In the USA...United Surveillance America'This overreach is unacceptable': the case against NSA bulk collection
A growing set of people and organizations have spoken out calling for an end to the spy program. Here's what they said
Tom McCarthy in New York
theguardian.com, Thursday 23 January 2014 18.50 GMT
US intelligence chiefs NSA FBI CIA US intelligence chiefs listen in to President Obama's speech on proposed NSA reforms. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
On Thursday, the executive branch’s privacy watchdog, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, became the latest independent group to have looked into the US government practice of collecting citizens’ phone data in bulk – and to call for it to stop.
The PCLOB found that bulk collection under section 215 of the Patriot Act constituted an invasion of privacy with insufficient oversight and negligible national security benefits.
The list of people and organizations to have reached the same conclusion includes hundreds of members of Congress, a federal judge, a presidential panel, the world’s biggest technology companies, civil liberties organizations and privacy advocates, and Barack Obama himself, before he was president.
Here’s some of what they’ve said about the bulk, suspicionless collection of Americans' data:
Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board
In a 238-page report issued on Thursday, the board recommended that the program end and the database be purged:
The Section 215 bulk telephone records program lacks a viable legal foundation under Section 215, implicates constitutional concerns under the First and Fourth Amendments, raises serious threats to privacy and civil liberties as a policy matter, and has shown only limited value. As a result, the board recommends that the government end the program.
Without the current Section 215 program, the government would still be able to seek telephone calling records directly from communications providers through other existing legal authorities. The board does not recommend that the government impose data retention requirements on providers in order to facilitate any system of seeking records directly from private databases.
Once the Section 215 bulk collection program has ended, the government should purge the database of telephone records that have been collected and stored during the program’s operation, subject to limits on purging data that may arise under federal law or as a result of any pending litigation.
Review group on intelligence and communications technology
In a 308-page report delivered to the president in December, the group appointed by Obama recommended that a database of US phone records should be maintained, but not by the government:
We recommend that Congress should end such storage and transition to a system in which such metadata is held privately for the government to query when necessary for national security purposes.
In our view, the current storage by the government of bulk metadata creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty. We recognize that the government might need access to such metadata, which should be held instead either by private providers or by a private third party … Consistent with this recommendation, we endorse a broad principle for the future: as a general rule and without senior policy review, the government should not be permitted to collect and store mass, undigested, non-public personal information about US persons for the purpose of enabling future queries and data-mining for foreign intelligence purposes.
US district court judge Richard Leon
In a ruling filed on 16 December 2013, Leon called bulk telephone data collection an “arbitrary invasion” of privacy and said it likely violated the constitution.
The almost-Orwellian technology that enables the government to store and analyze the phone metadata of every telephone user in the United States is unlike anything that could have been conceived in 1979 [...]
I cannot imagine a more "indiscriminate" and "arbitrary invasion" than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval. Surely, such a program infringes on "that degree of privacy" that the Founders enshrined in the fourth amendment. Indeed, I have little doubt that the author of our constitution, James Madison, who cautioned us to beware "the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power," would be aghast.
Thus, plaintiffs have a substantial likelihood of showing that their privacy interests outweigh the government’s interest in collecting and analysing bulk telephony metadata and therefore the NSA’s bulk collection program is indeed an unreasonable search under the fourth amendment.
Senator Patrick Leahy
In a statement on 29 October, the judiciary committee chairman recommended that the program end:
Last week, the assistant to the president for homeland security and counter-terrorism, Lisa Monaco, stated that the government should only collect data “because we need it and not just because we can”. I completely agree – and that is why the government’s dragnet collection of phone records should end. The government has not made a compelling case that this program is an effective counter-terrorism tool, especially when balanced against the intrusion on Americans’ privacy. In fact, both the director and the deputy director of the NSA have testified before the judiciary committee that there is no evidence that the Section 215 phone records collection program helped to thwart dozens or even several terrorist plots.
Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner
In a June statement, the Patriot Act co-author recommended that the program end:
The scope of the NSA’s metadata program – peering into the lives of hundreds of millions of innocent Americans – is incredibly troubling. There is no legitimate explanation for tracking the numbers, locations, times and duration of the calls of every American. The collection and retention of all telephone records coming in and out of the United States is excessive and does not fall within the guidelines of Section 215. [...]
This executive overreach is unacceptable and further denigrates Americans’ trust in Washington.
A large, intrusive government – however benevolent it claims to be – is not immune from the simple truth that centralized power threatens liberty. Our government’s legitimacy rests on its accountability to the people. And Americans are increasingly weary that Washington is invading the privacy rights guaranteed to us by the Fourth Amendment.
Supporters of the USA Freedom Act
The legislation, co-authored by Leahy and Sensenbrenner, would end bulk metadata collection and set new conditions for intelligence agencies to conduct searches of US citizens. The bill has at least 120 co-sponsors in the House and 16 in the Senate.
In addition, a long and diverse list of organizations and companies support the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Rifle Association, the Project on Government Oversight, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, AOL, Google, LinkedIn and Mozilla.
205 members of Congress
On 24 July 2013, 205 members of the House of Representatives voted in favor of the Amash-Conyers amendment to end the indiscriminate collection of telephone records. It was “one of the closest votes in a long time for civil liberties”, observed national security journalist Marcy Wheeler.
