Tag Archives: corruption

Remember When We Cared About Ethics?

Pro Publica recently revisited an ethics case in Louisiana that has dragged on for nine years.

Now, when I think of states with strongly ethical political cultures, Louisiana doesn’t come to mind, but even in the state that gave us Huey Long and David Duke, the situation on which they reported is notable.

It’s been nine years since the Louisiana Ethics Board first took up what its former chairman called “the most egregious case” to ever come before him.

In 2010, the board accused former state Sen. Robert Marionneaux Jr. of failing to disclose to the board that he was being paid to represent a company in a lawsuit against Louisiana State University. The lack of transparency was only part of the problem. Marionneaux offered to get the Legislature to steer public money toward a settlement, according to charges the Ethics Board later filed against him. The money would also help pay off his contingency fee, which an LSU lawyer pegged at more than $1 million.

Evidently, according to ethics advocates, the snail’s pace and limited scope of the case are due to the weaknesses of Louisiana’s ethics enforcement system.

In 2008, the Legislature delivered ethics reforms that then-Gov. Bobby Jindal billed as a new “gold standard” that any state would covet. But more than a dozen people involved in the system said in interviews that the reforms have done the opposite, chipping away at and dragging out ethics enforcement.

The consensus is that Jindal’s “new and improved” ethics rules created more loopholes than they closed.

Those of us who don’t live in Louisiana shouldn’t get cocky. It would behoove us to look at our own state capitals, and especially at the ethical disaster that is America’s current national administration.

If you Google “Trump Administration Corruption,” you will get 38 million hits. One of the most recent is a Bloomberg Interactive titled “Tracking the Trump Administration Scandals.”(Due to the large number of said scandals, the site allows you to sort by category: administration officials, Trump and his family, the Trump Organization and Trump associates, etc.)

If you are particularly interested in 2018, there’s Washington Monthly’s “A Year in Trump Corruption.” And last October, The New York Times published “Trump’s Corruption: The Definitive List.”

There’s much, much more.

Not unlike the citizens of Louisiana (large numbers of whom, during a gubernatorial election between David Duke and Edwin Edwards, sported bumper stickers saying “Vote for the Crook–It’s important”), we’ve gotten inured to the extent of the venality. To use a political science term, corruption has become normalized.

There will be those among defenders of the petty, self-absorbed criminal in the Oval Office who will insist that “they all did it.” Although there have certainly been unsavory people in high places over the years, that statement is manifestly untrue.

Even if it were accurate, however–even if former Presidents and their cabinets did engage in this degree of unethical or illegal behaviors–they had the good sense (or sense of shame) to hide it. This crew showcases it. Trump likes to insist that he’s “transparent”–when it comes to the transparency of his corruption, and that of his cabinet, that’s true.

There are two explanations for the tendency of Trump & company to flaunt their illegal and unethical behaviors: one, as a group, they aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. (Betsy DeVos comes to mind, but she has lots of none-too-bright company); and two, they don’t care. They believe–not without reason–that the public no longer expects government officials to adhere to ethical standards, that those in a position to punish them have been neutered, and that the United States of America–whatever our pretenses of ethical probity and morality–is no different from the corrupt regimes that Trump most admires.

If we do not rise up in 2020 and clean house, the whole country will be Louisiana.

 

Distraction By Design?

Some of you undoubtedly saw this article from The Guardian.

A top US official told a group of fossil fuel industry leaders that the Trump administrationwill soon issue a proposal making large portions of the Atlantic available for oil and gas development, and said that it is easier to work on such priorities because Donald Trump is skilled at sowing “absolutely thrilling” distractions, according to records of a meeting obtained by the Guardian.

Joe Balash, the assistant secretary for land and minerals management, was speaking to companies in the oil exploration business at a meeting of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, or IAGC, last month.

“One of the things that I have found absolutely thrilling in working for this administration,” said Balash,“is the president has a knack for keeping the attention of the media and the public focused somewhere else while we do all the work that needs to be done on behalf of the American people.”

Yes indeed. The amount of damage being done by this administration–to public education, to science, to the environment, to poor people–is enormous, and most Americans are unaware of most of it, because Donald Trump has sucked up all the oxygen in the room.

The administration is moving as quickly as possible to allow oil and gas drilling in federal waters, despite opposition from coastal residents and lawmakers.

The Trump administration is moving to permit a handful of private companies to start using seismic surveys in the Atlantic, a controversial practice in which air guns shoot loud blasts into ocean waters to identify oil deposits. Some scientific studies suggest that seismic surveys can harm or potentially kill marine creatures, including dolphins, whales, fish and zooplankton.

