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    Early in 2000, after a groundbreaking study revealed epidemic levels of mental illness among detained youth in Cook County — plus a severe lack of counseling and treatment — the Illinois Department of Human Services launched an ambitious new Mental Health and Juvenile Justice Initiative.

    Ever since, the program has been diverting hundreds of emotionally disturbed and behaviorally troubled youth out of the justice system each year and into community-based treatment. Outcomes have been favorable for participating young people and for public safety.

    However, for the much larger number of behaviorally troubled youth remaining in the Illinois juvenile justice system — and especially for those committed to state correctional custody — progress has been far slower.

    Indeed, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in September 2012 alleging that youth housed in state youth corrections facilities still do not receive “minimally adequate” care.

    The state settled the lawsuit quickly, agreeing in a December 2012 consent decree to undertake a comprehensive study of its mental health services and institute meaningful reforms. That consent decree, along with other recent changes to minimize confinement of troubled teens and expand the use of research-tested treatment methods, offer renewed hope for mentally ill youth caught up in the juvenile justice system. Yet both advocates and system officials agree that, while the situation is improving, serious challenges remain.

    Inside state facilities, “The care is uneven,” says John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association — a century-old, independent watchdog organization devoted to juvenile and adult prison reform. “They’re juggling a lot of balls: facility consolidation, right-sizing the system, creating a new aftercare system.”

    Also problematic, says Maki, is the continued reliance on incarceration for some mentally ill youth, and for others with less serious offending histories. “A prison is never the best solution for a kid with serious [mental health] problems,” he says. “Kids always return home. If we can’t deal with kids in the context of their homes and families, we’re never going to fully address it.”

    Mental Health and Juvenile Justice Initiative

    Initially, the Illinois Mental Health and Juvenile Justice Initiative targeted youth who were locked inside detention centers throughout Illinois and suffered with serious mental illnesses — allowing counties to move these young people into community-based mental health services. The program now operates in every county statewide that houses a youth detention center, though services are no longer limited to youth in detention. The program served 622 youth statewide in 2009, state records show.

    An early evaluation, published in the American Psychiatric Association’s journal, Psychiatric Services, found that participating youth improved markedly in terms of both behavior and mental health symptoms. The re-arrest rate for project participants was 42 percent, compared with 72 percent for the overall population of detained youth statewide.

    Troubling Treatment for Troubled Youth in State Custody

    For mentally ill youth committed to state correctional custody, however, services remained problematic. Until 2006, state youth correction facilities were operated by the Illinois Department of Corrections, and youth were treated similarly to adult prisoners, frequently subjected to solitary confinement. At the state’s facility in Harrisburg, for instance, the John Howard Association found one out of every four youth was locked in seclusion for 23 hours each day in October 2006, spending the remaining hour in a 12-foot by 20-foot cage.

    Illinois’ new Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) was created to reorient youth corrections facilities toward rehabilitation and treatment, including a beefed up approach to mental health care. But the department made scant progress toward reforming the facilities initially, and criticism reached a crescendo in 2009 following two suicide deaths inside state correctional facilities.

    “Nearly four years following its creation, the Department of Juvenile Justice remains disturbingly far from embracing the treatment mission envisioned by the legislature,” Betsy Clarke, president of the watchdog Juvenile Justice Initiative, told the Illinois House Appropriations Committee in April 2010.

    Three months later, department director Kurt Friedenauer, a holdover from the era when youth facilities were part of the adult corrections system, resigned, and veteran child welfare system administrator Arthur Bishop was named to replace him.

    Also in 2010, a comprehensive assessment funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation found “serious deficiencies” in mental health care for children in state custody, with an inadequate range of programs, a failure to match services to individual needs, and a lack of evidence-based treatment modalities or culturally sensitive services.

    The report found that, under Friedenauer, the state had reduced use of solitary confinement and developed a new “core treatment model” that received positive reviews at its initial pilot site, the DJJ youth facility in Chicago. But it faulted the department’s eight facilities — two of which have since been shuttered — for failing to train staff on behavioral health issues and for inadequate after-care planning and services, especially for youth with mental health and substance abuse issues.

    Since 2010, the department has instituted a standardized process to screen youth for mental health issues — a critical failing cited in the MacArthur Foundation report — and upgraded behavioral health training for facility staff.

    “We have changed our approach to engaging youth,” Bishop says. “It’s important that when youth are first admitted to us, we can understand the strengths and needs so we can develop discharge plans. We’re no longer waiting until the end, when youth are ready to leave.”

    However, more recent analyses have found continuing difficulties. In December 2011, a report by the state’s Juvenile Justice Commission criticized the aftercare services provided to youth released from juvenile facilities, finding that “the Department of Juvenile Justice fails to identify youth needs and does not match identified needs with the services provided to the youth during incarceration.”

    Since that report was issued, funding for aftercare programs has increased, and Bishop credits the department with “some success” in adding staff and improving its aftercare efforts. However, he acknowledges that progress has been limited due to continued personnel shortages. “The hiring process,” Bishop says, “can be laborious and long. Sometimes that impacts qualified staff, who can’t wait that long. We would definitely note that’s one of the barriers.”

    In September 2012, the John Howard Association documented staff shortages at the DJJ facility in Kewanee, Ill., about two hours west of Chicago, that is tasked with treating male youth with the greatest mental health needs.

    Only eight of the 17 authorized mental health positions at the facility were filled, the report found. Youth at Kewanee received far less treatment — about 30 minutes per week — than those at other state facilities.

    “Kewanee is currently unable to fulfill its institutional mission and its constitutional duty to provide the youth in its care with adequate treatment, due to chronically low mental health staff levels. This situation is untenable — legally, ethically and as a matter of public policy,” the report stated.

    Since the John Howard report emerged, DJJ has reduced the special treatment units at Kewanee from 90 beds to 54 and moved a portion of its mental health cases to the DJJ facility in St. Charles, Ill., outside of Chicago. The St. Charles facility has added two psychologists and two social workers since February, and it now has two special treatment units with 24 beds apiece.

    “In St. Charles, there is a plethora of applicants coming out of the Chicago market,” says Ashley Cross, chief of staff at DJJ.

    Staffing problems in Kewanee are nothing new, adds Bishop. “There are no universities in the immediate area” that offer the needed mental health-oriented degree programs, he says. “Part of our discussion is whether or not we can look at another one of our facilities where there is greater availability of professionals to fill critical vacancies. That’s an ongoing review."

    Lawsuit and Consent Decree Prompt Hope for Progress

    In September 2012, the ACLU filed suit against the DJJ alleging that youth housed in state facilities do not receive “minimally adequate” mental health or education services, are excessively subjected to room confinement for disciplinary reasons (potentially adding to psychological problems), aren’t protected from one another, and are held beyond their release date because adequate community facilities haven’t been identified and placements secured.

    The suit noted that two-thirds of confined youth have diagnosed psychiatric and trauma disorders, and it alleged that youth who repeatedly ask for mental health screenings don’t receive them — a failure it cited as a factor in attempted and successful suicides inside state facilities.

    The state quickly negotiated a consent decree to settle the case. Under the agreement, signed on December 6, a team of court-appointed experts will investigate all services in the state facilities. For mental health, the appointee is Dr. Louis Kraus, chief of child and adolescent psychology at Rush University Medical Center. The experts will report their findings within six months, and the DJJ will then have 60 days to draft a remedial plan, after which the parties will negotiate a final service enhancement plan, expected later in 2013.

    Kraus’ investigation will examine screening and assessment, treatment planning and provision, suicide prevention, prescription and monitoring of medications, substance abuse diagnosis and treatment, juvenile sex offender treatment, and aftercare and discharge planning. These corrective steps must include “sufficient numbers of adequately trained and qualified staff,” including psychiatrists and psychologists, the consent decree notes.

    John Maki of John Howard applauds the state’s response to the lawsuit. “I think that takes a lot of courage, and I commend them. A lot of agencies would have fought that,” he says. “This administration is very proactive in looking at what they need to improve upon.”

    At Kewanee, “The staffing levels are so abysmally low, they couldn’t possibly begin to provide the care that these kids not only need, but that the state has promised them,” Maki says. “It’s like worrying about your furniture when your house is on fire.”

    Not all state facilities have such serious problems related to mental health. In 2012, the John Howard Association lauded the rehabilitative programming and mental health treatment programs at the facility for girls in Warrenville, Ill., and praised the use of evidence-based therapy models at the institution in Chicago, though it noted that continued staffing shortages and limited recreational space still hamper the Chicago facility.

    “There needs to be adequate mental health care” for youth in state facilities, says Adam Schwartz, senior staff counsel at the ACLU. “We think the consent decree is a good way to achieve that goal. … We are cautiously optimistic.”

    A Need for Expanding Home-Based Care

    The ideal solution, Schwartz says, would be to stop placing mentally ill youth into state correctional facilities when they could receive effective mental health services in the community for a fraction of the cost of locking them up. “For the kids who have mental health issues, sending them to somewhere like Kewanee is counter-therapeutic,” he says. “The place looks and feels like a maximum security juvenile prison.”

    Especially problematic, experts say, is the state’s widespread use of short-term placements into state facilities. Labeled “court evaluations” — these 30- to 90-day incarceration stays typically do not involve any serious mental health assessment.

    “I’ll start cussing now,” Timberlake says with grim humor when asked about these placements. “That shouldn’t exist. It’s an aberration. Sending that child to prison to get an evaluation is a myth, first of all. It’s a terrible way to affect a kid’s life. Incarceration is traumatic, no matter how humane [the facility].”

    An August 2012 report by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority found that youth committed for court evaluations typically have less serious offending histories than youth for longer periods. Yet 93 percent of youth released from court evaluation commitments were re-arrested within three to seven years and 59 percent were re-incarcerated in a juvenile or adult corrections facility.

    “If the goal of the juvenile justice system is to take a youth who has been adjudicated delinquent and see what the proper placement should be, we think that sending them inside to get the evaluation is a bad idea,” says Schwartz of the ACLU. “There has got to be a way to evaluate them in the community.”

    Redeploy Program Shows Promise

    In fact, Illinois has initiated a program to divert lower-risk youth away from state correctional facilities and reduce the use of court evaluation commitments. The core of this Redeploy Illinois program is a funding scheme that incentivizes local jurisdictions to keep, treat and supervise nonviolent offenders within their communities, so long as participating sites reduce the numbers of youth committed to state custody by at least 25 percent.

    The latest annual report from the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board found that the eight sites, operating in 28 of the state’s 102 counties, have cut the number of youth committed to DJJ from average of 356 youth per year prior to Redeploy’s launch in 2006 to only 178 commitments per year since.

    Also, the annual report found, only 17 percent of youth who successfully complete Redeploy have been rearrested, compared with 73 percent of other juvenile offenders in these same counties, while the subsequent incarceration rate was 14 percent for youth successfully completing Redeploy versus 57 percent for non-participants.

    All youth assigned to Redeploy are screened for mental health needs. Based on the screening results, 125 of the 265 youth assigned to Redeploy in 2011 received in-depth mental health assessments and were found to require mental health services, while 165 were assessed for substance abuse and found to require treatment. More than three-fourths of these youth received treatment.

    Some sites are using Redeploy funds to provide intensive, evidence-based at-home treatment for participating youth. For instance, St. Clair County’s Redeploy program funds the same Multisystemic Therapy model employed in Cook County. Peoria funds a similar model, Functional Family Therapy, which has also achieved excellent results in clinical evaluation studies.

    The average cost of Redeploy programming is less than $10,000 per youth–far less than either an average 8.8-month stay in state custody ($52,000) or a short-term court evaluation ($21,000). The Redeploy oversight board estimates that the program has thus far saved the state $40 million in incarceration costs. But Redeploy does not serve 74 counties including Cook County, home to nearly 40 percent of the state’s youth.

    State spending for the Redeploy program — $2.4 million in 2012 — has declined from $3 million the last couple of years due to tighter state budgets and continues to be dwarfed by state spending for juvenile corrections. Gov. Pat Quinn included a request to double funding for Redeploy in the 2014 budget, but legislative support remains uncertain.

    “Redeploy Illinois exists, and there’s no excuse for a community not to join up,” Timberlake says. “It’s the right resource: It spends dollars locally, where people can not only get good services, but also improves the future for that kid.”

    The push to reduce the use of incarceration for mentally ill youth and others with less serious offense histories got a boost in 2011, when the Illinois legislature amended the state’s Juvenile Court Act to restrict incarceration for juvenile offenders. Under the new rules, judges may place youth in state custody only as a last resort.

    “The push is that judges should … not use the DJJ as a de facto treatment program. Whenever appropriate, youth should be directed to the least restrictive programming setting possible,” Bishop says. “We don’t believe youth that don’t need to be [in DJJ facilities] should be here simply because there may be a lack of services in a particular county.”

    Noting that some counties seem to make more than their fair share of court evaluation commitments, Bishops adds. ”We’re trying to drill down and look at why, and make sure judges are complying with legislation that says they should be looking at the least restrictive settings.”

    Clarke of the Juvenile Justice Initiative agrees. “Incarceration, in and of itself, is detrimental to mental health. You avoid the trauma of incarceration, which is big, and you’re treating kids in their local communities, you keep them in school, you can work with their families, all of that. It’s far more helpful.”

    This is part of a series of pieces about juvenile justice and mental health. Ed Finkel is a Chicago-based writer. Series editor Dick Mendel is based in Baltimore. For more from the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, visit jie.org.

    “A prison is never the best solution for a kid with serious [mental health] problems,” says John Maki, executive director the John Howard Association of Illinois, an independent watchdog organization. The century-old organization is devoted to juvenile and adult prison reform.Ed Finkelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/ed-finkelDick Mendelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/dick-mendelJuvenile Justice Information Exchangehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/juvenile-justice-information-exchangehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/05/01/12592/after-years-effort-illinois-finds-traction-meeting-needs-mentally-ill-youth

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    Put on a sex registry for the offense of public nudity as a minor. Harassed by neighbors out of a home and banned from a homeless shelter because of an offense committed at age 15.

