The 2012 Vote
|Robert Maguire||August 8th 2012|
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As of today, spending reported to the Federal Election Commission by groups that aren't required to disclose the sources of their funding has nearly tripled over where it stood at the same point in the 2010 election cycle, according to research by the Center for Responsive Politics. By Aug. 6, 2010, groups registered as social welfare organizations, or 501(c)(4)s, as well as super PACs funded entirely by them, had reported spending $8.5 million. That figure has soared to $24.9 million in this cycle. In 2008, nondisclosing groups reported spending $8.3 million at this point in the campaign season.
In addition, the numbers show a clear break from those of previous cycles in that independent expenditures
(ads explicitly calling for the election or defeat of a particular candidate) make up the vast majority of the spending reported by nondisclosing groups. Spending for electioneering communications -- "issue ads" that name a federal candidate and are run within a 60-day window before a general election, or 30 days before a primary or a national party nominating convention -- has fallen as a share of the total.
The Weapon’s Edge
|Zach Toombs and Aaron Mehta||August 8th 2012|
The Pentagon has pumped billions of dollars into programs to counter the dangers of improvised explosive devices over the last decade but still lacks a way to track whether its initiatives are meeting their goals—a circumstance that a government watchdog warns could lead to overlap and wasted taxpayer funds. Poor recordkeeping has hindered the Defense Department’s ability to monitor more than 1,300 individual anti-IED projects, complicating any effort by outsiders to assess whether the funds have been well spent, an August report by the Government Accountability Office said.
“DOD has not determined, and does not have a ready means for determining,” just how many anti-IED projects it is currently funding, the report said. Although GAO accounted for $4.8 billion in Pentagon spending, it called that estimate “understated,” because many anti-IED initiatives weren’t properly recorded. “DOD has funded hundreds of C-IED initiatives but has not developed a comprehensive database of these initiatives or the organizations conducting them,” the report stated. The report is a follow up to a February 2012 GAO study that concluded DOD does not have “full visibility” over its anti-IED projects. Read more ..
The Defense Edge
|Zach Toombs||August 7th 2012|
A bill proposed by a bipartisan group of senators at the beginning of August would punish Pentagon agencies for failing to meet a series of deadlines for conducting proper internal audits, marking a major ratcheting up of congressional pressure about a good-government goal first set in legislation enacted 18 years ago. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a member of a subcommittee on federal financial management, is leading the effort to provide new incentives to the military services, which have moved slowly to comply with a target of completing successful audits of their expenditures by 2017. He was joined this week by five other Republicans and two Democrats.
Under their bill, military branches that don’t meet the 2017 deadline would see the development of weapons systems blocked before reaching the production and deployment stage.The bill would also reward agencies for meeting deadlines by conferring more control over their own budgets, including the ability to shift between $30 million and $60 million annually between accounts to pay for more weapons procurement, operations and maintenance, research or personnel, all without congressional approval. Read more ..
The Safety Edge
Sheri Sangji is on fire.
The 23-year-old research associate, a Pomona College graduate raised in Pakistan, has accidentally pulled the plunger out of a syringe while conducting an experiment in the Molecular Sciences Building at UCLA. The syringe contains a solution that combusts upon contact with air. The solution spills onto Sangji’s hands and torso, and she is instantly aflame. She isn’t wearing a lab coat; no one told her she has to. Her synthetic rubber gloves provide no protection as the fire burns through her hands to the tendons. She inhales toxic, superheated gases given off by her burning polyester sweater, a process that accelerates as she runs and screams.
It’s December 29, 2008, mid-afternoon. The UCLA campus is mostly quiet for the holidays, but chemistry professor Patrick Harran’s team is working. Harran is in his office, one floor up from Room 4221, where at his direction Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji has been trying to produce a chemical that holds promise as an appetite suppressant. She is unsupervised. Read more ..
The RGA Right Direction PAC is a Washington, D.C.-based super PAC, registered with federal regulators to make independent expenditures supporting or opposing candidates. So what is it doing giving $1 million directly to the Republican running for governor of Indiana?
The donation to Mike Pence, the largest to his campaign, appears to be a way around state laws limiting corporate contributions to candidates. “In one way, it’s legal,” said Andrew Downs of the Center for Indiana Politics, at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. “But if you say this is a way to give in excess of corporate limits, that’s also absolutely true.”
Right Direction is funded entirely by the Republican Governors Association, a so-called 527 organization dedicated to electing as many Republicans to governorships as possible—a mission fueled by contributions from some of the largest corporations in the country. In Indiana, candidates can accept unlimited donations from individuals and political action committees but only $5,000 from corporations and unions. Corporations and unions can also give to PACs, but only in small sums. Whether the check to Pence was drawn on a bank account that contained corporate money is not a matter of public record. Read more ..
Skin and Bone
|Kate Willson||July 21st 2012|
Mandi Eisenbeis stood over her dad. It was a Thursday in May 2011 when she said her private good-byes at a funeral parlor in Lodi, Calif. George “Randy” Eisenbeis had died young, felled at age 57 by a methamphetamine overdose.
As she looked at him lying in the coffin, she noticed his hands were oozing blood. Eisenbeis didn’t know what had happened until later, when she learned the funeral director had sent a scathing complaint to the California Transplant Donor Network, the nonprofit organ and tissue bank that had stripped out Randy Eisenbeis’s usable parts. “To say this was simply a ‘hack job’ would be a compliment,” Lodi Funeral Home’s Michael Collins wrote in a letter accompanied by a series of graphic photos of the torn-apart corpse. “I guess we should consider ourselves lucky that you left his head and his hands for viewing, and yes, that is his severed foot in the photo to the bottom left of the embalming table.”
