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    Getting into the spirit of the Olympics, Priorities USA Action, a pro-President Barack Obama super PAC, released “Romney’s Gold” Wednesday, blasting the former Massachusetts governor’s tenure with Bain Capital.

    The ad depicts footage from the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, which Mitt Romney has been credited with saving, and some creative narration describing the countries with which he has ties. (The opening ceremonies are Friday.)

    "There’s Mitt Romney, who ran the Salt Lake City Games, waving to China — home to a billion people. Thousands owe their jobs to Mitt Romney’s companies," says the announcer. "India, which also gained jobs thanks to Romney, an outsourcing pioneer. And Burma, where Romney had the uniforms made for the 2002 games."

    The announcer continues with Switzerland, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, accusing him of using the nations’ favorable banking laws to add to his wealth.

    “Romney’s Gold” synthesizes a handful of criticisms Romney has faced from other ads and the Obama camp in recent weeks: A company based in Bermuda that Romney failed to disclose, Swiss bank accounts, Cayman Island holdings, Bain’s alleged outsourcing to China and India, and Romney’s decision to have the 2002 Olympic uniforms made in Burma, an oppressive military dictatorship.

    The Romney camp has strenuously denied the outsourcing claims, which were the subject of a Washington Post story.

    The ad will air during the Olympics in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. While it is part of a $20 million campaign launched in May, officials would not comment as to the cost of this particular buy, according to the Los Angeles Times.

    Priorities USA Action, one of the top spending super PACs in the 2012 election, took in $6.2 million and spent $7.4 million in June, finishing the month with $2.8 million cash on hand, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Big June donors include:

    • Media mogul Fred Eychaner — $1 million
    • Jon Stryker, heir to the medical supply fortune of Stryker Corp. — $750,000
    • Actor Morgan Freeman —$1 million

    Eychaner, the CEO of Newsweb Corp., has given $3.8 million to Democratic candidates, parties and committees since 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This includes the $1 million to Priorities USA Action, $1.05 million to House Majority PAC (a pro-House Democrats super PAC) and $500,000 to Majority PAC (a pro-Senate Democrats super PAC) this election cycle. These contributions help make him one of the top donors to super PACs this year.

    Stryker, an architect, has a long history of giving to Democratic candidates and liberal political committees, including animal rights PACs and pro-gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender candidates and PACs. His charitable foundation, the Arcus Foundation, focuses on LGBT social justice issues and protection of great apes in particular.

    He has given $971,000 to political candidates, parties and super PACs since 2008, according to the CRP.

    Freeman’s $1 million contribution to Priorities USA Action is his first major political contribution.

    The Obama campaign itself made a $6.1 million national ad buy with NBC, the network that is airing the Olympics. It includes an Obama ad airing every night during the games plus daytime ads with NBC affiliates, MediaPost reported. No word yet on the content of the ad.

    Pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future has reserved $7.2 million for ads during the Olympics to air in 11 states — most considered up for grabs in November: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. The ads will air from July 31 to August 9, Politico reported.

    While the Romney campaign has not bought Olympics air time, Romney is finishing up his overseas tour in London with two high-dollar fundraising events Thursday — and the Olympics opening ceremony Friday.

    In other outside spending news

    • The Service Employees International Union released “Snow White,” which features Mitt Romney’s face pasted onto a cartoon knight on a horse surrounded by sprouting flowers.
    • Prosperity for Michigan spent $125,000 on a TV ad supporting Republican Clark Durant’s run for U.S. Senate in Michigan, an FEC filing showed Tuesday. Durant is the founder of a group of charter schools in inner-city Detroit. The buy paid for “Half and Half,” an ad comparing Durant’s opponent, former Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra, to current Democratic Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow. This comes in addition to Saturday’s $288,000 ad buy for “Part of the Problem.”
    • The Tea Party Express’ super PAC, Our Country Deserves Better, spent $106,000 supporting the Senate runs of Republicans Ted Cruz in Texas and former state treasurer Sarah Steelman in Missouri.
    • Conservative super PAC Freedom PAC reported Tuesday spending $125,000 on TV ads in support of Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., who is running for U.S. Senate in Florida.
    • Texas Conservatives Fund, a pro-David Dewhurst super PAC, spent $815,000 on advertising opposing Dewhurst’s challenger in the GOP Senate runoff in Texas, Ted Cruz. Conservative Renewal, another pro-Dewhurst super PAC, also spent $50,000 on print ads supporting Dewhurst’s run on Tuesday.
    • Cruz’s supporters countered, with an ad from Club for Growth Action, a tea party-aligned super PAC, spending $575,000 on Tuesday supporting Cruz and opposing Dewhurst with TV and internet spots.
    • Several new super PACs registered in the last week, new filings with the FEC show: 430PAC.org in Lawndale, Calif., The Fat Old Man PAC in Solon, Ohio, Defend Our Homes in Washington, D.C., Sound from the Ground in Bethesda, Md., New Opportunities PAC in New York City, Flyover Super PAC in Lawrenceberg, Ind., and END (Eradicate National Debt) in Chapel Hill, N.C. Only New Opportunities has a working website, and it shows that the super PAC is concerned with electing candidates who support science and technological development.

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  • 08/03/12--12:10: RGA 2nd quarter fundraising

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    The RGA Right Direction PAC is a Washington, D.C.-based super PAC, registered with federal regulators to make independent expenditures supporting or opposing candidates. So what is it doing giving $1 million directly to the Republican running for governor of Indiana?

    The donation to Mike Pence, the largest to his campaign, appears to be a way around state laws limiting corporate contributions to candidates.

    “In one way, it’s legal,” said Andrew Downs of the Center for Indiana Politics, at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. “But if you say this is a way to give in excess of corporate limits, that’s also absolutely true.”

    Right Direction is funded entirely by the Republican Governors Association, a so-called “527” organization dedicated to electing as many Republicans to governorships as possible — a mission fueled by contributions from some of the largest corporations in the country. In Indiana, candidates can accept unlimited donations from individuals and political action committees but only $5,000 from corporations and unions. Corporations and unions can also give to PACs, but only in small sums.

    Whether the check to Pence was drawn on a bank account that contained corporate money is not a matter of public record.

    Donations come from one fund

    In an email, RGA spokesman Michael Schrimpf said “nothing in our reports suggests” that the organization gave corporate funds to Pence. All RGA expenditures, he said, come from a general fund.

    “It’s the new model of disclosure subterfuge,” said Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics and former longtime Federal Election Commission official. “It’s not what a normal human being would call transparent.”

    The donation to Pence appeared in FEC filings July 15. It is the latest in a series of campaign finance maneuvers by the RGA which have prompted legal challenges in two states claiming the group violated limits on corporate giving.

    Right Direction reported receiving four contributions totaling $1.3 million from the RGA since January. Super PACs can accept unlimited donations from corporations and labor unions, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

    Right Direction’s 2010 boiler-plate registration letter filed with the FEC said it “intends to make independent expenditures” — ad buys and other spending that supports or opposes candidates.

    FEC filings show the group has not reported any independent expenditures, but has spent money helping state candidates in Ohio in 2010 when it was known as RGA Ohio PAC.

    In addition to Right Direction’s $1 million contribution to Pence, it also made two contributions to the Montana Republican Party totaling $200,000. The Right Direction PAC is registered with both Indiana and federal election regulators.

    Source of funds obscured

    In federal records, it reports its donors as the RGA — which effectively obscures the original source of the $1 million check to Pence.

    There is no paperwork required by the state of Indiana that shows whether those funds were derived from the RGA’s corporate donors. The RGA’s Schrimpf says it is following the relevant state and federal campaign finance laws “as efficiently as possible.”

    According to Abbey Taylor with the Indiana Election Division, “It’s a pretty nice little loophole, and loopholes are meant to be exploited.”

    Corporations can give directly to Indiana candidates, but are limited to $5,000 donations. Drug giant AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson have each given $2,500 and Nestle USA has given $5,000 to the Pence campaign since January. These same companies gave $350,000, $25,000, and $12,500 donations respectively to the RGA’s 527 organization in the same time period.

    A corporation can also support the governor by passing the contribution through a political action committee. It can give $5,000 to the PAC during each election cycle and the PAC can give unlimited amounts to the candidate.

    PACs registered only inside Indiana must itemize contributions in reports to the state, including those from corporations. The Indiana Merit Construction PAC, for example, gathered donations from dozens of construction companies and gave $32,500 to Mike Pence in June — bringing its total giving to the campaign to $69,000 this cycle.

    Nothing to see here

    Right Direction is not required to file such a report, according to state election officials.

    A 527 can accept unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and individuals. They may not give money directly to federal candidates but can fund issue advertising campaigns and other political activities. They are regulated by the Internal Revenue Service but not the FEC and are required to report their donors and spending.

    Because Right Direction is registered with both the state and the FEC, the Indiana Election Division cannot regulate its spending activity. Co-Director Trent Deckard says state law constrains his agency to regulating PACs that are solely registered with the state.

    “I truly understand the public concern here,” said Deckard, “but there’s 150 members of the legislature who would have to vote on this question. We can always hope for greater transparency.”

    The Election Division usually does not take up its own investigations unless prompted by citizen complaints. So far, none have been lodged against the RGA’s activity.

    “Whether it passes the smell test is for voters to decide,” said Downs. “This is part of the shell game that concerns people about campaign finance."

    The RGA donation to Pence is nothing new.

