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    The North Carolina Ethics Commission has received more than 300 ethics complaints since its establishment in 2006 — but it has initiated just 18 investigations through 2010.

    The Tennessee Ethics Commission, also established in 2006, has yet to find anyone guilty of an ethics violation. It has heard five complaints in five years — and thrown all of them out.

    The Pennsylvania Ethics Commission takes in between 400 and 600 complaints each year. But severe budget cuts have left the panel with only five full-time investigators to handle the workload.

    And last year, the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission had its full-time support staff reduced from two people to one. 

    “It’s just me,” said Jane Feldman, the Colorado commission’s executive director. Feldman said she currently has an annual budget of $224,000 but  — unlike commissions in many other states — no investigators or lawyers to initiate real enforcement.  

    “I don’t think we’re a dirty state. I think we’re a pretty clean state,” Feldman said. “But I think there are cases, especially conflicts of interest issues, where since we don’t have an investigator we don’t follow up.”

    Such tales are far from unusual. Some 41 states have government bodies that oversee and enforce state ethics laws. But an examination by the Center for Public Integrity reveals that many of them do little more than provide a false sense of security.  In fact, the State Integrity Investigation — a first-of-its-kind probe of accountability in state government — gave grades of either D or F to 28 of those state ethics panels.

    The problems and challenges are many. In some states, it boils down to a question of resources — short-staffed agencies with dwindling budgets, outdated, crumbling  technology  and an increasing workload. Other agencies face restrictions in the law; they  can only investigate a complaint if the complainant is willing to be named, or if a majority of commissioners, who may be divided along party lines, agree to pursue a case.

    Beyond those obstacles, though, is a more basic and troubling common thread; many of these state ethics watchdogs sport no real teeth. According to the State Integrity Investigation, state ethics commissions remain woefully ill-equipped to properly investigate complaints and dole out punishment.

    That’s partly because an inherent conflict stands at the core of the mission: the ethics agency commonly is tasked with policing the same government officials who control its funding, resources and regulatory power.

    “The people who it’s policing are the people who give it power,” said Craig McDonald, director of the nonprofit watchdog group Texans for Public Justice. “It has to be independent, or it doesn’t work so well.”  

    The Ethics Enforcement Gap

    Hawaii created the first ethics commission in 1968, but the real spike in the number of state commissions occurred in the 1970s, as the post-Watergate era gave rise to ethics legislation across the country. Several panels — like those in Tennessee and North Carolina — have been established just in recent years, almost always in response to specific government scandals. Only nine states do not have any sort of government agency overseeing and enforcing state ethics laws. Those states — Arizona, Idaho, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming — implement ethics rules through various government agencies, like the attorney general’s office or the secretary of state’s.

    Among those states that do have ethics panels, some are clearly making an honest go of it. The Texas Ethics Commission, charged with overseeing campaign finance and lobbying reports, is one of the larger agencies of its kind, with an annual budget of approximately $2 million and 32 full-time employees. According to its latest biennial report covering 2009 and 2010, the commission issued 13 advisory opinions for the two-year period. It assessed more than 2,000 civil penalties for late filings of financial disclosure statements or campaign finance reports but then waived more than half of those.

    But it’s not perfect. On the State Integrity Investigation, the commission received a 77 percent — a grade of C+ — for ethics enforcement. The scorecard cited its notorious lack of teeth and a complaint-driven process that discourages robust, independent investigations. On a question about the commission’s ability to initiate investigations, the state received zero points.

    Robert Smith, chair of the political science department at Kennesaw State University and a leading researcher on the subject, asserts that  “the simple existence of ethics commissions is rather important.” The way Smith sees it, merely having an ethics commission sends a message. “We have an office with the right to police, protect and preserve the notion of integrity,” he says. “We have a public integrity mechanism in place.”   

    Smith noted that the panels are able to take definitive action — issue fines, write advisory opinions, subpoena documents — that may deter politicians from abusing power.  Indeed, ethics commissions in 36 states have the ability to independently initiate investigations. In 37 states, commissions can impose penalties for violations. Twenty-eight states boast commissions that have jurisdiction over all three branches of government, rather than fragmenting enforcement power in separate agencies.

    But many of the panels seem hesitant to exercise those powers.  Twenty-two states received failing grades from the State Integrity Investigation for their ethics commission — or lack of one. Only two states, New Jersey and Connecticut, earned A grades in this category.

    “If [ethics commissions] had more funding, more tools, more enforcement power, or just provided more education,” Smith said, “I think these bodies would be more effective than maybe they are being portrayed.”

    Maintaining Independence

    In Alaska, members of the Personnel Board, which investigates complaints against the governor, are all appointed by the governor. In Michigan, members of the state’s Board of Ethics typically include former elected officials; currently, a former assistant attorney general and two former legislators sit on the seven-member panel. 

    In Indiana, members of the ethics commission are appointed by the governor, who also appoints the state’s inspector general. According to the State Integrity Investigation, this creates inevitable “blind spots.”  In 2010, the commission waived the state’s revolving door statute to allow the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission’s general counsel to join Duke Energy, soon after he made several rulings at IURC that would benefit the energy company. The waiver drew immediate criticism and questions about whether the commission is too lenient.

    “No way in hell that should have been given a pass,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director of the Indiana chapter of Common Cause, referring to the Duke Energy scandal. She said it has become common practice for government officials to go before the ethics commission to seek waivers from a certain ethics rule, which the commission tends to “rubber stamp.”  A 2010 review by the Indiana Business Journal found that the commission had not once — out of 27 post-employment ethics rulings — prohibited a state official from taking a private-sector job and only three times required a one-year “cooling-off” period.

    “There’s a tendency for [the ethics commission] to want to avoid controversy,” Vaughn said. “You don’t want to bring the glare of an ethics scandal to the chief executive who appointed you.”

    The question of political independence is one that has plagued most ethics commissions, and few states have found solutions. In the State Integrity Investigation, only eight states achieved perfect 100 scores for having a commission that maintains protection from political interference.

     “The best type is one that can work without fear of entanglement of political influence,” said Smith of Kennesaw State, who noted that most enforcement agencies have a commission or board in place appointed by government officials. “Why should politics be even part of that process in the first place if you really want a mechanism that is going to make objective opinions?”

    The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, for example, is comprised of six former judges appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The governor must choose from a list of candidates developed by a separate nomination panel made up of retired judges. 

    In Pennylvania, former Rep. Curt Schroder (R-Chester County) sponsored a bill last year to establish a Public Integrity Commission, an independent agency that would have the ability to uncover and investigate cases of corruption at all levels of government. And, to promote political independence, the commissioners would be nominated by a committee made up of law school deans, district attorneys, and good government advocates. The governor would select seven members from that list, who then would be approved by the Senate. No more than three commissioners would be from the same political party.

    The bill never made it out of committee.

    “[The legislature] didn’t want anything to do with this,” said Tim Potts, president of the good government organization Democracy Rising PA , who noted that the current Pennsylvania Ethics Commission is controlled by the governor and legislative leaders. The board consists of seven members: three appointed by the governor, and one each by the president pro tempore of the Senate, the Senate majority leader, the Senate minority leader, and the House speaker.

    “They are not eager to have independent people investigating them,” Potts said.

    John Contino, executive director of Pennsylvania’s current State Ethics Commission, which would be replaced by the Public Integrity Commission under Schroder’s plan, said the proposed structure is unnecessary. 

     “There’s never been an op-ed piece, an allegation, or any reason to say that [the current ethics commission] is not independent, “he said. “It’s been nonpartisan all these years.”

    But Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, said the concerns of partisanship with the ethics commission are “valid.” He supported Schroder’s bill, in hopes that, besides establishing independence, it would “put a little more teeth in the state ethics law.”

    Policing the Powerful: No Teeth, No Bite

    The Texas Ethics Commission consists of eight board members: four appointed by the governor, two by the lieutenant governor and two by the House speaker.  In order for the agency to pursue an investigation, six out of the eight board members must agree, which, according to Texas attorney and good government advocate Fred Lewis, makes for a dysfunctional body that is rarely proactive about  investigations.

    Instead, the commission is completely driven by outside complaints, which must be filed by a Texas resident and cannot be anonymous. Executive director David Reisman said the commission must investigate every sworn complaint — and it gets plenty. Last year, more than 370 complaints were filed with the commission.

    “The commission must consider each complaint and make a fair and consistent assessment of whether a violation occurred and a fair and consistent penalty if there is a finding of a violation,” Reisman said.

    But Lewis contends that the commission rarely goes after serious violations, focusing almost exclusively on minor errors — a  criticism echoed by others. The Austin American-Statesman, referring to the commission as a “toothless tiger,” editorialized in April that the agency mostly levies small fines for late filings and called for “more robust enforcement of ethics laws.”

    Many state commissions are unable to proactively investigate alleged violations, either because the panel simply does not have the authority to do so in law — like in Florida — or the law requires a lofty standard for launching a probe. In North Carolina, the ethics commission can only pursue investigations if it finds “probable cause” of an ethics violation, a stronger requirement than law enforcement agencies that need only “reasonable suspicion” to pursue a case.

    The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission receives between 20 and 25 written complaints each year. Many turn out to be frivolous or out of date (the incident must have occurred within the preceding 12 months). But it falls on the commission’s sole employee, executive director Feldman, to determine whether the complaint is valid.

    “It’s hard for me as one person to do what I would consider a thorough investigation,” said Feldman, a former assistant district attorney. “I know what a good investigation looks like, and I just can’t do that.”

    The Colorado commission came into being in 2008, when the state was hit by a faltering economy, so it did not start out with adequate resources. But even in the years since, Feldman said the General Assembly has never been especially supportive of the commission, which regulates gifts and travel from lobbyists to lawmakers.

    “They find it insulting that somebody would say just because I accepted two [Colorado] Rockies tickets, it would affect my vote,” she said.

    Attorney Fred Lewis said that the Texas Ethics Commission often finds itself in a tight spot, as the legislature ultimately controls its funding, resources and staff position. “They realize it’s the hand that feeds them,” he said.  

    Texas Ethics Commissioner Paul Hobby, who was appointed by the House speaker in December, said the commission has been involved in high-profile ethics cases.

    Like this one: in 2010 Rep. Kino Flores (D-Palmview) failed to disclose income on his financial disclosure reports, which are filed with the Texas Ethics Commission, prompting an investigation by the county district attorney. Flores was convicted by a jury and sentenced to five years probation. The Ethics Commission did not act until months later when it issued a $700 fine.

    Hobby concedes that the commissioners and staff must work within certain limits. “Look at the budget, look at the statute,” he said, “and tell me how it can be anything but an ankle biter.”

     Increasing Workload, Inadequate Resources

    The Delaware Public Integrity Commission — a two-person operation — enforces ethics rules for 48,000 people on the state level. It also oversees 50 local governments in the state. With an annual operating budget of $30,600, Janet Wright, the commission’s counsel, said that works out to “less than a penny a person.”