The roll-call for the vote is here.
The advocacy group has sued the government to stop the bulk collection of phone data and campaigned in favor of legislation to end it. “This program not only exceeds the authority given to the government by Congress, but it violates the right of privacy protected by the fourth amendment, and the rights of free speech and association protected by the first amendment,” the group has said in a statement.
Despite the revelations, Congress and the public have yet to receive the full story about how the Patriot Act is being used to collect information on Americans. To bring greater transparency to the NSA's surveillance under the Patriot Act, the ACLU filed two motions with the secretive FISC asking it to release to the public its opinions authorizing the bulk collection of Americans' data by the NSA, and we are continuing to litigate a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that we filed in 2011 demanding the government release information about its use and interpretation of Section 215. Read about Section 215 – and other unconstitutional provisions of the Patriot Act – here.
Barack Obama: On the Senate floor in 2005, opposing Patriot Act reauthorization: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ylVOdriEyA
This is legislation that puts our own Justice Department above the law … If someone wants to know why their own government has decided to go on a fishing expedition through every personal record or private document, through the library books that you read, through the phone calls that you made, the emails that you sent, this legislation gives people no rights to appeal the need for such a search in a court of law. No judge will hear your plea. No jury will hear your case. This is just plain wrong … Giving law enforcement the tools that they need to investigate suspicious activities is one thing. And it’s the right thing. But doing it without any real oversight seriously jeopardizes the rights of all Americans, and the ideals America stands for.
*************End the Phone Data Sweeps
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
JAN. 23, 2014
Once again, a thorough and independent analysis of the government’s dragnet surveillance of Americans’ phone records has found the bulk data collection to be illegal and probably unconstitutional. Just as troubling, the program was found to be virtually useless at stopping terrorism, raising the obvious question: Why does President Obama insist on continuing a costly, legally dubious program when his own appointees repeatedly find that it doesn’t work?
In a 238-page report issued Thursday afternoon, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a five-member independent agency, called on the White House to end the phone-data collection program, for both constitutional and practical reasons. The board’s report follows a Dec. 16 ruling by Federal District Judge Richard Leon that the program was “almost certainly” unconstitutional and that the government had not identified “a single instance” in which it “actually stopped an imminent attack.”
Two days later, a panel of legal and intelligence experts convened by Mr. Obama after the disclosures by Edward Snowden echoed those conclusions in its own comprehensive report, which said the data sweep “was not essential to preventing attacks” and called for its end.
The growing agreement among those who have studied the program closely makes it imperative that the administration, along with the program’s defenders in Congress, explain why such intrusive mass surveillance is necessary at all. If Mr. Obama knows something that contradicts what he has now been told by two panels, a federal judge and multiple members of Congress, he should tell the American people now. Otherwise, he is in essence asking for their blind faith, which is precisely what he warned against during his speech last week on the future of government surveillance.
“Given the unique power of the state,” Mr. Obama said, “it is not enough for leaders to say: trust us, we won’t abuse the data we collect. For history has too many examples when that trust has been breached.”
The more likely reality is that the multiple analyses of recent weeks are correct, and that the phone-data sweeps have simply been ineffective. If they had assisted in the prevention of any terrorist attacks, it is safe to assume that we would know by now. Instead, despite repeated claims that the bulk-data collection programs had a hand in thwarting 54 terrorist plots, the privacy board members write, “we have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation.”
That reiterates the findings of Judge Leon — who noted that even behind closed doors, the government provided “no proof” of the program’s efficacy — as well as the conclusion of a report released this month by the New America Foundation that the metadata program “had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity.”
No one disputes that the threat of terrorism is real and unrelenting, or that our intelligence techniques must adapt to a rapidly changing world. It is equally clear that the dragnet collection of Americans’ phone calls is not the answer.
************US hints at Edward Snowden plea bargain to allow return from Russia
Attorney general prepared to 'engage in conversation' with NSA whistleblower but says full clemency is 'going too far'
Paul Lewis, Spencer Ackerman and Dan Roberts in Washington
The Guardian, Thursday 23 January 2014 22.31 GMT
Edward Snowden in Moscow Edward Snowden said in a live webchat on Thursday: 'Returning to the US is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself.' Photograph: AP
The attorney general, Eric Holder, has indicated that the US could allow the national security whistleblower Edward Snowden to return from Russia under negotiated terms, saying he was prepared to “engage in conversation” with him.
Holder said in an MSNBC interview that full clemency would be “going too far”, but his comments suggest that US authorities are prepared to discuss a possible plea bargain with Snowden, who is living in exile in Russia.
Snowden, who took part in a live webchat at about the same time Holder’s remarks were made public, defended his leaks, saying weak whistleblower protection laws prevented him from raising his concerns through formal channels.
“If we had ... a real process in place, and reports of wrongdoing could be taken to real, independent arbiters rather than captured officials, I might not have had to sacrifice so much to do what at this point even the president seems to agree needed to be done,” Snowden said.
