Political MoJo

Politician Tasked With Oil Industry Oversight Gets a Paycheck From Big Oil

| Mon Apr. 20, 2015 2:57 PM EDT

The BP oil spill turned five years old on Monday, and as my colleague Tim McDonnell reported, we're still paying the price: There's as much as 26 million gallons of crude oil still on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. But the story of the Deepwater Horizon wasn't just about environmental devastation—it was also a story about regulation.

In Louisiana, where many politicians rely on oil and gas companies to fill their campaign coffers (and keep their constituents employed), environmental consequences often take a back seat to business concerns. But sometimes, things go even further. Take the case of Republican state Sen. Robert Adley—the vice-chair of the committee on environmental quality and the chair of the transportation committee (which oversees levees)—who played a leading role in trying to stop a local levee board from suing oil companies for damages related to coastal erosion. As Tyler Bridges reported for the Louisiana investigative news site The Lens, Adley doesn't just go to bat for oil companies—he works for them as a paid consultant. He even launched his own oil company while serving as a state representative, and he didn't cut ties to the company until nine years into his stint in the senate:

"He has carried a lot of legislation for the oil and gas industry over the years," said Don Briggs, the industry association's president. "I've never seen him carry one that he didn't truly believe was the right thing to do."

Adley's numerous ties to the oil and gas industry have led critics to say he is the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse.

...

Adley said calls that he should recuse himself from the issue because of his industry ties are "un-American" and "outrageous."

"It's what I know," Adley said. "Is it wrong to have someone dealing with legislation they know?"

For the time being, at least, voters in northwest Louisiana have decided that the answer is no.

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Nebraska Conservatives Take On GOP Governor Over Death Penalty

| Thu Apr. 16, 2015 12:06 PM EDT

A group of conservative legislators in Nebraska are gearing up for what could be a multi-day battle to end the state's death penalty. The fight pits the right-wing anti-death penalty crusaders against their fellow conservatives and the state's Republican governor. Here's the Omaha World-Herald:

Nine conservative lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors of a repeal measure the Nebraska Legislature will begin debating Thursday. One of their key platforms: Repealing the death penalty makes good fiscal sense.

"If capital punishment were any other program that was so inefficient and so costly to the taxpayer, we would have gotten rid of it a long time ago," said Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln.

The bill is unlikely to become law. There are currently enough votes for passage, but advocates warn that anything could happen when the bill comes up for a final vote. Death penalty advocates could mount a filibuster to block the legislature from even voting on the measure. If they don't, Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, has vowed to block the legislation, and it's unclear that there are enough votes to override his veto.

Still, the upcoming debate and vote on the bill marks a victory for a small conservative group working on a state-by-state basis to end the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. This group, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, argues that capital punishment violates core conservative beliefs about the sanctity of life, small government, and fiscal responsibility.

The Nebraska chapter of the group held a press conference Wednesday in advance of today's floor debate on the bill. "I may be old-fashioned, but I believe God should be the only one who decides when it is time to call a person home," said state Sen. Tommy Garrett, a conservative who supports repeal. "The state has no business playing God."

Nebraska has not carried out an execution since 1997, when the state was still using the electric chair, but that might change, according to the World-Herald:

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said this week that his staff is working to restore the viability of a lethal injection protocol. He did not, however, predict when executions could resume.

Billionaire Casino Magnate Sheldon Aldelson's Israeli Paper Is Obsessed With Marco Rubio

| Wed Apr. 15, 2015 6:02 PM EDT

For years, Republicans who aspire to the presidency have sought the support of Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate and GOP mega-donor. Adelson spent $150 million backing Republicans during the 2012 election cycle, and the candidate who secures his support this time around will get a big boost in a crowded GOP field. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who announced his campaign on Monday, already has one billionaire backer—Norman Braman, a Miami car dealer. But Rubio also seems to have impressed Adelson himself.

Israel-watchers on Twitter have pointed out that Israel Hayom, the daily newspaper owned by Adelson, has been particularly interested in the junior senator from Florida.

