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Published: Sat, 23 Sep 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Sat, 23 Sep 2017 03:42:05 -0400


Fake Scandal: 'DeVos Uses Private Jet for Work-Related Travel'

Thu, 21 Sep 2017 15:17:00 -0400

Today The Hill published a story about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and then tweeted it out. Here's the tweet: DeVos uses private jet for work-related travel — The Hill (@thehill) September 21, 2017 I get it; stories about government officials abusing the public funds for travel are hot right now. After all, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was just caught trying to snag a military jet for his European honeymoon. And Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tom Price is in trouble for chartering five flights last week alone. Rightly so. But wait! Clicking on the Hill story yields some highly relevant info: Education Department Press Secretary Liz Hill told the Associated Press on Thursday that DeVos travels completely on her own dime, accepting no government reimbursement for flights or other expenses. Of course government officials have special needs, but they are too often used to justify status-oriented extravagance. In Mnuchin's case, the request for a government jet was initially claimed as a necessity for a member of the National Security Council. But as The New York Times dryly explained: "Treasury officials withdrew the request after finding an alternative way to communicate about government matters securely." As for Price, an HHS spokesman said "when commercial aircraft cannot reasonably accommodate travel requirements, charter aircraft can be used for official travel." Which sounds sort of OK-ish until you realize one of those flights was from D.C. to Philadelphia. As Politico noted when it broke the story: On one leg of the trip—a sprint from Dulles International Airport to Philadelphia International Airport, a distance of 135 miles—there was a commercial flight that departed at roughly the same time: Price's charter left Dulles at 8:27 a.m., and a United Airlines flight departed for Philadelphia at 8:22 a.m., according to airport records.... In addition, Amtrak ran four trains starting at 7 a.m. that left Washington's Union Station and arrived at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station no later than 9:58 a.m. The least-expensive ticket, on the 7:25 a.m. train, costs $72 when booked in advance. It is just a 125-mile drive from HHS headquarters in downtown Washington to the Mirmont Treatment Center outside of Philadelphia, where Price spoke. Google Maps estimates the drive as about 2½ hours. A one-way trip was estimated by travel planners to be about $30 in gasoline per SUV plus no more than $16 in tolls. DeVos is lucky enough to be a very rich woman. But you needn't be wealthy to be a good steward of taxpayer money—luckily, domestic and international commercial flights are numerous, reliable, and relatively cheap (though not as numerous, reliable, and relatively cheap as they could be—read all about it in the next issue of Reason). Chartered jets from D.C. Philly are absurd, but so is trying to lump DeVos in with Price and Mnuchin. After all, as The Hill reported: During her time in office...DeVos has charged travel expenses to the government just once: $184 to the Department of Education for round-trip Amtrak ticket between D.C. and Philadelphia. [...]

Brickbat: It Takes a Thief

Mon, 18 Sep 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) Former LaSalle County, Illinois, state attorney Brian Towne has been charged with perjury and official misconduct. The charges include having investigators from his office stop cars on Interstate 80, seizing cash and vehicles from alleged drug dealers in those cars and spending at least some of those proceeds for his personal use.

California May Have Just Made It Easier for Cities to Hike Taxes

Tue, 29 Aug 2017 12:30:00 -0400

A decision this week by California's Supreme Court might make it easier for local governments to levy taxes. Note the use of the word "might." A 5-2 opinion by the state's Supreme Court yesterday throws the rules for ballot initiatives into confusion, suggesting initiatives put forth by private parties may require only a majority vote to pass, rather than the two-thirds California law required for decades for both private and city-led proposals. It's not entirely clear how far-reaching the court's ruling is. But if the broadest interpretation is applied, the potential impacts are obvious and huge: Suddenly it's a whole lot easier for private interests to get tax increases and new fees passed to take money from others for their own pet interests. Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, is already preparing for the worst, telling the San Diego Union-Tribune, "This is a significant decision that will lead to unbridled collusion between local governments and special interest groups." The state Supreme Court case involves a ballot initiative introduced by California Cannabis Coalition, a medical marijuana group, in Upland. The group asked that the city's ban on dispensaries be repealed. That sounds good, right? But it also introduced a permitting process and significant license and inspection fees. Protectionism via fees—that's bad! Upland determined those fees triggered the two-thirds requirement. The marijuana group challenged that requirement in court. It's worth noting the ballot initiative failed to get even majority support, but the court decided to consider the underlying claim that these types of ballot initiatives should not be held to the two-thirds requirement. There is a sense in the majority decision that because these ballot initiatives originate from "the people" rather than city governments, they should not be subject to the tougher threshold. But, of course, "the people" do not regularly embark on massive quests to raise their neighbors' taxes. "Citizen" initiatives that increase taxes or introduce fees are frequently introduced and pushed by those who would stand to benefit from the revenue that's brought in. They're no more neutral or "democratic" than those proposed by city leaders. The most glaring example is that of publicly financed professional sports stadiums, the example news outlets point out when considering the possible consequences of this ruling. San Diego citizens were asked to vote to raise taxes just last fall to build a new stadium for the Chargers. They said no. Often, city leaders and the private interests are on the same side in these kinds of cases. City leaders try to sell stadiums to citizens as economic development while sports team owners pocket the subsidies. These tax initiatives are not the result of some group of football fans organizing at tailgate parties. It's cronyism. With the right marketing, this court ruling actually makes local corruption easier. It's also very easy to imagine public employee union groups using this mechanism to try to raise taxes and fees to fund their growing pension debt. Democratic State Sen. Scott Wiener says the change will make it easier for cities to more easily fund local schools and transportation needs. What we really see is that tax increases go right into the pension money pit and don't actually fund improvements at all. Judge Leondra R. Kruger noted in her dissent essentially that a tax doesn't become more pure or democratic simply because it was levied via a voter initiative. It's still taking money from citizens and giving it to the city: "A tax passed by voter initiative, no less than a tax passed by vote of the city council, is a tax of the local government, to be collected by the local government, to raise revenue for the local government." Coupal says he's going to try to amend the state's constitution to require a two-thirds vote for citizen initiatives concerning increasing taxes or creating new fees. Given the state's Democratically controlled legisl[...]