    “I do not know any state agency that is doing their job at that amount,” she said. 

    The Public Integrity Commission’s responsibilities include regulating the ethics code for the executive branch, overseeing financial disclosure filings and lobbying reports, and enforcing the anti-double dipping law, which prevents state and local government employees who also hold elected positions from receiving double compensation from the state.

    This year, the Delaware Legislature passed legislation that requires the creation of a new lobbyist database. It also requires lobbyists to disclose the bill number on which they are lobbying. It’s an improvement for lobbying disclosure — but Wright said it will likely create additional work, such as training some 400 lobbyists on how to use the new system, for an already strained agency. 

    “They did ask me, ‘would it help if you had more people?’ It certainly would,” she said. “But we didn’t get that.”

    Wright said the commission has experienced an increase in responsibility and jurisdiction every year since its creation in 1991; meanwhile, the budget has been cut repeatedly. In 2008, which was economically a bad year for the state, the panel  suffered a 17 percent decrease in its operating budget, leaving it with $32,100. .

    Ethics commissions, like many state agencies, have in recent years often found themselves strapped for cash due to tough economic times.  For smaller commissions that are already understaffed and underfunded, the cuts are especially damaging. In South Carolina, the State Ethics Commission had a budget of $725,000 in 1999; now, it’s at less than $284,000. The Oklahoma Ethics Commission only has one investigator and one attorney among its five-person staff, which, according to executive director Marilyn Hughes, is not enough. The commission has requested funding for a 10-person staff every year since 1991, but has never been larger than seven people.

    “Historically, the legislature just hasn’t funded it,” Hughes said. Although the commission’s current budget is about $680,000, which is the largest it’s been in three years, that amount is still down from its highest point of $750,000 before 2008.

    Hughes said there is “a lot of fear” associated with the commission’s ability to levy fines and penalties, but since it is a constitutionally-established agency, legislators can’t eliminate it entirely; instead, she said, they low-ball it.

    In Colorado, critics say, the lack of resources creates a chilling effect on the complaint process itself. Feldman said when citizens file a complaint, they have to pursue it on their own, as the commission does not have a large enough staff to provide the legal support. She said she did not know of any state that places such a burden on the complainant.

    The Pennsylvania Commission, admittedly a much larger agency than its counterparts in Colorado and Oklahoma, suffered a 25 percent decrease in its funding, from $2.1 million in 2007 to about $1.7 million this year. Its staff has been reduced from 25 to 18 employees.

    “There are things we are doing differently,” Contino said of the budget constraints. “We can’t invest in every case anymore.” For example, he said, the commission must now take geographical location into account. If investigating an allegation requires a four-hour drive to a distant corner of the state, they may choose not to pursue the case.

    Carol Carson, executive director of Connecticut’s Office of State Ethics, said it is always a challenge to maintain the resources necessary to carry out its mandate.

    “A lot of that is driven by the economy,” Carson said. “But in addition to that, watchdog agencies tend to get money when there is a scandal. When things go smoothly, it looks like they have a lot of money, [so governments say] let’s take it away from them.”

    Last year, Connecticut Governor Daniel Molloy consolidated nine agencies, including Carson’s office, into one umbrella organization — the Office of Governmental Accountability. The restructuring was billed as a way to streamline state government and save the state money. It also reduced Carson’s staff from 18 to 13 members; she lost one of two investigators and its only auditor.

    The Office of State Ethics, created in 2005, is one of the stronger enforcement bodies in the country, responsible for the disclosure of lobbying activity and personal finances, investigating potential violations, and enforcing the ethics code. It can — and does — initiate investigations, impose penalties, and audit reports. On the State Integrity Investigation, Connecticut scored a 90 percent in the category of ethics enforcement.

    But as a result of the merger, Carson said there were statute-mandated tasks that simply did not get done. The office reduced the number of audits of lobbying reports by 75 percent — it typically performs at least 40, but this year will only conduct 10.

    The Sun Sets on Reform

    In Texas, attorney Fred Lewis acknowledged that the weakness of the state’s ethics commission stems in part from budget problems — but, ultimately, he said, the agency has to make substantial changes to its structure to be truly effective. “If they had all the money in the world, it wouldn’t matter,” Lewis said, “unless they had the structure — an enforcement division — to do proper investigations.” Earlier this year, the Texas Ethics Commission went through “sunset review,” a process that modifies or weeds out inefficient government agencies. In a May 2012 report, Sunset Advisory Commission staff wrote that the agency “unnecessarily focuses on minor reporting infractions” and recommended an overhaul of enforcement structure.

    But when it came time for the Sunset Commission, a 12-member board that consists of 10 state lawmakers and two civilians, to approve those recommendations, good government advocates claim it didn’t go far enough. The Commission adopted several of the report’s suggestions, but other demands — like finding new sources of funding, putting disclosures online, or creating an enforcement arm — were ignored.

    “The failure to enact bolder reforms leaves the Ethics Commission a largely toothless observer of a political system awash in cash and flush with potential conflicts of interest,” stated a San Antonio Express-News editorial.

    The sunset recommendations will be turned into legislation for the 2013 session. But Texans for Public Justice’s McDonald said he is not optimistic that any substantial changes to the Ethics Commission will be made. “The mood in the legislature is that they don’t like the Ethics Commission,” McDonald said. “They want it to go away.”   

    The Colorado State Capitol Caitlin Ginley http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/caitlin-ginley

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    On Tuesday, the conservative nonprofit Americans for Prosperity released its first ad in a $25 million campaign aimed at defeating President Barack Obama. The spot, called “President Obama: A One-Term Proposition,” will air in nine swing states: Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Florida.

    “President Obama pledged to cut the deficit in half,” the new ad states. “But we've gone $5 trillion deeper in debt under his watch. It's time to hold Obama accountable for his promises.”

    It closes with a clip of Obama saying, “If I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.”

    However, Obama’s “one-term proposition” comment actually came in response to specific questions about the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which was signed into law by President George W. Bush. The program provided struggling banks with money and is widely crediting with stabilizing the financial sector, according to ABC News. Obama did not address the deficit at the time of his TARP comments.

    In a 2009 interview, NBC’s Matt Lauer asked Obama, “At some point will you say, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve spent this amount of money. We’re not seeing the results. We’ve got to change course dramatically’?”

    The president replied, “Look, I’m at the start of my administration. One nice thing about the situation I find myself in is that I will be held accountable. You know, I’ve got four years. And, you know, a year from now I think people are going to see that we’re starting to make some progress. But there’s still going to be some pain out there. If I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.”

    Americans for Prosperity is organized as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit with the Internal Revenue Service, meaning that it’s primary purpose is not electoral politics but rather the promotion of “social welfare.” It is not required to publicly reveal its donors, but IRS records show its total revenue was $22 million in 2010, up from $7 million in 2008.

    Americans for Prosperity believes in “cutting taxes and government spending in order to halt the encroachment of government in the economic lives of citizens” and “removing unnecessary barriers to entrepreneurship and opportunity by sparking citizen involvement in the regulatory process,” according to its website.

    The group, which bills itself as a grassroots organization and has 34 state chapters across the country, is funded by conservative industrialist billionaires Charles and David Koch. The group is a spin-off of Citizens for a Sound Economy, which the Koch brothers founded in 1984.

    The Koch brothers reportedly plan to steer more than $200 million into conservative group such as Americans for Prosperity ahead of the 2012 elections.

    In other outside spending news:

    • Women VOTE!, the super PAC affiliated with EMILY’s List, released an ad Tuesday supporting Democrat Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut, who is running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The ad is part of a $370,000 expenditure that also takes aim at Wisconsin Republican Senate candidates Tommy Thompson and Eric Hovde and supports Democrat Tarryl Clark, who is running for the U.S. House in Minnesota.
    • Super PAC New Directions for America spent $140,000 on a media buy supporting public relations executive Dan Roberti, a Democrat who is running for Congress in Connecticut.
    • The Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as the Democratic Party there is called, has made two buys supporting Democrat Rick Nolan, a businessman and former U.S. Representative who is running for Congress again. The buys total more than $135,000.
    • The League of Conservation Voters began a $120,000 campaign Tuesday targeting Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. The ad attacks Heller’s voting history and the contributions he’s received from the oil industry.
    • Senate Conservatives Action, the super PAC spin-off of the leadership PAC of Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., reported spending $115,000 Tuesday on ads that will support Republican Mark Neumann in his bid for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin.
    • The politically active nonprofit Americans for Job Security spent nearly $650,000 on “Says and Does,” an attack ad aimed at businessman Eric Hovde, who is also running in the Republican Senate primary in Wisconsin. Among other barbs, the ad claims Hovde “was against bank bailouts but invested in banks that got billions.” Hovde heads an asset management firm and a private equity firm.
    Americans for Prosperity released an ad called "President Obama: A One-Term Proposition" on Tuesday. Alexandra Duszak http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/alexandra-duszak

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    One of the nation’s top immigration think tanks estimates that 1.76 million undocumented people could attempt to benefit from an Obama administration decision to shield them from deportation, temporarily, and grant them two-year work permits. Moreover, the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. estimates in its new report that 58 percent of this population who are now between 15 and 30 years old are already in the U.S. labor force.

    As of Aug. 15, the administration is opening up the process for certain undocumented youths brought here as children to apply for the two-year reprieve. It represents one of the biggest undertakings by U.S. immigration officials in years. It is not a program for permanent residency, but it does provide youths who meet the criteria temporary protection from deportation, as well as the ability to work legally and stop using fake Social Security cards or laboring off the books.

    The Migration Policy Institute’s report includes state-by-state charts and other estimates that help paint a portrait of where and who the youths are. The report is based in part on data from the U.S. Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    The institute estimates that California alone could have 460,000 potential applicants. Youths cannot apply until they are 15 years old, so applications will be accepted on a rolling basis. There is no deadline to apply. The limits are set by maximum age limits and other criteria. 

    The Obama policy, outlined in June 15 memo, is limited to youths who were brought here before they turned 16 and have lived continuously in the United States for five years since their arrival. The youths must also be in school or have graduated from high school or obtained a GED. They cannot be over 30 at the time of the policy was announced. And they must pass a biometric and national-security screening and cannot have committed certain crimes. 

    Employers and schools are going to be critical players in this process because youths will ask them to provide supporting documents proving residency and education claims. Youth advocates are concerned that employers get assurance that by helping youths, they won’t end up in trouble with officials who enforce laws against knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.

    The application costs $465. Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which will screen applicants, relies on fees to pay for much of its work.

    At an event Tuesday at the Migration Policy Institute, USCIS director Alejandro Mayorkas clarified that the administration’s policy actually includes an incentive to remain in school to obtain the temporary reprieve. If youths who have dropped out of high school go back to classes or pursue a GED, then can meet the criteria for eligibility and go ahead and apply.