    The New York-based research group Human Rights Watch issued an extensive report today on the life-shattering consequences of putting minors on sex registries for offenses — sometimes shockingly mild offenses — for the rest of their lives.

    Filled with devastating stories of teens and young adults unable to put offenses behind them, the rights group's report is called “Raised on the Register: The Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender Registries in the U.S.”

    The report is the product of a 16-month investigation into 581 cases and interviews with 281 sex offenders — median age 15 — in 20 states.  Prosecutors, defense attorneys, child sexuality experts and victims of “child on child” sexual assault were also interviewed.  The investigation explores how a burgeoning national web of laws in various states requiring constant registration and public disclosure of offenders’ identities has affected the lives of young offenders long after time served or rehabilitation. Some on registries have killed themselves, even before reaching adulthood.

    The report begins with Jacob C., who was 11 years old when convicted of one count of sexual misconduct in Michigan for touching, not penetrating, his sister’s genitals. He was not allowed to live in a home with other children, was eventually put into foster care and was placed on a sex registry that was made public when he turned 18.  He struggled to graduate from high school, and was shunned because of his registration status. And when he enrolled in college, he said, campus police followed him everywhere. He dropped out.

    Now 26, the report says, Jacob’s life continues to be defined and limited by a conviction at age 11.

    Another case in the report: “In 2004, in Western Pennsylvania, a 15-year-old girl was charged with manufacturing and disseminating child pornography for having taken nude photos of herself and (posting) them on the internet. She was charged as an adult, and as of 2012 was facing registration for life.”

    Sex offender laws, the report says, “that trigger registration requirements for children began proliferating in the United States during the late 1980s and early 1990s. They subject youth offenders to registration for crimes ranging from public nudity and touching another child’s genitalia over clothing to very serious violent crimes like rape.”

    Registries can also include “people who have committed offenses like public urination, indecent exposure (such as streaking across a college campus), and other more relatively innocuous offenses.”

    The Human Rights Watch report acknowledged that registration laws were designed to protect the public from offenders, and that they are based on assumptions that offenders are likely to violate again.

    “But including youth sex offenders on registries assumes that they are highly likely to reoffend, which is not the case,” the report says. “Numerous studies estimate the recidivism rate among children who commit sexual offenses to between 4 and 10 percent, compared with a 13 percent rate for adult sex offenders and a national rate of 45 percent for all crimes.”

    The report was prepared by Nicole Pittman, a national expert on the application of sex offender registration laws who was an attorney at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. She specialized in child sexual assault cases and registries, and has provided testimony to Congress and state legislatures on the subject.

    The report calls current registry laws “an overbroad policy of questionable effectiveness” that leaves the public often unable to discern who on a registry is actually dangerous.


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    Environmentalists invested heavily in Rep. Ed Markey — a champion of climate change issues and their preferred candidate in Massachusetts’ Democratic U.S. Senate special primary — who bested rival Rep. Stephen Lynch on Tuesday by 15 percentage points, according to the Associated Press.

    The League of Conservation Voters led the way on messaging that expressly advocated either for or against one of the two Democratic candidates, spending more than $830,000 on pro-Markey independent expenditures, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Federal Election Commission filings. The spending came via LCV’s political action committee, as well as its affiliated super PAC and 501(c)(4) nonprofit arm.

    Overall, groups reported spending roughly $2 million to advocate for or against the candidates, according to the Center's analysis. Nearly 90 percent of the expenditures supported Markey or opposed Lynch.

    The spending came despite a “people’s pledge” between Markey and Lynch designed to limit the amount of involvement by deep-pocketed independent groups that have proliferated in the wake of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling.

    “Ed Markey has never stopped fighting for us, and we’re going to keep fighting for him,” League of Conservation Voters Chairman Scott Nathan said in a press release after the race was called.

    Markey was additionally aided by a super PAC called the “NextGen Committee.”

    That group was bankrolled by billionaire venture capitalist Tom Steyer, who opposes the Keystone XL pipeline project. Markey opposes that project. Lynch supports it.

    The NextGen Committee spent about $350,000 on ads attacking Lynch and contributed $250,000 to the League of Conservation Voter’s super PAC.

    An environmental nonprofit called the “350.org Action Fund” — a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organization — also reported nearly $50,000 in pro-Markey expenditures.

    Markey also had a significant cash advantage over Lynch.

    As of mid-April, Markey’s campaign had raised about $4.8 million, according to FEC records, while Lynch’s campaign had raised about $2.3 million.

    For his part, Lynch received last-minute outside support from a super PAC called “The Ninety-Nine Percent,” a nod to the populist rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

    Formed on March 27, the Ninety-Nine Percent super PAC didn't report its funders prior to the election because of it's late entry, meaning it found a way to play a significant role in the campaign while revealing little about itself or its backers to voters.

    The Ninety-Nine Percent super PAC reported spending about $140,000 on pro-Lynch robocalls during the final two weeks of the campaign.

    On FEC documents, the group’s treasurer is listed as Edward C. McHugh, who is the general treasurer of the Ironworkers International union. Former Ironworkers International General President Joseph J. Hunt is listed as its “designated agent.”

    Officials with the Ironworkers International could not immediately be reached for comment.

    Lynch, the son of an ironworker, previously served as the president of an ironworkers local union in Boston.

    The International Association of Firefighters also made expenditures to boost Lynch, while the Service Employees International Union backed Markey.

    Markey will now face Republican Gabriel Gomez in a June 25 special election to fill the seat vacated by Sen. John Kerry, who was tapped earlier this year by President Barack Obama to serve as secretary of state.

    Gomez won the GOP primary Tuesday with some late assistance from a super PAC called the “Committee for a Better Massachusetts.” That group’s largest donor was Bain Capital managing director Stephen Zide, who gave $25,000 of the $50,000 the group reported raising through mid-April.

    Other donors to the Committee for a Better Massachusetts include Mike Ascione, managing director at Berkshire Partners, who gave $15,000, and Athenahealth CEO Jonathan Bush, who gave $10,000.

     

     

    U.S. Senate candidate Ed Markey shakes hands with a supporter in Boston, Tuesday, April 30, 2013 as he celebrates winning the Democratic primary for the special U.S. Senate election.Michael Beckelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/michael-beckelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/05/01/12599/environmentalists-boost-ally-massachusetts-special-election

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    In the days leading up to last month’s crucial votes on the most significant gun control legislation to come before the Senate in nearly two decades, polls showed that about 90 percent of Americans supported background checks for all gun purchases. But when the clerk called the roll, the centerpiece amendment — requiring background checks for firearm sales at gun shows, through classified ads and on the Internet — got just 54 “yea’s,” six votes short of the 60 vote super-majority required.

    Just four months after Adam Lanza killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and President Obama promised tougher gun laws, the vote proved to be the latest in a long-running string of victories for gun rights activists, the firearms industry and particularly the National Rifle Association, the nation’s pre-eminent gun lobby.

    The power of the gun lobby is rooted in multiple factors, among them the pure passion and single-mindedness of many gun owners, the NRA’s demonstrated ability to motivate its most fervent members to swarm their elected representatives, and the lobby’s ability to get out the vote on election day. But there’s little doubt that money, the political power it represents, and the fear of that power and money, which the NRA deftly exploits, have a lot to do with the group’s ability to repeatedly control the national debate about guns. Whether that fear is justified is an intriguing question —but it clearly exists. That has, perhaps, never been clearer than it was last month on Capitol Hill.

    Big money, big gaps

    For starters, the dollars and cents disparities are nothing short of staggering. The NRA and its allies in the firearms industries, along with the even more militant Gun Owners of America, have together poured nearly $81 million into House, Senate and presidential races since the 2000 election cycle,  according to federal disclosures and a Center for Responsive Politics analysis done for the Center for Public Integrity.

    The bulk of the cash — more than $46 million — has come in the form of  independent expenditures made since court decisions in 2010 (especially the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision) essentially redefined electoral politics. Those decisions allowed individuals, corporations, associations and unions to make unlimited “independent” expenditures aimed at electing or defeating candidates in federal elections, so long as the expenditures were not “coordinated” with a candidate’s actual campaign.

    “Members of Congress pay attention to these numbers, and they know that in the last election cycle the NRA spent $18.6 million on various campaigns,” says Lee Drutman, who has studied the role of gun money in politics for the Sunlight Foundation. “They know what the NRA is capable of doing and the kinds of ads they’re capable of running, and especially if you’re someone facing a close election, you don’t want hundreds of thousands and potentially millions of dollars in advertising to go against you.”

    In the decade before Citizens United, from the 2000 election cycle to 2010, much of the money was donated directly to campaigns. During that period, pro-gun interests so thoroughly dominated electoral spending as to render gun control forces all but irrelevant, having directly donated fully 28 times the amount of their opponents in House and Senate races, $7 million on the pro-gun side compared to $245,000 on the gun control side. Of the total expended by gun rights interests, fully $3.9 million was delivered by the NRA. Since the Citizens United decision, gun control interests have gained new financial muscle, thanks largely to independent expenditures totaling at least $11.6 million by activist New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and groups tied to Bloomberg — nothing to sneeze at, but still just a fraction of that $46 million in post-2010 gun rights money.

    Among the 46 senators who voted to prevent any expansion of background checks, 43 have received help — either direct campaign contributions or independent expenditures — from pro-gun interests since 2000; in aggregate about $8.5 million. NRA expenditures ranged anywhere from a $95 contribution in one race to more than $2.6 million spent on the 2010 election of Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. A total of 38 of those senators have gotten $15,000 or more in overall NRA help since 2000. Among the leaders: Ron Johnson, R-Wis., $1.2 million, Rob Portman R-Ohio, $1.35 million, Richard Burr, R-N.C., $852,000, John Thune, R-S.D., $717,000, and Saxby Chambliss R-Ga., $355,000. In several races, gun rights groups spent independent money both for one candidate and against his opponent (see chart). Forty-one of the 46 who voted with gun rights groups against expanded background checks were Republican.

    Five Democrats also voted against the background check amendment, although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid did so to preserve his right under the Senate’s arcane rules to bring the measure up again. Reid, who has a B rating from the NRA, has benefited from $30,200 from gun rights groups since 2000, including $18,400 from the NRA. The other four Democrats who bucked their party and voted with the NRA, have benefited from a mere $30,830 in total funding from gun rights groups since 2000. Max Baucus of Montana (NRA A+) was the beneficiary of $28,830 while Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor (NRA C-) got $2,000. Mark Begich of Alaska (NRA A) and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota (NRA A) have received no money from gun rights groups.

    As for the 54 senators who voted in favor of expanding background checks, at least 18 of them have also benefited from gun rights group help since 2000. By far the largest chunk — $1.7 million — benefited a single NRA “defector,” Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., the co-author of the background check amendment. The money those 54 have received since 2000 from gun control groups totals just $608,827.

    Mayor Mike and his forces

    Bloomberg, who founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns in 2006, is a relatively new player in the gun debate but apparently wants to level the playing field. With a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at about $27 billion, he has taken on the issue with great deliberation, organizing political allies, financing sophisticated research and, more recently, spending sizable amounts of his own money on pro-gun control television ads and elections. Prior to the most recent Senate votes Bloomberg said he would spend $12 million on issue ads aimed at 13 key senators, only four of whom ended up supporting his position. He has reportedly made a six-figure donation to Americans for Responsible Solutions, a group run by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband Mark Kelly, which financed television ads encouraging senators to vote for tougher background checks. And Mayors Against Illegal Guns is contemplating an ad campaign to make an example of Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor because of his vote against the background check proposal.

    Most of Bloomberg’s campaign money so far has gone to House races; his Independence USA PAC, a super PAC that can raise and spend unlimited money, has spent more than $11 million on six such races, mostly in 2012, with victories in half. In February, the PAC scored a major victory when it spent $2.8 million in Illinois to defeat NRA-endorsed former Rep. Deborah Halvorson and elect Robin Kelly, both Democrats, in a race to fill the vacant seat of former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. Halvorson had an “A” rating from the NRA during her one term in Congress. Independence USA PAC also scored a victory in California where it spent $3.3 million to defeat an NRA A-rated Republican, Joe Baca, for a House seat; and it helped unseat A-rated and NRA-endorsed Republican Ann Marie Buerkle in New York. In Orlando, Fla., Bloomberg’s super PAC spent $2 million in an unsuccessful effort to unseat Republican Daniel Webster. Webster had an A rating from the NRA, which endorsed his candidacy. His opponent, Val Demings, was rated F. In Illinois, Bloomberg spent nearly $1 million in a failed bid to keep Republican Robert Dold (NRA rating of D) in the House. Dold lost by less than 3000 votes. Bloomberg has also spent nearly $60,000 of his own money on 16 Senate candidates since 2007, and Bloomberg also contributed $500,000 to a political action committee supporting the 2012 Senate election of Maine Independent Angus King.

    Bloomberg has said he’s prepared to tap his personal fortune to support gun control — or what he prefers to call “anti-crime” — candidates and defeat those aligned with the NRA. And he recently announced that the mayors’ group will publish its own NRA-style ratings of senators on the gun issue. He hasn’t said how much he’s willing to spend, but if the races he’s gotten involved in so far are any indication, it’s going to be a lot. Stefan Friedman, the spokesman for Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC, said the NRA has had “a wide open playing field for decades” and that’s no longer the case. “The Mayor’s been relatively clear in the wake of last [month’s] decisions in Washington and in other comments that this is an issue he cares passionately about.” So far, Bloomerg’s Independence USA PAC may only be batting 50 percent, but no one seriously doubts that a few million dollars thrown at a race for a House seat or a state legislative contest could have a huge effect. If Bloomberg is serious about staying in this game, he will undoubtedly make a difference. Says NRA President David Keene, “We can’t outspend Bloomberg.”

    Complex calculus

    That remains to be seen. But a closer look at the background check vote — and NRA influence generally — reveals that there’s more at play than just cash. A lot more. The backgrounds and histories of the two sponsors of the background check amendment — Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican — illustrate some of those complexities.

