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    If there is a group of people more anxious about how the Supreme Court will rule on the health care reform law than President Obama and the millions of Americans who are already benefiting from it, it is health insurance executives.

    Not only have their companies been spending millions of dollars implementing the parts of the law that pertains to them — and most of them do — but they also have been counting on the law as very possibly the only thing that can preserve the free market system of health insurance in this country. This is why it is so ironic that defenders of the free market are the most vocal critics of the law and the ones hoping most ardently that the Court will declare it unconstitutional.

     

    Health insurers have known for years that their business practices of excluding growing numbers of Americans from coverage and shifting more and more of the cost of care to policyholders are not sustainable over the long haul. That’s why their top priority during the health care reform debate was to make sure whatever bill Congress passed included the much-vilified individual mandate. And it’s also why the big insurance companies have been working almost frantically to reinvent themselves lately.

     

    Cigna and Aetna recently became the latest of the biggest national firms to rebrand themselves and roll out new logos and self-descriptions. Cigna is now “a global health service company“ while Aetna is now “one of the nation's leading health care benefits companies.” What this means is that these companies and their competitors have come to understand that the very policies that enabled them to make Wall Street-pleasing profits over several years has led to a health insurance marketplace that is shrinking. And as it continues to shrink, so will their profit margins.

     

    Cigna and Aetna and a handful of other companies got to be the giants they are today largely by acquiring scores of their smaller competitors in the 1990s and 2000s. Their acquisition strategy now is very different because they know the glory days of being able to report profits every quarter that are greater than what they reported a year earlier, which shareholders demand, are over. So instead of acquiring other insurers, the big firms are now diversifying by buying data and care management businesses and, to the alarm of many consumer advocates, hospitals and physician groups.

     

    They are doing this because they have failed miserably at expanding coverage and controlling skyrocketing medical costs, as they promised they could do as they were torpedoing Bill and Hillary Clinton’s health care reform bill two decades ago. Even though they hated many of the Clintons’ proposals, they recognized even then that government intervention in the health insurance business would be necessary, that we couldn’t rely solely on them or the free market to fix our broken system.

     

    Here’s what Karen Igagni, who heads America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s largest PR and lobbying group, told a Congressional panel in the fall of 1993:

     

    “The need for national health care reform has been well documented … Universal coverage at broadly affordable cost becomes possible only when insurance risks are spread across a large community. Currently, most health coverage is priced using 'experience rating,' where high premiums are set for high cost groups and low premiums are set for low cost groups. Experience rating financially discriminates against populations that experience high costs: the very young, the very old, the chronically ill, and those with pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes.”

     

    And here’s what Larry English, the former president of Cigna HealthCare, told that same Congressional committee:

     

    “There are many specifics in the President’s plan we believe should be supported enthusiastically. Among them are universal coverage, portability, the elimination of pre-existing condition limitations, the elimination of cream-skimming and cherry picking underwriting practices, the use of community rating, a standard benefit plan and malpractice reform.”

     

    When it became clear, however, that some of the regulations the Clintons were proposing might curtail profits, the insurers began to disown what they had told Congress. They embarked on a campaign to persuade the public that the “invisible hand of the market,” as English said in a speech the next year, would do a much better job of controlling costs and expanding coverage than the Clinton plan.

     

    When the Clinton bill died in Congress, that invisible hand went to work. But it proved to be so ham-fisted that physicians and patients soon rebelled. As it turned out, people didn’t like being required to change doctors, as many of them had to do. And women didn’t like being forced out of the hospital within hours of having a baby or undergoing a mastectomy. So insurers had to ditch many of the practices that presumably would bring down health care costs.

     

    The free-market solution the insurers came up with after the failure of managed care was to herd people into high-deductible plans, just as they herded us into restrictive HMOs 20 years ago. The problem, of course, is that the insurers have to keep increasing both premiums and deductibles to keep meeting Wall Street’s profit expectations. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how that is not a sustainable strategy — unless, of course, the government requires all of us buy coverage and gives subsidies to people who can’t afford the premiums on their own.