In March the family sued the California organ bank, accusing it of fraud, mutilation of a corpse, and infliction of emotional distress. Read more ..
Skin and Bone
|Kate Willson and Mar Cabra||July 21st 2012|
|Human skin, meshed for grafting (credit: Mar Cabra)|
The Kentucky man died in an off-road vehicle accident last year. His liver and kidneys helped save three dying patients in his home state. Musculoskeletal grafts taken from his heart, skin and bones were used in medical products used to improve the lives of 15 people around the country.
But soon after the transplants, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) learned the organ recipients had contracted hepatitis C. It turned out the Kentucky donor had a history of substance abuse and had served prison time. The tissue bank that recycled his remains, the CDC said, had screwed up the usual testing done to verify that tissues and organs were safe.
The CDC’s Office of Blood, Organ, and Other Tissue Safety deployed a team of “shoe-leather epidemiologists” to track down the tissue before someone else got sick. Unlike hearts and other organs—or blood products that come with a unique barcode—there’s no easy way to track tissue. Read more ..
Skin and Bone
|Kate Willson, Vlad Lavrov, Martina Keller, and Michael Hudson||July 20th 2012|
|Transplanted cornea (credit: David Robinson)|
In April 2003, Robert Ambrosino murdered his ex-fiancée—a 22-year-old aspiring actress—by shooting her in the face with a .45-caliber pistol. Then Ambrosino turned the gun around and killed himself. Soon after, Ambrosino’s corpse entered the United States’s vast tissue-donation system, his skin, bones, and other body parts destined for use in the manufacture of cutting-edge medical products.
But before they entered the system, Michael Mastromarino, owner of a New Jersey-based tissue recovery firm, needed to solve a couple of problems. He didn’t want to have to report that Ambrosino had perished in a murder-suicide. And he didn’t want anyone to know that Ambrosino’s family hadn’t given permission for his body to be used for tissue donation. Mastromarino solved both problems the same way: He lied.
He claimed Ambrosino died in a car accident. And he claimed that Ambrosino’s family had agreed to donate his tissue before the rest of his remains were cremated. Read more ..
Skin and Bone
|Kate Willson, Vlad Lavrov, Martina Keller, Thomas Maier, and Gerard Ryle||July 19th 2012|
On Feb. 24, Ukrainian authorities made an alarming discovery: bones and other human tissues crammed into coolers in a grimy white minibus.
Investigators grew even more intrigued when they found, amid the body parts, envelopes stuffed with cash and autopsy results written in English.
What the security service had disrupted was not the work of a serial killer but part of an international pipeline of ingredients for medical and dental products that are routinely implanted into people around the world. The seized documents suggested that the remains of dead Ukrainians were destined for a factory in Germany belonging to the subsidiary of a U.S. medical products company, Florida-based RTI Biologics—one of a growing industry of companies that make profits by turning mortal remains into everything from dental implants to bladder slings to wrinkle cures.
The industry has flourished even as its practices have roused concerns about how tissues are obtained and how well grieving families and transplant patients are informed about the realities and risks of the business. In the U.S. alone, the biggest market and the biggest supplier, an estimated two million products derived from human tissue are sold each year, a figure that has doubled over the past decade. Read more ..
The Defense Edge
The Canadian arm of the aircraft engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney closed a six-year U.S. government probe last week by admitting that the lure of up to $2 billion in helicopter sales to China had caused it to export computer software illegally that helped China create its first modern attack helicopter.
“This case is a clear example of how the illegal export of sensitive technology reduces the advantages our military currently possesses,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said in a statement released on June 28. That’s when the government disclosed that Pratt & Whitney and two related companies agreed to pay a total of $75 million in fines for multiple violations of export rules policed by the State Department.
The software probe and the heavy financial sanction appear to have had no punishing impact on Pratt & Whitney’s extensive and continuing contract work for the Defense Department, however. That’s the same department that in an ironic twist announced this spring that it was reorienting its forces to deal with what its officials regard as a rising Chinese military threat against U.S. allies in the region. Read more ..
The Afghanistan War
|Zach Toombs||June 16th 2012|
As the U.S. military heads for the door in Afghanistan, one of its most important tasks is to train Afghan police to take control of the nation’s security. But a billion-dollar Afghan police training contract, now being administered by the Army, has encountered some troubles, according to a new report by the Defense Department’s Inspector General’s office.
In just the first four months after the contract was signed in December 2010, its cost shot up $145 million, or 14 percent. A series of late revisions has slowed the training process for Afghan police, the IG report said, and the contract has been written in a way that allows new costs to accumulate without penalty.
The IG blamed the Army for the early cost hike, asserting that those overseeing the work by the lead contractor, DynCorp International, should have anticipated that its scope would be greater than initially estimated. Read more ..
Coke and Confiscation
For 15 years, Egyptian-Jewish businessman Refael Bigio has been battling a goliath corporate adversary, The Coca-Cola Company. Bigio charges that Coke has been profiting from his family’s stolen property just outside Cairo. The Bigio family’s property was expropriated by Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser in the mid-1960s during one of Egypt’s anti-Jewish purges. Over the course of a decade and a half, the Coca-Cola Company has steadfastly refused to bargain in good faith or to negotiate any fair compensation for the expropriated property, according to Bigio’s lawyers. In the company’s defense, Coke’s attorneys have defended Egypt’s anti-Jewish seizures and even those of Hitler’s Germany as confiscations that “did not violate international law.”
