Category Archives: Courts and law

Was Bob McDonnell Convicted with Tainted Testimony?

Baron von Munchausen, famous spinner of tall tales

Baron von Munchausen, famous spinner of tall tales

Jonnie Williams’ trial testimony about a critical meeting with the former governor was contradictory, implausible and sometimes incoherent. But the jury bought it anyway.

Peter G.’s skeptical response to the op-ed I co-authored with Paul Goldman and Mark Rozell is exactly what I would have expected, given the fact that we had to boil a complex argument with abundant support documentation down to 750 words. Accordingly, what follows is an expanded version of that column. However, I take the argument further than Goldman and Rozell may be comfortable taking it, so I assume sole responsibility for this piece. — JAB

In closing statements of former Governor Bob McDonnell’s August trial, lead prosecutor Michael Dry made a remarkable statement. McDonnell had flat-out denied key testimony of star witness Jonnie R. Williams, a suspected con man under federal investigation who had agreed to testify in exchange for a generous immunity agreement. Dry acknowledged that jurors might suspect that Williams had lied. But then he argued, “Who cares?” The jury could “discount everything, every single word uttered by Mr. Williams,” he said, and it wouldn’t matter. There still remained a mountain of evidence to prove the government’s case that McDonnell and his wife had used their status to obtain $138,804 in gifts and loans from Williams.

“Who cares” if Mr. Williams lied? The jurors apparently did not; they found the governor guilty on all counts, his wife on nine. But Virginians should care. When Mr. and Mrs. McDonnell are sentenced for their convictions early next year, they may well be sentenced to jail time, and the amount of time will be determined in part by the number of counts for which they were convicted. If some of those convictions were obtained from tainted testimony, they will be punished excessively and unjustly.

Virginians also should care about the lengths to which a Democratic Attorney General’s office was willing to go to win a conviction against a popular Republican governor. Prosecutors put forth as a witness a man whose narrative evolved over some ten meetings with the FBI and federal prosecutors, whose story about a key encounter with McDonnell changed within the trial itself. Indeed, law enforcement officials had every reason to question his story themselves. If they won their convictions through tainted testimony, is that really the way Virginians want the rule of law to work?

Government’s key witness

Serial entrepreneur and Star Scientific Inc. founder Jonnie Williams had been fined in the 1980s by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and he remained on the federal government’s scam radar. At Star Scientific, he peddled the promise of developing a “safer cigarette.” When that futile quest collapsed, he claimed to have discovered a miracle compound, anatabine – as big as penicillin — that potentially could fight Alzheimer’s and other diseases linked to inflammation. But he faced a steep climb to gain acceptance. Virginia’s secretary of health and human services, among others, dismissed the product as “worthless.”

Unbeknownst to the public, the First Couple was struggling financially with crushing credit card debt and underwater real estate investments in Virginia Beach. Prosecutors argued that the McDonnells engaged in a conspiracy to trade the prestige and support of the Governor’s office for Williams’ gifts and loans. The McDonnells hosted a luncheon praising Anatabloc in August of 2011 at the Governor’s Mansion. The First Lady spoke at Star investor conferences across the country.  The Governor popped Anatabloc at official meetings and helped set up meetings with state government officials.

For all the documentation the feds had gathered, however, they lacked “smoking gun” proof of a quid pro quo.  McDonnell argued that he did no more for Star Scientific than he would for any promising Virginia company. Prosecutors needed Williams to provide evidence of a tacit conspiracy to trade favors for gifts.

The first time investigators interviewed him, Williams described the McDonnells as friends. He denied trying to buy influence with his loans. He praised the Governor’s integrity. But the government ratcheted up the pressure, probing into potential insider trading transaction involving Star Scientific stock. The second time he met with investigators, they granted him “use” immunity, which prevented his testimony from being used against him. Williams then said there was a “wink and a nod” agreement to exchange gifts and favors. In a meeting shortly before the trial, the government offered “transactional” immunity that protected him from other offenses, including the insider-trading probe. His story changed yet again. This time, he said, he was never friends with Maureen and Bob McDonnell. Their dealings were business transactions, and they knew they were exchanging gifts for favors.

Accordingly, prosecutors made the following keystone charge, upon which much of the rest of the case would hinge, in its indictment:

Before agreeing to provide the requested financial assistance to the defendants, JW [Jonnie Williams] spoke directly with ROBERT MCDONNELL about the $50,000 loan. In that conversation, ROBERT MCDONNELL explained the defendant’s financial difficulties. ROBERT MCDONNELL informed JW that the rental income from the defendants’ rental property in Virginia Beach was not covering the bills for those properties. JW agreed to provide the $50,000 loan with a two-year term at 5% interest. JW also informed ROBERT MCDONNELL that loan paperwork was not necessary.

Williams later admitted in court that the deal freed him “from worrying about going to jail.” Legal experts were hard pressed to remember other instances of prosecutors granting such broad immunities in a corruption case.