     

    Without the individual mandate, so loathed by free market lovers, the pool of people willing and able to buy coverage will continue to shrink, as will insurers’ profit margins. Over the coming years, that pool will become increasingly older and sicker, meaning premiums will soar. Insurers will begin to desert the marketplace. They will not go out of business, but, as their acquisition strategy shows, they will be very different companies.

     

    Insurance executives know they will have to transform their companies even more rapidly — and get out of the risk business sooner rather than later — if the individual mandate is struck down. They have run out of silver bullets. As for those who believe the free market can work in health care just as well as any other sector of the economy, they will see, if the Court declares the law unconstitutional, that it simply does not.

     

    Follow Wendell Potter on Twitter: @wendellpotter

    Wendell Potter http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/wendell-potter

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    A federal judge ordered Wells Fargo to pay $3.1 million in punitive damages over its mishandling of a homeowner's loan, according to a report in the Huffington Post.

    The opinion was issued by Elizabeth Magner, a federal bankruptcy judge in the Eastern District of Louisiana. Manger described Wells Fargo's behavior as "highly reprehensible" in its five-year fight with the homeowner.

    The plight of the homeowner was raised in a Jan. 27 story on iWatch News

    In an emailed statement published in the Huffiington Post, Wells Fargo spokesman Tom Goyda said "we believe that there are numerous factual and legal problems with the opinion and are reviewing our options regarding an appropriate legal response."

    Meanwhile the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created by the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, is reportedly considering new rules to require lenders to provide borrowers with more information about the status of their loans.

     

    John Dunbar http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/john-dunbar

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    The National Rifle Association, a Ralph Reed-led social conservative group and other organizations have quietly begun pumping millions of dollars into voter-registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts to defeat President Barack Obama and help primarily Republican congressional candidates in November.

    The effort appears to be an attempt to match organized labor and liberal groups, known for their effectiveness in those areas. They come after at least a dozen states enacted GOP-backed laws tightening voter registration requirements.

    Democrats fear that the laws will complicate their party’s efforts and those of liberal allies to register new voters and, in turn, suppress turnout among minorities and students, groups that provided crucial backing to the party in 2008. 

    Democratic-allied unions such as the AFL-CIO and liberal groups including the League of Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood are also pouring tens of millions of dollars into their own voter registration and mobilization drives.

    Voters in many states already have been bombarded with millions of dollars in television ads this election season that have largely come from conservative and GOP-leaning groups such as American Crossroads, the Karl Rove created super PAC and its nonprofit affiliate which are aiming to raise $300 million and put the bulk of their resources into television spots which Republican allies are expected to dominate.

    But the funding for ground wars, which are typically below the radar but could be decisive in close elections, is escalating on both sides:  GOP allied groups are upping the ante by challenging liberal allies in high stakes fights to expand their voting bases in battleground states.

    “After 2008, I vowed that as far as possible within my ability I would never allow our side to be that badly outhustled on the ground again,” said Ralph Reed the former Christian Coalition leader.

    This year, Reed hopes to deploy another conservative religious group, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which he founded in 2009, to register and turn out “at least half” of the 17 million evangelicals he said didn’t vote in 2008.

    Liberal groups are equally revved up about the importance of getting their base to the polls in November. The AFL-CIO and other big unions have announced they plan to spend $400 million on this year’s elections — including federal, state and local contests.

    And the AFL alone is aiming to register 400,000 union members who aren’t registered, says Jeff Hauser, who runs political communications for the union. “Groups like Crossroads don’t have the members to do voter mobilization. That’s our strength.”

    These outside allied drives are intended to complement voter mobilization operations by the national party committees and the presidential campaigns where Obama and the Democrats have an early money and infrastructure edge.

    Plainly, both sides are aiming for a big turnout this fall. 

