When retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a Reagan appointee and the first woman on the nation's highest court, in a 3/9/06 speech at Georgetown University, said the country may be drifting toward dictatorship with Republican attacks on the judiciary, the nation's press was incuriously silent. Nina Totenberg reported the next morning on NPR that the former justice said that attacks on the judiciary by some Republican leaders pose a direct threat to our constitutional freedoms. She didn't name Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, but she quoted DeLay's attacks on the courts at a meeting of a conservative Christian group last year after courts ruled against Republicans on abortions, prayer and the Terri Schiavo case. Nor did O'Connor name Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, as contributing to a climate of violence against judges, but she referred to a high-profile senator who suggested a connection between violence against judges and decisions that the senator disagreed with. Cornyn made that statement, after a Georgia judge was murdered in the courtroom and the family of a federal judge in Illinois was murdered in the judge's home.
"Pointing to the experiences of developing countries and former communist countries where interference with an independent judiciary has allowed dictatorship to flourish," Totenberg reported, "O'Connor said we must be ever-vigilant against those who would strongarm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies. It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, she said, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings."
Then there was little notice, except from Keith Olbermann on MSNBC's Countdown and Britain's Guardian newspaper, which based a 3/13/06 report on coverage by Totenberg (available online at tinyurl.com/lt5ls) and the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
Jack Shafer of Slate.com noted, "A retired justice needn't predict the end of democracy to make news. All she has to do is burp. So, why didn't the US press react more strongly to her comments?" He suggested that it may partly be the reluctance of the press to chase somebody else's story, laziness about chasing a story on a Friday, particularly a radio story, previous remarks where O'Connor had chided congressional meddlers and inexperience in covering the views of former justices, since most justices leave the court in a hearse.
FEDS GAG FREEDOM AWARD WINNER: When the American Library Association gathered in San Antonio on 1/21/06 to celebrate one of their own for standing up for intellectual freedom, the guest of honor was unable to attend, on orders of federal officials who insist the PATRIOT Act overrules the Bill of Rights. The New York Times reported 3/21/06 that the ALA wanted to honor the Connecticut librarian who was visited by the FBI last year and was presented with a "national security letter," an administrative subpoena that required him to surrender patron records. The law prohibits the librarian not only from disclosing the subject of the inquiry, but also forbids him from discussing the letter or even acknowledging its receipt. The reauthorized PATRIOT Act included a change that requires a court order to examine some traditional library records. However, the American Civil Liberties Union noted, a national security letter, issued by an FBI official, can still be used to get any library record that is maintained electronically, which in most cases includes patron borrowing records. And while the new law establishes the recipient's right to consult a lawyer and challenge the non-disclosure orders, Ann Beeson of the ACLU said a judge would be hard-pressed to rule against a government request to keep information secret in the interest of national security. And in the Connecticut John Doe case, she added, "nothing in the new law permits John Doe to disclose his identity," although the government failed to completely conceal the name in court filings, which revealed the plaintiff to be the Library Connection of Windsor, Conn., which provides services to libraries in the Hartford area.
FEDS SQUELCH MUCKRAKER: In related news, CapitolHillBlue.com reported 3/6/06 that the FBI had sent a "national security letter" to the company that hosts the servers for the muckraking website, which frequently publishes what it claims to be insider information about the Bush White House.
"The letter apparently demanded traffic data, payment records and other information about the web site along with information on me, the publisher. Now that's a problem. I own the company that hosts Capitol Hill Blue. So, in effect, the feds want me to turn over information on myself and not tell myself that I'm doing it. You'd think they'd know better ..."
BIBLE VS. CONSTITUTION: After Jamie Raskin, professor of law at American University, testified at a hearing against Maryland's proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage 3/1/06, the Baltimore Sun reported that state Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R) commented: "As I read Biblical principles, marriage was intended, ordained and started by God -- that is my belief. For me, this is an issue solely based on religious principals."