Shifting story

May 2, 2011, was a key date in the prosecution’s conspiracy timeline. The prosecution alleged and the defense did not dispute that Williams and Mrs. McDonnell met at the Governor’s Mansion. Mrs. McDonnell revealed the family’s credit-card and rental-property issues to Williams, and Williams agreed to give her a $50,000 personal loan and to cover $15,000 in catering costs for daughter Cailin’s upcoming nuptials.

The other key date was May 23, 2011, the day that Williams delivered the two checks. It happened to be his wedding anniversary, and he and his wife Celeste were planning to have lunch at the Jefferson Hotel. Williams dropped by the Governor’s Mansion on the way to deliver one check for the catering company and another made out to Mrs. McDonnell. Williams and his wife stayed about an hour and fifteen minutes, he testified at one point. “We went upstairs and had a salad.”

Why, the defense asked, did he make out the $50,000 check to Maureen McDonnell? Because, he testified, that’s to whom she said to make it out to.

Federal anti-corruption law applies to elected or appointed public officials. As First Lady, Mrs. McDonnell was neither elected nor appointed. She was a private citizen. While it was wildly inappropriate in the eyes of the public for her to offer Williams her services in exchange for the $65,000, it was not illegal. To demonstrate a conspiracy that involved McDonnell, prosecutors had to show that the Governor knew about the arrangement at the time. Continue reading

FLOP! Goes Their Argument

maureen_and_bob(1)By Peter Galuszka

How confusing can we make it?

Together, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen had numerous conversations with businessman Jonnie R. Williams from 2011 until 2013 about more than $177,000 in gifts and loans. They were convicted of corruption in federal court on Sept. 4.

In an opinion piece that is breathing taking in its misrepresentation and confusion, Jim Bacon, Paul Goldman and Mark J. Rozell wrote in the Roanoke Times Sunday and on this blog that the government’s case against the McDonnells is substantially flawed because Bob McDonnell did not discuss terms on one of Williams’ loan  payments to them.

The opinion piece also says that U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder must come clean about supposedly fiddling with evidence before the McDonnells are sentenced next year. The opinion piece fails to present any hard evidence that Holder did just this.

Their argument falls apart because Bob McDonnell did most definitely discuss loans and terms with Williams on several occasions.

Here’s what Bacon, Goldman and Rozell wrote:

“Prosecutors conceded Maureen McDonnell had personally asked Williams for the loan on May 2, 2011. She promised to reciprocate by helping Star. Williams testified understanding she spoke solely for herself, not her husband. Virginia’s first lady is not a public official under federal anti-corruption laws. While disgraceful, this two-way deal did not break the law.

“The Star pitchman personally delivered a $50,000 check payable to her on May 23 when they met at the Executive Mansion. Gov. McDonnell swore he didn’t learn about the check until two weeks afterwards. The prosecution self-evidentially believed it crucial to show his knowledge prior to her accepting the money.

“During testimony, Williams said he couldn’t remember when he spoke to the governor, or even whether he had spoken by telephone or in person. But he remained adamant, saying, “I am not writing his wife any checks without him knowing about it.”

But wait, here’s Trip Gabriel in the New York Times reporting about ANOTHER loan nearly one year later.

“Mr. Dry, who has led the federal investigation for 16 months, began the timeline with Mr. McDonnell’s own notes on a legal pad from Feb. 3, 2012, when he was negotiating a loan from Mr. Williams of Star Scientific.

“That initial deal was for 50,000 shares of Star Scientific stock, at $3.15 a share, worth more than $150,000, to be paid back with the repurchase of 50,000 shares at $1.90 a share. In other words, Mr. McDonnell would have had to repay a $150,000 loan with $90,000, after he was out of office, according to his own notes.

“Five days later, an aide to Mr. McDonnell sent an email saying Ms. McDonnell and the governor “were going over the list last night for the health care industry event.” The email indicated that both wanted Mr. Williams and his company at the event, where they could mix with university researchers in Virginia.

“On Feb. 9, Ms. McDonnell emailed her husband about potential clinical trials at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University. “Here’s the info from Jonnie. He has calls into VCU, UVA and no one will return his calls,” she wrote.

“On Feb. 10, Ms. McDonnell emailed Jasen Eige, the governor’s senior policy adviser and lawyer, saying, “Gov wants to know why nothing has developed with studies.” Mr. McDonnell said he wanted no such thing.

“At 12:02 a.m., Feb. 17, Mr. McDonnell emailed Mr. Eige: “please see me about Anatabloc issues at VCU and UVA.” Four minutes later, the lawyer responded, “will do,” and added, “We need to be careful with this issue.”

“On Feb. 18, Mr. McDonnell personally emailed Mr. Williams to resume loan negotiations.

“Then on Feb. 29, Mr. McDonnell and Mr. Williams held a private meeting ostensibly on the health care leaders’ meeting that night. But the subject was the loan, which was growing more favorable. Mr. Williams offered 52,000 shares of Star Scientific, valued that day at $3.75 — a $187,000 offer, to be repaid with 50,000 shares repurchased at $2.20 a share, or $110,000.

“That night, less than five hours later, Mr. Williams was back at the Governor’s Mansion for the health care leaders’ meeting.

