Tag Archives: ethics

Corruption And The Piety Party

Over the past few years, surveys have documented the growth of the so-called “nones”–Americans who have abandoned religion. Some are atheists or agnostics, others simply see religion as irrelevant to their lives. For many, that irrelevancy is the result of distaste for the hypocrisy and amoral behaviors of many self-described “pious” people.

I thought about the distance between ostentatious religiosity and ethical behavior when I read a Dana Milbank column in the Washington Post, titled “The Unimpeachable Integrity of the Republicans.”The GOP, as we all know, has become the piety party–Vice-President Mike Pence is its perfect, smarmy embodiment.

Milbank wasn’t addressing Republican faux religiosity–he was just marveling at the efforts of deeply dishonest Representatives to impeach Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein. As he noted, tongue-in-cheek, the charges are serious: inappropriately redacting lines in documents turned over to Congress by the Justice Department, and explaining the legal basis upon which the department is declining to produce others. Horrific behavior! I may swoon…

Redacting the price of a conference table is clearly a far more serious offense than those committed by other members of the Trump Team: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been accused by former associates of stealing roughly $120 million; former EPA Chief Pruitt got a bargain condo rental from a lobbyist’s wife, used his job to find work for his wife and had taxpayers buy him everything from a soundproof phone booth to  moisturizing lotion.

Who else doesn’t merit impeachment?

Not the former national security adviser who admitted to lying to the FBI,not the former White House staff secretary accused of domestic violence, not the presidential son-in-law who had White House meetings with his family’s lenders, not the housing secretary accused of potentially helping his son’s business, not the many Cabinet secretaries who traveled for pleasure at taxpayer expense, not the former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director who bought tobacco stock while in office.

And certainly not the president, whose most recent emolument bath was poured by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince: Bookings by his highness’s entourage spurred a spike in the quarterly revenue at the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan.

None of these “public servants” generated the indignation being focused on Rosenstein the Redactor.

Milbank helpfully described the pious paragons so determined to expel this scofflaw from governance–the same Republicans “so above reproach” that one of their first votes was an attempt to kill the House ethics office. He began by identifying some who are regretfully  no longer available:

Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), an obvious candidate, resignedover his use of public funds to settle a sexual-harassment lawsuit.

Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.), another ideal choice, resigned after word got out of a sexual-harassment settlement with a staffer the married congressman called his “soul mate.”

Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) also can’t be of use. He resignedover allegations that he urged his mistress to seek an abortion.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) likewise won’t be available. He quit when a former aide alleged that he offered her $5 millionto have his child as a surrogate.

But never fear–as Milbank demonstrates, the GOP has a truly impressive bench.

There’s Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who remains “tentatively available” despite his arrest this week for insider trading, along with the five other House Republicans who invested in the same company but haven’t been charged yet. There’s also Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), “assuming he has free time”–he’s battling allegations that he covered up sexual misconduct when coaching at Ohio State.

Others who could judge Rosenstein: Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), who pleaded guilty to assault after body-slamming a reporter; Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who is retiring after a naked photograph of him leaked online; and Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), who is under investigation by the FBI over the alleged use of campaign funds for his children’s tuition, shopping trips and airfare for a pet rabbit.

Nunes himself is battling allegations that he got favorable terms on a winery investment and used political contributions to pay for basketball tickets and Las Vegas trips.

Eighty-one percent of white Evangelicals voted for Trump, and research suggests their support for him and his band of thugs and thieves remains strong. No wonder people who actually care about ethics and morality are repelled by “faith.”

They’re All Nuts

The other day, I spotted a bumper sticker that really says it all: “Any Sane Adult: 2020.”

It isn’t just our demented President. It’s his whole sorry crew.

Initially, I thought Scott Pruitt was just corrupt–bought and paid for by the fossil fuel companies he used to represent. And he certainly is corrupt, but the sleaze is only part of the problem. It appears he is as delusional and grandiose as Trump.

A recent profile of Pruitt in Mother Jones is chilling.