    National campaign

    The organization gave seven-figure sums to six different gubernatorial candidates in 2010. The group was a top donor in the Pennsylvania, Illinois, Texas, Oregon, New Mexico, and Iowa races. In 2004 and 2008, its PAC also gave a total of nearly $3.9 million directly to Mitch Daniels’ successful bids for Indiana governor, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

    “The RGA is confident they can get away with this — they’re riding on a new level of hubris,” said Edwin Bender, director of the institute.

    The RGA’s 527 raised $16.7 million since April, nearly twice as much as its Democratic counterpart. Fifty-seven percent of that money came from corporate treasuries and corporate PACs, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of IRS records.

    Koch Industries has given the RGA $2 million, health insurance giant Blue Cross/Blue Shield $1.6 million, and Sheldon Adelson’s Sands Casino group $1 million in the 2012 cycle. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bob Perry have each added $750,000 to the RGA coffers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

    If Pence were running to keep his 6th District congressional seat, his campaign couldn’t touch a dime of donations from the RGA super PAC. But because he’s running for a state office, and doing so in a state that allows unlimited PAC contributions to candidates, the RGA super PAC can wire cash direct to his war chest.

    The $1 million gift accounts for a third of Pence’s haul since April in his race to replace Daniels in the governor’s mansion. A week after getting the super PAC infusion, Pence launched an early TV ad blitz — the first of which featured his wife recounting Pence’s homegrown Hoosier credentials.

    Pence leads money race

    Pence has twice as much cash as his Democratic opponent John Gregg as of July 16. The Democratic Governors Association has given Gregg $29,000 since January. The DGA’s June filing with the FEC contains small donors as well as $250,000 checks from each of the national teachers unions.

    Its state-registered PAC only lists the DGA’s 527 as the donor, raising similar questions about the origin of its contributions to Gregg. Officials at the DGA say the contributions in Indiana are in compliance with state election law.

    On top of “the RGA’s million-dollar bailout,” Gregg’s spokesman Daniel Altman cited large donations from billionaire donors including the Koch brothers and Rick Santorum-backer Foster Friess as evidence that Pence is “financed by out-of-state donors who do not have Indiana’s best interests at heart.”

    The Pence campaign did not return calls for comment.

    The state has not seen a seven-figure direct contribution to a candidate since 2003 when Bren Simon, the widow of an Indiana mall magnate, gave $1.3 million to former Democratic National Committee chairman Joe Andrew’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.

    The $1 million contribution dwarfs one made by conservative industrialist David Koch, who gave $100,000 to Pence in January. Koch also gave $1 million to the RGA in February.

    Pervasive force

    The RGA has been a pervasive force in state elections. It has spent $80 million on state races in 40 states since 1999 — more than half of that money has gone directly to candidates, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Some states have been concerned about the national group's influence.

    North Carolina and Vermont agencies have taken legal action against the RGA, claiming it violated the states' caps on corporate giving and must be regulated as a state PAC. In both cases, the RGA has used its pervasive reach as a defense, claiming that its "major purpose" is not to influence elections in any one state. Therefore, it has argued, no state can regulate it as a state PAC. 

    "By that logic, they're not a PAC anywhere, and can't be regulated anywhere," said Stetson Law professor Ciara Torres-Spelliscy. "Do we have political entities that are too big to regulate?"

    In North Carolina, the RGA carried the day, despite spending way above the state's limits for PACs.

    Vermont's Attorney General claims that both governors associations have violated state campaign finance laws. The state's challenge to the DGA-funded Green Mountain Future 527 is headed for the state's Supreme Court. The case against the RGA claims the organization bought ads through its 527 during the 2010 campaign, but did not report that spending to the state. The RGA is yet to present its defense in the case.  

    "You need a state that's willing to pick a fight with the RGA," said Torres-Spelliscy, "but they're so powerful that there's this natural reticence to ticket them for running the red light.”

    Center for Public Integrity reporters Michael Beckel and Reity O'Brien contributed to this report.

    Gubernatorial candidate Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., received a $1 million check from the Republican Governors Association — a contribution whose original sources remain shrouded in darkness. Paul Abowd http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/paul-abowd

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    New Jersey-based Jet Set Sports is among the sponsors of the U.S. Olympic team. It could also be described as a corporate sponsor of Republican Mitt Romney’s candidacy.

    It’s a sponsorship that comes with some unwelcome baggage for Romney. Jet Set’s founder was a major player in the scandal that surrounded the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic games — a mess that Romney has been credited with cleaning up. 

    Jet Set Sports Holding, L.P., which has offered luxury hospitality packages for the Olympic Games for three decades, is one of more than 100 companies to donate to Restore Our Future, the main super PAC backing Romney’s presidency. It donated $100,000 to the group last November.

    Jet Set Sports’ connection to Romney doesn’t end there, though.

    Company founder and chairman Sead Dizdarevic and his wife Margaret each donated $50,000 to Restore Our Future in January. And Jet Set Sports President Mark Lewis is working in his home state of Montana as a co-chair of Romney’s finance team.

    Lewis and both Dizdarevics have also donated directly to Romney’s campaign.

    Lewis gave Romney $2,300 during his failed presidential bid four years ago and has given Romney $2,500 so far this cycle. Similarly, in 2007, Sead Dizdarevic donated $2,300 to Romney and Margaret gave $1,900. This election, each has given $2,500 to Romney as he tries to unseat Obama.

    A decade ago, Dizdarevic was implicated in the bribery scandal surrounding the Olympic Games in Salt Lake. Organizers of the games had allegedly offered perks to International Olympic Committee members to secure the games.

    According to federal prosecutors during the subsequent trial, Dizdarevic and his sister-in-law supplied $131,000 in cash to the local organizers during the mid-1990s. Dizdarevic, who was granted immunity during the trial, said the money was part of an attempt to curry favor and secure a hospitality contract for the Utah games.

    Ten International Olympic Committee members resigned or were dismissed in the wake of the corruption scandal, even though the two officials charged in the trial were ultimately acquitted.

    Despite Dizdarevic’s role in the controversy, Jet Set Sports was named the official sponsor of hospitality packages for the Salt Lake City games, offering tickets, dining services, ground transportation and accommodations at some of the area’s most luxurious hotels. And Jet Set Sports has continued to win prestigious contracts for the Olympic Games ever since.

    During the 2008 Beijing games, Jet Set Sports reportedly netted $70 million, although Dizdarevic has put the figure closer to between $20 million and $30 million. Ahead of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the Seattle Times wrote that Dizdarevic stood to make more money off the games “than any single person.”

    Officials from Jet Set Sports and the Romney campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Restore Our Future spokeswoman Brittany Gross said the group does not discuss its donors.

    A worker passes the Olympic Basketball Arena as preparations continue for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The opening ceremonieswill be held Friday, July 27. Michael Beckel http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/michael-beckel

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    Republicans and conservative super PACs have pounced on President Barack Obama’s July 13 comment at an event in Virginia: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.”

    Thursday’s ad from American Crossroads, the football-themed “Replay,” hammers home their talking point: that Obama believes small business owners didn’t build their businesses on their own.

    The super PAC’s July 24 ad “Build” also uses the quote, as has the Mitt Romney campaign and other GOP candidates. The Republican National Committee’s video “The More Context You Get, the Worse It Sounds” also takes advantage of the admittedly artless quote.

    But in fact, the more context you “get,” the more holes show up in the argument.

    Obama’s speech on July 13 focused on government investments — in infrastructure, public schools and research. He talked about the investors, the educators and the inventors that underlie the American economy.

    It becomes clear with context that Obama is not dismissing the effort of business owners: “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together,” Obama said seconds after the “you didn’t build that” comment.

    But the ads show the quote as a stand-alone; no context is provided. The Romney campaign goes so far as to play the statement on a loop for 15 seconds in an online video.

    FactCheck.org and The Washington Post’s The Fact Checker have both concluded that the quote is out of context and misleading, and the Obama campaign pushed back with “Tampered” on July 23 to criticize the ads for misrepresenting what he said.

    Nonetheless, the quote survives. On Wednesday, the Romney campaign held events featuring local business owners in 24 states with the slogan, “We did build this.”

    American Crossroads, responsible for the newest ad repeating the quote, is one of the best-funded super PACs in the country, finishing June with $31.5 million in cash on hand. Its top funders include businessman Harold Simmons and his company Contran Corp., Texas homebuilder Bob Perry, and former Univision owner Jerry Perenchio.

    The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the country’s largest — and nominally bipartisan — business association, launched a series of ads Wednesday night opposing Democratic candidates:

    In other outside spending news:

    • Majority PAC, a pro-Senate Democrats super PAC, reported to the Federal Election Commission Wednesday a $230,000 media buy opposing John Brunner, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri.
    • National Horizon, an Arizona-focused super PAC, reported spending $100,000 on Sunday for the fairy tale-themed attack ad “Prince Ben,” which opposes the re-election of Rep. Ben Quayle, D-Ariz.
    • Senate Conservatives Action, the new super PAC associated with what was formerly South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint’s leadership PAC, spent $511,000 on ads to support tea party favorite Ted Cruz in his U.S. Senate run in Texas. Cruz faces GOP establishment favorite Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a runoff next Tuesday.
    • SEIU COPE, the super PAC of the Service Employees International Union, reported spending nearly $49,000 on TV ads supporting the congressional run of Christie Vilsack, a Democrat and the former first lady of Iowa. The ad “More of That” was released July 23 and produced with the House Majority PAC, which contributed $30,000, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which contributed $35,000.
    • SEIU COPE also spent $136,000 on TV ads opposing Romney.
    • Three new super PACs registered with the FEC: Patriot Prosperity PAC in Washington, D.C., The Faux News Super PAC in Cortez, Colo., and Sovereignty Matters in Novoto, Calif.