He gave no indication in the live chat whether he would consider any plea bargain or negotiated return to the US. Asked under what conditions he would return to his native country, Snowden replied: "Returning to the US, I think, is the best resolution for the government, the public, and myself, but it’s unfortunately not possible in the face of current whistleblower protection laws, which through a failure in law did not cover national security contractors like myself."
The Obama administration’s official line is that Snowden is a suspected felon and should be extradited from Russia, where he has been granted temporary asylum, to face trial in the US. Snowden has yet to be publicly indicted by the Justice Department, but in June it charged him with violations of the Espionage Act.
But Holder is the third senior administration official, including the president, who has made comments that raise the question of Snowden returning to the US under some kind of negotiated terms.
Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, was repeatedly pressed on Thursday over whether the administration “ruled out” clemency for the whistleblower. “He has been charged with felonies,” Carney replied. “I am not going to wade into those kind of assessments.”
MSNBC only released short excerpts of its interview with Holder, but reported the attorney general said he “would engage in conversation” with Snowden if he accepted responsibility for leaking government secrets.
Holder also said full clemency “would be going too far”, according to the network. Asked whether Snowden was a whistleblower, he replied: “I prefer the term defendant. That’s the most apt title.”
The network said Holder made similar remarks at the University of Virginia, quoting him as saying: “We've always indicated that the notion of clemency isn't something that we were willing to consider. Instead, were he coming back to the US to enter a plea, we would engage with his lawyers. ”
Snowden has never denied leaking the documents, but insisted his decision to provide top-secret documents to reporters working for the Guardian and Washington Post was an act of conscience, designed to inform the public about the nature of NSA surveillance.
In the webchat, Snowden said he did not believe he would receive a fair trial in the US. "The 100-year-old law under which I’ve been charged, which was never intended to be used against people working in the public interest, and forbids a public interest defence," he said. "This is especially frustrating, because it means there’s no chance to have a fair trial, and no way I can come home and make my case to a jury."
Snowden’s critics have argued that he is not a legitimate whistleblower because he did not take his concerns to intelligence inspectors general or members of Congress on the intelligence oversight committees.
A former NSA contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden defended his leaks in the live chat, pointing out that intelligence-community contractors are not covered by whistleblower protection laws.
“There are so many holes in the laws, the protections they afford are so weak, and the processes for reporting they provide are so ineffective that they appear to be intended to discourage reporting of even the clearest wrongdoing,” he said.
“If I had revealed what I knew about these unconstitutional but classified programs to Congress, they could have charged me with a felony.”
The whistleblower’s supporters argue out that he would unable to mount a proper defence in a US courtroom, in part because he would be barred from discussing the classified government programs.
A judge would also be likely to instruct the jury that Snowden’s intentions would not constitute a defence of the charges against him. Some scholars have said Holder should adapt the rules to recognise the unique nature of the case.
“The Department of Justice and Snowden’s attorneys could agree to conduct it by a slightly different set of rules, rules that would permit the jury to consider the full extent of the alleged governmental wrongdoing he uncovered along with the full scope of his alleged crimes,” Alex Little, a former CIA analyst and assistant US attorney, wrote recently.
Holder’s remarks are the latest in a series of hints the administration might consider some kind of plea bargain with the former contractor. Such a move that would be deeply unpopular with intelligence officials and their supporters on Capitol Hill.
In remarks published six days ago, Obama appeared to leave the door open to some kind of arrangement with Snowden.
A 17,000-word New Yorker profile of the the president, written by the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, quoted him as saying Snowden was “not akin to Watergate or some scandal in which there were coverups involved”. He also insisted “the benefit of the debate he generated was not worth the damage done, because there was another way of doing it”.
However, in remarks to Remnick the day before he gave last week's long-awaited speech on the NSA, Obama said: “I do not have a yes/no answer on clemency for Edward Snowden. This is an active case, where charges have been brought.”
Last month, Richard Ledgett, the NSA official in charge of assessing the alleged damage caused by Snowden’s leaks, raised the possibility of an amnesty in return for assurances that top-secret material could be secured.
“My personal view is, yes, it’s worth having a conversation about,” he told CBS News. “I would need assurances that the remainder of the data could be secured, and my bar for those assurances would be very high. It would be more than just an assertion on his part.”
In Thursday’s webchat, Snowden also said a report by the government’s independent civil liberties watchdog, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, vindicated his actions. The divided board found that the bulk collection of Americans’ phone data was illegal and ought to end.
“There is simply no justification for continuing an unconstitutional policy with a 0% success rate,” Snowden said.
****************John Boehner: wine and cigarettes more important than running in 2016
Republican House speaker says he wouldn't make sacrifices for White House - including cutting the grass
Friday 24 January 2014 03.50 GMT
US House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner says he has no interest in running for the White House because he doesn't want to give up smoking, drinking – and cutting his lawn.
Boehner, who has fought a bitter battle with President Barack Obama over health reforms and spending, said on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno that he was not about to give up red wine and cigarettes to be president.
Asked by Leno whether he ever thought of running for president, Boehner replied, "No.
"I like to play golf. I like to cut my own grass," said Boehner, the top Republican in Congress.
"I do drink red wine. I smoke cigarettes. And I'm not giving that up to be president of the United States."
Boehner also told Leno he and Obama "get along fine" despite their political differences.