Pruitt’s quieter style masks the extent to which his approach to governing is the practical implementation of the president’s wrecking-ball rhetoric. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to “get rid” of the EPA “in almost every form.” In just his first year in office, Pruitt has already made stunning strides in that direction. He’s dismantling the Obama administration’s landmark Clean Power Plan, which imposed greenhouse gas limits on fossil-fuel-fired power plants. He has slashed enforcement efforts against polluters and tried to repeal rules meant to safeguard drinking-water supplies. He has threatened to roll back fuel economy standards. He’s moved to weaken new rules for smog, coal ash, and mercury pollution, poorly enforced a new toxic-chemical law, and refused to ban the dangerous pesticide chlorpyrifos. He’s taken aim at dozens of lesser-known rules covering everything from safety requirements for replacing asbestos to emergency response plans in hazardous chemical facilities.

Pruitt has chased away longtime EPA staff and dismantled scientific advisory boards. He has put representatives of fossil fuel companies in charge of key environmental decisions.

Pruitt has been almost cartoonishly contemptuous of the EPA’s work, pushing draconian cuts to the agency’s science, climate, regulatory, and enforcement offices. Meanwhile, in just his first year, he has reportedly expanded his around-the-clock security detail at a cost of at least $2 million annually. He spent $25,000 on a secure phone booth inside his office, at least $12,000for flights around the country between March and May (each of which included a leg in Tulsa), $58,000 on chartered and military flights over the summer, and nearly $40,000 on a trip to Morocco to promote natural gas exports. His frequent first-class trips with his security detail have added more than $200,000 to that tally.

Pruitt cites his evangelical Christianity to justify his environmental positions, especially his climate-change denialism.

But his biblical references are not restricted to climate change. Pruitt’s two guiding stars—evangelical faith and political zeal—sometimes seem interchangeable. In October, when he announced a controversial new “conflict of interest” policy barring researchers who receive EPA grants from serving on the agency’s science advisory boards, he quoted the Book of Joshua: “Choose this day whom you’re going to serve.”

The GOP is filled, of course, with politicians who twist biblical references to advance whack-a-doodle positions.

Pruitt evidently sees no conflict between his brand of Christianity and unethical behavior. Recently, there have been revelations about a sweetheart deal for a room in a Washington condominium owned by an energy lobbyist. One reporter noted that taking what look very much like bribes from energy lobbyists “is just par for the course for Pruitt.”

Pruitt wanted the EPA to purchase a “time-share” in a jet airplane for his personal use (and was evidently miffed when he was told it would be prohibitively expensive). He disregarded rules to give large raises to personal cronies he’d brought on staff. Newsweek reports that Pruitt uses high-ranking EPA investigators– who are supposed to be delving into environmental crimes– as his personal security detail.

“This never happened with prior administrators,” a former official of the agency’s Criminal Investigations Division told The Washington Post, which first reported the news. “These guys signed on to work on complex environmental cases, not to be an executive protection detail.” The Post report suggested that the EPA would spend $800,000 for “the security detail’s travel expenses” this fiscal year.

The corruption and grandiosity are appalling, but those pale in comparison to the damage he is doing to the environment. CNN recently obtained a secret memo detailing Pruitt’s new control over enforcement of the Clean Water Act.

In a new directive, Pruitt says he–and he alone– will make final decisions under the Act.

Pruitt has explicitly stripped authority from his staff and regional administrator and turned himself into America’s Water Czar. By secret fiat. If anyone wants to open a coal mine, pesticide plant, or factory farm, they no longer have to show that their actions won’t damage local streams, rivers, lakes and aquifers. They just need a nod from Pruitt.

Evidently, Pruitt doesn’t have grandchildren who will have to drink water, breathe air, or live on a ravaged planet.

I wonder where I can get that bumper-sticker……

 

 

 

 

Trump’s Confederacy Of Dunces

It’s something new–and depressing–every day.

Just last week, Trump fired both Andrew McCabe and Secretary of State Tillerson in the most humiliating manner possible; one of his close aides was escorted out of the White House without even being given time to gather his belongings (he was under investigation for “financial crimes” of an unspecified nature); and multiple rumors surfaced about the imminent replacement of National Security Advisor McMasters with crazy-as-a-loon chickenhawk John Bolton.

Now, we learn that an advisor to Ben Carson–he of the $31,000 dining room set and the repeated admonitions to America’s poor about “personal responsibility”–has quit among questions of fraud and the inflation of his biography.

He said he was a multimillionaire – an international property developer with a plan to fix America’s cities through radical privatization. He felt that Donald Trump’s administration was where he was meant to work.