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  • 08/03/12--12:10: Tragedy at UCLA
  • The Center for Investigative Reporting

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    Four days after Christmas 2008, UCLA research associate Sheri Sangji caught fire. She was performing an experiment in a university laboratory and accidentally pulled the plunger out of a syringe filled with a chemical that combusts upon contact with air. The chemical spilled on her hands and torso, burning almost half her body. She died 18 days later. She was 23.

    Sangji’s supervisor, chemistry professor Patrick Harran, faces felony charges for the accident, as does the University of California’s Board of Regents. It’s the first time a professor in the United States has been criminally prosecuted in connection with the workplace death of an employee. Harran and university lawyers are to appear in a Los Angeles courtroom on Friday. A long-delayed arraignment may take place — or, a plea agreement may be announced.

    Harran and UCLA Chancellor Gene Block have called Sangji’s death a tragic accident, not a crime. Sangji’s sister, Naveen, feels differently. “If this were a regular person out on the street who got drunk and killed someone,” she says of Harran, an award-winning researcher, “he would be going to jail.”

    On Friday the Center for Public Integrity will publish an in-depth story, produced jointly with the Center for Investigative Reporting, on the Sangji case. The story is part of the Center’s Hard Labor project.

    UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran and the UC Board of Regents face felony charges for the death of lab worker Sheri Sangji. Jim Morris http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/jim-morris

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    The fume hood in the UCLA Molecular Sciences Building in which Sheri Sangji was working on Dec. 29, 2008.

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    Tuesday’s Republican runoff for U.S. Senate in Texas is the most expensive congressional race this election, thanks largely to super PACs supporting the underdog tea party candidate over the far-better funded favorite.

    Thus far the race has attracted a total of $13 million in spending by super PACs and other independent groups, according to Federal Election Commission records.

    Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has raised nearly $30 million for the race against former state solicitor general and tea party favorite Ted Cruz — more than $21.5 million of it from his own personal fortune. That’s about three times as much as Cruz. Dewhurst’s campaign has also outspent Cruz’s by a ratio of about 3-to-1, according to FEC records.

    Meanwhile, super PACs backing Cruz have spent $7 million according to reports filed with the FEC through Thursday, nearly as much as the $7.6 million spent by Cruz’s own campaign. Dewhurst, however, has benefited from $6 million in support from two Texas super PACs, one of which is backed by heavyweight Texas donor Bob Perry and billionaire Harold Simmons.

    That’s far less than his campaign has spent, however; the Dewhurst campaign reported approximately $24.5 million in total disbursements in its most recent FEC filing in mid-July.

    Super PACs were created following the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. They can accept contributions from unions, corporations and individuals and spend the money on ads attacking or supporting candidates but are prohibited from coordinating with a candidate’s campaign.

    The two men are vying to fill the seat currently held by senior Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who decided not to run for re-election.

    Dewhurst outpolled tea party favorite Cruz in the May primary 45 percent to 34 percent, short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff. Dewhurst and Cruz will face off once again Tuesday in this season’s most expensive congressional race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

    The top spender on behalf of Cruz is the Club for Growth Action Fund at just over $5 million. Also supporting him is FreedomWorks for America. The group has spent more than $450,000 on behalf of Cruz’s campaign this year, according to FEC records.

    FreedomWorks spokesman Ryan Hecker said without the momentum of “grassroots activism” from the past few years, Cruz would not be where he is.

    “Dewhurst has an unlimited war chest, and if this was four years ago, I don’t think he would have had an opponent,” Hecker said. “But things have changed dramatically over the past few years.”

    The lieutenant governor earned his fortune as an energy company executive. Dewhurst has pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act, deregulate existing environmental regulations that hinder Texas business and cut spending.

    The victor will face the winner of the Democratic primary runoff, also on Tuesday. Former state Rep. Paul Sadler and retired teacher Grady Yarbrough are the top candidates in that race.

    The surge of outside money supporting Cruz reflects the national trend that helped tea party-backed Richard Mourdock of Indiana defeat six-term Republican incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar in that state’s May primary.

    In Utah, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch spent heavily and moved to the right on the political spectrum to defeat tea party candidate Dan Liljenquist in the state’s May 8 primary election. Hatch won easily earning two-thirds of the vote in that race.

    Club for Growth Action and FreedomWorks for America advocate for limited government, deficit reduction, tax cuts and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

    Both Club for Growth Action and FreedomWorks have run ads that paint Dewhurst as an “establishment politician” and “long-time insider” in contrast to Cruz, a “true conservative” and strict constitutionalist.

    Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said the anti-tax group has tried to make people aware that Dewhurst “is an establishment moderate who supported tax increases in the past.”

    The Dewhurst campaign did not return a call requesting comment. However, he has described himself in the past as “the most conservative lieutenant governor in the history of the state of Texas.”

    But the attacks aren’t one-sided. Pro-Dewhurst groups like the Texas Conservatives Fund and Conservative Renewal have bankrolled a series of Cruz attacks that have grown increasingly ugly.

    A recent ad from the Texas Conservatives Fund misleadingly links Cruz, a private appellate lawyer, to Pennsylvania developer Robert Mericle, who was at the center of the 2009 “kids for cash” scandal. The developer pleaded guilty to bribing two federal judges to send juveniles to his private detention facilities.

    Neither Texas Conservatives Fund nor Conservative Renewal returned calls seeking comment.

    The super PAC Texas Conservatives Fund has scored six- and seven- figure donations from the state’s GOP establishment, including Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who has contributed $1 million, and homebuilder Bob Perry, who has contributed $300,000.

    It is harder to tell who is backing Cruz. FreedomWorks for America, one of Cruz’s biggest supporters, has received approximately 40 percent of its money from its connected nonprofit, FreedomWorks, according to CRP. Because of FreedomWorks’ nonprofit status, it is not required to disclose where it gets its money.

    Club for Growth Action also receives money from a connected nonprofit, though the amount and percentage are much smaller.

    A July 12 study from Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm based in North Carolina, showed Cruz enjoying a 49 percent to 44 percent lead over Dewhurst, and a notably more energetic band of supporters.

    The poll found that among voters who described themselves as “very excited” about voting in the runoff, Cruz’s advantage expands to a 59 percent to 36 percent margin.

    Dewhurst’s supporters are less enthusiastic; the poll shows those who identify themselves as “someone excited” favor the lieutenant governor 51 percent to 43 percent. Dewhurst enjoys a 50 percent to 36 percent advantage with voters who described themselves as “not that excited.”

    The findings suggest voter turnout, typically low in runoff elections, might determine the victor on Tuesday.

    Although Dewhurst was a favorite early on, the ad campaigns of recent weeks have made the race much more competitive, said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

    Early voting began July 23 and will continue through today. Turnout for this election is expected to be greater than it was for the primary — a surprising turn of events, given the heat of the Texas summer. That’s good news for Dewhurst, Jillson said.

    “The phrase people are using is, ‘Will the higher turnout dilute the tea?’” he said.

    Center for Public Integrity reporter Michael Beckel contributed to this report.

    FILE - In this June 22, 2012 file photo, Texas Senate Candidates Ted Cruz, left, and Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst , right, are seen after their televised debate in Dallas, Texas. Cruz, the tea party candidate for U.S. Senate has come a long way since he kicked off his campaign more than a year ago with seemingly no chance of competing against the mainstream GOP front-runner in the race, Dewhurst.( AP Photo/Pool/LM Otero, File) Alexandra Duszak http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/alexandra-duszak Reity O'Brien http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/reity-obrien

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    Federal officials in charge of detecting dangerous nuclear materials charted a new strategy at a House hearing on July 26, in the aftermath of the government’s failed attempt to build large, advanced radiation scanners for ports and border crossings.

    Huban Gowadia, the acting director for the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, said her office will sharply increase the use of hand-held monitors, which she said are both cheaper and more reliable than the stationary scanners the government spent six years trying to develop.

    But she emphasized that the task of preventing the importation of dangerous nuclear materials — including those that could be fashioned into  so-called “dirty bombs” — remained an “inherently difficult technical task,” and offered no near-term, comprehensive solution.

    The nuclear detection office, part of the Homeland Security department, sunk $230 million into developing 13 Advanced Spectroscopic Portals that scientists and nuclear security experts assessed as a bad investment.

    In 2011, the National Academy of Sciences reported that much of the nuclear detection office’s testing on its own product was “misleading.” The academy found that the new machines, despite their high price tag, offered little improvement over previous technology and even performed worse in some key areas, such as detecting radiation that would have been “masked,” or concealed in lead lining, for example.

    The new machines cost $1.2 million each to develop — twice as much as older radiation monitors that the government deployed at nearly 600 locations after the 2001 terrorist attacks. According to the Raytheon Corporation, one of the developers of the new machines, the older ones were unable to distinguish between genuine threats and naturally-radioactive fertilizer or bananas — requiring costly second inspections whenever they alarm.

    Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., who chaired Thursday’s hearing of the House subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies, called the new machines a “costly failure” and said they left the government “without the improved radiation detection equipment needed.”

    Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., the committee’s senior Democrat, said, “I hope that our congressional oversight has had an effect in bringing to light decisions that caused the taxpayers a lot of money with little to show,” Clarke said. “I hope we don’t see that kind of decision making again.”

    Gowadia responded, “We’ve had lessons learned. We’ve definitely stepped up — based on your oversight and GAO’s recommendations — a solutions development process. All around, the rigor of our program management and execution has come far.”

    David Maurer, the Government Accountability Office’s director of Homeland Security and Justice issues, told the subcommittee that Homeland Security is learning from its past mistakes and that “the best evidence of this is the department’s announcement last week that it was cancelling the ASP program.”

    He attributed much of that program’s failure to a lack of coordination within the nuclear detection office, but said he was pleased with new focus on addressing that problem.

    “A key challenge they face is that often times the people at DHS who were developing new technologies weren’t talking to the actual end-users,” Maurer said. “So, sometimes there were some pretty serious disconnects between folks developing technologies and those who actually ended up using them in the field. And they have plans in place now to address that problem.”

    Gowadia said several of the 13 advanced portal machines already developed by her office would be handed over to state detection agencies for use in weigh stations and monitoring trucks crossing the Mexico-U.S. border.

    Trucks pass through an Advanced Spectroscopic Portal toward a security booth Wednesday, April 11, 2007 at the New York Container Terminal in the Staten Island borough of New York. Zach Toombs http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/zach-toombs R. Jeffrey Smith http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/r-jeffrey-smith

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    In an unprecedented ad blitz, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $5.9 million on a series of attack ads against seven Democratic candidates and one independent candidate in key Senate races, according to its disclosures to the Federal Election Commission Thursday.

    These included:

    • $1.7 million for “Deciding,” opposing the re-election of Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida
    • $1 million for “The Express” (aka “Wrong Track”) opposing former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine
    • $914,000 for “Own It,” opposing the re-election of Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio
    • $846,000 for “Failure,” opposing the Senate run of Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin
    • $600,000 for “Mirror Images,” opposing Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and former Republican state treasurer Sarah Steelman
    • $400,000 for “Mainers Know,” opposing former Maine Gov. Angus King, an independent
    • $257,000 for “Dome” (aka “Not the Kind of Leader Montana Needs”) opposing the re-election of Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana
    • $250,000 for “Stand,” opposing the Senate run of Democrat Rep. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

    The Chamber calls itself a bipartisan business association, but their ads habitually target Democrats. The only Republican senatorial candidate it has attacked is Sarah Steelman in Missouri, because the Chamber favors her rival, Republican businessman John Brunner.

    Chamber spokeswoman Blair Latoff said the Chamber’s endorsements are the result of an “exhaustive process” that takes into account issues of importance to the business community. “[The Chamber] does not make an endorsement based on party affiliation or on any single vote or policy position,” Latoff said in an email.

    They have so far run two pro-Democrat ads, supporting Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah and Rep. John Barrow of Utah, Latoff said.

    The Chamber announced five of these new Senate ads in a press release – those involving Florida, Montana, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin. But it has not commented on its ads in Virginia, Missouri and Maine.

    Until recently, the secretive Chamber only bought electioneering communications — ads that don’t flat-out say “vote for” or “vote against” a particular candidate. But the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. decided on March 30 that the financial sources for such ads must be disclosed. As a result, the Chamber shifted to funding express advocacy ads in which the funders can be anonymous.

    The group released its first wave of express advocacy ads on July 16 at the cost of $1.1 million, the Daily Disclosure reported. So far, the Chamber of Commerce has spent $10.7 million on its campaign activities, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

    The ad attacking King in Maine has attracted attention because of his popularity in the state, The Washington Post reported. The other locales are considered “swing states” that could decide which party controls the Senate next year.

    The chamber’s expenditure in the Maine Senate race was the first by an independent group to exceed $100,000 for that race, to FEC records.

    In Virginia, the anti-Kaine ad says he proposed “billions in new taxes” and “higher energy costs for families.” It did not mention that he eliminated Virginia’s estate tax and increased the earning threshold to help remove low-income families from the state tax roll, the Associated Press reported.

    The ad also claimed Kaine supports “higher energy costs for families,” in a reference to his support for legislation reducing greenhouse gases. But it did not mention his support for oil and gas exploration off Virginia’s coast, over President Obama’s opposition.

    The Missouri ad links Democrat McCaskill to Steelman, one of her Republican rivals, saying they both support “union bosses” and “trial lawyers.” But Steelman, who is up against Brunner in a primary on Aug. 7, has said she strongly favors “right to work” laws, which unions oppose.

    In other outside spending news:

    • Priorities USA Action, a pro-Barack Obama super PAC, has removed an ad called “Romney’s Gold,” from the web and will not air it during the Olympic Games as planned, CNN reported. It did so at the request of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which was supported by the International Olympic Committee. Olympic footage is not supposed to be used in any political ads. The pro-Obama group cited “copyright concerns” for taking it down. The ad, featured in Wednesday’s Daily Disclosure, cost more than $1 million in production and airtime costs, according to a filing on Thursday with the FEC.
    • Majority PAC, a super PAC supporting Senate Democratic candidates, reported Thursday spending nearly $749,000 on ads opposing four Republican Senatorial candidates: former Sen. George Allen of Virginia, hedge fund manager Eric Hovde of Wisconsin, former Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, and Rep. Rick Berg of North Dakota.
    • The Texas Conservatives Fund, super PAC supporting Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, reported spending $500,000 Thursday on advertising July 25-26 opposing tea party candidate Ted Cruz in the race for the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in Texas. In a separate filing Thursday, the super PAC reported spending an additional $125,000 on advertising opposing Cruz.
    • The League of Conservation Voters rolled out an ad opposing Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., focusing on his votes for tax breaks for oil companies. The ad, which cost $150,000 and is airing in the Reno market, shows a man washing oil off his hands.
    • The Now or Never PAC, a super PAC supporting GOP Senate candidate Sarah Steelman of Missouri, reported spending $218,000 on Friday on ads opposing John Brunner, her challenger in the Aug. 7 primary. The super PAC’s largest contributor is Steelman’s mother-in-law, Maxine Steelman, according to its July filing with the FEC.
    • Citizens for a Working America, a pro-Mitt Romney super PAC, made a $165,000 TV ad buy opposing Republican Scottie Mayfield, the president of Mayfield Dairy Farms, a candidate from Tennessee for the House of Representatives.
    • New Directions for America, a super PAC supporting Democratic candidates for Congress, reported spending $132,000 on a media buy in support of public relations executive Dan Roberti, a candidate in Connecticut’s upcoming Democratic U.S. Congressional primary.
    • A new super PAC, The Heartland Project of Chicago, registered with the FEC Wednesday.
    • The University of Hawaii Professional Association released an ad on July 16 supporting former Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, over former Republican Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle. They are vying for the seat vacated by Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka.

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    Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court overturned parts of the state’s controversial Act 13 on Thursday, returning zoning authority over natural gas drilling to the municipalities and townships that had contested the five-month-old law.

    The Center for Public Integrity reported last month that local governments had banded together to challenge Act 13, a state law that overrides municipal zoning jurisdiction. Under the law, companies that use a drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing – commonly known as fracking – to tap gas deposits in shale would have been free to drill even in areas where local officials had voted against wells.

    The court declared the act’s zoning sections “unconstitutional, null and void,” throwing out parts of the law that allowed the state to supersede local zoning authority and waive well-spacing requirements.

    Dan Pelligrini, the court’s president judge, wrote on behalf of the majority that Act 13 “violates substantive due process because it does not protect the interests of neighboring property owners from harm, alters the character of neighborhoods and makes irrational classifications.”

    Governor Tom Corbett, who supported and signed the law in February, announced Friday that his office would appeal the ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

    “The provisions struck down by the Commonwealth Court are critically important for job creators who are employing more than 240,000 Pennsylvanians, for landowners seeking to exercise their property rights, and for local governments looking for guidance on how they may reasonably regulate oil and gas operations,” Corbett said in a statement. “The provisions are also integral to the enhanced environmental standards and impact fee revenue portions of the Act. Indeed, there would be no Act without each of these crucial pieces.”

    In their argument to the court, lawyers for the Commonwealth pointed to the uniformity of statewide drilling standards as justification for overriding local zoning control. The court was not convinced.

    “If the Commonwealth-proffered reasons are sufficient, then the Legislature could make similar findings requiring coal portals, tipples, washing plants, limestone and coal strip mines, steel mills, industrial chicken farms, rendering plants and firework plants in residential zones for a variety of police power reasons advancing those interests in their development,” Thursday’s opinion says. “It would allow the proverbial ‘pig in the parlor instead of the barnyard.’”

    State Rep. Jesse White (D-Washington), a longtime opponent of unrestricted gas drilling and the disproportionate influence of energy lobbyists -- who spent $1.3 million to support Act 13 -- called the decision a “major victory.”

    “Hopefully we can now stop the bullying and the buying-of-influence and truly work together to develop a responsible approach that will allow development of Marcellus Shale while creating a culture of true accountability and responsibility,” White said in a statement. “Today’s decision reaffirms that our constitutional protections are not for sale.”

    The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group that spent $978,766 on lobbying from January through March this year, released its own response to the ruling. Kathryn Z. Klaber, president of the coalition, said in a statement that the law was premised on providing “certainty and predictability that encourages investment and job creation across the Commonwealth.”