It's too early to call the Adelson primary for Rubio. As in the past, Adelson will want each of the major candidates to court him; the casino magnate is known to be fond of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), both of whom are seriously considering runs. But Rubio—who dined one-on-one with Adelson last month—is off to a good start.

Hillary Clinton to Supreme Court: Legalize Same-Sex Marriage Nationally

| Wed Apr. 15, 2015 2:13 PM EDT

Hillary Clinton's now-official presidential campaign has so far opted for gauzy announcement videos and vague feel good promises over much in the way of policy specifics. But on Wednesday, Clinton's team clarified one stance she she will take: same-sex marriage is a constitutional right that should be legal in every state.

"Hillary Clinton supports marriage equality and hopes the Supreme Court will come down on the side of same-sex couples being guaranteed that constitutional right," campaign spokesperson Adrienne Elrod told The Washington Blade, referring to four cases on gay marriage the court is scheduled to hear later this month.

Clinton hasn't always supported same-sex marriage. In the 2008 Democratic primary, Clinton, like then-Sen. Barack Obama, supported civil unions for LGBT couples but opposed marriage rights. She avoided weighing in on domestic politics while at the State Department and didn't announce that she supported marriage equality until March, 2013—but maintained that same-sex marriage was up to the states and not a nationwide, constitutional right. Last year, she ducked probing questions from NPR's Terry Gross about how she had evolved on the issue. Earlier this week, Buzzfeed called out the Clinton campaign for not saying where the presidential candidate stood on the upcoming court case.

Now Clinton seems ready to strike a different tone. Her top campaign operative, Robby Mook, will be the first openly gay presidential campaign manger, as my colleague Andy Kroll and I reported last week. Among the gauzy images in the video she released on Sunday announcing her presidential campaign were scenes of a gay couple discussing their upcoming wedding. And, thanks to her statement today, she's fully on board with the idea that LGBT couples should enjoy the same constitutionally protected rights as heterosexual couples.

Ted Cruz's Big Money Man Is A Hedge Funder With a $2 Million Train Set

| Mon Apr. 13, 2015 3:49 PM EDT

Robert Mercer, a Long Island hedge fund magnate, has made some lavish investments over the years: There's his 203-foot super yacht, called the Sea Owl. There's the $2 million model train set he had custom-built in his mansion—and the lawsuit he filed against the builders, saying they'd overcharged him.

And now there's the money he's putting behind Ted Cruz's presidential ambitions.

Mercer is the main bankroller of a ring of four super-PACs supporting Cruz for president, the New York Times reported Friday. The PACs have collected $31 million in the four weeks since Cruz launched his campaign, giving the freshman Senator's bid for the Republican nomination a powerful start.

This is not Mercer's first foray into campaign finance. As Mother Jones previously reported, Mercer is a longtime Republican donor who shares Cruz's disdain for financial regulation. He has plowed millions into campaigns against lawmakers who have pushed to rein in Wall Street. Rep. Pete DeFazio (D–Ore.), who started an effort to tax high-frequency financial transactions, was the target of a Mercer campaign of more than half-a-million dollars. So was former Rep. Timothy Bishop (D–N.Y.), an ex-SEC prosecutor. In 2012, Mercer shoveled more than $900,000 into an effort to unseat Bishop. While Bishop held onto his seat, Mercer targeted him again in 2014—this time, with success. Also in 2012, Mercer pumped millions into two super PACs, headed by Karl Rove, that flooded the airwaves with ads for Mitt Romney and Republican candidates for Congress. Club For Growth, a free-market focused super PAC, has notched more than a half million from Mercer, too.

Given Mercer's views, it's no wonder that he would back the GOP presidential candidate who has mused about abolishing the IRS. But Mercer has felt the sting of financial oversight professionally, too. As Mariah Blake reported for Mother Jones in 2014, for several years, federal agents had been scrutinizing Renaissance, the hedge fund Mercer runs along with a business partner, Peter Brown.

