Mojo - 2013...on-unstoppable?page=96

Conflicts of Interest Abound in State Supreme Courts

| Thu Dec. 5, 2013 7:00 AM EST

A new investigation by the Center for Public Integrity reveals troubling conflicts of interest in state supreme courts nationwide. CPI combed through the financial disclosure forms of state supreme court justices in all 50 states and reviewed the states' disclosure laws for judges. Their findings on both fronts are discouraging.

CPI discovered several instances of justices writing opinions that favored companies they had financial ties to. An Arkansas justice ruled in favor of a company that had been paying his wife a salary of as much as $12,499 for two years. A high court judge in California ruled in favor of Wells Fargo despite owning up to $1 million of the bank's stock—even as a colleague who owned less stock recused himself. Other justices accepted perks from lawyers —from country club memberships to a $50,000 Italian vacation.  

Uncovering such information is exceedingly difficult because most states' disclosure laws for judges are pretty weak. While federal judges are required to recuse themselves from cases if they or a family member own even a single share of stock in a company involved, state laws are murky and inconsistent. CPI devised a system for grading the state standards for preventing these kinds of conflicts of interest: 43 got a D or lower.

Check out some of CPI's finds below: Some recent examples of state supreme court justices weighing in on cases involving companies in which they or their spouses owned stock, and a list of the freebies thrown at top judges.

Taking Stock

Justice Jacquelyn Stuart, Alabama

Owned stock in: Regions Financial Corp. Amount not disclosed.

Case: A securities-fraud lawsuit brought by a group of shareholders against the company.

Outcome for company: Favorable

 

Owned stock in: 3M. Amount not disclosed.

Case: 3M petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a change of venue for a case in which landowners accused the firm of polluting their property with dangerous chemicals.

Outcome for company: Favorable

 

Justice Kathryn Werdegar, California

Owned stock in: Wells Fargo. Between $100,001 and $1 million.

Case: Denied an appeal to a couple accusing Wells Fargo of predatory lending and unlawful foreclosure.

Outcome for company: Favorable

 

Justice Warren Silver, Maine

Owned stock in: Idexx Laboratories. About $28,300 held by his wife.

Case: The company was involved in a land dispute between a local quarry operator and the city.

Outcome for company: Favorable

 

Justice Robert Cordy, Massachusetts

Owned stock in: Bank of America. "Several hundred shares" according to a court spokeswoman.

Case: The bank was accused of unfair and deceptive business practices as a trustee on leased land in Chatham. 

Outcome for company: Favorable

 

Justice Lindsey Miller-Lerman, Nebraska

Owned stock in: Deutsche Bank. Amount not disclosed, but at least $1,000

Case: Disputing the bank's foreclosure on a home. 

Outcome for company: Favorable

 

Justice Robert Edmunds, North Carolina

Owned stock in: Abbott Laboratories. At least $10,000.

Case: Whether out-of-state lawyers representing a mother whose baby died should have been allowed to try a case against the hospital and Abbott, which made the formula the baby drank.

Outcome for company: Favorable

 

Owned stock in: Wells Fargo. At least $10,000.

Case: Upheld a lower court's ruling in a foreclosure case, thus finding that Wells Fargo did not need to present an original note showing their ownership of the mortgage in question.

Outcome for company: Favorable

 

If it may please the court

Justice Courtney Goodson, Arkansas: In 2011, she accepted a $12,000 Caribbean cruise from attorney W.H. Taylor. In 2012, she accepted a $50,000 Italian vacation from Taylor.

Justice Robert Thomas, Illinois: For the last three years, he reported honorary memberships to two country clubs. He has received "Notre Dame tix" from his friend and personal attorney.

Justices Robert Rucker, Brent Dickson, Steven Davis, Mark Massa, Indiana: In 2012, all four got free tickets to the Indy 500 from the Indiana Motor Speedway.

Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, Louisiana: In 2012, she accepted a $9,466 junket to France from the Louisiana Association of Defense Counsel (LADC) to attend their annual legal education courses.

