Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Police review board attorneys resign, citing law department dispute

Posted By on Tue, Sep 28, 2010 at 10:16 PM

At the first meeting of the city's newly reconstituted Citizens Police Review Board, executive director Beth Pittinger made a surprise announcement tonight: Board solicitors Hugh McGough and William Ward are resigning, effective October 18.

In a letter addressed to Pittinger and obtained by our very own Chris Young, Ward says their firm is stepping down because of a contractual dispute with the city's Law Department, which has frozen payment on their invoices. That would be the same Law Department, of course, that the review board has been battling in court over access to documents needed for an inquiry into G-20 security procedures. 

Let me make that a little clearer. The attorneys who have been taking on the city Law Department now say the Law Department is refusing to pay them.

In the two-page letter dated Sept. 17, Ward said the Law Department refused to pay the firm's legal bills unless it agreed to renegotiate terms of their contract -- even thought the contract was already in effect. According to the letter, the city began demanding changes to in April. And though Mayor Luke Ravenstahl signed the contract as written in January, the letter says, the firm has not been paid at all this year. It now claims to be owed $32,000. 

According to the letter, the Law Department originally insisted that the contract would be changed to include a provision "authoriz[ing] the Law Department to immediately and without notice terminate representation of the CPRB." In other words, the Law Department would be able to terminate the attorneys representing the people arguing the other side of the G-20 case

The letter says the Law Department dropped that demand, along with a requirement that Ward and McGough increase their professional liability insurance -- which covers the cost of any negligence or other claims made against a lawyer -- from $3 million to $20 million. As the letter points out, $20 million is the amount of the insurance policy the city took out to protect itself against civil-rights lawsuits filed as a result of the G-20. (City officials have previously claimed that the review board's inquiry might cause the city to forfeit that coverage. Presumably, this requirement would have "made up the difference.")

But ultimately, the letter says, "the impasse remains" because the Law Department "demands that the [contract] include new language to the effect that this firm would be liable for damages" for any board actions taken "based in whole or in part on legal advice provided by" the firm. Such a demand would apparently apply to any advice the firm had already given, a demand Ward said had "no reasonable basis.

"The changes sought by the Law Department are unprecedented," Ward also asserts, saying they "deviat[e] from this firm's prior contracts over a decade ... and from comparable solicitor contracts for other city entities." 

The letter pledged that until Oct. 18, the firm would continue to provide "vigorous representation" while helping to "assure a smooth transition" to a new lawyer. 

We will seek comment from the city Law Department tomorrow, and post their response here. But the timing of this dispute is significant. The city began demanding the right to change this contract in April; in June, city officials began an effort to replace most of the board members themselves. In both cases, the board has lost advisors with years of experience, having to replace them with newcomers in the middle of a critical lawsuit.

"This is all running parallel," Pittinger told Chris Young at tonight's review board meeting. "It just smells." 

Monday, September 20, 2010

So can we fire the FBI too?

Posted By on Mon, Sep 20, 2010 at 8:13 PM

When we last left the bizarre story of how the state apparently keeps tabs on environmentalists and other activists, Governor Ed Rendell had terminated the state's contract with the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, the private-sector outfit that tracked these "threats." State Sen Jim Ferlo, meanwhile, wants to terminate the guy who hired them:

State Senator Jim Ferlo (D-Lawrenceville) is demanding the immediate resignation or firing of Pennsylvania State Homeland Security Director James Powers, Jr. Senator Ferlo said Mr. Powers crossed the line by surveilling the general public when they were participating in legitimate and appropriate democratic activities that were without question nonthreatening.

Is that good enough?

Maybe not. 

Let's remember that ITRR and Powers apparently weren't acting entirely on their own here. This whole fiasco started with an Aug. 30 "intelligence bulletin" issued by the state. And while ITRR compiled the material, as ProPublica points out,  not all the information came from them. In fact, the bulletin's assertions "relating to the threat of 'environmental extremism' was originally from the FBI, and was extracted into the Pennsylvania bulletin."

