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Burundi Opposition Figure Zedi Furuzi Shot Dead In Capital, Activist Says

Huffingon Post Politics - Sat, 2015-05-23 15:59

* Worst crisis since end of civil war in 2005

* Protests erupted after president announced third-term bid

* Unrest worries region with history of ethnic conflict (Adds details from scene, background)

By Clement Manirabarusha and Njuwa Maina

BUJUMBURA, May 23 (Reuters) - A Burundi opposition figure and his bodyguard were shot dead in the capital by gunmen on Saturday, a civil society activist and residents said, adding to tensions after a month of protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for a third term.

Zedi Feruzi, the head of opposition party UPD, and his bodyguard were killed in the Ngagara district, Anshere Nikoyagize, the head of the civil society group Ligue ITEKA, told Reuters. Residents said he was killed near his home.

Burundi is facing its deepest crisis since the end of an ethnically fueled civil war in 2005. The unrest was triggered by the president's decision to seek another five years in office.

Opponents, such as Feruzi, have said it is unconstitutional.

The president has shown no sign of backing down, pointing to a constitutional court ruling that said he can run again because his first term, when he was picked by parliament not elected in a popular vote, did not count.

The crisis has already prompted a failed coup and driven more than 110,000 people to flee to neighboring states for fear the violence will spread beyond the capital. It has unnerved a region that has a history of ethnic conflict.

"We heard a lot of gunfire," a neighbor of Feruzi told Reuters Television. "It's unfortunate because there were army soldiers here, and they didn't do anything."

Feruzi, a member of the African nation's relatively small Muslim community, was a well-known figure although his party was not among the nation's biggest. Burundi has dozens of registered parties.

A Reuters photographer took a picture of a man with a fatal bullet wound to the head and other injuries who locals said was Feruzi.

Ngagara district has been one of the hotbeds of unrest during protests that have taken place almost daily since Nkurunziza announced his re-election bid on April 25.

The presidential election is due to be held on June 26. Parliamentary and local council polls will now be held on June 5, delayed by a little more than week.

After the shooting, residents in that area of Ngagara swiftly set up make-shift barricades on the streets for protection, an increasingly common sight throughout even quiet neighborhoods of the capital.

Police have fired teargas, water cannon and even guns at protesters, who have hurled rocks back. The Red Cross says they have seen about 20 killed in the unrest so far, but emergency workers say the total is probably much higher.

Police say they have not shot at demonstrators. The government has branded the protests an "insurrection."

Until Saturday's shooting, the day had been relatively quiet with few protesters on the streets, following a pattern where weekends have tended to be calmer. But the opposition has vowed to keep on protesting until Nkurunziza ends his re-election bid.

(Additioal reporting by Goran Tomasevic; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alison Williams)

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Certainly Looks Like Some Weed Fell Out Of Kevin Durant's Car Friday Night

Huffingon Post Politics - Sat, 2015-05-23 15:54
Kevin Durant was politely answering some reporter's questions outside a Los Angeles club Friday night when he decided it was time to go. But when he opened the door of his car to leave, he could only stand helplessly and act aloof as what looked an awful lot like a plastic canister of marijuana fell out of his car.

Uh-oh, dropping the weed!” yelled someone we can safely assume was a paparazzi.


Like, what else could it be? (Source: TMZ)

One of Durant’s people jumped out of nowhere to shield the plastic canister, which, it must be stated once more, certainly looked like it was filled with marijuana.

“Come on, man,” he told the cameraman, who was zooming in on the plastic canister. A plastic canister that appeared to contain marijuana. “Don’t do that. Don’t do that,” he said.

We obviously don’t know if the plastic canister, which you have to admit at least sort of looks like the type of receptacle traditionally used to store marijuana, was Durant’s or one of his buddies'. But honestly, whatever. It’s California, and the Oklahoma City Thunder aren’t in the playoffs, so, like, live your life, KD. Live your life.

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Senate Blocks NSA Reform Bill

Huffingon Post Politics - Sat, 2015-05-23 00:51
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate struggled to prevent an interruption in critical government surveillance programs early Saturday, rejecting both a House-passed bill and a short-term extension of the USA Patriot Act.

The back-to-back votes left lawmakers without a clear fallback, although current law doesn't expire until midnight May 31.

The White House has pressured the Senate to back the House bill which would end the National Security Agency's bulk collection of domestic phone records. Instead, the records would remain with telephone companies subject to a case-by-case review.

The vote was 57-42, short of the 60-vote threshold to move ahead.

That was immediately followed by rejection of a two-month extension to the existing programs. The vote was 45-54, again short of the 60-vote threshold.

Republican officials said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., intended to try again, this time with an even shorter renewal of current law.

Whatever the Senate approves must be passed by the House, which has already left Washington for a weeklong Memorial Day break.

Complicating McConnell's efforts was an attempt by fellow Kentuckian Sen. Rand Paul, who has vowed to do everything he can to prevent the renewal of the bulk phone records collection.

"My filibuster continues to end NSA illegal spying," tweeted the Republican presidential contender.

The legal provisions authorizing the programs will expire at midnight May 31, and officials say they will lose valuable surveillance tools if the Senate fails to go along with the House. But key Republican senators oppose the House approach.

What will happen to the surveillance programs if Congress doesn't pass a bill on Friday or Saturday:

IF THE LAW EXPIRES

At issue is a section of the Patriot Act, Section 215, used by the government to justify secretly collecting the "to and from" information about nearly every American landline telephone call. For technical and bureaucratic reasons, the program was not collecting a large chunk of mobile calling records, which made it less effective as fewer people continued to use landlines.

When former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the program in 2013, many Americans were outraged that NSA had their calling records. President Barack Obama ultimately announced a plan similar to the USA Freedom Act and asked Congress to pass it. He said the plan would preserve the NSA's ability to hunt for domestic connections to international plots without having an intelligence agency hold millions of Americans' private records.

Since it gave the government extraordinary powers, Section 215 of the Patriot Act was designed to expire at midnight on May 31 unless Congress renews it.

Under the USA Freedom Act, the government would transition over six months to a system under which it queries the phone companies with known terrorists' numbers to get back a list of numbers that had been in touch with a terrorist number.

But if Section 215 expires without replacement, the government would lack the blanket authority to conduct those searches. There would be legal methods to hunt for connections in U.S. phone records to terrorists, said current and former U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. But those methods would not be applicable in every case.

The Justice Department has said the NSA would begin winding down its collection of domestic calling records this week if the Senate fails to act because the collection takes time to halt.

WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER PARTS OF THE LAW?

Far less attention has been paid to two other surveillance authorities that expire at midnight May 31. One makes it easier for the FBI to track "lone wolf" terrorism suspects who have no connection to a foreign power, and another allows the government to eavesdrop on suspects who continuously discard their cellphones in an effort to avoid surveillance.

They have been used frequently, and there is no meaningful opposition to them in Congress.

If those were to go away, FBI Director James Comey said, it would set back the bureau at a time when domestic threats are on the rise.

The so-called "roving wiretap" provision allows the FBI to get a warrant to target the communications of a person rather than a device, to account for a suspect who frequently discards "burner" phones. The lone wolf provision allows the government to use national security authorities to track a terror suspect even if he or she has no obvious connection to a foreign power.

Briefing reporters Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest urged the Senate to act. "The way to eliminate the risk of these critically important national security authorities from lapsing is to pass the USA Freedom Act," he said.

SENATE MANEUVERS

The president and his top law enforcement officials have urged the Senate to pass the House bill, as have Democrats and Republicans in the House. But key Senate Republicans are balking.

Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has floated a plan that would essentially dare the House to let the law expire.

As a compromise, Burr wants to extend current law between 5 days and a month to give the House time to pass the Senate bill. Then he would have the NSA transition to the system envisioned by the USA Freedom Act. But he would allow the transition to take less time — two years, not six months.

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Rand Paul Amendment Would Increase Executive Branch Power

Huffingon Post Politics - Fri, 2015-05-22 22:25
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Friday proposed an amendment to legislation to give President Barack Obama fast-track trade authority that would shift budgetary power from Congress to the executive branch.

Senators didn't vote on the amendment as they rushed to finish work on Trade Promotion Authority -- the fast-track measure -- before a holiday recess.

Paul’s “Bonuses for Cost-Cutters Act” would have empowered federal agencies to identify “any potential surplus funds” and return them to the treasury. Employees who tip off agency inspectors general to the surpluses would be eligible for bonuses.

In order to create such a system, Paul’s amendment would give additional power to the executive branch by exempting the surplus funds from existing law that forbids the executive branch from seizing congressionally appropriated funds. The 1974 law was a response to attempts by then-President Richard Nixon to unilaterally cut congressionally appropriated spending.

A Republican Senate aide with close knowledge of the law, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Paul's language exempting the funds from the 1974 law may have been an unnecessary precaution. A Democratic Senate aide, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, expressed concerns that the amendment’s language may have allowed federal government administrators to defund key agency functions for ideological or political reasons.

Paul and a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Bonuses for Cost-Cutters Act separately earlier in the week.

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Obama Takes Unexpected Setback On Trade Agenda As Fast Track Passes Senate

Huffingon Post Politics - Fri, 2015-05-22 21:55
WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's trade agenda suffered a setback Friday evening during a series of last-minute maneuvers in the Senate. While the upper chamber eventually passed a bill that would help Obama streamline a trade pact with 11 Pacific nations, the final product threw a wrench into the president's plans.

The Senate approved a bill to "fast-track" trade agreements negotiated by the president. The agreement will prevent Congress from amending or filibustering Obama's controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. The TPP deal would have a hard time surviving without fast-track authority.

But a key crackdown on human trafficking survived the legislative jujitsu. The White House considers the provision a deal-breaker, as it would force one of the nations involved in the TPP talks -- Malaysia -- out of the agreement. An immigration-related amendment authored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) never got a vote, making it far more difficult for Obama to win over skeptical tea party Republicans in the House.

The slavery provision's survival means that the House will either need to amend the bill and send it back to the Senate, which would cause a delay and complicate the House debate, or pass a bill and go to conference with the Senate, also causing a delay. It also potentially could be fixed in separate legislation otherwise moving through Congress.