Justice Greg Guidry, Louisiana: Guidry also took a trip to France sponsored by the LADC. In 2011, the group flew him to Buenos Aires for its annual meeting.

Justice Ron Parraguirre, Nevada: Last year, he received a $250 gift from a registered lobbyist for Barrick Gold. Less than two months later, the Nevada Supreme Court decided to hear a case regarding one of the company's mines. (It's still pending.)

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Conservative Group ALEC in 1985: S&M Accidents Cause 10 Percent of San Francisco's Homicides

| Thu Dec. 5, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Gay people recruit small children in public schools and S&M accidents are a leading cause of death in San Francisco, according to a 1985 newsletter from the American Legislative Exchange Council, the national, corporate-funded conservative group best known for pushing Stand Your Ground laws and union-busting bills.

The report was dug up and highlighted by the liberal watchdog group People for the American Way, which is organizing a protest of this week's ALEC conference in Washington, DC. Titled "Homosexuals: Just Another Minority Group?" the report reads today like the script for a bizarre nature channel program on gay people. In it, ALEC outlines six primary types of gay people: "the blatant"; "the secret lifer"; "the desperate"; "the adjusted"; "the bisexual"; and "the situational." (The "blatant" homosexual "is the obvious 'limp-wristed' individual who typifies stereotype of the 'average' homosexual.")

According to the report, 10 percent of all homicides in San Francisco at one point in the 1980s were "a result of S&M accidents among homosexuals."

The newsletter also serves as a cheat-sheet for gay men or women looking to meet like-minded people. "If a bar scene is preferred, the 'Gayellow Pages,' helps the homosexual find appropriate meeting places for socializing with other homosexuals," the report says. If that doesn't work, the newsletter discusses "public restrooms" and "massage parlors" as havens for "the desperate homosexual." Gay people even had their own language: "The homosexual's vocabulary is another part of their culture that separates them from the heterosexual mainstream."

The ALEC newsletter asserted that homosexuality was not only a choice ("the homosexual makes the conscious choice to pursue members of his/her own sex"), but one that its practitioners often came to regret. "Tom Minnery, who writes for Christianity Today, has written about homosexuals forsaking their homosexuality upon becoming Christian," the newsletter notes. "He says, 'the fact is, many people are experiencing deliverance from homosexuality. The evidence is too great to deny it.'"

But those who refused to abandon their homosexual urges were a risk to public health and children, according to ALEC. "Whatever the type of homosexual, one of the more dominant practices within the homosexual world is pedophilia, the fetish for young children," warned the newsletter. The reason for this was simple. "What is important to remember here is the fact that homosexuals cannot reproduce themselves biologically so they must recruit the young." And gay people came at a significant cost to the taxpayers, in the form of research for infectious diseases and tax-exempt status for LGBT nonprofits. "In addition to federal funding of AIDS research, the federal government has been active in funding the homosexual movement."

The report even took aim at the early stages of gay rights legislation, which the ALEC newsletter warned would force conservatives into uncomfortable and perhaps dangerous situations. Under new anti-discrimination laws for some public employees, "[p]arents will no longer be able to keep their children out from under the tutelage of homosexuals." Bans on LGBT discrimination in housing would mean "landlords will be forced to rent their property to a homosexual couple even if the landlord's family shares the same building." But the most ominous piece legislation concerned a proposal to end LGBT discrimination in immigration: "This bill would permit known homosexuals from other countries to become citizens of the U.S."

The horror.

Elizabeth Warren: Big Banks Should Reveal Their Donations to Influential Think Tanks

| Wed Dec. 4, 2013 7:25 PM EST

On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called on the biggest US banks to disclose their donations to think tanks, which influence laws that affect them.

Under current law, banks and other corporations are not required to publicly report their contributions to think tanks. That means that lawmakers who use think tank data and analysis to shape laws and regulations designed to police banks do not know how much bank money influences that research. "A lot of the power of big banks over DC comes from donations to think tanks, who then put out 'studies' favorable to certain ways of doing business," says one Democratic aide. In a letter to the CEOs of the nation's six largest financial institutions—JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley—Warren called on the companies to start voluntarily reporting their donations to these policy shops.