    “This election is going to be won on the ground,” said Chris Cox the top lobbyist for NRA which has recently launched what appears to be its biggest registration drive ever with a multimillion-dollar price tag. “There are millions of gun owners who aren’t registered,” Cox said, noting that about 100 million Americans own guns.

    “We’ll go door to door to do voter registration, education and outreach,” said Cox in describing how the NRA is mounting its “Trigger the Vote” drive. The NRA, whose vaunted grassroots clout is based on its 4 million members,  has hired about two dozen “campaign field representatives” who are helping coordinate drives in over a dozen battleground states including Florida, Ohio and Virginia, Cox said. 

    The NRA registration drive will “work gun shows and retailers” and includes a six-figure television advertising blitz that it launched in February, Cox added. “Voter registration is a very expensive and difficult undertaking.”

    Most of the voter registration funding comes from the NRA’s Freedom Action Foundation, a nonprofit arm that doesn’t have to disclose its donors, Cox said. The Center has reported that one prominent foundation donor is Texas energy magnate Clayton Williams, who last year boasted at a Houston luncheon that drew top NRA officials, that he gave $1 million to the foundation in 2010 and intended to do so again in 2012. 

    Three GOP lobbyists familiar with the expanded NRA registration and mobilization operations this year say that some sizable funds are expected to come from other conservative groups — or possibly major donors such as the billionaire Koch brothers — which are trying to share their largesse with allies with effective grassroots operations.

    Cox declined to comment about funding for the NRA foundation, except to say that it mainly comes from small donors.

    Likewise, other conservative stalwarts are trying to recoup their political fortunes from the 2008 elections.

    Ralph Reed, who is trying to emerge from the cloud he was under because of his close ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff,  said that his Faith and Freedom Coalition has chapters in 30 states and boasts some 500,000 members — of which 185,000 have made donations.

    Reed said coalition chapters in key states such as Florida, Virginia and Wisconsin have begun registration efforts. The coalition will also buy ads and  and focus on “earned media” in about 20 states where there are important multiple contests—presidential, congressional and gubernatorial — Reed said.

    The conservative coalition, which reported in tax forms that it raised more than $5 million in 2010, hopes to spend about twice that amount this year with the bulk targeted for registration and get out the vote drives, Reed said.

    To facilitate various conservative get-out-the-vote drives, two multimillion dollar data banks (one of which is reportedly bankrolled by the Kochs) filled with voter information have been assembled.

    The more robust spending on voter mobilization work by the right is generating buzz among GOP operatives, some of whom attend periodic meetings hosted by American Crossroads. Crossroads and many other super PACs, both conservative and liberal, were spawned by court rulings in 2010 that gave the green light for corporations, unions and individuals to write unlimited checks for ads and other electoral drives that directly back or oppose candidates.

    Crossroads President Steven Law has told the Center that it spent about $10 million in 2010 on voter mobilization operations. Some GOP consultants expect it will do more this cycle given that the super PAC and its nonprofit affiliate are aiming to raise $300 million — more than quadruple the $71 million that the two groups corralled in 2010. Jonathan Collegio, a Crossroads spokesman, said the groups “will be engaged” again in voter mobilization, but that it won’t be a “core function.”

    Meanwhile, it’s expected that labor’s ground operations which have been energized this year by big battles in Ohio and Wisconsin against GOP led attempts to curtail public unions, could be more formidable.

    At the AFL, the “lion’s share” of its spending will be for voter registration, grassroots mobilization and get-out-the-vote campaigns, said Hauser, who is in charge of political communication.

    “Our focus is going to be overwhelmingly on voter mobilization,” Hauser added.

    The 2010 court rulings that gave birth to super PACs also allow unions to dispatch its foot soldiers to talk to non-union members, not just fellow rank and filers.

    And the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees will reportedly spend $100 million this year on its electoral efforts including hefty voter mobilization drives.

    Likewise, a few liberal powerhouses are pouring big bucks into their ground drives — perhaps partly to make up for the demise in 2010 of the controversial community organizing group ACORN which boasted in 2008 that it registered over 1 million voters.