Raskin shot back that the Bible was also used to uphold now-outlawed statutes banning interracial marriage, and that the Constitution should instead be lawmakers' guiding principle. "People place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution; they don't put their hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible," he said.
SHOPLIFTING AND BUSHONOMICS: Claude Allen, a Bush nominee for the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals who recently quit as White House chief domestic policy adviser "to spend more time with his family," was arrested for theft by "refund fraud" in suburban Maryland. According to police, Allen would purchase something from a department store and put it in the trunk of his car. Then he would come back to the store with the receipt, pull an identical item off the shelf, and take it to the return desk for a refund. He is alleged to have stolen more than $5,000 worth of merchandise over the past year in this way. Jacob Weisberg of Slate.com noted 3/15/06 that Allen's kleptomania sounds like an application of Bush economic policy. Consider Bush's Social Security proposal, which would create private retirement accounts for future retirees. That would have required Bush to divert $1 tln from the Social Security Trust Fund, which pays for currently promised benefits. But Bush did not propose to reduce benefits. Instead he projected that retirement funds invested in the stock market would grow so quickly that everyone would come out ahead. "The main difference between Allen's alleged scam and Bush's attempted one is scale," Weisberg wrote. "The goods Bush tried to slip under his coat at the Social Security Administration were worth around 200 million times as much as the ones Allen is said to have lifted at Target and Hecht's."
WHITE HOUSE CORRUPTION: The Associated Press reported 3/19/06 that the Bush administration is increasingly allowing corporations and individuals to not pay "highly publicized penalties for wrongdoing -- sometimes through negotiations, sometimes because companies go bankrupt, sometimes due to officials' failure to keep close track of who owes what under a decentralized collection system." David Sirota of davidsirota.com noted that many of those being let off have made large campaign contributions. The AP also reported on 3/15/06 that "Government contractors who owe millions of dollars in back taxes continue to get government contracts" and "some contractors, while owing taxes, bought luxury cars, boats and multimillion-dollar properties." In all, "one in 10 companies contracting with the General Services Administration from October 2003 through June 2005 owed back taxes." The New York Times reported 3/17/06 that John Ashcroft has become the first former attorney general in modern times to immediately become a corporate lobbyist.
'MUDCAT': DEMS CAN RETAKE SOUTH: Democratic hopes of regaining control of the Senate improved when Jim Webb, a marine veteran of Vietnam and Navy secretary under Ronald Reagan, announced that he would run as a Democrat to challenge Republican George Allen in Virginia. Webb isn't a progressive and he has to get past Harris Miller, a tech lobbyist with stronger Democratic ties, in the primary, but Webb probably would be the stronger challenger in the general election. One of his advisers is Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, who has co-written a book, Foxes in the Henhouse: How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland and What the Democrats Must Do to Run 'em Out, which preaches that Democrats must broaden their base in rural America. Saunders, who was an adviser to former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, told the Roanoke Times, "The swing vote is what's left, and it lives in rural America. These people have been voting Republican, but they're not really Republicans, and we need to show 'em why." Chris Bowers of MyDD.com forecasts a Senate gain for the Democrats of three to five seats, which would not be enough to put the Dems on top but would put them in the neighborhood. The key races to watch right now are New Jersey and Minnesota, where Democrats are defending seats, and Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia, where Democrats hope to pick up a seat. Wins in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Missouri, Montana and Ohio and an upset somewhere else could put the Dems in the majority.
GOP BLOCKS PORT SECURITY FUNDS: A week after a House committee voted to block Dubai Port World's takeover of US port operations, House Republicans defeated an amendment proposed by Rep. Martin Sabo, DFL-Minn., that would have provided $1.25 bln in funding for port security and disaster preparedness, ThinkProgress.org noted 3/16/06. The House was taking up a $91 bln measure to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and rebuild in the Hurricane Katrina-battered Gulf Coast and the Sabo amendment included:
$300 million to enable US customs agents to inspect high-risk containers at all 140 overseas ports that ship directly to the US. Current funding only allows US customs agents to operate at 43 of these ports.
