Category Archives: Legal

Sexual Harassment and Accountability: Al Franken vs. Roy Moore

Two politicians, on polar opposites of the spectrum, were disgraced with charges of sexual harassment this month.

First, we had Roy Moore, the brash, Bible-thumping, Supreme Court-ignoring former Alabama chief justice. Before five women came forward with stories of being molested by Moore in their teens, he was poised to beat Democrat Doug Jones in the race to fill the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Second, enter Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who was accused of molesting Los Angeles-based KABC radio anchor Leeann Tweeden during a 2006 USO tour, two years before he was elected to the Senate. In her statement, Tweeden recalled the former “Saturday Night Live” comedian had written some sketches as part of the show, including a scene where the two kiss.

On the day of the show Franken and I were alone backstage going over our lines one last time. He said to me, “We need to rehearse the kiss.” I laughed and ignored him. Then he said it again. I said something like, ‘Relax Al, this isn’t SNL … we don’t need to rehearse the kiss.’

He continued to insist, and I was beginning to get uncomfortable.

He repeated that actors really need to rehearse everything and that we must practice the kiss. I said ‘OK’ so he would stop badgering me. We did the line leading up to the kiss and then he came at me, put his hand on the back of my head, mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth.

I immediately pushed him away with both of my hands against his chest and told him if he ever did that to me again I wouldn’t be so nice about it the next time.

I walked away. All I could think about was getting to a bathroom as fast as possible to rinse the taste of him out of my mouth.

I felt disgusted and violated.

In addition to Franken’s behavior backstage, he took a photo during the flight home, smiling at the camera with his hands over Tweeden’s chest while she slept. His response to her accusations was immediate, issuing an apology and assuming responsibility for his actions:

The first thing I want to do is apologize: to Leeann, to everyone else who was part of that tour, to everyone who has worked for me, to everyone I represent, and to everyone who counts on me to be an ally and supporter and champion of women. There’s more I want to say, but the first and most important thing—and if it’s the only thing you care to hear, that’s fine—is: I’m sorry.

I respect women. I don’t respect men who don’t. And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed.

But I want to say something else, too. Over the last few months, all of us—including and especially men who respect women—have been forced to take a good, hard look at our own actions and think (perhaps, shamefully, for the first time) about how those actions have affected women.

For instance, that picture. I don’t know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn’t matter. There’s no excuse. I look at it now and I feel disgusted with myself. It isn’t funny. It’s completely inappropriate. It’s obvious how Leeann would feel violated by that picture. And, what’s more, I can see how millions of other women would feel violated by it—women who have had similar experiences in their own lives, women who fear having those experiences, women who look up to me, women who have counted on me.

Coming from the world of comedy, I’ve told and written a lot of jokes that I once thought were funny but later came to realize were just plain offensive. But the intentions behind my actions aren’t the point at all. It’s the impact these jokes had on others that matters. And I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come to terms with that.

While I don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit as Leeann does, I understand why we need to listen to and believe women’s experiences.

I am asking that an ethics investigation be undertaken, and I will gladly cooperate.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did just that, calling for an ethics investigation.

As with all credible allegations of sexual harassment or assault, I believe the Ethics Committee should review the matter. I hope the Democratic leaders will join me on this. Regardless of party, harassment and assault are completely unacceptable—in the workplace or anywhere else.

Al Franken was among the Democrats who joined him. The first to condemn him was embattled Republican candidate Roy Moore, who responded via Twitter.

 

Al Franken admits guilt after photographic evidence of his abuse surfaces.

Mitch: “Let’s investigate.”

In Alabama, ZERO evidence, allegations 100% rejected.

Mitch: “Moore must quit immediately or be expelled.”

President Trump, who has remained silent on the accusations leveled against Moore, was quick to comment on Franken’s case through Sarah Huckabee Sanders, with the spokesperson telling reporters the Senate ethics probe is the “appropriate action.”

These events come on the heels of a bipartisan effort this week to reform the way sexual harassment is treated on Capitol Hill. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., unveiled separate bills addressing the complaint process and boosting transparency. The actions came a day after Speier (who revealed her own #MeToo story in October) testified in congressional hearings Tuesday on the subject following last week’s passage of a Senate measure calling for more sexual harassment training.

Speier said:

I have had numerous meetings with phone calls with staffers, both present and former, women and men who have been subjected to this inexcusable and often illegal behavior. In fact, there are two members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, right now, who … have engaged in sexual harassment.

These harasser propositions such as, ‘are you going to be a good girl,’ to perpetrators exposing their genitals, to victims having their private parts grabbed on the House floor. All they ask as staff members is to be able to work in a hostile-free work environment. They want the system fixed, and the perpetrators held accountable.