    “Lack of uniformity has long been an Achilles heel for Pennsylvania and must be resolved if the Commonwealth is to remain a leader in responsible American natural gas development and reap the associated economic, environmental and national security benefits,” the statement reads.

    Other sections of Act 13 remain intact, including a new “impact fee” for drillers of gas wells. The drillers must submit payments to the state to offset any negative impacts of fracking. Critics say, however, that the fees are inadequate and there are many restrictions on how they can be used.

     

    A natural gas well in Pennsylvania Alice Su http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/alice-su

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    LOS ANGELES — Sheri Sangji is on fire.

    The 23-year-old research associate, a Pomona College graduate raised in Pakistan, has accidentally pulled the plunger out of a syringe while conducting an experiment in the Molecular Sciences Building at UCLA. The syringe contains a solution that combusts upon contact with air.

    The solution spills onto Sangji’s hands and torso, and she is instantly aflame. She isn’t wearing a lab coat; no one told her she has to. Her synthetic rubber gloves provide no protection as the fire burns through her hands to the tendons. She inhales toxic, superheated gases given off by her burning polyester sweater, a process that accelerates as she runs and screams.

    It’s December 29, 2008, mid-afternoon. The UCLA campus is mostly quiet for the holidays, but chemistry professor Patrick Harran’s team is working. Harran is in his office, one floor up from Room 4221, where at his direction Sheharbano “Sheri” Sangji has been trying to produce a chemical that holds promise as an appetite suppressant. She is unsupervised.

    Two postdoctoral fellows from China are nearby when Sangji catches fire. One runs upstairs to summon Harran, the other tries to smother the fire with his lab coat. He doesn’t think to put Sangji under an emergency shower a few feet away. By now, deep burns cover almost half her body.

    Harran finds Sangji “sitting on the floor,” her clothes “either caked to her or burned off,” he later tells an investigator.

    After 18 days, on January 16, 2009, Sangji succumbs to her wounds at the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

    Harran and the University of California’s Board of Regents will be prosecuted for the fire in Room 4221. Harran will be the first American university professor to be accused of a felony in connection with the death of a worker. Poor lab safety practices at UCLA will be brought to light, and researchers around the world will take notice.

    “Sheri was a young girl who was working in a laboratory in one of the largest and most prestigious universities in the world,” says Sangji’s older sister, Naveen, a surgical resident in Boston. “There should be no safer place for someone to go to work. Instead, she never got to come back home.”

    ***

    Sangji’s death and the prosecution of Harran and the UC regents have had far-reaching effects. Faculty members, department heads and deans at research institutions have followed the developments with consternation: Might they, too, be criminally liable if something happened in one of their labs? A federal investigation revealed that there had been at least 120 lab accidents at universities between 2001 and 2011.

    On Friday, the criminal case against the regents was dropped after they agreed to adopt a lengthy list of safety measures and establish a $500,000 scholarship in Sangji's name. The case against Harran, who faces up to 4 1/2 years in jail, continues. His arraignment was postponed until September 5.

    Naveen Sangji wants to see Harran behind bars. “If this were a regular person out on the street who got drunk and killed someone,” she says, “he would be going to jail.”

    At the time of Sheri Sangji’s death, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, Cal/OSHA, already had begun an inquiry into the accident at UCLA. That May the university was cited for four violations; it paid a $31,875 fine.

    In December 2009, Cal/OSHA’s Bureau of Investigations, which looks into all worker fatalities in the state, recommended that Patrick Harran and UCLA be charged with involuntary manslaughter and felony labor code violations. “Dr. Harran,” investigator Brian Baudendistel concluded in a 95-page report, “permitted Victim Sangji to work in a manner that knowingly caused her to be exposed to a serious and foreseeable risk of serious injury or death.”

    Harran, 42, did not respond to interview requests from the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting. In a 2009 statement to the Los Angeles Times, he called Sangji’s death a “tragic accident” and explained, “Sheri was an experienced chemist and published researcher who exuded confidence and had performed this experiment before in my lab. Sheri had previous experience handling pyrophorics, chemicals that burn upon exposure to air, even before she arrived at UCLA. … However, it seems evident, based on mistakes investigators tell us were made that day, I underestimated her understanding of the care necessary when working with such materials.”

    UCLA officials declined interview requests, pointing to a written statement issued by university Chancellor Gene Block in January. “Sheri Sangji’s death was strongly felt by everyone at UCLA, and we were deeply saddened by the loss of a member of our community,” Block wrote. “I made a pledge then that we would go above and beyond existing policies and regulations to become a model of campus safety. And we have.”

    Baudendistel referred the Harran case to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office for prosecution, as is Cal/OSHA’s practice when it believes it has evidence of gross employer misconduct. The DA filed a felony complaint in December 2011, focusing on the labor code violations. Chemists and safety consultants were stunned.

    “The district attorney got the attention of every research institution in the United States,” says Harry Elston, editor of the Journal of Chemical Health and Safety.

    ‘A scientist’s scientist’

    Sheri Sangji was raised in Karachi, Pakistan, and graduated from Pomona College in California in May 2008. A superior student and athlete, she earned a degree in chemistry but had no plans to enter the field. “She was a very dynamic person with lots of interests, a lot of spark,” says her sister Naveen, 29, also a Pomona graduate. “She was interested in the environment, women’s rights, minorities’ rights.”

    Sheri took a job with a pharmaceutical company in Pasadena, hoping to save money for law school. She was intrigued by an ad Harran placed for a research associate at UCLA. The idea of moving to Los Angeles and working for a “rising star” in organic chemistry appealed to her, Naveen says.

    The job interview took place in September 2008. Harran was impressed. Sangji “was very familiar with analytical instrumentation of the type that I really wanted her to focus on, which was great,” he told investigator Baudendistel. “I asked her if she was comfortable with general techniques and properties of organic chemistry. And I asked her if she worked with air-sensitive materials …. Just how generally comfortable she was in the laboratory. That’s what we spent most of our time on, and she left. And, you know, I loved her. I thought she was fabulous.”

    Sangji began work in the UCLA Molecular Sciences Building on October 13. Four days later, Harran watched her perform a small-scale experiment using tert-Butyllithium solution, a chemical its manufacturer, Sigma-Aldrich, describes as follows: “Reacts violently with water. Contact with water liberates extremely flammable gases. Spontaneously flammable in air. Causes burns.”

    Sangji did a “great job” on the experiment, Harran told Baudendistel, and had knowledge of chemistry beyond her years. “She had published in top peer-reviewed journals with very well-known researchers. … She stood out.” Harran acknowledged, however, that Sangji did not receive “generalized safety training. I believe my assistant told me that it was not offered for her category per se, although we were going to follow up on that.” He also said that no fire-resistant clothing was available to lab employees at the time of the accident.

    Harran had come to UCLA as a tenured professor the previous July, having been recruited from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where he’d spent nearly 11 years and won a number of honors, including the AstraZeneca Excellence in Chemistry Award and the Pfizer Award for Creativity in Organic Synthesis.

    “He was literally the first chemist we succeeded in hiring,” says Steven McKnight, chairman of the biochemistry department at UT Southwestern. “He was articulate and personable and easy to communicate with, unlike many of the candidates. Most of the equivalent scientists didn’t have the fearlessness or fortitude to go to a department that had no history in chemistry.”

    Harran “built a very strong laboratory and proceeded to make a number of really nice discoveries in the field of synthetic chemistry,” McKnight says. Harran and a colleague, Xiaodong Wang, developed a chemical that causes cancer cells to kill themselves. They published a paper on the breakthrough in Science magazine.

    A graduate of Skidmore College and Yale, Harran was “a scientist’s scientist,” McKnight says. “He really wanted to dig in and make discoveries of consequence. When he went to UCLA it was a heartbreaker.”

    In a 2006 interview with the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Wang, who has since returned to his native China, offered a glimpse of life at UT Southwestern. “Nothing is ever good enough, and you’re only as good as your last paper, which I think is great,” Wang was quoted as saying.

    A violent reaction

    UCLA pursued Harran aggressively, offering him a budget of $3.2 million to set up a state-of-the-art organic chemistry lab on the fifth floor of the Molecular Sciences Building. He and his team were given temporary space on the fourth floor while renovations were made upstairs.

    On October 30, 2008, UCLA chemical safety officer Michael Wheatley conducted an annual inspection of the fourth-floor labs. Wheatley found a number of deficiencies, one particularly relevant to events that would soon unfold: “Eye protection, nitrile [synthetic rubber] gloves and lab coats were not worn by laboratory personnel.”

    In an email on November 5, Wheatley asked Harran when they could meet to discuss the findings. “Is it possible to wait until we get settled on the 5th floor?” Harran replied a week later. “That would make for a better meeting — our labs on 4 are overcrowded and disorganized. I wasn’t planning to be in temporary space for this long.” Wheatley agreed to the postponement.

    On December 29, a Monday, Sheri Sangji reported for work in Room 4221. Harran wanted her to replicate the chemical reaction she’d performed on October 17, but on a scale three times larger. Around 3 p.m., Sangji was using a 60-millileter plastic syringe with a 2-inch needle to transfer tert-Butyllithium from a 100-ml bottle to a glass flask.

    The needle was too short; Sigma-Aldrich recommends using one at least a foot long. This, investigator Baudendistel theorized, forced Sangji to tilt the bottle of tert-Butyllithium or lay it on its side, awkwardly withdrawing the liquid with one hand while holding the bottle with the other. Had the needle been long enough, she could have clamped the bottle, upright, to the workbench, a less risky procedure. Safer still would have been the “cannula transfer” method, in which a liquid is pushed by an inert gas like nitrogen from one container to another through a tube.