Coca-Cola’s stony refusal to even place a fair offer on the table, Bigio’s attorneys charge, stands in bitter contrast to hundreds of millions of dollars in profits derived since 1965 from the operations of “Coca-Cola Egypt.” Coke has always known that its multimillion dollar windfall in Egypt has been and is now being generated by property unlawfully stolen from its Jewish owners by Nasser’s regime in a Nazi-style property seizure. In other words, the company is in possession of stolen property—and knows it. Coke’s only defense is that the theft Bigio suffered, for no reason other that he was Jewish, actually did not violate international law and was perfectly legal. By Coke’s long-standing legal rationale, the property of every Jew in the world could be seized without violating international law.
After 15 years, Bigio believes he is now locked in a mortal struggle—not with a beverage company, not with its powerful million-dollar attorneys, King and Spalding—but with the only man who has the authority to resolve the conflict: Muhtar Kent, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of The Coca-Cola Company.
“The Coca-Cola Company had clearly mistreated our family in a shameless way,” says Bigio from his current home in Montreal. With exasperation, he adds, “Enough with the multiple excuses invented by the Coca-Cola legal team.” Bigio continues, “Today the ultimate responsibility lies on its chairman, Muhtar Kent. Kent needs to look at the acquisition of the El Nasr Bottling Company [ENBC], an entity which gobbled up and was merged with the industrial complex of the Bigio family property in Cairo, two bottling factories—all seized by Nasser for no other reason than we were Jews.” Read more ..
The Edge of Health
Small fires were a part of the job at the Hoeganaes Corp. metal powder plant 30 miles northeast of Nashville. By early 2011, some workers later told investigators, they had become practiced in beating down the flames with gloved hands or a fire extinguisher. The company’s own product fueled the fires. Scrap metal rolls into the rust-colored plant on the town’s industrial periphery and is melted, atomized and dried into a fine iron powder sold to makers of car parts. Sometimes, powder leaked from equipment and coated ledges and rafters. Under the right conditions, it smoldered.
Wiley Sherburne, a 42-year-old plant electrician, sometimes told his wife how this dust piled up everywhere, she recalled. On quieter weekend shifts, he said he could hear the telltale popping sound of dust sparking when it touched live electricity. Read more ..
Media on Edge
|Jude Freeman||May 26th 2012|
Cutting Edge Correspondent
A co-owner of a pentagon propaganda contractor has admitted responsibility for a number of websites involved in a ‘mis-information’ campaign that sought to cast doubts over the character of two USA TODAY journalists. USA TODAY reported that Camille Chidiac, former president of Leonie Industries, claims he personally funded the websites he used to discredit Tom Vanden Brook and Ray Locker, who had reported on the Pentagon's "information operations" program, which came under fire for appropriating millions of dollars to marketing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq that were said to be poorly monitored.
Using proxy services to conceal his identity, Chidiac, whose presidency of Leonie Industries ended in 2008, mounted what online reputation expert, Andy Beal, described as a “sophisticated reputation attack.” Twitter and Facebook accounts were registered in Tom Vanden Brook’s name before the stories were published and a Wikipedia entry and group postings included a misrepresentation of his report on the West Virginia Mine Disater. Stating that he made clear that the websites were “fan sites” of editor Ray Locker and reporter Vanden Brook, Chidiac admitted that comments “quickly degenerated from legitimate criticism to immature and irrelevant rhetoric by unknown users." Chidicac’s attorney stated that the entries on Wikipedia and Twitter came from someone with "absolutely no relationship or connection with Leonie Industries." Read more ..
|Alexandra Duszak||May 26th 2012|
It’s challenging enough to knock off an entrenched member of Congress in a primary contest. But California State Sen. Bob Dutton probably didn’t count on the fact that he would also be picking a fight with nearly a million Realtors.
The Rancho Cucamonga Republican is running against Rep. Gary Miller, a 14-year GOP incumbent in the June 5 open primary. The National Association of Realtors political action committee and a super PAC funded by the trade association have spent more than $709,000 on advertising and direct mail supporting Miller. "The amount of money being funneled into this primary from Washington, D.C., special interests on behalf of Miller is mind boggling,” said Clint Lorimore, Dutton’s campaign manager, in an email.
Actually, the super PAC is based in Chicago, as is the trade association. But the NAR has an office in the capital and plenty of money to spend on Washington politics. The association spent more than $22 million on lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). Read more ..
The Edge of Terrorism
|J.J. Barrow and Trevor Aaronson||May 14th 2012|
Paz Oquendo, a worker at the U.S. Postal Service’s Orlando sorting facility, smelled the noxious odor first. It was Feb. 4, 2011, and the foul stench was coming from one of the large mailbags hanging near the package-conveyor belts. She ran over to Jeffrey A. Lill, the 44-year-old shift supervisor who was monitoring the sorting from a platform, and reported the smell. “I can’t breathe,” Oquendo told Lill.
Lill headed toward the center of the sorting floor—an area workers call “the belly”—to investigate the odor.
Then he smelled it—a strong chemical stench he couldn’t identify. It was coming from a bag wet with a brown viscous substance. Lill looked in the wet sack and saw a broken package with tubes and wires sticking out. He remembers reading the return address with surprise: Yemen. Four months earlier, two bombs from Yemen had been sent through FedEx and UPS, and the U.S. Postal Service had alerted everyone to be on the lookout for packages coming from the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. Read more ..
|Fred Schulte||May 10th 2012|
|Health and Human Services Washington DC|
Thousands of doctors across the country are billing Medicare for routine medical care at rates far above their peers, potentially costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in overcharges, according to a new government report. The audit released today by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General stopped short of accusing the high-billing doctors of ripping off the government health plan for the elderly. But it stated that Medicare’s payment scales for doctors have been “vulnerable to fraud and abuse” in recent years.