"But the country's gotten more partisan. So as a result the Congress has gotten more divided and there's less common ground," Boehner said.
Asked by Leno if the infighting in his own party was as bad as he had ever seen it, Boehner said, "Oh, no," before adding with a smile, 'Well, maybe it is. It's bad."
Since early 2011, Boehner has fought with conservative Tea Party Republicans in the House, mainly over deficit-reduction tactics. The government shutdown in October further frayed relations with right-wing groups.
"The funny thing about the so-called infighting is we agree on all the goals," said Boehner. "We think Obamacare is bad for the country. We think we shouldn't spend more than what we bring in. We think the president is ignoring the laws. It's all a fight over tactics. It's not over what our goals are."
**************House Republicans Kick Off 2014 By Ignoring Everything the American People Want
Friday, January, 24th, 2014, 9:16 am
When Republicans officially took control of the House in 2011, they were still promising their entire focus was job creation, and yet they began the 112th Congress attacking women’s rights, voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and fighting to preserve tax cuts for the richest Americans. Now, three years later House Republicans’ first three actions were attacking women’s rights, launching a repeal effort of another 2010 law, and passed legislation to enrich the dirty energy industry. Republicans are proving to be resistant to change and in less than three weeks they have shown Americans that they have no intention of changing and are on pace to waste another year pandering to their special interests instead of working for all Americans.
It is unquestionable that Republicans fully intend to waste taxpayer dollars doing nothing over the course of 2014 because none of the first three pieces of Republican legislation will get past the Senate or President Obama’s veto pen and they know it. However, they will make points with their campaign contributors and garner support against President Obama from two of their reliable voting blocs; fundamentalist Christians and dirty energy advocates. Remember that last year House Republicans failed to take up immigration reform, pass a farm bill, create jobs, or raise the minimum wage, and it looks like they have no intention to address those important issues this year.
The latest sign Republicans are deliberately wasting time is the party’s first attempt to repeal a law, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), approved in 2010 after a tax-avoidance scandal involving a Swiss bank. FATCA is an anti-tax dodging law targeting the filthy rich by requiring most foreign banks and investment funds to report to the IRS information about U.S. customers’ accounts worth $50,000 or more. According to Erin Donar, a Treasury Department spokeswoman, “FATCA continues to gain momentum and international support as we work with partners around the world to fight offshore tax evasion.”
Will repealing the law create even one job, contribute to GDP growth, or address the income inequality devastating the economy? Of course not, and Republicans admit the only reason for pushing the repeal effort is to “make overseas Americans far more sympathetic to Republicans and have an impact on fundraising” according to senior fellow at the Cato Institute, Daniel Mitchell. Republican Senator Rand Paul attempted to repeal FATCA last year under the guise of protecting rich tax dodgers’ privacy, but his phony “privacy issues” concern is cover for helping the rich hide their money off-shore. A Republican National Committee official from Oregon who is leading the Republican repeal effort said, “I see FATCA just like Obamacare, it will attract American overseas donors.” If the effort is successful, the only beneficiaries would be Americans in the top 1% of income earners like Willard Romney who hides their earnings offshore to avoid paying taxes. The repeal effort is another typical Republican waste of taxpayer time and money.
The first piece of legislation on the House Republican agenda was the so-called “rape audit” bill (H.R. 7) that is the ultimate expression of government overreach into business, individual Americans, and patient-doctor relationships. It is also a significant tax hike on businesses and any American with a healthcare insurance policy; it is also an assault on women. The bill taxes companies that offer health insurance plans that cover family planning, eliminates the tax deduction for health insurance if it covers family planning, redefines the term “healthcare insurance,” and forces the healthcare insurance industry to eliminate family planning coverage or pay a healthy fine. Rape audit refers to requiring a rape victim who sought an abortion to prove to an Internal Revenue Service auditor that they were “legitimately raped” to claim a deduction under healthcare expense on their tax return. Republicans like Diane Black (R-TN) said last year that the IRS has “no business accessing or monitoring Americans’ personal health information,” and Michelle Bachmann warned against granting the IRS access to people’s health-care information, while Renee Ellmers (R-NC) said “we cannot allow the IRS to have any say over our health and wellbeing.” However where women’s rights and healthcare is concerned, the Republican religious right will force, by legislation, the IRS to access, monitor, and audit women’s health and wellbeing. Will the “rape audit” bill create one job, boost GDP growth, or address income inequality decimating the economy? No, but it empowers the religious right to control when a woman starts a family and puts Republicans between a doctor and their patient.
Last Thursday Republicans passed three anti-environment bills consolidated into one to neuter the EPA’s ability to monitor, inspect, and enforce regulations that are already in place to keep the air and water clean. The Republican legislation eliminated requirements that the EPA review regulations under the Solid Waste Disposal Act, restricts the EPA from imposing regulations on states, and requires all federally owned facilities to comply with state requirements regarding dumping hazardous substances in the air and water in Republican-controlled states that have no regulations. It also requires the President to consult with Republican-controlled states for their permission to enforce federal environmental laws. The legislation will never get passed in the Senate and President Obama assured Republicans he will veto it if it did pass. The anti-environment legislation continues where the recently passed spending bill left off stripping the EPA’s power.