But time is not on the side of advocates of the trade agenda, as summer recess is approaching, followed by a heated presidential campaign season. "It leaves a substantial problem that no one's sure how will be addressed," said one senator. If fast-track is ultimately approved, 60 days would need to pass before the TPP could be voted on.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) authored the provision that would effectively bar Malaysia from the agreement, but settled with GOP leaders over modified language that would allow Malaysia to stay in the deal as long as it made progress toward reducing its dependence on slave labor. The modification, however, never made it into the bill.

"It's an interesting thing, isn't it, about Menendez -- it didn't get fixed," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a staunch opponent of the trade bill, said Friday night after the final vote.

"So it means, if nothing changes, Malaysia should not be in this agreement," Brown said. "And if the president relaxes or un-designates Malaysia as a tier 3 designation, it would be a tragedy. So either Congress changes it or the House changes it." Tier 3 is the lowest possible ranking in an annual report the U.S. issues gauging a country's actions against human trafficking.

Ironically, it was Senate Republicans, or at least one Republican, who enabled the provision to stay. The Senate needed unanimous consent to move forward on votes on a series of amendments, including the Menendez modification, but was denied when a Republican senator objected.

Brown was pleased the provision snuck through, and looked forward to the battle in the House.

“I'm absolutely happy, because no country should get in with that designation,” Brown said. “I'll be working with [the House]. We had some victories here that surprised people. Everybody thought the Senate would be so easy to get it through and they were surprised that it isn't. I think they got more trouble in the House.”

Over the past two weeks, Obama has been engaged in a bitter public feud with Senate Democrats over the fast-track bill, which would bar Congress from amending or filibustering the final TPP agreement that Obama negotiates. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other Republican leaders have celebrated Obama's trade agenda as a tool to boost economic growth. But Democrats have decried it, saying it will exacerbate income inequality and undermine key financial and environmental regulations. Labor unions, environmentalists and Internet freedom advocates oppose TPP, while corporate lobbyists, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, support it.

Many rank-and-file Republicans, meanwhile, are reluctant to get behind the deal, a position bolstered by radio host Rush Limbaugh on Friday afternoon.

"Republicans are providing the necessary push to get it passed, which kind of bothers me," Limbaugh said on his radio show. "Since it's an Obama deal, the odds are it isn't good. Since it's an Obama deal, the odds are the United States is gonna take it in the shorts."

Limbaugh's objections make it more difficult for Obama to win over tea party Republicans. But the most controversial provision of the final Senate bill is opposed not by the GOP, but by Obama himself.

That measure would bar governments considered to be complicit in human trafficking from receiving the economic benefits of a fast-tracked trade deal. Menendez, the author of the provision, has described it as a human rights protection that will prevent U.S. workers from competing with modern-day slave labor. The administration has pushed against the provision, saying it would prevent Malaysia from participating in the deal, and eliminate incentives for the country to upgrade its human trafficking enforcement. Human rights advocates strongly support the language that passed the Senate on Friday.

The president argues that if the U.S. doesn't cut deals with these partner countries, China will, to U.S. disadvantage.

The State Department's human trafficking analysisof Malaysia describes the country as "a destination and, to a lesser extent, a source and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and women and children subjected to sex trafficking." The department cites forced labor problems in Malaysia's palm oil industry, and nonprofit groups have noted similar abuses in the Malaysian electronics industry. The State Department report says Malaysian "public officials ... may profit from trafficking."

The fast-track bill means the battle now moves to the House, where Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is trying to marshal enough votes from tea partiers to overcome broad Democratic resistance. House leadership is trying to avoid protracted negotiations with the Senate about the final language of the fast-track bill, and was expected to try and push through the Senate version word-for-word. That plan may have been upended Friday.

The House may need to add the Cruz anti-immigration language to secure passage. Obama, meanwhile, will be placed in a tough spot by the human trafficking language. The administration could eliminate the procedural hurdle by simply upgrading Malaysia's formal status on human trafficking, but doing so would undermine the integrity of a key U.S. human rights initiative designed to shame rogue regimes. Whatever the result, the final fast-track bill seems destined for a contentious conference session to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions. Republican leaders in both chambers had hoped to avoid such an outcome.

The trade debate has roiled the Democratic Party like no issue since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, culminating in a bitter public feud between two of the most popular figures within the party. Obama assailed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for issuing supposedly "dishonest" critiques and spreading "misinformation." Warren fired back that her concerns are backed by independent experts, and called for Obama to publicly release draft TPP documents to let the public gauge their merits. Obama has kept the texts classified.

And more quietly, Brown united Democrats multiple times to block key procedural votes over the past two weeks, and tried to get amendments that the administration considered “poison pills” attached to the fast-track bill.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) found himself at odds with Obama, vowing he would be a “hell no” on the president’s trade agenda, calling the push for it "insanity."

The debate over the amendments Friday, and the result of the votes, was instructive. Obama almost lost a vote on legislation offered by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), which would have directed the administration to crack down on currency manipulation by governments involved in the TPP talks. Economists broadly agree that currency manipulation by China, Japan and other nations has destroyed U.S. jobs by making foreign products artificially cheaper. While China is not in the TPP, Japan is, and U.S. auto manufacturers vociferously advocated in favor of the Portman-Stabenow provision. Currency manipulation is broadly viewed as a major impediment to U.S. auto exports globally. The currency manipulation amendment failed by a vote of 48 to 51.

An amendment from Sens. Warren and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) would have barred fast-track perks to trade deals that allow corporations to challenge domestic laws and regulations before an international tribunal. While so-called investor state dispute settlement cases have been rare in the past, they have become increasingly popular with companies in recent years as a method for undermining a host of regulations.

"I want everyone to remember the day you voted on this amendment," Heitkamp said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote, predicting future corporate challenges to government rules.

An amendment from Brown that would have required congressional approval for any future countries to sign onto TPP failed by a vote of 47 to 52

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) proposed an amendment to eliminate trade adjustment assistance from the trade package. That assistance provides job training and financial aid to workers who lose their jobs to international trade. Had the amendment passed, it would have destroyed the existing Democratic support for fast-track in the House. It failed by a vote of 35 to 63.

While the battle in the Senate proved lengthy and heated, a far more grueling fight lies ahead. Heading into Memorial Day recess, House Republicans admitted the votes were not there to pass fast track, and urged Obama to lobby more Democrats.

“Republicans are going to by and large provide the vast majority of the votes both in the House and the Senate,” Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio) told reporters this week. “But the president of the U.S. needs to get more Democrat involvement in passing this.”

Democrats have said Republicans shouldn’t rely on them to help pass the fast-track authority for Obama once it reaches the House. Right now, Republicans estimate they have roughly 20 Democrats who will vote with them to give the president the expedited powers, but it’s not enough.

“I think there is a substantial enough bloc within our conference that have stated they are leaning no, or no, or are seriously undecided that we are going to have to have Democrats,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) “This president hasn’t been so engaged with Congress and now he’s trying to drum up some votes and build some capital that doesn’t exist. It’s not going to be an easy chore to corral the votes in the House.”

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U.S. Senate Approves 'Fast Track' For Obama's Trade Deal

Huffingon Post Politics - Fri, 2015-05-22 21:23
WASHINGTON (AP) — In a victory for President Barack Obama, the Senate passed bipartisan legislation Friday night to strengthen the administration's hand in global trade talks, clearing the way for a highly unpredictable summer showdown in the House.

The vote was 62-37 on the bill, which would let Obama complete trade deals that Congress could approve or reject, but not change. A total of 48 Republicans supported the bill, but only 14 the Senate's 44 Democrats backed a president of their own party on legislation near the top of his second-term agenda.

A separate measure to prevent parts of the anti-terror Patriot Act from lapsing, and a bill to prevent a cutoff in federal highway funding also awaited action by lawmakers who covetously eyed a weeklong vacation — set to begin whenever the work was done.

Senate passage of the trade bill capped two weeks of tense votes and near-death experiences for legislation the administration hopes will help complete an agreement with Japan and 10 other countries in the Pacific region.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Obama's indispensable ally in passing the bill, said it would create "new opportunities for bigger paychecks, better jobs, and a stronger economy.

"The tools it contains will allow us to knock down unfair foreign trade barriers that discriminate against American workers and products stamped "Made in the USA," he said.

The House is expected to debate the issue as early as next month.

There, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, supports the bill. But dozens of majority Republicans currently oppose it, either out of ideological reasons or because they are loath to enhance Obama's authority, especially at their own expense.

And Obama's fellow Democrats show little inclination to support legislation that much of organized labor opposes.

In the run-up to a final Senate vote, Democratic supporters of the legislation were at pains to lay to rest concerns that the legislation, like previous trade bills, could be blamed for a steady loss of jobs.

"The Senate now has the opportunity to throw the 1990s NAFTA playbook into the dust bin of history," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. He referred to the North American Free Trade Agreement, passed two decades ago, and a symbol to this day, fairly or not, of the loss of unemployment to a country with lax worker safety laws and low wages.

Wyden and others said this law had far stronger protections built into it.

One final attempt to add another one failed narrowly, 51-48 a few hours before the bill cleared.

It came on a proposal, by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who supported the trade bill, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who opposed it. They sought to made allegations of currency manipulation subject to the same "dispute settlement procedures" as other obligations under any trade deal.

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew warned earlier that its approval could cause Obama to veto the legislation. The president has said it could cause the demise of the current round of talks with 11 other Pacific-area nations, and also could pose a threat to the monetary policy that is designed to help the U.S. economy run better.

Portman, who was U.S. trade representative under former President George W. Bush, scoffed at threats of a veto. "I don't think so," he said in remarks on the Senate floor. "I think he (Obama) understands the importance" of his ability to conclude trade deals without congressional changes.

An alternative proposal backed by the White House merely stressed the importance of U.S. negotiators seeking ways to end the practice of currency manipulation, which can lower the price of foreign-made goods and place American-made products at a competitive disadvantage. It cleared on a vote of 70-29.

To mollify Democrats, the bill also included $1.8 billion in retraining funds for American workers who lose their jobs as a result of exports. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said the program duplicated other federal efforts, but his attempt to strip out the funds was defeated, 53-35.