That document, you'll recall, states that

The FBI also assesses -- with medium confidence -- extremists will continue to commit criminal activity against not only the energy companies, but against secondary or tertiary targets. This assessment includes the use of tactics to try to intimidate companies into making policy decisions deemed appropriate by extremists

So, can we fire the FBI too? 

That might be a good idea. Because this is the same agency whose investigation of Pittsburgh antiwar protesters was the subject of this report. Issued earlier today of the Office of the Inspector General, the report is titled "A Review of the FBI's Investigations of Certain Domestic Advocacy Groups" -- and it suggests that the Harrisburg fiasco may be the tip of the iceberg. Pages 36 through 92 of the report document the FBI's highly problematic -- and at times laughable -- surveillance of Pittsburgh antiwar activists.

I'm having a sort of hard time summarizing this thing for you, because when I read it, parts of my brain start yelling at other parts of my brain. Suffice it to say the whole thing would be hilarious if it weren't so creepy. Among other things we learn ... 

  • FBI agents investigated the Thomas Merton Center and the Pittsburgh Organizing Group (POG) because they literally didn't have anything else to do. An FBI agent surveilled and photographed a 2002 Merton Center rally, because "work was slow" the Friday after Thanksgiving. The agent, a new hire on probationary assignment, began taking photos of Merton Center activists leafletting in Market Square to "show his supervisor that he was 'earning his pay'." Similarly, an agent confesses that an investigation into POG got underway because "work is light ... [W]e are looking for work, which is why folks in POG even get on the radar."
  • When the ACLU demanded records relating to FBI surveillance of the Merton Center event, a cover-up apparently ensued. Someone in the agency wrote up a "routing slip" -- which seeks to redact certain information before a document is released publicly -- that made it look like the FBI was really tracking individuals suspected of terrorist ties. The report makes a pretty convincing argument for why that isn't true. And it surmises that the routing slip was intended to make "a stronger justification for the surveillance of the Merton Center anti-war rally than was in fact the case." The routing slip became the basis for a misleading press release issued by the FBI in the matter, and for false Congressional testimony made by FBI chief Robert Mueller.
  • Among the FBI's informants was the friend of an agent's kid. As page 91 of the report spells out, "[T]he agent recruited a friend of his son and gave him surveillance assignments with at best thin relevance to any open investigation or to preventing terrorism." Why go to the trouble? The report asserts that the agent's motive was "not the detection or prevention of terrorism but rather to enable the case agent to 'get into the source program' and 'show some more tasking and reporting.'" In other words, this had everything to do with some bureaucratic ass-covering -- an effort to bolster the agent's "performance statistics."

I've got a feeling that this ain't an isolated incident. I've got a feeling that after the 9/11 attacks, a whole new sector of government and private industry sprung up. And that huge chunks of this money are wasted on bullshit investigations of activists who pose no threat to anybody except themselves.Simply to justify people's paychecks.

I'll have more to say about the state's Intelligence Bulletins soon. In the meantime, you gotta wonder just how far down the rabbit hole this is gonna go. I mean, Senator Ferlo isn't just calling for Powers' head. He also wants to file a complaint with the Department of Justice. That would be the same DOJ whose agents have just been cited by the Inspector General for doing the same thing Ferlo faults for happening here --"conducting surveillance activists without appropriate pretext of threat [of] violence." 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Digging deeper on surveillance of environmentalists opposed to digging deeper

Posted By on Thu, Sep 16, 2010 at 1:44 PM

Mystery continues to surround the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, the non-profit group that apparently received $125,000 of state money to compile a controversial report on environmentalists opposed to natural-gas drilling. 

I first reported on this controversy -- which was opened up by online journalism organization ProPublica -- last week. Since then, Gov. Ed Rendell has disavowed the whole enterprise, while other politicians are calling for an investgation. City councilor Doug Shields, for example, asserted, "I want to see the 990s on this group," referring to documents that tax-exempt organizations must file. 