Republicans attached riders to the budget that strips the salary of the White House’s climate adviser, stops the EPA from implementing carbon dioxide emissions limits, and slashes funding to fight global climate change. It also requires President Obama to report to Congress in detail what, if any, government spending will go to addressing global climate change within 120 days of his 2015 budget request, and eliminates the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emission permits covering emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, water vapor and methane emissions. Will stripping the EPA’s ability to monitor pollution and enforce regulations already in place create jobs, grow GDP, or address income inequality? No, but it sends a signal to the dirty energy industry that Republicans are working to give them free rein to dump toxic chemicals into the water supply and spew carcinogens into the air so the energy sector will increase Republican campaign donations.
This session of Congress began with a plethora of issues that demanded attention to get Americans back to work and address income inequality that is retarding economic growth. There has been no House action to reinstate unemployment benefits for millions of out-of-work Americans, pass a farm bill, address immigration reform, raise the minimum wage, or restore food stamps for 48 million Americans suffering because Republicans are too busy wasting time to create jobs. Instead of addressing the issues important to Americans, Republicans attacked women’s rights, environmental protections, and a law to prevent the rich from avoiding taxes all to waste taxpayer money and time and garner greater donations for the next election. None of the Republican legislation creates one job, grows the economy, or boosts GDP growth because that is not their focus; pandering to their special interests is.
Republicans have no intention of working to help the people, or doing what the voters say is important such as immigration reform, raising the minimum wage, creating jobs through infrastructure repair, or allowing women to decide when they start their families. However, the religious right wants to control women, the dirty energy industry wants to destroy the environment for greater profits, and the richest one-percent want to avoid paying taxes, so Republicans began 2014 the same way they started the past three years; working solely for their special interests’ campaign donations and against the American people.
************Christie Scandal Grows As a Second Mayor Accuses Gov. of Hurting Citizens for Revenge
By: Jason Easley
Thursday, January, 23rd, 2014, 5:36 pm
Things are getting worse for Chris Christie by the day, as the mayor of Elizabeth, NJ has come forward to accuse the governor of closing down the state’s 4th largest DMV as an act of political revenge.
According to the Daily Mail,
Governor Chris Christie has been accused of exacting still more political revenge after his administration shut down the DMV office in a large New Jersey city three years ago – and Democratic politicians say it was because they opposed his tax policies and worked for his Election Day opponent.
‘He shut it down, plain and simple, and of course this was political,’ New Jersey state Assemblyman Joe Cryan told MailOnline of the Motor Vehicle Commission office in Elizabeth, the fourth-largest city in New Jersey. ‘This was complete retribution. … There was no other possible explanation for it.’
The closure of MVC offices in Elizabeth and two other towns came at the end of 2010, ten weeks after the governor’s office notified local officials that the decision had been made. Whispers had circulated around Trenton for months about a plan to consolidate locations, but insiders tell MailOnline that no one expected Elizabeth to be on the short list.
The decision to close his city’s MVC office, Bollwage said, came after a drawn-out legislative battle over annual increases on property tax rates.
What happened in Elizabeth is sounding a lot like what happened in Fort Lee and Hoboken. The message is clear. Anyone who opposes Chris Christie had better be prepared for the governor to misuse his power to get even. In Fort Lee, Christie caused traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge. In Hoboken, Sandy relief funds were withheld, and in Elizabeth a population that is largely poor and black lost their DMV after Democratic leaders opposed Christie’s property tax plan.
One incident can be explained away. Two incidents are a pattern. Three incidents represent intentional behavior. The more information that comes out about Christie and his administration, the harder it is to believe his, “I didn’t know nothin’ ’bout no Bridgegate excuses.” It is becoming clear that Bridgegate was just an example the way that Chris Christie operates.
Anyone who opposes Chris Christie in New Jersey faces retribution. This is not the record of a man who belongs in the White House. Heck, this isn’t the behavior of someone who is fit to be president. It is all falling apart for Chris Christie. His image is ruined. His brand is shattered, and each revelation makes it less likely that he will ever be president.
****************The FBI Launches an Investigation Into Chris Christie Withholding Sandy Relief Funds
By: Sarah Jones
Thursday, January, 23rd, 2014, 12:23 pm
The dominoes are starting to fall in the image of Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, bipartisan 2016 GOP presidential hopeful.
After Mayor Dawn Zimmer made stunning allegations on MSNBC last weekend that the Christie administration threatened to withhold Sandy Aid funds from her New Jersey town of Hoboken, U.S. Attorneys requested a Sunday meeting with her. The fact that this took place on a Sunday signified the seriousness of her allegations.
Thursday morning, NBC
reported that three sources with direct knowledge of the probe told them that the FBI has begun questioning witnesses about Zimmer’s allegations. They are investigating whether or not Christie’s Lt Governor and key aides threatened to only release the funds upon the Mayor’s approval of a development project for a Christie donor with close ties to a very influential Christie appointee. This is a separate investigation from Bridgegate.
Their sources told NBC that federal agents have already questioned Zimmer’s chief of staff, Dan Bryan, and her communications director Juan Melli, who “are among at least five witnesses who Zimmer told the FBI could confirm that she had previously told them about the conversation she says she had with Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno last May.”
