Tag Archives: corruption

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?

 

 

 

 

Donald Trump and the Gang That Can’t Shoot Straight….

It’s hard to believe, but the evidence is overwhelming: no one in Donald Trump’s White House is politically competent.

We knew Trump’s menagerie didn’t know spit about governing or policy. We knew they considered ethics a joke. (Senior Administration officials refused the orientation/training routinely offered by the Office of Government Ethics.) But even acknowledging the cringingly inept performances of Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway, no one could have anticipated the level of abject cluelessness revealed by the firing of James Comey.

Perhaps the Washington Post said it best:

Donald Trump has surrounded himself with sycophants and amateurs who are either unwilling or unable to tell him no. He lacks a David Gergen-like figure who is wise to the ways of Washington and has the stature to speak up when the president says he wants to fire an FBI director who is overseeing the counterintelligence investigation into whether his associates coordinated with Moscow. Without such a person, Trump just walked headlong into a political buzz saw.

 Senior officials at the White House were caught off guard by the intense and immediate blowback to the president’s stunning decision to fire James Comey. They reportedly expected Republicans to back him up and thought Democrats wouldn’t complain loudly because they have been critical of Comey for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Indeed, that was the dubious excuse given publicly for his ouster.

“Caught off guard”? Really? How utterly devoid of political savvy–not to mention operating brain cells– would you have to be in order to be surprised by the public reaction to so clumsy and obvious an attempt to derail an investigation likely to uncover serious criminal conduct?

Did the geniuses advising our embarrassment of a President really think the American public, the media and the political establishment would believe that Comey’s handling of Hillary Clinton’s email was the reason he was terminated?

The word “Nixonian” has been tossed around, but really, Nixon and his co-conspirators were far less naive than the sorry collection of white supremacists, consiglieres, and know-nothings that form Donald Trump’s inner–and only– circle.

Media outlets report that grand jury subpoenas were recently issued to associates of  Michael Flynn, and that Comey had requested additional resources for the investigation of Trump and Company’s ties to Russia. These events, and the damning testimonies of Sally Yates and James Clapper earlier this week, evidently sent the White House into panic mode.

Whatever the calculation (assuming anyone in that den of ineptitude is actually capable of calculating), the President has placed Congressional Republicans firmly between a rock and a hard place. During Watergate, a not inconsiderable number of Republicans put nation above party. American politics is much more polarized now–and we have fewer statesmen and more ideologues in both parties–but I have to believe that the combination of public outrage, Trump’s blatant corruption, and fear of what might happen in the 2018 elections will persuade at least some in the GOP to do the right thing.

Frank Rich wrote an article titled “The Comey Firing May Be the Beginning of the End of the Trump Administration.” It should be read in its entirety, but here’s a taste:

A White House gang this insular, this politically naïve, and this transparent in its maladroit efforts at deflection and deception is a gang that can’t shoot straight. No one in the West Wing apparently even considered that it might look bad to time this debacle on the eve of a day when Trump’s only scheduled official event was an Oval Office meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. No doubt these same brilliant masterminds now think that Washington will go back to business as usual.

If the public outrage that greeted Comey’s firing is any indication, America will not go back to “business as usual” until a special prosecutor issues a comprehensive report.

Can We Spell “Predatory”?

It’s all about the money…..

Jeff Sessions just reversed an Obama Administration policy that would have ended the Justice Department’s use of private prisons. Studies by the DOJ had concluded that private prisons compared “poorly” to prisons run by the government; one damning report found that privately run facilities were more dangerous than those run by the Bureau.

I’ve previously written about the numerous reasons privatized prisons are a bad idea. For one thing, companies running them actively engage in lobbying for harsh policies and longer sentences.intended to protect and grow their profits.

Government spending on corrections has soared since 1997 by 72 percent, up to $74 billion in 2007. And the private prison industry has raked in tremendous profits. Last year the two largest private prison companies — Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group — made over $2.9 billion in revenue.

According to the Justice Policy Institute, the three main private prison companies have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates and over $6 million to state politicians. They have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct lobbying efforts.