That may not be so easy. While today's Post-Gazette notes that the group is registered as a non-profit with the state, I've been having some difficulty tracking down those 990s. The ITRR doesn't have a listing at Guidestar, a widely used clearinghouse for information about non-profit entities. Nor could I find a listing for the organization on the IRS website. (The agency does list two other Philadelphia-based terror-related groups,)

My colleague at the Philadelphia City Paper, Isaiah Thompson, has hit a similar brick wall

Meanwhile, the ITRR has issued a statement on its website, and it may be the first time in my 15 years as a journalist that I have ever seen a press release with material redacted -- check out the big black boxes on the last two pages.

The release purports to defend the ITRR's work, but because information has been "redacted to protect client privacy," you'll have to be content with testimonials like this:

From a client in the energy sector: "This is a very comprehensive report – thanks for your efforts on our behalf."

From a Fortune 100 company: "Thanks for keeping us safe!"


The larger intent of the release, apparently, is to justify some of the group's more eyebrow-raising investigations, by noting that even well-intentioned events can become an occasion for violence. (ADDED: I should clarify that the material which follows is apparently excerpted from reports that ITRR claims to have compiled for its clients) It justifies scrutiny of LGBT events, for example, by noting that "'Gay pride' events worldwide have served as trigger events for such radicals with an anti-gay agenda."

As for the threat of environmentalism, the ITRR notes that a pipe bomb exploded at the home of an oil-industry exec early this year. And while it concedes that no one had taken responsibility for the attack, it quotes a series of remarks to assert that "anti-capitalist
and environmental militants expressed satisfaction" at the incident. 

Well, maybe, and then again maybe not. For example, one quote cited in the report --

"One oil executive dead is just a good beginning as far as I'm concerned but there are plenty of other corporations that deserve the same or worse... Let's start with Monsanto and Koch industries.""

-- apparently was copy-and-pasted from a comment posted July 11 on this website. Another comment --

 "Let the class war begin. This has been simmering for decades. Citizens have no recourse against hundred billion dollar transnational corporations, the president of the united states is freaking powerless against them. They are bigger than most countries in the world and more powerful, somehow they have colluded even with our coast guard who is protecting BP instead of our coast. The only thing these people listen to is huge sums of money, which citizens dont have, or violence. Until we destroy enough of their property to make a financial splash or start killing their executives and decision makers and profiteers, nothing will change. Why should it. ...What can we do but violence????????"

-- was posted here

Objectionable rhetoric, to be sure. But it's pretty hard to saywhether the people posting this stuff really are "militants," or just jagoffs posting bullshit in their underwear from Mom's basement. The author of that second post, for example, is identiified purely as "progressive."

Maybe ITRR has secret ways of ascertaining the identity and motives of an anonymous online commenter. But I gotta say ... if their research simply involves grazing the internet for stupid comments, I've got an invoice to send somebody. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Gertrude Stein political club endorses Sestak, mentions Onorato honorably

Posted By on Wed, Sep 15, 2010 at 3:53 PM

The venerable and honorable Gertrude Stein Club of Greater Pittsburgh has issued its endorsements for the 2010 election. Statewide, Democrat Joe Sestak garnered the endorsement of the Pittsburgh-based organization, which is devoted to gender equity and LGBT rights. Sestak's backing is no surprise, since he scores highly on gay-friendly issue scorecards. The gruop made no endorsement in the governor's race, although Democratic nominee Dan Onorato did receive some qualitifed support.

The other Gertrude Stein endorsees are: 

US Congress, 14th District: Ed Bortz (Green Party)

US Congress, 18th District: Dan Connolly (D)

State House, 19th District: Jake Wheatley (D)

State House, 23rd District: Dan Frankel (D)

State House, 24th District: Joe Preston (D)

State Senate, 38th District: Jim Ferlo (D)

All of which makes sense to me (though the Club endorsed Wheatley's opponent, former city councilor Tonya Payne, in the Democratic primary earlier this year). In the 14th Congressional District, incumbent Democrat Mike Doyle did get an "honorable mention," indicating that he has a significant amount of common ground with the club's political vision. But after all, Doyle is pro-life, whereas the club is committed to protecting a woman's right to choose. 