    Both Manchin and Toomey have “A” ratings from the NRA — or at least they did until last month. Both represent states with large numbers of gun owners. Pennsylvania has more NRA members than any other state, and sells more hunting licenses each year (2.5 million in 2012) than any state except Wisconsin. And Toomey has been the Senate’s leading beneficiary of NRA largesse. In 2010 the NRA spent more than $1.79 million to elect him and an additional $1.15 million on negative advertising to defeat his Democratic opponent Joe Sestak Jr. Thanks in part to those court decisions that loosened campaign finance limits, the nearly $3 million the NRA spent on the Toomey race was more than three times the total amount spent by the NRA for all of Toomey’s Senate colleagues combined between 2000 and 2010.

    Asked about its spending on Toomey — the most the NRA has ever spent on any candidate — NRA President Keene joked, “It just shows what money can do for you.” The reality, however, as Keene acknowledged, is that the NRA’s spending on that particular race — in which Toomey spent a total of $17 million against his opponent’s $12 million — may have very well made a critical difference. Toomey won by only two percent of the vote.

    But when it came to Toomey’s vote on expanded background checks, other factors were at play. “The Manchin-Toomey proposal,” says G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College, “is very similar to a Pennsylvania law which was approved by a legislature that was Republican controlled, and signed into law by Republican Governor Tom Ridge with the support of the NRA.” According to Madonna, Pennsylvania’s expanded background checks, first approved in 1995 and amended in 1998, were non-controversial.

    Defending his proposal on the Senate floor, Toomey was careful to affirm his pro-gun credentials, insisting that “there is absolutely no way that this can be construed as an infringement on Second Amendment rights.” He argued that his proposal was a modest effort “to make it a little bit more difficult for criminals and the dangerously mentally ill to purchase handguns.” Toomey noted that under current Pennsylvania law, “anyone who buys a handgun anywhere at any time has a background check.” Having lived with such checks for more than a decade, Toomey apparently agrees with Madonna that they have been a non-issue for most of his constituents.

    Nevertheless, the history of the background check issue still speaks to the power of the NRA. The organization knows it can’t win every race or every vote. But it can turn what was once a total non-issue — expanded background checks — into a matter of existential concern for senators. Making that case at the national level was particularly audacious because the NRA not only endorsed background checks for Pennsylvania back in 1995, in 1999 it supported them for the nation at large. Testifying before Congress following the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre testified that “it’s reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone.”

    Asked about the contradiction at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in January, LaPierre equivocated, but said the NRA believes the current law is not being enforced and therefore should not be expanded. “I think the National Instant [Criminal Background] Check System the way it’s working now is a failure because this administration is not prosecuting the people that they catch” when they fail a background check.

    A multi-pronged approach

    Whatever the reasoning, clearly the NRA’s gifts were not a key factor for Toomey in deciding to sponsor the background check amendment. A total of 14 other senators who have benefited from gun lobby money also supported his amendment. On the other hand, three senators who never received a single dollar from gun rights interests — Begich and Heitkamp, the two Democrats mentioned earlier, as well as Republican Dan Coats of Indiana — nonetheless voted against expanded background checks last month. Overall, at least 60 of the Senate’s 100 members have benefited from at least $1,000 from the gun lobby during their careers.

    Of course the background check amendment was not the only gun control proposal NRA supporters helped defeat. Senators also voted down a ban on assault weapons (40-60), a limit on large capacity magazines (46-54), and what might have seemed a thoroughly noncontroversial measure to make gun trafficking a crime (58-42). On top of that, they nearly passed (57-43) what is probably the NRA’s top legislative priority, a “reciprocity” measure that would have allowed citizens holding concealed weapons permits from any state to legally carry them in any other state that allows for concealed carry, even those with much tougher rules.

    NRA President Keene says claims that his organization simply buys votes with campaign contributions completely misunderstand the way the lobby works. The NRA, he says, is active in every state on a wide range of gun issues, and uses a broad range of tactics. “In a typical state we represent 10 percent of the persuadable Second Amendment voters” on any given gun issue, Keene says. Those voters, he says, include Democrats, independents and union members who are not only passionate about gun rights, but who rely on NRA ratings of members and endorsements of candidates at the ballot box. Keene says these gun owners are willing to pick up a phone and make a call when asked and cited one senator who he said got 5,000 phone calls opposing expanded background checks prior to the Senate vote. “It isn’t the money but the endorsements” that motivate lawmakers, Keene said. And those endorsements come from voting the NRA line.

    Among the 42 Republicans who voted against stronger background checks, 40 are rated A or A+ by the NRA, meaning they virtually always vote with the NRA. Among the 41 Democrats who voted in favor of stronger background checks, 35 received ratings of D or F from the gun organization.

    Gregg Lee Carter, a professor of sociology at Bryant College in Rhode Island and the editor of Guns in American Society, generally agrees with Keene’s view on the role of money, although he states the case differently. “The issue is not so much how much the NRA gives any senator or member of the House, it’s how they can make their lives miserable. And how they make their lives miserable is they e-mail ’em, they call ’em, they fax ’em, they show up at meetings. The typical person who is for gun control is very different from the [pro-gun] person calling you or being right there, being an annoyance, hassling you personally. They’re much more activist than the other side and that’s what really produces their gains.”

    Yet when it comes to campaign contributions, Carter says that the amount contributed by the NRA is most often a minuscule percentage of a House or Senate candidate’s overall campaign budget. “Money is important,” he says, “but that’s not what it’s really about.”

    It is difficult to say with any precision how often lawmakers are swayed by the gun lobby’s money or its endorsements. But there’s no question some fear the NRA’s ability to make their lives miserable. Suffice to say that at least two Democrats who are up for reelection in 2014 and voted with the NRA against tighter background checks — Begich of Alaska and Pryor of Arkansas — were probably unwilling to test their luck.

    There are 26 senators up for reelection in 2014. Since none of these lawmakers have run since the Citizens United decision, the amounts they’ve received from both sides have been modest.  In reality, the number of those who are actually vulnerable to pressure from either pro- or anti-gun money and lobbying is probably relatively small, and neither the NRA nor Bloomberg can be expected to throw large amounts of money at either Senate or House races where they have little chance of winning. What makes an incumbent fearful of pressure on gun issues is an inexact science, but a recent analysis by New York Times data guru Nate Silver suggests that a key factor to look at is the rate of gun ownership in a given state. Silver found that among the 26 senators up next year, there was a “near perfect” correlation between gun ownership in their states and how those senators voted on the background check amendment. Where gun ownership in a state was 42 percent or above, 13 of 14 senators voted “No”; where ownership was below 42 percent, 11 of 12 voted yes.

    Wins and losses

    But not all fear — even fear of the NRA — is rational. And it is by no means evident from the record that the average senator or congressman should fear the NRA anywhere as much as many apparently do. In 2012, the NRA invested $4.3 million in 16 senate races, but won in only 3. It endorsed 20 candidates, but only nine of them were victorious. In 15 Senate races during 2010 and 2012 in which the NRA made its largest contributions — $200,000 or more either to support a candidate it favored or to defeat one it opposed — it won only six times. The NRA also spent $13.6 million last year to elect Mitt Romney and to convince voters, as LaPierre told a conservative audience in 2011, that President Obama, once re-elected, planned to “get busy dismantling and destroying our firearms freedom — erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and exorcise it from the U.S. Constitution.” Most Americans were unconvinced.

    The NRA may be losing a lot of elections but, as it noted in a statement last November, “both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House will continue to have pro-gun majorities.” The NRA’s genius for convincing a substantial number of gun owners that they are at Armageddon’s doorstep at any given moment has also been terrific for the group’s bottom line. Although its critics have long challenged the NRA’s claim to four million members, Keene now says the NRA has added an additional million since President Obama pleaded for new gun laws in the wake of the Newtown murders.

    Meanwhile the NRA’s most recent lobbying report shows that the organization and its legislative affiliate spent at least $800,000 lobbying the federal government during the first three months of 2013. In the previous year, the NRA spent $2.5 million on lobbying, 62 times as much money as the $40,000 spent by the leading pro-gun control advocacy organization, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

    Regardless of which side you’re on, it hardly seems like a fair fight. But it is a decisive fight. The NRA was victorious on every gun vote cast in the recent Senate debate and may have buried the chances for any gun control this year. It was by almost any measure an impressive performance — whatever the reason.

     

     

    An exhibitor with Smith & Wesson secures a .45 cal pistols at the display set up before the National Rifle Association's 140th annual meetings and exhibit in 2011.Alan Berlowhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/alan-berlowGordon Witkinhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/gordon-witkinhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/05/01/12591/gun-lobbys-money-and-power-still-holds-sway-over-congress

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    Rep. Mel Watt has plenty of friends in the financial services industry: The North Carolina Democrat whom President Barack Obama has appointed to oversee mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has received more campaign money from financial interests than any other industry or special interest.

    Since he entered Congress in 1992, Watt has received $1.33 million in campaign contributions from the finance, real estate and insurance industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit research group that tracks money in politics. 

    That’s almost a quarter of the total $5.47 million in total contributions he’s received through his career.

    Watt’s biggest donors were commercial banks, with the finance and securities industries following at number five, according to CRP. During the last election cycle, the political action committees of Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Wells Fargo each gave Watt’s campaign $10,000. Bank of America and Goldman each gave an additional $5,000 to Watt’s leadership PAC.

    Watt sits on the House Financial Services Committee and he represents the Charlotte, N.C., area, which is home to Bank of America and was home to Wachovia, until it failed and was purchased by Wells Fargo.

    If he’s confirmed to replace Ed DeMarco at the top of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Watt will be tasked with determining the future of the two mortgage giants that were taken into federal receivership in 2008 after catastrophic losses brought them to near collapse.

    A freewheeling mortgage market that allowed people to borrow huge amounts with little documentation, combined with a massive derivatives industry tied to the performance of those mortgages led to an almost complete meltdown of the U.S. financial system in 2008 when home prices declined and homeowners began defaulting on their loans.

    DeMarco, who has been interim chairman of FHFA since 2009, has been criticized by the Obama administration, members of Congress, and consumer groups for opposing mortgage principal write-downs to help homeowners at risk of default to stay in their houses. 

    Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac buy and securitize about 90 percent of all new mortgages in the U.S. and guarantee those loans, making them a crucial part of the of the housing market and integral to banks’ business and profitability. Fannie alone has provided about $3.3 trillion in mortgage credit to the market since January 2009, according to its web site. 

    Since they went bust, the two enterprises have borrowed $187.5 billion from the U.S. Treasury              

    Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s PACs contributed $11,500 to Watt’s campaign from 2004 until their 2008 bailouts. Employees of the two companies gave at least $4,250 from 1998 through 2004, with Fannie’s controversial former CEO Franklin Raines chipping in $1,500 to help Watt keep his seat.

    Bank of America, Watt’s hometown bank that got a government bailout after buying money-losing mortgage giant Countrywide and troubled investment bank Merrill Lynch, contributed $66,500 to Watt through its PAC from 1998 to last year.

    Former CEO, Kenneth Lewis, who spearheaded the money-losing acquisitions, contributed $3,000 to Watt during the 2008 crisis year.

     

     

    Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., who President Barack Obama on May 1, 2013, nominated to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency.Alison Fitzgeraldhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/alison-fitzgeraldhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/05/01/12606/mel-watt-enjoys-close-ties-financial-industries

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  • 05/02/13--08:40: All the presidents' debt
  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich dubbed the national debt a "burden for our children for life."

    Ex-Rep. Dennis Kucinich vilified Republicans for adding, by his calculations, $4 trillion to it.

    Rep. Michele Bachmann, meanwhile, predicted debt will precipitate a future of "indentured servitude to foreign lenders."

    What unites these and other presidential candidates is that they themselves are in debt. Campaign debt.

    It's a dubious distinction shared by Democrats and Republicans, eccentric nonagenarians and White House occupants.

    Such debt isn't really hurting anyone but creditors — certainly not the nation nor its creditworthiness.

    But it is a reminder that despite candidates' soaring rhetoric about fiscal responsibility, they often fail to follow their own prescription for sound budgetary management amid the relentless rush to remain competitive with political rivals during election seasons that are longer and more expensive than ever.

    Until the debts are paid, the federal government requires former candidates in most cases to keep their campaign committees open and, technically, active, meaning some of the indebtedness stretches back decades.

    Following are the nation’s top presidential campaign deadbeats who still find themselves at least $100,000 in the red, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission:

    1.) Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.

    Election year: 2012

    Debt: $4,595,394

    The back story: For a moment in December 2011, Gingrich appeared to have requisite momentum in his bid to capture the Republican presidential nomination. And then, the moment passed. That didn't stop the former House speaker from continuing to spend lavishly on his flagging campaign, which finally petered out in April 2012 when it became clear rival Mitt Romney would capture the GOP banner. Among the dozens of debts totaling nearly $4.6 million the Newt 2012 presidential committee still owes as of March 31: more than $983,000 to Moby Dick Airways for chartered air travel and more than $413,000 to the Patriot Group for private security services. Gingrich's campaign also owes Gingrich himself about $647,500. Other vendors waiting for Gingrich to pay them back include Twitter (nearly $13,000 for a media buy), Herman Cain Solutions (more than $16,500 for "strategic consulting/travel”) and Verizon Wireless ($862 for cell phone service). The committee also disputes about $130,000 worth of bills from vendors. Gingrich has of late attempted to raise money to pay down his debt by renting the personal information of his supporters to data companies. But the income has barely made a dent in his obligations, which at one point reached nearly $5 million. Gingrich has also created the Committee for America, a federal joint fundraising committee that states it’s raising money for the dual purpose of retiring his presidential committee’s debt and funding a separate political action committee he runs — the American Legacy PAC, which most recently reported about $60,000 in available cash after having spent most of its money late last year on telemarketing expenses. Gingrich officials did not return requests for comment, although a former spokesperson R.C. Hammond last year explained: "Our preference is obviously not to have gone into debt. If we could eliminate the debt overnight, we would. But realistically, this will take years."