The political alignment on the Patriot Act legislation was different, with the administration and McConnell on different sides.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest prodded the Senate to accept a House-passed bill renewing anti-terrorism programs due to expire June 1. He said that to do otherwise would put at risk "the ability of our national security professionals to keep us safe."

But the House bill included a provision to eliminate the National Security Agency's ability to collect mass telephone records of Americans. Instead, the material would remain with phone companies, with government searches of the information allowed by court order on a case-by-case basis.

"The untried — and as of yet, nonexistent — bulk-collection system envisioned under that bill would be slower and more cumbersome than the one that currently helps keep us safe," McConnell said in remarks on the Senate floor. At worst, he added, "it might not work at all."

The highway bill was the least controversial of the three on the Senate's pre-vacation agenda, but only because lawmakers agreed in advance on a two-month extension of the current law. The House and Senate will need to return to the issue this summer.

Lawmakers whose time generally is scheduled far in advance adjusted as best they could as the Senate struggled with work put off until the last minute.

"It's not the weather, it's the Senate that's the problem," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., hoping to make it home by Saturday night for a turn as pianist with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.

___

Associated Press reporter Ken Dilanian contributed to this story.

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Friday Talking Points -- Spinning Straw (Polls) Into Gold

Huffingon Post Politics - Fri, 2015-05-22 20:52

It's one of those rare weeks in Washington where Congress deigns to actually do their job and vote on some stuff... before lapsing back into their default status, which is of course: "taking weeks and weeks off, on vacation."


Most of the attention was focused on two big issues this week: Authorizing fast-track trade authority and re-authorizing sections of the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act. As this is being written, neither one has actually passed the Senate, but it's looking like at least the fast-track bill will probably pass tonight.


In the midst of all this, Rand Paul got a little confused. He staged another "fauxlibuster," speaking for over ten hours in the Senate on his opposition to the N.S.A. metadata collection renewal, but (oddly enough) he spoke not while the Senate was debating the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act bill, but instead on the fast-track bill. Meaning the whole exercise was rather pointless. Except for the press coverage, which (of course) was actually the whole point. Rand Paul still looked kind of like a hapless student who gave a long-winded oral report on the wrong subject, though.


In other Republican campaign news, two major candidates have now announced they're skipping the Iowa straw poll. Both Jeb Bush and (now) Mike Huckabee will not attend. The only one who may have committed to attending, at this point, is Donald Trump -- if he runs, of course. The entire event is nothing more than a shakedown by the Iowa Republican Party, forcing candidates to spend a whopping amount of money on a meaningless vote, and both Bush and Huckabee smartly decided to say "No, thanks," to the whole idea.


Think "shakedown" is too strong a word? Well, the way the straw poll used to operate is that the Republican Party actually auctioned off choice tent locations to the various candidates -- best spot goes to the highest bidder! Tens of thousands of dollars paid to the party machine just to secure a choice spot for your tent. Candidates also had to pay for such things as electrical hookups and other extras. But the real scam was that a "ticket" to vote in the straw poll costs $30, which the candidates are free to buy and hand out to their supporters.


The party, stung by such criticism, has reformed the operation so that tent sites are randomly assigned and will cost nothing. Likewise, all the extra fees will be waived. However, they're still sticking with the whole 30-bucks-per-vote thing, because after all that's the American way. Or something. Call it the fairy tale of "spinning the straw (poll) into gold for our coffers," we suppose.


The moral of the story is that this is a pointless and stupid waste of time and resources for any candidate -- which Huckabee even pointed out in his announcement. After all, let's all reflect on how big a boost the straw poll gave to the last person who won it: Michele Bachmann. Nothing else really needs be said on the importance of the Iowa straw poll, really.


Moving right along, the frenzy over Jeb Bush's answer to whether he'd still have invaded Iraq knowing what he knows now seemed to die away this week. The media has plenty of other valid questions to be asking Republican (and Democratic, for that matter) candidates on the issue of foreign policy, but so far they haven't actually been asking any such questions (more on this later in the talking points segment of our program). In a related topic, the Washington Post ran an interesting graphic this week where you can see exactly how much of your own life has passed while America has been at war. It certainly puts things in perspective.


Barack Obama made a splash this week, when he opened an official "POTUS" Twitter account. Note that this account won't follow him when he leaves the White House, it will always be the official presidential account no matter who is in the Oval Office (much like the whitehouse.gov web page). He immediately set a record on Twitter for "fastest to 1,000,000 followers," which isn't all that surprising. Sadly, it was also not very surprising that he began receiving racist and hateful tweets. But the joke may be on the people sending those tweets, because since the account is an official White House one, it means that all tweets are archived as they come in. So, those nasty tweets may come back to haunt quite a few people in the future (say, when they're applying for a job).


The Republic of Ireland has just (as this is being written) finished voting on what could be a historic referendum on marriage equality. If the measure passes, it will be the first time any country on Earth has approved gay marriage at the ballot box (rather than through a legislature or the courts). The votes won't be counted until tomorrow, so we'll all have to wait to see how it did. Turnout was notably high, for whatever that's worth. I wrote about this earlier in the week, and how the arguments for the changing nature of marriage are a bit different in Ireland, where citizens weren't even allowed to get divorced until 1995. In any case, check the news tomorrow to see how Ireland voted.


What else? Marijuana was featured on the cover of the staid National Geographic magazine this week, which has to signify some sort of turning point.


 



We're going to be even-handed here, we've decided, and hand out two awards on the same issue.


First, it's now undeniable that President Barack Obama wants a trade deal. Whether you personally think the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a good deal or not, it's hard to dispute that Obama obviously really, really wants to see it enacted.


Obama won a crucial vote this week in the Senate, which moved a "fast-track" authority bill forward. This bill will only allow an up-or-down vote on trade deals in Congress, making it easier to pass the T.P.P. (and other trade deals). It means Congress won't be able to amend any trade negotiations, just vote on them as written.


Now, it's not even guaranteed that the House is going to pass the fast-track bill. The bill stumbled going through the Senate as well, but it appears it will make it in the end (they may have voted on it by the time you read this). Part of the reason for this success was Obama and the White House doing a full-court press on Congress, lobbying like mad. Several senators mentioned that this is the biggest lobbying effort they've ever seen out of this president.


Which is why we're giving Obama a Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award. Not only did he overcome an initial vote that went against him, but he actively engaged with individuals in Congress -- a skill he's not exactly known for. Now, many Democrats are against the trade deal itself, so please allow us to split hairs on this award. We're giving it to Obama not for the content of the fast-track bill, but for the way he got it passed. We realize that six years in is rather late, but this is indeed the way bills are supposed to be championed by the White House. We sincerely hope Obama will expend this much energy on other (perhaps more palatable) deals with Congress. This is a fancy way of saying "better late than never," really.


But we did say we were going to be even-handed, so our second Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award goes to Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democratic nomination for president.


Sanders is against the T.P.P. deal. How do I know this? Because he wrote his position down and published it for all to see. He titles his essay "The T.P.P. Must Be Defeated," which is pretty clear and unequivocal.


Now, it is unfair to compare Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton on the issue, at the present time (Hillary finally said something about it, but it was basically that she's going to wait and see what's in the deal). The reason it's currently unfair to hold the two candidates to the same standard is that Sanders is still a sitting senator. Clinton is not. This means Sanders has access to the secret draft of the deal, and Clinton does not. So the only way to compare their stances on the deal is to wait until the text of the deal is public, when Clinton can read it and make her mind up whether she supports it or not.


Still, Bernie Sanders has to be applauded for strongly stating his own position. Candidates across the political spectrum should emulate such clarity, in fact. Rather than ducking the issue or using weasel words, Sanders wants the public to know precisely why he is against the deal. He has taken a stand.


For fulfilling what should be a basic requirement for anyone running for the highest office in the land -- clearly taking a position and defending it -- Bernie Sanders is indeed worthy of a Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week. He's showing the rest of the field (not just Hillary, but also all the Republicans) what true leadership looks like. Agree with him or not, it is crystal clear where Bernie stands. These days, that has to be seen as impressive.


(Congratulate President Barack Obama on the White House contact page, and Senator Bernie Sanders on his Senate contact page, to let them know you appreciate their efforts.)


 



Our first inclination when considering who should be a candidate for the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week was to revisit the story of Joseph Morrissey, former Democratic state delegate in Virginia. He got sentenced earlier for having sex with an underage aide, and is now not only publicly claiming paternity for her baby, but actually posting a cringeworthy "period piece" photo of the new family (this is Virginia, after all).


But then we decided to take him at his word -- he was essentially kicked out of the Democratic Party and is now a political Independent. Which means he is ineligible for our prizes, for better or worse.


But the cringe-worthiness doesn't stop there. This week's MDDOTW goes out to Loretta Sanchez, current House member from California (who has announced she'll be competing with state attorney general Kamala Harris for the U.S. Senate seat Barbara Boxer is vacating). The Sanchez campaign, shall we say, is not off to a great start.


Last weekend, the Sacramento Bee posted a video online (which is sideways, for some reason) in which Sanchez tells what she clearly thinks is a delightful story about how she got a call from someone in the "Indian-American" community, but when she actually met with the man, he turned out to be not the type of Indian-American she was expecting. In her own words:


"I am going to his office, thinking that I am going to meet with a..." [at this point, she makes a "woo woo" noise with her mouth while patting it with her hand, the way ignorant schoolchildren do, to portray Native Americans] "Right? Because he said 'Indian-American'!"


As I said, she clearly thinks this is a funny story, both from her tone of voice and her big smile (she's even telling this to the Indian-American Caucus in a steakhouse). The word "cringeworthy" doesn't even really do it justice (if you don't believe me, watch the clip).


To say that Kamala Harris just got my vote is an understatement. I will never vote for a grown adult in 2015 who still thinks making "woo woo" noises is not an incredibly racist and offensive thing to do. Most of us left this sort of idiocy behind when we moved on from elementary school. Sanchez did apologize for the slur, I should mention.