State Rep. Chelsa Wagner, who represents the South Hills, also got an honorable mention

As for Onorato ... the Club endorsed progressive-without-a-prayer Joe Hoeffel in the spring. But Onorato walked away with the party's nomination, and the Club gave him an honorable mention as well. In a release explaining the endorsement, the club credits Onorato for "solid recent support for countywide LGBT protections" while noting that in the past he's been "less supportive of the LGBT community." 

The Club also notes Onorato's "mixed/nuanced stance on women's issues." Given Onorato's frantic positioning on the abortion question, I'm taking that line to be a bit of wry understatement. 

But God knows he's a couple steps up from Republican Tom Corbett.  


What if the Tea Party Was Green?

Posted By on Wed, Sep 15, 2010 at 1:12 PM

Not long ago, we wrote about an online music video by local black activist Jasiri X titled, "What if the Tea Party Was Black?" The premise of the song, of course, is that the Tea Party's aggressively anti-government rhetoric would be far more controversial -- and perceived as much more threatening -- if its members weren't white.

What I'm wondering this morning, though, is: what if the Tea Party were green? How tolerant would our government, and our media, be if it were made up of environmentalists expressing misgivings about, say, the rampant growth of natural-gas drilling in our state? 

What prompts the question is a story I first mentioned last week. Your state government has been issuing "Intelligence Bulletins," keeping tabs on the actions of environmentalists. The story was first reported by online journalism outfit Pro Publica last week, but didn't get any local MSM traction outside of this blog (which yeah, doesn't really count) until last night, when Ed Rendell held a press conference expressing horror at the situation. 

Now I'm not about to start digging a bunker in my backyard. I think this fiasco is more absurd than anything else. (I mean, if the government was so skilled at monitoring subversives, would the head of state Homeland Security have copped to the program in an e-mail to the wrong person?) But what pisses me off is ... how come it's only lefties who merit government scrutiny?

The Intelligence Bulletin that kicked off this mess is 12 pages long. Among the events it warns of presenting "additional risk factors" are the Jewish High Holidays and Ramadan (see? Muslims and Jews have some things in common after all! Let the healing begin!). Also supposedly presenting an opportunity for trouble: zoning hearings in Upper St. Clair, a Pittsburgh City Council hearing, and gatherings of such bloodthirsty groups as the Brandywine Peace Community.

It's a comprehensive list, except for one thing: It's only interested in political activity on the left.

It's not that conservatives are staying home. The Tea Party Patriots website lists tons of upcoming gatherings, some of which sound far more militant than a screening of Gasland. An Oct. 23 rally at the state Capitol, for example, is billed as a chance to show "We DO have a voice. We DO know when our government has gone awry ... We WILL be involved in forming the future."

Another event, slated for Sept. 12, was pitched as a chance to assert that "We The People are FED up and want [elected officials] to do their job as We The People direct them to." 

(Note to state Homeland Security: Hey, I've helped compile a list of potential threats to public order. Can I bill you for $125,000 now, just like your vendor the Institute of Terror and Research Response did?) 

None of these events are disclosed in the 12-page intelligence bulletin. In fact, the only mention of the Tea Party is a heads-up about a protest against them -- "Burn the Confederate Flag Day.," which the bulletin notes is "targeted at the Tea Party and 9/12 movements." Funnily enough, the bulletin does mention that TP groups are "holding rallies on the same day" ... but obviously doesn't view those gatherings as a threat, since it provides no details.

So see if you can follow this logic. On the one hand, you have a pseudo-populist movement that noisily asserts its Second Amendment rights, and whose members widely consider the current government to be illegitimate and marching toward socialism. On the other hand, you have a demonstration slated to burn the flag used by an armed rebellion against the U.S. government. And guess which of these two groups apparently merits scrutiny? 