    Sangji inadvertently pulled out the plunger of the syringe, spilling the solution and triggering a flash fire. Had she been wearing a fire-resistant lab coat, her burns might have been less severe. In fact, she was wearing no lab coat, not even a cotton one.

    At the time there was no university policy requiring such protection. “That policy has been put in place since the accident,” Harran told Baudendistel. Requisition forms from the UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry show that fire-resistant lab coats were, in fact, ordered, at a cost of $45.05 each.

    In an interview with a deputy UCLA fire marshal, Harran described what he saw in Room 4221 before the paramedics arrived.

    “Sheri was, you know, she was in shock … she was shaking. I asked her what happened. She didn’t tell me much. She just said there was a fire, and she just kept asking, ‘Where are they, where are they, where are they?’ … She wanted water on her arms, and she was holding her hands out like this, and the skin was separating. It was awful.”

    Sangji was taken to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Harran finished the experiment she had started — at the request of the Los Angeles and UCLA fire departments, which feared another conflagration, he said. Shortly after 4 p.m. Pacific time, Naveen Sangji’s cellphone rang in Boston. Then a medical student at Harvard, she recognized Sheri’s number and assumed her sister was calling to tell her about another law school acceptance letter. They had been coming regularly.

    It was a hospital social worker, using Sheri’s phone. “She told me Sheri had been in an accident and described what happened,” Naveen says. “As a medical student I could understand the gravity of what she was saying.” She caught a flight to Los Angeles early the next morning.

    Naveen went straight from the airport to the Grossman Burn Center, to which Sheri had been transferred. “Her arms were suspended from the ceiling to keep them in a certain position, all wrapped with bandages,” Naveen says. “The only part of her that I could see was her face, which was unwrapped.”

    Naveen encountered Harran at the burn center on New Year’s Eve. “He came to the hospital and spoke with me and my uncle, who is a structural engineer,” Naveen says. “[Harran] explained some of the details of the experiment Sheri was doing that day. We obviously asked him questions about why she was doing this experiment, this dangerous experiment, without supervision. My uncle, because of his engineering background, asked specifically about training and about why she wasn’t given fire-resistant protective equipment before doing this experiment. Harran refused to answer.”

    Sheri’s friends began a vigil. “I had thought she would survive,” says Aakash Kishore, a lab assistant in the UCLA psychology department at the time and now a graduate student. “I remember reassuring Naveen.” Kishore and others showed up at the burn center almost every day during the 18 days Sheri was there. About two dozen of her friends and relatives were waiting in the parking lot the day she died. “Her dad came outside and let us know that she was gone,” Kishore says. “He looked very weak.”

    Willful violations

    In the months to follow, Naveen pressed UCLA officials for details on the accident. She found the responses wanting. The university, she felt, was trying to make it appear that Sheri was an experienced chemist, and that the fire was her fault. On June 17, 2009, replying to an email Naveen had sent two days earlier, Chancellor Block recalled “the elegant and successful way” Sheri had performed the tert-Butyllithium experiment the previous October.

    Although Cal/OSHA had issued four citations to UCLA in May, Block wrote, “The campus believes … that many corrective measures ordered by our inspectors were taken before the tragic accident, though they were not properly documented.” Cal/OSHA, he noted, “found no willful violations of regulations or laws by UCLA personnel. Neither [chemistry department chair Al] Courey nor Dr. Harran were in the lab the day of the tragedy and did not have the opportunity to remind Sheri to put on her lab coat.”

    In his interview with the deputy fire marshal, however, Harran — the lab’s principal investigator, or PI — admitted that his safety policies were less than rigid. Harran said he “never explicitly” told his senior employees, such as postdoctoral fellows, to make sure subordinates were wearing protective equipment. In the same interview, Harran said that he and the fellows erred by cleaning up potentially dangerous items in Room 4221 immediately after the accident, before investigators returned to gather evidence. “We shouldn’t have touched anything,” he said.

    In November 2007 — 13 months before Sangji was hurt and eight months before Harran came to UCLA — a graduate chemistry student named Matthew Graf spilled a bottle of ethanol near an open flame; some of the alcohol splashed on his shirt and he caught fire. Graf wasn’t wearing a lab coat and sustained second-degree burns to his hands and torso. He spent a week at the Grossman Burn Center, the same place Sangji died, and underwent surgery to repair his hands. Cal/OSHA learned about the accident nearly two years after the fact and cited UCLA for failing to report it; the university is contesting the citation.

    In Naveen Sangji’s view, the fine UCLA paid for her sister’s death was insufficient. She was relieved and gratified when Cal/OSHA’s Baudendistel issued his report in December 2009, recommending that Harran and UCLA be charged with felonies.

    Baudendistel concluded that “the laboratory safety policies and practices utilized by UCLA prior to Victim Sangji’s death were so defective as to render the University’s required Chemical Hygiene Plan and Injury and Illness Prevention Program essentially non-existent.” There had been “a systemic breakdown of overall laboratory safety practices at UCLA,” he wrote.

    Indeed, on Dec. 22, 2008, one week before Sangji was burned, another graduate chemistry student, Jonah Chung, was completing a reaction when “the reaction pot detonated, causing glass, hot oil, and chemicals to strike his face and torso,” Baudendistel wrote. Chung, who sustained burns to his torso, arms and face and cuts to his neck and forehead, “was not wearing a lab coat, gloves, nor appropriate eye protection … at the time of the incident.”

    Baudendistel sent the Harran case to the Los Angeles County district attorney. This was not unprecedented: from 2001 through 2011, Cal/OSHA made 486 such referrals statewide, mostly in worker death cases; 174 resulted in criminal charges.

    “You know, we have put owners of companies, supervisors, foremen in jail,” says Cal/OSHA chief Ellen Widess. “That is noticed. We’re definitely looking for these cases to make … an impression, leave nothing unspoken and unclear about the severity of the punishment that will be meted out.”

    Still, Harran wasn’t a foreman on a trenching job or the owner of a roofing company. He was an award-winning chemistry professor with the backing of a powerful university.

    It took two years. On Dec. 27, 2011, the DA filed a felony complaint against Harran and the UC regents. The allegation: “willful violation of an occupational safety and health standard causing the death of an employee.”

    Hard questions

    Chemists in academia and private industry already had been debating the Sangji case; bloggers and journal editors had written about it. The filing of the complaint took the discussion to another level.

    Uncomfortable questions followed: Why were academic labs more dangerous than those in industry? Were some principal investigators so obsessed with publishing papers, securing grants and winning prizes that they’d lost sight of their responsibility to keep employees and students from being hurt?

    “Each lab is like an island where the PI is king,” says Paul Bracher, a postdoctoral researcher in chemistry at Caltech who writes a blog called ChemBark. “He provides for the lab, brings in grants, decides how the money is spent. There are a lot of demands on their time, and the safety stuff a lot of times gets lost in the shuffle. I’ve never heard of anyone getting fired for being unsafe.”

    Bracher — whose trachea was pierced by flying glass 12 years ago after a fellow undergraduate at New York University mishandled a reactive chemical — says he’s surprised UCLA has stood by Harran so steadfastly, given the evidence that’s come out. “When something like this happens, much like a drunk driver when someone loses their life, there should be consequences,” he says. “UCLA has doubled down. It sends an incredibly disconcerting message.”

    “The PI has to be actively involved in safety, as does the president of the university, the provost, the dean — everyone who supervises other people,” says James Kaufman, a former Dow Chemical researcher who runs the nonprofit Laboratory Safety Institute, a training organization near Boston. “The dog sled can’t go any faster than the lead dog.”

    Following the Sangji accident, and another at Texas Tech University that badly injured a graduate chemistry student in January 2010, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board began an investigation of lab safety at academic institutions. In a report last fall, the board, which can make recommendations but can’t regulate, said it had documented 120 incidents at university labs since 2001 and identified “safety gaps” that threatened more than 110,000 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in the U.S.

    “Fiefdoms” in academia were partly to blame, the board found.

    “At some academic institutions, PIs may view laboratory inspections by an outside entity as infringing upon their academic freedom.” At Texas Tech, “some PIs saw the notification of safety violations to the [department] Chair as ‘building a case’ against them, felt that the safety inspections inhibited their research, and considered recommended safety changes outside their control because they could not ‘babysit’ their students.”

    The board recommended that the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration — whose 1990 lab standard emphasizes the need to protect researchers from carcinogens and other health hazards — make clear that physical hazards also must be controlled. And it urged Texas Tech to revamp its lab safety program by documenting and acting on near-misses that could portend more serious accidents.

    Board officials believe the message is getting out — not only to universities but also to grant-makers such as the Department of Homeland Security, which funded the work on explosive materials that led to the Texas Tech accident. “DHS changed its requirements after this incident,” says board investigator Cheryl MacKenzie, demanding that grantees’ labs undergo independent safety audits before funds are released.

    The American Chemical Society, a professional association for chemists, assembled a task force after the Texas Tech blast and recently unveiled a draft report that recommends ways to change the “safety culture” in academia. The study, its authors wrote, was prompted by “devastating incidents in academic laboratories and observations, by many, that university and college graduates do not have strong safety skills.”