But even apologizing isn't enough for Loretta Sanchez to avoid being awarded this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week. Racial stereotyping (especially egregiously offensive stereotyping) is simply not acceptable in the Democratic Party, in this day and age.


(Contact Representative Loretta Sanchez on her House contact page, to let her know what you think of her actions.)


 



Volume 347 (5/22/15)


Kind of a mixed bag this week. In the middle section, we have three questions I'd dearly love to hear some presidential candidates answer which deal with the past, present, and future of war-making by the United States, but there's no overall theme to all the talking points this week.


Let's just dive in and get on with it, shall we?


 



   Conservative hypocrisy (part 1)


It's always worth pointing out when conservatives break their own bedrock tenets.


"I always thought that conservative Republicans believed that 'local control is always best' when it comes to lawmaking. States making laws is always better than the federal government, by this reasoning, and local laws are even better than state laws. Except that recently some localities have been passing laws that are more liberal than the state governments. Texas, for instance, just passed a state law which forbids local towns and cities from enacting laws which ban fracking. So local control is only best when the localities in question are more conservative than the state, is that what conservatives now believe? Sounds an awful lot like blatant hypocrisy to me."


 



   Conservative hypocrisy (part 2)


Conservative hypocrisy isn't limited to the legislative branch, however.


"When President Obama acted with the power of the executive branch to change immigration policy, conservatives howled that he was 'breaking the law.' Remember that? Here's what Bobby Jindal had to say about it, at the time: 'If the president wants to make the case that the law should be changed, he should go make the case to Congress and our people. This is an arrogant, cynical political move by the president, and it's why so many Americans no longer trust this president to solve the problems we face.' Jindal also said: 'President Obama did this on his own because he knows the American people reject the idea and he couldn't pass it in Congress. Fortunately, the rule of law is something President Obama cannot sidestep.' Sure sounds like Bobby was against executive orders, doesn't it? Well then how does he explain the fact that when the Louisiana state legislature refused to pass a 'turn the gays away' law which would sanction discrimination, Jindal just went ahead and issued his own executive order instead? Jindal went to his statehouse and the people and made his case. They refused to change the law. So Jindal just went ahead and changed it on his own. This is nothing short of flaming hypocrisy, folks. Jindal is condemned by his own words on the subject, in fact."


 



   One person at a time


It's always good to see a mind being opened.


"When a South Carolina man faced economic doom over the fact that he didn't have health insurance, he initially blamed Obamacare for his plight. But when he got the actual facts, it turns out that he falls into the hole where he would have been covered if his state had expanded Medicaid, but because it didn't, he got screwed. Here's what he now has to say about his situation: 'Now that I'm looking at what each party represents, my wife and I are both saying -- hey, we're not Republicans! I put the blame on everyone, Republican and Democrat. But I do mainly blame Republicans for their pigheadedness. They're blocking policies that could help everyone. I'm in the situation I'm in because they chose not to expand Medicaid for political reasons. And I know I'm not the only one.' He's right -- he isn't the only one being screwed by a pigheaded Republican governor. Maybe this is why Republicans are so terrified of Obamacare in the first place -- because when people see how it helps them, they become Democrats!"


 



   Would you have let the inspectors finish?


These next three deal with the aftermath of Jeb Bush's floundering on the Iraq War question. These are important questions from the past, the present, and the future of American warmaking. The first comes from a great Huffington Post article by Paul Abrams.


"Republicans are complaining that the question of whether they would have invaded Iraq knowing what they know now is an impossible hypothetical question. OK, fair enough. So let's ask a question that is fair, instead. If you had been president at the time, and knowing only what you did at the time, would you have rushed to invade Iraq or would you have allowed the inspectors to finish their work before launching a war? There's a certain amount of selective amnesia over this issue, and many Americans falsely believe that 'Saddam kicked the inspectors out.' In fact, the inspectors had to leave because of the invasion. If the invasion had been delayed to allow the inspectors time to finish their work, then we might have known back then that there were no weapons of mass destruction. So, would you have allowed the inspectors to finish their work, or not?"


 



   Where's your ISIS bill?


Congress has left this question unanswered for almost a year now.


"Democratic Senator Tim Kaine has raised an interesting question. After pointing out that Congress has done absolutely nothing about declaring war on the Islamic State, Kaine states bluntly: 'We [in Congress] really haven't earned the right to be critics as long as we stand back and don't do the one thing that Congress is supposed to do.' So to every critic of Obama's war effort against the Islamic State who is a sitting member of Congress -- especially those who are also currently running for president -- here's a simple question: Where's your ISIS war bill? Where is your bill that lays out exactly what America should be doing against the Islamic State, right now? If you disagree with Obama's war strategy, then where is your own? You've had almost a year to come up with one, after all."


 



   How many more wars?


I wrote a rant on this subject earlier this week, if anyone wants to read the long version. There's also an article over at Salon which raises similar questions about the Republicans' confusion on the subject.


"If you are elected president, what would it take for you to commit American military forces to combat in any given situation? There are plenty of situations right now that some might argue necessitate America waging war. Would you send troops in to Syria, to Iraq, to Iran, to Yemen, to Libya, to sub-Saharan Africa? Should these be ground troops on the front lines, bombing raids by American pilots or American drones, or something else? Where in the world would you send the troops if you were in office at this very moment? If you are running for the job of commander in chief, don't you think the American people deserve an answer to the question of how many more wars we can expect during your term?"


 



   The straw that broke the Iowa poll's back


This one is pure snark, I freely admit.


"To anyone who argues that the Iowa straw poll is anything more than a meaningless shakedown by the Iowa Republican Party, I have three words in response. These three words show the pointlessness of the Iowa straw poll more than anything else possibly could. Because last time around the winner proved what a joke the entire process truly is. My three words? President Michele Bachmann. We all remember how Bachmann vaulted from winning the Iowa straw poll right into the Oval Office, don't we? Oh, wait -- that didn't actually happen, did it?"


 


Chris Weigant blogs at:


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
Become a fan of Chris on Huffington Post
Full archives of FTP columns: FridayTalkingPoints.com
All-time award winners leaderboard, by rank


 

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Missouri Governor Commutes Life Sentence Of Man Serving Time For Marijuana

Huffingon Post Politics - Fri, 2015-05-22 19:49
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) on Friday commuted the life sentence of a 61-year-old man who has been jailed two decades for marijuana offenses.

The governor's action makes Jeff Mizanskey eligible for parole -- an option he didn't have under the terms of his life sentence. Mizanskey was sentenced as a "prior and persistent drug offender" under Missouri's three strikes law, which was repealed last year.

“The executive power to grant clemency is one I take with a great deal of consideration and seriousness,” Nixon said in a statement announcing the commutation of Mizanskey as well as the pardoning of five other non-violent offenders.

“In the case of the commutation, my action provides Jeff Mizanskey with the opportunity to demonstrate that he deserves parole,” Gov. Nixon said.

All three of Mizanskey's offenses involved marijuana. He was given a life sentence after a conviction for attempting to sell about six pounds of pot in a 1993 police sting operation.

A Change.org petition seeking clemency for Mizanskey generated nearly 400,000 signatures.

"Gov. Nixon has stepped up to the plate in granting Jeff his freedom," said Tony Papa, media relations manager for Drug Policy Alliance who himself was sent to prison for a first-time drug offense. "All too often, governors have nixed the idea of using their clemency powers. But in this case, Nixon has righted a horrible wrong that was made in Jeff's case -- the life sentencing of a man for non-violent drug offenses."

David Owen, communications director for the Missouri Department of Corrections, told The Huffington Post that a parole hearing date for Mizanskey would be "set sometime this summer."

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Ingmar Guandique, Convicted Of Killing Chandra Levy, Expects To Get New Trial

Huffingon Post Politics - Fri, 2015-05-22 19:38
WASHINGTON (AP) — A man convicted of killing Washington intern Chandra Levy is expected to get a new trial after government attorneys on Friday said the "interests of justice" would best be served by one.

On Friday, after more than a year of sporadic hearings and legal wrangling, government attorneys withdrew their opposition to a new trial for Ingmar Guandique. In a four-page motion, they told a judge they were preparing to retry him. Guandique's attorneys had previously asked a judge to grant him a new trial because they said a key witness in the case, Guandique's one-time cellmate, gave false or misleading testimony during his 2010 trial. Guandique's attorneys said prosecutors knew or should have known the testimony was problematic and investigated further.

"The government continues to believe the jury's verdict was correct," prosecutors wrote in their motion, adding that they didn't believe anything else learned during a post-trial investigation "casts doubt on the defendant's guilt."

However, prosecutors said that the "passage of time and the unique circumstances of this case" had made opposing a new trial more difficult.

"The interests of justice will therefore be best served by the government's withdrawal of its opposition to the defendant's motion and affording him a new trial," prosecutors wrote.

One of Guandique's attorneys, Jon Anderson, released a brief statement after the motion was made public.

"The government's case against Ingmar Guandique was based on a lie," Anderson said. "We are gratified that the government has now acknowledged that it cannot defend this conviction, and we look forward to justice being served in a new trial."

Levy's mother, Susan Levy, said in a telephone interview that she has always had some questions about whether Guandique killed her daughter, though her husband is "100 percent" convinced. She said that she wants to see justice done and ensure the right person is convicted, but she said a new trial wouldn't make a difference in one important respect.

"It not going to make a difference for me, because my daughter's dead," she said.

Levy's 2001 disappearance created a national sensation after the 24-year-old Modesto, California, native was romantically linked with then-Rep. Gary Condit, a California Democrat who was ultimately ruled out as a suspect.

Her remains were found in Washington's Rock Creek Park in 2002, and prosecutors argued her death fit a pattern of attacks Guandique committed on female joggers. He was convicted and given a 60-year sentence, though he has maintained he is innocent.

At the center of Guandique's new trial request was his former cellmate Armando Morales. Morales testified at trial that Guandique confided in him that he was responsible for Levy's death. Because there was no physical evidence linking Guandique to Levy's death, Morales provided some of the trial's most powerful testimony.

In a court document filed in support of a new trial, however, Guandique's attorneys suggested Morales lied several times at trial, including testifying he had not asked for anything in exchange for his testimony when, in fact, they say he asked to be put in a witness protection program.