'We As Legislators Can’t Keep ICE From Lying' About Being Local Cops

Fri, 25 Aug 2017 12:22:00 -0400

Why would a family of undocumented immigrants allow federal agents without a warrant to search their house? Because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents misidentify themselves as local police. "We have repeatedly seen ICE go to people's homes and coerce people to authorize entry under the mistaken belief that [the agents] are police," Michael Kaufman, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, tells Governing magazine. The practice doesn't just threaten those in the U.S. illegally. "It undermines public safety in these communities if people feel like they might be getting tricked," Kaufman says. Los Angeles authorities worry ICE will undermine decades of work the city has done to convince undocumented immigrants that cooperating with police on criminal matters won't lead to their detention and deportation. California recently passed a law (AB 1440) to try to thwart this practice, stipulating that ICE agents in California are "not allowed to refer to themselves as a police officer." But it's a toothless endeavor—states and municipalities don't have the authority to dictate what federal law enforcement officers can and cannot do. (Kaufman says the new legislation was meant to send "a message" to the feds.) California isn't the only place upset about ICE's tactices. From Governing: In March, city officials in Hartford, Conn., sharply rebuked ICE agents for wearing uniforms that only said 'POLICE' while trying to lure a woman to a public safety building so they could detain her. The Southern Poverty Law Center accused ICE of deceiving Atlanta residents by stating they were police officers searching for a criminal and for sometimes even showing them photos of a random black man they said was their suspect. While it is legal for ICE agents to identify themselves as police, the practice becomes illegal once it leads to an unlawful search of a person's home or car. In Texas, lawyers successfully argued that ICE agents violated a woman's constitutional protections when they identified themselves as police and showed her photos of a stranger to coerce her into letting them into her home. ICE has defended the practice by saying that "police" is a general term for law enforcement agents and that it is necessary to convey ICE agents' status to non-English speakers. It's a weak defense. If ICE agents' real concern was simply to convey their authority, why not identify themselves as "immigration police"? Why identify as police when talking to people who clearly understand English? Why the pretense of chasing a criminal suspect? Alas, there's little anyone outside the federal government can do about the subterfuge. As California Assemblymember Ash Kalra told Governing: "It's unfortunate, but we as legislators can't keep ICE from lying. If they want to misrepresent themselves, they can do that." U.S. Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D–N.Y.) has proposed federal legislation "to prohibit immigration officers or agents of the Department of Homeland Security, including officers and agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, from wearing clothing, accessories, or other items bearing the word 'police' while performing duties under the immigration laws." The bill has attracted 19 co-sponsors (all Democrats), but it has gone nowhere since it was introduced in April.[...]

Chicago to Give Back Millions in Traffic Camera Fines

Fri, 21 Jul 2017 13:55:00 -0400

(image) Chicago's use of red light cameras to shake every possible cent out of its citizens took a hit this week. The city has agreed to a $38.75 million settlement to end a class action suit by people who say they hadn't been given adequate notice of violations to respond to them.

The Chicago Tribune reports that as many as 1.2 million people may get refunded half of what they paid to the city.

The plaintiffs contend that the city didn't send second notices to people who had gotten red light tickets before declaring them guilty, as the regulations required. The suit also says the city was doubling the fines for late payments before it was supposed to.

The city's response to the complaint was pretty telling: It changed the ordinance so that the city didn't have to send a second notice at all. Then, to cover their asses, Chicago lawmakers passed an ordinance giving those who had gotten tickets prior to 2015 permission to challenge them. The city took in nearly $300 million from traffic camera citations in 2015; they didn't want to give up that money without a fight.

This suit was rather limited, considering the many, many problems Chicago has had with its red light and speed camera systems. The Tribune has been on top of these problems:

Zolna's suit was among half a dozen cases that followed a Chicago Tribune investigation of corruption and mismanagement within the city's $600 million red light program. The series exposed a $2 million City Hall bribery scheme that brought the traffic cameras to Chicago as well as tens of thousands of tickets that were unfairly issued to drivers.