“It was a natural fit,” Naved Jafry said in an interview. Citing connections across the military, business and academia, he said: “I bring, and draw on, experiences from different areas of knowledge, like a polymath.”

Jafry was contracted to work for Trump’s housing and urban development department (Hud). His government email signature said his title was senior adviser. Jafry said he used his role to advocate for “microcities”, where managers privately set their own laws and taxes away from central government control.

Among other things, Jafry had claimed control over a multimillion-dollar trust fund; a claim inconsistent with court records showing that he struggled to pay rent and bills.

Wasn’t a major part of Trump’s “attraction” that he was rich? Trump voters drew two (unwarranted) conclusions from that wealth– that rich people must be smart and that they would be less incentivized to (mis)use tax dollars for personal gratification. Those same claims were made about the cabinet of wealthy white guys he’s assembled.

Um…not so much….

It turns out that HUD had agreed to spend $165,000 on “lounge furniture” in addition to the $31,000 dining set that–it also turns out–had been personally selected by Carson and his wife for his office. The news followed an administration proposal to cut $6.8 billion, or 14%, of HUD’s annual budget.

Then there’s treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, a former Wall Street executive purportedly worth as much as $35 million, who managed to run up bills in excess of $800,000 in his first six months in office for travel on military jets, (and whose wife made news by bragging about her pricey designer clothes on social media).

Scott Pruitt may not believe in science (or, apparently, the importance of clean air and water), but he evidently believes in using tax dollars to avoid those pesky citizen types who do. The environment secretary has said he has to travel first-class because of threats from members of the public who object to his climate-change-denying, regulation-slashing approach to government.

He also spent as much as $43,000 on a soundproof “privacy booth” inside his office to prevent eavesdropping on his phone calls and $9,000 for biometric locks and to have his office swept for listening devices. Earlier this month it was reported that he used $6,500 in public money to hire a private media firm with strong Republican ties to help produce a report promoting his accomplishments.

The Secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin, was the subject of a blistering report detailing ethical violations in a trip to Denmark and Britain that mixed business with pleasure, including a trip to Wimbledon and a cruise down the Thames.

When Interior secretary Ryan Zinke wanted to go horseback riding with Mike Pence, he took a government-funded helicopter – one of three such journeys in 2017 that cost a total of $53,000 of public money. In addition, Zinke, who favors oil, gas, coal and uranium mining on public lands out west, has been rebuked by the department watchdog for failing to keep proper records of his travel expenses and to disclose who paid for his wife to accompany him on work trips.

Health and human services secretary Tom Price was forced to resign last September after it was revealed that he used at least $400,000 and probably more than $1m in taxpayer funds on private and military flights for himself and his staff.

This Administration has clearly demonstrated that wealth doesn’t guarantee competence. As these examples show, neither does it promote ethical behavior.

But it sure seems to translate into a sense of entitlement.

 

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Ethics

A few days ago, I got an email from an old friend, asking me whether I’d seen the article about Trump’s myriad conflicts of interest in the most recent Forbes. I hadn’t.

He very thoughtfully brought me a copy.

After I had read it, I sat for awhile thinking about how diminished our expectations of presidential behavior have become. If any other President in my lifetime had simply ignored long-settled legal and ethical constraints in pursuit of personal gain, bipartisan outrage would have already triggered impeachment proceedings. (We wouldn’t need Robert Muller.)

The article is titled “Trump’s Towering Tenant Conflicts,” and it begins with the Bank of China.

The largest American office of China’s largest bank sits on the 20th floor of Trump Tower, six levels below the desk where Donald Trump built an empire and wrested a presidency. It’s hard to get a glimpse inside. There do not appear to be any public photos of the office, the bank doesn’t welcome visitors, and a man guards the elevators downstairs–one of the perks of forking over an estimated $2 million a year for the space.

Trump Tower officially lists the tenant as the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, but make no mistake who’s paying the rent: the Chinese government, which owns a majority of the company. And while the landlord is technically the Trump Organization, make no mistake who’s cashing those millions: the president of the United States, who has placed day-to-day management with his sons but retains 100% ownership. This lease expires in October 2019, according to a debt prospectus obtained by Forbes. So if you assume that the Trumps want to keep this lucrative tenant, then Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. could well be negotiating right now over how many millions the Chinese government will pay the sitting president. Unless he has already taken care of it: In September 2015 then-candidate Trump boasted to Forbes that he had “just renewed” the lease, around the time he was gearing up his campaign.