    Such individuals “must be in school the day they submit the application,” Mayorkas said. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 350,000 youths who are between 16 and 30 could benefit from this.

    Critics have argued that Obama’s action is an overreach f his authority, and a bid to increase his appeal among Latino voters in an election year. 

    At the Tuesday event, a former Department of Homeland Security principal deputy counsel argued that the program was within the administration’s right to exercise prosecutorial discretion. David Martin, the former deputy counsel, doubted that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, if elected in November, would move to eliminate the program right away. “I think it would be hard for a new administration to come in and completely clear the decks on this,” Martin said.

    Romney hasn’t explicitly said he would reverse Obama’s action, which is called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. But Romney has said that he opposes the DREAM Act, a bill in Congress that has idled for 10 years, and lost the strong support it once had among a few Republican senators. The proposal would allow certain undocumented youths to earn legal residency by attending school or serving in the military. 

    A Romney campaign immigration adviser, however, did issue a strong attack on the DACA program.

    Kris Kobach, Kansas’ Republican Secretary of State, called the program “illegal” and “deeply troubling” in an exclusive interview with ThinkProgress. Kobach has been deeply involved in state and local-level immigration fights. He helped draft Arizona’s controversial state law requiring police to inquire about legal status if they suspect people officers stop might be undocumented. And he championed failed courts challenges to overturn Kansas and California state laws allowing undocumented college students who grew up in those states to pay in-state, rather than out-of-state tuition.

    A group of youths rally outside the White House in June to show support for President Obama's immigration policy. Susan Ferriss http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/susan-ferriss

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    A federal court has directed that North Carolina’s Waccamaw River watershed receive $1 million in environmental preservation projects, one piece of a broader federal effort to protect wetlands and enforce the Clean Water Act.

    The new case centers on Freedman Farms Inc., a corporate hog farm in Columbus County, N.C.

    In February, the company was sentenced to five years of probation and ordered to pay $1.5 million in fines, restitution and community service payments. The farm, the government said, violated the Clean Water Act by discharging hog waste from its 4,800 hogs into a stream that leads directly into the Waccamaw River — rather than to treatment and disposal lagoons. Company president William B. Freedman received six months in prison followed by six months of home confinement.

    Now, the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division has specified that Freedman Farms must pay its $1 million restitution in five annual payments, starting in January 2013, to the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust, an environmental nonprofit dedicated to land conservation in the Waccamaw watershed.

    “The court-ordered restitution … will conserve wetlands for the benefit of the people of North Carolina,” Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division, said in a statement.

    The land trust hopes to leverage the restitution payments to raise more wetland protection money from state, federal and private funders, said Executive Director Camilla M. Herlevich.

    “Since we know we’ll have a few hundred thousand dollars of match every year, it puts us in a competitive position to go seek other grant funds,” she said. “We hope this will be the first of a series of nice things to happen for the Waccamaw.”

    Most of the Waccamaw watershed is privately held, Herlevich said, and the trust intends to ensure the land is “perpetually protected for the public.” She has described the Waccamaw as “unique and wild.” Its watershed contains “some of the most extensive cypress gum swamps in the state,” she wrote, and its headwaters hold “fish that are found nowhere else on Earth.”

    The Freedman case is part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2011-13 national enforcement initiatives that aim to prevent animal waste from contaminating surface and ground water.

    The EPA, which has settled 18 Clean Water Act cases since 2011, calls wetlands “one of the most important ecosystems in the world.” Under the Clean Water Act, companies must obtain a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or state agencies to discharge dredged or fill material into wetlands. They include swamps, marshes and bogs.

    This May, the EPA and Department of Justice fined California’s Wendt Construction $170,000 for dumping 200 truckloads of material into federally protected wetlands. In March, a family of cranberry farmers in Massachusetts agreed to restore 26 acres of wetlands and pay a $75,000 penalty for damaging three bog sites without acquiring a Clean Water Act permit. In 2010 a dairy owner in Oregon filled in 0.14 acres of wetlands to construct a cow barn — and last October agreed to restore and preserve over 20 acres of wetlands to resolve its Clean Water Act case.

    In the North Carolina court case, Freedman and his company pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act.

    Director Greg McLeod of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, one of the Freedman Farms investigators, said in a statement that the case shows how state and federal agencies can “hold the polluters accountable.”

    “We’ll continue our efforts to fight illegal pollution that damages our water and puts the public’s health at risk,” McLeod said.

    The government has launched a renewed campaign to protect wetlands across the country, like these pictured in Kissimmee, Florida. Alice Su http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/alice-su

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    A grieving widower in a new pro-Obama TV spot says his wife contracted cancer and died “a short time after” Mitt Romney closed the steel plant that employed him and left “my family” without health coverage. That’s not quite so.

    We find this ad from Priorities USA Action to be misleading on several counts.

    • Steelworker Joe Soptic’s wife, Ranae, died in 2006 — five years after the plant closed.
    • She didn’t lose coverage when the plant closed. Mr. Soptic told CNN that she lost her own employer-sponsored coverage a year or two later. She had no coverage after that.
    • And as we’ve reported before, when the plant closed Romney was running the 2002 Winter Olympics.

    It’s fair to argue that Romney bears some responsibility for the plant’s closing — Bain Capital bought it and loaded it with debt while he was in charge of Bain. But the degree of responsibility is a matter of opinion and debate.

    It’s also fair to argue that Mrs. Soptic might have lived longer if she had health coverage. Those who lack it tend to seek treatment later, become sicker, and die earlier than those who have coverage.

    We’ll also note that what Romney supporters object to most strenuously about this ad is opinion, not fact. That is Soptic’s apparently heartfelt assertion that “I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned” about what “he’s done.”

    We can’t speak to the state of Romney’s personal compassion. Opinions will differ on that. But it strains the facts to the breaking point to imply that this tragic death is Romney’s doing.

    This isn’t Soptic’s first appearance in an ad attacking Romney. We wrote about an Obama campaign ad back in May that also featured Soptic. This time around, Soptic goes beyond blaming Romney and Bain for the demise of his job and adds the heartbreaking story of his wife’s death.

    Here’s what Soptic says:

    Joe Soptic in Priorities USA ad: I don’t think Mitt Romney understands what he’s done to people’s lives by closing the plant. I don’t think he realizes that people’s lives completely changed.

    When Mitt Romney and Bain closed the plant, I lost my health care, and my family lost their health care. And a short time after that my wife became ill.

    I don’t know how long she was sick, and I think maybe she didn’t say anything because she knew that we couldn’t afford the insurance. And then one day she became ill and I took her up to the Jackson County Hospital and admitted her for pneumonia. And that’s when they found the cancer, and by then it was stage four. It was, there was nothing they could do for her.

    And she passed away in 22 days.

    I do not think Mitt Romney realizes what he’s done to anyone, and furthermore I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned.

    Steel Plant Closing

    We first looked into Romney and Bain’s involvement with GS Industries when the company was used in an Obama attack ad in May. We found that assigning blame for the downfall of the company was a tough call.

    With Romney at the helm, Bain Capital invested in the small Kansas City steel mill called GST Steel Co. in 1993. It was a company that traced its roots to 1888 but had fallen on hard times. According to theKansas City Star, the company’s ranks had dropped from 4,500 employees in 1970 to just 1,500 employees by 1983.

    In addition, the company was beset by aging equipment and faced stiff competition in a specialized market, according to a lengthy Reuters report. Nonetheless, Bain saw potential in the company and, Reuters reported, invested $8 million in it. That initial investment was quickly recouped when, in 1994, the company issued $125 million in bonds and paid out $65 million in dividends — $36.1 million of which went to Bain, according to Reuters. The following year, Bain merged the company with another in Georgetown, S.C., renaming the company GS Industries and issuing another $125 million in bonds.

    Bain also reinvested an additional $16.5 million in the company, evidence that Bain intended to keep the firm going. Nevertheless, six years later, the company declared bankruptcy and eliminated 750 jobs — including Soptic’s, the man featured in the Priorities USA Action ad.

    The company also reneged on pension and other benefits it had agreed to in 1997. The U.S. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. later determined the company had severely underfunded its pension, and the federal agency covered the cost of basic pension payments.

    Romney has tried to distance himself from the problems at GS Industries.

    “I take personal responsibility for making the investment,” Romney told the Boston Globe in 2002. “But I didn’t manage these companies. Our philosophy at Bain Capital was to support management teams in companies where we saw potential for growth, or in companies that were in financial distress that we thought we might be able to save.”

    As we have written repeatedly in the past, Romney left day-to-day operations at Bain Capital in early 1999 to head up the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee, and we have criticized the Obama campaign for blaming Romney for the offshoring of jobs by Bain-controlled companies after that time. But this case is a little different. Although the steel company declared bankruptcy in 2001, the debt was incurred at GS Industries under Romney’s leadership.

    Was it the debt load that doomed the company? Some analysts cited by Reuters said it certainly didn’t help. Others blamed the union or competition from Asia. In a 1999 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company stated, “Distressed economic conditions in other countries, particularly Asia, have resulted in record levels of imported steel products into the domestic market causing dramatic declines in selling prices industry-wide.”

    It was a very bad time in general for the steel industry in the United States. A 2003 report from the U.S. International Trade Commission found that between 1999 and 2003, “31 steel companies producing products subject to the safeguard measures [including tariffs on foreign imports] have filed for bankruptcy protection.”

    In short, whether Romney or Bain is responsible for the demise of the company is a matter for legitimate debate.

    Link to Woman’s Death?

    More tenuous, however, are Soptic’s attempts to link Romney to his wife’s death from cancer. In the ad, Soptic says that when he lost his job at GS Industries, “my family lost their health care” and that “a short time after that my wife became ill.”

    Soptic says he doesn’t know how long she was sick. And, he says: “I think maybe she didn’t say anything because she knew that we couldn’t afford the insurance. And then one day she became ill and I took her up to the Jackson County Hospital and admitted her for pneumonia. And that’s when they found the cancer, and by then it was stage four. It was, there was nothing they could do for her. And she passed away in 22 days.”

    A bit of backstory: After he lost his job at GS Industries, Soptic became a school janitor. The job had a starting salary of $24,000 — about a third of his pay at the steel plant — and did not include a health insurance plan that covered his wife.

    But in an interview with CNN, Soptic said that when he lost his job at GS Industries in 2001, his wife still had health insurance through her job as an employee at Savers, a local thrift store. He told CNN that she left her job in 2002 or 2003 because of an injury, and that she then became uninsured because she didn’t have a fall-back insurance option through his employer. According to the Kansas City Star, Ranae Soptic, 55, died in 2006, five years after the GS Industries plant was closed. “She went to the hospital for pneumonia,” the story states, “but doctors found signs of very advanced cancer, and she died two weeks later on June 22.”