    2.) Lyndon LaRouche, Democrat

    Election years: 1984, 2000, 2004

    Debt: $3,230,438

    The back story: An eight-time presidential candidate who attracts a passionate, if fringe following, the 90-year-old LaRouche never paid many of his 1984 campaign's phone, rent, legal and data bills, which are now almost 30 years old, according to federal filings. The campaign committee also hasn't settled dozens of small, unsecured loans made by individuals to the campaign. In all, the 1984 campaign alone owes $1.22 million. It's probably no wonder: LaRouche served more than five years in federal prison after a federal jury convicted him of fraud and conspiracy. He exited prison in 1994 and again ran for president in 1996, 2000 and 2004, with his final campaign committee owing about $1.06 million. Twoother LaRouche presidential committees report smaller debts. Representatives for LaRouche, who today leads the LaRouche PAC political action committee, could not be reached for comment. Democratic Party officials say they have no comment on LaRouche’s debt, as they maintain no association with LaRouche or his past campaigns.

    3.) President Barack Obama, Democrat

    Election year: 2012

    Debt: $3,101,117

    The back story: Obama may have won re-election in November, but for a campaign that raised more money than any in U.S. history, there are still some books to balance. As of March 31, it still owed more than $3.1 million to a variety of vendors, including telephone companies, media consultants, insurance firms, computer businesses and attorneys, among others. The two largest single debts the Obama campaign has yet to clear are with Maryland-based Hargrove, Inc., which is owed nearly $627,000 for "staging, sound, lighting" services, and Washington, D.C.-based New Partners Consulting, Inc., which is owed $501,000 for telemarketing services. The debt won't likely linger, however, as Obama's political machine is unmatched in its ability to quickly generate cash. It also has plenty of assets to sell and rent. During early 2013, for example, it earned $350,000 just from renting its supporters' personal information to the committee coordinating the presidential inauguration. And tens of thousands of dollars in personal contributions continue to flow in. The committee also reports almost $591,000 cash on hand. “The campaign will take care of all outstanding vendor debt as it continues to wind down,” Democratic National Committee Communications Director Brad Woodhouse promised. Vanquished Republican rival Mitt Romney turned out to be a fiscal conservative after all. His own campaign committee is debt free.

    4.) Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Republican

    Election year: 2008

    Debt: $1,756,988

    The back story: Giuliani ultimately couldn't translate his popularity as "America's mayor" into a presidential candidacy most Americans supported, and he made a surprisingly early exit from the 2008 GOP primary while finding himself more than $2.7 million in the red. More than five years later, the campaign committee still owes money to about two-dozen vendors — including two Giuliani-related companies — while also owing its namesake candidate a quarter-million bucks. Verizon Wireless (about $236,000) and AT&T Inc. (nearly $107,000) also crack six figures. But this will soon change, Giuliani says. "We're at the point now where we have agreements with almost every vendor on settlement amounts — maybe one or two to go," Giuliani said by phone. The next step, he said, will be to submit a settlement plan to the Federal Election Commission for approval so that he may terminate his presidential committee. The plan will be submitted "optimistically, by the end of the month, and worst-case scenario, by the middle of next month," Giuliani said. He noted that he's fronted about $1.2 million of his own money to pay off debts to smaller vendors so to "take care of anyone in a difficult situation first." Ultimately, Giuliani said, "we'd like to get this done by the end of the year ... we've been working on this for two years to get this done and get it right."

    5.) The Rev. Al Sharpton, Democrat

    Election year: 2004

    Debt: $925,713

    The back story: Who doesn't the bombastic preacher and civil rights activist-turned-MSNBC program host owe? That might be the better question to ask of Sharpton, whose quixotic 2004 presidential campaign remains deep in debt as of Dec. 31 to entities ranging from the U.S. government (for campaign violation penalties) to a laundry list of former staffers (for back wages and repayments). Sharpton is himself also owed money from unsecured loans he made to his campaign. Sharpton's campaign debt has actually grown in recent years thanks largely to fines federal regulators slapped on the campaign. “He does intend to do a series of fundraisers around his birthday in October,” spokeswoman Rachel Noerdlinger said. “He’s also been talking with the Federal Election Commission about reaching a settlement” on the fines. At the end of 2004, weeks after George W. Bush secured a second term, Sharpton's campaign found itself in better shape than it does today, owing creditors about $567,000.

    6.) Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

    Election year: 2012

    Debt: $619,629

    The back story: Like Gingrich, Santorum continued to deficit spend in hopes of keeping his dwindling presidential aspirations alive into the spring of 2012. He hung in until April before finally bailing out — owing a variety of creditors nearly $2.3 million. Santorum has steadily improved his financial lot in the year since, although he still owes 11 vendors back payments, including more than $430,000 to Pennsylvania-based consulting firm Brabender Cox for media placement and consulting services. The campaign committee also still owes $12,500 to Front Row Motor Sports as part of its sponsorship of driver Tony Raines' NASCAR car. Santorum, a vocal advocate of a federal balanced budget amendment, initiated attempts to retire his debt almost immediately after quitting the race, writing to supporters that he “cannot be free to focus on helping defeat [Obama] with this burden. I am asking you to consider one more contribution.” The former senator is now leading (and raising money for) a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group called Patriot Voices, which describes itself as dedicated to protecting “faith, freedom, family and opportunity.” Santorum aides did not reply to requests for comment.

    7.) Former Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio

    Election year: 2004, 2008

    Debt: $546,413

    The back story: When Kucinich received permission in February to terminate his 2008 presidential campaign committee, he still reported owing money to nine different creditors, including $45,000 for legal services to McTigue & McGinnis LLC of Columbus, Ohio. The Federal Election Commission noted that Kucinich's committee, while is no longer required to file regular reports, "does not relieve the committee of any legal responsibility for the payment of any outstanding debt or obligation." That’s not, however, Kucinich’s biggest problem: The former congressman still owes $493,910 from his 2004 presidential bid. Donald J. McTigue, Kucinich’s lawyer and campaign treasurer, is due most of it. “The committee recognizes it has a debt, and if and when it becomes possible to work on the debt, it will,” McTigue said. Does he ever expect to see his money? “I’m always hopeful,” McTigue said. “Who knows what the future holds?”

    8.) Herman Cain, Republican

    Election year: 2012

    Debt: $450,000

    The back story: Forget 9-9-9. The former pizza executive, who soared to the top of the 2012 Republican presidential ranks only to fall away just as quickly, has a much larger number to recoup — one just south of half-million dollars. But in contrast with most other presidential committees, the Friends of Herman Cain presidential committee owes what it owes to its own candidate: It's failed to reimburse Cain for $175,000 in travel expenses and hasn't paid back $275,000 in cash Cain loaned the committee.  Scott F. Bieniek, who served as the committee’s general counsel, said he’s no longer affiliated with the committee and directed questions to Treasurer Mark Block, who couldn’t be reached for comment. Added Bieniek: “I certainly think very highly of Mr. Cain and hope that the committee is able to raise the funds necessary to repay any personal money that he loaned to the campaign.”

    9.) Former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.

    Election year: 2004

    Debt: $331,586

    The back story: You might expect an Edwards’ debt stems from the former senator's 2008 presidential run, during which federal prosecutors alleged he used campaign cash to hush up a staffer-turned-mistress who secretly gave birth to his love child. The tawdry tale ostensibly ended Edwards' political career, but he nonetheless beat the rap and avoided jail time. Edwards' 2004 presidential run, meanwhile, is the culprit for his continued financial indebtedness. Credit a lion's share of the more than $331,000 his 2004 campaign committee owes — about $226,000 — to unpaid legal and consulting fees billed by Washington, D.C.-based law firm Ryan Phillips Utrecht & McKinnon. Edwards' campaign debt has effectively remained the same since late 2006. “We’re working on that,” campaign treasurer Lora Haggard said of the debt, “but I don’t have any more information at this time.” During the 2004 campaign, Edwards once promised he’d “get us seriously back on the road to fiscal responsibility” if elected president. Edwards' 2008 presidential campaign committee? It finally shut down this month and doesn't owe anyone a cent after itself owing more than $2 million at one point.

    10.) Former Ambassador Alan Keyes, Republican

    Election year: 2000

    Debt: $301,144

    The back story: Keyes collected about 5 percent of all votes during the 2000 Republican presidential primary and never seriously challenged neither eventual winner George W. Bush nor Sen. John McCain. His legacy? More than $300,000 in debt owed to a dozen campaign vendors, with about half owed to Virginia- and California-based consulting firm Politechs. Keyes appears to be in little hurry to pay off any of it: A full decade ago, his committee's debt stood at about $337,000. Keyes also sought the presidency in 2008. His campaign committee from that cycle has no debt and actually maintains a small surplus. Keyes aide Carla Michele said campaign officials are “doing everything they can” to retire the debt, although she didn’t have additional details.

    11.) Former Rep. Bob Barr, Libertarian

    Election year: 2008

    Debt: $158,450

    The back story: As a minor-party candidate, Barr, who once served in Congress as a Republican from Georgia, had about a libertine's chance in North Korea of leading the nation. Nevertheless, Barr ran and lost, and in doing so, left a mess of unpaid obligations in his wake. Among them: $47,000 to Maryland-based author James Bovard, who ghost-wrote a book for Barr and didn't get paid. (As a presidential candidate, Barr once called for a "surge in federal fiscal responsibility.") Debt or no debt, Barr is eyeing a return to the U.S. House, having announced last month he'll seek a congressional seat in Georgia — as a Republican. Will Barr move to quickly pay his old debts off? “The team associated with the 2008 campaign has worked to retire the debt from $214,221 to about $150,000,” Barr campaign manager Jeff Breedlove said. “They continue to do so in a professional and dedicated manner.”

    12.) Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.

    Election year: 2012

    Debt: $127,996

    The back story: Days after Bachmann quit the presidential race after the January 2012 Iowa caucuses, her campaign reported being more than $1 million in debt with less than $166,000 in available cash. In the 15 months since, Bachmann has been able to whittle her debt down to less than $128,000, as of March 31. “That said, we are in communication with our venders and are working to pay the residual remaining balance off in the near future," Bachmann for President finance chairman James L. Pollack said. Nahigian Strategies in Alexandria, Va., is owed more than half that amount for campaign management services. And Bachmann owes more than $6,200 to law and lobbying firm Patton Boggs for legal services. Smaller, stranger debts include $688 to a golf cart supplier in Omaha, Neb., and $47 to a general store in West Des Moines, Iowa. Bachmann's campaign committee has found itself particularly crosswise with the golf cart rental set, as one Iowa-based supplier sued Bachmann — and won — after her campaign allegedly damaged several contracted vehicles, then  failed to pay the bill. Bachmann ultimately paid up.

    13.) Gary Bauer, Republican

    Election year: 2000

    Debt: $108,557

    The back story: While few folks even remember Bauer's long-shot presidential candidacy, the Internal Revenue Service certainly does. That's because Bauer's campaign committee still owes the tax man more than $10,000, according to its latest federal disclosure filing. The campaign committee for Bauer, who today leads the conservative Campaign for Working Families organization, also has yet to pay its bills from four direct mail and list rental firms. “The plan is to pay it off little by little over time,” Bauer aide Kristi Hamrick said. “As soon as possible is the time frame.” At a rally last year against now-Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., Bauer railed against the national debt. “America is drowning in red ink,” he said. “Obama and his Democrat allies in Congress have added trillions of dollars to the national debt and raised taxes by hundreds of billions through Obamacare,"

    14.) President Bill Clinton, Democrat

    Election year: 1996

    Debt: $100,080

    The backstory: One might reasonably assume that after 17 years, the former leader of the free world, who presided over Israelis and Palestinians signing the Oslo Peace Accords, could settle a disagreement with campaign creditors. Apparently not. The Clinton/Gore '96 Primary Committee, which technically remains open and active, still owes more than $100,000 to three firms for consulting and polling fees. Clinton's committee disputes the charges, and the debts from a year when the Macarena topped the music charts, remain unresolved. Clinton aides did not return requests for comment. Hillary Clinton? She cleared her once massive 2008 presidential debts earlier this year.

     

     

    Dave Levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/dave-levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/05/02/12573/all-presidents-debt

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    The Texas fertilizer plant that blew up on April 17, killing at least 15 people, appears to have been claiming an arcane exemption that allowed it to avoid targeted workplace inspections and safety requirements and enter a “streamlined prevention program” with environmental regulators, a government spokesman confirmed.

    The owner of the facility near Waco, West Chemical and Fertilizer, apparently determined that the exemption — a few words advocated by industry groups, including The Fertilizer Institute, as part of a 20-year-old regulation — applied. In the wake of the deadly blast in West, Texas, last month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating whether this claim was justified, an OSHA spokesman said.

    By claiming the exemption, the company became subject to other, less stringent requirements and avoided certain OSHA and Environmental Protection Agency rules.

    West Chemical and Fertilizer did not respond to requests for comment.

    The interlocking web of company-claimed exceptions has implications beyond a small town in Central Texas. Sites across a host of industries housing large amounts of dangerous chemicals could claim they sell primarily to end users and avoid stricter regulation, though the number of facilities invoking this exemption is unclear. A representative for a company storing toxic chlorine gas, for example, wrote to OSHA in 2005 to clarify that the exemption applied to the site.

    “It’s a major flaw,” said Bryan Haywood, an Ohio consultant who advises companies on the safe use of dangerous substances. “This incident’s going to get a lot of people’s interest into how people are squirming out of [stricter requirements].”

    Closely related OSHA and EPA rules require facilities using large quantities of hazardous substances to take preventive steps and plan for accidents. West Chemical and Fertilizer had enough anhydrous ammonia — a chemical that attacks the eyes, skin and respiratory system — to require it to follow OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard, issued more than two decades ago.

    But the standard contains what is known as the “retail exemption.” The Fertilizer Institute spoke out in favor of the exemption while the rule was being developed. Soon after the rule became final, the institute asked OSHA to confirm that it would not apply to facilities that store and blend fertilizer and sell it primarily to end users, often farmers.

    OSHA responded that a fertilizer facility could indeed avoid the strictures of the rule as long as more than half of the company’s sales were to end users. OSHA, however, does not check on the validity of an exemption unless it inspects the site, an agency spokesman confirmed.