They also argued Morales, a former California gang leader, testified at trial that he didn't know how to come forward with information to law enforcement when, in fact, he was an experienced cooperator who had previously provided information.

Prosecutors have said they learned about some of Morales' cooperation with authorities about a year after Guandique was sentenced. In late 2012, they brought the issue to the judge who had overseen the case, and the information and subsequent investigation led to the new trial request. The latest hearing in the case had been scheduled for next week, but prosecutors asked for a hearing in two weeks. They said at that hearing they would tell the judge how long they need to prepare for a retrial.

___

Follow Jessica Gresko at http://twitter.com/jessicagresko.

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Wyoming Fights for the "Right" to Pollute Our Waters

Huffingon Post Politics - Fri, 2015-05-22 19:38
As experienced environmentalists working in the West, we are not surprised when the government impedes our efforts to protect and restore precious wildlife habitat and popular recreation areas in public lands. We do not expect the state to sue us and write laws to criminalize our work to fight water pollution. But in Wyoming, that is just what the state government did.

Western Watersheds Project has spent over a decade monitoring the impacts of livestock grazing on water quality in Wyoming. Jonathan Ratner, our Wyoming Director, spends countless field days every year assessing and documenting unhealthy levels of animal waste in streams, creeks, and rivers on public lands. He then submits his results to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality to demonstrate that a particular body of water should be included on the state's list of impaired waters. The identification and validation of these impacts helps WWP advocate for better livestock management on public lands grazing allotments and affirms the need for improved management of wildlife habitats.

While clean water should be in everyone's interest, the livestock industry and the Wyoming lawmakers under their control aren't so appreciative of WWP's efforts. In June of 2014, longtime anti-WWP attorney Karen Budd Falen brought a lawsuit on behalf of the ranchers alleging that WWP must have trespassed to collect water quality data. The lawsuit claims that the ranchers were harmed by trespass, but fails to present any solid evidence of the alleged trespass.

WWP filed a Motion to Dismiss the ranchers' lawsuit, and the Reply to that Motion by Ms. Falen and her clients contained the startling argument that dangerous contamination of rural Wyoming waters is not of concern because few people reside in those areas. WWP has asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit based on various grounds and we're awaiting a ruling in the matter. At the motion to dismiss hearing this week, Justin Pidot, a skilled law professor from the University of Denver who represents WWP, summed up the ranchers' fact-deprived allegations in the following manner: "We saw you once near our land, so you must have trespassed."

Unfortunately, the Wyoming ranchers had another trick up their sleeves to thwart WWP's water quality work. In late March 2015, the Wyoming legislature passed and Governor Mead signed a law that effectively criminalizes citizen science and bars the use of data -- be it water samples, sound recordings, or photographs -- from being used to inform regulators of violations of law and policy. The law makes it a crime to collect data on "open land" outside of towns and subdivisions if the data collector lacks written or verbal permission to both access the land and collect data. The ambiguous phrase "open land" makes unclear whose permission is required to go see what wildflowers are blooming on a national forest. It is OK to not ask permission as long as you don't report back to the agency about the weed infestation around the cattle trough?

Plainly, this new law is unconstitutional and wouldn't stand up in federal court. What it will take to get the new law overturned remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Cowboy State's cows continue to pollute public waters and the real illegal activities -- violations of the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act, and others -- continue.

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School Violence Prevention - It Really Does Take a Village!

Huffingon Post Politics - Fri, 2015-05-22 19:02





Dr. Jonathan Doll and his wife Laura



WATERBURY, CT -- On Thursday, May 21, 2015, at Post University, about 58 leaders and educational change agents from the great state of Connecticut met at the first annual conference series aimed at preventing tragic events of lethal school violence. The conference was titled: A Village Response: Building Resiliency in Lethal School Violence Prevention, or on Twitter: @PostUniversty #schoolviolenceprevention.

The group of conference participants were drawn from three groups:
  • Law enforcement members along with School Resource Officers (SROs)

  • Mental health professionals

  • Educators


Also, there were some spectacular future minds - Post University students - who are diligently learning about developing healthy preventative responses to acts of school violence from a criminal justice and social justice perspective regarding this national problem.

I was the group's keynote speaker, and I truly can say that the entire group of engaged professionals had a wonderful time together: learning from each other and recognizing both the important, fruitful work that is ongoing as well as what needs to come to pass. Here is a condensed summary of some of the insights from the day.

To begin with, Post University has published a couple of excellent video snapshots of the conference's aims and takeaway points for Connecticut.

These include Law Enforcement aspirations for this work by Rob Strickland of the New Haven Police Department.



Also, the Norwalk Public Schools school preparedness coordinator, Robert Killackey shared amazing insights during the day including multiple posts, reflections, and probing questions for the group.



As best as possible, I tried throughout the day to collect and focus the positive energy and enthusiasm in the room. Here is a short summary of those efforts and the collective successes of the entire group.



The conference was introduced by Post University President, Don Mroz who touched on the need for localized and broader efforts in collaboration to prevent many types of school disturbance. This not only includes making schools safer, but supporting the staff who carrying the heavy loads in schools. Kelley Hopkins-Alvarez, a Mental Health Practitioner in Ridgefield, Connecticut and also conference co-organizer, introduced the keynote through a discussion of what brings us together as a village in this ever-important topic of prevention.

To kick of the conference, there was the keynote itself: two hours dedicated to going through the latest research on preventing school tragedies. This time was interspersed with activities for the group including (a) going through the warning signs together as was also described in a recent Huffington Post article and framework, (b) spending time investigating what a strengths-based response looks like when working with distressed youth; (c) looking at potential gaps in current services together, and (d) deepening a school-based wraparound approach through Connecticut's Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) approach, of which about 2,000 police officers across the state have been trained, including over 65 officers in Waterbury Police force alone.

Along these lines, CIT aims to build bridges in the service provided by law enforcement so that when persistent mental health issues are present during a public disturbance, the goal is to support the affected individual in as many ways as possible. These efforts were discussed in a panel session led by the scholar and former police officer, David Jannetty, who is also the Academic Program Manager of the Emergency Management and Homeland Security Program at Post University.

Impressively, the effective use of CIT not only reduces the need for incarceration in many cases, but develops healthy bonds across sectors (law enforcement/SROs, mental health, and educational professionals).

The conference also dealt with some deliverables for schools in working with distressed youth. These are young people that have dealt with trauma in their lives and who may be acting out or simply may be trying to get by without worsening their experiences. One great way for working with youth is to find out what they are good at - or what they are great at - and invest in building relationships around these skills.

Multiple Intelligences
In 1983 and later updated in following years, Dr. Howard Gardner built on previous works and introduced a revolutionary model of student strengths, or universal intelligences. There are eight of these talents in all, Visual-Spatial, Bodily-kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical, and Naturalist. And you can find out what your own Multiple Intelligences look like as well by taking one of many free online versions of this tool for understanding intelligence.

The great thing about the theory of multiple intelligences is that everyone has levels of intelligence specific areas - no one is left out - because it is a feature of being a human being. In the context of working with distressed youth - and potentially distressed family and community systems, it is important to be able to understand and rally people around their strengths.

Strengths-Based Work
The strengths-based approach is the business community is a new look at a model that mental health professionals have been advocating diligently for years. Gallup, Inc. produced the research leading to the book, Strengths-Based Leadership by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie in 2009. This amazing book can help adults understand their multiple strengths in profound ways. There is also an online strengths finder tool that leads to understanding what drives a person in terms of their best capabilities. And Gallup's work has been extended to youth, ages 11-15 also through the Strengths Explorer, www.strengths-explorer.com. This is a cost-effective way of working with youth and helping them understand their gifts, capacities, and assets in navigating the world that they live in.

A State-Based Strengths-Based Pilot, Any Takers?
In Massachusetts, there is a House Bill that proposes a pilot study of a method for schools to employ a strengths-based approach in working to prevent bullying. I was the bill's author, and it was co-sponsored by Representative Paul Heroux - an outspoken advocate of educational and policy issues in his state. This bill is aimed starting an evidence-based pilot study in 15 schools that would effectively test the process of using student's strengths in reducing negative behaviors by distressed students.

Pilot studies of the strengths-based approach can be done in other states as well. Are there any takers? Contact me at Jonathan@EndingSchoolShootings.org, if so.

But not every student that acts out does so out of malice. A key insight that participants all day long were vocalizing was that a Village Response to preventing school violence really means connecting at the relationship level with every student in a school. Educators can do this by takings lists of their students (or yearbook pages) and making sure that each student has at least one effective relationship with a responsible adult. Who is it? Is the relationship positive and effective? How can the school come alongside to nurture and support these relationships?

Midway through the keynote was an activity aimed at helping every school stakeholder who is a leader to deal with the forms of bureaucracy and organizational slowness that can dampen any reform efforts from getting started and taking root. The activity focused around identifying troubling issues and literally making lemonade out of those lemons. After a participant-focused dialogue on steps to nurture effective organizations, the atmosphere was charged with a renewed zeal around building collaboration, trust, cooperation, communication, relationships,and a stronger sense of team in the consummate work of school violence prevention. And the large pitcher of lemonade that was made during the activity was gone within minutes!

After lunch, there were five breakout sessions which included focusing on a unified approach to school violence prevention:



Breakout Session Titles
Organizer/Facilitator


1. Cultivating Resiliency and Its Effect on Lowering Violence
Donna DeLuca


2. Learning to Assess and "red flag" Students who have had Catastrophic Events: How these events can propel a student toward the planning stages of lethal school violence
Charlie Manos


3. How to Build Positive, and Strengths-Based, Connections with Students
Joseph Arconti and Jonathan Doll, PhD


4. Coordinating Efforts among Law Enforcement, Education, and Mental Health
Kelley Hopkins-Alvarez, Bonnie Rabe, and Matthew Parker


5. Law Enforcement Roundtable: Preventing School Violence (the most popular breakout***)
Panel Discussion





Additional focus for the event came through Dr. Bonnie Rabe, Dean of the School of Education at Post University. She instrumentally asked myself and the group how to carry this work forward in the coming year. One method for that would be the creation of an institute, or think tank, in Connecticut to continue the study of school violence prevention. Another method, of course, would be to continue the conference series next year.