    This year, the liberal-leaning Planned Parenthood Federation of America in tandem with its state affiliates, has initiated a multimillion dollar voter registration campaign, said Jordan Fitzgerald, the group’s director of field and electoral operations.

    Overall, Planned Parenthood hopes to register hundreds of thousands of new women voters in seven states including Nevada, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia, she said. The registration drive is being run by the group’s educational and advocacy arm and is “on a much larger scale than in the past,” Fitzgerald explained.

    Further, the group expects to mount a large turnout campaign in 12 to 15 states, Fitzgerald added.

    Similarly, the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund is launching its first voter registration effort, said Navin Nayak, the group’s political chief. It will be a multimillion dollar campaign focusing on 20 states including California, North Carolina and Texas, he said.

    Further, the League will conduct a voter turnout program in six to eight states (through another nonprofit arm) that will be “much larger” than the $5.5 million which the League spent in 2010 on similar efforts, Nayak said.

    The League is “going to focus on early voting and getting people to vote by mail,” Nayak explained. “This will be a closely fought election and running major field operations will be critical to winning.”

    Former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed Peter H. Stone http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/peter-h-stone

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    In the central March 2008 negotiations over the delivery of advanced weaponry by Russian arms merchant Viktor Bout to a Columbian terrorist group, the key players were two men identified as Carlos and Ricardo.They presented themselves as representatives of FARC, or Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, a group known for kidnappings and drug smuggling, and they did not hide their intention.

    “We want to start … start killing American pilots,” Carlos bluntly told Bout, while asking for assault weapons, sniper rifles, and surface-to-air missiles.

    As Bout abruptly learned when the deal-making sessions at the Bangkok Sofitel Hotel ended with his arrest, neither of the two men were actually with FARC. They were instead paid agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration, who once again had successfully posed as members of a group that has waged a brutal war against the Colombian government.

    Lost in the attention surrounding Bout’s sentencing last week to a 25-year prison term is the fact that the DEA has conducted not just one major FARC-related sting, but at least four in the past six years alone. That they have successfully used the same strategy over and over again suggests that either those in the drug trafficking and arms smuggling world are less well-informed and more careless than their pop-culture images suggest, or that the agency is particularly good at fooling its victims with the convincing patter of some anti-imperialist revolutionaries bent on hobbling a U.S. ally.

    The cases all followed a similar pattern. The DEA set up agents or operatives and put them in contact with the arms dealer. Over a period of time, the dealer worked out a trade with the agents, often weapons in exchange for FARC manufactured drugs (the Justice Department says FARC produces over half the world’s cocaine). Once a deal was reached, DEA agents grabbed the suspect and arranged his extradition to the U.S. to stand trial.

    Among the other successful faux-FARC operations:

    • Before 2008, the most high-profile target was Monzer al-Kassar, an arms dealer with a long history of supporting terrorists. The sting that nabbed him using false FARC representatives occurred in 2007, leading to his arrest in Spain and extradition. He eventually received a 30-year prison sentence.
    • In February 2010, the DEA worked another sting operation to capture Paul Mardirossian, a Swede who agreed to sell agents posing as FARC members grenades and AK-47 rifles — weapons the false FARC members claimed were for the express purpose of attacking a U.S. military base. Mardirossian pleaded guilty and is expected to be sentenced this May.
    • Later that year, former Salvadoran army officer Hector Antonio Martinez-Guillen agreed to sell weaponry for an attack against Americans to a purported FARC representative he thought would supply him drugs in exchange for the arms — and again, the man was working for the DEA. Martinez-Guillen was sentenced to 31 years in prison.

    Why has the same gambit worked so well? It’s something of a surprise to people, including Michael Braun, who helped coordinate the al-Kassar and Bout operations in his role as former Chief of Operations for the DEA.