    UCLA, for its part, has created a Center for Laboratory Safety which, Chancellor Block said in his January statement, will “identify and institute best practices in safety, going beyond the minimum requirements of outside agencies so that we can hold our laboratories to even higher standards. We also dramatically increased the number of lab inspections, strengthened our policy on the required use of personal protective equipment and developed a hazard-assessment tool that labs must update annually or whenever conditions change.”

    The real-world impacts of these changes remain to be seen. “I think the university is trying,” says Rita Kern, a staff research associate in the UCLA Department of Medicine who sits on the health and safety committee of University Professional & Technical Employees — Communications Workers of America Local 9119, the union to which Sheri Sangji belonged at the time of her death. “Some things have changed, but it’s like turning a big boat in the middle of the ocean. It doesn’t turn very fast.”

    Indeed, following inspections in August 2009 and February 2010 — eight and 14 months, respectively, after the fire that killed Sangji — Cal/OSHA cited UCLA for 16 lab safety violations, five classified as “serious” and one as “repeat serious.” The university paid a $36,690 fine.

    Ryan Marcheschi, a postdoctoral fellow in the UCLA chemical engineering department who works with flammable and explosive compounds, says the university has “tightened up” on safety since the Sangji accident, though much of this has come in the form of increased paperwork.

    When he learned that the criminal complaint had been filed against Harran, “I thought it was extreme,” Marcheschi says. “But then I thought, maybe that’s what’s needed to make policies change.”

    ***

    Despite her grueling schedule as a resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, Naveen Sangji remains an advocate for her younger sister, now 3 ½ years departed. “My sister had her whole life ahead of her,” Naveen says. “She would be graduating from law school right now.”

    Her parents live in Toronto. Her father, a small businessman, “has almost completely stopped socializing,” Naveen says. Her mother, a Montessori teacher, was “completely destroyed” by the accident and immerses herself in her work. They go to the cemetery on Sundays.

    “Sheri was a very brave person,” Naveen says, a trait that became evident at the burn center.

    “Before my parents came into the room, she asked me to cover her up with the sheets so that they wouldn’t be distressed at seeing all the bandages; her concern was for them. When my dad arrived, he put his hand on hers lightly through the sheet and she screamed because it was so painful. And we couldn’t touch her anywhere except her face. But her thoughts were, even as she lay critically injured, for other people.”

    This story was produced in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

     

    Sheri Sangji at her graduation from Pomona College in May 2008. Jim Morris http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/jim-morris

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    Lobbyists for General Dynamics who passed through the revolving door

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  • 08/03/12--12:10: Infographic: The Abrams tank
  • Go back to the story.

    Graphic by Lydia Mulvany


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    The M1 Abrams tank has survived the Cold War, two conflicts in Iraq and a decade of war in Afghanistan. No wonder — it weighs as much as nine elephants and is fitted with a cannon capable of turning a building to rubble from two and a half miles away.

    But now the machine finds itself a target in an unusual battle between the Defense Department and lawmakers who are the beneficiaries of large donations by its manufacturer.

    The Pentagon, facing smaller budgets and looking towards a new global strategy, has decided it wants to save as much as $3 billion by freezing refurbishment of the M1 from 2014 to 2017, so it can redesign the hulking, clanking vehicle from top to bottom.

    Its proposal would idle a large factory in Lima, Ohio as well as halt work at dozens of subcontractors in Pennsylvania, Michigan and other states.

    Opposing the Pentagon’s plans is Abrams manufacturer General Dynamics, a nationwide employer that has pumped millions of dollars into congressional elections over the last decade. The tank’s supporters on Capitol Hill say they are desperate to save jobs in their districts and concerned about undermining America’s military capabilities.

    So far, the contractor is winning the battle, after a well-organized campaign of lobbying and political donations involving the lawmakers who sit on four key committees that will decide the tank's fate, according to an analysis of spending and lobbying records by the Center for Public Integrity.

    Sharp spikes in the company’s donations — including a two-week period in 2011 when its employees and political action committee sent the lawmakers checks for their campaigns totaling nearly $50,000 — roughly coincided with five legislative milestones for the Abrams, including committee hearings and votes and the defense bill’s final passage last year.

    After putting the tank money back in the budget then, both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have authorized it again this year, allotting $181 million in the House and $91 million in the Senate. If the company and its supporters prevail, the Army will refurbish what Army chief of staff Ray Odierno described in a February hearing as “280 tanks that we simply do not need.” 

    It already has more than 2,300 M1s deployed with U.S. forces around the world and roughly 3,000 more sitting idle in long rows outdoors at a remote military base in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.

    The $3 billion at stake in this fight is not a large sum in Pentagon terms — it’s roughly what the building spends in a little more than a day. But the fight over the Abrams’ future, still unfolding, illuminates the major pressures that drive the current defense spending debate.

    These include a Pentagon looking to free itself from legacy projects and modernize some of its combat strategy, a Congress looking to defend pet projects and a well-financed and politically savvy defense industry with deep ties to both, fighting tooth-and-nail to fend off even small reductions in the budget now devoted to the military — a total figure that presently composes about half of all discretionary spending.

    Vulnerable to IED’s but impervious to Pentagon budgeteers

    The M1 Abrams entered service in 1980, but first saw combat during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. That episode indicated that, on the battlefield at least, the only thing that could destroy an Abrams was another Abrams; only seven of the tanks deployed in the operation were destroyed, all by friendly fire.

    In the last decade, however, as hundreds were deployed to Iraq and later to Afghanistan, a key shortcoming became apparent: Their flat bottoms made the Abrams surprisingly vulnerable to improvised explosive devices (IEDs). As a result, the Abrams in Iraq ended up being used as “pillboxes” — high-priced armored bunkers used to protect ground.

    “The M1 is an extraordinary vehicle, the best tank on the planet,” Paul D. Eaton, a retired Army Major General now with the nonprofit National Security Network, said in an interview. Since the primary purpose of tanks is to destroy other tanks, however, their utility in modern counterinsurgency warfare is limited, he added.

    Ashley Givens, a spokeswoman for the Army’s Program Executive Office for Ground Combat Systems, said that the Army can refurbish all 2,384 tanks it needs by the end of 2013. Freezing work after that, she said, will allow the Army to “focus its limited resources on the development of the next generation Abrams tank,” rather than building more of the same that “have exceeded their space, weight and power limits."

    Warfare has changed, Odierno explained while discussing the Army’s new strategy at the February hearing.

    “We don’t believe we’ll ever see a straight conventional conflict again in the future,” he said.

    But top Army officials have so far been unable to get political traction to kill the M1. Part of the reason is that General Dynamics and its well-connected lobbyists have been carrying a large checkbook and a sheaf of pro-tank talking points around on the Hill.

    For example, when House Armed Services Committee member Hank Johnson, D-Ga., held a campaign fundraiser at a wood-panelled Capitol Hill steakhouse called the Caucus Room just before Christmas last year, someone from GD brought along a $1,500 check for his re-election campaign. Several months later, Johnson signed a letter to the Pentagon supporting funding for the tank. Johnson spokesman Andy Phelan said the congressman has consistently supported the M-1 “because he doesn't think shutting down the production line is in the national interest."

    The contribution was a tiny portion of the $5.3 million that GD’s political action committee and the company’s employees have invested in the current members of either the House and Senate Armed Services Committees or defense appropriations subcommittees since January 2001, according to data on defense industry campaign contributions the Center for Public Integrity acquired from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

    These are the committees that approve the Pentagon’s spending every year. Without their support, the tank — or any other costly military program — would be dead.

    Kendell Pease, GD’s Vice President for Government Relations and Communications, said in an interview that the company — which produces submarines and radios for the military as well as tanks — makes donations to those lawmakers whose views are aligned with the firm’s interests. “We target our PAC money to those folks who support national security and the national defense of our country,” Pease said. “Most of them are on the four [key defense] committees.”

    But Pease denies trying to time donations around key votes, saying that the company’s PAC typically gives money whenever members of Congress invite its representatives to fundraisers. “The timing of a donation is keyed by [member’s] requests for funding,” he said, adding that personal donations by company employees are not under his control. He said the donations tend to be clumped together because lawmakers often hold fundraisers at the same time.

    More cash at key milestones

    During the current election cycle, General Dynamics’ political action committee and its employees have sent an average of approximately $7,000 per week to members of the four committees. But the week President Obama announced his defense budget plan in 2011, the donations spiked to more than $20,000, significantly higher than in any of the previous six weeks. A second spike of more than $20,000 in donations occurred in early March 2011, when Army budget hearings were being held.

    At a March 9 hearing of the House subcommittee dealing with land forces, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, railed against the Army’s decision to freeze work on the Abrams. Since the start of 2001, Reyes has received $64,650 in GD donations, including $1,000 on March 10, the day after the hearing, according to the data. Reyes' office did not return a request to comment; his overall campaign receipts in the current election cycle have been $1 million.

    Another large spike occurred the first two weeks of May 2011, a period in which the House Armed Services Committee voted 60-1 for a budget bill containing money to continue work on the Abrams through 2013. Over this period, GD’s PAC and employees donated a total of $48,100 to members of the four committees, with almost $20,000 of that going directly to members of the HASC as they voted.

    During another two week period in September, in which the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense handed in its conference report and Congress rushed to pass a stopgap spending bill to keep the government open, the company sent $36,500 to members of the four committees — primarily the House Armed Services Committee, whose members got $30,500.

    The final large spike in donations last year came the week of Dec. 11-17, when Congress made a final vote on the whole budget. During this week, GD’s donations to members of the four committees totaled $17,000.