Dr. Richard Strompf, Dean of the John P. Burke School of Public Service at Post University, said it best at the tail end of the conference. Describing each of the breakout sessions during the day, he said the common themes dealt with respect, trust, mentoring protégé relationships, and relationship building. In essence, this is what a village response is all about.

***



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Cambodia's Bomb Divers Overcome Dangers To Remove Remains Of War

Huffingon Post Politics - Fri, 2015-05-22 18:45
A small group of Cambodians -- some of whom only recently learned to swim -- is doing zero-visibility dives to rid the country's waters of bombs. Photographer Charles Fox has documented their journey in an incredible new photo series that beautifully captures these unexploded ordnance divers trying to make their nation a safer place.

Decades of conflict in Cambodia have made it one of the most densely mined countries in the world. The country has worked hard to eliminate these threats, with numerous groups clearing Cambodia of mines and significantly reducing the death rate from these weapons in recent decades.

It's not just the land that is filled with unexploded bombs, but the waters as well. To combat that problem, the Cambodian Mine Action Center and Golden West Humanitarian Foundation formed the nation's first elite salvage dive team tasked with clearing rivers of unexploded ordnance, or UXO.

Fox started photographing the unit after seeing a small item in the local news. He got to know the nine members as he documented their progress.

"Most of them couldn't swim at the beginning, and none of them had ever dived before," he told The WorldPost.

The divers face dark, difficult conditions and the hazards that come with handling unexploded ordnance. "If that UXO goes off in the water there's very little chance they'll survive," Fox said. But despite the risks, the divers approach the job with a humble dedication.

"They haven't changed, they're just still these really down to earth guys who do an incredibly dangerous job," he said. "This group of guys who couldn't even swim volunteered to do this work and two years down the line, they're pulling stuff out of the river."

The team this week led a search that uncovered a 500-pound bomb left over from the Vietnam war.

Fox was awarded a space at the Brunei Gallery in London to exhibit his work in July. He's currently raising money on Kickstarter to pay for making the prints for that show and for an exhibit that will take place in Phnom Penh, where the divers will get a first proper look at the images of their success.

Read more about the project here and see Fox's website for more of his work.

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U.S. Airstrikes In Syria 'Have Killed So Many People. We Want Them To Stop'

Huffingon Post Politics - Fri, 2015-05-22 18:35
ISTANBUL -- The U.S. military's admission this week that an airstrike against extremists last year in Syria killed two children is too little and too late for many Syrians, hardening a deep distrust of U.S. efforts in the war-ravaged country.

“It’s not surprising at all,” Syrian activist Abdulla Sallom said over a weak Skype connection from Kafranbel, a northern city in the Idlib countryside currently under the control of non-extremist forces battling the Assad regime. U.S. strikes have "killed so many people. But for us -- the people -- it doesn’t mean much. We want them to stop striking.”

For months, activists have slammed the U.S. for airstrikes that target the Islamic State group and other militants, saying they have caused dozens of unacknowledged civilian casualties and have failed to touch President Bashar Assad's regime. Every time the U.S. attacks rebel fighters in Syria and not the Assad regime, public opinion against the U.S. worsens, Sallom said.

“They’re not targeting the people who have done the most crimes,” said Sallom, a former factory worker turned activist.

Syrians rose up against the Assad family's oppressive rule in 2011, only to face a bloody government crackdown on dissidents. The situation devolved into chaos, creating a power vacuum exploited by groups like the formerly Iraq-based Islamic State. As Sallom lamented U.S. foreign policy on Skype, the white paint peeled off the walls behind him.

Sallom said he especially resents that the U.S. is targeting Jabhat al Nusra, known as al Qaeda in Syria, one of the most powerful fighting forces battling Assad. He said he has heard strikes on Nusra bases from his home in Kafranbel.

The U.S. military's statement Thursday admitting killing the children was the first American acknowledgement that its strikes in Syria had caused civilian casualties. It had a deep impact because the victims were two little girls.

An internal investigation declassified by the military detailed a Nov. 5 airstrike near the northern Syrian town of Harim in Idlib province meant to destroy a meeting place and explosives-making facility used by the al Qaeda-linked Khorasan Group.

“Despite the success of the airstrikes in destroying the targets, the strikes likely resulted in the deaths of two civilians,” said a report on the military's investigation. Two other civilians living near a targeted location sustained "minor injuries," according to the report.

The report claimed that “all targeting procedures were followed in order to mitigate possible civilian casualties during these strikes.”

One month before the strike, the White House said new rules in places like Yemen and Pakistan requiring the military to have "near certainty" it was not going to kill civilians would not apply to strikes in Iraq and Syria.

Despite efforts to curb the Islamic State's hold on the region, extremists have gained more ground. In the past week alone, the group has taken the key Iraqi city of Ramadi and Syria’s Palmyra and its ancient ruins (as well as a notorious regime torture jail). ISIS now reportedly controls at least half of Syria, according to the U.K.-based Syria monitoring group known as the Observatory for Human Rights.

Controversial and damaging to the U.S. mission as collateral damage may be, it does not appear for now that the military will alter its operations. A defense official confirmed to The WorldPost Friday that the U.S. military won't change its targeting process following the investigation into the two girls' deaths.

"The investigating officer did not recommend any changes to our processes," Maj. Jens Lunde, a spokesman for the U.S. operation in Iraq and Syria, said in an email to HuffPost. "Although we strive to avoid non-combatant casualties in this extremely complex operating environment, we recognize the continued risk inherent in airstrikes. In the case of this airstrike, all appropriate procedures were followed to mitigate non-combatant casualties, the target was a valid military target, and the military principles of necessity, humanity, proportionality, and distinction were adhered to."

This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from ISIS marching in Raqqa, Syria.



The U.S. military command "regret[s] the unintentional loss of life and express our heartfelt sympathy to those affected," Lunde wrote.

Salah Safadi, a Syrian physician from Aleppo now living in Turkey, appreciates that sentiment. “This is a positive step that they're admitting to this crime ... given the fact that they've committed many mistakes," he told the WorldPost.

Safadi blamed a lack of good intelligence on the ground for the American mistake, echoing a problem noted by intelligence officials early in the U.S.-led campaign in Syria.

If that is the chief problem, there appears to now be a ray of hope. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters this week at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington that U.S. intelligence-gathering in Syria is improving, citing that as the reason why the U.S. could launch a successful raid last weekend that killed an ISIS leader.

But past mistakes will continue to matter. Because the Nov. 5 strike is hardly the only time there have been reported civilian casualties, the military's admission was a symbolic slap in the face to many Syrians.

A Syrian surgeon in a field hospital in Idlib, who asked to be refered to as J.A.S., for his own safety, said his hospital has treated civilian victims from coalition strikes as recently as a few days go. The surgeon said the hospital sent a young girl to Turkey for treatment following the most recent coalition strike nearby.

The WorldPost could not corroborate his claims.

"We had little trust in the U.S. government to begin with, and this trust is weakening," the surgeon said. "This recognition came very late. It's not possible they didn't notice they are killing civilians until now."

Just three weeks ago, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that U.S.-led airstrikes killed at least 52 people, including 7 children, in the northern province of Aleppo. The WorldPost could not independently verify this claim.

U.S. Central Command spokesman Maj. Curtis Kellogg told the AP there was no information to back up that report, although he vowed to “look into them further.”

In this Tuesday, March 17, 2015, photo, a French military plane lands on the flight deck of the French Navy aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in the Persian Gulf. Aircraft aboard the French carrier are flying bombing and reconnaissance missions as part of a U.S.-led coalition targeting Islamic State militants in Iraq.



The military’s statements sugar-coat a history of many more civilian casualties, Yasir Alsyed, a Syrian lawyer now living near the Turkey-Syria border who calls himself a human rights activist, told The WorldPost. Syrian activists, doctors, and civilians have repeatedly informed U.S. officials and journalists that civilians have been killed in U.S.-led strikes, he lamented.

“It’s sort of an American conscience-laundering,” Alsyed said by phone, saying the U.S. admits slight wrongdoing in order to assuage its conscience.

Safadi, the physician, said he’s not holding his breath that the Obama administration will change its approach in Syria after more than four years of dashed hopes.

"I’m waiting for the next election," Safadi said, wondering aloud if Hillary Clinton could somehow save Syria.


Sophia Jones and Hiba Dlewati reported from Istanbul. Akbar Shahid Ahmed reported from Washington.

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Atlantic Editor Wonders If Maybe Immigration Has Something To Do With California's Water Crisis

Huffingon Post Politics - Fri, 2015-05-22 18:15
David Frum, a conservative pundit and senior editor at The Atlantic, wants to know why The New York Times isn’t putting more emphasis on immigration in its coverage of the California water crisis.

In a pair of tweets Friday, Frum criticized the Times for not including more references to the state’s “immigration-driven population surge” in its reporting on the crisis.

Population has grown by 10 mn people since 1990 - a 33% increase - almost all by immigration. Maybe that’s relevant? https://t.co/HwIf07ZAQs

— David Frum (@davidfrum) May 22, 2015


NYT has covered CA water crisis with scant reference to its immigration-driven population surge. That’s an omission https://t.co/nJmIPpbIGW

— David Frum (@davidfrum) May 22, 2015


The New York Times has, in fact, raised the question of how many people California can sustain given its water supply problems. But the paper has mainly attributed California’s water crisis to a four-year drought that has drastically reduced the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. When the snowpack melts in the spring and summer, it typically supplies California with roughly one-third of the state’s water, according to the Associated Press.

The Times has also called attention to the role of California's agricultural industry, which accounts for a huge amount of the state's water use.

“California farmers produce more than a third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts,” the Times wrote in an interactive feature published Thursday. “To do that, they must use nearly 80 percent of all the water consumed in the state.”

Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and the president of the Pacific Institute, an organization dedicated to environmental protection, dismissed Frum’s argument that immigration is a significant factor in California’s water crisis.