    It’s possible to argue that if Romney, as head of Bain, hadn’t put the company into such deep debt the company might have survived. And, therefore, Soptic might have had coverage for his wife to fall back on when she lost hers after her injury, and that if she had insurance she might have sought an earlier diagnosis and might have lived longer than she did. That’s a lot of “mights.”

    Of course, it’s also possible that if Bain hadn’t stepped in, the company might have closed even earlier than it did, and Soptic would then have lost his job, and his health benefits, earlier.

    Officials for Priorities USA Action said it would be “overstating the point of the ad” to suggest that Soptic blames Romney for his wife’s death.

    Said Bill Burton of Priorities USA Action: “This is another in a series of ads that demonstrates how long it took for communities and individuals to recover from the closing of these businesses. Families and individuals had to find new jobs, new sources of health insurance and a way to make up for the pensions they lost. Mitt Romney has had an enduring impact on the lives of thousands of men and women and for many of them, that impact has been devastating.”

    Despite that explanation, however, Soptic’s comment that Romney doesn’t realize, and isn’t concerned about what “he’s done” — coming as it does immediately after Soptic talks about his wife’s death from cancer — leaves little doubt that that’s the impression the ad seeks to leave with viewers.

    Robert Farley, Factcheck.org


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    A controversial new ad from the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA.

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    The pro-Republican nonprofit Crossroads GPS on Wednesday announced a $3.4 million ad campaign attacking Democrats in four key Senate races.

    Among them is "Sense," which claims Sen. Jon Tester of Montana was the “deciding vote” on the health care reform law. That’s not a new Republican line of attack, according to a March 2011 story in Politico, and has been used against other Democratic senators.

    The National Republican Senatorial Committee claimed Tester was the 60th vote, the story points out. Tester’s office emailed a video of the Senate roll call vote, “which clearly shows Tester casting the 52nd vote,” according to the story.

    • "Hiding Taxes” targets Heidi Heitkamp, former attorney general of North Dakota, and claims she supports “higher taxes on small businesses” but doesn’t say how.
    • People Over Government” targets vulnerable Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill with a similar claim. McCaskill will take on Republican Rep. Todd Akin, an arch-conservative, in November.
    • Holes” attacks Tim Kaine of Virginia on taxes and spending.

    Pattern,” another Crossroads ad that is not part of the four-state campaign, attacks Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev. The ad, which cites a story in the Las Vegas Sun, claims she once urged her boss to “buy off judges with campaign cash."

    Berkley’s boss was none other than Republican super donor Sheldon Adelson. She “advised Adelson to give favors to judges and county commissioners in return for favorable treatment” while she was an attorney working for his casino empire, according to the article. The tape containing that information emerged during Berkley’s first run for Congress, shortly after she had a falling out with the billionaire.

    The Las Vegas Review-Journal in a story Wednesday said Berkley was advising Adelson on the way business was conducted in Las Vegas.

    "I gave him the best advice I could under the circumstances," Berkley told reporter Jane Ann Morrison of the newspaper. "I do not agree with or condone the advice."

    Crossroads is a nonprofit organization and is not required to reveal its donors. It was co-founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove.

    In other outside spending news:

    • Friends of the Majority, a conservative super PAC, spent $373,000 on ads between July 31 and Aug. 7 opposing Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., who is running for re-election. The ad calls the Republican “not Mr. Right for conservatives.”
    • Nonprofit Patriot Majority USA spent more than $468,000 on the production of two ads opposing Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Andrew Roraback, a Republican state senator from Connecticut, who is running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
    • Pro-President Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action spent about $490,000 on digital and radio advertising and production opposing presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
    • The New Prosperity Foundation, a Chicago-based super PAC spent $301,000 opposing Tammy Duckworth, Brad Schneider, David Gill, Bill Foster and Cheri Bustos — all Democrats running for the U.S. House in districts across Illinois.
    • SEIU COPE, the political action committee of the Service Employees International Union, spent more than $275,000 on literature and TV ads and production targeting Obama and Berkley (pro) and Romney (against).
    Alexandra Duszak http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/alexandra-duszak

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  • 08/10/12--23:20: Romney Ad "Right Choice"
  • Right Choice

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    A Mitt Romney TV ad claims the Obama administration has adopted “a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements.” The plan does neither of those things.

    • Work requirements are not simply being “dropped.” States may now change the requirements — revising, adding or eliminating them — as part of a federally approved state-specific plan to increase job placement.
    • And it won’t “gut” the 1996 law to ease the requirement. Benefits still won’t be paid beyond an allotted time, whether the recipient is working or not.

    Romney’s ad also distorts the facts when it says that under President Obama’s plan “you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job.” The law never required all welfare recipients to work. Only 29 percent of those receiving cash assistance met the work requirement by the time President Obama took office.

    Under the new policy, states can now seek a federal waiver from work-participation rules that, among other things, require welfare recipients to engage in one of 12 specific “work activities,” such as job training. But, in exchange, states must develop a plan that would provide a “more efficient or effective means to promote employment,” which may or may not include some or all of the same work activities. States also must submit an “evaluation plan” that includes “performance measures” that must be met — or the waiver could be revoked.

    Ron Haskins, a former Republican House committee aide who was instrumental in the 1996 overhaul of the welfare program, told us the Obama administration should not have unilaterally changed the work-requirement rules. But Haskins said the Romney claim that Obama’s plan will “gut welfare reform” is “very misleading.”

    “I do not think it ends welfare reform or strongly undermines welfare reform,” said Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families. “Each state has to say what they will do and how that reform … will either increase employment or lead to better employment” of recipients.

    The Obama policy responds to state officials who say they can improve job placement and retention if freed from the time-consuming process of documenting and verifying that recipients are engaged in those work activities.

    “In times of reduced funding, waivers may be the best method to allow states to find effective and efficient approaches to assist the unemployed to find and keep work,” the Utah Department of Workforce Services wrote to federal welfare officials last year.

    Republicans criticized the new policy shortly after it was implemented on July 12. That prompted Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican who supports Romney, to issue a July 17 press release “defending Utah’s waiver request for state flexibility to achieve work-related outcomes for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) recipients.”

    Welfare to Work

    The Romney campaign began airing its new TV ad on Aug. 7. Called “Right Choice,” the ad praises the bipartisan cooperation of President Bill Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress to overhaul welfare. It then turns partisan and attacks President Obama.

    It’s simply not true that the administration’s policy will allow states to “just send you your welfare check.” Under the policy, states must meet a whole new set of federal requirements in order to obtain and keep a waiver. Plus, states have an incentive to get people off welfare and into jobs, since that would free TANF funds for other services for low-income families.

    “I think — and now remember I’m a Republican — that the ad is very misleading,” Haskins said.

    We’ll go into more detail about the new policy later, but first let’s review how we got here — beginning with “The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996” that created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

    The welfare overhaul was designed to help move unemployed Americans from welfare to work. The federal government strengthened work requirements on families receiving cash assistance, and for the first time imposed lifetime limits (generally up to five years). After two years on TANF, the parent in the household must be engaged in “work activities.”

    The law also generally requires states to document that 50 percent of all families receiving cash assistance are participating in such work activities. But work-participation rates peaked at 38 percent in 1999 and started to decline — prompting Congress to attempt to strengthen the rules when itreauthorized TANF as part of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005.

    Still, the work-participation rates remained low. The most recent data available show the rate was 29.4 percent in fiscal year 2009. Many states rely on options in the current law that allow them to be in compliance with requirements even though their rates are below 50 percent.

    The new work-participation rules did have one impact on states: They were time-consuming to comply with and counterproductive to helping people find jobs, as documented by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office in a 2010 report. GAO’s welfare experts were among those questioning the value of the work-participation rates as a measure of success.

    “The emphasis on work participation rates as a measure of program performance has helped change the culture of state welfare programs to focus on moving families into employment, but weaknesses in the measure undercut its effectiveness,” Kay E. Brown, the GAO’s director of Education, Workforce and Income Security Issues, testified before a Senate committee on June 5. “Are the work participation rates providing the right incentives to states to engage parents, including those difficult to serve, and help them achieve self-sufficiency?”

    Providing Flexibility … or Gutting Welfare?

    It was against this backdrop that the Obama administration acted.

    On Feb. 28, 2011, the president broadly directed his administration to work with state, local and tribal officials to find ways to provide more flexibility in complying with federal regulations. As a result, the Administration for Children and Families within the Department of Health and Human Services solicitedrecommendations from state officials on how to improve its programs.

    One of the responses ACF received was from Kristen Cox, executive director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services. “Utah is especially interested in the development of a waiver authority in the TANF grant,” the Aug. 1, 2011, letter said.

    The Utah letter said the federal work-participation rules focused too much on process and not enough on outcome. “The lack of focus on outcomes makes the program less about the need to help parents find and retain work and more about the need to assure that parents are active in prescribed [work] activities,” the letter said.

    Utah expressly said it would not use a federal waiver to avoid work requirements. “The expectation to participate fully in specific [work] activities leading to employment is not the issue,” the letter stated. Instead, Utah was seeking the flexibility to overcome the “narrow definitions of what counts [toward work participation] and the burdensome documentation and verification process.”

    The Obama administration cited the Utah letter when it announced its new policy on July 12. The policy provides exactly the kind of flexibility Utah was seeking.

    Under the new policy, states may receive a waiver if they submit plans for a “demonstration project” (not to exceed five years) that provides a “more efficient or effective means to promote employment.” States also must submit an “evaluation plan” that includes a “set of performance measures that states will track to monitor ongoing performance and outcomes.” States also must set up “interim performance targets” and, if states fail to meet those, they will be “required to develop improvement plans.”

    “Repeated failure to meet performance benchmarks may lead to the termination of the waiver demonstration pilot,” the rules state.

    Is Obama “dropping work requirements,” as Romney’s ad claims? No. He is allowing states to change the work requirements, but he is not dropping them. The changes could be made to a variety of federal requirements, including “definitions of work activities and engagement, specified limitations, verification procedures, and the calculation of participation rates.”

    A lot will depend on what a state proposes and how it is implemented. There is nothing inherent in the waivers that guts work requirements.

    In explaining the new policy, George Sheldon, the acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families, wrote: “Waivers that weaken or undercut welfare reform will not be approved.” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote a July 18 letter to Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah saying the department’s “goal is to accelerate job placement,” requiring states to commit to a plan that will “move at least 20% more people from welfare to work compared to the state’s past performance.”

    It’s understandable that some Republicans simply may not trust Sebelius and Sheldon. There is a lot of mistrust between the Democrats and Republicans on the issue of welfare — and the way the administration implemented the new policy has not helped.

    Ron Haskins was the Republican staff director of the Subcommittee on Human Resources for the House Ways and Means Committee from 1995 to 2000. Now at the Brookings Institution, Haskins’ biographystates that he was “instrumental in the 1996 overhaul of national welfare policy.”