"To prevent future [economic] crises," Warren says in the letter, "policymakers need access to objective, high-quality research, data, and analysis about our consumer and financial markets…[P]rivate think tanks are extremely well-suited to provide this research and analysis, but for it to be valuable, such research and analysis must be truly independent."

Corporations are required to tell the public when they lobby members of Congress or government agencies, Warren says, so "the same transparency should exist for any indirect efforts [banks] make to influence policymaking through financial contributions to think tanks."

Warren's demand for think tank money transparency is yet another approach to curbing too-big-to-fail—the problem of the biggest Wall Street banks being so large and loosely regulated that their failure would endanger the entire financial system. One of the reasons too-big-to-fail is still a problem, five years after the financial crisis, is that banks are good at weakening the laws and regulations meant to rein them in.

One way to do that is through think tanks. The Roosevelt Institute, for example, recently published a report on the successes and failures of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform act. If the institute had received loads of Wall Street cash, it might have been motivated to minimize the failures of the law, and thus further regulation.

Warren's letter comes a few days after the president and vice president of the centrist think tank Third Way wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed warning Democrats against following Warren over a "populist cliff."  The Nation reported this week that Third Way employs a Washington consulting firm that represents financial institutions including MasterCard and Deutsche Bank.

The letter also comes on the heels of a recent defeat for corporate contribution transparency advocates. The Securities and Exchange Commission, a Wall Street regulator, considered forcing corporations to disclose the money they spend on campaigns and elections. But just this week, the agency announced it had dropped that issue from its 2014 priority list.

5 Shocking New Revelations on NSA Cellphone Tracking

| Wed Dec. 4, 2013 7:01 PM EST

Not a month goes by without former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, unleashing new government surveillance allegations, but on Wednesday, the Washington Post dropped a bombshell: The NSA is tracking cellphones around the world at a rate of almost five billion records per day. This revelation is particularly shocking because it affirms fears that the government is keeping tabs on the physical location of Americans. The newspaper notes that in terms of potential impact on privacy, the location-tracking report may be "unsurpassed." Here's five things you need to know from the mind-boggling new report: 

1. The NSA can find you in a hotel and can probably tell if you're having an affair: 

Cellphones broadcast location data to towers even when they're not being used or the GPS is turned off. The NSA gets cellphone location data by "tapping into the cables that connect mobile networks globally and that serve U.S. cellphones as well as foreign ones." This allows the agency to keep tabs on someone, even if he or she travels abroad with a cellphone, "into confidential business meetings or personal visits to medical facilities, hotel rooms, private homes and other traditionally protected spaces." Once the NSA has that information, it can use it to figure out who a person is visiting, where, and how often.  

2. Americans are definitely being tracked, but providing the exact number is "awkward:"

Like other programs revealed by Snowden, this one is intended for foreign intelligence but nonetheless collects Americans' data, allegedly by accident. The Snowden documents do not reveal how many Americans are targeted at home and abroad. Intelligence officials told the paper that the agency can't calculate how many, and "it's awkward for us to try to provide any specific numbers." (Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA, confirmed to the Post that information isn't collected in bulk on cellphones in the United States "intentionally.") 

3. All the collected location data wouldn't fit in the Library of Congress: 

From the Post: "27 terabytes, by one account, or more than double the text content of the Library of Congress’s print collection."

4. Don't bother trying to hide. The NSA knows if you're trying to avoid them: 

From the Post: "Like encryption and anonymity tools online, which are used by dissidents, journalists and terrorists alike, security-minded behavior — using disposable cellphones and switching them on only long enough to make brief calls — marks a user for special scrutiny...for example, when a new telephone connects to a cell tower soon after another nearby device is used for the last time.​" And Chris Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Post that "the only way to hide your location is to disconnect from our modern communication system and live in a cave."