$400 million to place radiation monitors at all US ports of entry. Currently, less than half of US ports have radiation monitors.
$300 million to provide backup emergency communications equipment for the Gulf Coast.
Meanwhile, the Bush budget &endash; which most of the members who voted against the Sabo amendment will likely support &endash; contains a $1.7 bln increase for missile defense, a program that doesn't even work.
PRO-CENSURE DEMS: Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of DailyKos.com 3/15/06 noted that 20 Democratic senators came out for censuring the president: Daniel Akaka, Max Baucus, Byron Dorgan, Dick Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, Daniel Inouye, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Herb Kohl, Mary Landrieu, Carl Levin, Joe Lieberman, Blanche Lincoln, Barbara Mikulski, Patty Murray, Jack Reed, Harry Reid, Jay Rockefeller, Chuck Schumer and Ron Wyden. "Unfortunately, the president being censured was Bill Clinton, not George W. Bush," Kos noted. "Because, you know, these senators had their priorities straight."
MAD COW CORRUPTION: Ever wonder what more than $3 mln in campaign contributions since 2000 can buy from the Republican Party? David Sirota notes that the meat processing industry has once again convinced the Bush administration to reduce beef inspections after another Mad Cow case was discovered last in March. In 2003, Knight Ridder showed how "from key policymakers to midlevel administrators, the Department of Agriculture is staffed with former executives of the meat and poultry industry, now in charge of regulating their former employers." Sirota noted that on 12/24/03 the first apparent case of mad cow disease in the US was discovered, the USDA announced. On 12/31/03, Democratic lawmakers and consumer groups asked the Bush administration to take more steps to protect Americans from mad cow disease. The USDA and the meat industry rejected a proposal to test all US cattle, modeled after Japan's approach. On 3/14/06, a cow in Alabama tested positive for mad cow disease. On 3/16/06, USDA officials defended their plans to reduce the number of cattle tested for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, even after a third case was confirmed in Alabama, according to CongressDaily.
OIL SPILLS BLUR OIL COMPANY'S 'GREEN' PR: BP, the international oil giant, has been effective at spreading the message that it is concerned about the environment, but an oil spill this past month in Alaska, the largest ever on the North Slope, has raised new concerns among state and federal regulators about whether BP has been properly maintaining its aging network of wells, pumps and pipelines that crisscross the tundra, the New York Times reported 3/20/06. Scott Shields of MyDD.com noted that since February 2001 BP has been responsible for at least six major oil spills and the Times reported that union officials say the company has taken little corrective action despite repeated warnings that cutbacks in routine maintenance and inspection had increased the chances of accidents or spills.
TOUGH CROWD: George W. Bush doesn't like to answer questions, so after getting frustrated at the length of the Q&A session of his speech in Cleveland on 3/20/06, he blurted out, "Anybody work here in this town?" ThinkProgress.org noted that unemployment in Cleveland has risen from 4.5% when he took office in January 2001 to 5.8% this past January. The local poverty rate has increased from 24.3% to 31.3%.
M'CAIN'S GOP MUSCLE: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in an apparent attempt to win over the corruption wing of the GOP as he prepares for a 2008 presidential race, hired Terry Nelson, the Republican National Committee operative who was implicated in Rep. Tom DeLay's money-laundering scheme in Texas. TPMMuckraker.com's Paul Kiel also noted 3/20/06 that Nelson, who was named in the DeLay indictment but not charged, is also tied to to 2002 New Hampshire phone-jamming scandal. He was the immediate supervisor of James Tobin, who put the operation together.