    The Fertilizer Institute said in a statement to the Center for Public Integrity that it agreed with OSHA when the agency concluded in 1992 that retail facilities “did not present the same degree of hazard to employees as other workplaces covered by the proposal.”

    But the institute added, “While the cause of the West, Texas, explosion has yet to be determined, we will re-examine our stance if necessary when the report on the cause is made final.”

    OSHA is also investigating whether the West plant was covered by a legislative rider that makes sites with fewer than 10 employees in industries with low reported injury rates off-limits for regular inspections, an agency spokesman said. The site had not been inspected since 1985.

    Invocation of the “retail exemption” can begin a chain reaction of less stringent standards. The EPA’s program for designating the risk posed by a facility relies, in part, on the site’s standing with OSHA. The amount of anhydrous ammonia stored at West Chemical and Fertilizer normally would have placed the facility in the EPA category requiring extensive preventive measures and accident-response plans. But because the site claimed the OSHA exemption, it qualified for a “streamlined prevention program” under the EPA’s Risk Management Plan program, known as RMP.

    The agency said in a statement that it “reviewed the RMP from the facility to determine the RMP was complete and correct.” Asked whether it verified the basis for placing the site in a lower-risk category — its exemption from the OSHA rule based on its sales records — the EPA did not respond.

    This EPA designation, along with the site’s lack of a history of accidents or recent inspections, removed it from a list of facilities subject to an OSHA special inspection program targeting locations using large amounts of hazardous substances, such as anhydrous ammonia.

    It is unclear how many facilities enjoy more relaxed regulation as a result of their self-designation as retailers, but Haywood said the number could be large. “A lot of these businesses like in West, Texas, they’re everywhere,” he said. “They’re in every small farming community in the country.”

    The remains of the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company plant in West, Texas, smolder after an April 17, 2013, explosion.Chris Hambyhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/chris-hambyhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/05/02/12601/retail-exemption-shields-some-fertilizer-facilities-stringent-safety-inspections

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    Once mired in blood and disrepute, professional mixed martial arts now ranks among the world’s fastest growing sports. And its advocates are likewise ramping up their activity in another combative arena: Capitol Hill.

    Ultimate Fighting Championship, MMA’s leading promotion company, last year spent $620,000 lobbying on a variety of issues affecting its business, making it the No. 3 spender among sports leagues and recreational entities and eclipsing the government affairs  efforts of other well-established and conventional industry contemporaries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

    UFC outspent former heavy-hitters such as Major League Baseball ($310,000) and the National Basketball Association ($125,000) last year. The National Football League remains the top lobbying spender in the live entertainment industry, but the league’s total spending fell from $1.6 million in 2012 to $1.4 million in the previous year, according to federal disclosures.

    UFC is continuing its aggressive advocacy this year, spending $80,000 on federal lobbying in the first quarter of 2013, records filed with the U.S. Senate indicate.Video piracy is among UFC’s chief concerns.

    Though some of UFC’s live competitions — in which fighters spar for victory in an octagonal cage — are now available with a basic cable subscription, the company still relies on pay-per-view broadcasts for much of its revenue. When bootleggers surreptitiously film and post fights to the internet for free, UFC loses money, according to Makan Delrahim, an attorney at the Washington office of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Scheck who represents UFC.

    “Or even worse, [copyright law violators] are charging $9.99,” for access to the illegally-captured fights, Delrahim said. “My clients are deprived of the economic benefit that intellectual property laws allow.”

    Before lobbying on behalf of the UFC, Delrahim served as deputy assistant attorney general to the Department of Justice’s anti-trust division and chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

    “Anybody who believes in property rights supports this issue,” he said, “It’s a bipartisan issue."

    And MMA, it turns out, attracts a bipartisan fan base. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and U.S. Reps. Duncan Hunter of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio, both Republicans, are fans, according to Delrahim.

    UFC has also lobbied on Internet gambling regulation— the group is now sponsoring an online poker tournament, with a grand prize of trip to Las Vegas to watch a UFC fight in July — and educating members of Congress about mixed martial arts, federal records show.

    “We just want to be sure that people who may not be watching it every night know what it is,” Delrahim said. “And don’t react in an immediate kneejerk reaction, thinking that it’s some sort of nefarious sport.”

    Mark Gonzalez, managing partner at the Washington-based One World MMA, a much smaller outfit that hosts professional and amateur fights , said his operation has opted to influence legislation on a more grassroots level.

    It takes “big money in order to lobby anybody here in DC,” Gonzalez said.  Instead of traditional routes, Gonzalez said he works directly with DC Boxing and Wrestling Commission to influence the safety regulations and licensing rules that affect his organization.

    Several other emerging or niche sports and recreation brands have also recently doubled down on federal lobbying.

    Feld Entertainment — the company that produces the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus, Monster Jam monster truck shows and Disney On Ice — also outspent both MLB and the NBA last year. the $350,000 it spent places it No. 7 on the list of  top lobbying spenders among sports and recreation outfits.

    Just this past quarter, Feld Entertainment spent $35,000 to lobby Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration on laws related to the conservation of endangered species — namely the elephants and big cats that star in the company’s traveling circus. Ringling Bros. in particular has been a target of animal rights activists, who accuse the circus of animal cruelty.

    Feld Entertainment lobbied against the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act, a House bill introduced last year that would have banned animals performing within 15 days of travel, which the company argued would effectively dismantle its circus’ operation. Ringling Bros. currently gives its animals anywhere from 24 to 72 hours of rest between travel, said Tom Albert, the company’s vice president of governmental affairs.

    “Our point is that there was no science behind it,” he said of the bill, which has not been reintroduced in the current Congress. “It was sort of an arbitrary number that was picked precisely because it would keep animals from performing.”

    Feld Entertainment’s past lobbying efforts helped pass the Asian Elephant Conservation Act of 1997, which set a up a federal fund to support faltering elephant populations. That law established a model for funds supporting other endangered species, Albert said.

    “Given the very difficult economic and budgetary climate, our little coalition has been remarkably successful in advocating for support for those funds,” Albert said.

    Though hardly a niche sport, NASCAR has also stepped further into the political fray in recent years, increasing its total federal lobbying expenditures to $150,000 in 2012 from $90,000 in the previous year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

    Lobbying is “not a terribly active space for us,” NASCAR spokesman Marcus Jadotte asserts, although the association did spend $30,000 in last year to block a bipartisan amendment that would have slashed the military’s budget for sponsoring professional sports.

    NASCAR — and the military recruiters whose logos still whiz past fans in Daytona and Dover — won that race in a close 216-202 vote.

    NASCAR does not plan to rev up its political involvement any further by forming a PAC or endorsing candidates.

    “Absolutely not,” Jadotte said. “As a business, we’re not involved in endorsing candidates."

    While UFC has changed its rules over the past decade to make the sport safer, more athletic and more palatable to a broader fan base, its intense violence and that it is not a team sport has impeded its reach beyond a niche audience, according to Marie Hardin, associate director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University.

    “You have to wonder if part of this is simply the growing pains of a very fast growing sport in the United States,” Hardin said.

    As MMA grows in popularity, there will be “more legislative eyeballs” monitoring the sport, she said.

    “It’s going to come under more scrutiny.”

     

     

    Minotauro Nogueira, left, from Brazil, fights Dave Herman, from the United States, during their heavyweight mixed martial arts bout at the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 153, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Nogueira defeated Herman.Reity O'Brienhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/reity-obrienhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/05/02/12609/mixed-martial-arts-take-fight-capitol-hill

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    Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a package of reform bills Wednesday night, bringing final approval for the first major overhaul of the state’s ethics laws in more than three decades. The two bills give significant new powers to the state’s ethics commission, extend a ban on lobbying for lawmakers after they leave office and rework the state’s campaign finance limits.

    The new ethics legislation will address at least some of the weaknesses responsible for Florida’s overall grade of C- from the State Integrity Investigation, a state-by-state ranking of ethics and accountability released last year by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. In the specific category of ethics enforcement, the Sunshine State had received an F.

    The measures, which the legislature passed last week, had been top priorities for Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, both Republicans. Watchdog groups followed the bills’ passage closely and largely praised the ethics bill.

    “There’s been a 36 year drought of meaningful ethics reform legislation going anywhere in Florida,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, a statewide watchdog group. “The fact that our state leaders prioritized ethics reform and dedicated time and resources to serious debate and policy improvements on the issues is historic.”

    Some reform advocates and lawmakers criticized aspects of the bills, however, particularly the campaign finance provisions. Those provisions eliminate a type of committee—called committees of continuous existence— that candidates have used to raise unlimited funds before transferring the money elsewhere, obscuring the source of the cash. But the bill will allow another form of committee—so-called political committees—to raise unlimited funds instead. The only improvement, advocates say, is that the money will be spent by the same committee that raised it, making it easier to track who is paying for what. The measure will also require more frequent reporting from candidates.

    But in exchange, the bill raises the limits on donations to candidates and leaves in place loose restrictions on campaign committees, allowing them to continue to raise and spend unlimited quantities of money and report their finances less frequently than candidates.

    “They’ve kind of used a spigot to turn the gush of money to a new direction,” said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters Florida. Her group had urged Scott to veto the campaign finance bill. “At the end of the day, the Florida voter is no winner by any stretch.”

    Candidates for statewide office will now be able to accept donations of up to $3,000 from individuals, with all other candidates able to accept up to $1,000. Previously, the limit for all candidates had been $500. Gov. Scott, who is up for reelection next year, had opposed raising the limits.

    ”No one has shown me a rational for raising these limits,” Scott told reporters after the legislature approved the bills last week. But when asked why he decided to sign the bill yesterday, Scott simply said that he’d listened to advice from across the state and determined the legislation was “in the best interests of the state.”

    Proponents of the measure, including Krassner, have said that overall, the bill will improve campaign finance transparency.

    The ethics bill, which passed both chambers of the legislature unanimously, reaches far and wide. It will prevent lawmakers from lobbying government for two years after leaving office. Previously, they were barred from lobbying the legislature but could petition the executive branch—an allowance the previous speaker of the house, Dean Cannon, is currently using. The measure gives additional powers to the ethics commission to collect unpaid fines and allows the body to initiate investigations based on referrals from law enforcement agencies or the governor’s office. Until now, the commission could investigate only after receiving a sworn complaint directly. It will also put into law a ban on voting on bills that could affect lawmakers’ finances.

    But the measure contains a couple of provisions that watchdog groups say actually loosen oversight and transparency. Lawmakers who submit incomplete or inaccurate financial disclosures will now have 30 days to correct them before the ethics commission can issue a fine. “It’s what I would call a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” Macnab said.

    The bill also allows legislators to put their investments in blind trusts. But Philip Claypool, who in 2011 retired as the executive director of the state’s ethics commission, said the provision fails to put in place standard safeguards that other states and the federal government use for such trusts. The result, he said, is that lawmakers will be able to drop investments such as real estate holdings in or out of the trusts in order to vote on a measure that may affect the investment, without having to disclose anything.

    Despite the complaints, however, even the strongest critics of the reform package say the bill signed Wednesday will improve the laws on the books.

    “These are some really good things,” Macnab said. “While it doesn’t go quite as far as we would have liked, we think it’s a good bill for Florida.”

    Florida Gov. Rick ScottNicholas Kusnetzhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/nicholas-kusnetzhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/05/02/12613/florida-enacts-ethics-and-campaign-finance-package

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    When news broke last September that some doctors and hospitals could be using electronic health records to overbill Medicare, top government officials swung into action.

    U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Attorney General Eric Holder fired off a stern letter to five prominent medical groups threatening criminal prosecution for applying the technology to bill for more complex and costly services than merited — a practice is known as “upcoding.”

    But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which reports to Sebelius, is taking a much less confrontational stance as it opens a “listening session” this morning in Baltimore on the digital billing controversy.

    The agency has lined up nearly a dozen health industry speakers representing mostly hospitals, doctors and the software industry to give their take on fair and honest billing and coding standards to impose as medicine wires up. No one at the meeting will represent patients or others who pay medical bills.

    A CMS spokesman called the meeting "another step toward ensuring appropriate use" of electronic records, which are "critical to our efforts to reform the health care delivery system, lowering costs while improving the quality of care.”

    The initial reaction from Sebelius and Holder came on the heels of the Center for Public Integrity’s “Cracking the Codes” series, a year-long investigation which showed that thousands of medical professionals billed sharply higher rates for treating seniors over the last decade — adding $11 billion or more to their fees. The findings suggested billing abuses could be worsening as doctors and hospitals switch from paper to electronic health records.

    As the government has made good on plans to invest some $35 billion helping doctors and hospitals convert from paper to digital records, hundreds of technology firms have jumped into the market — often by promising doctors and hospitals that their gear can significantly boost the bottom line.

    Most manufacturers and medical users contend the software merely allows them to more efficiently bill for their services, which in the past was often done by hand.

    Critics argue, however, that with a flick of the wrist the devices can create a finely detailed medical file that’s often difficult for auditors to verify. Sebelius and Holder noted that in some cases, the machines can “cut and paste” information from previous doctor visits “in order to inflate what providers get paid.”

    Sue Bowman, of the American Health Information Management Association, said her testimony in Baltimore would recommend research to figure out the precise role — if any — electronic records are playing in encouraging errant billing. “Like any tool (electronic health records) can help us be more efficient, but it can also be misused,” she said in an interview.

    The Baltimore session takes place amid rumblings in Congress — at least among Republicans — that the multi-billion dollar initiative has veered off course.

    Last month, six Republican U.S. Senators called for an overhaul of the plan, citing a range of concerns from patient privacy to stepped-up Medicare billing fraud.

    Their report noted that many medical experts believe the digital systems can reduce health care costs and enhance medical quality by reducing wasteful testing and cutting down on harmful errors. But it also cited “troubling indications that some providers are using this technology to game the system, possibly to obtain payments to which they are not entitled.”

    Doctors, hospitals and insurance companies are making the switch to electronic health records.Fred Schultehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/fred-schultehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/05/03/12614/feds-listen-sounds-medicare-billing-abuse

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    Since the United States first sent troops to Afghanistan in 2001, a signature goal of the war has been to increase the size of Afghan national security forces and give their members the skills to vanquish domestic terrorist groups and other security threats on their own.