State officials have insisted that environmental groups merit additional scrutiny, because there have been acts of vandalism against some natural-gas drilling sites. There's no evidence tying these acts -- a scattered handful of occurrences which could easily be attributed to drunken teens, or methed-out militias shooting at black helicopters -- to environmentalists. Even so, Homeland Security Director James Powers warned that the presence of environmentalsts at public meetings may "spark something else" and "escalate to physical criminal acts." 

And yet, no mention in the bulletin -- or anywhere else -- about the potential for bad blood resulting from angry Tea Partiers lashing out at "town meetings."

It's just a sickening irony. The Tea Partiers fret about government intrusion in their lives, about jackbooted thugs oppressing their rights. And yet time and time again, it seems, the only people who government is really worried about are those of us on the left. 

Friday, September 10, 2010

In Miles case, justice delayed is problem denied

Posted By on Fri, Sep 10, 2010 at 8:21 AM

Jordan Miles, the Homewood student left battered from an encounter with three Pittsburgh police officers in January, has started college now. Theoretically, he could graduate before we ever know what will happen to the police involved. 

Or not. On August 27, KDKA's Marty Griffin reported that the FBI's investigation of the incident "is apparently over ... Sources tell the KDKA Investigators right now the Justice Department has no intention of pursuing charges against the three officers." According to Griffin, "attorneys representing the family" said Justice Department officials told them "We are declining the case involving Jordan" because "It's three against one."

The following day, the Tribune-Review came out with an account that seemed to controvert Griffin's story:

A federal civil rights investigation into three Pittsburgh officers accused of beating a Homewood teenager remains open despite a flurry of rumors that brought a rebuke from the police chief this week ...

"He's wrong. I'm telling you he's wrong," [a family attorney] said of a KDKA reporter.

A spokesperson for the Justice Department in Washington said the civil rights case remains open, but declined to comment further.

City officials sought to squelch speculation that the investigation is finished.

"Those rumors need to cease," police Chief Nate Harper said in an e-mail message from spokeswoman Diane Richard.

I sort of like how the Trib account can't bring itself to even mention Griffin's name. But unbowed, the inimitable Griffin returned Aug. 30 with a report reiterating that, while the family had filed a civil suit, the police would not be charged in a federal criminal case. What's more, Griffin added, "sources indicated the three Pittsburgh police officers will be brought back to full-time duty as soon as possible."

Well, that may or may not be very soon: Police spokesperson Diane Richard told me that as of yesterday, the agency had not yet received any notification from the Justice Department that the case had been closed. Such notification would be necessary, she added, before the city would even act on a request to return the officers to duty. But she had no indication about when, or if, such notification would be forthcoming.

Such word could come in a few days, as Griffin suggests. Conversely, the feds are not obliged to act for another several years: Under federal law, there's a five-year statute of limitations on criminal civil rights violations.

But on the central issue, Griffin and the Trib's dispatch agree: By all accounts, federal officials did tell the family that this matter boils down to a he-said/they said situation. (Echoing Griffin's report, Miles' attorney told the paper that the feds "were reticent about moving ahead because of the credibility about one boy against three officers.") If that's true, it suggests that they've found no other evidence to corroborate one side or the other. And if they haven't found such evidence by now, they're probably not going to.

So unless the family members are really confused, there's not gonna be any federal criminal charges here. The only question is when the feds are going to make that official.

What's notable about the Trib account, in fact, is that you have the city's police chief agreeing with the attorney suing his officers. Both men took pains to insist that the police are still under investigation. How often do you see that happen?

In a way it's not surprising. Because the day the feds do officially drop the case is the day Harper's headaches really begin.

The status quo has a pricetag, of course. As we've previously reported, it's costing thousands of dollars a month to keep the officers involved on administrative leave, pending resolution of the investigation. City taxpayers, in fact, are actually shelling out for overtime the officers would have been earning had they still been on active duty. It gives new meaning to the phrase "working hard hardly working." 