The investigation found malfunctioning cameras, inconsistent enforcement and millions of dollars in tickets issued purposely by City Hall even after transportation officials knew that yellow light times were dropping below the federal minimum guidelines.

Throughout the scandal, the Emanuel administration has been reluctant to issue refunds, in some cases forcing drivers to file paperwork and apply for a rehearing process some critics have called onerous.

A former city official has even gone to prison for bribery over the implementation of the system. $10 million of the money that will pay for the settlement will come from the cash the city itself will get from the private red light camera company Redflex, in a completely different settlement over the bribery scandal.

The Tribune previously researched what the cameras actually accomplished for drivers. The safety results turned out to be terrible. The city actually saw a 22 percent increase in rear-end crashes, and many of the cameras had been implemented in intersections with no notable history of problems with collisions.

Chicago's implementation of red light cameras makes it abundantly clear—if it's not already—that the purpose of these programs is not public safety but raising money for the city by sucking it out of the pockets of its citizens.

Or at least the citizens it has left. The Chicago area has been bleeding population for the past two years, losing more residents than any other major city in the country.

John McCain's Cronyist 'Humanitarian' Group: Your Path to Trump's State Department

Fri, 07 Jul 2017 12:15:00 -0400

The McCain Institute—Sen. John McCain's cronyist "humanitarian" group—has proved the quite the pathway to Donald Trump's State Department. Fresh off an announcement that the president plans to tap the senator's wife (and McCain Institute figurehead) Cindy Hensley McCain as some sort of "ambassador at large for human rights," the department has appointed McCain Institute Executive Director Kurt Volker to be its special representative for Ukraine negotiations. Volker—formerly of the CIA, McCain's Senate office, the National Security Council, and NATO—is also an advisor and former managing director at the BGR Group, a D.C.-based lobbying firm and investment bank (former slogan: "The world of business has no borders"), as well as a board member for the Hungary Initiatives Foundation, a group founded by the Hungarian government to lobby for the country's interests in America. Both the BGR Group and the Hungary Initiatives Foundation have given at least $100,000 (and possibly much more) to the McCain Institute. And the Prague Freedom Foundation (PFF), which lists the BGR group as its address, is also a McCain Institute donor. PFF is ostensibly concerned with promoting independent journalism, but "U.S. international broadcasting insiders suspect that it was set up as a front" in its founder's quest "to acquire State Department properties and influence public broadcasting," according to The Daily Beast. BGR founder Ed Rogers, a major advocate of U.S. military action in Syria, is also the designated lobbyist for Raytheon—another big McCain Institute funder, as well as one of the largest U.S. defense contractors and a world leader in producing guided missiles. Raytheon is also a major beneficiary of government-surveillance tower contracts along the Arizona border, and it has recently been lobbying for the right to sell "smart bombs" to another McCain Institute funder, Saudi Arabia. In general, the institute is funded by an odd mix (for a human rights philanthropy, anyway) of shady foreign regimes, former McCain campaign advisors, and corporations—Freeport McMoran, Swift Transportation, Chevron—with interests before Senate committees that John McCain sits on. A who's who of high-profile Clinton Global Initiative donors also bankroll the McCain Institute. The Soros Foundation. Teneo. Lynn Forester and Sir Evelyn de Rothschild. A state-owned Moroccan phosphate-mining company, OCP SA, that is wreaking havoc the western Sahara. Upon the institute's launch, in 2012, Volker explicitly described it as a way to broker influence. "I don't think very many people have the same kind of access around the world that McCain has," Volker said. "When you mention his name, you do get top-tier people wanting to be associated and be helpful." Behind the scenes, McCain Institute donors and their buddies get to mingle with Volker, Sen. McCain, other sitting U.S. officials, and foreign leaders and ambassadors at private luxury retreats in the Arizona desert. The 2017 meeting included government officials from Ukraine, Singapore, Qatar, Kurdistan, Germany, Canada, the U.K., and the Trump administration, along with business executives, bankers, and lobbyists from around the world. Publicly, however, the institute tends to downplay these connections and focuses on the anti-"human trafficking" (i.e., anti-prostitution) work that Cindy and her merry band of faux-humanitarians do. Asked about a $1 million donation from the Saudis, Sen. McCain even claimed that he had "nothing to do with" his namesake institute—a claim that's patently false. (It was literally launched by McCain, and Volker, with leftover money from McCain's 2008 presidential campaign fund.) Alas, it looks like Volker—and possibly Cindy, too—will now get to bring the McCain Institute's special brand of cronyism and international influence peddling to the Department of State. At least their friends in foreign governments and international arm[...]