Speier went on to note that Congress paid out $15 million of taxpayer money in harassment settlements over more than a decade with guilty parties remaining anonymous. A member of the first House Administration Committee’s hearing to review sexual misconduct policy in the House, Barbara Comstock, R-Va., brought the point home:

There is new recognition of this problem and the need for change of a culture that looks the other way because of who the offenders are. Whether it’s Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Mark Halperin, Roger Ailes, Kevin Spacey or one of our own, it’s time to say no more.n

Now that the sexual harassment issue is public, what kind of impact will new measures and prevention training make? The hope is that the #MeToo moment is not squandered.

By Jordan Riefe/truthdig

Posted by The NON-Conformist

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Coverage of sexual harassment claims carelessly blurs lines between minor misconduct and real abuse

It is undeniably a great thing that abusers like Harvey Weinstein are finally receiving their comeuppance, however overdue it may be. But in the aftermath of Weinstein’s downfall, we’re at risk of broadening the definition of sexual harassment too widely.

There is a vast difference between genuine sexual harassment, abuse or rape — and minor misconduct, flirting or otherwise inappropriate behavior in the workplace (or anywhere else). Yet, in recent weeks, the two have been dangerously conflated.

Since the deluge of Weinstein revelations, we’ve seen other ‘scandals’ emerge whereby some man or other may or may not have flirted inappropriately without reciprocation years ago. The fact that these kinds of minor accusations are making headlines and being portrayed as sexual misconduct or outright harassment is disturbing, to say the least. Not to mention, the irresponsible conflation of the two is an injustice and an insult to women — and men — who have experienced real harassment or rape at the hands of a genuine abuser.

Trial by social media

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen so many people in my social media feeds posting #MeToo statuses that what started as an important reminder that sexual abuse is indeed far too prevalent, has lost all meaning. When you see someone posting a #MeToo status today, are you to assume they were raped or that someone sent them an inappropriate text once?

UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon resigned last week over allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior. What started out as one accusation that Fallon inappropriately touched the knee of a journalist many years ago was revealed to be a genuine pattern of inappropriate behavior (attempting to kiss one journalist and making lewd remarks to another). Fallon’s resignation is appropriate in that context — but what is fascinating is that so many people were willing to condemn him when the only piece of information we had was that he had touched a woman’s knee.

That Fallon has indeed turned out to be a bit of a pervert is beside the point. He has admitted his behavior was wrong and resigned — but others have denied allegations being made against them. Nonetheless, we’re supposed to condemn them anyway. Have we just decided to do away with the presumption of innocence, or at the very least the idea that these matters should be dealt with through lawyers and courts, not on Facebook and Twitter? Are we supposed to completely ignore the possibility that just maybe, an accusation could be false?

This kind of trial by social media is dangerous. A simple tweet can brand a person as a rapist who deserves to lose their job and have their lives utterly destroyed in an instant — on nothing more than the say-so of another person.

Sterile culture

A couple of weeks ago, Adam Sandler found himself in the firing line when he touched actress Claire Foy’s knee twice during The Graham Norton Show. Some viewers were so outraged by the contact Sandler had made with Foy’s knee that she was forced to release a statement saying she was not angry or offended by Sandler’s gesture. If this kind of behavior is classed as sexual harassment or as outrageously inappropriate as some viewers suggested, we appear to be on our way toward living in a completely sterile, robotic and puritanical world where nobody can say or do anything for fear of pious backlash from the political correctness police.

There is also an insulting, sexist and patronizing element to all of this which makes women out to be weak-minded, overly sensitive creatures who can’t even handle a sexual joke being told in their presence. Or who are so vulnerable that they simply can’t be left alone to fend for themselves. One POLITICO journalist recently suggested that a good way to limit sexual harassment would be to make closed-door meetings in the workplace a fireable offense.

Small, practical step to limit sex harassment: Make holding closed-door meetings with ANYONE a fire-able offense. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/i-dont-want-to-sit-on-your-lap-she-said-but-mark-halperin-insisted/2017/10/26/0baa883c-ba64-11e7-9e58-e6288544af98_story.html 

‘I don’t want to sit on your lap,’ she thought. But, she alleges, Mark Halperin insisted.

A star TV journalist falls from his perch amid multiple sexual harassment allegations.

It is frankly insane to think this is how to prevent sexual harassment. It is almost like saying that women are too vulnerable and weak to stand up for themselves behind a closed door — and men are too disgusting and perverted to resist harassing them when they are in a private setting. I for one would hate to work in an environment where you could get fired for closing a door, just in case someone might have harassed you.

Singer-songwriter Marian Call tweeted that all women want to live in a world where strangers and coworkers “never flirted” with them again. Well, how exactly does she know what all women want? Many a happy relationship has begun as the result of workplace flirtation or a chance meeting with a stranger. One has to wonder how Call feels about women who initiate flirtatious behavior themselves— because as shocking as it may be for some, this happens on a regular basis.