    Haskins said Republicans at the time drafted the welfare law so that the executive branch could not waive work-participation rules. Obama’s unilateral action has understandably angered some Republicans who believe the administration lacks the authority to issue waivers, he said.

    However, Haskins also said that the new waiver policy does not “gut welfare reform.” He cites two reasons: The federal government will continue to hold states accountable for moving people off welfare and into jobs, and the states have a tremendous financial incentive to use the new waiver authority to improve employment outcomes.

    “The idea that the states will use this to bring people back on the welfare rolls … doesn’t make sense to me,” Haskins said. “The states are all about work. All they talk about is work. They agree with welfare reform and they want to figure out how to get everybody they can into the labor force — because it is to their advantage.”

    Over the past 15 years, the federal government and states have spent $406 billion on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and about 40 percent of that came from the states, according to the GAO.

    Haskins notes that historically the “Republicans are the ones who talk about giving the states more flexibility. Romney himself talks about giving the states more flexibility.”

    “Now all of a sudden the states shouldn’t get the flexibility because they are going to mess it up?” he says. “It doesn’t make sense.”

    It makes no sense, either, to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican who was caught in the partisan crossfire when the Obama administration singled out his state for recommending that the federal government provide waivers. Herbert sent a July 16 letter to Sebelius to “clarify Utah’s position.”

    The governor reiterated that the state was not seeking to avoid work requirements and explained why the state remains interested in obtaining a waiver. “Some of these participation requirements are difficult and costly to verify, while other participation requirements do not lead to meaningful employment outcomes and are overly prescriptive,” he wrote.

    However, like Haskins, the Utah governor questioned whether the administration has the authority to issue waivers. Hatch, the state’s senior senator, has asked the GAO to determine if the administration’s policy “qualifies as a regulation that is subject to review — and potential disapproval — under the Congressional Review Act.” The waiver issue is also likely to be addressed as part of the congressional reauthorization of TANF.  (The current authorization of TANF expires Sept. 30.)

    “HHS appears to be granting waivers that will provide the flexibility we seek,” Herbert wrote. But, he added, “Our support of the HHS change is contingent on HHS having statutory authority to grant waivers — whether that authority is in the statute as currently written or whether it is granted as part of a TANF reauthorization.”

    Either way, the Republican governor is on record as welcoming a rule that his party’s candidate for president says will “gut welfare reform.”

    Eugene Kiely, with Rina Moss, Factcheck.org


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    The Republican National Committee and pro-Republican super PAC American Crossroads are attacking President Barack Obama over an ad released by super PAC Priorities USA Action that all but calls presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney responsible for a woman’s death from cancer.

    The response comes in the form of... more ads.

    What Else?” from the RNC accuses the Obama campaign of lying about the extent of its connection to the Priorities ad. Coordination between candidates’ campaigns and super PACs is prohibited, but rules against it are difficult to enforce, as the Center for Public Integrity has reported.

    In the Priorities ad, steelworker Joe Soptic says Romney’s former firm, Bain Capital, shut down the company he worked for and he lost his health insurance. His wife developed cancer but avoided going to the doctor because she had no coverage. 

    “I don’t know the facts of when Joe Soptic’s wife got sick, or when she died,” Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, says during a TV news interview featured in the Republican ad.

    The ad then cuts to a recording of a conference call where Cutter thanks Soptic, the steel worker, for “sharing your experiences.”

    The ad never says what experiences Soptic was sharing.

    Cancer”, from American Crossroads, tries to pokes holes in the firewall that is supposed to exist between candidates’ campaigns and the super PACs that support them. The video does not come up in Web searches. The ad link was made public by Politico Friday morning.

    In other outside spending news:

    • Conservative nonprofit Americans for Prosperity on Thursday released the ad “Ronald Reagan: Freedom Leads to Prosperity,” featuring a speech from the former Republican president.
    • Conservative nonprofit Crossroads GPS has announced it will pull the ad “Hiding Taxes,” after its target, former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, complained, according to the Associated Press. Heitkamp, a Democrat, is running for Senate.
    • Also in North Dakota: Majority PAC, a super PAC that seeks to preserve the Democratic majority in the Senate, spent more than $106,000 on advertising to oppose Republican Rep. Rick Berg, a Senate candidate.
    • Pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action spent $884,000 on an ad that will be used to oppose Romney.
    • Conservative super PAC Club for Growth Action spent nearly $477,000 on TV ads backing its favorite candidate — former Wisconsin Congressman Mark Neumann — and criticizing his two opponents in the Wisconsin Senate GOP primary. The race will be decided Tuesday. The group is attacking the state’s former governor Tommy Thompson and businessman Eric Hovde.
    • The Club dropped another $440,000 on TV and online ads opposing Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz. Gosar currently represents Arizona’s 1st District but is running for re-election in the 4th District due to redistricting.
    • The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent about $241,000 buying and producing ads in two hotly contested Senate races. The buys pay for ads that oppose former New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson and Montana Congressman Dennis Rehberg.
    The Republican National Committee ad "What Else?" attacks President Barack Obama over a super PAC ad linking Mitt Romney to a woman's death from cancer. Alexandra Duszak http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/alexandra-duszak

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    A new Mitt Romney campaign ad passes off opinions of a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush as though they were from a newspaper’s reporters or editors. It’s a political trick used by both sides: hijacking a news organization’s credibility.

    In this example, the Romney ad attacks President Obama’s mandate requiring employers to provide health insurance that includes free contraception. It attributes to the San Antonio Express-News the words: “Obama’s Insurance Decision Declares War on Religion.”

    But the newspaper didn’t say that in any editorial or news article. That headline appeared over anopinion piece by a nationally syndicated columnist who has worked for Republicans in the past. And to make this example worse, the same columnist later softened his “war on religion” opinion after the president modified the mandate.

    We’ve seen plenty of this sort of thing, from both parties. For instance, earlier this year, one ad, from a group that says it’s supported by veterans, claimed that the Washington Post said Obama had “shameless gall” to use Osama bin Laden’s death to score political points. But the Post didn’t say that. Instead, the words appeared in a headline over a piece by a long-time Republican operative and lobbyist. A recent Obama ad hijacks CNN’s credibility by attributing the opinions of two outside contributors to the network, using a barely legible disclaimer that it’s from an “op-ed.”

    Campaigns also are fond of quoting themselves, but attributing the quote to a newspaper story that included the campaign’s or candidate’s words. For example, in 2008, an Obama campaign ad gave viewers the impression that the Washington Post had found that Obama’s health care plan would save the “typical family” $2,500. But instead of citing the newspaper, the campaign should have cited itself. The Post article simply reported that “[t]he senator’s aides estimated that his plan would save the average family $2,500 per year.”

    The Romney ad says that Obama “used his health care plan to declare war on religion, forcing religious institutions to go against their faith.” Romney, it says, “believes that’s wrong,” and the ad goes on to use words and images of Pope John Paul II, and to note an endorsement of Romney by Lech Walesa, the former Polish president who helped defeat communism in the country. The ad doesn’t make clear that it’s talking about a policy, announced in January, requiring most employers to offer their employees insurance that covers birth control for free. The policy exempted churches, but initially still applied to organizations with religious affiliations, including universities and hospitals. That upset the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, among other groups. In February, the Obama administration changed the mandate to say that religious organizations would be able to opt out, but insurance companies would pick up the cost of the contraception.

    Whether any of that amounts to a “war on religion” is opinion. But the Romney campaign implied that it was also the San Antonio Express-News‘ opinion, showing the words “Obama’s Insurance Decision Declares War on Religion” and attributing it to the newspaper. But, as in our other examples of this tactic, the Express-News didn’t say that. Those words were the headline over a piece by conservative columnist Michael Gerson, who writes for the Washington Post. Gerson’s column — which was very critical of Obama not exempting institutions with religious affiliations — ran in the Express-News on Feb. 1 and originally in the Post on Jan. 30. Gerson, who was extremely critical of Obama’s policy, said “the war on religion is now formally declared.” Gerson was a speechwriter and senior aide to President George W. Bush, a speechwriter for Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, and policy director for Republican Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana.

    Obama amended the policy on Feb. 10, after Gerson’s column was published. The revised policy said that organizations with a religious affiliation wouldn’t have to provide or pay for birth control — instead, insurance companies would pick up the cost. Churches, as we said earlier, were already entirely exempt from the policy. That didn’t appease the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and others, who argued that religious employers would ultimately pick up the cost through higher premiums. The Obama administration countered that free contraception coverage is cost neutral. We found conflicting and inconclusive evidence on those claims.

    In a Feb. 13 column, after the modified policy was announced, Gerson still was critical of the president, but said that “an indirect requirement is less aggressive and humiliating than a direct one,” and that “Obama has partially defused a crisis of his own creation.”

    Again, whether the Obama policy — either initially or after it was modified — amounts to a “war on religion” is a matter of opinion, and voters can make up their own minds about that. But the Romney ad doesn’t reveal exactly what it’s criticizing, and it hijacks the credibility of a newspaper to make its case.

    Lori Robertson

    Footnote: This ad was approved by Romney but paid for by the Republican National Committee.

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  • 08/10/12--23:20: Romney Ad "Be Not Afraid"
  • Be Not Afraid

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    The Obama campaign strikes another low blow with a TV spot accusing Mitt Romney of “personally” approving a notoriously abusive tax-avoidance scheme and suggesting he may have paid “zero” tax. That’s badly misleading.

    It wasn’t Romney who was avoiding taxes, it was Marriott Corp. And there’s no evidence to support the ad’s speculation that Romney himself paid no income tax, or that he did something illegal.

    The ad opens with an unsupported insinuation that Romney isn’t releasing more federal income tax returns because some would show he didn’t pay any income tax in those years. The narrator asks, “Did Romney pay 10 percent in taxes? Five percent? Zero? We don’t know.” And the narrator might add, “We have no evidence to support what I just said.” But he doesn’t.

    Instead, the narrator says, “But we do know that Romney personally approved over $70 million in fictional losses to the IRS as part of the notorious ‘Son of Boss’ scandal. One of the largest tax avoidance schemes in history.” On screen, we see similar quotes attributed to CNN, with the cable network’s logo prominently displayed. There’s so much deceit here we hardly know where to start.

    • The tax scheme didn’t benefit Romney, and the fictional losses were not his. The company involved was Marriott Corp, not Romney or Bain Capital. But the ad gives no hint of this.
    • CNN didn’t report this. Although the ad prominently features the CNN logo as the source of the printed quotes, they are actually the opinions of two outside tax experts with Democratic leanings.
    • Marriott isn’t solely responsible for “one of the largest tax avoidance schemes in history.”Viewers may get the mistaken impression that Romney — actually Marriott — is solely to blame for “one of the largest tax avoidance schemes in history.” Not true. It was a strategy used by manytaxpayers that resulted in billions in lost revenue.
    • “Avoidance” is not illegal. The casual viewer may miss the important distinction between legal avoidance and illegal fraud or tax evasion. Combining “avoidance” with loaded terms like “scheme” and “notorious” and “scandal” and “fictional losses” further suggests possible tax fraud, but there’s no evidence Romney broke any law.