D.C.'s Dysfunctional Metro System Is a National Embarrassment

Mon, 26 Jun 2017 16:58:00 -0400

Beginning this week, passengers on the District of Columbia's Metrorail network—the six-line, spontaneous fire-prone train system known here as the D.C. Metro— can expect fare increases and service cuts. As you might imagine, few in the area are pleased. A few days ago, the Washington Examiner declared that the city's rapid-transit system "is the worst in the world." I'll be generous and not go that far. The D.C. Metro is definitely not the dirtiest system I've ever experienced (I'm looking at you New York City), but the system is hardly a model of success, either. Deferred maintenance, poor planning by the original designers, a dysfunctional governance structure, and general incompetence and negligence on the part of management and staff have taken their toll since its 1976 opening. All of these problems came to a head in 2009, when a crash near the Fort Totten station in Northeast D.C. killed nine people, including the train's operator, and injured 80. Following the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a report that identified failures at almost every level of The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), including actions taken by the train operator, maintenance workers, senior management, and control room operators. The severity of this incident prompted a $5 billion capital improvement program, with nearly half of the money coming from federal grants. Metro finally had the funds it needed to make significant improvements, but as time dragged on it would become apparent that absent major structural reforms in how the WMATA functioned, that money would not be well spent. In 2015 another headline-grabbing incident occurred near L'Enfant Plaza, in D.C.'s Southwest quadrant. An electrical malfunction caused a train to get stuck in a smoke-filled tunnel. One woman died and another 86 people were sent to the hospital. With public trust in the system at a new low, ridership dropped significantly. As someone who has ridden plenty of rapid-transit systems outside of the U.S., I can attest to just how bad the D.C. Metro compares. Having ridden the Shanghai Metro for the past two years while a student at New York University Shanghai, I can recall a train stopping in between stations only once and for ten seconds at most. By contrast, my morning train into downtown D.C. last Friday stopped a total of five times between stations, the longest delay being almost five minutes. And this isn't even that bad comparatively, according to stories I've heard from longtime residents. Some might gripe that making comparisons between D.C.'s system and those in Asia or even New York's sprawling network are unfair. After all, D.C. is neither as populated nor as dense as Shanghai, Tokyo, or New York. But even taking into account these differences, a lot of the Metro's dysfunction defies logic. Shanghai's system, for instance, handles far more people and is way more overcrowded than the D.C. Metro. Yet in Shanghai, rush-hour headways—the amount of time between trains on the same track—can be as little as two minutes, with trains moving seamlessly from station to station at full speed. In D.C., the Metro has six minute headways during rush hour—at least on paper—which will soon increase to eight. Yet trains often run behind schedule and frequently have to stop in tunnels for trains in front of them to move. If people wanted the experience of frequent breaking while crawling to their destination, they could just drive their cars during rush hour. Subways exist to provide public transportation that, unlike a bus, isn't subject to traffic jams. Unfortunately, the D.C. Metro has perfected the art of replicating the traffic woes above ground in the tunnels below. This is despite all the years and additional money the WMATA has had to fix the maintenance problems behind these daily delays. As I write this, part of the Red Line, the syst[...]

Cindy McCain's Charities Are Plagued With Scandal and Corruption. Now Trump Wants to Make Her Human Rights Ambassador

Tue, 20 Jun 2017 10:30:00 -0400

(image) After "aggressively courting" her for the role, President Donald Trump has reportedly nabbed Cindy McCain to serve in his State Department as an ambassador-at-large for human rights. She would almost certainly concentrate on sex trafficking, which has been the main focus of her recent advocacy—and on which she has a track-record of spreading misinformation, promoting policies that make prostitution more dangerous, and partnering with people who use human trafficking as a cover for all sorts of rights-violating behavior. And this is just one of myriad red flags that the beer empress and senator's wife isn't quite as consistent or staunch a humanitarian as she's made out to be.

It turns out the "freedom, democracy, and human rights" institute launched by Cindy and Sen. John McCain is supported by large donations from entities known for persistent rights violations, including Saudi Arabia, a U.S. defense contractor selling smart bombs to the Saudis, and a Moroccan mining company occupying land in Northwest Africa.

As Elizabeth Nolan Brown explains, examining McCain's philanthropic record reveals a long history of personal abuse of nonprofit resources, shady connections, and shoddy work. For years, McCain has been playing the role of crony philanthropist, and now she is poised to bring her dubious advocacy to the highest levels of government.