Last year, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations got in on the action. In a hearing with Renaissance executives, its members accused the fund of using complicated financial maneuvers to avoid an estimated $6 billion in taxes. As Blake reported:

Renaissance is notoriously secretive about its investment formula. But documents released by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in July offer some clues about the engine behind its growth. In 1999, Deutsche Bank—which did not respond to requests for comment—approached Renaissance and offered to package all of the Medallion fund's investments into a portfolio, or "basket," that was held in the bank's name. Under this arrangement, Renaissance would still control the trades and reap all the profits (minus the bank's generous fees). But it didn't have to pay short-term capital gains taxes on the underlying assets, even if they were only held for a few hours or days. (Short-term gains are taxed at 39 percent for the highest earners; long-term gains are taxed at roughly half that rate.)

"Renaissance profited from this tax treatment by insisting on the fiction that it didn't really own the stocks it traded—that the banks that Renaissance dealt with, did," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said during the recent hearing. "But, the fact is that Renaissance did all the trading, maintained full control over the account…and reaped all of the profits."

The company has denied any wrongdoing and the IRS investigation is ongoing.

Despite his outsized giving, Mercer is described by those who know him as quiet and intensely private. But as Bradley Smith, a campaign finance expert, pointed out to the Times, his money will do plenty of talking for him: The cash "sends the message to other donors that Cruz is a serious guy…And that brings in other donors."

Even Ray Kelly Is Now Convinced Cops Need to Wear Body-Cams

| Mon Apr. 13, 2015 3:31 PM EDT

Former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly—who once warned against police officers being equipped with body-cameras—is now coming out in support of the recording technology. Kelly's reversal, he noted on ABC's This Week on Sunday, was prompted by the video in South Carolina that caught police officer Michael Slager fatally shooting Walter Scott.

"It has changed my mind," Kelly told host George Stephanopoulos. "Because we have to assume that this officer would not act the way he did if in fact he had a body camera that was recording."

Prior to the video's emergence last week, local reports of the shooting appeared to largely rely on the officer's account alone: Slager told authorities he had "felt threatened" by Scott and defended his actions as nothing more than a traffic stop gone wrong. The video's eventual publication, which clearly showed Slager shooting Scott in the back eight times as he attempted to flee, quickly lead to his arrest and murder charge.

"I think it is a game changer," Kelly said of the video. "What you will see is a movement now by many more police departments to go to cameras. There are issues with it, there are problems with it, but this trumps all of those problems."

As head of the NYPD, Kelly was a fierce defender of the department's controversial use of stop-and-frisk tactics and credited the program as a major factor in the city's declining crime rate. He also argued outfitting all officers with body-cameras would only thwart their abilities to perform their jobs properly. "I think we have to tread carefully in this area," he said in September. "I think cameras will make police officers hesitate and that can be a good thing or a bad thing."


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Here's Hillary Clinton's Video Launching Her Campaign

| Sun Apr. 12, 2015 3:03 PM EDT

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton officially kicked off her run for president with an email her campaign reportedly sent to her supporters on Sunday. The launch marks her second run for the White House after she was defeated by then Senator Barack Obama in 2008.

Sunday's long-awaited announcement follows years of speculation over when and how Clinton would formally launch her presidential campaign. In recent weeks, much of her team's energy has been focused on building a formidable army of advisers and key players. Earlier this month, Clinton signed a lease for her campaign headquarters in Brooklyn. Watch her video announcement below:

 

The Guy Who Filmed Eric Garner's Death Is Still Fighting To Get Out of Jail

| Fri Apr. 10, 2015 2:55 PM EDT
The Rev. Al Sharpton introduces Ramsey Orta at Eric Garner's funeral in July 2014. Julia Xanthos/AP

Update: Ramsey Orta was released from Rikers Island on Friday night and is now with his family, according to his lawyers. Earlier on Friday, the Staten Island district attorney's office canceled Orta's "bond source" hearing after reviewing paperwork submitted by the bail bondsman regarding the crowd-funded bail money. "We were satisfied that it met the requirements of the statute," said Daniel Master, the chief assistant district attorney.

It's been a rough eight months for the man who shot the video of Eric Garner's death. Since Garner was killed by a police officer's chokehold on a Staten Island sidewalk last July, Ramsey Orta, the 23-year-old who filmed the scene, has been arrested twice and has spent the past two months in Rikers Island. According to his attorneys, Orta believes he has been targeted by New York police in retaliation for having shot the video, which became a flash point for the growing civil-rights movement against police brutality.