Mr. Balash may find the President’s ability to distract us “thrilling,” but Americans who care about the environment are less enchanted.

As the media focuses on Trump’s increasingly bizarre tweets and his “wink wink” none-too-subtle encouragement of White Supremacists, the people charged with administering federal agencies are busily deconstructing them. A coal lobbyist heads up the EPA, an advocate of privatizing public schools has been ensconced at the Department of Education, a “brain surgeon” who believes poverty is best addressed by exhorting poor people, and various other actual “enemies of the people” are intent upon eviscerating health and safety regulations and empowering “Captains of Industry” with whom they are cozy.

Our only salvation is the thorough-going incompetence of most of these corrupt crony capitalists. I shudder to think how much more harm they could do if they knew how government worked.

What I would find “thrilling” is their departure–along with Trump and Pence–from any role  whatsoever in American government.

 

 

 

 

 

The Favoritism Regime

As I often try to explain to students, there is an important difference between rights and privileges. The essential element of the rule of law–the characteristic that distinguishes it from the exercise of power–is that the same rules apply to everyone. If everyone doesn’t have rights, no one does. Some people may have privileges, but that isn’t the same thing.

The deal is, the person engaging in free speech who is saying something with which you disagree has the same right to voice his opinion as the person with whom you agree. If we don’t all play by the same rules, if some people have more “rights” than others, no one really has rights. They have privileges that can be withdrawn if they offend or oppose those in power.

The rule of law is fundamental to a constitutional government. It is glaringly obvious that Donald Trump does not understand either its definition or its importance. It is equally obvious that he wouldn’t respect it if he did. Like most autocrats and would-be autocrats, he is all about self-aggrandizement, the exercise of power and the ability to reward his friends and punish his enemies.

Trump’s lack of comprehension of, or respect for, the rule of law is one of the many reasons he is so unfit to hold public office.

What triggered this rant was an article about Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum–a decision he has evidently been reconsidering in recent days. (When your policy pronouncements emerge from impetuous impulses rather than considered analyses, they do tend to change on a day-to-day basis…) The article described the proposed tariffs and their potential consequences, and reported on the number of  U.S. companies that were scrambling to win exemptions to them.

As of the time of the article, the Commerce Department had evidently received 8,200 exemption requests.

Let’s deconstruct this.

Assume you owned a company that relied upon imported metal to manufacture your widgets. The government moved to impose tariffs, which would increase your costs and make your widgets less competitive with the widgets manufactured in other countries. Assume further that you applied for an exemption from the new rule, based upon some tenuous argument or plea of hardship. Wouldn’t you be likely to do whatever you could to curry favor with the administration dispensing those exemptions? You’d almost certainly dig deep to make a political contribution.

“Pay to play” is, unfortunately, nothing new in American politics. Engineers and others who bid on government projects know that a history of political donations may not be enough to get them the contract, but is necessary to ensure that their bid is one that will at least be considered.

That said, unsuccessful bidders who believe that a contract has been awarded to a company that didn’t meet the statutory criteria–a donor whose bid was not “lowest and best”–can sue. And win. It happens more often than you might think.

Of course, the ability to sue and have your complaint judged fairly requires that the country’s judicial system be both impartial and competent. That’s one reason this administration’s rush to fill judicial vacancies with political cronies is so pernicious.

In places where government agencies can confer benefits at their discretion–routinely the case in autocratic regimes–and there is no legal recourse, corruption is widespread and inevitable. (See: Putin’s Russia) Quid pro quo replaces rule of law.

That’s the path America is on right now. If the GOP enablers in Congress survive the midterm elections, the prospects for turning things around will be very, very dim.

 

Scott Pruitt Is Toxic

It sometimes seems difficult to choose the worst member of Donald Trump’s cabinet–divided as that motley crew is between ignoramuses and zealots. (And yes, I realize the two categories aren’t mutually exclusive. Betsy DeVos is a case in point.)

But my vote goes to Scott Pruitt, who is genuinely dangerous because he isn’t an ignoramus. That Pruitt is in the pocket of fossil fuel interests is well known; his disregard for public health–for clean air and water–isn’t as widely recognized. And it is hard to understand why anyone, no matter how corrupt, would protect companies that produce poisonous chemicals.

Methylene chloride, N-methylpyrrolidone, and trichloroethylene are toxic. There’s no question about that. The first two are directly related to deaths from inhalation related to their use in paint strippers. The third, commonly used in dry cleaning and in making refrigerants and previously used as an anesthetic, is tied to everything from liver and kidney damage, to a variety of birth defects.