PROG WINS IN BURLINGTON, VT: Progressive Bob Kiss won the Burlington, Vt., mayor's office 3/7/06 in an instant runoff election over Democrat Hinda Miller, Republican Kevin Curley and two other candidates. According to the Burlington Free Press, Curley told his supporters to mark Kiss as their second choice on the instant runoff ballot, while some prominent Progressives were in Democrat Miller's camp. She also won endorsements from former Govs. Howard Dean and Madeleine Kunin, and from Sen. Patrick Leahy.
SWEETHEART DEAL: Since 2002, Mitchell Wade, one of the co-conspirators in the Duke Cunningham bribery scandal, and Wade's associates have given Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.)'s campaign and political action committee $118,000, more than they gave any other politician, including Cunningham, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported 3/19/06. As member of two key committees -- appropriations and administration -- Doolittle helped Wilkes get at least $37 mln in government contracts. And Doolittle's wife, acting as his fundraiser, gets a 15% cut of contributions. Federal and state records show Julie Doolittle received nearly $180,000 in commissions from her husband's fundraising since late 2001. Paul Kiel of tpmmuckraker.com noted 3/20/06 that it is against the law for lawmakers to convert campaign money to personal use. The Federal Election Commission ruled in 2001, when Jesse Jackson Jr. was seeking to use his wife for consulting work, that it was OK as long as his wife was paid the "fair market value" for her services. In that case, Jackson's wife had plenty of experience. In this case, Doolittle's wife had no experience. And she was being paid a 15% commission, which sounded high to Naomi Seligman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). "So: no experience and she was being paid top dollar. Is that "fair market value?" Sounds like a pretty clear violation of the law to me," Kiel wrote.
CONS CANCEL CANCER: Numbers continue to trickle out of President Bush's budget proposal. Bob Herbert of the New York Times noted 3/20/06 that the White House proposes to cut $1.4 mln from the national breast and cervical cancer early detection program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that provides screening and other services to low-income women who do not have health insurance, or or underinsured. Preventing cancer, or treating it early, is a lot less expensive than treating advanced cancer, Herbert said, butBush's cut would mean that 4,000 fewer women would have access to early detection. "This makes no sense. In human terms, it is cruel. From a budget standpoint, it's self-defeating." But Bush is not picking on women; Dan Smith of the American Cancer Society told Herbert Bush cut every cancer program. He cut colorectal cancer program. He cut the National Cancer Institute. "He cut literally every one of our cancer-specific programs. It's incomprehensible."
POSTAL REALIGNMENT HELPS BIG MAILERS: Postal Service plans to consolidate mail processing facilities around the country threaten customer service. In the case of Waco, Texas, the USPS plans to relocate mail processing 85 to 100 miles away in Fort Worth and Austin. "If you're mailing a bill across town, that bill will have to be trucked to either Austin or Fort Worth to be postmarked and then be trucked back to Waco and delivered," said Ruby Harrison of the American Postal Worker Union local. Clint Burelson, president of the APWU local in Olympia, Wash., said the proposal to move canceling and sorting operations is part of a national postal restructuring to benefit big mailers that will receive huge discounts for using barcodes and pre-sorting mail, while citizens, non-profit organizations and small businesses will pay more for first-class and other mailings and get fewer services. Among cities whose postmarks as well as mail processing jobs are threatened are Daytona Beach, Fla.; Sheridan, Wyo.; Alamogordo, N.M; McAllen, Texas; Bryan, Texas; Cumberland, Md.; Batesville, Ark.; Bronx, N.Y.; Traverse City, Mich.; St. Petersburg, Fla; Aberdeen, S.D.; Helena, Mont.; LaCrosse, Wis.; Twin Falls, Ida.; Bloomington, Ind.; Yakima, Wash.; Oshkosh, Wis.; Rockford, Ill.; Newark, N.J.; Canton, Ohio; Beaumont, Texas; Binghamton, N.Y.; Burlington, Vt.; Dallas, Texas; Portsmouth, N.H.; Las Cruces, N.M.; Kansas City, Kan.; Sioux City, Iowa; Olympia, Wash.; Bridgeport, Conn.; Pasadena, Calif.; and others (see apwu.org).