Cindy McCain: Crony Philanthropist

Tue, 20 Jun 2017 09:40:00 -0400

After "aggressively courting" her for the role, President Donald Trump has reportedly nabbed Cindy McCain to serve in his State Department as an ambassador-at-large for human rights. She would almost certainly concentrate on sex trafficking, which has been the main focus of her recent advocacy—and on which she has a track record of spreading misinformation, promoting policies that make prostitution more dangerous, and partnering with people who use human trafficking as a cover for all sorts of rights-violating behavior. And this is just one of myriad red flags that the beer empress and senator's wife isn't quite as consistent or staunch a humanitarian as she's made out to be. It turns out the "freedom, democracy, and human rights" institute launched by Cindy and Sen. John McCain is supported by large donations from entities known for persistent rights violations, including Saudi Arabia, a U.S. defense contractor selling smart bombs to the Saudis, and a Moroccan mining company occupying land in Northwest Africa. In fact, examining McCain's philanthropic record reveals a long history of personal abuse of nonprofit resources, shady connections, and shoddy work. For years, McCain has been playing the role of crony philanthropist, and now she is poised to bring her dubious advocacy to the highest levels of government. Friends in Authoritarian Places McCain has been lauded for her work on human trafficking—appearing on numerous panels and giving high-profile interviews on the topic. But she didn't pick up the issue until 2013, when she suddenly emerged as a fully formed crusader against sexual exploitation. The bulk of Cindy McCain's anti-exploitation efforts are channeled through the Arizona government's Human Trafficking Task Force, which she co-chairs, and the McCain Institute for International Leadership, where she is chair of the Human Trafficking Advisory Council as well as one of the institute's most visible spokespeople. Housed within the Arizona State University (ASU) system, the McCain Institute was launched in 2012 with $8.7 million left over from the McCain/Palin presidential campaign fund. (The McCains also set up the McCain Institute Foundation to collect donations for the institute and pass them on to ASU in $500,000 annual increments.) Upon its launch, ASU President Michael Crow said the McCain Institute would be "guided by the values that have animated the career of Senator McCain—a commitment to sustaining America's global leadership role, promoting freedom, democracy and human rights, as well as maintaining a strong, smart national defense." Publicly, the institute's biggest issues are combatting "modern slavery," addressing human rights abuses abroad, using technology to solve humanitarian problems, and pushing a vague pro-development and democracy agenda globally in order to promote peace. In practice, this often looks like advocating for U.S. action in Syria and tougher penalties for prostitution while helping develop new digital surveillance technology and facilitate international business relationships. "I don't think very many people have the same kind of access around the world that McCain has. When you mention his name, you do get top-tier people wanting to be associated and be helpful." —McCain Institute Executive Director Kurt Volker The McCain Institute's top donors include a plethora of groups with far from stellar records or reputation when it comes to human rights. Many of these same entities were also donors to the Clinton Global Initiative. For instance, OCP S.A., a state-controlled Moroccan phosphate mining company that has given at least $100,000 to the McCain Institute. OCP controls more than 75 percent of the world reserves of phosphates—which have become a hot ingredient in fertilizer—including mines built during Spanish colonization of the West Sahara. It has [...]

Judge Orders Oakland Cop to Trial; Says He Was 'Like a Pimp' to Exploited Teen

Tue, 23 May 2017 08:00:00 -0400

The prostitution and sexual exploitation scandal that shook Oakland and nearby California police agencies last year could finally see an officer on trial. An Alameda County judge ruled last Thursday that there is sufficient evidence to try former Oakland Patrol Officer Brian Bunton on charges of felony conspiracy to obstruct justice and misdemeanor engaging in prostitution. Bunton, who just retired from the Oakland Police Department (OPD) in March, was "actually pimping her like a pimp would," Judge Thomas Rogers said of the teenager at the center of this case. Known as Celeste Guap in initial media reports, the girl was just 17 years old when Oakland cops started passing her between them—a few paying customers, most extorting sex in exchange for helping her avoid arrest—according to her testimony and a good deal of corroborating evidence. Bunton is accused of extorting sex from Guap in exchange for tips about local stings, giving her advice on how to better market herself in the sex trade, and encouraging other officers to get in touch with her. Now 19, Guap testified in court last week for the first time since officers were arrested on criminal charges last year. Here's how the East-Bay Times described it: The 19-year-old woman at the center of the sex scandal fidgeted and pulled on her hair in apparent nervousness as she testified....Her finger trembled as she identified Bunton in court. She vomited into a garbage can by the witness stand after describing a hotel room encounter with the defendant and then kept on testifying. In response to questioning from Bunton's lawyers, Guap admitted that Bunton had never explicitly demanded that she have sex with him in order to avoid arrest. But Judge Rogers didn't buy the defense's suggestion that this exonerated Bunton of wrongdoing. "When [Guap] said that there wasn't agreement, that was a legal conclusion," the judge said. "She knew what she was getting out of it. He knew what he was getting out of it." Guap told the court that she started having sex for money when she was 12, had sex with four Oakland police officers while underage, and was 18 when she met Bunton while he was on patrol. She testified that after around a month of texting, he showed up at a hotel room where she was working and she gave him a blow job, after which he warned her about a local sting operation. "Thank you, daddy, I appreciate it, I don't want to go to jail," Guap replied in the text. Even if Burton didn't verbally threaten to arrest Guap himself or sic his colleagues on her, she knew damn well he had the power to do either. The threat didn't need to be made explicit. It existed based on the very nature of their relationship; under no circumstances can someone meaningfully consent to sex with someone who has the power to take away your liberty if you refuse. Especially if also has a state-supplied weapon at his disposal. To make matters worse, there wasn't even a prostitution sting that night; Bunton had made it up. When Guap learned this, and came to suspect he was setting her up with other cops in his department, she threatened to turn over their texts to Internal Affairs. Bunton claimed he merely wanted to help keep her "off the streets." His attorney, Dirk Manoukian, argued to the court that Bunton did engage in prostitution but was innocent of conspiracy. Guap's exploitation by local police started in February 2015 with former Oakland officer Brendan O'Brien and allegedly extends to nearly 30 cops and other law enforcement officials in Oakland, San Francisco, and nearby cities. Since she came forward in August 2015: O'Brien committed suicide; 11 OPD officers were disciplined, with four ultimately fired, in an OPD internal investigation; four Richmond Police Department officers were fired; longtime Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent resigned and th[...]