“To claim California's water crisis is due to immigration and the use of water by immigrants is to grossly misunderstand California's true water challenges," Gleick told The Huffington Post in an email. "Population growth of course affects the use of all resources (land, energy, food, water), but the water crisis was here 30 years ago, urban demand is only 20 percent of total water demand, urban water use has been level for 30 years and per-capita water use is going down, not up."

Responding to Gleick's criticism, Frum told HuffPost that population growth is still important to consider.

"If per capita water use is going down and you add 10 million people, then the decline in per capita use would be overmatched by the increase in total population," Frum said. "The question is not 'is immigration the cause of the crisis.' My tweet noted that some people want to omit any mention of it at all. And it seems to me that certainly the growth in California’s population is relevant. In California, water is a finite resource."

Yet it still seems doubtful that population growth is playing more of a role in California's water crisis than agribusiness. Nearly 95 percent of California residents live in urban areas, and the state's total urban water use has remained roughly constant for the last two decades, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

In addition, the “immigrant-driven population surge” Frum refers to is somewhat exaggerated, and the figures he cites are overstated. California’s population in 1990 stood at 29.8 million, according to the U.S. Census. By 2014, the state’s population had risen to 38.8 million -- an increase of just over 9 million, not 10 million, and of about 30.4 percent, not 33 percent.

Even if one accepts Frum's 33 percent figure, though, it still doesn't mean the state's recent immigrant-driven population growth can really be called a “surge.”

Historically, immigration has indeed fueled a steady growth in California's population, ever since European-Americans began a massive influx toward the area the mid-19th century.

But according to census data, that steady migration began to taper off during the 1990s -- precisely the time that Frum views as decisive.

Since 2000, California’s population growth has slowed to a rate that's “barely keeping pace with the nation as a whole,” according to The Sacramento Bee.

Native births and migration from other parts of the U.S. have accounted for the majority of California's population growth in recent years. California’s foreign-born population grew from 6.5 million in 1990 to 10.2 million in 2013, according to census estimates -- meaning that although the state added 9 million new residents during that time, only 3.7 million of them were immigrants. Foreign-born residents of California accounted for 27 percent of the population in 2013, up from 21.7 percent in 1990.

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U.S. Senate Advances Fast-Track Trade Bill

Huffingon Post Politics - Fri, 2015-05-22 18:08

(Adds rejection of currency rules mandating sanctions)

By Richard Cowan and Jason Lange

WASHINGTON, May 22 (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Friday was poised to approve the "fast-track" authority that President Barack Obama says he needs to complete a 12-nation Pacific Rim trade deal central to projecting American influence in Asia.

The Republican-controlled Senate narrowly rejected a push by some lawmakers to include rules to punish currency manipulators, a measure the Obama administration worked to defeat. An alternative amendment, one that opponents said lacks enforcement, was approved.

Even if a six-year "trade promotion authority" (TPA) bill, as fast-track is known, passes as expected, it faces a difficult future in the House of Representatives, where supporters must overcome opposition from most Democrats and some conservative Republicans.

Under fast-track, lawmakers would give Obama and his successor in 2017 the power to negotiate trade deals with foreign governments knowing that Congress could offer input but only approve or disapprove the deals and not amend them.

Most immediately, it is the tool Obama needs to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement this year, an economic alliance that would encompass 40 percent of the world's economies in countries ranging from Japan to Chile.

Earlier on Friday, Japanese Economy Minister Akira Amari said ministerial meetings on TPP are unlikely until Congress approves fast-track authority for Obama.

But the deep divisions within the U.S. Congress were on display on Friday.

"We all know that by passing this legislation, we can show we're serious about advancing new opportunities for bigger American paychecks, better American jobs, and a stronger American economy," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said, urging his 99 Senate colleagues to vote for the bill.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid dismissed the emerging TPP as just another trade deal, like past ones, that does little more than help rich, multinational corporations while jeopardizing American jobs.

"This trade bill is another example of how we have ignored in this Congress working men and women in this country," Reid said.

Assuming Senate passage on Friday, just before the start of a 10-day Memorial Day holiday congressional recess, the House likely would take it up in June.

House Speaker John Boehner and Obama will have to use all of their powers of persuasion to overcome spirited opposition from U.S. labor and environmental groups, as well as some conservative lawmakers and lobbying groups that do not want to give Obama any new powers. (Additional reporting by Krista Hughes; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Leslie Adler)

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The Other One Percent

Huffingon Post Politics - Fri, 2015-05-22 17:55
As a high school student, I came across an observation by Abraham Lincoln who said that, "With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed." Today "public sentiment" would be called "public opinion."

Over the years, I have been astonished at how less than one percent of the citizenry, backed by the "public sentiment," have changed our country for the better by enacting reforms to protect the people from abuses of power, discrimination and deep neglect.

Specifically, if -- one percent or less -- were to dedicate a modest amount of their time and money working together for much-needed changes that are overwhelmingly supported by public opinion in each congressional or state legislative district, they would prevail against the government and corporate power structures.

There are obstacles, such as a corporate influence over City Hall and wavering politicians who insincerely pledge support, but defer and delay action. But, if people work together, almost any problem can be solved.

History shows that it only takes a dedicated few to gain the momentum from many more to enact change. The major drives to give women the right to vote, workers the right to form unions and secure numerous protections, and farmers regulation of railroads and banks did not require more than one percent of seriously active champions. Those in power understood that there was overwhelming support for these reforms by affected populations.

Even the abolition movement against slavery was well under way in our country before Ft. Sumter and did not involve more than one percent of the people, including the slaves who fled via the Underground Railroad. By 1833, the British Empire, including Canada, had already brought slavery to an end.

More recently, the breakthrough laws in the late '60s and early '70s regarding auto and product safety, environmental health and occupational safety drew on far less than one percent of seriously engaged supporters. The air and water pollution laws were supported by widespread demonstrations that did not require a large burden of time by the participants. These air and water pollution laws, not surprisingly, were very popular when introduced and the public made its support known to lawmakers with numerous phone calls and letters. Other reforms (auto safety, product safety and occupational safety measures) were pushed through with far less than one percent of engaged citizens, as was the critical Freedom of Information Act of 1974.

Along with the small full-time advocacy groups, a modest level of visible activity around the country aroused the media. The more citizen power the media observed, the more reporting, and this in turn led to greater public awareness.

Lately, this pattern can be seen in the efforts to enact civil rights for the LGBTQ community and to pass a substantially higher minimum wage for tens of millions of workers being paid less now than workers were paid in 1968, adjusted for inflation. The latter has become a front burner issue at the city, state and congressional levels with picketers in front of McDonald's, Burger King, Walmart and other giant low-pay chains over the past two years. Those pushing for higher wages number less than the population of Waterbury, Connecticut (approximately 110,000). The Service Employees International Union

(SEIU), some think tanks, organizers, writers and economists rounded out this less than one percent model of action for justice.

It is important to remember that the active one percent or less, with the exception of a handful of full-timers, are committing no more time than do serious hobbyists, such as stamp and coin collectors, or members of bowling leagues and bridge clubs, or birdwatchers.

Why is all this important? Because in a demoralized society full of people who have given up on their government, on themselves and are out of the public civic arena, learning that one percent can be decisive, can be hugely motivational and encouraging, especially with emerging Left-Right alliances. Prison reform, juvenile justice, crony capitalism, civil liberties, unconstitutional wars and sovereignty-shredding and job-exporting trade treaties that threaten health and safety protections are all ripe for Left-Right action (see my recent book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State).

Youngsters grow up exposed to numerous obstacles that tell them they "can't fight City Hall" or the big corporate bosses. Unfortunately, they are not taught to reject being powerless because they learn myths, not reality, and they graduate without civic skills and experience. Small wonder why so many of them could easily be members of a Society of Apathetics.

But lawmakers want to retain their jobs. Companies want to keep their customers. On many issues that could so improve livelihoods and the quality of life in America, it is important to bring to everyone the history and current achievements of the one percent who stood tall, spoke and acted as the sovereign people our constitution empowers them to become.

Send more one percent examples to info@nader.org.

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In Congress, NY's Silver Case Becomes Asbestos Reform Political Football

Huffingon Post Politics - Fri, 2015-05-22 17:51
It will be months before Sheldon Silver, the ousted New York Assembly Speaker facing federal corruption charges, finally gets his day in court. But Mr. Silver, or at least his case, got a few hours of judicial review in the halls of Congress last week.

While the discussion was legislative, involving asbestos liability and committee approval of a bill with little chance of becoming law, it illustrates how the high-profile New York indictment is becoming a tort reform talking point. Along with other developments, it also suggests the political climate around the asbestos litigation industry -- which we've argued has annual revenue in the same neighborhood as the National Football League -- is changing against the plaintiff's bar while putting actual asbestos victims at new risk.

Those risks might include creating "perjury pawns" and even un-addressed debts to government agencies.

At issue this month at the House Judiciary Committee was a Republican-backed bill requiring increased disclosures from dozens of federally approved trust funds set up to meet bankrupt company's asbestos liability exposure. That idea is supported by business interests with asbestos liability, in part, because they believe it improves chances to more fairly distribute liability. The plaintiff's bar, which of course contributes heavily to Democrats, opposes the bill.

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R) of Texas introduced the proposal and pointed out that limiting fraud protects "limited funds" for future claims. He also suggested that anyone saying there's no abuse of the current liability process might look toward Speaker Silver's charges, which The New York Times, citing prosecution sources, described thus: "... an even more lucrative scheme, according to prosecutors, involved clients whom Mr. Silver referred to Weitz & Luxenberg, a large personal injury law firm where he has worked for more than a decade."

"The referrals came from a doctor who directed possible asbestos victims to Weitz & Luxenberg. Mr. Silver then secretly funneled state grants, worth $500,000 in total, to finance the doctor's research. The relationship was lucrative for Mr. Silver: He received more than $3 million in fees for the patients referred to Weitz & Luxenberg, prosecutors said."

The reference brought an instant response from Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, who accurately noted that Mr. Silver has not been convicted of anything. Mr. Silver's fellow New Yorker, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D), who represents part of Manhattan, noted that referencing Mr. Silver was not an argument for the bankruptcy bill and that it only proves that "... yes, lawyers can make a lot of money."