All three chemicals were fast tracked to be banned by the EPA under the Toxic Substances Control Act. “Were” is the operative term.

The EPA has announced the “indefinite postponement” of bans on certain uses of these three toxic chemicals, despite the fact that the Toxic Substances Control Act was the product of a bipartisan consensus.

The “indefinite postponement” of measures to protect public health joins all kinds of other nefarious and worrisome signals, including the hiring of manifestly unqualified people. Before he was forced to withdraw, Trump’s nominee to head the EPA chemical safety board was a lobbyist who supported manufacture of those not-banned chemicals. Pruitt himself summarily dismissed hundreds of real scientists–replacing them with people like a banking friend who’d been banned for life by the banking industry. (According to The Intercept, Pruitt had received loans from the friend’s bank.)

And then there’s Pruitt’s relentless attack on measures meant to combat climate change, reversing what had been U.S. leadership on the issue. There are daily news releases chronicling the efforts and successes of other countries; China, once the world’s biggest polluter is ramping up its pivot to clean energy. And just recently, headlines announced that Germans are periodically being paid to use energy.

Germany has spent $200 billion over the past two decades to promote cleaner sources of electricity. That enormous investment is now having an unexpected impact — consumers are now actually paid to use power on occasion, as was the case over the weekend.

Although Germany clearly leads the pack, other European countries are also producing energy that is occasionally in excess of what they require:

Several countries in Europe have experienced negative power prices, including Belgium, Britain, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

But Germany’s forays into negative pricing are the most frequent. At times, Germany is able to export its surplus electricity to its neighbors, helping to balance the market. Still, its experiences of negative prices are often longer, and deeper, than they are in other countries.

In one recent example, power prices spent 31 hours below zero during the last weekend of October. At one point, they dipped as low as minus €83, or minus $98, per megawatt-hour, a wholesale measure.

In other words, anyone who was able to hook up for a large blast of electricity at that time was paid €83 per unit for the trouble.

Of course, giving citizens relief from high power prices–and even occasionally paying them to use power–would come at a cost to the fossil fuel industry that owns Scott Pruitt.

And having a cabinet member who gave a rat’s ass about good policy, the environment or the health and welfare of his country’s citizens would be unthinkable anywhere in the Trump Administration.

Stuck In The Swamp

Can you stand one more diatribe about Betsy DeVos?

According to Gail Collins at the New York Times, DeVos isn’t just devoting herself to the destruction of public elementary and high schools. She’s after public universities too.

DeVos is the superrich Republican donor who once led a crusade to reform troubled Michigan public schools by turning them into truly terrible private ones. Now she’s in the Trump cabinet, and she seems to be dedicating a lot of her time to, um, lowering higher education.

When no one was watching she hired a lot of people that come from the for-profit colleges,” complained Senator Patty Murray of Washington, who feels the additions are far more interested in protecting their old associates than in overseeing them. Murray is the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, otherwise known as HELP. These days it’s hard to tell whether that’s a promise of assistance or a cry of distress.

To oversee the critical issue of fraud in higher education, DeVos picked Julian Schmoke Jr., whose former job was a dean of — yes! — a for-profit university. Specifically a school named DeVry. Last year, under fire from state prosecutors and the Federal Trade Commission, DeVry agreed to pay $100 million to students who complained that they had been misled by its recruitment pitch.

Over the past several years, we have learned that students attending these for-profit institutions pay far more, and get far less, than they would at a public college. They have huge dropout rates, and even larger rates of default on the government grants that almost all of them take out. (On the other hand, they have very low rates of employment, despite the rosy promises made by these institutions.)

Although there are some legitimate private colleges, the statistics are pretty devastating.

“The outcomes for people who take out loans at for-profits are abysmal,” said Ben Miller of the Center for American Progress. He added that almost all the students borrow, for courses they could sometimes get for one sixth the price at a community college. And about half the people who borrow default.

As the stories about deceitful for-profits mounted, the Obama administration came up with regulations making it easier for students to refuse to pay their loans if a school had misrepresented their chances of graduating and getting a lucrative career. The rules were supposed to go into effect in July, but DeVos has delayed their implementation.

Not only has DeVos “delayed” implementation of the new regulations, under her management the Department of Education has stopped approving new fraud claims against for-profits, leaving a backlog of more than 87,000.

Give her credit for one educational advance, though: Betsy DeVos is giving us all a lesson on what happens when big political contributions buy a cabinet position for a theocratic ignoramus.