Tag Archives: corruption

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.

The World’s Worst Cabinet Is Also Corrupt

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, people in Puerto Rico are still suffering. Thousands are drinking polluted water, much of the island (they’re American citizens, President Trump, even though they’re brown) is still without power and many are without food and medicine.

To say that the federal government’s response has been inadequate would be kind.

They may not know how government works or what it’s for, but the Trumpsters sure do know how private “entrepreneurs” can use other people’s misery to make money. As Talking Points Memo (among many others) has recently reported,

A tiny Montana utility company that received a $300 million contract to help restore power to Puerto Rico after its electrical grid was devastated by Hurricane Maria is financed by major Trump donors and run by a CEO friendly with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a series of recent reports has revealed.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s granting of the huge contract to Whitefish Energy Holdings, a two-year-old company that reportedly had two full-time employees when the hurricane first hit, was first reported by the Weather Channel last week.

Both the Washington Post and the Daily Beast have offered intriguing–albeit nauseating– details on the company’s investors. The Post noted the “coincidence” that the firm is based in  Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown and that its CEO, one Andy Techmanski, is a friend of  the Interior secretary. The Daily Beast reported that Whitefish’s general partner “maxed out” donations not just to Trump’s primary and general election campaigns, but also to a Trump super PAC.

I’m sure those generous contributions were just “coincidental” too.

Gee, why do you suppose that Whitefish–with all of two employees– was awarded the contract to restore electricity to hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rico residents?  Zinke’s office and Techmanski both told reporters for the Post that the Interior secretary “played no role in securing the contract.” (And I have a bridge in Brooklyn I can sell you….)

After news of this “arms length” contract emerged, a number of publications pointed out that the type of work Whitefish will be doing is typically handled through what are called “mutual aid” agreements with other utilities, not by for-profit companies. Again, from Talking Points Memo,

“The fact that there are so many utilities with experience in this and a huge track record of helping each other out, it is at least odd why [the utility] would go to Whitefish,” Susan F. Tierney, a former senior official at the Energy Department told the Post. “I’m scratching my head wondering how it all adds up.”

In addition to Techmanski’s relationship with Zinke, Joe Colonnetta, partner at Whitefish and founder of HBC Investments, the private-equity firm that finances the energy company, is a significant power player in Republican politics, according to the Beast.

Colonetta donated a total of $74,000 towards Trump’s presidential victory and $30,700 to the Republican National Committee, the Beast reported. His wife, Kimberly, separately gave $33,400 to the RNC shortly after Trump’s win, and was photographed with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson during inauguration week, per the report.

Daily Kos was–predictably– less circumspect.

In the midst of the disaster in Puerto Rico, it appears that someone may have engaged in graft as large as the hurricane that hit the island. Like other electrical utilities, the state-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority has multiple mutual-aid agreements with other utilities. It can call on these agreements for help in repairing the power grid in an emergency. These are the same kind of arrangements that allowed utilities in Florida to get power there restored so quickly following the passage of Irma. But even though 79 percent of the island remains without power, PREPA  isn’t calling on those agreements.

A constellation of companies, including those controlled by Tesla’s Elon Musk, have offered to work with Puerto Rico to transform the island into a model for the nation using a series of micro-grids, distributed solar, and local storage. The resulting system would be clean, flexible, and resistant to large-scale failure. But, so far at least, none of those companies have the nod to proceed.

Instead, PREPA has awarded $300 million to Whitefish Energy

Before getting this contract, Whitefish’s largest contract was to install a single electrical line less than five miles long. They had a year to do it.

This smells so fishy that even our supine Congress is launching a bipartisan investigation.

Is America great again yet?