The doctor payment scales are known as “Evaluation and Management” or E/M codes. Doctors choose from five escalating payment levels for treating patients based on the “amount of skill, effort, time responsibility and medical knowledge required for the service.” In 2010, almost 370 million E/M services were provided by about 442,000 doctors nationwide. The code the doctor chooses can make a big difference to the bottom line. For instance, the Medicare fee for treating a new patient in 2010 ranged from $36.62 to $190.56, depending on the level of service provided by the doctor, and the code chosen for billing. Read more ..
The Justice Department has been increasingly eager to prosecute officials for leaks of classified information, charging six individuals with disclosures that violate the Espionage Act just since the start of 2009. But at the same time, the government itself has lost track of hundreds of boxes filled with classified documents at its main records storage site, the Washington National Records Center .
According to a new report from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Office of Inspector General, more than 1,500 boxes of classified documents have gone missing at the site, located in Suitland, Maryland. While some are “still occasionally being located,” the Archives’ office of records services has stopped its internal searching, the report said, and the affected agencies have been notified.
Among the missing records are 81 boxes with documents labeled Top Secret, Secret, and Restricted Data, among the highest classification categories. They were from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Navy, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the Energy Department, and other agencies. Restricted Data is a special category for data pertinent to nuclear weapons. Each box contains between 2,000 and 2,500 pieces of paper, states the IG’s report, which was first disclosed by The Washington Times.
These records weren’t stolen in an act of espionage. The IG places the blame for the loss of the boxes squarely on mismanagement by the records center, which is controlled by the Archives, an issue described in the report as “systemic.” That conclusion seems beyond dispute. The new report, which is itself labeled “Official Use Only,” discloses that in two previous inventories there, in 1998 and 2004, boxes of classified materials were found missing. But the results were never written up in a report and “minimal corrective actions” were taken, it states. Read more ..
The 2012 Vote
|Michael Beckel||May 4th 2012|
|Aaron Shock and Mens Health|
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Two $25,000 donations during the final days of a hotly contested Illinois primary are raising more questions about whether super PACs — the political committees that have seen a flood of money from millionaires and billionaires — are being used to circumvent campaign contribution limits. Back in March, sophomore Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) wanted to help his friend and fellow Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger survive a rare incumbent-on-incumbent primary by sending some money his way.
Many members of Congress have “leadership PACs” set up for just this purpose — they direct funds from the PACs to their fellow representatives in hopes of earning support for senior leadership positions. Thanks to redistricting, Kinzinger, rather than face an easy primary, found himself facing 10-term Rep. Don Manzullo. Schock’s leadership PAC gave Kinzinger’s campaign $5,000 for the primary fight — the maximum allowed contribution. But Schock also managed to direct 10 times that much toward efforts aiding his buddy with help from the super PAC, earning the ire of campaign finance watchdogs.
|Jim Morris||April 29th 2012|
The Department of Labor reported this week that 4,690 U.S. workers suffered fatal injuries in 2010, a 3 percent increase from 2009. The higher number in part reflects a string of high-profile disasters in 2010: An explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia that killed 29; BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11; and a blast at the Tesoro Corp.’s oil refinery in Washington State that killed seven. Even discounting the 47 deaths from those three events, the toll rose in 2010. In 2009, 4,551 workers died, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
The fatality rate rose slightly as well, from 3.5 fatal injuries per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers to 3.6. The number of workers killed in fires or explosions jumped from 113 in 2009 to 191 in 2010. Work-related transportation deaths increased from 1,795 to 1,857, suicides from 263 to 270. The number of construction-related deaths fell from 834 to 774—a probable reflection of a weak housing market and a generally rotten economy in 2010. Read more ..
|Paul Abowd||April 16th 2012|
Some of America’s best known brands are dropping their membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council at least partly in response to controversy over the group’s backing of voter ID laws. Coca-Cola quit on April 4 and Pepsi, Kraft Foods, Intuit, McDonalds and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation followed them out after a coalition of left-wing groups launched pressure campaigns. Nine states have passed strict voter ID requirements just since 2011, which opponents say could result in millions being unable to cast ballots in November.
But there’s been little attention paid to one major ALEC-affiliated sector behind several state legislators pushing these measures: the beer and wine industry.
Major players in beer and wine sit on an ALEC task force that crafted and approved voter ID model legislation in 2009. The industry’s major trade associations — the National Beer Wholesalers Association and Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America — are among them. Since 2007, the wholesalers have also pumped substantial cash into the campaigns of several ALEC politicians who have been authors or primary sponsors of voter ID bills in their states. Read more ..
|David Heath||April 3rd 2012|
|Scott Tucker (credit: Level 5 Motorsports)|
The Federal Trade Commission today took up a case that had thwarted state authorities for years, accusing an Internet payday lender with ties to Indian tribes of illegally deceiving borrowers.
The agency is asking a federal judge in Nevada to order AMG Services of Overland Park., Kan., to stop the deceptive practices and pay back borrowers who its says got cheated.
“The defendants have deceived consumers about the cost of their loans and charged more than they said they would, said Malini Mithal, the FTC’s assistant director of financial practices. “The FTC is trying to stop this deception and get refunds for consumers.”
While the company has won arguments in state courts that it has tribal sovereign immunity, allowing it to make loans even in states that restrict or forbid payday loans, that protection doesn’t apply to the federal courts. Court records suggest the business has made more than $165 million, charging interest rates as high as 800 percent on small loans. Borrowers have complained in droves about the lender’s tactics. Law enforcement authorities have received more than 7,500 complaints about the business, the FTC says. Read more ..