This obsession with defining every sultry glance or flirty comment as sexual harassment has got so out of hand that there are now even sexual consent apps available online to download. Yes, you are now supposed to stop in your tracks and click an “I consent” button on your phone before having sex. How romantic.

Can’t get it right

I recently witnessed an interesting discussion in an online forum. A man had asked if it was appropriate to apologize to a woman in the case of minor inappropriate behavior (making unwanted advances, flirting inappropriately, making sexist jokes, etc.) — or whether it was best to say nothing, move on and do better next time. He was attacked from every angle by women who acted like he was suggesting that men send an “oops, sorry” apology text for rape. Almost every single woman told him that an apology would be useless and inappropriate and he received a barrage of comments about how he just didn’t understand and was essentially an idiot for even posing the question.

Yet, the question was well-intentioned and coming from a man who seemingly wanted to examine his own behavior in light of recent events, and who simply wondered if an apology for very minor inappropriateness would be an excellent first step. Is that not what this is all about? Is it not a good thing that many men are thinking about this more seriously for the first time? I thought that’s what everyone wanted — but apparently not.

There is of course an expectation that both men and women will behave appropriately in the workplace. It is totally unacceptable to abuse or harass anyone or to make overt and inappropriate advances where there has been no indication they would be well-received. There is also no doubt that if someone has been made aware that his or her behavior has made someone uncomfortable in any way, the behavior should be stopped. It is also absolutely a good thing that the Weinstein scandal has made women feel more comfortable talking about cases of real, genuine abuse and harassment.

But, at the same time, we need to take a step back and think about what kind of world we want to live in. Do we want it to be one where a harmless flirtation or a sexual joke — or a social media allegation of a single inappropriate touch — can destroy your whole life and elicit comparisons with serial abusers like Harvey Weinstein?

There is no clear rulebook here, but we have to do better at distinguishing between true abuse and minor inappropriateness. To conflate the two does no one any good.

By Danielle Ryan/RT

posted by The NON-Conformist

The ‘Paradise Papers’ expose Trump’s fake populism

President Trump entered the White House on a platform of populist rage. He channeled ire against the perceived perfidy and corruption of a shadowy world of cosmopolitan elites. He labeled his opponent Hillary Clinton a “globalist” — an establishment apparatchik supposedly motivated more by her ties to wealthy concerns elsewhere than by true patriotic sentiment.

“We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism,” Trump declared in a campaign speech in 2016, setting the stage for his “America First” agenda. The message was effective, winning over voters who felt they had lost out in an age defined by globalization, free trade and powerful multinational corporations.

Fast-forward a year, though, and it’s worth asking whether Trump — a scion of metropolitan privilege and a jet-setting tycoon who has long basked in his private world of gilded excess — ever seriously believed any of his own populist screeds. Little he has done since coming to power suggests a meaningful interest in uplifting the working class or addressing widening social inequities. Indeed, much of the legislation that he and his Republican allies are seeking to push through suggests the exact opposite.

Now there’s even more evidence underscoring his administration’s flimsy commitment to the rhetoric that brought it to power. This week, we’ve been confronted by a steady drip of revelations contained in the leaked trove of documents known as the “Paradise Papers.” These are about 13.4 million files obtained in part from a Bermuda-based law firm that helped corporations and wealthy individuals set up offshore companies and accounts. In many cases, the moves allowed the firm’s clients to avoid paying taxes at home. A similarly mammoth leak last year, dubbed the “Panama Papers,” prompted, among other things, the resignations of leaders in Pakistan and Iceland.

Hundreds of journalists from 96 media organizations around the world are  sifting through the documents and following up on what leads they provide (The Washington Post is not among the publications to have reviewed these documents). That’s because the list of prominent figures implicated in these dealings is vast, ranging from the Queen of England to Irish pop-legend-turned-philanthropist Bono to a string of Russian oligarchs. They cast light on the offshore schemes of the chief financier behind the election campaign of Canada’s liberal prime minister, a big donor to Britain’s Conservatives and huge U.S. corporations such as Nike and Apple.

And, significantly, they include figures intimately connected to Trump. The most startling revelation involved Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who maintained his stake in a shipping firm called Navigator Holdings after assuming public office — and even as a Russian natural gas firm called Sibur increased its business dealings with Navigator. Sibur happens to be closely connected to Russian President Vladimir Putin: Both his son-in-law and favored judo partner are owners of the company.

“The latest document leaks raise more questions about business ties between Russia and some of the most prominent members of Trump’s Cabinet,” my colleague Carol Morello noted. “The New York Times reported that the documents include references to offshore holdings by Gary Cohn, the chief economic adviser, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. There is, however, no evidence that any of the holdings were illegal.”

