Walker appointees, Tim Russell and Kevin Kavanaugh, for allegedly embezzling $60,000 meant for a veterans support group. Later that month, two more Walker aides were charged with using a secret email network to do political work for Walker while on the clock for the county.

Walker, for his part, has denied knowing anything about the allegedly illegal activities of his staffers. He claims to be cooperating with John Doe prosecutors and denies that he is a target of their investigation. "I've had a high level of integrity," Walker said at last Friday's recall debate referring to the John Doe probe.

Walker's opponent in the June 5 recall, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, has repeatedly hammered Walker over the John Doe probe. In public statements and radio ads, Barrett has called on Walker to release emails that could shed light on his knowledge of what went on in the Milwaukee County Executive's office, while questioning Walker's honesty and integrity. "We need Scott Walker's emails to see where [the John Doe probe] ends," says one Barrett ad. "Because we deserve to know the truth before the election."

Corn on MSNBC: Obama vs. Romney on Foreign Policy

Wed May. 30, 2012 7:49 AM PDT

Mother Jones' DC bureau chief David Corn joined Martin Bashir on MSNBC on Tuesday to discuss some of the Romney campaign's foreign policy talking points.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. Follow him on Twitter.