    “We had used [the FARC sting] for al-Kassar and it worked fine,” he recollects. “When it came to Bout I was concerned - why are we using the same scheme again? What’s the risk here? But as I talked to the agents responsible for moving the initiative forward, it made perfect sense to go ahead and use it again.”

    Part of that reasoning, he said, was that “no one believed that Bout would ever think we would use the same scheme again.” According to Kathi Lynn Austin, head of the anti-weapons profiteer Conflict Awareness Project, testimony at Bout's trial revealed that both Carlos and Ricardo are drug trafficking veterans from Colombia and Guatemala; Carlos had already been employed by the DEA as a purported FARC official in the Kassar case.

    Braun, now a managing partner with Specter Group International, left the agency in 2008 and so did not have a hand in the Mardirossian or Martinez-Guillen operations. But he believes that FARC is a logical patsy for the operations. “The reality is that they need and have always needed weapons,” he says. “They need ammunition. They need explosives. They need air frames.” And with their control of the drug trade, it is believable that FARC would have the cash on hand (or drugs to trade) needed to purchase such equipment.

    Austin said the DEA is conducting such sting operations because it is "expanding its turf.” In the past, she says, the DEA and CIA would often clash about who has jurisdiction over traffickers, with the CIA often coming out on top. “I think this is the DEA getting out from underneath other agencies and asserting itself.”

    Braun disputes that DEA and CIA have waged turf wars, saying that major operations like the Bout sting were cleared with “every three letter agency in the town.” But he does believe that DEA has become a more important agency since the war on terror began in earnest, in part because state sponsorship of terrorism has “significantly” dropped, forcing terrorist networks to find other ways to sponsor their movements — including, in many cases, turning to the sale of drugs.

    “[DEA’s] mission didn’t change, but what they found happening post 9-11 was they were coming into contact with far more designated terrorism organizations than they had before.”

    Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the DEA, said he couldn’t say how many other sting operations have been FARC-related but noted that every operation the agency runs has a drug component. “DEA’s mission is dismantling drug networks” he told the Center. “We don’t get up in the morning and think we need to go get more weapons traffickers. We go where investigations and intelligence leads and in these cases … we took an opportunity and fortunately we were successful.”

    DEA’s use of informants in sting operations is also nothing new, according to Payne. “It’s easy to think we’ve all of a suddenly stepped up our game on some of these individuals, but what I think what you’re finding is these are just very high profile cases.”

    Sting operations don’t get perfect results. Those targeted typically wind up getting arrested for planning new crimes, not crimes they may have committed in the past. In the Bout case, for example, he could only be charged based on that single attempted arms sale to the false-FARC agents, even though that particular case led to four distinct charges — conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens, conspiracy to kill U.S. employees, conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles, and conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist group.

    While the government could conceivably have brought other charges against Bout — it complained about some past arms sales in its presentencing memorandum to the judge — doing so without strong proof of illegal conduct could have harmed the sting case itself. The DEA opted for what it considered a safe conviction, like prosecuting a mobster for tax law violations. 

    Sting operations also mean that if there is a forfeiture of assets from the defendant, none of that money goes towards victims of their previous crimes — so if someone’s family was killed due to Bout’s actions, they would not see a penny from any of his voluminous assets seized by the government. 

    Legally, the sting operations remain on solid ground — in 2011 an appeals court upheld the use of such operations to capture weapons dealers. But there is a risk that such operations might be proving less impressive to judges. Austin noted that Bout got the minimum sentence, despite offering to sell significantly more weaponry than al-Kassar, Mardirossian or Martinez-Guillen. “The court system is getting tired of this pattern, of pursuing these criminals through sting operations,” she says.

    And then there is potential impact from all the publicity around the Bout case on future sting operations. “I think other arms traffickers will think twice before falling for the same kind of sting operation,” says Austin, “and it will make them distrust potential clients.”

    This is fine with Braun. “There’s a certain degree of psychological warfare going on in these cases,” he says. “Think about it. If you were an arms dealer, would you want to sell arms to the FARC right now?”