“I’m not embarrassed at all,” Cohn told CNBC on Tuesday. Cohn was named in the papers as an officer of 22 business entities in Bermuda, dating back to when he was a senior Goldman Sachs executive. “This is the way that the world works.”

That is certainly true. As my colleague Rick Noack noted, the Paradise Papers may generate a media-led uproar, but the loopholes revealed in them still exist and are, in most cases, legal.

So, why does this all matter? Consider the argument of a more genuine economic populist, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.): “The major issue of our time is the rapid movement toward international oligarchy in which a handful of billionaires own and control a significant part of the global economy,” Sanders said in a statement this week. “The Paradise Papers shows how these billionaires and multinational corporations get richer by hiding their wealth and profits and avoid paying their fair share of taxes.”

That’s something the populist, antiglobalist Trump would, in theory, be upset about. But Trump has not said or tweeted a word about the leaks. The Republican tax changes being unfurled under his watch specifically benefit corporations and the superwealthy. New York Times columnist (and Nobel Prize-winning economist) Paul Krugman calculated that, if enacted, the Trump tax cuts would even yield a $700 billion windfall to wealthy foreigners who own U.S. equities.

And perhaps the greatest irony revealed in the documents is that Trump’s campaign attacks on his “globalist” opponent were themselves partially sponsored by offshore cash. According to the Guardian, the billionaire Mercer family — which funds alt-right website Breitbart and is closely linked to ultranationalist ideologue Stephen K. Bannon — “built a $60m war chest for conservative causes inside their family foundation by using an offshore investment vehicle to avoid U.S. tax.”

Hillary says things can’t change. I say they have to change. It’s a choice between Americanism and her corrupt globalism.

 

It’s not surprising, then, that Trump parrots Bannon’s divisive blood-and-soil ethno-nationalism while coming up short on his economic promises.

“Taxes are, as a noted American jurist put it, the price we pay for civilization,” noted an editorial in the Guardian, which is one of the publications scrutinizing the documents. “Voters tax themselves, among other things, for schools, roads, a health service, for welfare provision, to pay their soldiers and build a diplomatic corps. When a group at the top of society secedes and forms a globally mobile republic, able to choose which jurisdiction they wish to operate under, the public is right to ask why we allow this to happen. Why should taxes just be for the little people?”

Trump campaigned for the “forgotten people.” But he seems increasingly bound up with the “globally mobile republic” he so vehemently decried.

By Ishaan Tharoor/WashingtonPost

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Did You Catch the Huge Loophole in the GOP Tax Plan? The Rich Sure Did.

In September, shortly after the GOP released the initial framework for its so-called middle-class tax plan, multiple independent analyses revealed that millionaires would reap the greatest benefit, both as a share of the entire tax cut and as a percentage of their income.

The public narrative quickly shifted to the tax plan being a giveaway to the wealthy, and opinion polling revealed the plan was unpopular. So when House leaders unveiled formal legislation on Thursday, they made sure to highlight a provision that maintains a top rate of 39.6% for those reporting income of $1 million or more.

It’s a clever talking point that may temporarily provide political cover, but it is not a game-changer. The nation’s most affluent families tend to earn their money in different ways than the rest of us, and the House bill either creates or retains special loopholes for those types of income that dramatically water down the effect of the 39.6% rate. This is not breaking news. Tax writers are fully aware of this.

Under current law, the top tax rate on most investment income (capital gains and dividends) tops out at just 23.8%—far below the 39.6% rate applied to salaries and wages. This preference for income earned from investments over ordinary wages is the reason Warren Buffett, as he says, pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. The House tax plan leaves this loophole in place. As long as this loophole remains untouched, it will make little difference to wealthy investors whether the top ordinary income tax rate is 35%, 39.6%, or any other level because that rate will not apply to investment income. If lawmakers genuinely wanted to signal to the public that they intend to focus on the middle class, they would have closed this controversial loophole.

Instead, tax writers created more special carve-outs for the highest-income households that make the 39.6% top rate seem far less significant by comparison. Most notably, the plan eliminates the estate tax, which only the wealthiest 0.2% pay, as the first $11 million in wealth is exempt from the tax. The sole reason for repealing this tax is to shower more tax benefits on the wealthy. The legislation also dramatically reduces tax rates for corporations and other highly profitable businesses, and repeals the backstop Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), which ensures that high-income taxpayers pay at least some basic amount of tax, no matter how many loopholes their accounts helped them find. All these provisions would offer an enormous windfall to the nation’s wealthiest families, despite a 39.6% top rate being left in place for salaries and wages.

House leadership essentially has chosen to answer public concerns about inequities in our current tax system by making them much worse, but in ways that can be difficult for everyone except tax accountants and analysts to understand.