5. And you don't need to be a suspect to be targeted: 

This is the big one—"A central feature of each of these tools is that they do not rely on knowing a particular target in advance, or even suspecting one. They operate on the full universe of data in the NSA’s [repository] which stores trillions of metadata records, of which a large but unknown fraction include locations," wrote the Post. An intelligence lawyer said that the data collection is not covered by the Fourth Amendment, which outlaws unreasonable searches and seizures.​ 

Read the full report. 

 

GOP Lawmaker Open to Nuking Iran

| Wed Dec. 4, 2013 3:03 PM EST

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) says he hopes the United States doesn't go to war with Iran, but if it happens, he wants to see a nuclear attack.

On Wednesday, Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told C-SPAN:

I don’t think it’s inevitable but I think if you have to hit Iran, you don’t put boots on the ground, you do it with tactical nuclear devices and you set them back a decade or two or three. I think that’s the way to do it with a massive aerial bombardment campaign.

He did not discuss the consequences of any possible radioactive fall-out.

You can watch the entire CSPAN interview here (if you're into that sort of thing).

Hunter isn't the only member of his party—or family—to talk about nuking Iran as a real possibility. When his father, former Representative Duncan Hunter, campaigned for president in 2007–with Ann Coulter's endorsement–he joined future-failed-candidates Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore to note that the US should be willing to use tactical nuclear weapons against Iranian nuclear facilities.

Hunter the Younger's suggestion, though, is moderate when compared to the recent proposal proffered by GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who called for nuking random spots in the Iranian desert to scare Tehran into abandoning its nuclear program.

(via Defense News)

Nuns' Group Responds After Rush Limbaugh Says Pope Spouts "Pure Marxism"

| Wed Dec. 4, 2013 12:38 PM EST

In late November, when Pope Francis promised to remake the Catholic Church as a decentralized institution that would agitate against the economic injustices of capitalism, Rush Limbaugh was quick with an explanation: "Somebody has either written this for him or gotten to him."

Limbaugh's remarks—in which he also assailed the Pope's agenda as being "pure Marxism"—have drawn the ire of many Catholics, and one group, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, is already calling for the radio host to apologize.

On Wednesday, Donna Quinn, who coordinates the National Coalition of American Nuns, a liberal activist group of several thousand nuns, joined the Catholics denouncing Limbaugh's comments.

"Men and women who are educated and those who have street smarts see right thorough those kind of statements," she says. (Quinn, who is well-known for her support of gay marriage and reproductive rights, notes that she is a big supporter of Sandra Fluke, the women's rights activist who gained national notoriety when Limbaugh called her a "slut" and "prostitute" on his program.)

Quinn adds that although she does not count herself among those "smitten" with Pope Francis—"enough of the words," she says, "we want to see some action"—she is troubled by Limbaugh's callousness toward the people about whom Pope Francis was speaking. "In these dire times…those are the people that it would behoove Rush to take a look at. To see what's best, not for his program or for his rowdy statements, but rather for the people of God."

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 4, 2013

Wed Dec. 4, 2013 10:51 AM EST

Pfc. Christina Fuentes Montenegro and other Marines from Delta Company, Infantry Training Battalion, School of Infantry-East, receive final instructions prior to assaulting an objective during the Infantry Integrated Field Training Exercise aboard Camp Geiger, N.C., Nov 15, 2013. Montenegro is one of three female Marines to be the first women to graduate infantry training with the battalion. Delta Company is the first company at ITB with female students as part of a measured, deliberate and responsible collection of data on the performance of female Marines when executing existing infantry tasks and training events, the Marine Corps is soliciting entry-level female Marine volunteers to attend the eight week basic infantryman and infantry rifleman training courses at ITB. U. S. Marine Corps photo by Chief Warrant Officer 2 Paul S. Mancuso/Released.

VIDEO: David Corn on Why Obamacare Is Still in Demand

| Tue Dec. 3, 2013 11:28 AM EST

Mother Jones DC bureau chief David Corn spoke with MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Daily Beast columnist Michael Tomasky this week about public opinion of Obamacare following last month's setbacks. Watch here:

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 3, 2013

Tue Dec. 3, 2013 10:57 AM EST

1st Sgt. William Huston and Staff Sgt. Ronald Barker, paratroopers with Troop C, 2nd Squadron, 38th Calvary Regiment's Long Range Surveillance, wait to reach altitude so they can jump static line with the new RA-1 parachute system at Fort Hood's Rapido Drop Zone, Nov. 19. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Cody Barber, 11th Public Affairs Detachment.