The actual bill, called the "Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency," or FACT Act, has little chance of passing. This bill is identical to one passed by the full House last year but lost momentum in the Senate. Even if circumstances should change this time around, there's no chance President Obama signs this bill.

It's worth noting that a half-dozen states have either passed or are seriously considering their own version of FACT legislation, and at least one leading 2016 presidential figure, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, has signed it into law.

While the Speaker Silver case might be of limited relevance until his day in court, the House committee also debated the North Carolina "Garlock" bankruptcy case, which certainly involved allegations of "double dipping" by telling one story to trust funds and another story in liability lawsuits. That case is not only still under way, but has also prompted civil RICO lawsuits based on a judge's findings of hijinks in some 15 specific cases.

It is the Garlock case findings, not the New York kickback allegations, that should fuel any asbestos trust fund reform. The House Judiciary Democrats dutifully stepped up to propose amendment after amendment to fine-tune the Republican measure, but eventually the measure cleared the committee with a vote along party lines.

What was not mentioned was the one amendment that might garner bipartisan support and protect actual asbestos victims. One would have to assume that only Democrats are positioned to champion those families. Party lines aside, I think both sides might agree that there should be an exemption for citizens getting and following bad legal advice, especially if that advice led them to commit perjury. The option of suing your attorney is lengthy, arduous, and expensive.

Eventually, this debate will move beyond how Mr. Silver raked in his millions or how many fibs Garlock litigants did, or did not, tell during their lawsuits -- this is going to involve tragic asbestos victims and their families facing allegations of perjury and failure to Uncle Sam.

Trust me, that will not be "inside baseball" at all, and my fellow Democrats should get well in front of that scandal.

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UNplug solar controller aims to help you take your fridge off the grid

TreeHugger Science-Tech - Fri, 2015-05-22 15:13
Where's the middle ground between having a small solar charger for your gadgets, and having a rooftop solar array capable of powering your entire house? The UNplug might know.

FBI Arrests 2 Suspected Islamic State Recruits In California: Reports

Huffingon Post Politics - Fri, 2015-05-22 02:41

May 21 (Reuters) - The FBI has arrested two men in southern California, one at Los Angeles International Airport, suspected of attempting to travel abroad to join Islamic State, NBC News reported on Thursday.

NBC, which cited anonymous law enforcement officials, said the two men were unarmed and never posed any threat to the public. The other man was arrested in Orange County.

FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller confirmed to Reuters that two men in those locations had been arrested following a joint terrorism task force investigation, but said further details could not be provided until charges were filed.

The men were due in federal court in Santa Ana on Friday, Eimiller said.

Several individuals have been arrested in recent months for plotting to travel to Syria to fight for the militant group Islamic State, including six Somali-American men from Minnesota last month. (Reporting by Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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The Big Banks Are Corrupt - And Getting Worse

Huffingon Post Politics - Fri, 2015-05-22 00:15
The Justice Department's latest settlement with felonious big banks was announced this week, but the repercussions were limited to a few headlines and some scattered protestations.

That's not enough. We need to understand that our financial system is not merely corrupt in practice. It is corrupt by design - and the problem is growing.

Let's connect the dots, using news items from the past few weeks:

The latest sweetheart deal

Four of the world's biggest banks pleaded guilty to felony charges this week, agreeing to pay roughly $5.6 billion in fines for fixing the price of currencies on the foreign exchange market. Justice Department officials made much of the fact that, unlike previous sweetheart deals with Wall Street, this one required the banks' parent companies to enter a guilty plea.

That's an improvement over previous deals. But it's not as significant as it might have been, since the settlement wasn't finalized until the banks were able to strike side agreements with regulators to ensure they'd be able to keep doing business as usual.

One of the institutions involved in this deal was Citigroup. That's the bank whose self-written and self-serving "Citigroup amendment" passed Congress last December, a move which made it the target of an epic Elizabeth Warren takedown.

Another was J.P. Morgan Chase. Chase CEO Jamie Dimon was lionized for far too long by politicians and members of the mainstream media, many of whom insisted that Dimon was smarter and more ethical than his peers. There is now a considerable body of evidence to contradict that assertion - and it keeps on growing.

All four banks of these banks are repeat offenders with long records of serial fraud, as even this outdated graphic shows.

In a related development ...

A fifth bank, UBS, was forced to give up a deferred prosecution deal as a result of its involvement in currency exchange fraud. In "deferred prosecution" agreements the Justice Department agrees not to prosecute a bank for crimes it has committed, if it keeps a promise not to commit those crimes again. It was not clear whether this would lead to any real-world consequences for the bank, however.

In yet another related development, Bank of New York Mellon Corporation agreed this week to pay $180 million to settle a foreign exchange-related class-action lawsuit. This followed a $714 million settlement for writing pension funds and other institutional clients by overcharging them for currency transactions.

J.P. Morgan Chase - again

This one seemed to slip through under the public's radar. In a development that will trigger severe déjà vu for anyone who's been following the big banks' foreclosure scandals, the serially criminal J.P. Morgan Chase agreed on March 3 to pay more than $50 million over "robo-signed" documents - that is, documents which the bank fraudulently submitted to courts in mortgage-related hearings.

From the Wall Street Journal:

" ... Bank officials admitted to filing more than 50,000 payment-change notices that were improperly signed, under penalty of perjury, by persons who hadn't reviewed the accuracy of the notices, according to Justice Department officials."

Telling a court you've reviewed a document when you haven't? That's perjury.

The Journal also noted that the Justice Department found that "more than 25,000 notices were signed in the names of former employees or of employees who had nothing to do with reviewing the accuracy of the filings."

Again: perjury.

Many people lost their homes unjustly as a result of this mass-produced fraud. The practice was so widespread at J.P. Morgan Chase that it required the hiring of untrained college-aged temps - referred to within the organization as "Burger King kids" - to generate all the fraudulent paperwork.

This is where we're obliged to insert a sentence that has long been superfluous when reporting on deals of this kind:

The Justice Department did not announce the indictment of any individual bankers for the crimes which led to this settlement.

Corrupt, and getting worse

In an expanded version of a survey we first reported on in 2012, an updated study on behalf of law firm Labaton Sucharow found a deep-seated culture of immoral behavior among bankers in the United States and Great Britain. And it found that the situation was getting worse, not better, noting "a marked decline in ethics" since the first study was conducted.

The authors also found that there had been a"proliferation of secrecy policies and agreements that attempt to silence reports of wrongdoing and obstruct an individual's fundamental right to freely engage with her government."

In other words, bankers are becoming even more unethical - and banks are making it harder to report ethical lapses to the authorities.

The percentage of bankers who believed their own colleagues had engaged in illegal or unethical behavior has nearly doubled since 2012. And more than one-third of those earning $500,000 or more annually said they had first hand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace.

Born this way?

The Labaton Sucharow study illustrates something important: Crooked bankers aren't born. They're made.

According to the report, "Nearly one-third of respondents (32%) believe compensation structures or bonus plans in place at their company could incentivize employees to compromise ethics or violate the law. "

In fact, bankers' bonuses do incentivize unethical and criminal behavior - and anything else it takes to generate profits. "Clawbacks" for ill-gotten gains are still few and far between. Remarkably few bankers have been fired for the widespread fraud that continues to characterize their industry. Prosecution for criminal behavior is extremely rare.

A system which rewards antisocial behavior begets social tragedy. It's also a law enforcement nightmare. Criminology teaches that the presence of reward for criminal behavior, along with the absence of deterrence, almost inevitably leads to more crime.

The song says "you've got to be taught," and this lesson apparently hasn't been lost on the newest generations of bankers. "We are particularly dismayed by the ethical standards of the most junior employees in the industry," write the authors of the Labaton Sucharow study, who found that younger bank employees were much more likely than their elders to admit a willingness to commit fraud if given the opportunity to get rich illegally and get away with it.

But then, why wouldn't they? The banking industry's incentive system, combined with the government's refusal to prosecute, has taught them that the old saying is wrong: crime does pay.

Back on top

Wall Street certainly isn't suffering in the wake of the financial crisis it created. The financial industry is nearly as large as it was before the crisis. In fact, its profits are as large a chunk of the total economy today as they were before Wall Street imploded (and was rescued by taxpayers.)

Neil Irwin of the New York Times notes that current bank profits are "more than double their average level over the 70 years ended in 1999." That's called financialization. It's what happens when the productive economy of building, selling, and servicing things is crowded out by unproductive activities which redirect profits toward the manipulation of money.

As Irwin notes, bankers' incomes are rising again, and the World Financial Center's vacancy rate has fallen to 5 percent from a post-crisis high of 41 percent.

The Wall Street Journal reports that "Top executives from the biggest U.S. banks, concerned about anti-Wall Street rhetoric already bubbling up on the 2016 campaign trail, are working to push back against the prevailing narrative that banks are bad."

Are they rooting out corruption inside their own institutions? Changing their incentive plans? No. According to the Journal, discussions centered on "finding ways to emphasize the positive role banks play in the economy and the changes big firms have made since the 2008 crisis ... by engaging with local media, elected officials and community leaders."

That's not likely to move hearts and minds among the public at large. Two thirds of voters polled last year for Better Markets said they believe "the stock market is rigged for insiders and people who know how manipulate the system."

"Deep-seated cultural and ethical failures"

These voters are right - and they're not alone. William Dudley, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, spoke in 2013 of "deep-seated cultural and ethical failures" and "the apparent lack of respect for law, regulation and the public trust" in the culture of our biggest banks.

Dudley reached that conclusion in 2013, and the Labaton Sucharow study suggests that banker ethics have gotten worse since then.

Our banking system has a design problem, because its incentives are broken. Financialization is stifling the productive economy. And the systemic threat posed by our biggest banks has made them immune from real punishment.

These massive financial institutions don't need a PR campaign. They need to be cleaned up - and they need to be broken up.

"If you ain't cheating," said one of the traders involved in the currency exchange scandal, "you ain't trying." If we're not addressing the financial sector's systemic threat to our economy, of its affronts to our system of justice, then we ain't trying either.

 

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