Consider the proposed top rate of 25% that would apply to most types of business profits. Business owners would pay rates of no more than 25% on their income, while their employees would still be subject to rates ranging up to 39.6%. This creates a clear inequity and special tax preference for the types of income earned by the most affluent taxpayers. Business income, which makes up around a quarter of the earnings of the nation’s millionaires, is another reason House leaders were so quick to abandon their plan to cut the top tax rate on salaries and wages: precisely the types of income that millionaires are less likely to rely upon.

There likely won’t be much outcry over the top tax rate staying at 39.6%, even among wealthy special interests who are pushing for tax reform, because they’ve already succeeded in ensuring that the House proposal will include enough loopholes to stop that top tax rate from applying most of the time.

My colleagues at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy produced an analysis of the September framework, which would have cut the top rate to 35%, and found that the share of the overall tax cut going to millionaires would have fallen by less than 2 percentage points, from 58.6% to 56.8%, if that top rate cut had been left out while the other tax cuts for the wealthy remained intact.

The unfortunate truth is that this so-called millionaires’ tax is little more than a talking point developed to assuage public concern about income inequality and a tax plan that could make it worse by substantially boosting the after-tax income of the wealthiest Americans.

By Alan Essig/Fortune

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Panic in Trumpland, but Clinton Camp Should Be Wary

It’s no longer a rumor. The first grand jury indictment drafted by Justice Department special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has been filed. As expected by many who have followed Mueller’s work since his appointment in May, Paul Manafort Jr., Donald Trump’s former presidential campaign manager, has been charged with violating federal law. Less anticipated was the indictment of one of Manafort’s business partners, Richard W. (Rick) Gates III.

The 31-page indictment, which CNN first reported Friday, was unsealed early Monday. Signed by Mueller himself, it charges Manafort and Gates with 12 counts including conspiracy against the United States, money laundering and making false statements, among other offenses, stemming from their work as political consultants on behalf of the former pro-Russian government of Ukraine.

The indictment alleges that Manafort and Gates failed to register, as required by federal law, as foreign agents of Ukraine. Manafort, specifically, is charged with laundering and failing to pay income taxes on over $18 million in payments received from Ukraine between 2008 and 2017 that he funneled through “scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships and bank accounts.” Gates is accused of laundering more than $3 million. Both are alleged to have used the laundered funds to buy goods and services and, above all, real estate in New York City, the Hamptons, Long Island, Virginia, Florida and Beverly Hills, Calif.

Manafort and Gates were arraigned Monday in federal District Court in Washington, D.C. They entered not guilty pleas and were ordered to be held under house arrest at their homes pending trial. Both have surrendered their passports. Bail was set at $10 million for Manafort and $5 million for Gates.

In another development on Monday—and one that, as far as I can discern, few saw coming—Mueller and his team disclosed that George Papadopoulos, a 30-year-old and heretofore obscure former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, had entered a guilty plea in a federal District Court in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 5 to a single count of lying to the FBI about his knowledge of, and involvement with, the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election.

The charges against Papadopoulos are set forth in a 14-page Statement of Offense, signed by Mueller. In return for the guilty plea, Papadopoulos is reportedly cooperating with Mueller on other aspects of the Russia probe.

The Manafort/Gates indictment is a body blow to the Trump administration. The Papadopoulos guilty plea is a mortal threat—one that could, conceivably, bolster an obstruction-of-justice charge against the president, leading eventually to a call for impeachment. It is also, as explained below, a potential threat to the Clinton campaign.

Even before the Manafort/Gates indictment was unsealed, Trump’s most dogged boosters were displaying signs of what can aptly be termed a collective nervous breakdown.

Leading the pack of Trumpsters gone wild was Roger Stone, the longtime GOP operative and former Trump campaign adviser, who worked as a partner with Manafort in a D.C.-based lobbying firm from 1980 to 1996. Ripping into CNN anchor Don Lemon, who had devoted part of his Friday evening program to the initial rumors of an indictment, Stone launched a Twitter tirade, calling Lemon a “covksucker” (sic) and a “dull witted arrogant partyboi” (sic). Stone’s outburst was followed by another tweet in which he defamed New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who had appeared on air with Lemon, as a “piece of shit.” As a result of his potty-mouthed harangue, Stone’s Twitter account has been suspended.

Stone was by no means alone. Sebastian Gorka, also taking to Twitter, went straight after Mueller. Shedding his phony academic persona, as if returning to his authoritarian Eastern European roots, Gorka wrote, “If this man’s team executes warrants this weekend he should stripped (sic) of his authority by @realDonaldTrump, Then HE should be investigated.”