    But as the Obama administration prepares to pull 34,000 U.S. troops out of the country by February and most of the remaining troops by the end of 2014, estimates of the size of the Afghan force trained to take over this lead security role have suddenly grown fuzzy and possibly unreliable.

    A new report this week by the government’s top watchdog over U.S. spending in Afghanistan casts doubt on whether the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan government has met a goal set in 2011 of enlisting and training a total of 352,000 Afghan security personnel by October 2012. Pentagon officials have said that target was meant to strike a balance between what is needed and what America and its allies can deliver in concert with the Afghan government.

    The White House declared two months ago, in conjunction with the President’s State of the Union address, that the goal had been attained. Afghan “forces are currently at a surge strength of 352,000, where they will remain for at least three more years, to allow continued progress toward a secure environment in Afghanistan,” it said.

    But on Tuesday, Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko challenged this rosy assessment, which White House officials said was based on data supplied by the Pentagon.

    “The goal to ‘train and field’ 352,000 Afghan National Security Forces by last October was not met.” Sopko said in his latest quarterly report. Instead, as of Feb. 18, the number of personnel in the Afghan National Army, National Police and Air Force totaled 332,753, or about 20,000 fewer, according to data he said he collected from the Coalition-led transition command in Kabul.

    Sopko said Afghan troop and police strength is actually declining, not rising – belying a longstanding goal of the U.S. intervention. There are now 4,700 fewer personnel than a year ago, he noted, drawing on the same data that the Pentagon routinely uses.

    The discrepancy between the force size the White House has claimed and what the Afghans have actually been able to field is not a trivial one, Sopko’s report suggested. ”Accurate and reliable accounting for ANSF personnel is necessary to ensure that U.S. funds that support the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] are used for legitimate and eligible costs,” it said.

    As a result, the discrepancy has triggered a wider audit by his organization into "the extent to which DOD [the Department of Defense] reviews and validates the information collected" from Afghan officials, Sopko said in the report. It will broadly assess "the reliability and usefulness” of what the Afghans – and the U.S. government – say about the force’s size.

    In a statement to the Center for Public Integrity, Sopko explained that "we are not implying that anyone is manipulating data. We are raising a concern that we don't have the right numbers. We appreciate how difficult it is to get the correct numbers -- but we need accurate numbers because we're using those numbers to pay ANSF salaries, supply equipment and so forth."

    The financial stakes behind the numbers are huge. Sopko’s report says Congress has appropriated more than $51 billion so far “to build, equip, train and sustain the Afghan National Security Forces.”

    But U.S. officials and watchdog groups have previously raised alarms about the existence of “ghost” personnel in the Afghan forces, whose salaries are still funded by Western aid but who quit the units to which they are assigned. The annual attrition rate for the Afghan army is nearly 30 percent, according to U.S. military commanders, provoking an enormous churn in the ranks that complicates accurate record-keeping.

    Part of the problem, according to Sopko’s report, is that Western officials have allowed “the Afghan forces to report their own personnel strength numbers,” which are based on hand-written ledgers in “decentralized, unlinked and inconsistent systems.”  The Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, which oversees the training effort, reported last year “there was no viable method of validating personnel numbers,” the report added.

    But U.S. officials have added to the confusion by adopting a new definition of what it means to be a member of the Afghan security force, loosening its terminology in a way that enlarges the ranks to include all those “recruited” rather than those actually trained and field-ready.

    For example, the Defense Department’s so-called Section 1230 reports, which track the progress of the war, including efforts to build an effective Afghan security force, said in April 2012 that “the ANSF are ahead of schedule to achieve the October 2012 end-strength of 352,000, including subordinate goals of 195,000 soldiers and 157,000 police.”

    But last December’s Section 1230 report – the most recent progress report available -- changed the way it referred to the 352,000 figure. “The ANSF met its goal of recruiting a force of approximately 352,000 by October 1, 2012,” the December report said. Some of these personnel were awaiting induction at training centers, said the report, adding that the Afghan army’s recruits were not scheduled to be “trained, equipped, and fielded until December 2013.”

    Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., who in February took command of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan from Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, used still different terminology during April 16 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said the Afghan government “has recruited and fielded most of its authorized strength of 352,000,” a circumstance that he said enables it to “be responsible for security nationwide” in the near future.

    The Pentagon is still working on its written response to the special inspector general's report. But a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Bill Speaks, separately told the Center for Public Integrity that "fluctuation in overall strength of the ANSF due to recruitment and attrition is expected."

    Speaks said recruitment targets were lowered last year to slow growth as Afghan forces approached "its force structure ceiling of 352,000. . . . Lower recruitment, coupled with several months of higher-than-average levels of attrition in the ANA [Afghan National Army], resulted in a net decrease."

    He said ANSF end-strength rose to 336,365 in March, but added that the focus of the training mission now is on “the quality of the force; developing the right balance of seniority, skills and specialization,” more than on the number of trainees.

    Sopko’s report attributed the decline partly to a decision last October to no longer include civilians in the official security force tally, such as those in the Afghanistan Ministry of Defense. But Speaks said Thursday that civilians continue to be counted, calling them “a necessary and integrated part" of the Afghan Army. He said an effort is underway to convert the jobs to the civil service system, and also that the Afghan reporting system “is increasingly moving from a paper-based system to a more automated one with new standards" and processes.

    Despite the squishiness of the data, U.S. military officials have repeatedly cited the buildup in Afghan forces as the principal reason for declaring the 11-year war a success. “For the last few years, many people have shied away from using the word ‘win,’” Dunford told the senators. “I personally have used that word since arriving in Afghanistan.”

    Sharing his optimism, Gen. Allen told Brookings Institution in March that Afghan security forces “turned out to be better than we thought, and they turned out better than they thought.” During the ceremonial change of command in Kabul in February Allen said, “Afghan forces defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens. This is victory. This is what winning looks like.”

    US officials have long considered the ability of Afghan forces to fight without foreign help as critical to the Obama administration’s exit strategy and pending decisions on how large of a residual force to leave in the county once most U.S. troops leave next year. There are 70,000 U.S. troops there now, of which 1,800 are assigned to the NATO training mission.

    At last year’s NATO summit in Chicago, Sopko noted in his report, countries contributing to coalition forces in Afghanistan agreed to set a goal of a 228,500-strong Afghan security force in 2017, which they considered more financially viable than any higher number. But the Obama administration rejected that suggestion and insisted that a force of 352,000 would give the U.S. military more flexibility and could be maintained through 2018.

    Whether a force of even that size is enough to meet the West’s ambitions remains controversial. On March 22, for example, the Pentagon’s inspector general reported that the extensive U.S.-led coalition effort to develop the Afghan National Army’s command-and-control capabilities, which are crucial in executing counterinsurgency operations on its own, “had produced a marginally sufficient” system.

    The Afghan National Army “did not yet have the ability to plan and conduct sustained operations without U.S. and Coalition support,” the DOD IG report said. “To date, the ANA had only been effective in conducting offensive operations of short duration . . . with heavy reliance on U.S. and Coalition support.”

    The IG’s report credited both the Afghan army and police for demonstrating “initiative, coordination and resilience” in responding to insurgent attacks in Kabul on Aril 15, 2012. The actions by security forces “were encouraging and timely,” the report said. But it warned that the progress “may be hampered or even reversed. . . if high-risk challenges are not properly addressed and resolved,” including the removal of ineffective senior officers, an ability to use complex technology, and “the significant reliance on U.S. and Coalition enablers.”

    A Government Accountability Office report released in February said further that a claimed improvement in the effectiveness of Afghan security forces has been partly due to the lowering of standards by U.S.-led forces.  In August 2011, U.S. military officials changed the highest possible rating for Afghan units from “independent,” meaning they could operate without help from U.S. or coalition troops, to “independent with advisors,” the GAO said.

    The Pentagon acknowledged that the changes to the rating levels “were partly responsible for the increase in ANSF units rated at the highest level,” GAO said.

    Afghan National Army recruits practice a house clearing during training exercise in Kabul, Afghanistan. Richard H.P. Siahttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/richard-hp-siahttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/05/03/12604/government-auditor-challenges-white-house-account-afghanistan-security

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    The Environmental Protection Agency announced new safeguards Friday to prevent conflicts of interest or bias from tainting its science, including efforts to assess the dangers of toxic chemicals.

    The reforms, targeting scientific review panels selected for EPA by outside contractors, follow a Center for Public Integrity-PBS NewsHour examination revealing ties between scientists and industry on a panel reviewing hexavalent chromium, a compound commonly found in drinking water that may cause cancer.

    In that case, three panelists who urged the EPA to delay potentially stricter drinking water standards had been expert witnesses for industry in hexavalent chromium litigation. The scientists denied any conflict and said their input was based on research, but the case study revealed how the EPA is unaware of potential conflicts on its own panels.

    Under its own process, the Center reported, the agency turns over the job of selecting panelists to private companies, which handle conflict-of-interest reviews in secret. All information the vendors collect, including financial disclosure forms, is “considered private and non-disclosable to EPA or outside entities except as required by law,” the EPA policy says.

    The changes announced Friday add more layers of review — and provide more public disclosure — to the process.

    Environmental watchdogs, who had questioned EPA's existing process, say the steps are overdue.

    “It brings transparency to a process that wasn’t there before,” said Francesca Grifo, a senior policy fellow and expert on scientific integrity at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

    One key change: After an EPA-hired contractor selects members of a scientific review panel, “the contractor will consult with EPA to review whether the contractor followed existing conflicts of interest guidance and requirements, and identify and provide input on any issues.”

    That step adds an extra layer of review by EPA.

    Also, the agency said, the names of chosen panelists will be publicly posted before any meetings take place.

    The new steps do not change EPA’s existing standards for assessing conflicts, the agency said, but instead add sunshine to the process.

    “This process will ensure that existing conflicts of interest guidance and requirements are applied correctly and where a potential conflict of interest is identified, allow EPA to determine whether the contractor’s plan to address the conflict is acceptable,” the agency said.

    The EPA’s acting administrator, Bob Perciasepe, said Friday the new steps show the agency is “committed to scientific integrity.”

    “Improving the contract-managed peer review process and increasing transparency will lead to stronger science at the agency,” Perciasepe said in a statement.

    Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, has been outspoken about industry influence at the EPA. Denison praised the EPA for bringing more openness to the process.

    “The hexavalent chromium example was the major impetus for this revision,” he said.

    Hexavalent chromium, best known as the toxic chemical compound from the hit film Erin Brockovich, is found in the drinking water of more than 70 million Americans, according to the Environmental Working Group.

    New animal studies published in 2008 showed that mice and rats given high doses of the compound developed large numbers of tumors. The National Toxicology Program, part of the National Institutes of Health, cited the compound as a “clear carcinogen.”

    The EPA planned to revise its assessment of the compound in 2011, even as a trade group, the American Chemistry Council, urged the agency to wait for industry funded studies. Several members of the peer review panel also urged the EPA to wait.

    One was Steven Patierno, then a scientist at George Washington University, who was a consultant on ACC studies.

    Another was Joshua Hamilton, a scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., which is affiliated with Brown University. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the company that polluted the water in Hinkley, Calif., with chromium, hired Hamilton as a consultant in 2009.

    Hamilton said that just before the EPA peer-review panel met, PG&E asked him if he would go back to Hinkley to discuss the health effects of hexavalent chromium. PG&E said it paid Hamilton $110,000 for his work in Hinkley. Hamilton said he revealed the PG&E work to the private contractor hired by EPA, Eastern Research Group, and that the firm concluded it was not a conflict.

    Officials with Eastern Research Group, based in Massachusetts, have not responded to interview requests.

    Meanwhile, some members of Congress are pushing potential change to support industry.

    The House science committee recently approved a bill to change the rules at the EPA for setting up scientific advisory panels. It would prevent the EPA from excluding people from panels with industry ties, as long as those ties are disclosed. It would also exclude panelists whose research is incorporated in the assessment. The bill is awaiting action by the full House.

    David Heathhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/david-heathRonnie Greenehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/ronnie-greenehttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/05/03/12615/epa-adds-safeguards-spotlight-conflicts-scientific-panels

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    Our brand of watchdog investigative journalism generates impact again and again, as demonstrated by the examples that come across my desk nearly every day at the Center for Public Integrity.  Each time, I am reminded that we don’t spend months investigating environmental crises or secret money laundering just to call attention to problems. We publish our detailed, fact-filled investigative reports in order to have an impact, to contribute to solutions, eventually fixing myriad problems.

    Let me cite some of our impact from just this last week:

    • The Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday that it has revamped its conflict of interest process to prevent conflicts and bias from tainting its science, including efforts to assess the dangers of toxic chemicals. The reforms target EPA scientific review panels that are selectedby outside contractors. Today’s announcement follows a Center for Public Integrity-PBS NewsHour examination revealing ties between scientists and the chemical industry on a panel reviewing hexavalent chromium, a compound commonly found in drinking water that may cause cancer. This is a critical issue because as our Toxic Clout series has reported, more than 80,000 chemicals are on the market in the United States, with hundreds added each year. The EPA is supposed to protect the public from contaminants in the air, water and in consumer products that can cause cancer and other illnesses. But the chemical industry's sway over science and policy is powerful. Our series has explored how the chemical industry's actions create uncertainty and delay, threatening public health.
    • Our massive international investigative series into offshore tax havens— which draws from a cache of 2.5 million secret records — continues to generate official action.  Most recently, European finance ministers said that when they meet next week they may reach an agreement to eradicate tax havens. Meanwhile, our latest report on JP Morgan raises concerns about our largest bank’s commitment to fighting the flow of dirty money around the world. The investigation is being conducted by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, or ICIJ, a project of The Center for Public Integrity. The work is ongoing and has already drawn 9,000 media citations worldwide in just the last month.
    • Over the past two years, the Center for Public Integrity has examined how a rare and mysterious type of chronic kidney disease is killing tens of thousands of agricultural workers along Central America’s Pacific Coast, as well as in Sri Lanka and India. Scientists have yet to definitively uncover the cause of this deadly illness, although emerging evidence points to toxic heavy metals contained in pesticides as a potential culprit. Following years of official inaction in the U.S. and beyond, a new Central American declaration last week — for the first time — formally recognized the disease and its unique characteristics. Central America’s health ministries signed the declaration on Friday citing the ailment as a top public health priority and committing to a series of steps to combat its reach.
    • Florida became the latest state to make changes in its ethics laws after our State Integrity Investigation gave the Sunshine State an “F” in ethics enforcement.   Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a package of reform bills Wednesday night, marking the first major overhaul of the state’s ethics laws in more than three decades. The two bills give significant new powers to the state’s ethics commission, extend a ban on lobbying for lawmakers after they leave office and rework the state’s campaign finance limits. The new ethics legislation will address at least some of the weaknesses responsible for Florida’s overall grade of C- from the State Integrity Investigation, a state-by-state ranking of ethics and accountability released last year by the Center for Public Integrity, and our partners, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.