    A viewer who squints hard might see that under the CNN logo, the ad attributes the quotes to an “op-ed” opinion piece by “Canellos & Kleinbard.” And as CNN notes on its site, in fine print, “The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter C. Canellos and Edward D. Kleinbard.”

    Who are they? Both are top-drawer tax experts, no doubt about that. Canellos is head of the tax department at a big New York law firm and former chair of the New York State Bar Association Tax Section. Kleinbard is a professor of law at the University of Southern California and a former chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation of the U.S. Congress.

    But both have given to Democratic candidates in the past, though neither is a major donor. Kleinbard’sonly recorded donation to a federal candidate in the past five years is a $250 gift in 2010 to a local Southern California congressman, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank. Canellos gave a total of $6,300 during the same period, including $2,300 to the Obama campaign in 2008, $1,500 to former Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean’s “Democracy for America” committee and $1,250 to a couple of Democratic Party committees.

    In their article, they recap reporting done back in February by Jesse Drucker of Bloomberg News. Drucker said Romney headed the audit committee of Marriott Corp. from 1993 to 1998, during which time the company started using a tax shelter known to attorneys by its nickname: “Son of Boss.” The company claimed $71 million in losses under that shelter, which the IRS challenged. Marriott sued, but lost in court, appealed, and lost again in 2009. The court sided with government lawyers who called the shelter “fictitious,” “artificial,” “spectral,” an “illusion” and a “scheme,” Drucker reported.

    In their more recent CNN article, Canellos and Kleinbard argue that the IRS rejection of the shelter was “entirely predictable” and that it is “disingenuous” of Romney’s campaign staff to say that he relied on Marriott’s tax department and advisers. Romney had “the financial sophistication to understand the tax avoidance involved,” they argue.

    They call Romney “an executive who was willing to go to the edge, if not beyond, to bend the rules to seek an unfair advantage” for Marriott. And they ask whether the same might be true of his personal taxes: “Did he augment his wealth through highly aggressive tax stratagems of questionable validity?”

    But questioning someone’s wisdom or business ethics as a corporate director is one thing, while suggesting scandalous personal behavior is another. Canellos and Kleinbard offer their personal opinions and speculation, but the Obama campaign’s ad condenses all that into an unfair and misleading insinuation. The Son of Boss claims come immediately after the speculation about Romney’s personal income tax payments, and there is no transition to let viewers know the ad is no longer talking about Romney’s personal finances.

    Romney’s refusal to release more than two years’ worth of tax returns — far fewer than most presidential candidates in recent history — leaves an opening for his opponents to speculate about what he may be hiding. And the ad is correct that we don’t know if, prior to 2010, Romney paid less than 13.9 percent of his income in taxes, as he did in 2010. But the fact is, Romney didn’t claim $70 million in fictional losses for himself, and there’s no direct evidence that he used abusive or illegal methods to reduce his own taxes to zero, as this ad strains to imply.

    Brooks Jackson



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  • 08/10/12--23:20: Obama ad "Son of Boss"
  • Son of Boss

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    If Americans who are embracing Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” — and that now includes Mitt Romney — spent a few minutes reviewing a few recent research reports, they just might conclude that the Wisconsin Republican’s plan to reduce the deficit might better be renamed the “Path to the Poorhouse” because of what it would mean to the Medicare program and many senior citizens.

    Ryan’s proposal, which will get new scrutiny now that Romney has made him his running mate, would end the current Medicare program for everyone born after 1956. It would replace Medicare with a system in which beneficiaries would receive a set amount of money from the government every year to buy coverage from private insurers. That money would go straight into insurance companies’ bank accounts, which would make them far richer and even more in control of our health care system than they already are.

    While the amount of money beneficiaries would receive would depend on their health status, the average 65-year-old would get $8,000 under the Ryan plan in 2022, the year it would take effect. That’s the amount the current Medicare program is expected to spend on the average 65-year-old that year. After 2022, the annual increase in the “premium support” payments would be based on the consumer price index (CPI). And therein lies one of the biggest problems for anyone hoping to live long enough to enroll in Medicare and stay alive for a few years.

    Last month the government reported that the consumer price index had increased 1.7 percent between June 2011 and June 2012, meaning we’ve been paying on average 1.7 percent more this year than last year for goods and services. The cost of medical care, however, shot up 4.3 percent — more than two and a half times the CPI. And that was not an aberration. The cost of medical care has been rising faster than the cost of just about everything else in this country for years. That’s one of the reasons why private health insurance premiums have been increasing so rapidly. That and the fact that insurance corporations have to report a big enough profit every quarter to satisfy their shareholders and Wall Street analysts.

    Health insurance premiums rose 9 percent in 2011 to an average of $15,073 for an employer-subsidized family plan, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Over the past 10 years, premiums have increased a “whopping” (Kaiser’s word) 113 percent, much faster than wage increases and general inflation. So you can see what almost certainly would happen to Medicare beneficiaries beginning in 2022: They would have to shell out more and more money out of their own pockets every year just to cover the premiums their private insurers would charge them.

    That’s bad enough, but consider this: Health insurers began implementing a strategy several years ago to move all of us into high-deductible plans, meaning every one of us will soon be paying (if we’re not already) thousands of dollars of our own money for medical care before our insurance company will pay a dime. Insurers adopted this strategy because they have failed miserably at controlling health care costs. If you can’t control those costs, the only way you can make Wall Street-pleasing profits if you’re an insurer is to keep hiking premiums and shifting more of the cost of care to policyholders. 

    Under the privatized Medicare program Ryan envisions, the effect of that cost-shifting strategy would be disastrous for the growing number of senior citizens who are finding that every year they have less and less money to make ends meet.

    Almost half of Americans now die with virtually no financial assets, according to a recent study by economics professors at Harvard, MIT and Dartmouth. They found that 46.1 percent of Americans are now dying with less than $10,000 (19 percent die with no financial assets at all) and that many rely almost entirely on Social Security benefits for support. Not surprisingly, those people are disproportionally in poor health.

    “With such low asset levels, they would have little capacity to pay for unanticipated needs such as health expenses or other financial shocks or to pay for entertainment, travel, or other activities,” the professors wrote.

    Those findings are not so surprising when you look at other recent measures of Americans’ wealth and our ability — actually, our inability — to save money. The Federal Reserve reported in June that, after adjusting for inflation, median family income fell to $45,800 in 2010 from $49,600 in 2007. The recent economic crisis also took a big toll on median home equity, which fell during the same period from $110,000 to $75,000, and family net worth, which plummeted 40 percent from $126,400 to $77,300.

    For the relatively wealthy Americans lucky enough to have a 401(k), most of their account balances are not nearly high enough to be of significant help when they retire. According to Fidelity Investments, the country’s largest 401(k) administrator, the average account balance among its customers at the end of June was $72,800, which is down 2.4 percent from March and about the same as it was in June 2011. And balances in Health Savings Accounts are also low — averaging just $1,494 in 2010, according to J.P. Morgan.

    So one has to wonder how Messrs Ryan and Romney think making our senior citizens pay a lot more for care under a privatized Medicare program could even remotely be a Path to Prosperity for most of us. Could it be that they’re not thinking—or even caring — about most of us but about people who, like them, have such big 401(k) accounts they’ll be able to do just fine in their golden years regardless of how Medicare is structured?

    House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. -- and Mitt Romney's running mate -- holds up a copy of his "Path to Prosperity" budget plan in March.  Wendell Potter http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/wendell-potter

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    Across the United States, there are thousands of voting jurisdictions, most of which are responsible for deciding how elections will be conducted. In an attempt to present an up-to-date breakdown of voting technology in every county in the United States, a group of News21 reporters set about verifying and collecting information for every jurisdiction and verifying it with every state in the country.

    Click to view the interactive map.
    By AJ Vicens, Alia Conley, Alissa Skelton, Emily Nohr, Sarah Jane Capper

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    A News21 analysis of 2,068 alleged election-fraud cases since 2000 shows that while fraud has occurred, the rate is infinitesimal, and in-person voter impersonation on Election Day, which prompted 37 state legislatures to enact or consider tough voter ID laws, is virtually non-existent.

    In an exhaustive public records search, News21 reporters sent thousands of requests to elections officers in all 50 states, asking for every case of fraudulent activity including registration fraud, absentee ballot fraud, vote buying, false election counts, campaign fraud, casting an ineligible vote, voting twice, voter impersonation fraud and intimidation.

    Analysis of the resulting comprehensive News21 election fraud database turned up 10 cases of voter impersonation. With 146 million registered voters in the United States during that time, those 10 cases represent one out of about every 15 million prospective voters.

    “Voter fraud at the polls is an insignificant aspect of American elections,” said elections expert David Schultz, professor of public policy at Hamline University School of Business in St. Paul, Minn.

    “There is absolutely no evidence that (voter impersonation fraud) has affected the outcome of any election in the United States, at least any recent election in the United States,” Schultz said.

    The News21 analysis of its election fraud database shows:

    • In-person voter-impersonation fraud is rare. The database shows 207 cases of other types of fraud for every case of voter impersonation.

    “The fraud that matters is the fraud that is organized. That's why voter impersonation is practically non-existent because it is difficult to do and it is difficult to pull people into conspiracies to do it,” said Lorraine Minnite, professor of public policy and administration at Rutgers University.

    • There is more fraud in absentee ballots and voter registration than any other categories. The analysis shows 491 cases of absentee ballot fraud and 400 cases of registration fraud. A required photo ID at the polls would not have prevented these cases.

    “The one issue I think is potentially important, though more or less ignored, is the overuse of absentee balloting, which provides far more opportunity for fraud and intimidation than on-site voter fraud,” said Daniel Lowenstein, a UCLA School of Law professor.

    • Of reported election-fraud allegations in the database whose resolution could be determined, 46 percent resulted in acquittals, dropped charges or decisions not to bring charges.

    Minnite says prosecutions are rare. “You have to be able to show that people knew what they were doing and they knew it was wrong and they did it anyway,” she said. “It may be in the end they (prosecutors) can't really show that the people who have cast technically illegal ballots did it on purpose.”

    • Felons or noncitizens sometimes register to vote or cast votes because they are confused about their eligibility. The database shows 74 cases of felons voting and 56 cases of noncitizens voting.
    • Voters make a lot of mistakes, from accidentally voting twice to voting in the wrong precinct.
    • Election officials make a lot mistakes, from clerical errors — giving voters ballots when they’ve already voted — to election workers confused about voters’ eligibility requirements.