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    What can the people who run super PACs do with all the cash they have collected when their favorite candidate drops out of the race?

    “They can do pretty much anything they want with the money,” said Viveca Novak, communications director at the Center for Responsive Politics. “They can have a margarita party in the Bahamas.”

    Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s decision to suspend his presidential campaign Tuesday means the “Red, White and Blue Fund” super PAC, which supported him, is without a candidate. The organization and its benefactors helped the under-funded Santorum stay in the game.

    The group will continue to advocate for conservatives, but there’s no rule that says it has to.

    “Pretty much any use of super PAC money — other than coordinating expenditures with candidates or contributing to candidates – would be a legal and permissible use,” said Paul Ryan, an attorney at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.

    Practical considerations would likely prevent super PAC operatives from doing something extravagant — like buying a yacht or taking a junket to the Caribbean. Such a purchase would be “career suicide,” Ryan said.

    Red, White and Blue founder Nick Ryan said the PAC will work to defeat President Barack Obama, “strengthen the conservative majority in the House of Representatives” and “oust the liberal leadership in the Senate.”

    Super PACs are permitted to collect unlimited sums from individuals, unions and corporations and spend the money on ads and other materials supporting or opposing a candidate. The only prohibition is that they cannot coordinate their expenditures with the candidates’ campaigns.

    Through February, the Red, White and Blue Fund raised nearly $6 million, which provided Santorum with a significant boost. After a slow start, Santorum’s campaign raised just shy of $16 million during the same period, while Romney raised about $75 million — and the main super PAC supporting Romney’s candidacy raised an additional $43 million.

    Santorum chalked up an unexpected victory in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. Afterward, his candidacy surged, especially among conservative voters, who helped him rack up wins — and delegates — particularly in the South and Midwest.

    In January and February, his campaign raised $13.5 million, compared to Romney’s $18.5 million. But Santorum ultimately failed to keep up with the former Massachusetts governor, who one recent poll showed beating Santorum even in Pennsylvania, which is slated to hold its primary on April 24.

    Three individuals contributed more than $1 million to the Red, White and Blue Fund through February: Wyoming businessman Foster Friess ($1.6 million) retired Louisiana energy executive William Dore ($1.5 million) and Annette Simmons ($1 million), the wife of GOP super-donor Harold Simmons.

    While records show the Red, White and Blue Fund ended February with just $365,000 in the bank, during March it spent more than $2.5 million on efforts to increase Santorum’s share of the vote in primaries across the country.

    Friess personally spent $71,600 on advertisements and events touting Santorum ahead of the Wisconsin primary last week, where Santorum finished 7 percentage points behind Romney.

    A second super PAC called Leaders for Families raised about $150,000 to aid Santorum’s campaign, spending most of its money in Iowa, where Santorum first gained steam after his unexpected first-place finish.

    The Red, White and Blue Fund hasn’t reported spending any money on Santorum’s behalf this month, while Leaders for Families hasn’t been active in any GOP primary since New Hampshire, which was held on January 10. That group hasn’t been required to file a campaign finance report with the Federal Election Commission since January, at which time it reported ending 2011 with less than $4,400 cash on hand.

    A representative of Leaders for Families could not immediately be reached for comment.

    As for Santorum’s candidate committee, which had $2.6 million on hand at the end of February, there are several options. He must give back contributions meant for the general election. Beyond that, he can give the money to charity, transfer it to a state or national party committee, pay for "winding down" expenses for his campaign or keep it and run again.

    When Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out of the GOP presidential race, he went so far as to ask the FEC if he could turn his campaign committee into a super PAC, a request that the commission granted.

    Staying in the political game appears to be a likely outcome, Santorum intimated during a press conference Tuesday – the same day his three-year-old daughter, Bella, who had been suffering from pneumonia, was released from the hospital. (Bella also suffers from a rare genetic condition called Trisomy 18.)