And not to be outdone, Fox News sycophant Sean Hannity, exhibiting clear symptoms of denial (the proverbial first stage of grief), tried to spin reports of the indictment into a positive for the president, tweeting: “This has been a HORRIBLE week for Mueller, Special Counsel’s office. THIS IS ALL A DISTRACTION.”

By Sunday morning, Trump, too, was in meltdown mode, tweeting: “Never seen such Republican ANGER & UNITY as I have concerning the lack of investigation on Clinton,” referring to such vintage Clinton scandals as “the uranium to Russia deal, the 33,000 plus deleted emails, the Comey fix and so much more.” Imploring his supporters to take action, he added: “The [Democrats] are using this terrible (and bad for our country) Witch Hunt for evil politics. … There is so much GUILT by Democrats/Clinton, and now the facts are pouring out. DO SOMETHING!”

Continuing his attacks on Clinton, Trump tweeted early Monday: “Sorry, but this [referencing the acts set forth in the indictment] is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren’t Crooked Hillary & the Dems the focus?????”

Although Trump tweeted nothing about Papadopoulos, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee was quick to discredit the former campaign adviser in a Monday afternoon news conference, during which she referred to the onetime Trump aide as a mere “volunteer” who had no authority to act on behalf of the campaign. Huckabee also echoed Trump’s tweets, insisting that the Manafort/Gates indictment has nothing to do with the core allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to sway the presidential election.

Not so.

While the indictment centers on financial misfeasance by Manafort and Gates in connection with their work for Ukraine, the alleged wrongdoing continued during Manafort’s three-month tenure in 2016 as chair of the Trump campaign, right under the future president’s nose. At the very least, the decision to hire Manafort raises serious questions about Trump’s competence in vetting people brought into his inner circle. Worse, the indictment raises the possibility that either Manafort or Gates will seek to strike a plea deal with Mueller to avoid lengthy prison terms in exchange for incriminating information against others in the Trump camp regarding collusion with the Russians.

Further, and of far more significance, the statement of offense lodged against Papadopoulos strikes at the very heart of the collusion issue. The statement details that on March 14, 2016, a Russian professor with ties to the Kremlin (who is not named in the statement) contacted Papadopoulos, knowing that he would shortly be named a Trump campaign adviser. On March 24, in a meeting in London after Papadopoulos was officially brought on board the campaign, the professor introduced Papadopoulos to a Russian female, who was purported (falsely, as the statement also reveals) to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s niece and said she had connections to senior Russian government officials.

In late April, the professor told Papadopoulos that he and the Russian female had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” Thereafter, and continuing through the middle of August 2016, according to the statement, Papadopoulos corresponded and “communicated” with high-ranking Trump campaign officials, as well as the professor and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs “in an effort to arrange a meeting between the [Trump] Campaign and the Russian government.”

In a potentially explosive footnote on Page 8, the statement alleges that a Trump campaign staffer, who is not named but was included in the unfolding Papadopoulos email loop, cautioned with regard to the proposed meeting: “We need someone to communicate that DT is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”

The statement does not disclose whether the proposed meeting, or some variant of it, ever took place. What got Papadopoulos indicted was that he lied to the FBI about his dealings with the professor during an interview on Jan. 27 of this year.

So who were the high-ranking Trump campaign officials with whom Papadopoulos communicated? The finger of suspicion points, above all others, directly at Manafort.

In this regard, the infamous Steele dossier—a 35-page intelligence report prepared by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele from April to December 2016—alleges, among a litany of other sensational charges, that Manafort managed a conspiracy to exploit Russian-supplied information on Clinton with the goal of assisting Trump’s candidacy and to “sow discord both within the US itself, but more especially Within the Transatlantic alliance.”

Where, then, does Mueller’s investigation go from here, and whose head is likely to roll next? Clearly, Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son, is a candidate for his role in arranging the June meeting at the Trump Tower in Manhattan with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, for the purpose of obtaining damaging information on Clinton. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and once again, Manafort (on additional charges), who both attended the meeting, also are in Mueller’s crosshairs. And let’s not forget Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, who allegedly lied about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December about the possibility of lifting sanctions against Russia.

But while Mueller may have built strong cases against Papadopoulos for lying and Manafort and Gates for financial transgressions, the task of turning the collusion issue into an indictable offense won’t be easy. This is because collusion per se is not a federal crime.

However, it is a crime, in violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) and regulations promulgated by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), to solicit or receive any “thing of value” from a foreign national in connection with an American election. It is a matter of debate among legal commentators whether information, as opposed to cash or other tangible assets, is such a “thing of value.”

There is no federal case law directly on point that answers the question. If information, as common sense would seem to dictate, is indeed a thing of value, then Donald Jr. and perhaps even the president himself are in jeopardy of being charged with conspiracy to violate the FECA.