Chicago Alderman Tells Property Owners to 'Come Back to Me on Your Knees' or Face Zoning Changes

Fri, 19 May 2017 12:41:00 -0400

When the Double Door, a bar and music venue in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood, violated the terms of its lease in 2016, the club's owners ended up in court with the owner of the property where it was located. The property owners wanted to evict the club, and a judge agreed that they were allowed to do that. It was a private dispute between two businesses, the sort of thing that is routinely settled by the legal system. Or at least it was routine until the local city alderman got involved in the fight. In the months after a court ordered the Double Door to vacate the property at 1572 N. Milwaukee Ave., Alderman Proco Joe Moreno (1st Ward) tried to pressure the building's owners into letting the club stay, then attempted to change the zoning rules for the property to limit what businesses could occupy the space, potentially costing the building's owners thousands of dollars in future rent payments. When Brian Strauss, one of the property owners, confronted Moreno about his actions, the alderman threatened to prevent Strauss from being able to get any new tenants in the building for three years, and told Strauss to "come back to me on your knees" when he was ready to negotiate. Project Six, a Chicago-based political watchdog group, this week published the explosive story of Moreno's interference with the eviction of the Double Door club, including video of the confrontation between Strauss and Moreno where the city alderman appears to threaten the property owner. (Read the whole thing here.) In his efforts to prevent the club from being removed, Moreno appears to be invoking what is known locally as "aldermanic privilege," a long-standing but unofficial policy in Chicago city politics that allows individual alderman to make unilateral decisions within their own wards. Even though the practice has no basis in law—and, frankly, seems not only ripe for corruption but actually meant to encourage it—Project Six details how it allows individual alderman to make determinations about zoning changes and permitting for all businesses within their wards. "The practice creates an environment in which alderman act as gatekeepers to the residents and businesses of their wards, with essentially no checks and balances," Project Six reporters Faisal Khan and Kelly Tarrant explain. "The power and influence that Chicago's elected officials hold over city residents and businesses is immense. Some aldermen themselves have even compared their power to the powers of Medieval lords in charge 'of their individual fiefdom.'" In the dispute between Strauss and the owners of the Double Door, Moreno may have had another reason to get involved. Campaign finance records uncovered by Project Six show that the club's owners donated more than $7,500 to Moreno since 2013, including an "in-kind" donation of $5,000 for hosting a campaign event for the alderman. The owners of the property, meanwhile, have not donated to Moreno. That shouldn't matter, of course, because things like zoning decisions should exist outside the realm of politics. But when a single elected official can decide how any property within his jurisdiction is used, the two are inevitably going to become muddled. Moreno's proposed zoning change has not yet been approved by the city council, but it would restrict future commercial establishments on street level and make it harder for the building's owners to renew residential leases on other floors. The change would affect only a single property and would leave the rest of the surrounding neighborhood untouched. It's not clear whether the city council will approve the change, but the real purpose of the proposal seems to be threatening the building's owners. So-called "spot zoning" like that has been successfully overturned in court, but only after long and costly le[...]

Oklahoma Cop, Police Chief Forced Out For Arresting City Councilman's Son

Fri, 12 May 2017 17:30:00 -0400

The next time officials in Vian, Oklahoma, post an ad for a new police chief, they might want to mention that law and order in their little town does not apply to them. Vian's last chief, Ted Johnson, and former officer Lindsey Green resigned earlier this week after city officials berated and threated to fire Green for arresting Joshua Smith, the son of city councilman E.O. Smith. This is not first time the city fathers have forced out officers for arresting politically connected residents. It is not even the first time they have sacked lawmen for arresting Smith. "She did what she was supposed to do," Chief Johnson said before resigning himself, "and by law, she didn't do anything wrong. She was only doing her job." Any reprimand of Green, the chief said, was inappropriate. On May 2 Green, the city's first female office and the department's officer of the month for March, stopped Smith for driving without a valid license. She had been tipped off by another officer who had previously ticketed Smith for the same offense. Green arrested Smith and took him to the local jail. Rather than a citation for bravery, City Attorney Larry Vickers, Jr. confronted her in a rage. "The city attorney contacted me, yelling, saying you had no reason to arrest him," Green told local CBS affiliate KSFM in an interview. "He ordered me to drop the ticket and that he [Joshua Smith] be released from jail immediately." Vickers, according to Green, contended that she had made an illegal arrest. "They're trying to say that probable cause for pulling him over was wrong. That I went off another officer's word," Green said. Green insisted she was simply following procedure. Under orders from Mayor Dennis Fletcher jailers released Smith after 15 minutes behind bars, local television station KSFM reported. Rather than be fired, Green turned in her resignation. Instead of expressing regret over the whole affair, the department posted a comment on Facebook saying Green had resigned to "further her career" and that the department wished her "all the best in her future endeavors." For his part, Fletcher told local media there was no discussion among Vain officials about firing Green. "We are looking at hiring an outside agency to review the findings and to investigate whether or not there was any misconduct with the officers," he said. Vickers, Fletcher and officials with the Vian Police Department did not respond to Reason's request for comment. Eleven years earlier, Vian officer Steve Brackett pulled Smith's car over for a cracked windshield. During the course of the traffic stop, Smith called on another relative, uncle James Smith—also a city councilman at the time—to see if he could smooth things out. Smith's uncle arrived at the scene shortly afterward, and allegedly threatened Brackett's job. Brackett then arrested Smith, too, for interfering with the issuance of a citation to his nephew. A Sequoyah County district attorney, however, declined to file charges, saying Smith's actions, while inappropriate, weren't criminal. Immediately after the arrest, Smith put firing of the city's police chief on the agenda for the next city council meeting, but then failed to turn up for that meeting. The chief kept his job. A year later Smith voted in favor of a successful motion to fire Brackett, citing citizen complaints that had been filed, an action that caused the entire Vian Police Department to quit in protest. Sheriff's deputies filled in until new officers could be hired. The Vian City Council has scheduled a special meeting this Tuesday for Vickers to present evidence to the council on the propriety of Green's actions. The city council will then decide on whether to go ahead with an investigation of Green. Regardless of what they decide Green remains defian[...]