    Ultimately, I believe our work is contributing to solutions of all kinds, and a more accountable and transparent world. 

    Until Next Week, 

    Bill

     

     

     


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    Politicians aren't always the most grounded bunch. 

    For Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., he's off in galaxy far, far away.

    That's not necessarily a knock, however, since the brainy, bespectacled freshman — he's a Princeton University graduate and University of Oxford doctoral degree recipient — is parlaying his love for the cosmos into potentially exospheric campaign cash. 

    To wit: Kilmer is set to benefit from a Star Wars-themed political fundraiser later this month originally conceived as not one, but two separate Star Wars-themed fundraisers, easily putting him on pace to become the first sitting congressman to make the Capitol Hill Cash Run in less than 12 parsecs.

    The merged fundraiser will culminate May 22 in a "galactic trivia battle," with tickets starting at $50 and climbing skyward to $1,000 for political action committees and full trivia teams, according to an invitation. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association's Washington, D.C., headquarters will play host.

    A spokesperson for Kilmer's re-election campaign could not be reached for comment, but Stephen Carter, Kilmer's congressional spokesman, confirmed his boss is, "yes, a pretty huge Star Wars fan."

    Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that Kilmer is a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

    (See the current event's invite here. The other, once-separate-and-now-incorporated fundraiser's invitation advertised a screening of Star Wars: A New Hope.)

    Novelty political fundraisers are commonplace these days, with rubber chicken dinners and stodgy grip-and-grin sessions increasingly yielding to ski trips, skeet shoots and sports events. A Taylor Swift concert, Las Vegas golf retreat and Bermuda beach bash are among federal legislators' many scheduled outings this month, according to fundraiser tracker Political Party Time.

    Thank the burgeoning cost of campaigns and never-ending election cycles for congressional candidates' compulsory creativity.

    In 2005, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee lambasted three Republican congressmen for conducting a political fundraiser at the screening of a Star Wars movie, saying the "GOP looks to the dark side." Given Kilmer's unabashed fandom, however, his event almost assuredly features the highest probability in congressional history of at least one lobbyist ditching his power suit for Boba Fett armor or a political aide donning a Yoda mask.

    Looking for the real thing?

    Kilmer should know that Han Solo — that is, Harrison Ford — is a dedicated Democratic donor, having contributed tens of thousands of dollars to candidates and committees over the years, including $28,500 to the Democratic National Committee in 2008, according to federal records.

    But, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, it was the people and PACs associated with Boeing and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, among others, that donated the most to Kilmer en route to him rasing nearly $1.9 million last cycle.

     

     

    Dave Levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/dave-levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/05/04/12618/need-political-cash-use-force

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    Will the implementation of some of the most important provisions of ObamaCare this fall and next year result in the “train wreck” Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) predicted a few days ago?

    No. But you can be certain that there will be no shortage of political candidates and high-powered political spin doctors who will be working relentlessly between now and the 2014 midterms to convince us that it will be.

    ObamaCare — even though it already has reduced the number of uninsured Americans by several million and has limited price gouging by insurance companies — represents the best hope that many Republicans will have of maintaining or boosting their majority in the House and possibly retaking the Senate.

    Think about it. The economy seems to be on the right track. Just last week the stock market reached record highs and the jobless rate fell to its lowest point in four years. The war in Iraq is over and most American troops are scheduled to be out of Afghanistan by the end of next year. The GOP appears to have lost the advantage to Democrats on gun control and immigration, and abortion and gay rights are no longer the reliable campaign wedge issues they once were.

    That leaves ObamaCare and “big government spending” as just about the only issues that remain for right-leaning candidates, barring any unforeseen domestic or global calamity. But if their campaigns against ObamaCare next year are as successful as their campaigns against it were in the 2010 midterms — and the White House and supporters of the law are once again asleep at the switch — GOP candidates might not need anything else to talk about to take both houses of Congress.

    When Barack Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, there was wide support for health care reform, and Republican strategists knew it. They realized they might be able to turn reform into a winning issue for their candidates by mounting a campaign to make people afraid of what the Democrats might try to do. So just as Congress was beginning preliminary work on what eventually became the Affordable Care Act, GOP message guru Frank Luntz persuaded his clients to condemn whatever the Democrats proposed as a “government takeover of health care.”

    Even though the bill that ultimately became law was anything but a government takeover, GOP lawmakers and candidates never missed an opportunity to insist that it was. Luntz’ sound bite was repeated hundreds of times in floor speeches by Republican members of Congress in the hours before the House voted on its version of the bill on November 7, 2009.

    Their fear-based campaign worked so well to influence public opinion that GOP candidates have never stopped using the “government takeover” meme, which is why the perception of ObamaCare as being exactly that has become a reality for millions of Americans.

    When you consider the inadequate job that the White House and the President’s supporters have done in explaining how the law benefits just about every one of us — and never letting us forget why reform was necessary in the first place — it’s little wonder Republicans see opportunity once again.

    There no doubt will be glitches when the online health insurance exchanges go live on October 1 for the relatively small percentage of Americans who will use them to shop for coverage because their employers don’t offer health insurance as an employee benefit. The exchanges will work just fine for the vast majority of people, but there will be some who will have complaints. You can expect the law’s critics to give every one of them a voice in their effort to create the impression that the exchanges are a disaster and that the government can’t do anything right.

    Similarly, some people who have been paying relatively low premiums for what they don’t realize is junk insurance will be upset when junk insurance is outlawed next year. Because real insurance costs more than junk, some invariably will complain about having to pay higher premiums for coverage that will actually be there if and when they need it.

    You can also expect that a fair number of folks will squawk when the requirement to have health insurance kicks in on January 1. And you can bet that the opponents of the law will be aided, unwittingly in most but certainly not all cases, by the media. Just as local TV reporters tell us about the drivers who crash into each other instead of the rest of us who get to our destinations unharmed, the media will focus on the glitches. And they’ll interview far more complainers than happy campers.

    I’m betting that Frank Luntz and other Republican strategists have already been hired to craft the sound bites to use against Democrats next year. If the Democrats and consumer advocates who support ObamaCare are not at work developing their own strategies to counter the coming barrage of misleading spin, the GOP will have an excellent chance of controlling Capitol Hill after the next elections.

    Tea Party members protest President Obama's health care mandate in Cincinnati.Wendell Potterhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/wendell-potterhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/05/06/12617/opinion-health-reform-be-political-fodder-2014

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    Gov. Nathan Deal brought Georgia in line with nearly every other state in the nation Monday by signing into law the state’s first restrictions on lobbyists’ gifts to lawmakers. Deal’s action puts in place the first major piece of ethics reform Georgia has passed in decades.

    Until now, lobbyists in the Peach State had been free to lavish legislators with gifts and junkets of any size. But starting next year, they’ll be forbidden from spending more than $75 per gift.

    The previous lack of gift rules was one of many reasons why Georgia ranked dead last a year ago in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven ranking of state government accountability and transparency carried out by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. In addition to its overall grade of F, Georgia received failing grades in the specific categories of lobbying disclosure and legislative accountability.

    “Our success as leaders of Georgia depends heavily on the public’s ability to trust us,” Deal said in a statement after signing the gift ban along with a second bill that deals with campaign finance reporting, primarily at the local level. “Together, these bills constitute a major step in improving ethics, trust and transparency in our state.”

    While advocates of tighter ethics laws hailed the legislation as a step in the right direction, the gift cap bill contains several exceptions they believe substantially weaken the provision.

    “It’s like you’re starving for a meal and somebody gave you a saltine cracker,” said William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, an advocacy group.

    The bill permits lobbyists to pool their gifts, allowing three colleagues to jointly buy a dinner worth $200, for example. Lobbyists can also continue to shower committees and other group events with gifts of any size, and they can open their wallets to spend freely on travel for lawmakers as long as it is within the country and related to legislators’ official duties. The measure also makes it easier for lawyers to advocate for specific issues without registering as lobbyists, Perry noted.

    “It’s chock full of loopholes,” he said.

    The bill was the culmination of three years of work by a coalition of liberal and conservative activists, including Common Cause Georgia and Tea Party groups, called the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform. State Sen. Josh McKoon, a Republican, had also pushed the slate of reforms. The campaign met with little success until last year, when local news coverage and the release of the State Integrity Investigation pushed ethics reform on to the public agenda.

    Last summer, the alliance placed non-binding referenda on primary ballots asking voters whether they supported a limit on lobbyist gifts. The measure won approval from 87 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats, and a gift cap quickly became a major issue in this year’s brief legislative session, which ended in March.

    In January, on the first day of the session, the Senate passed a rule covering only the upper chamber that imposed a $100 gift cap. The leadership in the House then developed its own legislation, which initially included an outright ban on lobbyists’ gifts. But the bill contained several exceptions to the ban, and to the outrage of many Tea Party leaders, broadened the definition of who is a lobbyist in a way that would have required volunteer, citizen activists to register. The final bill is a compromise measure hashed out between the two chambers. The language was rewritten to address the concerns of citizen advocates about the definition of a lobbyist, but it still includes many exemptions to the cap.

    Andre Jackson, editorial editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, criticized the legislature for waiting until the last minute to work on a compromise. “There was no justifiable reason why slapdash, last-second, basement-room dickering should have been employed,” he wrote in a blog post after the legislature passed the final measure in March. “As a result, what we ended up with, frankly, stinks.”

    Debby Dooley, state coordinator for the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, said she’d like to see a limit to the gifts each legislator can receive each year. Advocates would also like to restrict spending on travel.

    The final law also restores rulemaking authority to the Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, which oversees ethics laws in the state. That authority had been stripped in 2009, hindering the body’s ability to collect fines and carry out other tasks.

    Many of the issues that contributed to Georgia’s F grade from the State Integrity Investigation remain unchanged. Among advocates’ highest priorities are finding a stable source of funding for the ethics commission and creating an independent, grand jury-style body to investigate ethics complaints.

    Still, many felt the measures signed Monday represented a step in the right direction.

    “If you compare where we were March of last year, when we couldn’t have a hearing on an ethics bill, to this year where we got a bill passed, I think that’s tremendous step forward,” McKoon said. He said he plans to introduce legislation next session that would eliminate some of the exemptions in the gift cap, and would also like to improve financial disclosure for political appointees. “We have to make sure we don’t rest on our heels and say we’ve dealt with this issue.”

    Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, center, is surrounded by state lawmakers Monday while signing into law new limits on how much money lobbyists can spend while trying to influence Georgia public officials.Nicholas Kusnetzhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/nicholas-kusnetzhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/05/07/12622/impact-georgia-governor-signs-bills-limiting-gifts-lobbyists

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    Some support Republican Mark Sanford. Far more back Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch.

    But the political groups that have together poured $1.1 million — 85 percent benefiting Colbert Busch — into South Carolina’s special congressional election are effectively uniform in where they’re from: Washington, D.C.

    Only one of the 10 political action committees, super PACs, nonprofit groups or party committees that have urged voters to support or oppose Colbert Busch or Sanford is based in the Palmetto State, and it’s spent a pittance — just $20,000, a Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal spending disclosures through Monday indicates.

    And of the more than 20 contractors and vendors these political powerhouses hired to produce television attack ads, print flyers or place telemarketing calls, all but one is located in South Carolina. The others hail from seemingly everywhere but: North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Maryland, Minnesota, Ohio and California, among others, according to federal records.

    So as many South Carolina voters hit the polls today to elect their newest 1st District congressional representative, they do so amid a torrent of out-of-state influence that’s increasingly commonplace following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which eliminated many restrictions on how outside political groups could raise and spend money to advocate for or against candidates.

    Today’s dead-heat special election, which features the state’s philandering former governor against comedian Stephen Colbert’s comparatively unknown sister, could foreshadow outside groups’ activities in regularly scheduled midterms in 2014.

    Congressional races in even the sleepiest states or districts could attract unprecedented attention from moneyed national entities that have little inherent connection to locals and primarily care about picking up (or defending) a critical seat for their party or pressing a particular special interest, which in other contests might include guns or energy and environmental issues.

    The D.C.-based Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has so far spent the most during the South Carolina special election, hitting Sanford with more than $458,000 in negative advertising. It has used Great American Media of D.C. and Adelstein | Liston LLC of Illinois to produce its ads, disclosures show.

    Democratic super PAC House Majority PAC, meanwhile, has spent nearly $426,000 on broadcasts, direct mail and online ads denouncing Sanford. The super PAC, which is based in D.C., has exclusively used D.C.-based firms to do so: Waterfront Strategies, The Strategy Group, Ralston Lapp Media and Rising Tide Interactive.

    Independent Women’s Voice, a conservative 501(c)(4) nonprofit group based in the nation’s capital, has proved to be Sanford’s strongest outside advocate, slamming Colbert Busch with more than $145,000 in broadcast ads, flyers and telephone calls, according to federal records.

    Its contractors include Victory Media Group of Illinois, Antietam Communications of Georgia, Creative Associates LLC of Wisconsin and Kasey Kirby of Washington, D.C. And it’s particularly significant since the National Republican Congressional Committee, the DCCC’s GOP counterpart, decided against spending money in the race.