So what is the city buying with all that money? Time, if nothing else.

First, the FBI investigation may not be the last word in investigating this case. The city's Citizens Police Review Board, for example, has been unable to investigate the matter, because as its bylaws clearly state,

Should the Review Board or its staff learn at any time that the District Attorney, the State Attorney General's office or the Department of Justice has initiated criminal proceedings against a Subject Officer, the Review Board shall defer any preliminary inquiry and/or investigation until such criminal proceedings have been withdrawn or concluded.

Even the police department's internal review of the officers is on hold, pending the federal investigation -- which never made much sense, and makes even less sense in light of recent reports. Unless, of course, you are looking for an excuse to delay taking action. 

Suffice it to say that within city government, there are serious concerns about how the community -- especially in police Zone 5, which includes Homewood -- would respond if the officers are cleared and reinstated. Jordan Miles, and the officers accused of beating him, have been in a protracted limbo ... but for city officials, that's probably the least uncomfortable place to be. 

After all, imagine how Griffin's report would have gone over last winter, when Miles' classmates were holding demonstrations outside City Council. Or imagine how a decision to discipline the officers would have gone over in March, when the FOP was wearing T-shirts in the St. Patrick's Day parade to show solidarity with the officers involved.

At this point, though, Miles and many of his friends have gone off to college; younger students are back in school. And Miles' attorneys have filed their civil suit. Football season is beginning, for God's sake.

"No justice, no peace" the old rallying cry declares. But it sure looks like law enforcement is keeping the peace by slowing down the justice system as much as possible.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Anti-drilling activists: you are being watched

Posted By on Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 4:46 PM

A couple of developments worth noting on the Marcellus Shale front.

First, yesterday the non-profit journalism outfit ProPublica reported on law-enforcement warnings about environmental extremists that oppose natural-gas drilling in the deeply buried shale layer. The document (which City Paper has also independently obtained a copy of) is an "intelligence bulletin" dated Aug. 30 and intended for "potentially affected skateholders -- whether public or private sector." 

The bulletin warns that extremists may "try to intimidate companies,"  and warns of "several recent reported criminal incidents toward energy companies." But it discloses no details about those occurrences -- and indeed cites a "lack of direct reporting" on threats. It does, however, itemize a list of events that "have been singled out for attendance by anti-Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas drilling activists." These include such radical gatherings as a Pittsburgh City Council hearing on drilling slated for Sept. 13, and a zoning hearing in Upper St. Clair scheduled for Oct. 4.

Many of the dates in the document have no connection to gas drilling: Also on the list are Ramadan -- an Islamic holy month that terrorists consider "auspicious period for attacks" -- and that Koran-burning idiot down in Florida. (Also noted in the report: critiques of PNC Bank's financing of mountaintop-removal mining practices.) 

But the bulletin makes a point of warning that "environmental extremism [is] likely to become a greater threat to the energy sector." Citing an FBI report from August, it cautions that "Environmental extremists continue to target the energy industry by committting criminal incidents, primarily to opose the fossil-fuel industry." While thus far incidents have consisted of minor vandalism and trespassing, the report warns that environmentalists "may be transitioning to more criminal, extremist measures actions [sic]. Based on several recent reported criminal incidents ... environmental extremism will become a greater threat to the energy industry."

Moreover, it notes that "Pennsylvania has gained a prominent position in the production of natural gas from drilling operations within the Marcellus Shale Formation. Analysts expect that groups of environmental activists and militants on the one hand -- and property owerns, mining and drilling companies on the other -- will be focusing their attention on one another in the future months as production increases."

The ProPublica dispatch includes some assurances from public officials that -- as a gubernatorial spokesman says -- "All this security bulletin does is raise awareness of local officials. It doesn't accuse anyone of local activity."