Prostitution-Ring-Running Cop Sees Court, But Police Who Extort Sex Often Go Unpunished

Fri, 28 Apr 2017 15:30:00 -0400

It's been an astounding week for abuses of power and sexual violence committed by state agents. In New York City alone, one former cop is on trial for running for running a prostitution ring, another was sentenced to federal prison for soliciting child pornography from mothers he met online, and three others have been indicted on suspicion of trading gun permits for sex, travel, and cash. The first, former officer Michael Rizzi, was with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) for nine years before retiring due to disability. He's now accused of running an upscale prostitution service and its 50 related websites. Meanwhile, former NYPD officers Paul Dean, Robert Espinel, and Gaetano Valastro were indicted Tuesday for conspiracy to commit bribery, in conjunction with the aforementioned gun-permitting plot. "Getting a gun license in New York can be a lengthy and intensive procedure, which includes getting approval from the NYPD," notes The Daily Beast's Katie Zavadski. An industry of "expeditors" popped up to help clients speed through the process, sometimes aided by crooked cops looking to make a buck by pushing applications along from the inside. All the men charged Tuesday were implicated by alleged co-conspirators who have pleaded guilty, including ex-NYPD licensing division sergeant David Villanueva and former expeditor Frank Soohoo, according to the U.S. attorney's office. NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill said an internal review flagged more than 400 gun licenses as suspicious. Of the around 200 already reviewed, 100 led to permits being suspended. In a related complaint, former Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney John Chamberswith was also indicted for bribery. Head south to Atlanta, Georgia, and arrests continue in a police take-down of two escort services, Atlanta Gold Club Escorts and Lipstick and Shoes Escorts, that also ensnared Gwinnett County Assistant District Attorney Christopher Quinn in January. Quinn was caught on camera paying for and having sex with a woman who worked for one of the escort agencies. For weeks after his mid-January arrest, Quinn remained employed with and working at the district attorney's office. He eventually resigned at the end of February because "he did not want to subject this office to any more controversy," the county district attorney told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. By the end of March, Quinn had found a new position as an assistant district attorney with the South Georgia Judicial District. Head further south (and far west), to the U.S. territory of Guam, and we have former police officer Paul John Santos. Santos was found guilty this week of criminal sexual conduct, bribery, and official misconduct after threatening to arrest a sex worker if she didn't have sex with him. "The defendant was a police officer put in position of trust by the public, by individuals he is supposed to be protecting and serving," but "his actions show the exact opposite of that," Assistant Attorney General Matt Heibel said in a sentencing hearing, requesting Santos receive 30 years in prison. The judge sentenced him to 21 years. That sort of punishment for sex-predator cops is rare. Kate Mogulescu, who heads up the Legal Aid Society of New York's s human trafficking advocacy program, recently talked to Gothamist about this issue. She said her organization repeatedly hears from sex workers "about inappropriate policing, coercive policing. We have inappropriate sexual conduct during the course of arrest, officers who want to take photos of clients on their personal cell phones." While police abuse against men tends to be more public, investigation and anecdote suggest that it's just as common with women—it just tends to take different forms. "The way the police engag[...]

Actually, It’s Totally Fine That Obama Is Being Paid $400,000 to Give a ‘Wall Street Speech’