    “While the presidential race for us is over, and I will suspend my campaign effective today, we are not done fighting,” he said. “This game is a long, long, long way from over.”

    Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.

    Michael Beckel http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/michael-beckel

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    Three separate Center for Public Integrity investigations examining toxic air, green energy contracts and hazards in oil refineries have won 1st place honors in the Society of Professional Journalists’ prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Awards.

    The prizes, among the national winners in a contest attracting more than 1,700 entries, were awarded for:

    • Poisoned Places: Toxic Air, Neglected Communities: Produced in partnership with National Public Radio and the Investigative News Network — won top honors for Public Service in Online Journalism. The series explored how, more than two decades after enhancements to the Clean Air Act, many communities still suffer poisoned air and regulatory neglect. The Center’s main stories were written by Jim Morris, Chris Hamby, Ronnie Greene, Elizabeth Lucas and Emma Schwartz.
    • Green Energy: Contracts, Connections and the Collapse of Solyndra: Written by Ronnie Greene in partnership with ABC News, won the top honor for Online Investigative reporting. The series of reports documented breakdowns in the process by which the Department of Energy awarded lucrative green energy grants and loans.
    • Fueling Fears: Written by Jim Morris and Chris Hamby, won top honors in Online Non-deadline reporting. The reports examined worker and environmental hazards at America’s aging oil refineries.

    The national prizes were announced this week, and will be presented at a July 20 ceremony at the National Press Club.


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    'The awakening of the sinister Dr. Obamacare'

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  • 04/13/12--13:13: Get involved in Ohio
  • Get involved with the State Integrity Investigation.

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    'Herman Cain struck by lightning at tea party rally!'

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  • 04/13/12--13:13: About this story
  • This story was reported by Brett Israel, a Web researcher at EnvironmentalHealthNews.org, a publication of Environmental Health Sciences. 


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  • 04/13/12--13:13: About this story
  • This story was reported by Naomi Schalit and John Christie, senior reporters at the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting.


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    You too can be a “Founding Member” of “Romney Victory” and enjoy a California retreat in June – but it will cost you at least $50,000, and you better act now – only the first 1,000 donors qualify.

    That’s according to an April 10 email solicitation that’s going around to big potential donors and money bundlers, urging them to contribute to a joint fundraising account.

    Presumed Republican GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee and state party committees have joined together to solicit funds for the 2012 election.

    Donors can give a combination of funds, but must be mindful of the legal limits.

    For instance, donors can give $2,500 for Romney’s all-but-over primary election campaign, plus another $2,500 for the general election; $30,800 to the RNC; and $10,000 to at least one state party committee.

    The maximum amount that one person can give to the joint fundraising committee is $75,000.

    Although the location is not named in the email, a possible destination is in or near La Jolla, Calif. That’s where Romney has a large beachfront mansion, now slated for renovation and major expansion, and the location of a 2011 event for hundreds of his early big bundlers.

    That would mean the host might be Romney himself.

    The joint fundraising effort, which was recently announced as the former Massachusetts governor has become the almost inevitable nominee, is similar to one that President Barack Obama’s campaign has used with great success to raise funds for his reelection and the Democratic National Committee.

    Obama has already raised almost $300 million for his reelection and the DNC through their joint fundraising operation.

    Unlike other recent presidential candidates, Romney has not released a list of “bundlers” – people who have collected large checks for the campaign.

    Mitt Romney's ocean-front home in La Jolla, Calif. Peter H. Stone http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/peter-h-stone

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    Get involved with the State Integrity Investigation.

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    Mike Wallace speaks in an interview for "Investigating Power."

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  • 04/13/12--13:13: Maine's report card

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    A former supporter of President Barack Obama, angered by Obama’s signature health insurance overhaul, wants to turn the election season into a horror movie with the aid of a super PAC.