The New York Times reports yet another witness who can verify that these accusations aren’t new:
A Hoboken city councilman, David Mello, said in an interview that Ms. Zimmer had also told him about the threat by Ms. Guadagno, a Republican. Mr. Mello, a Democrat, said he had been upset to hear about what he called “this quid pro quo ultimatum by the lieutenant governor.”
Ms. Guadagno had denied the allegations made by Mayor Zimmer, claiming they are illogical.
“Mayor Zimmer’s version of our conversation in May of 2013 is not only false, but is illogical and does not withstand scrutiny when all of the facts are examined.”
But even as she denied Zimmer’s allegations, evidence was already mounting to support Zimmer’s accusations, and the close ties between the developer and Christie, along with the corresponding failure to deliver but 1% of the requested Sandy Aid to a town flooded by 80% really doesn’t bode well. Furthermore, the developer in question, the Rockefeller Group, has been battling the residents who objected to what they seem to think is the developer’s attempts to get special treatment in a development project.
Remember, while Republicans try to convince the media that there’s nothing to see here because there’s no proof that Christie benefited personally or financially. Certainly some federal prosecutors agree with that assessment, as well, so there’s a lot of sound bites making the rounds this morning on that front. However, Chicago Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich was convicted for asking about a possible Cabinet post while discussing a Senate successor to Obama.
The two attorneys who both represented and prosecuted Blagojevich disagree with the assessment that this isn’t illegal, according to the North Jersey.com Ironically, the former assistant U. S. Attorney who prosecuted Blagojevich is also assisting in the NH state Legislature’s bridge investigation.
North Jersey reported:
Chicago defense attorney Sam Adam Jr., who represented former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in a corruption trial, disagreed with Hanly’s assessment.
Adam said aggressive prosecutors do not need an explicit benefit to bring a case, noting Blagojevich was convicted for asking about a possible Cabinet post in President Obama’s administration during discussions over appointing a successor to Obama in the U.S. Senate. The attorney assisting in the state Legislature’s bridge investigation, Reid Schar, is a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Blagojevich.
“It does not have to be explicit any longer,” Adam said. “You don’t have to have a conversation where someone says, we’ll give you one if you do the other.”
Illegal or not, it is definitely an abuse of power and a most egregious one at that, given the circumstances of a town full of people desperate for aid after a huge super storm. It also completely destroys any notion of Chris Christie the bipartisan Sandy Aid man of the people. Here he is, looking like a petty bully who put people’s lives at risk in the politically motivated lane closure and again, turned his back on the people suffering after Sandy hit, in order to assist a donor and high level appointee.
************Hospital Chain Said to Scheme to Inflate Bills
By JULIE CRESWELL and REED ABELSONJAN. 23, 2014
Every day the scorecards went up, where they could be seen by all of the hospital’s emergency room doctors.
Physicians hitting the target to admit at least half of the patients over 65 years old who entered the emergency department were color-coded green. The names of doctors who were close were yellow. Failing physicians were red.
The scorecards, according to one whistle-blower lawsuit, were just one of the many ways that Health Management Associates, a for-profit hospital chain based in Naples, Fla., kept tabs on an internal strategy that regulators and others say was intended to increase admissions, regardless of whether a patient needed hospital care, and pressure the doctors who worked at the hospital.
This month, the Justice Department said it had joined eight separate whistle-blower lawsuits against H.M.A. in six states. The lawsuits describe a wide-ranging strategy that is said to have relied on a mix of sophisticated software systems, financial incentives and threats in an attempt to inflate the company’s payments from Medicare and Medicaid by admitting patients like an infant whose temperature was a normal 98.7 degrees for a “fever.”
The accusations reach all the way to the former chief executive’s office, whom many of the whistle-blowers point to as driving the strategy.
For H.M.A., the timing could not be worse. Shareholders recently approved the planned $7.6 billion acquisition of the company by Community Health Systems, which will create the nation’s second-largest for-profit hospital chain by revenue, with more than 200 facilities. The deal is expected to be completed by the end of the month.
While the lawsuits against H.M.A. provide a stark look at the pressure being put on doctors and hospital executives to emphasize profits over their patients, similar accusations are being raised at other hospital and medical groups as health care in the United States undergoes sweeping changes.
Federal regulators have multiple investigations into questionable hospital admissions, procedures and billings at many hospital systems, including the country’s largest, HCA. Community Health Systems, the Franklin, Tenn., company from which H.M.A. hired its former chief executive in 2008, faces similar accusations that it inappropriately increased admissions. Community is in discussions with federal regulators over a settlement regarding some of the accusations.
The practice of medicine is moving more rapidly than ever from decision-making by individual doctors toward control by corporate interests. The transformation is being fueled by the emergence of large hospital systems that include groups of physicians employed by hospitals and others, and new technologies that closely monitor care. While the new medicine offers significant benefits, like better coordination of a patient’s treatment and measurements of quality, critics say the same technology, size and power can be used against physicians who do not meet the measures established by companies trying to maximize profits.
“It’s not a doctor in there watching those statistics — it’s the finance people,” said Janet Goldstein, a lawyer representing whistle-blowers in one of the suits, of a type known as qui tam litigation, against H.M.A.