    “I don't think there is a mature democracy that has as bad of an elections system as we do,” said Richard Hasen, a professor of political science and election law expert at the University of California, Irvine. “We have thousands of electoral jurisdictions, we have non-professionals running our elections, we have partisans running our elections, we have lack of uniformity.”

    Voter-impersonation fraud has attracted intense attention in recent years as conservatives and Republicans argue that strict voter ID laws are needed to prevent widespread fraud.

    The case has been made repeatedly by the Republican National Lawyers Association, one of whose missions is to advance “open, fair and honest elections.” It has compiled a list of 375 election fraud cases, based mostly on news reports of alleged fraud.

    News21 examined the RNLA cases in the database and found only 77 were alleged fraud by voters. Of those, News21 could verify convictions or guilty pleas in only 33 cases. The database shows no RNLA cases of voter-impersonation fraud.

    Civil-rights and voting-rights activists condemn the ID laws as a way of disenfranchising minorities, students, senior citizens and the disabled.

    In a video that went viral in June, Republican Mike Turzai, Pennsylvania’s House majority leader, spoke approvingly at a Republican State Committee meeting of the state’s new voter ID law "which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done."

    His spokesman said Turzai meant that Pennsylvania’s election would be fair and free of fraud because of the new ID law. Democrats, however, said Turzai meant the law, signed in March, would suppress Democratic votes.

    According to Pennsylvania’s Department of State and the Department of Transportation, as many as 758,000 people, about 9 percent of the state’s 8.2 million registered voters currently don’t have the identification that now will be required at the polling place.

    Even if 90 percent of those voters got the correct identification by Nov. 6, that still could leave 75,800 voters disenfranchised. 

    The U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether the ID law violates the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act by discriminating against minorities, according to a July 23 letter to Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele.

    A coalition of civil-rights groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union has sued Pennsylvania in state court, arguing the voter ID law would deprive citizens of their right to vote. The trial began July 25. 

    In a pretrial document released by the ACLU, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, represented by the state Attorney General’s Office, could not identify any cases of voter impersonation at the polls.

    The state said it would offer no evidence that “in-person voter fraud has in fact occurred in Pennsylvania or elsewhere” or that “in-person voter fraud is likely to occur in November 2012 in the absence of a photo ID law.”

    Pennsylvania officials, who responded to the News21 public record requests, also reported no cases of Election Day voter-impersonation fraud since 2000.

    “This law is a solution solving a problem that does not exist,” Democratic state Sen. Vincent Hughes told an Aug. 1 teleconference hosted by New America Media, a group representing the ethnic media. Hughes called the law partisan and, echoing Turzai, said its purpose is “to elect Mitt Romney.”

    The News21 database shows one of the rare instances of voter-impersonation fraud occurred in Londonderry, N. H., in 2004 when 17-year-old Mark Lacasse used his father’s name to vote for George W. Bush in the Republican presidential primary. The case was dismissed after Lacasse performed community service.

    The database shows the nine other voter impersonation cases were in Alabama, California, Colorado, Kansas and Texas. All were isolated and showed no coordinated efforts to change election results.

    Republican-dominated legislatures — with the exception of Rhode Island where Democrats passed a photo ID law — have considered 62 ID bills since 2010.

    Nine states — South Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Mississippi and Alabama — passed strict voter ID laws.

    Only the Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Kansas measures are likely to be in effect in November. The Pennsylvania law has been challenged in state court.

    Rhode Island’s more lenient law will take effect in 2014. Indiana and Georgia were the first states to pass strict voter-ID laws, enacted in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

    Few laws regulate absentee ballots, although the News21 analysis shows this is one of the most frequent instances of fraud.

    “It makes much more sense if you are trying to steal an election by either manipulating results on the back end through election official misconduct or to use absentee ballots which are easier to control and to maintain,” said Hasen, the UC, Irvine, professor of political science.

    The News21 analysis shows 185 election fraud cases linked to campaign officials or politicians involving absentee or mail-in ballots.

    In 2003, the Indiana Supreme Court invalidated East Chicago Democratic Mayor Rob Pastrick’s primary victory because of massive fraud. Pastrick, an eight-term incumbent, lost in a 2004 repeat election.

    Forty-six people, mainly city workers, were found guilty in a wide-ranging conspiracy to purchase votes through the use of absentee ballots.

    John Fortier, a political scientist at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said there are “more direct problems” with absentee ballots because the person casting the ballot can be pressured or coerced.

    Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, a public policy group that opposed many of the voting-law changes nationally, recognizes that absentee-ballot fraud occurs more than other election fraud, but still doesn’t consider it a threat.

    “There are more concerns in terms of absentee fraud but, again, it is easier to catch,” she said.

    Minnite, the Rutgers University professor who researched election fraud from 2006-2010 for her book, “The Myth of Voter Fraud,” agrees with Gaskins.

    "Corruption works when it’s organized. If we see more cases of absentee-ballot fraud than, say, voter-impersonation fraud, it still doesn't mean that voters individually are motivated to do it,” she explains. “It just means that absentee balloting might present some greater opportunities for people who are organizing conspiracies to corrupt elections."

    The News21 analysis shows 34 states had at least one case of registration fraud — many were associated with third-party voter registration groups.

    The most noteworthy involved the voter registration group, Association for Community Organization and Reform Now (ACORN).

    The group, which endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, became the target of conservative activist James O’Keefe, who produced deceptively edited videos that suggested ACORN employees were encouraging criminal behavior.

    Voter-ID supporters often cite ACORN as evidence that voter fraud is a problem. The scandal resulted in at least 22 convictions in seven states and the collapse of the organization in 2010 after Congress and private donors pulled their funding.

    This type of fraud is a concern because third-party voter-registration groups generally pay for each signature. Critics argue that is an incentive to write in false names and break the law.

    Both sides of the debate agree voter-registration rolls are outdated and should be cleaned up. They disagree on whether problems with the rolls lead to fraudulent votes being cast.

    “Mickey Mouse has been registered hundreds of times but Mickey has never turned up on Election Day to vote,” Hasen said. The News21 database shows 393 cases involving ineligible voters, typically felons, noncitizens or people voting in the wrong jurisdictions. There were guilty verdicts in 159 cases.

    Sometimes, felons and non-citizens were not aware that they didn’t have voting rights, as in the case of Derek Little in Wisconsin, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The database shows the case was dismissed because prosecutors learned that Little identified himself at the polls with his prison ID.

    Double voting occurs in isolated instances and often involves absentee ballots. However, few cases in the database reveal any coordinated effort to change election results. Often, the double vote was a mistake.

    Claudel Gilbert, a Haitian immigrant in Ohio, who had changed his address, received two registration cards in the mail in 2006 and believed he had to vote in both places for his vote to count. In four other cases, people were accused of double voting
    for filling out their ballot and their spouse's.

    Some advocates of voter-ID laws say voter fraud is used to “steal” federal elections.

    But the only so-called theft case in the News21 database involved four Indiana Democratic party officials accused in 2008 of forging signatures on petitions to get Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the state primary ballot. No one was convicted.

    Many experts agree the elections system is inefficient and that this leads to mistakes and clerical errors that are lumped under “voter fraud.”

    The News21 database showed that election-fraud cases often were the result of mistakes by confused voters or elections officials.

    For example, Leland Duane Lewis, an 89-year-old from Raleigh, N.C., in 2011, requested — and got — a second ballot after mistakenly turning in his first one and realizing it was only half-completed.

    Tom Brett, an election worker from Georgia, was accused in 2009 of not being on duty during early and absentee voting.

    Schultz, the Hamline University professor who has written extensively about election fraud, said voting rules could be clarified for voters and there should be better training for election officials.

    “If somebody is ineligible to vote because they are a felon, for example, or an ex-felon, making that clear to them, in terms of they can't vote until such and such a time,” Schultz said. “And the same thing with election officials ... making it clear to them regarding what the rules are regarding who is eligible and who is not eligible.”

    Many voter-ID supporters continue to argue that the measures are needed to prevent voter-impersonation fraud to ensure the integrity of elections, although fewer than five tenths of one percent of the total cases in the News21 analysis are voter impersonation.

    Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C.-based policy center, is a staunch supporter of voter-ID laws. He said “there’s no way to detect” voter-impersonation fraud unless states have voter-ID laws.

    Bill Denny, a Mississippi Republican state representative elected in 1987, sponsored that state’s voter-ID bill — awaiting preclearance by the Justice Department — because he thinks voter impersonation is a problem even if there have been few prosecutions.

    “Whether you have proof of it or not,” he added, “what in the heavens is wrong with showing an ID at polls?”

    Minnite, the Rutgers professor, is worried that lawmakers could disenfranchise voters who don’t obtain the correct IDs and are prohibited from voting in November based on a problem that barely exists. 

    “Voter fraud is not a problem (so) the solution should not be to address voter fraud,” Minnite said.

    She said it could be especially burdensome for poor people to obtain the correct documents to get an ID — even for a free ID that some states with new ID laws are providing.

    Minnite asked whether voting rights for "thousands of people should be sacrificed ... where there is absolutely no basis for (voter ID) in the first place.”

    Civil-rights groups compare the voter-ID laws to Jim Crow laws, poll taxes and literacy tests designed to keep blacks from voting in the past.

    “It's simply a new big burden on the backs of people who just want to have their voices heard during elections,” said Eddie Hailes, managing director and general counsel of the Advancement Project, a civil-rights group challenging voter-ID laws in Texas, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

    The Justice Department denied the Texas voter-ID law — which U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder likened to a poll tax — on the grounds that it would disproportionately affect minorities and the poor.

    The state pre-emptively sued the Justice Department for the right to implement the law and arguments were heard by a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., in July. A verdict is expected within the next month.

    Not all supporters of the laws think voter-impersonation fraud is a major problem. Not all opponents think the laws will suppress millions of votes.

    Trey Grayson, the former Republican Kentucky secretary of state who is director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, supports voter ID but also thinks election reform should “make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

    He suggests voter-identification laws could be paired with Election Day registration.

    “People who don’t get registered 30 days out could still come in and register on the day of the election,” he said. “And a voter ID, that could give you the confidence that this person really is who she says she is and allow her to vote.”

    Grayson criticizes many opponents of voter-identification laws, suggesting that their focus on voter suppression may have an adverse effect on turnout.

    "One of the criticisms I would have of the attorney general (Eric Holder) and others who have made this a big deal,” he said, “is, by raising the issue and the way they are raising it, rather than trying to go around and get people IDs, sort of raising the specter of all this, they may also be suppressing the vote with their reaction to it." 

    Grayson said there is potential to have comprehensive election reform without partisan politics.

    “You could take ideas from the left and the right,” he said. “You could have a better system.”

    Alex Remington of News21 contributed to this article.

    Natasha Khan was an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation Fellow this summer at News21.