But so, too—and here is where the Mueller investigation could take another very ironic and unexpected turn—would be the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, and the Democratic National Committee for funding the preparation of the Steele dossier. According to a complaint filed with the FEC last week by the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center (CLC), the Clinton campaign failed to accurately disclose payments related to the Steele dossier in its FEC paperwork.

According to the CLC’s complaint, the Clinton campaign and the DNC paid over $12 million to the Washington, D.C., law firm Perkins Coie, but listed the funds as only payment for “legal services” and “legal and [election law] compliance consulting.”

The Clinton campaign and the DNC didn’t reveal to the FEC that part of that $12 million was remitted to Fusion GPS, a D.C. research and strategic intelligence firm. Fusion had initially been hired by the Washington Beacon, a conservative news outlet that opposed Trump’s nomination, to conduct anti-Trump research.

In April 2016, after ending its relationship with the Beacon when it appeared Trump would secure the GOP nomination, Fusion approached the DNC and the Clinton campaign with a proposal to work for them to defeat Trump in the general election. The Clinton camp agreed to retain Fusion, and Fusion, in turn, retained Orbis Business Intelligence, a British firm founded by Steele, to dig up dirt on Trump’s ties to Russia. The notorious dossier, based largely on Steele’s longstanding contacts with Russian sources, was the product of those efforts.

As a matter of principle, if Mueller concludes that Donald Jr. and other Trump insiders are guilty of conspiring to violate federal election laws by colluding with Russia to obtain damaging information about Clinton, he also may be compelled to conclude that officials from the Clinton campaign and the DNC are similarly guilty for colluding with Steele, Orbis and their Russian sources to obtain compromising information about Trump. It shouldn’t matter that Steele is a friendly foreign national, while Putin and the Kremlin are seen by many as archenemies. Equality under the law—a time-honored principle that Mueller is duty-bound to respect—should demand nothing less.

By Bill Blum/truthdig

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Dissecting the legislature’s effort to rig the state judiciary

To the Republicans who run the N.C. General Assembly, the concept of judicial independence – central to our bedrock American principle of checks and balances and to the rule of law – must seem as alien as the one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people-eater of vintage Top 40 radio.

Yes, it must be a strange concept indeed. Or as the old song remarks, “What a sight to see!”

But in reality, it’s not strange at all. Consider this straightforward pronouncement in the state constitution: “The legislative, executive, and supreme judicial powers of the State government shall be forever separate and distinct from each other.”

Each of the three branches of government, according to that tried-and-true model, has its own duties and prerogatives, not to be encroached upon. Yet that hasn’t stopped the legislature from pushing to turn the state judiciary into a partisan cheering section where laws making life even more difficult for the disadvantaged get rubber-stamped – all to further the conservative Republican agenda and maintain the party’s grip on power.

The goal of various bills changing the way judges are chosen – that goal being to boost the chances of Republican candidates – is just as transparent as the reason GOP chiefs have rammed the bills through. Understandably, their efforts to lock in Republican gains through gerrymandering, voter suppression and attacks on the powers of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper have met with resistance from some judges on constitutional grounds.

Most of that resistance has come at the federal level. But the state Supreme Court, where Democrats have a narrow majority, stands as another potential roadblock. So now the motto of Republican legislators seems to be: If you want to dispense justice in North Carolina, or what passes for justice, you’d better be on our team.

Come one, come all

Cooper on October 9 vetoed a bill that’s likely to have a dramatic impact on the next round of judicial elections. “If the legislature doesn’t like the fact that judges are ruling many of their laws unconstitutional, they should change their ways instead of their judges,” the governor said. The response was along the lines of “Oh, dry up!” as the veto was overridden in a special session on October 16-17.

Senate Bill 656 cancels primary elections for judgeships that would have been held next spring. Instead, voters will choose judges during the general election in November, 2018. Based on past experience, those races will turn into crowded, confusing, expensive free-for-alls. Anyone who meets the statutory qualifications to serve as a judge and who can pay the filing fee will be able to get on the ballot.

Why should this benefit Republicans? For one reason, in statewide races for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, Republican candidates favored by the party’s power-brokers generally have been in a better position than their Democratic opponents to attract the kind of money – much of it channeled through shadowy interest groups — needed to run effectively.

A well-funded Republican might have the inside track in raising his or her profile among a pack of contenders battling to get their names and records known. And under the new law, the election winner would simply be the person who emerged from the scrum with the most votes – even if that share was in the range, say, of 20 percent. How’s that for a ringing endorsement from the electorate that builds confidence in the courts?

Republican judicial candidates in fact have been so successful that legislators earlier this year decided to make every race for a judgeship partisan, with party labels included on the ballot. The exception to the rule had been the Supreme Court, but look what happened last fall. Mike Morgan, a Democrat, defeated veteran Republican Justice Bob Edmunds – probably helped by the fact that in another quirk, Morgan’s name was listed first. That gave the Democrats a one-seat edge on the high court. For now.