The Toxic Edge
|Ronnie Greene||March 31st 2012|
|Coast Guard Inspection|
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When a U.S. Coast Guard inspector boarded the M/T Chem Faros, a 21,145-gross-ton cargo ship that pulled into port in Morehead City, N.C., an oiler with the engine crew quietly handed him a note.
"GOOD MORNING SIR, I WOULD LIKE TO LET YOU KNOW THIS SHIP DISCHARGING BILGE ILEGALLY USING BY MAGIC PIPE,” the note said. “IF YOU WANT TO KNOW ILLEGAL PIPE THERE IN WORKSHOP FIVE METERS LONG WITH RUBBER.”
The crewman’s hand-scrawled note, passed that March day two years ago, triggered an inquiry that unmasked a wave of high-seas pollution and phony recordkeeping as the ship ferried cargo in Asia and the U.S. The crew had used the so-called magic pipe to divert oily waste overboard at least 10 times in six months. Eleven days before the inspection, the chief engineer ordered 13,200 gallons of oil-contaminated waste dumped into the ocean.
The ship’s owner, Cooperative Success Maritime S.A., was fined $850,000 and sentenced to five years’ probation after its guilty plea. And the chief engineer — after cooperating with authorities — was sentenced to one year of probation. “The oceans must be protected from being used as dump sites for waste oil or other hazardous substances,” said Maureen O’Mara, special agent-in-charge of the Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal enforcement program in Atlanta, in June 2010. A company attorney declined comment.
Broken Energy Policy
|Ronnie Greene||March 29th 2012|
|President Obama meeting with Solyndra officials|
On August 20, 2009, an Energy Department staffer examining a pending loan to a California clean energy start-up came to a startling conclusion: The company would run out of money by September 2011.
As part of the 2009 job-creating stimulus, the government has committed nearly $40 billion to clean energy projects. The first loan guarantee went to Solyndra Inc., a California solar firm backed by an Obama fundraiser. But instead of picking a winner, the government backed a loser. The firm failed, putting more than 1,000 people out of work and taxpayers on the hook for $535 million. Among questions now: Did the White House unduly influence the process? Did the Energy Department rush its first commitment, ignoring warning signs about the company's viability? Will this failed project cost Obama?
The Department of Energy was fully aware of the risks in backing Solyndra Inc., a start-up company that pocketed a half-billion dollar DOE loan but never turned a penny in profit before shutting its doors, concludes a former FBI agent hired to examine the company’s books. Read more ..
South Carolina on Edge
|Caitlin Ginley||March 23rd 2012|
|South Carolina State Capitol|
In response to South Carolina’s failing grade from the State Integrity Investigation, House Democrats there have proposed historic ethics reforms. South Carolina was ranked 45th out of 50 states, with a score of 57 percent. “It is time for South Carolina to get serious about ethics reform,” said Rep. Boyd Brown, (D-Winnsboro), in a press release that cited the investigation’s “scathing” assessment of South Carolina. “Corruption is plaguing our great state and it’s high time we do something about it. South Carolina is ripe for another ‘Operation Lost Trust’ and I refuse to stand idly by while that happens again.” Operation Lost Trust, a vote buying scandal that involved more than two dozen lobbyists and lawmakers, sparked a major ethics overall in South Carolina in the early 1990s, severely restricting gifts and campaign contributions from lobbyists.The new proposal includes term limits, a revamping of the State Ethics Commissions and a two-year ban on the revolving door between legislating and lobbying. Read more ..
The Defense Edge
|Edwin Black||March 20th 2012|
Last Friday, March 16, President Barack Obama may have quietly placed the United States on a war preparedness footing, perhaps in anticipation of an outbreak of war between Israel, the West, and Iran. A newly-propounded Executive Order, titled "National Defense Resources Preparedness," renews and updates the president's power to take control of all civil energy supplies, including oil and natural gas, control and restrict all civil transportation, which is almost 97 percent dependent upon oil; and even provides the option to re-enable a draft in order to achieve both the military and non-military demands of the country, according to a simple reading of the text. The Executive Order was published on the White House website.
The timing of the Order -- with little fanfare -- could not be explained. Opinions among the very first bloggers on the purpose of the unexpected Executive Order run the gamut from the confused to the absurd. None focus on the obvious sudden need for such a pronouncement: oil and its potential for imminent interruption. If Iran was struck by Israel or the West, or if Iran thought it might be struck, the Tehran regime has promised it would block the Strait of Hormuz, which would obstruct some 40 percent of the world's seaborne oil, some twenty percent of the global supply, and about 20 percent of America's daily needs. Moreover, Tehran has promised military retaliation against any nation it feels has harmed it. The United States is at the top of the list. Read more ..
Labor on Edge
|Jim Morris||March 18th 2012|
In the space of a minute, federal prison worker Jason Unwin was twice attacked by a furious, muscle-bound inmate on Dec. 21, 2010.
Agitated after a disciplinary hearing, the inmate first punched one of Unwin’s colleagues in the face, knocking him unconscious. He then turned to Unwin, a correctional counselor at the United States Penitentiary in Florence, Colo. “I was hit square in the face,” said Unwin, 51.
With a bloodied Unwin in pursuit, the inmate walked off. Seconds later, with Unwin briefly distracted, the inmate “blindsided me. He hit me with a closed fist, very hard, on the left side of the head. I was knocked unconscious.”
Unwin, a Federal Bureau of Prisons employee for 16 years, hasn’t worked since. He doesn’t have a full range of motion in his right shoulder, he said, and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He has short-term memory problems, sleeps irregularly and faces seizure risks.