The meticulously sourced article is accompanied by lists of tenants at a number of Trump’s signature properties, the rents those tenants pay, and the conflicts of interest they represent.

The numbers are significant: $21 million here, $12 million there. The names even more so: At least 36 of Trump’s tenants have meaningful relationships with the federal government, from contractors to lobbying firms to regulatory targets.

Those “regulatory targets” are the most worrisome. Trump’s other “meaningful relationships” are simply corrupt, but these landlord-tenant relationships facilitate highly sophisticated bribery that undermines the federal regulatory process.

How, then, to consider the backroom discussions between federal officials and Walgreens Boots Alliance, one of the largest pharmacies in the world? Through its brand Duane Reade, it is the highest-paying tenant in Trump’s skyscraper at 40 Wall Street in New York, with $3.2 million in annual rent, according to a 2015 prospectus. In October 2015, Walgreens Boots Alliance announced a $9.4 billion merger with rival Rite Aid, requiring a sign-off from antimonopoly regulators. After the deal failed to secure approval under President Obama, it then fell to the Trump administration, which arrived in Washington during the first quarter of 2017. According to federal disclosures, that was the same quarter Walgreens Boots Alliance began directly lobbying the White House on “competition policy issues.” In September, despite objections by one of the two commissioners at the Federal Trade Commission, Trump’s tenant got the green light for a slimmed-down, $4.4 billion version of the deal. In January, Trump announced he would nominate the commissioner who supported the deal, Maureen Ohlhausen, to be a federal judge.

This was anything but an isolated case. Capital One, for example, pays an estimated $1 million for space in Trump’s Park Avenue condo building while it is being investigated by the Justice and Treasury departments for alleged money-laundering.

In December, Trump tenants UBS, Barclays and JPMorgan, plus Trump lender Deutsche Bank, got waiver extensions from the Department of Labor that allow them to avoid part of their punishment for illegally manipulating interest rates and foreign exchange rates.

The article cites numerous similar “coincidences” –at best, they raise the appearance of impropriety; more likely, they really do represent the sort of graft engaged in by a blowhard who has always believed the rules are for other people.

Whether these unprecedented conflicts violate the Emoluments Clause will eventually be decided by a court–two cases raising the issue are pending. Of course, those who drafted the Emoluments Clause language would never have anticipated that the new country they were establishing–their “Shining City on the Hill”– would elect someone as unfit for public office–or for that matter, as unfit for polite society–as Donald Trump.

Paying for Secrecy

Indiana doesn’t have money for adequate infrastructure repair and maintenance, or for preschool for at-risk children, or …well, you know the drill. There are all sorts of things normal citizens expect their state government to do only to be told by our elected overlords that the money isn’t there.

But there’s always enough money to pay the lawyers to defend our lawmakers’ misplaced priorities or ethically indefensible actions.

Did Indiana’s Governor refuse to resettle Syrian refugees, despite the fact that under long-settled law, he doesn’t have the legal authority to make that decision? Let’s have the Attorney General defend him in the inevitable lawsuit, and then appeal the (equally inevitable) adverse verdict.

Is the Environmental Protection Agency trying to bring 19th Century environmental policies into compliance with the realities of 21st Century problems? Sue the EPA and insist that Indiana won’t go along.

And don’t get me started on the entirely  voluntary participation of Indiana in several culture war lawsuits aimed at derailing equal rights for LGBT Americans. We do like to keep our AG busy!

Most recently, we learn from the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette (not from the Indianapolis Star, which is too busy reporting on the “beer beat” and obsessing over the broom guy to cover city or state government) that

Hoosier taxpayers have paid $160,000 in legal fees to shield Indiana House and Senate communications from public view in just eight months.

The final tab will be higher because the most recent tally from the Indiana Auditor’s Office doesn’t include a bill covering the March 17 oral argument before the Indiana Supreme Court.

“That’s a lot of money,” said Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition. “It would have been a lot cheaper just to honor the public records law.”

“Follow the money” is a time-honored mantra that can mean many things. But one thing it almost always means is that people allocate resources based upon their actual priorities.

Indiana may not “have money” for preschool, or road repair, or environmental protection, but we seem to have unlimited resources to protect the perquisites of the powerful…