The administration is also rolling back enforcement and monitoring of the numerous abuses by predatory for-profit colleges.  Trump has appointed Jerry Falwell Jr., of all people, to head up an effort to “deregulate” such institutions. “Deregulation” will  include new rules on teacher education, a new federal definition of a credit hour, and regulations that require consumer protections for students. Other targets include measures intended to ensure that these schools are actually providing students with marketable skills:  the gainful-employment regulation and the borrower-defense-to-repayment rule. Falwell has a clear conflict of interest, since any reduction in oversight will benefit his own university.

Meanwhile, Betsy DeVos continues to promote educational vouchers– what she euphemistically calls “school choice”–despite mounting evidence that they cheat both children and taxpayers. Doug Masson reports on the research (emphasis mine):

There has really never been strong evidence showing that voucher students do better than students attending traditional public schools. And, recent studies, show that they probably do worse. Given that traditional public schools add value to the community over and above the individual educations they provide to the students who attend, we should conclude and begin unwinding this voucher experiment. To improve public schools, we should look to systems in other countries that are outperforming ours and seek to emulate those things they are doing better…

Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next came from Louisiana where:

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

Finally, Ohio, where a study financed by the pro-voucher Waltons concluded, “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.” Massachusetts seems to have a more successful program than Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio, but it is marked by “nonprofit public schools, open to all and accountable to public authorities. The less “private” that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.”

In Indiana, the motivating impulse for voucher enthusiasts seems to be a combination of: a) undermining the influence of teachers’ unions; b) subsidizing the preferences of those who would want a private religious education; and c) providing access to that sweet, sweet education money to friends and well-wishers of voucher proponents.

There is overwhelming evidence that private prisons are a dangerous scam. Proprietary colleges rip off taxpayers while obscenely overcharging the students they fail to educate. Vouchers are a thinly-disguised subsidy for religious schools and a profit center for politically-connected “entrepreneurs.”

What’s that song from Cabaret? Money makes the world go ’round.

Welcome to Trumpville.

Outrage Overload

I’ve never been a fan of outrage. People who respond to every news item with righteous indignation at high decibels tend to have their arguments dismissed–they are viewed (correctly in my opinion) as predictable and (eventually) tiresome. (Remember the old story about the boy who cried wolf?)

Instead, I have always believed that “pick your battles” is sound advice, as is “don’t sweat the small stuff, and most stuff is small stuff.”

The incoming Trump Administration is going to test that thesis. Severely. Virtually everything Trump is doing is genuinely outrageous, and in saner times would be so far beyond the pale that we wouldn’t be discussing a Trump Administration.

Case in point (just one of literally hundreds, and far from the worst): This week, “Celebrity Apprentice” returned to NBC with Donald Trump as an executive producer of the show.

Ignore, for now, this addition to the daily evidence that Trump is far more concerned with celebrity than governance of the most powerful nation on earth. As one activist organization put it, “one of the largest media conglomerates in the world, Comcast/NBCUniversal, has, for all intents and purposes, a contractual arrangement with the president-elect of the United States.”

Can we spell conflict of interest?

Trust in all media is at rock-bottom levels, and this simply increases public disdain for and skepticism about so-called “mainstream news.” What credibility can NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC  retain, when they have a business agreement with a sitting President–a man they have an obligation to objectively monitor and investigate. How are Americans supposed to trust that their reporting on Trump is not compromised by the fact that they are doing business with him?

The problem is, this obviously improper behavior of both Trump and NBC comes in the midst of an absolute avalanche of corruption and incompetence. Several of Trump’s cabinet nominees are disasters-in-waiting. His collusion with Russia is now too obvious to ignore. He proposes policies likely to have dramatically horrible consequences that he quite clearly doesn’t begin to understand (Complexity-R-Not Us). He continues to pander to the white supremacists whose votes elected him. And I try not to think about the fact that this childish, mentally-ill narcissist will shortly be handed the nuclear codes…

Checks and balances? The ideologues, lapdogs and looters in Congress–many, if not most of whom were elected thanks to gerrymandering– show every sign of facilitating the Orange disaster.

If our national version of democracy is majority rule that respects minority rights, America is no longer a democracy.

At this point, the only way to retrieve government “by the people” is for “the people” to engage in a level of activism we haven’t seen in a very long time.

If outrage fuels such an uprising, I may modify my distaste for it.