The saving grace: He is covered by a 96-year-old compensation program for injured federal workers. Under the Federal Employees Compensation Act of 1916 (FECA), he receives 75 percent of his former salary, tax-free; his monthly income is within a few hundred dollars of his previous salary.
Legislation pending in the U.S. Senate, however, ultimately would cut Unwin’s benefits and could affect many other government workers—especially those with modest incomes—in the future. The measure, championed by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is included in a postal reform bill that may come up for a vote this month. Collins said it would stamp out abuses while saving money. Yet officials with federal employees’ unions say the legislation would unfairly punish victims of workplace violence and other traumatic injuries—and their families.
“It’s a terrible message we’re sending to a federal law enforcement officer,” said Joe Mansour, national workers compensation representative for the Council of Prison Locals, an affiliate of the American Federation of Government Employees. “People are going to lose their homes. People are going to lose their cars.” Under the proposal, compensation would be capped at 50 percent of pre-injury pay for FECA recipients at age 65. Now, benefits range from 75 percent for those with dependents to 66 2/3 percent for those without Read more ..
The Edge of Education
|Susan Ferriss||March 17th 2012|
A newly released pool of federal data reveals that Kern County, California — whose schools were the subject of a recent Center for Public Integrity story — has exceptionally high rates of suspension and expulsions for minority students. The new federal information dovetails with the findings of the Center’s investigation last December, which showed that Kern County, an oil and farm region in the Central Valley, is California’s expulsion capital. In 2010-2011, Kern’s schools had four times the state average for expulsions and more than seven times the last known national average in 2006. The raw number of students expelled in sparsely populated Kern was even greater than the number expelled in Los Angeles, which has nine times the student body.
Parents in Kern complained about high rates of removal for children and about the process for challenging decisions, and some black parents told the Center they felt schools were too quick to oust their children. California state data analyzed by the Center demonstrated that the vast majority of Kern expulsions were not for “zero tolerance” violations that require expulsion, such as gun possession. The analysis showed that most of Kern’s expulsions were discretionary, and that the schools had unusually high rates of expulsion for defiance, disruption and obscenity. More than one in four expulsions statewide for obscenity or vulgarity took place in Kern. Read more ..
The Metal's Edge
|Corbin Hiar||March 16th 2012|
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Colombia is moving to curb illegal mining of the highly sought after mineral, colten. Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia, travelled to the lawless southeastern corner of the country last weekend and declared his intention to designate the coltan-rich region a “strategic reserve, for national security reasons.” The mining industry there is currently controlled by what Mines and Energy Minister Mauricio Cárdenas called “shady interests” in a tweet on March 11. A ministry official said Monday that the government eventually hopes to auction off mining permits to legitimate companies, according to the Wall Street Journal. The groups Cárdenas was alluding to are right-wing paramilitaries and rebels-turned-drug dealers in the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, the FARC. As reported earlier this month, those armed groups have coerced the native Indians who live in the region to work the mines or bought their labor with free beer, food, and brand-name athletic shoes. He said that these groups are “a national security concern for us.”
The heavy, black, conductive mineral is used in everything from sophisticated personal electronics to precision weapons. It is used to improve the ability of microchip processors to function in extremely hot or cold temperatures. Unlike diamonds, the origins of which can be determined via geo-fingerprinting, there is no accurate test to trace coltan. This has made it an attractive new source of revenue for narco-terrorist groups like the FARC. Their illicit role in the trade may also become an economic concern for the Colombian government, which claims to control 5 percent of the world’s coltan reserves.
|David Albright and Paul Brannan||March 14th 2012|
ISIS has identified in commercial satellite imagery a building on the Parchin site in Iran that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wants to visit because it contains, or used to contain, a high-explosive test chamber. The building is located on a relatively small and isolated compound within the Parchin military site and has its own perimeter security wall or fencing.
A berm can be seen between this building and a neighboring one, which is consistent with a description of the compound in the November 8, 2011 IAEA Safeguards Report. The compound is located more than four kilometers away from high-explosive related facilities also at the Parchin site which the IAEA visited in 2005.
The IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano recently noted that the IAEA has “information that that some activity is ongoing” at the Parchin site. When asked if he was concerned that Iran was cleansing the site, Amano said that the “possibility is not excluded…” and that “we have to go there.” If Iran is engaging in clean up work to hide evidence at the Parchin site then it could be occurring inside this building as well. Thus, the IAEA deserves international support to visit this site without delay to inspect the inside of this building and other locations in Parchin as well. Read more ..
Catholic Church on Edge
|David Jackson, Gary Marx, and Ritu Sarin||March 11th 2012|
Accused of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old Chicago girl, the Rev. Sleeva Raju Policetti fled Illinois nearly a decade ago to his native India, where the Roman Catholic archbishop of Hyderabad soon issued an order barring him from ministry.
In 2008, after a canonical trial, the Vatican took the rare and severe step of defrocking Policetti over the allegations, meaning he is no longer a priest.
But civil justice never caught up to the fugitive ex-priest, whose lawyers in India have fought efforts to extradite him to Chicago to face 20 felony counts of criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse.
And now it's apparently too late.
In recent days, Policetti's case took a dramatic turn when an attorney for Policetti's alleged victim indicated to Cook County prosecutors that she was no longer willing to pursue charges — a decision that would effectively force prosecutors to dismiss the case and abandon the years-long extradition effort. Read more ..
Edge of Mexico
|Kent Paterson||March 5th 2012|
The two high-tech workers laughed when asked if they could afford the smartphones made by their colleagues on Mexican production lines. “No, no, no,” chuckled Maria and Alma, two Guadalajara workers who have labored for years in Mexico’s Silicon Valley. A cheap $20 cell phone has to make do for Maria, while Alma uses a similarly low-priced contraption she won on a five-dollar raffle ticket. “It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity, especially when you have kids,” Alma said.