But it's pretty clear that officials would prefer you not know they are paying attention. Philadelphia City Paper reported earlier today on a follow-up e-mail sent out by the chief of the state's Homeland Security operation. In that e-mail -- which was intended for a private audience, -- state Homeland Security head James Powers urges that the Bulletin "is not for dissemination in the public domain." It is, instead, meant only for "owners/operators & security personnel associated with our critical infrastructure & key resources ... [I]t should only be disseminated via closed communications systems."

Well, that horse is out of the barn, apparently. And ironically enough, the Powers e-mail leaked, apparently, because he sent it to the wrong guy. 

"We want to continue providing this support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against those same companies," he wrote.

None of this strikes me as too surprising -- and I guess it's nice that somebody is paying attention to those city council meetings. A lot of this bulletin seems to be more in "heads-up" mode. And in any case, I suppose in these post-9/11 times, we've all suspected something like was going on. 

Even so, I know of a few environmentalists who are a little creeped out by the idea of secret government surveillance. Although they have at least one bit of consolation -- judging from Powers' e-mail gaffe, the government isn't very good at it yet. 

Playing that same old Toomey

Posted By on Thu, Sep 9, 2010 at 11:19 AM

I've covered a lot of campaigns where the candidates sounded so much like each other that it was hard keeping the quotes straight. This year's Pennsylvania Senate campaign isn't one of them. This year, there's no confusing the messages of Democrat Joe Sestak and Republican Pat Toomey.

This year, the question is whether voters are paying attention. 

Sestak was here on Tuesday, making a speech about his economic plan before a crowd of 80 gathered at Carnegie Mellon University. In some ways, there was very little news here: As Sestak himself pointed out, his policy prescriptions-- which rely heavily on supporting small business with tax breaks and incentives -- haven't changed since last year. 

The larger point of his message was to draw a contrast between himself and Toomey ... not just in terms of his policy, but in approach.

Sestak, who draws on his Navy background at every appearance, noted that one of his first postings was as damage-control officer ... and noted that he's been playing a similar role in Congress. In Congress, Sestak voted for President Obama's stimulus plan, and supported the highly controversial "Wall Street bailout" initiated by Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush.

Toomey, who headed the laissez-faire Club for Growth after leaving Congress, has criticized the bailout. But while it was opposed from both the right and left, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that, whatever its shortcomings, the bailout helped avert another Great Depression. And in his CMU speech, Sestak repeatedly portrayed himself as the practical, solution-oriented guy -- the candidate who put aside ideology in favor of results. He depicted Toomey, by contrast, as an out-of-touch ideologue.

More than once, Sestak faulted Toomey for indulging in "intellectual arguments" and "theoretical debates" while "We are talking about real people, real lives being destroyed."

Toomey's zeal for deregulating financial markets and everything else, Sestak argued, set the stage for the current recession (AKA "Congressman Toomey's unfortunate legacy"). "We put out the fire," he said, "but let's not forget who lit the match." 

And he noted what is sure to be a central irony of this campaign: "My opponent has attacked the steps we took to clean up the mess ... he left behind." 

Sure enough, that very day Toomey released an ad blaming Sestak for voting in favor of the bailout, and faulting the Democrat for accepting contributions from Wall Street. The ad, of course, does not disclose a fact I've noted earlier: Toomey himself has received four times as much money from the financial sector as Sestak has. It's pretty clear that Wall Street has decided who its friends are.

But Toomey has to  hope that voters don't realize that. 

As a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggested, Republicans have some powerful advantages going into November: Among likely voters, they have a 9-point edge. But perhaps the GOP's biggest advantage is that many of those voters don't know what they are talking about

58% believe that Republicans, if they take back control of Congress, will have different ideas than Bush's, versus 35% who think they will return to Bush's policies.