What’s more, like their Wall Street bank counterparts, the mega-hospital systems, with billions of dollars in revenue, are more challenging to regulate, according to experts.
Still, when H.M.A. announced the Justice Department’s involvement in the lawsuits, investors and analysts shrugged, and the stocks for both companies involved in the merger barely budged.
Sheryl R. Skolnick, who follows health care for CRT Capital, recently wrote in a note to investors, “Investors seem to think that D.O.J. investigations, qui tam suits and allegations of serious Medicare fraud are simply a cost of doing business.” Many settlements run only into the tens of millions of dollars. That’s a corporate slap on the wrist for companies whose stocks typically soar when executives push the profit envelope. Only if the penalty is at least $500 million, Ms. Skolnick said, are corporations likely to find the cost a deterrent.
H.M.A. also faces shareholder lawsuits and a federal securities investigation. A former executive was indicted late last year on an obstruction charge related to these investigations.
The company said it could not comment on pending litigation, but was cooperating with the Justice Department investigation. In a statement, the company defended the quality of its medical care. “H.M.A. associates and physicians who practice at our facilities are focused on providing the highest-quality patient care in all of our hospitals,” it said.
The architect of the strategy to raise admissions, according to several of the lawsuits, brought by an array of physicians, individual hospital administrators and compliance officers, was the company’s former chief executive, Gary D. Newsome.
“Gary vigorously denies the allegations,” according to an email from his lawyer, Barry Sabin of Latham & Watkins.
Mr. Newsome joined H.M.A. in September 2008 from a high-ranking post at Community Health. He left H.M.A. last summer to head a religious mission in Uruguay. His compensation in the three years before his departure totaled $22 million.
Shortly after joining H.M.A., Mr. Newsome traveled to North Carolina to meet with local hospital officials. He informed them he was putting in place new protocols, using customized software, meant to “drive admissions” at hospitals, according to allegations in a federal suit filed by Michael Cowling, a former division vice president and chief executive of an H.M.A.-owned hospital in Mooresville, N.C.
To reach admission goals, administrators were directed to monitor on a daily basis the percentage of patients being admitted, using a customized software program called Pro-Med. The progress of the physicians in meeting their goals was updated daily on the scorecards.
When Mr. Cowling confronted Mr. Newsome with physician concerns that the new protocols were clinically inappropriate and would result in unnecessary tests and admissions, and said that his doctors “won’t do it,” Mr. Newsome responded: “Do it anyway,” according to the lawsuit.
As a result, according to a former physician who cited multiple examples, patients who did not need inpatient treatment often were admitted, which allowed the hospital to bill Medicare and Medicaid more for the care.
In Georgia, a baby whose temperature was 98.7 degrees was admitted to the hospital with “fever,” according to a lawsuit filed in federal court by Dr. Craig Brummer, a former medical director of emergency departments at two H.M.A. hospitals.
In one case, an 18-year-old Medicaid patient with a right-knee laceration was admitted, though he could have been treated and discharged, Dr. Brummer said in his lawsuit.
Executives who raised questions about H.M.A.’s policies and procedures were often fired.
When Jacqueline Meyer, a regional administrator for EmCare, a company that provided emergency room physicians to a number of H.M.A. hospitals, refused to follow H.M.A.’s directives and fire doctors who admitted fewer patients than H.M.A. wanted, she was fired, according to the lawsuit she filed with Mr. Cowling. The Justice Department has not yet decided whether to join her lawsuit against EmCare, which declined to comment.
Likewise, shortly after Ralph D. Williams, an accountant with 30 years’ experience in hospital management, was hired as the chief financial officer for an H.M.A. hospital in Monroe, Ga., he asked an outside consulting firm to review the hospital’s inpatient admission rate.
When Mr. Williams showed the report, which confirmed a higher admission rate, to a higher-level division executive, he was told to “burn it.” Mr. Williams was soon fired, according to a qui tam lawsuit Mr. Williams filed in federal court in Georgia.
The last year has been particularly tumultuous for H.M.A., starting with the announced departure of Mr. Newsome, a battle for control of the board with Glenview Capital Management, the hedge fund founded by Lawrence M. Robbins, and the announcement of the acquisition by Community Health Systems.
The merger — and the fact that Glenview controlled big blocks of stock in both H.M.A. and Community Health — recently drew fire from some critics who questioned whether shareholders knew enough about the whistle-blower lawsuits before they voted on the merger.
H.M.A. has disclosed in regulatory filings dating back almost two years that it was the subject of investigations by attorneys general in numerous states. But the shareholder vote on the merger started before the Justice Department joined the multiple lawsuits and the company disclosed that fact.
“I find it incredibly troubling that a few days after voting had started on the merger that the company announced that the Justice Department was joining a bunch of these suits,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. The union represents nurses at some of the company’s hospitals, but also trustees of teacher pension funds that own shares.
January 23, 2014, 11:00 pmFined Billions, JPMorgan Chase Will Give Dimon a Raise
By JESSICA SILVER-GREENBERG and SUSANNE CRAIG
A year after an embarrassing trading blowup led to millions of dollars being docked from Jamie Dimon’s paycheck, the chairman and chief executive of JPMorgan Chase is getting a raise.