The two women, who asked that their real names not be used because of possible employer retaliation, recently sat down to discuss their jobs and lives as factory workers in Mexico’s second largest city and one of the world’s most important centers in the electronics industry supply chain. An assembly-line worker, Maria makes about $10 for an eight hour shift six days a week. Although Maria said she gets all the benefits afforded by Mexican law, she must renew her work contract every two months. A quality control specialist, Alma has more responsibilities than Maria but gets the same amount of pay. A third woman who joined the conversation worked in the local high-tech industry until she was fired two years ago. Unlike Maria and Alma, the friend completed higher education training for a technician’s career but still maxed out her earnings at approximately $500 monthly after a dozen years in the industry. Read more ..
The Toxic Edge
A much-anticipated government study of more than 12,000 miners — whose publication was delayed by litigation from a group of mining companies — has found that exposure to diesel engine exhaust significantly increases the risk of lung cancer.
For the most heavily exposed miners, the risk of dying from lung cancer was three times higher than it was for those exposed to low doses. For non-smokers, the risk was seven times higher.
“[T]he findings suggest that the risks may extend to other workers exposed to diesel exhaust in the United States and abroad, and to people living in urban areas where diesel exhaust levels are elevated,” Joseph Fraumeni Jr., director of the National Cancer Institute’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, said in a press release Friday morning. Read more ..
After the Holocaust
|Edwin Black||February 28th 2012|
Newly-released documents expose more explicitly the details of IBM’s pivotal role in the Holocaust—all six phases: identification, expulsion from society, confiscation, ghettoization, deportation, and even extermination. Moreover, the documents portray with crystal clarity the personal involvement and micro-management of IBM president Thomas J. Watson in the company’s co-planning and co-organizing of Hitler’s campaign to destroy the Jews.
Buy IBM here.
IBM’s twelve-year alliance with the Third Reich was first revealed in my book IBM and the Holocaust, published simultaneously in 40 countries in February 2001. It was based on some 20,000 documents drawn from archives in seven countries. IBM never denied any of the information in the book; and despite thousands of media and communal requests, as well as published articles, the company has remained silent.
The new “expanded edition” contains 32 pages of never-before-published internal IBM correspondence, State Department and Justice Department memos, and concentration camp documents that graphically chronicle IBM’s actions and what they knew during the twelve-year Hitler regime. On the anniversary of the release of the original book, the new edition was released on February 26, 2012 at a special live global streaming event at Yeshiva University’s Furst Hall, sponsored by the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists together with a coalition of other groups.
Among the newly-released documents and archival materials are secret 1941 correspondence setting up the Dutch subsidiary of IBM to work in tandem with the Nazis, company President Thomas Watson's personal approval for the 1939 release of special IBM alphabetizing machines to help organize the rape of Poland and the deportation of Polish Jews, as well as the IBM Concentration Camp Codes including IBM’s code for death by Gas Chamber. Among the newly published photos of the punch cards is the one developed for the statistician who reported directly to Himmler and Eichmann.
The significance of the incriminating documents requires context. Read more ..
The Animal Edge
|Tafline Laylin||February 28th 2012|
Every year in Namibia, 86,000 Cape Fur Seal pups are butchered to death and only one man has the contract to turn their fur into so-called fashionable apparel. The Turkish and Australia based company Hatem Yavuz named after the owner Hatem Yavuz controls roughly 60 percent of the world’s seal market and processes 130,000 seal pelts every year in his Istanbul factory. Yavuz also has a hand in the Canadian seal market and claims to be proud of what he does. In an interview that spurred a flurry of hate mail, Yavuz told 7 News in Australia that “it’s a job. If I don’t do it, someone else is going to do it.” He is called the King of Seal Killers.
Pat Dickens, founder of the Seals of Nam, a non-profit organization that has been campaigning to end Namibia’s annual seal cull on the Cape Cross Seal Reserve. A popular tourist attraction, every year between July and November the sands of the reserve are stained pink from the blood of seal pups as young as seven months old. Men with clubs and picks enter the seal colony early in the morning. The traumatized animals squeal and run away, often regurgitating their mother’s milk in terror. Their skulls are crushed and their throats slit. Several reports show that blows to their head often only render the animals unconscious. These remains are cleaned up before tourists show up in what is a heavily regulated area. Dickens has gone through all of the appropriate channels to appeal to the Namibian government to cancel its contract with Yavuz, which is valid until 2019, as it stands in direct contravention to the Animal Protection Act of 1962 that makes it unlawful to “overload, overdrive, override, ill-treat, neglect, infuriate, torture or maim or cruelly beat, kick, goad or terrify any animal.”
He appealed to the Namibian ombudsman Adv. John Walters, which speech has since been followed up with a series of delay tactics. Several animal rights organizations have become involved and Jane Goodall and other celebrities have made public statements against this terrible practice. Meanwhile, the Humane Society released a report which shows that the so-called seal-culling industry, which only employs 81 people in Namibia, benefits the Namibian economy 300 times less than live seals and eco-tourism would. Read more ..
The 2012 Vote
|Michael Beckel||February 28th 2012|
The drug lobby's trade association was a multimillion-dollar donor to nonprofit groups that were actively working to elect federal candidates during the 2010 election, an iWatch News analysis of documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service reveals.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, better known as PhRMA, doled out $9.4 million to 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit groups, some of which paid for ads that influenced races in the 2010 midterm election, records show.