That looks like wishful thinking, at least as far as Toomey is concerned. Check out Toomey's own "plan" for the economy. To the extent it says anything at all, it says this:

[T]he government should be making it less expensive and easier for businesses to hire people. It can do this by cutting taxes and decreasing regulation. For example, if we rescind the stimulus and cut both employees' and employers' payroll taxes instead, every worker would see an immediate increase in their take home pay and it would be less expensive for businesses to hire new workers. If we eliminated the tax on capital gains and lowered the tax on businesses, it would make U.S. companies more competitive, and lead to major job growth.

So what this boils down to is lower taxes on corporations and capital gains -- the kind of income you earn from trading stocks, among other things -- and less regulation of business. Hard to see how any of that is different from the MO of the Bush Administration, which people despise. As Obama noted in his own speech yesterday, Republicans are offering "the same philosophy that led to this mess in the first place:  Cut more taxes for millionaires and cut more rules for corporations.

Toomey is vulnerable on this sort of thing -- or ought to be. The MSNBC poll also notes the following:

Democrats could also find success by stressing unpopular connections within the Republican Party.

For starters, 68 percent of respondents say they’re uncomfortable or have reservations about candidates who support phasing out Social Security and would allow workers to invest their Social Security contributions in the stock market.

That position ... ranks worst on the poll's list of nine candidate attributes.

The second worst: support of George W. Bush's economic policies. Sixty-two percent of survey takers had problems with that political trait.

So there's reason to be optimistic -- or at least hopeful -- about Sestak's chances here. He won't have to work too hard to tie Toomey to some of the most unpopular policies in the country today. But the question is which Pennsylvanians hate more: the bailout itself, or the policies that made it inevitable? And are they even connecting the one with the other? Will we actually decide that the response to a Wall Street-engineered recession involves giving Wall Street even freer rein? 

If so, well ... we're gonna get the Senator we deserve. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Big Brothers Weigh in On Senate Race

Posted By on Wed, Sep 1, 2010 at 11:41 AM

There's been plenty of buzz about this New Yorker profile of the Koch brothers -- whose contributions to right-wing causes make Dick Scaife look lik ... well ... like a senescent shut-in who sends checks to anybody who mails him a set of cat stamps.

The Brothers Koch have made their influence felt mostly by bankrolling the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. If that name sounds familar, it might be because the AFPF's ad attacking health-care reform, Wall Street bailouts, and stimulus spending is hitting local airwaves. The Foundation has been real tight with Tea Party activities, and its patrons have influence at least as large as Scaife's, but without the same sort of scrutiny. As the New Yorker puts it, 

Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said, "The Kochs are on a whole different level. There's no one else who has spent this much money. The sheer dimension of it is what sets them apart. They have a pattern of lawbreaking, political manipulation, and obfuscation. I’ve been in Washington since Watergate, and I've never seen anything like it. They are the Standard Oil of our times."

And are the Brothers Koch taking an interest in Pennsylvania politics? Indeed they are: Their "KochPAC" political committee has been a longstanding patron of GOP Senatorial candidate Pat Toomey. I count $9,500 in contributions in the past year from the PAC. And that's not including whatever benefit Toomey may reap from their latest anti-Washington ad. 

Of course, there's a bit of an irony in all this. The AFPF ad decries the bailout for Wall Street, but the guys who paid for the campaign are supporting a candidate who Toomey rival Joe Sestak has called "Wall Street's Congressman." Indeed, as Dems have gleefully pointed out, no less a publication than Derivatives Strategy Magazine hailed Toomey's presence in Congress because it meant "now the derivatives industry can claim representation by one of its own."

(Really, Dems should just be distributing copies of this article in people's mailboxes. In it, Toomey opines that "The trend in deregulation, beginning in the early 1980s, is one of the biggest reasons for the sustained economic expansion. I would like to see us continue to deregulate on many fronts, including the financial services industry.")

So Toomey is set up pretty sweet. He's getting four times as much money from the "securities and investment" sector as Sestak is. And at the same time, he's also getting the benefit of ads that stoke anger at the securities and investment sector. Just more proof that this tea-party resentment boils down to the wealthy having it both ways -- using people's anger at Wall Street to help enhance Wall Street's position.


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