Lines of influence

S.B. 656’s backers say they’ve cancelled the judicial primary elections that would have been held next spring because they’re in the process of redrawing the boundaries of judicial districts, which poses uncertainty for would-be candidates. While some population adjustments may have been called for, the proposed redistricting is widely seen as a way to put more Republicans on the bench at the trial court level. As if Republican ideology needs to color rulings in every criminal trial, every alimony case, every landlord-tenant dispute.

Even so, justices on the seven-member Supreme Court and judges of the 12-member Court of Appeals (downsized from 15 by the legislature in hopes of strengthening the GOP’s margin of control) are elected statewide, not by districts. So primaries for spots on those courts could have proceeded on schedule – except that wouldn’t serve the Republicans’ purposes.

Nor have we seen the last of this kind of partisan meddling with the courts. S.B. 698, filed during the just-completed special session by Southport Republican Bill Rabon, powerful chair of the Senate Rules Committee, calls for a constitutional amendment squeezing the terms of all judges down to just two years.

In other words, to serve on the bench, a judge would virtually have to adopt another identity as a full-time politician – campaigning, raising money, looking over his or her shoulder at how decisions might become political liabilities.

Two and out?

The proposed amendment, if approved by voters in a referendum, also would set the terms of judges elected prior to next July 1 to expire at the end of next year. So Justice Morgan, to pick a prime example, would be out of a job less than two years after he was elected. Terms now are eight years for all judicial seats except in District Court, where judges hearing lower-level cases are elected for four years.

Rabon wasn’t sharing the rationale for his bill. But his House counterpart, Rep. David Lewis of Dunn, may have spilled the beans.

As reported by N.C. Policy Watch, Lewis said the thinking “would be if you’re going to act like a legislator, perhaps you should run like one.” In other words, Rabon & Co. think uppity judges are making policy decisions, not just interpreting the law, when they uphold constitutional challenges to Republican power-grabs. So put them on a two-year cycle and jerk a knot in them.

Another theory is that Rabon’s bill will pressure judges to acquiesce to a scheme whereby judicial elections were scrapped in favor of appointments. Of course, appointment of judges always has been a better approach, at least conceptually. It allows for careful vetting of candidates and makes the process less vulnerable to infusions of special-interest money. Judicial elections are notorious for how little voters typically know about the contenders.

Still, whether appointment is preferable to election hinges on who does the appointing. The worry is that any such system developed by this General Assembly would put legislators themselves in charge. That’s a recipe for a politicized judiciary if there ever was one.

As to making judges answer to the public every two years, the model is absurd. Yes, legislators – who do serve two-year terms – are supposed to be tethered to public opinion and responsive to constituents’ concerns (although gerrymandering effectively relieves many of them of that obligation). Judges, by contrast, are supposed to run on their character, knowledge and experience – then carry out their duty to uphold the law, not looks for ways to advance party agendas.

All in all, this wide-ranging effort by legislative Republicans to dominate our judicial branch – compromising its independence and impartiality – has been more than even a purple people-eater could be expected to stomach.

By Steve Ford/NCPolicyWatch

Posted by The NON-Conformist

With a Picked Lock and a Threatened Indictment, Mueller’s Inquiry Sets a Tone

Paul J. Manafort was in bed early one morning in July when federal agents bearing a search warrant picked the lock on his front door and raided his Virginia home. They took binders stuffed with documents and copied his computer files, looking for evidence that Mr. Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, set up secret offshore bank accounts. They even photographed the expensive suits in his closet.

The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, then followed the house search with a warning: His prosecutors told Mr. Manafort they planned to indict him, said two people close to the investigation.

The moves against Mr. Manafort are just a glimpse of the aggressive tactics used by Mr. Mueller and his team of prosecutors in the four months since taking over the Justice Department’s investigation into Russia’s attempts to disrupt last year’s election, according to lawyers, witnesses and American officials who have described the approach. Dispensing with the plodding pace typical of many white-collar investigations, Mr. Mueller’s team has used what some describe as shock-and-awe tactics to intimidate witnesses and potential targets of the inquiry.

Mr. Mueller has obtained a flurry of subpoenas to compel witnesses to testify before a grand jury, lawyers and witnesses say, sometimes before his prosecutors have taken the customary first step of interviewing them. One witness was called before the grand jury less than a month after his name surfaced in news accounts. The special counsel even took the unusual step of obtaining a subpoena for one of Mr. Manafort’s former lawyers, claiming an exception to the rule that shields attorney-client discussions from scrutiny.

Full Story By SHARON LaFRANIERE, MATT APUZZO and ADAM GOLDMAN

Posted by The NON-Conformist