In 2010, PhRMA gave about $20 million in “grants and other assistance” to more than 200 nonprofit organizations, including five politically active 501(c)(4) nonprofits, both liberal and conservative, which together received nearly half of the funds.
The groups were: the American Action Network, the American Future Fund, Americans for Tax Reform, America’s Families First, Inc. and the Citizens for Strength and Security Action Fund. PhRMA's largest gift in 2010 was a $4.5 million contribution to the American Action Network, a conservative 501(c)(4) that spent big money on a half-dozen high-profile U.S. Senate races and more than two dozen U.S. House races.
In 2010, American Action reported spending more than $26 million on ads to the Federal Election Commission. That was more than any other politically active nonprofit group, with the exception of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Overall, the American Action Network reportedly raised more than $30 million in 2010, meaning PhRMA alone was responsible for close to 15 percent of the group's funds. Read more ..
The Edge of Health
|Joe Eaton||February 23rd 2012|
It seemed simple enough at the time. In 2009, John Harrison, a 63-year-old oil industry sales manager in Mission, Texas, had surgery to repair the rotator cuff in his right shoulder, a routine procedure that usually requires at most a single night’s stay in the hospital, followed by physical therapy. For Harrison, however, there was nothing routine about the ordeal that ensued. In the weeks following the surgery, his scar turned bright red, hot to the touch, and oozed thick fluid that looked “like butter squeezed from a bag.” Alarmed, Harrison’s wife Laura called The Methodist Hospital in Houston, where the surgery was performed. The doctor urged Harrison to immediately make the seven-hour drive back to Houston for an emergency checkup. That night, surgeons opened up Harrison’s shoulder and found that infection had eaten away part of his shoulder bone and rotator cuff. Screws and metal hardware surgeons placed in his shoulder had pulled loose. Sutures had come undone. Surgeons cleaned out Harrison’s shoulder, installed two drains and gave him antibiotics to battle the infection. Read more ..
The 2012 Vote
|John Dunbar||February 22nd 2012|
Thanks to a small number of wealthy individuals, the outside spending groups known as “super PACs” that are working to put the four leading GOP candidates in the White House collectively raised more than the candidates themselves in January. Candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul raised a combined $21.1 million for the month, according to Federal Election Commission records, while the four primary super PACs backing them raised $22.1 million. Donors to candidates number in the thousands, but they may only give $2,500 per candidate, per election. Super PAC donors, thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and a lower-cour ruling, can give unlimited amounts. The funds can come from billionaires, corporations and labor unions. So far this election, the funds have been spent overwhelmingly on advertising disparaging competing candidates. Super PACs are prohibited from coordinating their activities with the candidates.
The average donation to a super PAC filing in January was $63,000. Two of the super PACs — “Winning Our Future,” supporting Newt Gingrich and “Endorse Liberty,” supporting Ron Paul — are dominated by a single donor. Of the $11 million Winning Our Future raised in January, $10 million — more than three-quarters of the group's total haul — came from billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife. That’s in addition to $1 million given by other Adelson family members to the PAC last year. Of the $2.4 million raised by the pro-Ron Paul super PAC "Endorse Liberty," $1.7 million — more than 70 percent — came from Peter Thiel, hedge fund manager, co-founder of PayPal and early Facebook investor. That’s on top of the $900,000 he gave last year. Read more ..
The Water's Edge
|Ingrid Weel and Mar Cabra||February 18th 2012|
Members of the Animal Party asked the Dutch government Wednesday to ban catches of threatened jack mackerel that vessels from the Netherlands and other European countries have overfished in the South Pacific. "For years there have been meetings to bring to a halt the activities of big floating fish factories in whose nets whole soccer stadiums could fit," MP Anja Hazekamp of the Animal Party, said, according to the Dutch daily Trouw. “But there are still no binding fishing quotas established.” The parliamentary debate was sparked by a recent exposé by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which revealed that European, Asian and Latin American fleets have decimated the jack mackerel population in the once-rich waters of the southern Pacific. The stocks have declined from 30 million metric tons to less than 3 million in just two decades.
The bony, bronze-hued jack mackerel plays an important role in the marine ecosystem as food for bigger fish and is a key component of fishmeal for aquaculture. It can take more than 5 kilos of jack mackerel to raise a single kilo of farmed salmon. Fleets compete in a free-for-all in the southern Pacific, the ICIJ investigation found, because governments have failed since 2006 to create and ratify a regional fisheries management organization that can impose binding regulations. In the meantime, quotas are only voluntary. Read more ..
The Drug Wars
|Ben West||February 16th 2012|
Mexican authorities announced Feb. 8 the largest seizure of methamphetamine in Mexican history -- and possibly the largest ever anywhere -- on a ranch outside of Guadalajara. The total haul was 15 tons of pure methamphetamine along with a laboratory capable of producing all the methamphetamine seized. While authorities are not linking the methamphetamine to any specific criminal group, Guadalajara is a known stronghold of the Sinaloa Federation, and previous seizures there have been connected to the group.
Methamphetamine, a synthetic drug manufactured in personal labs for decades, is nothing new in Mexico or the United States. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has led numerous crusades against the drug, increasing regulations on its ingredients to try to keep it from gaining a foothold in the United States. While the DEA's efforts have succeeded in limiting production of the drug in the United States, consumption has risen steadily over the past two decades. The increasing DEA pressure on U.S. suppliers and the growing demand for methamphetamine have driven large-scale production of the drug outside the borders of the United States. Given Mexico's proximity and the pervasiveness of organized criminal elements seeking new markets, it makes sense that methamphetamine would be produced on an industrial scale there. Indeed, Mexico has provided an environment for a scale of production far greater than anything ever seen in the United States. Read more ..
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