NEW PROBLEMS IN E-VOTE MACHINES: In Utah, Emery County Clerk Bruce Funk has been running elections for 23 years and was happy with his optical scan system, but the state of Utah required him to replace them with Diebold TSx touch-screen machines. Two of the 40 machines he received failed the first test and several of the remaining machines showed defects such as paper feeds that jam, memory card doors that wouldn't close, parts getting stuck, coming loose, falling off. When he booted up each machine, he found most machines had 25 megabytes (MB) of memory available, but some had only 7 MB or less, which raised the question: why would brand-new voting machines have used-up memory? He asked Black Box Voting to analyze the voting system. Analyst Harri Hursti was unable to discover the reason for the different amounts of memory. He found no way for election officials to find out whether inappropriate software is in the touch-screen, but he discovered potential security holes. He also found that the machine's output plug falls out readily, exposing live 110-volt outlet power on bare wires, such presents a safety hazard. See blackboxvoting.org.
CONTRACTORS DRIVE UP HURRICANE CLEANUP COSTS: Inadequate oversight in the Hurricane Katrina cleanup has cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars by allowing contractors to build shelters in the wrong places or to purchase supplies that were not needed, the Government Accountability Office reported 3/16/06. But many more millions are paid to contractors who get a cut of the profits from a job performed by someone else, the Washington Post reported 3/20/06. The difference between the job's actual price and the fee charged to taxpayers ranged from 40% to as high as 1,700%. In the case of cleaning up storm debris, the Army Corps of Engineers awarded contracts for removing 62 million cubic yards of debris to four companies: Ashbritt Inc., Ceres Environmental Services Inc., Environmental Chemical Corp. and Phillips and Jordan Inc.
Corps officials have declined to reveal specific payment rates, but local officials and businesspeople say the companies are paid $28 to $30 a cubic yard. After the contract passed through four subcontractors, each of which got their cut, Troy Hebert, a hauler from New Iberia, La., ended up getting paid from $10 to $6 for each cubic yard of debris he actually removed. The gap is particularly large for roof repairs. Four large companies won Army Corps contracts to cover damaged roofs with blue plastic tarp, at a rate of $1.50 to $1.75 per square foot of tarp installed. The prime contractors' rate is nearly as much as local roofers charge to install a roof of asphalt shingles, roofers told the Post. Meanwhile, some crews are being paid less than 10 cents per square foot to actually install the tarp, the officials said.
Landstar Systems Inc., a Florida company in charge of the bus evacuation of New Orleans, is a transportation broker that specializes in trucking and has no buses of its own. Thousands of New Orleanians had been stranded in the Superdome for more than 48 hours by the time FEMA issued the first order for a bus evacuation early on the morning of Aug. 31. Landstar turned to Carey International Inc., of Washington, which hired the BusBank of Chicago and Transportation Management Systems of Columbia, Md., which called private charter-bus companies -- some from as far away as California and Washington state -- to send buses and drivers to New Orleans. More than 1,100 buses eventually responded, some arriving four days later, after traveling hundreds of miles. Daily earnings averaged about $700 per bus, according to bus company owners. Landstar's daily earnings were nearly $1,200 per bus, government records show. "A lot of that money is going to brokers who didn't have to do anything," said Jeff Polzien, owner of Red Carpet Charters, an Oklahoma bus company that sent coaches to New Orleans as a fourth-tier subcontractor. But with many tiers to navigate, money trickles down slowly, delaying payment by weeks and months, and frequently imposing hardships on the smallest firms. Thomas Paige, owner of Coast to Coast Bus Line of Dillon, S.C., laid off staff, and two of his four buses were repossessed by creditors after payment for his New Orleans work fell behind by three months. "I went to New Orleans to help people -- and hopefully to help myself -- but now I feel like I've dug a ditch and fallen into it," Paige said. "If I would have known what I know now, I never would have gotten involved. It's just not worth it."