    Other D.C.-based outside groups that have made independent expenditures leading up to today’s vote include FreedomWorks Inc. (pro-Sanford), Environmental Majority (pro-Colbert Busch), National Right to Life Political Action Committee (pro-Sanford), National Right to Life Victory Fund (pro-Sanford) and the Votevets.org Action Fund (pro-Colbert Busch).

    The Columbia, S.C.-based South Forward IE PAC is the lone outside group not from D.C. to advertise for or against the candidates, spending about $20,200 on television and online ads, as well as door hangers, to oppose Sanford’s candidacy. Its contractors are all from outside of South Carolina.

    The Amalgamated Transit Union used a South Carolina firm — Harbinger Publications — to produce its $5,000 worth of pro-Colbert Busch flyers, but the union itself is based in D.C.

    It’s possible that outside political groups could spend close to, or as much as the candidates themselves during the race.

    As of April 17, Colbert Busch had spent about $942,000, federal records show, while Sanford had spent about $626,000, including money he spent winning the GOP nomination. But Sanford entered the home stretch with slightly more cash on hand (more than $284,000) than Colbert Busch (more than $254,000).

    The candidates' spending figures will assuredly have increased by the time post-election disclosures are filed with the Federal Election Commission. Unlike outside political expenditures, which are filed in real time, candidates’ expenditures are not.

    Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch and Republican Mark Sanford are facing off against each other in a special congressional election in South Carolina.Dave Levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/dave-levinthalhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/05/07/12624/colbert-busch-backed-dc-based-groups

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    The chief of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response branch was relieved of his duties after being arrested last weekend on charges of sexually assaulting a woman in a Virginia parking lot. It was the latest in a series of embarrassments for the service related to sexual assaults, and came only days after the Air Force concluded its April observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

    The arrest and charging of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, 41, of Arlington, Va., for sexual battery prompted Air Force officials to relieve him of his post “pending the outcome of the case,” Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley, an Air Force spokeswoman, said Monday. Arlington County police said they arrested Krusinski after an incident at 12:35 a.m. May 5 in Crystal City, not far from the Pentagon.

    “A drunken male subject approached a female victim in a parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks,” the police report of the incident said. “The victim fought the suspect off as he attempted to touch her again and alerted police.”

    Krusinski was released later in the day after posting a $5,000 unsecured bond, Arlington County police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck said Monday. A picture taken by police after his arrest portrayed facial injuries. Efforts to reach him on Monday to obtain his comment were unsuccessful.

    The arrest followed other incidents that have brought unwanted publicity to the Air Force over sexual assaults and the steps taken by the service to stop it. Congress recently held hearings over how the Air Force reacted when a sexual assault victim came forward two years ago with allegations of misconduct at its Lackland training headquarters near San Antonio, Texas. Instructors were found to have sexually harassed, improperly touched or raped dozens of young female recruits and airmen in what has been called the biggest U.S. military sexual assault scandal in years.

    At a House hearing in January, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III called what happened at Lackland “stunning” with “no justifiable explanation.”

    Then on Feb. 26, Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin sparked controversy by overturning a lieutenant colonel’s conviction by courts martial of aggravated sexual assault of a civilian contractor near Aviano Air Base in Italy. Members of Congress angrily criticized the three-star general’s action and called for changes in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which allows a commanding officer “the absolute power to disapprove the findings . . . and sentences” stemming from a military court proceeding. The case also prompted a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in March on sexual assaults in the military.

    Responding to lawmakers, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel urged Congress last month to eliminate a commander's power to overturn a court martial, except for certain minor offenses, and require a written explanation for any adjustments in sentences.

    At the January hearing, General Welsh said the Air Force had received nearly 800 reports of sexual assault last year – a nearly 30 percent increase over the previous year – even as it worked to curb misconduct.

    "The Air Force goal for sexual assault is not simply to lower the number. The goal is zero," he said. "It's the only acceptable objective. The impact on every victim, their family, their friends [and] the other people in their unit is heart-wrenching, and attacking this cancer is a full-time job, and we are giving it our full attention."


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    In a district much more Republican than average, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford tonight survived an onslaught from allies of Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, to win a seat in Congress.

    Supporters of Colbert Busch spent nearly $1 million on advertisements criticizing the GOP's scandal-singed Sanford ahead of the special election in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Federal Election Commission filings. Most of these groups were based in Washington, D.C.

    But during the election's final week, Sanford’s allies more than achieved spending parity: They reported making $157,000 in independent expenditures that either advocated for his election or against that of Colbert Busch, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of FEC records.

    Colbert Busch’s allies reported spending about $152,000 on such independent expenditures during the race's final week.

    That 11th-hour rush of cash helped reverse what had, to that point, proven to be anemic outside support for Sanford. Super PACs, political action committees and nonprofit groups overall spent less than $200,000 on ads that expressly advocated for Sanford's election or Colbert Busch's defeat.

    Sanford-aligned groups included FreedomWorks, Independent Women’s Voice and the National Right to Life Committee.

    Some pro-Sanford ads made the argument that a vote for Colbert Busch equated to a "vote for Nancy Pelosi," the highest ranking House Democrat who hails from San Francisco.

    The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the deep-pocketed super PAC known as House Majority PAC, which backs House Democrats, accounted for the bulk of spending on Colbert Busch's behalf.

    The DCCC alone reported spending about $460,000 on anti-Sanford independent expenditures while House Majority PAC spent about $430,000 on negative ads, federal disclosures indicate.

    The DCCC's Republican counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee, decided against supporting Sanford — he cheated on his now-former wife while serving as governor and this week faces charges he trespassed in her house — with financial resources.

    Colbert Busch's campaign committee itself raised more than $1.1 million as April 17, according to federal campaign finance records.

    Sanford, for his part, had raised about $788,000 as of April 17, including money he spent winning a crowded GOP primary and subsequent primary runoff.

    Both those figures will assuredly increase when the campaigns release final financial reports next month.

    The vacancy in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District arose when Republican Rep. Tim Scott was tapped by Gov. Nikki Haley to fill Republican Sen. Jim DeMint’s seat after he resigned to lead the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C.

    Sanford first served in Congress from 1995 to 2001.

     

     

    Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch and Republican Mark Sanford are facing off against each other in a special congressional election in South Carolina.Michael Beckelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/michael-beckelhttp://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/05/07/12633/negative-ad-blitz-cant-stop-mark-sanford-sc

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    In 2010, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention released results from the first-ever nationally representative survey of youth confined in juvenile justice facilities. This Survey of Youth in Residential Placement (SYRP) offered a treasure trove of information about the mental health and substance abuse problems faced by confined youth and the treatment provided to them

    However, because interviews were conducted back in 2003, the SYRP findings beg the question: What changes have occurred since 2003 in mental health care for confined youth?

    Unfortunately, few national data on the breadth or quality of mental health treatment in juvenile facilities have become available since 2003.  Yet there is no doubt that awareness of mental health needs among delinquent youth has grown substantially, and there are many signs that services have improved.

    Carefully constructed mental health screening and assessment tools, once rare, are now used routinely in juvenile detention and correctional facilities nationwide. And either voluntarily or in response to conditions of confinement lawsuits, many states have hired additional mental health professionals and substantially expanded counseling and treatment inside their juvenile facilities. 

    “I think that [state facilities] are better equipped to work with the mental health population today,” says Ned Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, a membership organization for state youth corrections agency heads. “States are using the results of the screening and assessments to build treatment plans,” Loughran says. “Is it perfect? No, it’s not perfect. But it’s far better than it was 10 or 15 years ago.”

    However, experts caution that serious gaps remain in treatment for youth in confinement. Front-line workers in many facilities are not trained to understand or respond appropriately to young people with mental health problems, they say. And widespread reports of violence and maltreatment in juvenile facilities suggest that many confined youth continue to be housed in unhealthy environments that are likely to exacerbate their underlying mental health conditions.

    Recognition of the Mental Health Challenge in Juvenile Justice

    Twenty years ago, a national study on mental health in our nation’s juvenile justice systems yielded an alarming conclusion: “For the most part, current mechanisms and instruments for systematically screening and evaluating these youth are nonexistent and current treatment approaches are ineffective.”

    “We still know very little about the mental health needs of youth who are involved in the juvenile justice system,” found the 1992 study, published by the National Coalition for the Mentally Ill in the Criminal Justice System. In addition, the study said, “The services now typically available in the juvenile justice system -- when any services are provided -- bear little resemblance to what either common sense or empirical research suggests is likely to be effective.”

    In the late 1990s, however, the mental health needs of young people in the delinquency system began to garner more attention. When the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA) first surveyed state youth corrections agencies about their mental health treatment efforts in 2004, 34 of the 40 states answering the survey had already adopted standardized screening procedures for youth admitted to correctional facilities. Most of these states (23 of 34) employed the Massachusetts Youth Screening Instrument (or MAYSI) – a 15-minute, 53-item questionnaire that can be conducted by front-line staff without counseling credentials to identify young people with signs of mental illness.

    However, few states were following best practice in 2004 when it came to in-depth assessments for youth who did demonstrate mental health symptoms. As the 2004 CJCA report stated, “a normed, age-appropriate and validated mental health assessment should be completed by a trained and qualified mental health professional” for all youth with elevated risks for mental illness. Yet most states were assessing youth informally, CJCA found, concluding that, “mental health assessments in juvenile facilities are variable and not usually based on scientifically-sound instruments.”

    When CJCA asked states in 2004 what share of youth confined in their facilities was assessed as mentally ill, only 11 states provided data. Thirty-two states were unable to answer.

    More and Better Mental Health Screening

    CJCA’s most recent survey of mental health treatment in state youth corrections agencies, conducted in 2010, revealed significant progress.  By then 43 of 45 states screened all youth for mental illness, with 38 states using the MAYSI screening tool. States also reported using a wide array of validated assessment tools, often in combination -- a significant improvement over 2004. In addition, 22 states in 2010 were able to provide data on the number of youth with mental health problems -- twice as many as in 2004.

    “I think there’s an incredibly greater awareness of the fact that many of these youth have mental health issues,” says Joseph Cocozza, director of the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice (NCMHJJ).

    Less clear, however, is whether the increased awareness resulting from improved screening and assessment is resulting in better care for emotionally disturbed youth in custody.

    “What we’re worried about now is what do you do about it when you can identify it,” says Thomas Grisso, the University of Massachusetts Medical School professor who developed the MAYSI screening instrument. “How can we get resources to respond to those kids that we can identify as having needs? Ironically, now that we are identifying kids, we’re recognizing the size of the problem.”

    On the positive side, there are many indications that mental health treatment provided in juvenile facilities has become both more prevalent and more sophisticated. 

    CJCA’s most recent survey found that state youth corrections agencies employed more than 2,200 mental health professionals in 2010. While CJCA does not have hard data on mental health staffing or programming trends from previous years, Loughran says that most states have increased their mental health capacity, either by hiring staff, partnering with outside agencies, or both. 

    Virtually all state corrections agencies now offer cognitive behavioral therapy, which uses role playing and other strategies to help confined youth stay out of trouble. Studies find that this type of therapy – which teaches strategies to improve self-control, defuse tense situations and empathize with others’ feelings – reduces reoffending rates by 25 percent for juvenile and adult offenders alike. 

    Despite the expanded efforts in mental health assessment and treatment, however, reports of recurring youth-on-youth violence, routine use of solitary confinement, and excessive use of force by facility staff all remain widespread in youth corrections facilities nationwide. In 2011, an Annie E. Casey Foundation report found that 17 states have been successfully sued over conditions of confinement since 2000, and credible reports of maltreatment had emerged from public watchdog agencies or the media in five others states. Since 2011, maltreatment in correctional facilities has been documented in threeadditionalstates.

    Indeed, in many states, increases in mental health programming have resulted directly from conditions of confinement lawsuits – many of which have ended with consent decrees requiring states to take remedial action. Unfortunately, in several of these states -- including Ohio, New York, and Texas, among others -- recent reports have found continuing widespread violence or maltreatment inside state youth facilities. 

    A Need for Training

    “Most of the staff in most juvenile justice facilities do not have any background or training in mental health or behavioral health issues,” says Cocozza. “The juvenile justice system was not built to be psychiatric centers, but what’s happened over time is that many of these youth are ending up in the juvenile justice system.”

    “Some of the things that go on are, honestly, just a lack of understanding among staff,” Cocozza adds. You know, the kid is doing these things and I think he’s being a pain in the ass confronting me, when in fact it’s just a symptom of the kinds of problems the kid is having in terms of mental health.”

    In recent years, Cocozza’s organization has been working to improve training on adolescent mental health for non-clinical staff in juvenile facilities. With funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, NCMHJJ developed a train-the-trainer curriculum and delivered it to staff in the eight states participating in the Models for Change project’s Mental Health Juvenile Justice Action Network. 

    Last year, with additional funding from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, NCMHJJ issued a request for proposals to see if other states might want to participate in this training. 

    The response was overwhelming, Cocozza says, with 46 agencies in 35 different states submitting proposals. After a competitive selection process, the curriculum has now been delivered in 9 of the 10 states selected. In each, NCMHJJ has trained 40 staff, and the participating states have pledged to deliver the training themselves to workers in at least three detention or corrections facilities.

    “The staff needs to understand what it is that they’re seeing,” Cocozza says, “and how to respond in an appropriate way that both helps the kid and keeps them safe.”

    Fewer kids in state custody, more community-based treatment

    Cocozza and Loughran both argue that the behavior management challenge in youth facilities has grown more difficult in recent years as youth with less serious offending histories have been increasingly steered away from secure juvenile detention and corrections facilities.  As the Annie E. Casey Foundation documented in a recent data brief, the overall youth confinement rate fell 37 percent nationwide from 1997 to 2010.

    “Because the low-risk youths are being diverted from the deep end of the system, and a number of facilities have closed, there’s a concentration of older, more aggressive kids, and a group of kids with serious mental health problems,” Loughran says, “so a number of programs around the country are experiencing a rise in violent behavior.”

    “There needs to be improved services, better training, better access to effective services. I think … the screening is getting in place in many instances,”Cocozza adds. “So that’s the place where we’re trying to have an impact.”

     


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