JPMorgan’s board voted this week to increase Mr. Dimon’s annual compensation for 2013, hashing out the pay package after a series of meetings that turned heated at times, according to several executives briefed on the matter. The raise — the details were not made public on Thursday — follows a move by the board last year to slash Mr. Dimon’s compensation by half, to $11.5 million.
When it made that deep pay cut, the board was giving a stern rebuke over the fallout from the “London Whale” multibillion-dollar trading blunder. This week, directors, gathered in a conference room at the bank’s Park Avenue headquarters overlooking a snow-covered Central Park, discussed what message their next decision on the bank chieftain’s compensation would send.
The debate pitted a vocal minority of directors who wanted to keep his compensation largely flat, citing the approximately $20 billion in penalties JPMorgan has paid in the last year to federal authorities, against directors who argued that Mr. Dimon should be rewarded for his stewardship of the bank during such a difficult period. During the meetings, some board members left the conference room to pace up and down the 50th-floor corridor.
Details on the chief executive’s compensation will be disclosed in the coming days, possibly as soon as Friday.
A spokesman for the bank declined to comment.
Mr. Dimon’s defenders point to his active role in negotiating a string of government settlements that helped JPMorgan move beyond some of its biggest legal problems. He has also solidified his support among board members, according to the people briefed on the matter, by acting as a chief negotiator as JPMorgan worked out a string of banner government settlements this year.
Also under his leadership, the bank has generated strong profits and its stock price is up more than 22 percent over the last 12 months. Some board members fault what they consider to be overzealous federal prosecutors for the hefty fines, rather than Mr. Dimon or the bank, arguing that JPMorgan is being penalized for the sins of firms like Bear Stearns that it scooped up during the financial crisis.
But many of those very problems arose under Mr. Dimon’s watch, including $1 billion in fines from regulators over the trading blowup. Leaving his compensation unchanged could have sent a symbolic message of contrition to authorities.
Instead, the board’s decision to raise his pay may energize critics who have questioned whether the directors can provide an effective check on the charismatic Mr. Dimon, who is both chairman and chief executive. Some shareholders have argued for those jobs to be split to limit his power, but a proposal for such a division was handily defeated at the bank’s annual meeting last spring.
It is unlikely that Mr. Dimon will receive anything near the $23.1 million he got for 2011, when he was the highest-paid chief executive at a large bank. So far, none of the biggest Wall Street firms have released the 2013 compensation for their senior executives. Last year, Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chairman and chief executive of Goldman Sachs, took home $21 million for 2012, about double what Mr. Dimon got once the board slashed his pay. At Wells Fargo, John Stumpf, the bank’s chief executive, received $19.3 million for his work atop the country’s largest mortgage lender.
Early signs, like stock payouts, suggest that bank chief executives are headed for a pay increase this year. Morgan Stanley, for example, gave James P. Gorman, its chief executive, a stock bonus valued at approximately $5 million as part of his total compensation for 2013. That is about double the stock bonus he received a year earlier.
JPMorgan’s directors may have decided that Mr. Dimon, as his peers may, should get a raise, but to ordinary Americans — and possibly to regulators — the decision to increase his compensation may seem curious given the banner penalties that federal authorities have extracted from the bank. It is not unheard-of for chief executives to lose their jobs when their companies have been battered by regulators.
But a crucial difference is that JPMorgan’s legal travails have not threatened the bank financially. While steep legal fees did weigh on the bank’s bottom line, JPMorgan still reported annual 2013 profits of $17.9 billion. And while other bank chief executives stumbled during the financial crisis, Mr. Dimon never did, emerging from the wreckage even more powerful.
Mr. Dimon’s star has risen more recently as he took on a critical role in negotiating both the bank’s $13 billion settlement with government authorities over its sale of mortgage-backed securities in the years before the financial crisis and the $2 billion settlement over accusations that the bank turned a blind eye to signs of fraud surrounding Bernard L. Madoff.
Just hours before the Justice Department was planning to announce civil charges against JPMorgan over its sales of shaky mortgage investments in September, Mr. Dimon personally reached out to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — a move that averted a lawsuit and ultimately resulted in the brokered deal. Just a few months later, Mr. Dimon acted as an emissary again, this time, meeting with Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan leading the investigation into the Madoff Ponzi scheme.
Still, JPMorgan’s board struggled to strike the right balance in determining Mr. Dimon’s compensation, according to the people briefed on the matter. Too large a pay increase might send the wrong message to shareholders and regulators. Yet cutting Mr. Dimon’s pay would, some board members feared, alienate the chief executive.
Ultimately, those board members arguing to hold the line pay lost out, conceding that while the perception of the increase might be off-putting, the impact of cutting or keeping a lid on his pay could have more profound implications within the bank.
Mr. Dimon is also benefiting, the people say, from a view among some board members that the government’s assault on JPMorgan is driven less by the bank’s actual transgressions and more by a desire, stoked by anti-bank sentiment, to appear tough against Wall Street, the people said.
Echoing that sentiment, Mr. Dimon said during a television interview on Thursday in Davos, Switzerland, that “I think a lot of it was unfair.”