LEGISLATIVE CORRUPTION: THE FRAYED THREAD:
There is a troubling thread emerging from the ongoing legislative corruption prosecutions. And it should be considered a frayed thread, a troubling metaphor for what too many public servants consider "public service" to be.
How many times have we heard from attorneys defending those charged with politicking on the public dime that the laws prohibiting such activities are "vague." We've heard that even from legal eagles representing state legislators who voted for the measures.
Or, how about this oldie but goodie: "Everybody does it." That's not a defense. That's a whine more typically associated with a sixth-grader whose parents won't let their 12-year-old daughter go on an unsupervised camping trip with the seventh-grade boys hockey team.
And the excuse-making knows no party or gender bounds and no limit on audacity.
State Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, claims a political persecution by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala. But she's been ordered to stand trial on charges that she used one of her offices and legislative staff to politick, a contention staffer after staffer has corroborated.
State Rep. Bill DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, admitted in his grand jury testimony that he was on the other side of the statute. That was the clincher for his being held for trial on public corruption charges. Yet his attorney, William Costopoulos (also employed by Ms. Orie), refers to Mr. DeWeese's actions as "pettygate."
But this isn't petty stuff. The law says it's a crime. And it should be. Taxpayers should not be forced to underwrite an incumbent protection program.
WHO'S AFRAID OF ELIZABETH WARREN?
America went on a dizzying shopping spree following World War II, buying cars and houses, and filling those houses with toasters, ovens, furniture and a staggering array of stuff. This orgy of spending was the birth of a nation of consumers.
In 1972, the Consumer Products Safety Commission was created to regulate the safety of those products. We probably have Ralph Nader to thank for the creation of the CPSC. In 1965, he wrote "Unsafe at Any Speed," a book detailing the little regard many car manufacturers had for the safety of their products. This work not only shifted the onus of safety from drivers to car manufacturers, but laid the groundwork for an era of consumer activism, leading to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other agencies like the CPSC.
As we look back at that time, what's remarkable is not what Nader became — a presidential spoiler — but how short the era of consumer activism lasted. In the 40 years since "Unsafe," few if any individuals have had as much power to effectively stand on the side of consumers.
Now we have Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor who chairs the Congressional Oversight Panel on Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Three years ago, she published "Unsafe at Any Rate," a blistering and eloquent argument for the creation of a Financial Product Safety Commission. As the paper points out, "Consumers can enter the market to buy physical products confident they won't be tricked into buying exploding toasters and other unreasonably dangerous products ... Consumers entering the market to buy financial products should enjoy the same protection."
Warren references exploding toasters often in the paper, likening them to the predatory mortgages and the complicated financial instruments that exploded in our faces in 2008, rocked the economy and led to the current recession.
Warren is one of the leading candidates for a new consumer agency just created with the passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. But despite her qualifications — and despite (or because of) the fact that she literally wrote the founding document for consumer financial regulation — her confirmation is far from a sure bet.
Why? Because the banks are afraid. They fear she will be too tough and have a detrimental effect on the growth of financial products. (Keep in mind that our appetite for and spending on stuff has remained insatiable since the Consumer Products Safety Commission began.)
Naturally, anyone with reasonable intelligence would assume that Warren's unpopularity with banks makes her the best candidate for the job.
But those intelligent people don't get big campaign contributions from banks and financial companies. Those intelligent people don't make billions of dollars on credit-card fees, interest rates, predatory loans, subprime mortgages, and the other products in a consumer financial services industry that has grown to a $3 trillion-a-year business. That business has become an unregulated bazaar of products with little oversight and ruinous impact on many lives.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate banking committee, has questioned whether Warren could garner enough confirmation votes. Some suggest that the Obama administration could bypass an immediate confirmation hearing and appoint her as interim chair, allowing her to create and build the agency.
As we continue to struggle with the casualties of the financial meltdown — from the homeless to the jobless — Warren's appointment could — and should — be the move that turns the tide in a way no other remedy has yet.
—The Philadelphia Daily News
THERE'S PLENTY OF SHAME IN SHERROD RACE CASE:
The Shirley Sherrod affair showcased the worst of American society from beginning to end.
For those who did not follow the sordid saga, here's a recap:
Right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart got hold of a video of U.S. Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod making a speech on race to the NAACP. She told the story of her initial resentment toward a white farm family in 1986 when she was a private lawyer.
The point of the speech was her change of heart. She not only helped the family, but learned the importance of building bridges between whites and blacks.
Either Breitbart or his source isolated the first part of her speech to make it look like Sherrod, today, is a racist. Breitbart even added an incendiary title: "In her federally appointed position ... she discriminates against people due to their race."
Soon the media was in full lather.
Fox News said the clip added to the "firestorm" over NAACP charges of racist elements in the tea party. Sherrod was grilled by CNN. Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly condemned her racism.
"Have we transformed into 1956, only the other way around?" Beck asked. It turns out Beck was half right — it wasn't "the other way around."
The NAACP pressured Sherrod to resign. Then, when the full story emerged, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the White House apologized and offered her job back.
Who has not covered themselves with shame in this affair?
The first raspberry goes to the Leader of the Free World and, apparently, easiest mark on the block. Breitbart's credibility was already suspect after parts of his infamous ACORN video proved to be misleadingly edited. Yet here was President Barack Obama jumping to believe the clip.
The man who, during the 2008 campaign, discussed race with a maturity and intelligence seldom seen in American discourse this time showed himself to be as gullible as one of those fraud victims who sends $10,000 to a "Nigerian prince."
A juicy raspberry goes to Vilsack. When there is alleged wrongdoing by an employee, a good employer never jumps to conclusions. He or she investigates the facts. Since a full video of the speech surfaced quickly, any wise response by Vilsack would have revealed the hoax. Instead, he reacted to the media frenzy with blind fear.
An artificially flavored raspberry goes to right-wing pundits, because they did what they always do — trumpeting "facts" to feed their predetermined narrative. In this case, the narrative is that liberals are the true racists.
Obama "has a deep-seated hatred of white people," Beck said in July 2009. "The NAACP is once again using the divisive language of the past," Sarah Palin said recently.
The NAACP was not being divisive by condemning those few tea partiers who carry signs such as "Obama half-breed Muslim." And the Tea Party Federation acted wisely in rejecting a leader who penned a letter from "Colored People" asking Abraham Lincoln to restore slavery so they didn't have to work.
But the biggest raspberry goes to professional journalists who, this time, merited Palin's label of the "lame stream media." Even more than an employer, journalists are supposed to investigate and verify. Their goal is the truth, their currency facts.
Yet, in this case, the national media ignored Breitbart's credibility. Like lemmings following one another over a cliff, they swarmed a story that was, well, too good to be true.
Only two people deserve our deepest thanks in this affair: Roger and Eloise Spooner. When they heard the charges, the elderly couple came forward and set the record straight about what happened in 1986.
Shirley Sherrod "is a good friend," Eloise told CNN. "She helped us save our farm."
If only saving our tawdry political culture was that easy.
—The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News