    An Alabama resident fills out a voter registration form outside a deli in Pratt City, Ala. The deli is owned by Marie Thomas, and operated by her daughters Debbie and Danita Agee, who organized the registration drive. Natasha Khan http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/natasha-khan Corbin Carson http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/corbin-carson

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    For six years, the Air Force has relied mostly on a single, high-cost rocket manufacturer to loft its reconnaissance, communications, and GPS satellites into space and it is about to double down. In the fall of 2013, it plans to give the company a new $19 billion contract for all of the Air Force launches scheduled through 2017.

    Some members of Congress are upset by the pricetag, however, and key lawmakers — acting with the support of an array of upstart rocket firms — are starting to push back against the Air Force’s plan to reward its contractor with a five-year lock on all launches.

    The latest salvo comes from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and ranking member C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., who complained in an Aug. 2 letter that the Pentagon’s largest launch project “lacks domestic competition and is unable to compete internationally due to high costs.” The Air Force satellite project is known as the Evolved Expendable Vehicle Launch (EELV) program.

    The firm that the Air Force favors is United Launch Alliance, a joint project formed in 2006 by the Pentagon’s top two contractors, Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The Air Force plans to award the $19 billion deal between June and October 2013.

    Although it has not explicitly picked ULA yet, only the company’s Delta IV, produced by Boeing, can lift the government’s heaviest payloads, such as telescopic cameras that take images of Earth and GPS satellites used for military intelligence, which reach 50,000 lbs. These will be part of the deal, according to the Air Force.

    Cristina Chaplain, who audits the Pentagon’s space programs for the Government Accountability Office, said in an interview the decision will come after the Air Force has confirmed that the contractor can modify certain rockets to limit vibrations capable of harming sensitive satellites.

    The contract has aroused controversy partly because it would group both heavy and lighter satellite launches into a single deal, effectively blocking an opportunity for smaller firms to grab some of the lightweight satellite business.

    Rogers and Ruppersberger, in their letter, encouraged the Pentagon to consider two other companies before awarding the EELV contract — SpaceX and Orbital. The lawmakers said those two companies opened “an important window of opportunity to make room for new EELV competitors and reap significant cost savings, without sacrificing launch reliability.”

    They also pushed for the elimination of a taxpayer-funded subsidy given to ULA that amounts to about $100 million per launch. The subsidy is meant to help with maintenance and overhead for the various U.S. launches handled by ULA, but it’s a financial favor not provided to any other commercial space launch companies.

    A September 2011 Government Accountability Office report did not say how much money is at stake but predicted that keeping an option open to contract launches for different-sized satellites to different companies the next five years could drive down costs. According to the report, “competition could incentivize ULA pricing and efficiencies, potentially yielding cost savings to the government.”

    Neither Rogers’ nor Ruppersberger’s spokespersons provided an estimate of the savings if the Pentagon took their advice. A spokeswoman for the House Intelligence Committee did not return a request for comment.

    Aerospace, ATK, Coleman, Orbital Sciences Corporation and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), have been trying to break ULA’s hold on Pentagon satellite launches since Lockheed and Boeing created the consortium in 2006. The year ULA was formed, SpaceX sued the two contracting giants to challenge the legality of the merger on antitrust grounds, but without success.

    On its website, SpaceX claims it could save the Pentagon $1 billion annually if it was allowed to compete on all satellite launches, partly by forgoing the subsidy the government provides to ULA. Figures for launch prices for each company vary greatly depending on the weight and type of the payload.

    Tracy Bunko, an Air Force spokeswoman, defended the contracting plan, explaining that it encompasses launches of various sizes and spans a five-year period to give a contractor the chance to buy in bulk and receive a quantity discount from subcontractors. She said ULA presented its best price for a range of six to 10 booster cores per year and over contract periods ranging from three to five years.

    But the 2011 GAO report warned that bulk buying could backfire on the Air Force, saying the “expected block buy may commit the government to buy more booster cores than it needs and could result in a surplus of hardware requiring storage and potentially rework if stored for extended periods.”

    Reliability is also a consideration for the Air Force. Bunko told Defense Daily that the Air Force will open the contract to competition as soon as at least one of them can meet the government’s risk requirements for launching important national security payloads into space.

    According to Bunko, only four of the 46 EELV launches scheduled from 2013 to 2017 qualify as heavy-class. More than 10 times as many fall into smaller weight classes, the Air Force spokeswoman said.

    Although Boeing’s $16.1 million and Lockheed’s $15.1 million in 2011 lobbying expenses dwarfs that of SpaceX and Orbital, the smaller companies have been lobbying more heavily on Capitol Hill in the last few years. SpaceX went from spending $163,000 on lobbying in 2006 to $860,000 in 2011, according to data tallied by the Center for Responsive Politics. In that same time, Orbital’s spending on lobbying jumped from $160,000 to $290,000.

    Orbital, which maintains a software development facility 17 miles from Ruppersberger’s district in Maryland, has donated $13,000 to the lawmaker from its political action committee since the start of 2009, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of campaign finance data from CQMoneyline. Marc Gunderson, an Orbital executive, also gave Ruppersberger the maximum donation of $2,400 in 2010. SpaceX has donated $5,000 to Ruppersberger and $2,000 to Rogers during that same period.

    In a statement denouncing the letter from Ruppersberger and Rogers, ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said the representatives’ stance “appears to be in response to special interest political pressures promulgated by less capable, unproven launch providers with a much longer history of rhetoric than launch success.”

    But Boeing and Lockheed have also given the two representatives campaign donations — and in larger amounts than what SpaceX and Orbital gave. Lockheed’s PAC has donated $20,000 to Ruppersberger and $17,000 to Rogers since 2009. In that period, Boeing’s PAC also gave $20,000 to Ruppersberger and gave $16,000 Rogers.

    An industry official at a rival space launch company, speaking on condition he not be named, said the “quantity discount” argument made sense a few years ago when ULA was the sole contractor capable of lifting a wide variety of payloads, but there are now other companies with rockets, such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Orbital’s Antares, that could do the job with medium-sized and smaller loads — and for a cheaper price — without the overhead subsidy provided to ULA.

    “The Air Force is going down the road with ULA at hideously exorbitant prices for no apparent reason. Why lock yourself in for the next few years at such high prices?” the industry official said. “They’re in a position where they should be able to leverage for lower prices and less taxpayer money spent on these launches, because there are less expensive rockets that can do the job at a medium class level.”

    A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket blasts off from Space Launch Complex-41 with a national security payload for the National Reconnaissance Office on June 20, 2012.  Zach Toombs http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/zach-toombs

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  • 08/15/12--07:30: VIDEO: Who can vote?
  • Voters Overview from News21 on Vimeo.

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    Republicans wasted no time in pumping up Mitt Romney’s choice as vice presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., touting the GOP’s new dynamic duo as “America’s Comeback Team.”

    The “comeback” is not a reference to Romney’s recent slip in the polls, but to the assertion that the pair will return the nation to prosperity following the long recession, which they blame on President Barack Obama.

    The Republican National Committee released a short video “Big Solutions” today that exudes positivity, featuring a sunrise, uplifting music and inspiring quotes from Romney and Ryan during Saturday’s surprise announcement in Virginia.

    Romney made a gaffe by introducing Ryan as “the next president of the United States.” The ad fixes that, adding a voice-over correction with Romney introducing him as “the next vice president of the United States.”

    A conservative nonprofit group, American Future Fund, also got in on the action, releasing “Comeback Team” which unflatteringly splices together remarks from Vice President Joe Biden, for example: “... uh to be able to know what the American people think, and I don’t …” Ad production and placement cost $23,000, according to a Federal Election Commission report.

    While the nonprofit group is not required to release its donors, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity revealed that the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, also known as PhRMA, gave $300,000 to the organization in 2010.

    Its founder is Nick Ryan, a former Rick Santorum advisor, founder and president of Concordia Group, LLC, a political consulting firm, and longtime advisor to former Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa. He also founded the pro-Santorum super PAC Red, White and Blue Fund.

    The nonprofit also spent some money on this week’s hottest race, the Republican primary contest for U.S. Senate in Wisconsin set for Tuesday.

    The ad “Changed,” which supports Republican hedge fund manager and self-funding candidate Eric Hovde, cost $110,000, according to the FEC filing. It has yet to be posted online. The GOP primary in Wisconsin on Aug. 14 pits Hovde against former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thomspon and former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann.

    In other outside spending news, the Committee for Justice and Fairness PAC registered with the FEC as a super PAC on Aug. 7. It is affiliated with an organization backed by the Democratic Attorneys General Association, a so-called “527” group, created to elect Democrats as state attorneys general.

    The super PAC is a new branch of the Committee for Justice and Fairness, also a 527 group, which received 99 percent of its income from the DAGA according to its 2010 tax return, the most recent filing available.

    VTDigger.com reported the super PAC spent at least $100,000 on air time in Vermont for an ad supporting Democratic Attorney General Bill Sorrell.

    The group has numerous tentacles in the states, including the Bluegrass Committee for Justice and Fairness which has received donations from the DAGA. One of its biggest non-DAGA donors is Poseidon LLC, a corporation registered in South Carolina. It is not certain what line of business Poseidon is in.

    • Pro-Mitt Romney super PAC Restore Our Future has a new ad called “Another Month” in the pipeline. Still unlisted on YouTube (you must have the link to see it), the ad criticizes Obama for “deny[ing] reality” rather than taking economic recovery seriously.
    • Conservative super PAC Club for Growth Action released “Digger” on Saturday, criticizing Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who is running for election in Arizona’s 4th District.
    • Pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action released “Scrap Steel” on Friday in which a worker criticizes Romney and Bain Capital for shuttering GST Steel’s Kansas City, Kan., plant. It was the same mill that was featured in the controversial ad “Understands,” in which Romney and Bain are linked to a woman’s death from cancer due to lack of health insurance.
    • Liberal PAC MoveOn.Org Political Action reported spending more than $116,000 on anti-Romney ads on Aug. 9.
    • Conservative nonprofit Americans for Prosperity reported its ad “Tick Tock,” (posted as “A One Term Proposition”) released Aug. 8, cost $6.6 million.
    • Friends of Democracy, a liberal-leaning super PAC funded in part by Jonathan Soros, son of hedge fund billionaire and prolific Democratic donor George, began a seven-state ad blitz with TV spots and direct mail adding up to more than $585,000. The campaign opposes Republican Reps. Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, Daniel Lungren of California, Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, Nan Hayworth of New York, James Renacci of Ohio, Mike Coffman of Colorado, and Raymond “Chip” Cravaack of Minnesota.

    Bass, Duffy, Cravaack and Lungren are the subject of “Get in the Game,” TV spots released in their home districts on Aug. 8 criticizing their cozy relationships with corporate lobbyists. 

    Mitt Romney appears at a campaign event with his new choice for vice president, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Rachael Marcus http://www.iwatchnews.org/authors/rachael-marcus

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