    Along with its checks, the company has been carrying around a message that a cutoff of tank manufacturing work in Lima will harm the nation’s “industrial base,” using what has become a favorite expression of alarm for military contractors facing cutbacks.

    The workforce “is not like a lightswitch. You can’t just click it off, then walk away for three years, come back and click it on,” Pease said. Smaller suppliers who exclusively make parts for the Abrams could be shuttered if the Army’s spending stops, he said. GD has also accused the Army of underestimating the plant’s temporary shutdown costs, claiming that the government’s actual savings would be minimal.

    To help bring its corporate viewpoint to lawmakers, General Dynamics has spent at least $84 million over the past 11 years on lobbyists, according to Senate Office of Public Records lobbying data acquired from the Center for Responsive Politics. Just in the last year and a half, the firm — which draws nearly three-quarters of its revenues from public tax dollars in the form of federal contracts — has spent at least $13.5 million on more than 130 individual advocates, who pressed Congress to fund a variety of military and non-military programs at the firm.

    While lobbyists often do not name their causes, those working for GD that specifically listed the Abrams tank, along with other topics, reported earning at least $550,000 from 2011 to the first quarter of 2012, according to the data. Pease described the lobbying efforts as “education … Shame on us if we don’t go and tell them [Congress] our side, because the Army is doing the same thing as we’re doing, having just as many meetings as we are.”

    Relying on special contacts

    In addition to tapping its in-house team, the company also hired outside firms to help sway lawmakers’ votes, which in turn assigned the General Dynamics account to former congressional staff tightly connected to committee members — part of the “revolving door” phenomenon now common among veterans of both political parties.

    GD has paid the Podesta Group more than $1.5 million since 2009 to lobby on the defense appropriations and authorizations bills, according to lobbying disclosure forms. Among the more than 20 Podesta lobbyists assigned to the account was Josh Holly, communications director for the House Committee on Armed Services under Republican leadership for six years.

    According to Holly’s bio on the Podesta website, he worked directly with Republican Buck McKeon of California, the committee's current chairman. McKeon is a major recipient of GD campaign donations, garnering $68,000 from GD’s PAC and employees since the start of 2001 — with $56,000 of that coming just since 2009, when he became the committee’s top Republican. Holly did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking his comment. Committee spokesman Claude Chafin said McKeon has consistently argued that it is fiscally smarter to keep the Abrams work going than to stop it.

    Podesta also assigned the GD account to two former House Appropriations Committee aides. One of them, Jim Dyer, confirmed that he lobbied on the tank this year, but directed other questions to General Dynamics. GD also hired firms that assigned its account to six other lobbyists who worked for the relevant committees, and to a former Pentagon liaison to Congress. 

    Pease said that when working with outside firms, he lets them pick the specific lobbyists on the account. But when picking the firms, “you always look for those people who can get the job done,” he said, referring to his approach as using a rifle rather than a shotgun. The company hires “a lot of individuals who understand our message, and how to deliver the message, so we can educate the right people, so they can understand our side of the equation.”

    The company’s efforts so far have had great success. In April, 111 House Republicans joined with 62 House Democrats in a letter to Secretary Panetta decrying the decision to freeze work on the tanks. Less than a quarter were from Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania — the rust belt states with small subcontractors that would be directly impacted by a halt to Abrams work.

    Of the 173 signers, 137 received contributions totaling more than $2 million from GD since 2001. Giving to Republicans and Democrats was split in half, with Republicans receiving about 51 percent of contributions and Democrats 49 percent. More than half of the Armed Services Committee and Defense Appropriations Subcommittee members signed, effectively telgraphing the outcome of their deliberations.

    The first signature was from Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., whose district includes the Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights, the location of the headquarters for General Dynamics Land Systems. Rep. Levin’s brother is Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.m the powerful head of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Sen. Levin has received $46,200 from General Dynamics since 2001; his brother has received $43,000.

    In a written statement, Rep. Levin said he wants to protect the Abrams because of its “vital importance to more than 60 local companies” in Michigan and the difficulty of restarting tank production after a hiatus. Rep. Levin’s spokesman Josh Drobnyk says Levin has not conferred with his brother on the issue but confirms that representatives from GDLS contacted the congressman’s office about the Abrams.

    Sen. Levin’s spokeswoman Tara Andringa said that “based on information on the M1 tank program from the Army, from contractors and from independent analysts,” the Senator supported the funds for the Abrams as being in “the best interests of U.S. security and protecting taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars.”

    Both this year and last year, the funds were added to the President’s proposed budget without a specific recorded vote, in what independent experts have termed an earmark — money directed by members of Congress to a pet project that often benefits their district. Earmarks were supposed to have been banned after the 2010 election, but lawmakers have decided that when multiple members favor adding funds — rather than just one lawmaker — it is not formally an earmark.

    So far, there has been a great silence on the Abrams funding issue from congressional deficit hawks. Rep. Jim Jordan, who represents the Ohio district where the Lima plant is located and has received $31,000 for his campaigns from General Dynamics’ leadership PAC and employees, said he is now optimistic that the Abrams money will make it safely through the Senate.

    If it does, the fight still might not be over. The White House, in its May 15 response to the House budget, objected to the “unrequested authorization” of funds for the Abrams during a “fiscally-constrained environment.” The administration did not specifically threaten a veto over the issue but said that if too many unrequested projects impeded “the ability of the Administration to execute the new defense strategy and to properly direct scarce resources,” senior advisors will recommend the President veto the bill. 

    Reporter Zach Toombs and Data Editor David Donald contributed to this report.

    Correction, July 30, 2012, 12:18pm: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Pentagon spends $3 billion every 82 minutes. The Pentagon actually spends $3 billion in a little more than a day. Also, the earlier version said that members of the House Armed Services Committee got $31,500 from General Dynamics during a two-week period in September last year. The correct figure is $30,500.

    Aaron Mehta http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/aaron-mehta Lydia Mulvany http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/lydia-mulvany

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    Click to view the full interactive.


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    One-week periods from Jan. 1, 2011 to March 31, 2012

    Click to view the full infographic.


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    A former executive for the Pentagon’s top defense contractor collected $1.66 million in salary, consulting fees and retirement pay from two top defense contractors last year before becoming the Republican chief of staff for the Senate Armed Services Committee in February.

    The appointment is the second by a Republican member of either the House or Senate Armed Services committee to provoke criticism from independent groups that consider it a conflict of interest.

    Ann Elise Sauer, who was appointed to her present job by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., worked for more than a decade as a vice president and lobbyist for Lockheed Martin before leaving in Jan. 2011, according to a financial disclosure she made to the Secretary of the Senate in April.

    In 2011, she was paid a salary and bonus totalling $660,390, deferred compensation of $769,574, and $232,872 labeled as “retired pay” on the financial disclosure form. Lockheed is the Defense Department’s largest corporate contractor, earning $28.3 billion, or 61 percent, of its sales from the department in 2011, according to the company’s annual report.

    Sauer then worked as a consultant and analyst for BAE Systems, earning $55,000 from the firm, according to her financial disclosure form. BAE is the Pentagon’s ninth largest contractor.

    The Project on Government Oversight’s Ben Freeman said Thursday that Sauer’s appointment to the principal Senate committee tasked with overseeing all military spending and contracting creates a huge conflict of interest.

    “$1.6 million — that gives a lot of reasons to remember your former employer,” said Freeman, who specializes in defense contracting issues for POGO. “When you’ve been working for a company for 10 years and then just last year you got $1.6 million, I have to think that affects your decision making.”

    Sauer’s LinkedIn page shows she served on various McCain political campaigns from 1998 through 2008. This won’t be her first turn on the Armed Services Committee; she worked there as a professional staff member in the late 1970s. She then worked as a legislative assistant and legislative director on McCain’s staff in the 1990s.

    In an emailed statement, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said Sauer’s appointment as Republican staff director on the Armed Services Committee is on a “stop-gap, temporary, one-year basis.” He also noted that, although she received $1.6 million in compensation last year, Sauer holds no stock in Lockheed Martin.

    Her former employer has repeatedly drawn the ire of government watchdogs, most recently for its work on the problem-plagued F-35 and F-22 jet fighters. The Center wrote in June about the latest of those troubles, including $1 billion in cost overruns on four early production contracts for the F-35; it is the single most costly military program in U.S. history. A spokesperson for Lockheed Martin did not return request for comment on Sauer’s appointment.

    Sauer is not alone in taking a key job — and a major pay cut — to work on Capitol Hill helping oversee federal contracts with a former employer. Last year, when Northrop Grumman lobbyist Thomas MacKenzie joined the House Armed Services Committee, he held between $100,000 and $250,000 of stock in his former company, according to his own financial disclosure to the House Clerk.

    Claude Chasin, the committee spokesman, did not immediately respond to questions about the appointment. But Robert Lee Simmons II, staff director of the House Armed Services Committee, told a reporter for Hearst newspapers in June that MacKenzie, who runs the staff for the subcommittee on seapower and projection forces, is "the kind of person we would want to have in his job. We are lucky to have Tom."

    Craig Holman, a lobbyist at the nonprofit watchdog group Public Citizen, had a different view. He told both POGO and the Center that “it’s not uncommon for a senior K Street lobbyist to have a quarter of a million dollars tucked away in stock. But it is uncommon for someone who is a congressional staffer. This poses a very serious conflict of interest.”

     


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