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Published: Fri, 24 Feb 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Fri, 24 Feb 2017 22:15:32 -0500


34 Lawmakers Want Trump to Sanction Venezuela

Wed, 08 Feb 2017 18:02:00 -0500

(image) Some 34 U.S. lawmakers from both parties have sent President Donald Trump a letter urging him to address Venezuelan officials' corruption and human rights abuses with sanctions, the Associated Press reports. The letter was co-written by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R–Florida), the former chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Sen. Robert Menendez (D–New Jersey), a ranking member of the foreign relations subcommittee that oversees Latin America.

The letter calls for a comprehensive probe into accusations of drug trafficking and support for terrorist organizations by Tareck El Aissami, the vice president of Venezuela. It also describes military officials profiting off the crisis by trafficking much-needed food. The allegations were partially inspired by an earlier Associated Press investigation into corruption in the Venezuelan government and the rapidly deteriorating state of the country.

The lawmakers call for increased funding for pro-democracy and civil society works in the Latin American country, as well as for the Treasury Department to issue regulations to prevent U.S. companies from violating the Foreign Corruption Practices Act, which prohibits Americans from paying bribes to foreign officials. According to the AP, U.S.-based global food traders Archer Daniels Midland Co., Bunge Ltd., and Cargill have already stopped selling to Venezuela.

U.S. relations with the socialist-led Latin American country are rocky. The AP notes that in 2014, then–President Barack Obama sanctioned Venezuelan government officials who were accused of violating protestors' rights. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, in turn, has condemned U.S. foreign policy, especially America's military interventions in the Middle East. In 2015, Reuters reported that Maduro accused the United States of harassment at a United Nations human rights forum.

What little Trump has said about Venezuela suggests he too may take a hard-line stance. On the campaign trail he once proclaimed that "Venezuelans are good people, but they have been horribly damaged by the socialists in Venezuela and the next president of the United States must show solidarity with all the oppressed people in the hemisphere."

Maduro says he has yet to formulate an opinion on the new American president, however. "There's been a brutal hate campaign against Trump all over the world," he said at a news conference in January, according to Bloomberg. "I say let's wait and see. All I'll say is that he won't be worse than Obama."

He might change his tune if Trump pursues sanctions.

FBI's Insider Trading Strategist Faces Criminal Inquiry Over Leaks to Press

Mon, 06 Feb 2017 16:00:00 -0500

A New York-based FBI agent who played a leading role in a string of recent insider trading prosecutions is under criminal investigation for what federal prosecutors, in a recent court filing, call "unquestionable misconduct by an agent of the Government…improper and inexcusable." It's the sort of story that ordinarily might be splashed across the front pages of The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—except that in this case, the misconduct of which the FBI agent, David Chaves, is suspected was leaking grand jury information to the Times and the Journal. A lawyer for Chaves did not return a call seeking comment. A January 30, 2017, court filing by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, said Chaves' lawyer had told the government that Chaves "would assert his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination." The alleged misconduct could cast further doubt on Bharara's campaign against "insider trading," a campaign that was already significantly set back by a 2015 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that had the effect of overturning at least nine convictions. It could fuel already substantial public and congressional concern, stemming from the presidential election and the probes of Hillary Clinton's emails and of Russian political interference, about lack of professionalism by the FBI related to disclosure of investigative information. Two of the figures apparently affected by the unauthorized leaks, professional golfer Phil Mickelson and investor Carl Icahn, who is an adviser to President Trump on regulatory matters, are celebrities. News organizations that receive such leaks tend to minimize the significance of unauthorized disclosure of information by government officials, but lawyers take it seriously. The attorney general of Pennsylvania resigned last year after she was caught leaking grand jury information. There's also a strand of poetic justice, or hypocrisy, in the whole situation: as the government was accusing stock traders of making money illegally from unauthorized leaks of market-moving information, the government itself was illegally leaking unauthorized information about its own activities. Chaves was a regular on the speaking circuit. His biography at the University of Connecticut's graduate program in risk management says, "Special Agent David A. Chaves is a senior FBI Official assigned to the New York Division. He serves as the securities fraud program manager for the most visible securities cases prosecuted over the last decade. He is widely recognized as the chief strategist in coordinating these complex white collar investigations and for infiltrating corrupt participants in the hedge fund industry through the use of sophisticated techniques, undercover operations, and wire taps." He spoke in June at a session on "The FBI on Wall Street" at a conference of the National Investor Relations Institute. Chaves is the only FBI agent or prosecutor named as under investigation or accused of misconduct in the government's January 30 court filing. But a 2014 Wall Street Journal article about Mickelson and Icahn cited plural sources: "people briefed on the probe." A 2014 New York Times article covering similar ground used the same plural formulation: "people briefed on the investigation." The disclosure about Chaves came in a filing in which Bharara asked U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Kastel not to dismiss a criminal case against a Las Vegas gambler, William "Billy" Walters, as a remedy for the government's misconduct. The situation may also affect individuals other than Walters or Chaves. The Second Circuit is scheduled to hear an argument on March 24 in the case of David Ganek, who is suing Bharara, Chaves, and other law enforcement officials for raiding and destroying his hedge fund based on what Mr. Ganek says was fabricated evidence. Bloomberg reported last month that the FBI had reached a settlement in another lawsuit that had initially been brought against a second FBI agent also named in Ganek's suit, D[...]

Are 'Russian Hacks' the New 'WMDs'?

Tue, 20 Dec 2016 08:30:00 -0500

The Russians have hacked our democracy! At least, that's been the chorus from much of the American media following anonymous reports on a secretive CIA assessment of the 2016 presidential election. Even President Obama has started to beat the drums of "cyberwar," announcing last Friday that the U.S. must "take action" against the Russian government for "impacting the integrity of our elections." This is some tough talk given the very tenuous evidence offered so far about Russia's alleged influence. Obviously, it is crucial that America maintain a fair electoral process—flawed though "democracy" may be—and the prospect of a foreign power deliberately sabotaging this can strike a primal fear in Americans' hearts. Yet this kind of mass anxiety can also be opportunistically stoked by government operatives to further their own agendas, as history has demonstrated time and again. Responsible Americans must therefore approach claims made by unnamed intelligence officials—and the muddying media spin on them—with clear eyes and cool heads. And we must demand that these extraordinary claims be backed by appropriate evidence, lest we allow ourselves to be lead into another CIA-driven foreign fiasco. So, let's start by separating reporting from spin. What, exactly, is being claimed here? Back in October, the Obama administration publicly accused the Russian government of hacking into American political organizations in order to influence the presidential election. In early December, The Washington Post went a step further, reporting on a secret CIA assessment that Russia intervened specifically to help Donald Trump win. Citing only anonymous "officials briefed on the matter," the Post wrote that "individuals with connections to the Russian government" provided Wikileaks with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and John Podesta emails, exposing the party's sordid underbelly to the world. The next week, another gaggle of unnamed intelligence officials would tell NBC News that the rascally Vladimir Putin personally directed the hacks. Later reports scaled back some of these claims. Reuters, for instance, cited more unnamed intelligence officials who claimed that other intelligence bodies dispute the CIA's conclusions. Russia might have hacked us, they think, but we can't know that it was specifically to help Donald Trump. Then The Washington Post rustled up yet another batch of unnamed officials, who cited an internal memo from CIA Director John Brennan claiming that FBI Director James Comey is on the same page. Neither the FBI nor the CIA has publicly commented upon such stories, and they refuse to brief congressional intelligence panels on the hacks. Meanwhile, Wikileaks Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange broke the site's longstanding prohibition against discussing sources to deny that Wikileaks received the explosive leaks from the Russian government. There are quite a few problems with the claims made by this veritable army of unnamed intelligence agents, as we'll soon discuss. And media commentators often confused the situation further with muddying rhetoric and bombastic leaps of logic. Somewhere along the way, earlier campaign paranoia that Russia could hack into voting machines morphed into the rhetorically useful but epistemologically questionable soundbite that "Russia hacked our election." Consider the Clinton supporters. Rather than doing some soul-searching about their candidate's revealed corruption and amazing tone-deafness to the concerns of the American working class, these petty partisans prefer to just blame Putin instead. Indeed, Clinton herself took to the podium to declare that the Russian president "has a personal beef" with her. The vague assertions of the secret CIA memorandum have been repeated so assuredly and emphatically as to sometimes echo the jingoistic lead-up to the disastrous Iraq War. Keith Olbermann provided perhaps the most comical contribution to the new Russian scare, crawling out from under his American flag blankie to rave that "we [...]

Maryland Police Association Director Resigns Over Prostitution Charges

Tue, 13 Dec 2016 11:38:00 -0500

(image) Larry Harmel, executive director of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association, is the latest criminal-justice official to get caught up in his colleagues' own undercover prostitution stings. On December 9, the 71-year-old was charged with soliciting prostitution in connection with a Baltimore sting that took place in October.

The Maryland Chiefs of Police Association is a nonprofit group that lobbies on behalf of law-enforcement agents. Harmel became head following a 30-plus year career as a Maryland state trooper, seven years as head of the Maryland Transit Authority, and a failed bid to represent Baltimore County as a Democrat in the state legislature. At the top of his erstwhile campaign site, it still reads: "You can't buy trust, but you can earn it ... let me earn your trust!"

Harmel reportedly denied the solicitation allegation to The Baltimore Sun last Friday. A reporter from the paper called back Monday and spoke with association attorney Bruce Marcus, who said he was unaware of the charges. But Harmel is "a long, storied, exemplary law enforcement officer and public servant who's got an unblemished career," Marcus told the Sun. "We will do everything humanly possible to clear his name and reputation."

Later that day, Harmel resigned.

According to the Sun, Harmel was arrested after approaching an undercover vice officer in an outdoor area of southeast Baltimore known for prostitution.

The officer asked Harmel what he was looking for, and said he responded: "You know."

"You're making me nervous. Are you a cop?" they asked each other, according to court records.

The officer said she would perform a sex act "not for a lot," saying, "I haven't had my medicine today. I just need to get my medicine." He agreed and she got into Harmel's truck, where he said he would take her to a graveyard.

The undercover officer cited Harmel and said he would receive a summons for arraignment at a later date.

Also in the news this week for following a do-as-we-say, not-as-we-do policy with regard to soliciting sex: Raymond Edward Bernasconi, until recently a deputy sheriff with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Bernasconi was scheduled to be arraigned yesterday for soliciting prostitution, after being arrested on November 21 in a sting conducted by the Sheriff's Human Trafficking Bureau, though his hearing has now been postponed until January for unspecified reasons. Bernasconi, 55, allegedly made arrangements online to meet someone he thought was selling sex at a local motel. When he showed up, "she" turned out to be undercover cops, who arrested the deputy and took him into custody.

Drain the Swamp!

Wed, 30 Nov 2016 00:30:00 -0500

President-elect Trump says he's uniquely qualified to "drain the swamp" in Washington, D.C. He can do it, he said at one debate, because as a businessman, he understands American cronyism. "With Hillary Clinton, I said, 'Be at my wedding,' and she came to my wedding. You know why? She had no choice because I gave." He said that's why he gives money to politicians from both parties. "When they call, I give. And when I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me!" That's crony capitalism. Ideally, laws are applied equally; no one gets a special break because he gives money. But today's complex government allows the politically connected to corrupt... most everything. Even parts of the government swamp designed to protect consumers, like Dodd-Frank banking rules, get corrupted. Banks watch little changes in rules far more closely than you ever will. Then they exploit them. Bank lobbyists make money off complex laws like Dodd-Frank. They fight tooth and nail to keep them, not abolish them. Congress recently almost got rid of one obvious example of crony capitalism, the Export-Import Bank. To encourage exports of American products, bureaucrats give loans to Boeing and other big companies. Some principled Republicans tried to eliminate this corporate welfare, but Ex-Im loans were voted back in during the final hours of budget negotiations. Government programs almost never die. Businesses in cozy relationships with government don't die either. Jeff Deist, president of the free-market Mises Institute, says when the housing bubble burst, banks should have been allowed to fail and put through "the bankruptcy and liquidation process." Investors would have lost big, but that's OK, says Deist. "That's the difference between free-market capitalism and state capitalism. With state capitalism, there are upsides for the parties involved—but no downsides." In the swamp, no one but taxpayers pays for their mistakes. Politicians routinely promise to change this culture, but once they get to D.C., they lose interest, says Trump. "They go to Washington, something happens—they become weak... I promise this is not going to happen to me." I want to believe him. But even if he were an utterly principled man—and I await evidence of that—it's tough to constantly say "no" to people. When you're in Congress, people ask you for money all day. "I need a grant for my charity—we do so much good!" "My business needs a subsidy/protective tariff—we employ so many people—in your state!" So it goes, week after week. Few people bother to go to Washington to ask for spending cuts. Even though America is heading toward bankruptcy, 90 percent of congressional testimony comes from people who want more stuff. Politicians' cronies get more stuff. Solyndra got half a billion dollars from President Obama. The company went bankrupt, which shouldn't be a surprise. Government has no way of knowing which ideas will succeed. But it's well worth it for companies to invest in lobbyists and fixers who dive into the swamp to extract subsidies. For taxpayers? Not so much. While the benefits to lobbyists are concentrated, taxpayer costs are diffuse. Solyndra cost each of us a couple bucks. Will you go to Washington to pester your congressman about that? Probably not. I want to believe Trump when he says he'll "drain the swamp." But it's easier to believe Thomas Jefferson who, with greater eloquence, said, "It's the natural progress of things for government to gain ground, and liberty to yield." Draining the swamp would mean not just taking freebies away from corporations—or needy citizens—but eliminating complex handouts like Obamacare. Candidate Trump said he would repeal Obamacare. Will he? He's already backed off of that promise, saying he likes two parts of the law—the most expensive parts. Every word in the register of federal regulations and laws has a special friend, a lobbyist (or 20) who wil[...]

Ex-Security Chief’s Lawsuit over Alabama Governor’s Alleged Affair Exposes Corruption of Government

Mon, 28 Nov 2016 13:20:00 -0500

The former chief of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley's security detail, Wendell Ray Lewis, filed a lawsuit on Friday alleging that Bentley had admitted an extramarital affair to him, and accusing the governor and his alleged mistress, staffer Rebekah Mason, of invading his privacy by "putting him in a false light and position in the eyes of the public by stating that Lewis worked overtime which was not approved by the State of Alabama." The suit also accused the Republican Bentley, Mason, and other defendants of defamation, interfering with his post-retirement business relations, "constructive discharge," and misconduct. A 2014 story by John Archibald, cited in the lawsuit, estimated that Lewis made about $203,000 a year because of overtime he earned "following the governor across the globe." At the time, Bentley said neither he nor anyone on his staff was involved in approving overtime, but defended Bentley's promotion, which had also been questioned by Archibald. Bentley's attorney called the lawsuit baseless, pointing out that much of it included allegations (which he says the governor denies) which "have nothing to do with the actual legal claims asserted" by Lewis. "Public records show that when Lewis worked for the state government, he made more than $661,615 over five years, based on the overtime he was paid," Bentley's attorney said in a statement. "But he chose to quit. That was his choice—no one else's," the attorney's statement read, noting Lewis was now receiving more than $87,000 a year in retirement income from the state. "But now he is trying to force the State to give him more money," the statement continued, "and to go so far as to extract money from the pocket of a governor who has never even taken a salary since he took office." In his lawsuit, Lewis alleged that by the fall of 2014 he was seeing subordinates he had supervised taking over his tasks, was frozen out of meetings, and stripped of various responsibilities, arguing that "over time the criticism, exclusion, and opprobrium became insufferable," resulting in his "early retirement" in 2015. Lewis alleges in the lawsuit that he had confronted the governor multiple times about the affair. "You know that you are getting into a touchy situation because we use state vehicles, we use state planes, to move about," Lewis said he told the governor. "You're requesting to put her in there, that's a problem. This is bigger than you and Rebekah. This is about the State of Alabama." Lewis alleges in the lawsuit that the governor asked him to break up with Mason for him. In March, the state auditor filed a complaint that Bentley and Mason may have misused state property. The affair was found out because the governor did not know his iPhone was synced to an iPad he gave his wife, according to the lawsuit, resulting in an incriminating recording eventually made public. Bentley apologized for making "inappropriate" comments to Mason but denied a physical relationship. He and his wife divorced last year. Lewis says the governor told him Lewis had done nothing wrong after the overtime scandal broke (the governor pointed out in a different recording made public that Lewis was paid a similar amount of overtime to previous security detail chiefs), but that after the governor hugged him, he knew he was in trouble. "When their conversation was over, Bentley hugged Lewis. Lewis knew that was it, the beginning of the end," the lawsuit reads. "He thought to himself, 'I don't know how Jesus felt when Judas betrayed him, but I felt I was being betrayed.' The only difference: Judas never hugged Jesus." Lewis also alleged that Spencer Collier, the now former secretary of the state law enforcement agency, told him that the governor had ordered him to use $430,000 in federal funds from the Department of Homeland Security to cover the salaries of the assistant to the chief of staff, the assistant in a Medicaid program, and the governor's leg[...]

Americans Are Still Freer Than Most, But the Trend Line Are Worrying

Tue, 08 Nov 2016 07:00:00 -0500

Election Day is upon us and Americans are heading to the voting booths by the millions. The choices before the electorate are, by and large, deeply unappetizing and, whatever the outcome of the elections, America's freedoms and institutions will likely continue to take a beating in the years to come. Last week, I looked at the state of freedom globally. Today, the focus is America.

First, consider the good news. The United States has maintained a perfect "democracy" score since 1871 and citizens continue to elect freely their local, state and federal governments.


America's record on protecting civil liberties, such as freedom of expression, also surpasses that of much of the world. Since Freedom House began collecting data on civil liberties in 1971, the United States has consistently received the best score possible.


Americans also have more extensive political rights than most of our fellow human beings, although the political rights gap is slowly narrowing.


Unfortunately, on several indicators, America has recently been trending in an unfortunate direction. Consider freedom of the press, measured on a scale from 1 (most free) to 100 (least free). Between 1993 and 2014, U.S. freedom of the press dropped by 10 points.


Government accountability (i.e., public perceptions of the extent to which citizens are able to influence their government) has also been deteriorating in the United States.


When it comes to corruption (i.e., perceptions of the extent to which public power is exercised for private gain, including both petty and grand forms of corruption, as well as "capture" of the state by elites and private interests), America's score is deteriorating.


The United States has also been falling in terms of government transparency, which measures the availability of credible aggregate economic data that a country discloses to the public.


Finally, consider economic freedom. Once again, we are moving—rapidly—in the wrong direction. Economic freedom in the United States still exceeds the world average, but if current trends continue, that will soon no longer be the case.


Americans have long enjoyed a level of freedom and quality of institutions that are still denied to the majority of humanity. But, if some of the worrying trends that can be seen above continue, America may not always be the "land of the free."

Human Freedom Is Up, But Government Quality Is Deteriorating

Tue, 01 Nov 2016 07:00:00 -0400

These are interesting times to be an American. The people's trust in the U.S. institutions is plummeting and the outcome of the presidential election, however it ends, is unlikely to reverse that trend. Over at Human Progress, we have a whole section of the website devoted to "good governance" indicators. As you'll see in the charts below, it is a mixed bag. People around the world appear to be growing freer, but their governments are getting less transparent and more corrupt. Could these diverging trends be the key to understanding of the people's growing dissatisfaction with their ruling elites? Our political rights index reflects the ability of people to participate freely in the political process, including the right to vote freely for distinct alternatives in legitimate elections, compete for public office, join political parties and organizations, and elect representatives who have a decisive impact on public policies and are accountable to the electorate. On a scale from 1 (best) to 7 (worst), the world has experienced substantial improvement. Our freedom of the press index evaluates the legal environment for the media, political pressures that influence reporting, and economic factors that affect access to news and information. Freedom of the press, which is measured on a scale from 1 (worst) to 100 (best), is at an all time high. Our civil liberties index measures freedom of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy without interference from the state. On a scale from 1 (best) to 7 (worst), the world has experienced considerable improvement since the early 1970s. Unfortunately, civil liberties have deteriorated somewhat since 2005. Our data on democracy versus autocracy over time codes democratic and autocratic "patterns of authority." It measures key qualities of executive recruitment, constraints on executive authority and political competition. It also records changes in the institutionalized qualities of governing authority. Country scores can be converted into three regime categories: autocracies (-10 to -6), anocracies or partial democracies (-5 to +5) and democracies (+6 to +10). Today, the average country scores a "4" and is considered a partial-democracy. The government transparency index measures the availability of credible aggregate economic data that a country discloses to the public. Here we have seen substantial deterioration since the apex of government transparency ten years ago. The corruption perceptions index scores countries on how corrupt their public sectors are seen to be, and captures the informed views of analysts, businesspeople and experts in countries around the world. Once again, corruption, which is measured on a scale from 0 (worst) to 100 (best) around the world, seems to be worsening. [...]

Welcome to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, Director Comey!

Mon, 31 Oct 2016 12:25:00 -0400

You would think FBI Director James Comey had sent his Friday announcement to Congress on Trump-Pence letterhead the way Hillary Clinton and Democrats have responded. To recap, for the benefit of those who spent the weekend preparing their racially and culturally tasteful and sensitive Halloween costumes instead of following the news: During the course of investigating scandal-tainted Democratic former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner and an accusation he was sexting with a minor, the FBI found hundreds of thousands of emails on a laptop he and/or his likely-soon-to-be-ex-wife Huma Abedin had been using. The metadata suggested that many of these emails might have been sent to or from Clinton's private server. So now the FBI has to investigate to determine whether any of these emails were classified or were connected in any way to Clinton's previous mess. The letters may turn out to be duplicates or nothing interesting in particular. It seems very unlikely they're going to find any new smoking guns (insert joke about dick pics here). But Comey, after previously declaring that the FBI would not recommend any charges over Clinton's "extremely careless" handling of classified communications, decided to send a brief letter to various leaders in Congress to inform them that the FBI would be reviewing these letters to see if they were at all relevant to their previous investigation. His letter was brief (three whole paragraphs) and did not accuse Clinton of any wrongdoing whatsoever. But, boy, has that letter opened possibly a bigger can of worms than the Wikileaks email dump somehow. To this outside observer who is completely over the election at this point, Comey's letter looks like a simple ass-covering move so the FBI doesn't get accused of ignoring evidence. But to Democrats and the Clinton camp and some others, that short letter is a full-on assault on the democratic republic and the sanctity of this election. Over the weekend, dozens of former federal prosecutors signed on to letter criticizing Comey's decision to send the letter, noting: Director Comey's letter is inconsistent with prevailing Department policy, and it breaks with longstanding practices followed by officials of both parties during past elections. Moreover, setting aside whether Director Comey's original statements in July were warranted, by failing to responsibly supplement the public record with any substantive, explanatory information, his letter begs the question that further commentary was necessary. For example, the letter provides no details regarding the content, source or recipient of the material; whether the newly-discovered evidence contains any classified or confidential information; whether the information duplicates material previously reviewed by the FBI; or even "whether or not [the] material may be significant." Perhaps most troubling to us is the precedent set by this departure from the Department's widely-respected, non-partisan traditions. The admonitions that warn officials against making public statements during election periods have helped to maintain the independence and integrity of both the Department's important work and public confidence in the hardworking men and women who conduct themselves in a nonpartisan manner. The Clinton campaign took this call for respect for non-partisan traditions and tossed it right up on their website. Former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. signed on to the letter and also wrote a separate commentary for the Washington Post saying much of the same things. The talking points have been established. This goes against procedure! This is not the way things are done! Even Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee Bill Weld criticized Comey's letter and said Attorney General Loretta Lynch should maybe step in and "order him to stand down" if more information gets leaked. Of course, law enf[...]

Chicago Aldermen Whine and Skip Work Because They're Not Getting Cheap Cubs World Series Tickets

Fri, 28 Oct 2016 10:55:00 -0400

Tonight the Chicago Cubs will play the first World Series game held in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field since 1945. The cheapest price for a standing-room-only ticket on Stubhub is currently $1,700, and some season ticket holders are reportedly seeking upwards of $1 million for a chance to see the lovable losers take on the less-lovable historically-losing franchise known as the Cleveland Indians. The Cubs and Wrigley are both institutions of Chicago culture, and the team's first National League pennant in several generations is something even non-sports fans in the Windy City are understandably excited about, which is why some Chicagoans of means are willing to shell out thousands of dollars to watch a baseball game. But spare a moment of sympathy for Chicago's aldermen, those public servants making six figure salaries, who until very recently enjoyed the perk of being able to buy Cubs' postseason tickets at face value, rather than on the open market, like the rest of us commoners. The Cubs have long made a practice of providing politicians at every level the chance to buy tickets at face value, but according to Illinois Policy, the Chicago Board of Ethics ruled last week that city aldermen may only accept this perk if they are "performing a public, ceremonial duty, such as throwing out the first pitch or delivering a speech." Announcing the ruling, Ethics Board Chairman William Conlon said, "It is inappropriate under the circumstances for a group that has governance over Wrigley Field — everything from vendors to hot dogs to improvements to the stadium and building adjacent to the stadium — to accept preferential treatment from the Cubs," according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Alderman Roderick Sawyer reportedly responded as any precious snowflake would, arguing that he and his fellow politicians "should be able to take advantage of history." But even this tone-deaf sentiment was topped by Alderman Milly Santiago, who according to the Chicago Tribune is "a former journalist who campaigned for office on a platform of reform and anti-corruption." Santiago first complained that the playoff tickets she was previously able to purchase for a fraction of the price the public had to pay "were all the way in the upper deck...that's how bad those tickets were." Santiago added, "It's kind of embarrassing in my part...Those of us who would like to get a chance to go to one of those games and be part of history, we should have that choice." But Santiago has a choice, despite her statement that she is "a poor alderman" who "cannot even afford to buy a $1,000 ticket," despite earning a $116,208 annual salary. She could easily watch the Cubs game across the street at a Wrigleyville bar with the rest of the little people. And for a self-described reformer like herself, avoiding potential ethical entanglements should be of greater concern than whether or not she is able to attend a wildly expensive private event for pennies on the dollar. Santiago has since walked her complaint back, saying she "never intended to offend anybody" but insisted she's not rich "compared to so many people." Writing for Illinois Policy, Jon Kaiser says, "Chicago aldermen aren't used to being told 'no.'" Kaiser adds: Despite the city being dubbed the corruption capital of the country, aldermen have worked hard to shield themselves from any sort of oversight. They let former Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan's contract expire without a replacement ready in 2015, thus making the office obsolete, and a group of aldermen changed a February ordinance to limit auditing powers of Inspector General Joe Ferguson. Aldermen's track record, though, would suggest oversight is needed. In the past 40 years, 33 of approximately 200 Chicago aldermen have been convicted of federal crimes, such as bribery, extortion, embe[...]

Liberty-Loving Pirates Look to Conquer Iceland!

Wed, 26 Oct 2016 12:10:00 -0400

Some Americans (typically on the left) habitually threaten to move to Canada if the presidential election doesn't go their way. Maybe libertarians should look overseas to Iceland. The small island nation of Iceland (population: 320,000) got a significant amount of attention during the banking crisis by not bailing out its financial institutions. It seemed to have worked out well enough for them. Iceland has also seen the rise of the Pirate Party as a political force. The Pirate Party is only a decade old, a small political movement focused on intellectual property reform, freedom of information, government transparency, opposition to censorship, and direct democracy. The party supports net neutrality as well, but otherwise, the average American libertarian would likely feel more at home with the Pirates than any other non-libertarian party. Reason has previously noted Pirate Party parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir trying to help Edward Snowden get asylum in Iceland before he ended up pretty much trapped in Russia. The Pirate Party had seen some modest success in Iceland, winning three seats in the country's lawmaking body. But after the release of the Panama Papers earlier in the year, interest in the Pirate Party skyrocketed. Americans may have already forgotten about the scandal, part of which was heavily about how public officials in many countries were hiding their wealth outside their home countries and avoiding taxes. Iceland's prime minister got caught up in the scandal when the papers revealed that he owned half of a company connected to one of the bankrupt banks and sold his share to his wife in order to avoid transparency requirements that went into effect in 2010. There were protests in the tens of thousands (massive, when you consider the size of Iceland's population), and he stepped down in April. Interest in the Pirate Party boomed in Iceland, and their polling support approached nearly 40 percent in the spring. They've dropped a bit since then, but they could pick up between 18 to 20 new seats in Iceland's parliament if these poll numbers hold up in their election Oct. 29. This would not give them control over parliament but would make them a dominant force. It's an important trend to pay attention to given the populist insurgencies we've been seeing in the elections both in the United States and in other Western countries. This appears to be just like all these other voter revolts (it's being treated as such in some reporting), but note how different the goals are. There's a push for limiting the power of government and therefore limiting the corruptibility of government that is different from what we're seeing here from Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders supporters. As Nick Gillespie has previously written, there tends to be a paradox that when people don't trust the government, the end result is often more regulation, bureaucracy, and control, not less. The Pirate Party and their potential success could be an indicator of a counterpush, just as increased in interest in the Libertarian Party's candidate this year gives voice to those who are frustrated with a government who is interested only in perpetuating an agenda that will make it grow more and more powerful over the lives of citizens. Read more analysis of the rise of Iceland's Pirate Party here. Read a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" (in English) with Iceland Pirate Party representatives here.[...]

Former Pennsylvania Attorney General Who Said She Was Fighting Corruption Going to Jail

Tue, 25 Oct 2016 15:40:00 -0400

(image) Former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, has been sentenced to 10 to 23 months in prison after being convicted of multiple charges related to her efforts to embarrass her political enemies, including conspiracy, obstruction, and two felony perjury charges that carried a maximum sentence of 7 years each.

Kane did not resign her position until she had been convicted, and had insisted late into the process that she was a victim of an "old boys club" network she was trying to dismantle. This as she shut down corruption investigations into Democrats and among her first acts opened a seemingly politically motivated investigation into former Republican Governor Tom Corbett's handling of the Penn State child sex abuse scandal (unsurprisingly, no wrongdoing was found). An investigation into a turnpike pay-to-play scheme led to a number of plea deals but no official serving any jail time.

Her criminal convictions stemmed from documents her office leaked related to a 2009 investigation into an NAACP chapter president led by a prosecutor in her office she considered an enemy and which did not lead to any charges. The leaks were part of an effort to draw attention away from her shut down of the investigation into corrupt Democrats and her failure to secure prison terms for anyone implicated in the turnpike pay-to-play scheme. After her legal woes started, she began to investigate the exchange of pornographic, racist, and misogynistic messages sent by various state employees over government email, including two state Supreme Court justices who eventually resigned.

Wendy Demchick-Alloy, the judge who sentenced Kane, accused her of being a political neophyte who remained a campaigner after winning office. "This case is about ego—the ego of a politician consumed with her image from Day One," the judge said. "This case is about retaliation and revenge against perceived enemies who this defendant… felt had embarrassed her in the press."

Former members of her staff testified about the conditions in the office of the attorney general as the district attorney pushed for a stiff sentence. "Through a pattern of systemic firings and Nixonian espionage, she created a terror zone in this office," one prosecutor that worked for her told the court. Kane argued that the consequences of her actions so far—she lost her license to practice law and says she's lost her career and reputation as well—were punishment enough.

In addition to her sentence, Kane will be on probation for eight years.

Sexual Harassment and Sex-Based Discrimination Widespread at King County Sheriff's Office, Say Female Cops

Fri, 14 Oct 2016 16:02:00 -0400

Sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination are "pervasive" in the King County Sheriff's Office (KCSO) claim a female sergeant and two former deputies in a lawsuit against the Washington county. The suit—which comes just three years after the county settled for $1 million with female detectives from its sexual assault division over claims of harassment and discrimination—suggests that not only were the women subjected to a hostile work environment but also retaliated against for speaking up about it. One was even subjected to an internal-affairs investigation instigated by Sheriff John Urquhart, the suit claims, even though it's highly unusual for a sitting sheriff to open an investigation. The case, which is slated to go to trial in January 2017, has already been stirring up new scandals, too, as various parties offer depositions and declarations. One involves Chris Barringer, Sheriff Urquhart's former campaign manager and current chief of staff, who showed a "significant response" to polygraph-test questions about whether he had ever solicited or accepted a bribe. The test, administered in 2012, should have disqualified Barringer from being hired by the sheriff's office. It didn't. Urquhart himself signed a document stating that Barringer had passed his polygraph test. And then there's D.J. Nesel, former head of internal investigations. Nesel sought whistleblower status in September after he was allegedly threatened by one of the county's lawyers over his plan to testify in the sexual-harassment suit. Nesel also stated under oath that at meetings, Sheriff Urquhart made disturbing comments about women which revealed "some deeply rooted issues going on there" and affected "his command and ... our department in a negative basis." Nesel would not reveal the exact content of Urquhart's allegedly off-color statements because the county asserted that it was privileged, since county lawyers had been present in the room with Nesel and Urquhart. For more details on the sexual-harassment lawsuit facing King County, and the one they settled three years ago, check out this story I wrote for The Daily Beast. It's full of disturbing details, but I'll just highlight one more: managers in the county's sexual-assault investigation unit allegedly joked regularly about "fantasizing and masturbating to the details of a sexual assault." They were also accused of much more, with at least 10 current and former KCSO employees attesting to their bad behavior as part of the 2013 lawsuit. After the county settled the suit for $1 million, Urquhart sentenced the two managers to one day's suspension without pay. Regular readers might recognize the King County Sheriff's Office as the ones behind the January 2016 bust that took down sex-work advertising forum The Review Board and a slew of Korean escort-agencies under the guise of stopping human trafficking. I dug beneath the spin put on the story by King County law enforcement in a series of September articles: 'This Is What Human Trafficking Looks Like' How Washington Police Turned Talking About Prostitution into a Felony Offense From 'Prostituted Woman' to Human Trafficker In response, Sheriff Urquhart defended his department's work in shutting down the agencies and website, telling Seattle's KIRO Radio that if it meant sex workers sent back to the streets to find clients and work, so be it, because at least street-based prostitution didn't offer a "false sense of security."[...]

Clinton Shows How She Manages to Be Less Trusted Than Trump

Mon, 10 Oct 2016 07:04:00 -0400

During last night's presidential debate, Hillary Clinton bragged about her record during three decades in public life, but she neglected to mention what may be her most impressive accomplishment: She is mistrusted by more Americans than the legendary liar Donald Trump. Last night Clinton's handling of questions about her private email server and her private speeches showed how she managed that feat. More than a year and a half after The New York Times broke the story of what FBI Director James Comey later called Clinton's "extremely careless" email practices as secretary of state, the Democratic presidential nominee has settled on a response that approximates what she should have been saying all along. "I made a mistake using a private email," Clinton said during her first debate with Donald Trump. "And if I had to do it over again, I would, obviously, do it differently. But I'm not going to make any excuses. It was a mistake, and I take responsibility for that." She said something very similar during last night's debate but then could not resist the urge to immediately minimize the significance of her mistake: I think it's also important to point out where there are some misleading accusations from critics and others. After a year-long investigation, there is no evidence that anyone hacked the server I was using and there is no evidence that anyone can point to at all—anyone who says otherwise has no basis—that any classified material ended up in the wrong hands. As Comey pointed out in July, the fact that the FBI did not find evidence of hacking does not mean it did not happen: We did not find direct evidence that Secretary Clinton's personal e-mail domain, in its various configurations since 2009, was successfully hacked. But given the nature of the system and of the actors potentially involved, we assess that we would be unlikely to see such direct evidence. We do assess that hostile actors gained access to the private commercial e-mail accounts of people with whom Secretary Clinton was in regular contact from her personal account. We also assess that Secretary Clinton's use of a personal e-mail domain was both known by a large number of people and readily apparent. She also used her personal e-mail extensively while outside the United States, including sending and receiving work-related e-mails in the territory of sophisticated adversaries. Given that combination of factors, we assess it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton's personal e-mail account. Whether or not classified material in Clinton's email (material she initially insisted was not there) actually "ended up in the wrong hands," she recklessly took that risk, violating State Department policy (and probably federal law) in the process. But as debate moderator Martha Raddatz pointed out to Clinton, "You disagreed with FBI Director James Comey, calling your handling of classified information, quote, 'extremely careless.'" If that's not the mistake Clinton is finally admitting, what is? As with Trump and his "locker room talk," it seems clear Clinton's only regret is that she got caught doing something that made her look bad. The email scandal illustrates Clinton's tendency to pile lie upon lie instead of coming clean. She seems to be starting down that road with the excerpts from her closed-door speeches that Wikileaks revealed on Friday. In a 2013 speech to the National Multifamily Housing Council, Clinton cited Secretary of State William Seward's backroom lobbying for the 13th Amendment, which included what historian Joshua Zeitz calls "the brazen use of patronage appointments to buy off the requisite number of lame duck Democratic congressmen." That episode was on Clint[...]

In Afghanistan, a 15-Year Failure

Thu, 06 Oct 2016 00:01:00 -0400

There is a perverse symmetry on display in Afghanistan right now. Fifteen years ago, American warplanes bombed targets there, beginning an offensive against the Taliban government and al-Qaida precipitated by the 9/11 attacks. This week, they were in action once again. There was, of course, a big difference in the two operations. In 2001, our forces were opening a campaign that would end quickly in victory. Today, they are part of a war that has no victory, or conclusion, in sight. The original triumph came quickly. By the end of 2001, the Taliban had surrendered in the capital; a new, pro-American government was in place; and Osama bin Laden was running for his life. It was a thrilling turn of events. President George W. Bush said of our enemies, "They saw liberty and thought they saw weakness, and now they see defeat." British Prime Minister Tony Blair proclaimed "a total vindication of the strategy that we have worked out from the beginning." Things went so well that the Bush administration felt free to start planning another war, in Iraq. It's hard to believe now, but at the time, we appeared to know what we were doing in Afghanistan. It was an illusion, magnified by faith in our unparalleled military might and righteous mission. Our confidence led us into a fatal error. We committed ourselves to remaking Afghanistan, but not wholeheartedly. Given a choice between a massive commitment of military and civilian resources to serious nation building on one hand and leaving as soon as the enemy was vanquished, we did neither. Instead, we chose a middle course, a limited commitment, which averted the worst outcome but offered no way out. We remain wedded to that option for the indefinite future. Despite sacrificing more than 2,300 lives and some $800 billion, we no longer expect anything but bleak reports from Afghanistan. Even the rare item of good news is bad. On Tuesday, for example, the government said it had reclaimed central Kunduz from Taliban units and was fighting to drive them out of other neighborhoods. What's bad about that? Until last year, the city hadn't fallen to the Taliban since 2001. Then, they seized it and held it for two weeks. Their latest assault on the city—even if it can be reversed—indicates that security is still up for grabs. All this fighting comes at the end of a bloody summer, in which Afghan forces took record casualties from a resilient foe. Only two-thirds of the country is under government control. Unemployment is estimated at 40 percent. Millions of desperate Afghans have given up and fled, turning up as refugees in Pakistan, Iran or Europe. This week, the Kabul government, a perpetual charity case, sent representatives to ask for $3 billion in aid from donor nations at a conference in Brussels. Any money is likely to be wasted. The watchdog group Transparency International rates Afghanistan one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. A unity government that is anything but unified has proved unable to act decisively on any of the grave problems afflicting the country. No one dreamed in 2001 that in 2016, the United States would still be mired in Afghanistan. But some 9,800 American troops remain, along with another 5,000 troops from allied countries. Barack Obama, the anti-war candidate of 2008, can't bring himself to leave. A report last month by the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction amounted to a chronicle of folly. It found that pervasive corruption has stymied our efforts, helped the enemy and sapped public support for the government. It quoted an Afghan official who in 2010 argued that "corruption is not just a problem for the system of governance in Afghanistan; it is t[...]