The Latest Legal Attack Against Obamacare

| Tue Dec. 3, 2013 7:55 AM EST

Today, the US District Court for the District of Columbia* will hear arguments in one of the last lingering legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act. The suit, Halbig v. Sebelius, argues that a single phrase in the law creates a loophole big enough to drive a truck through and nullify the whole thing.

The argument goes something like this: When Congress wrote the ACA, it said that premium subsidies would be available for certain qualifying citizens who were "enrolled through an Exchange established by the State." (Emphasis added.) The law doesn't say that those subsidies are available to people in the 34 states that declined to set up exchanges, where residents must utilize the now-infamously buggy Healthcare.gov, the federal exchange.

That's where Obamacare opponents see a fatal flaw in the law. The plaintiffs in Halbig claim that they won't be eligible for tax credits because their states didn't start an exchange, so they won't be able to afford insurance. As a result, they argue that they'll be subject to the fine for not buying insurance, or to avoid the fine, they'll have to pay a lot for insurance they don't want. They want the court to block the IRS from implementing the law.

The complaint is pretty convoluted, and it's clearly a political attack. Indeed, one of the plaintiffs was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by the National Federation of Independent Businesses challenging the legality of the individual mandate, an argument rejected by the Supreme Court. The other plaintiffs are also conservative operatives, including the lead plaintiff, Jacqueline Halbig, who was a senior policy adviser to the Department of Health and Human Services under George W. Bush. (She's also been the source of a host of conservative rhetoric about "baby death panels" in the ACA.) The intellectual force behind the suit,* Michael Cannon, is a health care expert at the libertarian Cato Institute who has spent the last few years urging states to refuse to set up insurance exchanges as a means to sabotage Obamacare.

The Obama administration argues that the language Halbig's case is premised on is merely a drafting error common in legislation and routinely reconciled after passage. (Indeed, if Congress were functioning normally, such copy mistake would have been corrected by now, but given the level of polarization in that body, it's been impossible to make such fixes that were once routine.) An amicus brief in the case filed by Families USA, a nonprofit health care advocacy group helping the administration combat some of the bad PR surrounding Obamacare, argues that the plaintiffs are disregarding the vast body of evidence showing that Congress intended for all low-income Americans to be eligible for tax subsidies, regardless of which exchange they used to purchase insurance. 

Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University, has said that Congress essentially fixed the drafting error in another piece of legislation requiring the federal exchange to report information to the IRS and to promulgate regulations around Obamacare. The Congressional Budget Office has also treated the law as if the subsidies are available on the federal exchange.

So far, though, the lawsuit has survived. US District Court Judge Paul Friedman, a Clinton appointee, declined to dismiss the suit, though he did refuse the plaintiffs' request for an emergency injunction to prevent the IRS from implementing the law. Friedman will hear summary judgment arguments in the case this afternoon.*

The case seems destined for the Supreme Court, where a conservative majority is already hostile to Obamacare. The Roberts court has also shown little interest in considering congressional intent when interpreting the law. (See its history on the Voting Rights Act.) John Roberts has proven to be something of a literalist when it serves his interests. That record alone ought to give the administration and health care reformers pause. If Halbig et al. prevail in the case, Mother Jones' Kevin Drum has suggested that premium subsidies could end up available only to people in the 16 mostly blue states that have chosen to run their own exchanges, while the rest of the country (all the red parts) would keep paying taxes to underwrite those subsidies. But Halbig and her backers are clearly hoping that a decision in their favor will kill Obamacare completely.

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that an appeal of a trial court decision in the case is being heard in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday. It also misidentified Michael Cannon as a lawyer. He has a master's degree in law and economics but not a Juris Doctor. The story has since been fixed.