    Last week, Glenn Morton, a 41-year-old health insurance broker and failed congressional candidate who lives in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., launched a low-budget super PAC called “Occupy Obamacare.” The group’s nascent YouTube channel features “Dr. Obamacare” wearing a zombie mask and carrying a scythe with a skull. (Dr. Obamacare also has his own Twitter feed.)

    Apparently, the Obama zombie is meant to be a physical manifestation of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

    In one video, Dr. Obamacare appears in a dark tunnel and warns “If you don’t do as I prescribe, I’ll be extracting the maximum penalty” — before repeatedly slashing with his scythe.

    In another, the zombie Dr. Obamacare appears at a tea party rally wearing a bloody white coat and summons a bolt of lightning to strike down former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain as he urges the crowd to repeal the president’s health care plan.

    “I’m going to run a whole campaign around this one law because I know I have a better solution,” Morton told iWatch News.

    Morton’s super PAC will never be confused with the big guns that have attracted tens of millions of dollars, like the pro-Mitt Romney Restore Our Future and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. So far, he hasn’t bought any advertising to feature his creation and he declined to say how much the group has raised. The videos are apparently largely self-financed.

    But whether you agree with his message or not, the videos are an argument that the super PACs can be an outlet for creative political speech, made possible in part by the liberalization of campaign finance laws.

    Morton plans on releasing a new video starring Dr. Obamacare every two to three weeks, culminating with a capstone video on Halloween — which falls less than a week before Election Day. He says that finale will be “bigger than ‘Thriller,’” Michael Jackson’s zombie film that was released in 1983.

    “‘Thriller’ was so interruptive that everyone had to watch it,” Morton said, adding that it’s human nature to stop and stare at shocking movies and events, such as traffic accidents, that disrupt people’s daily norm. “That’s exactly what I plan on bringing people.”

    While the super PAC may produce disturbing videos, what Morton really wants to talk about is health care.

    He says he’s frustrated that neither candidate on the top of the ticket this fall will be making the case for “real” health insurance reform. In Morton’s view, both Obama’s health insurance reform and Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s law in Massachusetts are designed to take money from people, via the individual mandate, and dole it out to insurance companies.

    “I was a pretty consistent Democratic vote until Obamacare,” said Morton, who freely admits that he voted for Obama in 2008. “But by the time I was done reading the bill, I was a Republican.”

    The super PAC is just the latest tool Morton is using to draw attention to his cause.

    Last year, he published a book outlining his ideas for increasing access to affordable health care. And days before he officially filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to register his super PAC, he placed third — among three candidates — vying for the GOP nomination in Maryland’s 5th Congressional District. (Had he won, he’d be running against House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer.)

    During his unsuccessful congressional campaign, he neither raised nor spent more than $5,000 — the FEC’s threshold for registering as a candidate and filing campaign finance reports.

    So far, Morton’s videos have attracted a relatively small audience thus far, but if enough people see it, he might attract enough cash to start a movement.

    “If you pick the right cause, you can attract a lot of money,” said Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University. “If it does go viral, he’s got it made.”

    A wave of super PACs formed following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and a lower court ruling. They are permitted to collect unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and unions in the wake of federal court rulings in 2010. But the vast majority are low- or no-budget operations.

    “Simply filing the form [to register a super PAC] is something hundreds have done,” said Anthony Corrado, a campaign finance expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “The key is either finding a wealthy supporter to back the cause or being able to attract a broad base of support to raise a substantial amount of money.”

    Regardless of Morton’s ability to attract cash to his cause, he’s at least earning accolades from proponents of super PACs, who say groups like Morton’s increase the amount of speech and ideas in public discourse.

    “I don’t know how far he’ll be able to get,” said David Keating, the president of the Center for Competitive Politics, which advocates for First Amendment political rights. “But it’s good that he’s able to try.” 

    Screen shot of Occupy Obamacare video, which depicts President Obama as a villan killing Herman Cain at a tea party rally. Michael Beckel http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/michael-beckel

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    Mike Wallace speaks in an interview for "Investigating Power."

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  • 04/13/12--13:13: Georgia
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