Orta also fears that jail officials will try to poison him. "He's not eating the food that Rikers provides him," one of his attorneys, William Aronin, says. "Instead, he's surviving right now off of candy bars, chips, things he can get on the vending machine or the commissary. He's hungry, he is not happy, and he is scared."

Last month, 19 other inmates at the jail filed a lawsuit alleging that they had fallen ill after being served meatloaf with blue-green pellets in it. They say the pellets were rat poison, a claim which New York City Department of Correction officials have dismissed. Orta has not eaten any food served at the jail since the incident, his attorneys say. Department of Correction officials were not immediately available to respond to requests for comment.

About two weeks after Garner's death, Orta was arrested for allegedly passing a gun to a 17-year-old girl. He was sent to Rikers Island and was subsequently released. He was later arrested for allegedly selling drugs. His attorneys say it is likely Orta's cases will go to trial. "We have to get him out of jail as soon as possible so that one, he's safe, and two, he can prepare for his defense," Aronin says.

On Thursday morning, Orta posted $16,250 bail with donations that he'd received on a crowdfunding website. His family has been trying to raise $100,000 for bail and legal fees, and over the past month more than 1,800 people have contributed more than $47,000.

"He should have been out today," says Ken Perry, another of Orta's lawyers. But the Staten Island district attorney's office isn't letting Orta leave just yet. The assistant district attorney prosecuting the case against Orta has requested a bail source hearing to "determine the funds being used did not come from an illegal or illicit source," explains a spokesman from the DA's office said. The bail source hearing is scheduled for this afternoon.

Orta's attorneys say they have provided the district attorney's office with an approximately 115-page packet with names and details about everyone who has donated to their client's campaign. The packet also includes copies of the transfers from the crowdfunding website to Orta's aunt, and from her to the bail bondsman. "Why are they keeping him in when it's so patently obvious where this money came from?" Aronin asks.

Family members were upset by the news of the delay. "My heart is extremely heavy, these past two months have been pure hell for Ramsey," his aunt, Lisa Mercado, wrote on his crowdthefunding page, which received a flood of donations this morning. "You are not alone, Ramsey," one donor commented. "You did something brave for all Americans."

In December, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for his role in Garner's death. In Orta's video, Pantaleo can be seen wrestling Garner to the ground and wrapping an arm around his neck.

Orta has reportedly been arrested 27 times since 2009 for alleged offenses including drug possession, robbery, and fare evasion. His attorneys say the majority of the arrests have not led to charges, and that they believe Orta's claims of being unfairly targeted are viable. "There's something more going on than would normally be the case were this not Ramsey Orta," Perry says. "There are things here that are not right."

Hillary Clinton May Ruin Pundits' Weekend, Announce Campaign Sunday

| Fri Apr. 10, 2015 8:53 AM EDT

Hillary Clinton is set to announce her run for president this Sunday, The Guardian, CNN, and other outlets are reporting. She reportedly plans to release a video with the news on Twitter and follow up with campaigns stops in Iowa.

If she secures the Democratic nomination, Clinton will become the first woman from either major party on the presidential ballot. For a deeper dive into the key players inside her campaign, read our inside look at the man tasked to guide her to the White House.

Elizabeth Warren: "I Don't Support the Death Penalty" for Boston Marathon Bomber

| Thu Apr. 9, 2015 1:47 PM EDT

On Thursday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said she is opposed to sentencing Dzohkhar Tsarnaev to death, one day after the Boston Marathon bomber was found guilty on all 30 charges related to his involvement in the deadly 2013 attack.

Speaking on CBS This Morning, Warren said, "Nothing is ever going to make those who were injured whole…My heart goes out to the families here, but I don't support the death penalty." "I think he should spend his life in jail, no possibility of parole," she said. "He should die in prison."

"The alternative to the death penalty—it's not as if you set this guy free. He's put away…he's not someone who is able to keep sucking up a lot of energy. The families need their chance to move on."

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (R), on the other hand, supports putting Tsarnaev to death.

Watch the full video here: