Monday, April 02, 2012

Sleaze City: Citizens' Revolt Launched to Ban Corporate Control of DC Elections

The growing movement to undo the nefarious impact of the Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate campaign spending finds its counterpart in a citizens' revolt against corporate control of local Washington, D.C. elections.

As a result, Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen, the national reform group spearheading the drive to repeal Citizens United, last week issued an alert to its DC members in advance of a critical April 3 primary election when volunteers will be stationed outside polling places to gather signatures:

Volunteer to help our friends at D.C. Public Trust put Initiative 70 on the ballot and end pay-to-play local politics in the nation's capital.

In Washington, D.C., corporations are permitted to make direct contributions to candidates. That's an invitation to scandal, and new reports are emerging every day about improper corporate spending in the last District election.

D.C.'s pay-to-play politics are a direct impediment to addressing critical issues like education, affordable housing and the District's yawning income and wealth divides.

It will take about 23,000 signatures to get Initiative 70 on the ballot this November. That will take concerned D.C. residents volunteering now to become neighborhood leaders, gather petition signatures or volunteer during the primary on April 3.

Although not meant as comprehensive reform, it's an important first step in the attempt to wrest control of city government from free-spending businessmen and political leaders immersed in a pay-for-pay culture. That is why the Initiative 70 to ban corporate donations altogether in local campaigns is the opening salvo in an overdue attack on the city's deeply-rooted corruption. A shoe-string but aggressive field campaign seeking extra volunteers is underway asking for 30,000 verified signatures to insure ballot placement -- shooting for half that amount with a full-fledged petition drive reaching out to voters in the city's low-profile April 3 primary -- to get a law on the November ballot banning corporate funding of campaigns.

The scandal-scarred city is awash in money from favor-seeking business interests and developers, augmented by embezzlement and bribes involving city officials. These include the over $300,000 stolen from city funds meant in part for low-income children by a prison-bound DC Council Member Harry Thomas, Jr, whose open seat has led to another primary race to replace him, including a candidate, Kenyan McDuffie, making ethics reform the centerpiece of his campaign.

More typically, council members like Vincent Orange, facing heated opposition in the primary, and Democrat Jack Evans, running unopposed but raking in at least $250,000 from businesses and corporate-linked donors, introduce arcane financial or contracts measures designed to shower their backers with tens of millions of dollars in added government spending from a revenue-starved city, as chronicled in the Washington Post and revealed through an ever-widening federal probe of city officials -- including Mayor Vincent Gray -- and their funders.

One of Orange's biggest donors, Medicaid health-care tycoon Jeffrey Thompson, had his home and offices raided last month by federal agents looking at a suspicious pattern of donations from Thompson, his companies and allies topping at least $730,000 for local races. The Orange campaign's receipt of $26,000 in suspicious money orders seemingly designed to circumvent cash donation restrictions -- most from Thomas associates or their allies' relatives signed with virtually identical hand-writing -- is part of the federal probe, according to The Washington Post and NPR affiliate WAMU.

Here's one example of why advocates say the corporate donation ban is so needed: one artfully written piece of legislation introduced by Evans would have drained over $50 million from city revenues benefiting just a few well-heeled corporate donors. It was a a taxation change for eminent domain property to be seized by the government. On top of what critics see as such legalized looting of the D.C treasury, even more money has been wasted, stolen and, in some cases, just diverted through wildly inflated crony contracts. All told, according to the Republican whistleblower Tim Day who exposed Thomas's wrongdoing and is running for his seat, federal investigators and prosecutors with whom he his cooperating have found at least $20 million misappropriated or illegally wasted in both 2009 and 2010. The full cost and scope of the waste and corruption is not yet known.

Surprisingly ,this primary election may not lead voters to throw the rascals out, but to re-electing them.

Because of the election's low visibility, political analysts say, unaware voters are likely to re-elect those with name recognition and an existing political machine, including Victor Orange in his race for at-large City Council and the still-popular former mayor and ex- prisoner, Marion Barry, a council member representing the impoverished Ward 8. But Vincent Orange faces strong challenges from two opponents who are claiming the mantle of ethics reform: Peter Shapiro, a former county council chairman from neighboring Prince George's County, who is backed by the leading independent progressive group,
DC for Democracy, , many liberal activists and the influential Greater Greater Washington political blog, while former Board of Education member Sekou Biddle has picked up more high-profile endorsements, including the centrist editorial page ofThe Washington Post.

But, as Shapiro and his allies have sought to point out, Biddle has ties to what Shapiro has called the "good ole boy network that is not in the best interests of residents." When selected for a temporary appointment to the City Council in 2011 by the State Democratic Party, Biddle was supported in aback-room deal by three political leaders who have all faced federal criminal investigations and ethical questions: luxury car-loving Council Chairman Kwame "Fully Loaded" Brown, the now-disgraced Harry Thomas Jr., and Marion Barry.

During debates, Biddle has sidestepped questions about past endorsements from the ethically challenged. "Last year, I was supported by a number of elected officials," Biddle said. "This year, I am not...I have been running very hard..."

Whatever the political results in this primary, the grass-roots activists seeking to ban corporate domination of city politics plan to be out in force at the city's polling places to gather signatures for Initiative 70. Sylvia Brown, the chairman of DC Public Trust says, "I believe that a ban on direct corporate contributions will be a big step toward getting rid of play to play politics and restoring public confidence in DC government."

Not surprisingly, neither Marion Barry nor Victor Orange in seeking re-election have embraced Initiative 70 to ban corporate donations. As Greater Greater Washington observed recently:

Most sitting councilmembers aren't supporting this ballot initiative. Their desperate excuse is that a ban on direct corporate funding of campaigns could push corporate dollars into the shady world of political action committees.

But the council has the authority to regulate those PACs, so that argument rings hollow.

Those councilmembers would actually have you believe that the current system of direct corporate contributions to campaigns is transparent by comparison. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Corporate contributors make a mockery of campaign finance rules by cloning themselves to circumvent contribution limits. Corporate donors bundle checks from each of their corporate subsidiaries, even if those subsidiaries do nothing but write checks to councilmembers.

Supporters of Initiative 70 hope that the signature drive on primary day, April 3, will be the opening round of the battle to end - or at least limit -- corruption in Washington's local political scene.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

High Noon: Tuesday Protests Take on "Fully Loaded" Chairman, GOP-Style Dems Over DC Cuts to Poor

The scandal-plagued chairman of the DC Council, Kwame Brown, best known for asking city taxpayers to pay for a "fully loaded" Lincoln Navigator worth $2,000 a month, is joining with other GOP-style Democrats to slash city services for the poor. At the same time, they're opposing the mayor's proposal to raise $35 million in added taxes from Washington's richest residents -- and, amazingly, the council is moving to give away $19 million in revenue through repealing some taxes for the rich altogether.

With the vote scheduled Wednesday, The Washington Examiner reports that a backroom deal was apparently struck Monday evening with Brown when Marion Barry, the former mayor and still a councilman, agreed to reverse his support for tax increases on the rich in exchange for property tax abatements for some churches in his district.
The pending budget deal could still cut over $100 million from critical services for the poor, disabled and homeless from the social services budget, roughly two-thirds of all proposed cuts. The safety-net is already so tattered that homeless mothers with infants in tow have been given bus fare to ride the buses all night rather than shelter. As a result ,Save Our Safety Net, a group leading a loose coalition of progressive safety-net advocacy organizations, called for protests Tuesday at noon at DC's City Hall, the Wilson center.

And in the day before the event, they unleashed a series of last-minute videos targeting Kwame Brown, most on the City Council and an otherwise liberal councilmember, Mary Cheh, for opposing raising taxes on the rich and risking the well-being of the city's neediest. What wasn't mentioned publicly is that these same city council members also pay themselves and their staff the most lavish salaries and expenses in the country when measured on a per-seat or per-taxpayer basis: $1.5 million per council seat.

The biggest target remains Kwame Brown and his lavish lifestyle contrasted with the poor children, disabled and homeless who could be denied services. The latest video ends with an SUV heading for a crash and the tag line: "Don't let Kwame run over our most important public services."

Brown has offered what critics see as vague promises to restore $25 million in proposed cuts, but as the S.O.S. group pointed out, following protests last week:

After our Wednesday action, we had 7 confirmed Council votes in support of the Mayor's income tax proposal, enough to pass it. But yesterday we got word that Marion Barry (Ward 8) and Tommy Wells (Ward 6) have decided they no longer support the Mayor's proposed income tax! We have also heard that Kwame Brown is proposing $25 million in restorations. That is certainly a step in the right direction, but it is not nearly enough. Safety net services are still underfunded by $32 million. By getting rid of the income tax proposal, Chairman Brown, Barry, Wells and other Councilmembers would take away $19 million in resources that could be used to restore funding to critical services.

Even though at least 85% of the city residents in a recent poll back raising taxes to preserve social services, most city council members reject that stance and instead are supporting other accounting schemes and alternative revenue measures , including some that the council has rejected in earlier years -- such as ending DC's unique tax break for those who buy out-of-state municipal bands helping other cities.

What's especially striking is the way these formerly liberal Democrats, echoing a national right-leaning trend in the party, adopt right-wing talking points and even cite the Chamber of Commerce as "evidence" for their views. As recounted in emails about a tense meeting with constituents held by Councilmember and law professor Mary Cheh,who represents the richest and whitest area in the city, Ward 3, liberal voters there aired their complaints that she was abandoning the principles of the Democratic Party and her campaign promises.

For instance, as Jessie Sigel, a Ward 3 resident, wrote angrily to Cheh after the meeting:

The tax issue aside, I was, quite frankly, shocked to hear someone who professes to be a Democrat, suggest, as her "philosophy," that anyone one on TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] for more than five years doesn't want to work; that their children don't have proper role models, followed by righteous professions about the "dignity of work."

The language you used is akin to the old Reagan demonizing of the poor as "welfare loafers" and of the poor "coming to collect their welfare checks in Cadillacs." If one is going to take a hard line that people should get a job, they need to ascertain that there are jobs--jobs that enable people to pay the rent and feed their children--to be had. When I asked you about jobs programs, child care programs, and job training, you didn't seem to know to what degree they exist in the district. (and, obviously, revenue would be needed to support these sorts of programs)... But embracing a "philosophy"--or as I would call it, a stereotyping of people, without making an inquiry into the group's situation and options is reprehensible. It is something I would expect of right wing Republicans who have a particular agenda in mind and who are determined not to let logic or others' needs get in the way.

Cheh, like some other leading Democrats who are moving to slash services, used to be considered a progressive, innovative member of the City Concil.

Kesh Ladduwahetty, an activist with DC for Democracy, also recounted:

Cheh is adamantly against the tax increase, and there's nothing more substantive in her reasoning than "sending the wrong signal" and small [businesses]. When pressed about small biz, she doesn't have any data (she's just repeating Kwame's rhetoric).

Mary Beth Tinker [another DC4D member] called her on the fact that she kept citing the Chamber of Commerce, although nothing specific. Mary Beth also heard her say something to the effect that in order to get some things that she wants done, she has to do some other things (sounds like a blatant statement about trading favors with Kwame).

Bottom line: she's not budging for this vote (not that we can see), but she got the message loud & clear that her progressive base is shocked and disappointed in her.

On Tuesday, groups like Save Our Safety Net hope that some in the city's progressive base will turn out and start calling members of the City Council to support fully funding city services. To that end, some of her young progressive supporters even created a mocking rap video calling on Cheh to respond to the wishes of her constituents on taxes and the safety net:


This article will be reposted later today at my Huffington Post blog site: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/art-levine

Saturday, April 23, 2011

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Meltdown Risk? How to Help and Follow Breaking News from Japan

The new explosion at the third Japanese reactor indicates likely damage to the nuclear fuel container, Japanese nuclear experts say, but that's still not clear. One of the best sources of recent news is the NHK World live stream. Here's multi-streams in English and Japanese: http://www.ustwrap.info/multi/nhk-gtv::tbstv::yokosonews::nhk-world-tv

NHK reports that the utility company running the Fukushima plant couldn't dismiss the possibility that fuel rods are melting.

What's the latest on this crisis?

Try these online resources:
Google's all-purpose help and news page, especially geared to those in Japan seeking news about locating loved ones and finding assistance: http://www.google.com/crisisresponse/japanquake2011.html

Huffington Post's Big News Page:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/japan-earthquake
Brad Blog, doing among the best American jobs of updating news: http://www.bradblog.com/?p=8394

Leading anti-nuclear advocacy groups: Nukefree.org and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service: http://www.nirs.org/

Anti-nuclear leader Helen Caldicott's Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Dr-Helen-Caldicott/102772801940

Here are updates from the Nuclear Energy Institute, the trade group for the American nuclear power industry.

Overseas correspondent Mark McKinnon has valuable local news:

BBC updates, auto-refreshed: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12307698

Real-time news with search words at www.topsy.com: hit refresh occasionally:

Google's real-time news is also useful, but its algorithm isn't as sophisticated as the search engine at Topsy.com.

And don't forget to donate. Here's a selection of reputable groups:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Friday, December 04, 2009

A Night at the Village Vanguard

The great Sonny Rollins improvising on the American Songbook and jazz standards

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

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