Thu, 27 Apr 2017 13:10:00 -0400

Since word got out that former President Barack Obama would be paid $400,000 to speak at a healthcare conference sponsored by Cantor Fitzgerald, a Wall Street investment firm, the condemnation from liberal commentators has been almost unanimous. But there's actually nothing wrong with Obama giving the speech—and the controversy over it illustrates the silly nature of Democrats' (and increasingly Republicans) anti-Wall Street rhetoric and bromides about making "too much money," and their fundamental misunderstanding of why voters just weren't that into Hillary Clinton. Many of the arguments against Obama's $400,000 speech go like this: it'll "undermine everything he believes in," Matthew Yglesias wrote at According to Yglesias, the former president should have rejected the speaking opportunity because progressives' "Achilles heel" was the perception of corruption. Yglesias also argued ethical rules would never be enough to "prevent the government from being suborned by special interest" and dispel the idea of the private-public sector revolving door. The opposition to Obama's speech among the Democratic base is fueled by two sentiments propagated by Democrats for years—that there was something wrong with Wall Street (a metonym for the finance industry) as a whole, and that there was such a thing as making enough money. Bernie Sanders' insurgent campaign and persistent popularity was built on these ideas. Sanders often railed about Wall Street (but rarely about the Federal Reserve or how regulatory capture distorts industries) as well as billionaires and the "1 percent" as a class (n.b., an income of less than $500,000 a year puts an individual in the top 1 percent of income earners, so Sanders' "moral and political war on billionaires" is far broader than he often lets on). Despite trafficking in thoroughly debunked economic nonsense, Sanders' rhetoric was popular. Obama's Wall Street challenges both those notions—that Wall Street as a concept is a problem and that someone other than the worker can say when he or she's had enough money. Obama is drawing a $400,000 a year pension and signed a $12 million book deal. It's no one's right to tell him when he's made enough money except him or his family. Sanders has been particularly good at inoculating himself from the dissonance between his rhetoric and his actions. "How many yachts do billionaires need?" Sanders tweeted last week. "How many cars do they need? Give us a break. You can't have it all." Of course, in America you can have it all. Or at least you can try. Sanders has never really had a career outside of government and is on his third home. No one can determine how many homes Sanders "needs" but him—his government job is fair play. Millions of voters rejected Clinton returning to government service after appearing to "cash out" on it. In a democratic system, popular outrage can be the ultimate ethical rule. Political parties look to separate the distrust of government that might exist among thier supporters from those government officials on "their side." Many voters happily oblige. Yet it doesn't matter which particular creature is living in the swamp so long as the swamp is there. Government attracts corruption because government accumulates power. The most effective cure for corruption is limiting the power government has over the affairs of free people. Donald Trump played on this during the campaign—pointing out in the Republican primary that he was the only one to have ever bought a politician so he knows what to do about it. The claim is belied by his expansive view of government powers. Such power invites corruption. Limited government is not an end in to itself. The constitution limits go[...]

Stripper Licensing Fees Pocketed by Palm Beach County Employee for Years

Tue, 04 Apr 2017 07:28:00 -0400

In Palm Beach County, Florida, all topless dancers are required to register with county officials and obtain an Adult Entertainment Work Identification Card (AEIC), at the cost of $75 per year. The regulation is ridiculous for a lot of reasons, but at least applicants—many of whom are paid exclusively in cash—were able to pay the government-ID fee with cash, too, making things a little more convenient and a little less privacy-invading. But not anymore, thanks to the alleged actions of one sticky-fingered government employee. "She would just take the cash and not record it in the logs and then we also found that she was altering some of the logs and records," said John Carey, Palm Beach County Inspector General. The "she" here is Anita Pedemey, 54, who had been employed with Palm Beach County for more than 20 years. Since 2013, Pedemy was an administrative assistant with the county Public Safety Department. According to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for Palm Beach County, Pedemy "diverted" at least $28,875 (and possibly an additional $3,305) from county coffers between October 2013 and mid-November 2016. The money came from both adult-entertainer fees—approximately 70 percent of which were paid in cash—and court-ordered payments intended for a crime Victims Services Fund. Pedemey was one of several staffers responsible for processing these applications and payments and passing on relevant paperwork and funds. Instead, Pedemey would often pocket cash payments, according to OIG's investigation. Pedemey herself confessed as much to her boss, Palm Beach County Director of Public Safety Stephanie Sejnoha, at the start of the investigation, although the amount she admitted to taking is less than what OIG believes to be the actual amount. After taking the cash, Pedemey "was deleting the record and shredding the files," said Sejnoha. Emails from this time period show Pedemey requesting contact info for local strip clubs and emailing them reminders about the licensing requirements. By way of explanation, she told a colleague that it had "been very slow" at the adult-entertainer ID processing desk. The OIG investigation revealed how Pedemey would alter daily-activity reports to omit records associated with missing money before she submitted the paperwork to accounting. Because she manipulated reports but left the underlying database unaltered, the county still received records of adult-entertainment ID applications even if accounting never received their payments, which means that at least most applicants whose money was taken were still legitimately registered with the county. At least, as far as OIG can tell. Once an ID applicant is entered into the database, any changes are automatically tracked by system software and reported in a master Daily Payment Activity report; checking these reports against those Pedemey submitted to accounting allowed OIG to get at the scope of the missing money. But ID cards can be printed and issued without ever saving the transaction in the AEID database, according to Benjamin Perez, the county's ISS Systems Integrator. This means that it's possible Pedemey printed cards for people and collected their money without ever entering them into the system, a possibility backed up by surveillance footage OIG reviewed. "We believe Ms. Pedemey's diversions of funds may be much greater than what can be determined by the review of [Public Safety Department] records alone," OIG reported. Going forward, people applying for adult-entertainment permits will be required to pay the fee with a credit card or money order instead of cash, Sejnoha said. Demanding strippers be licensed in the first place is a problem, though[...]