“Mr. McDonnell said the terms of the loan were of no consequence, since ultimately the stock loan fell through and he took $50,000 in cash for his real estate company, known as MoBo.

“Mr. Dry, if you are suggesting I got a $50,000 loan for MoBo in order to get Mr. Williams’ calls returned, you’re completely off base,” a prickly Mr. McDonnell snapped at one point.”

Hmm. Let’s see. We have one loan in 2011 apparently without Bob and another in 2012 with Bob (not to mention the golf bag, Ferrari, vacations, golf jackets, and so forth.)

The three authors have made a serious error by cherry picking one of several loans involving the McDonnells and Williams and making, forgive the pun, a federal case out of it. Flop goes their argument.

Did McDonnell Prosecutors Knowingly Use Tainted Testimony?

mcdonnellPublished this morning in the Roanoke Times:

By Paul Goldman, James Bacon and Mark J. Rozell

Did Democratic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sanction using tainted trial testimony against Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell? In closing argument, the prosecution said jurors could “discount everything, every single word uttered by” Star Scientific founder Jonnie R. Williams and still find the McDonnells guilty of public corruption. Yet Williams had been the government’s chief witness and sole accuser. He spent nearly a week on the witness stand. Determining “who is most believable about the interactions between the governor and Williams” had been called the key to the case.

The Virginia native had appeared on Uncle Sam’s scam radar since the 1980s, after the Securities and Exchange Commission investigated false claims by an earlier Williams company. When Williams met Gov. McDonnell, he hawked “Anatabloc,” a nutritional supplement based on a curative “discovery” touted as more important than penicillin. The indictment charged Williams had given $138,804 in gifts and loans in exchange for the governor’s agreement to help Star promote the product.

Williams initially defended the First Couple but testified against them pursuant to a rare immunity deal shielding him from prosecution for crimes not related to the McDonnell case. Prosecutors promised jurors he would be completely truthful.

Indictment paragraph 28 remained key to the government’s corruption conspiracy timeline:

“Before agreeing to provide the requested financial assistance to the defendants, JW [Jonnie Williams] spoke directly with ROBERT MCDONNELL about the $50,000 loan . . . ROBERT MCDONNELL informed JW that the rental income from the defendants’ rental property in Virginia Beach was not covering the bills for those properties. JW agreed to provide the $50,000 loan . . . .”

Prosecutors conceded Maureen McDonnell had personally asked Williams for the loan on May 2, 2011. She promised to reciprocate by helping Star. Williams testified understanding she spoke solely for herself, not her husband. Virginia’s first lady is not a public official under federal anti-corruption laws. While disgraceful, this two-way deal did not break the law.

The Star pitchman personally delivered a $50,000 check payable to her on May 23 when they met at the Executive Mansion. Gov. McDonnell swore he didn’t learn about the check until two weeks afterwards. The prosecution self-evidentially believed it crucial to show his knowledge prior to her accepting the money.

During testimony, Williams said he couldn’t remember when he spoke to the governor, or even whether he had spoken by telephone or in person. But he remained adamant, saying, “I am not writing his wife any checks without him knowing about it.”

The prosecution trumpeted this “evidence,” declaring, “What does this tell you about who the loan was really to?”

But his testimony crumbled. During cross-examination, defense counsel asked Williams:

Question: “Before those checks were cut, between the 2nd of May and the 23rd of May, you never talked to Bob McDonnell about those checks, did you?”

Answer: “No.”

He then insisted the conversation occurred while delivering the checks on May 23.

Prosecutors proffered no corroborating phone record or eyewitness account. Furthermore, while Williams claimed the governor said he needed the money to keep his Virginia Beach rental properties afloat, Maureen McDonnell put the $50,000 in her account and used most of the sum to purchase Star Scientific stock, not to cover beach property expenses.

In closing argument, the prosecution told jurors, “Who cares?” whether Williams might have lied since the government had “more evidence than necessary” to convict. Read more.

Goldman is a Richmond lawyer and Democratic Party activist. Bacon publishes the Bacons Rebellion blog covering public policy issues in Virginia. Rozell is Acting Dean of the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University.

Sticking it to the Chinese

factory manBy Peter Galuszka

This  is a review of “Factory Man,” a book about the Virginia furniture business and dealing with the inequities of Chinese trade by Beth Macy (Little Brown, 451 pages). This was first published in the October 2014 Bulletin of the Overseas Press Club of America in New York of which I am a member.

The hills around Danville Va. are blessed with some of the finest hardwoods around such as oak, hickory and cherry trees. It is those trees, and the people who work with them, that have made for one of the more vicious global trade wars in recent history.

They also represent one of the few trade victories American industry has had, according to Beth Macy, a Roanoke Times reporter who has written a lively and deeply reported book about Vaughan Bassett, a local firm that is now the largest American furniture maker. Boss John D. Bassett (“JBIII”) refused to succumb to an onslaught of cheap Chinese labor and government subsidies that helped shutter 63,300 U.S. factories and five million jobs from 2001 to 2012. By standing up to Beijing, he saved his company and 700 jobs.

Macy’s first book is of value to anyone who covers global trade issues. She punctures the conceit, held by many journalists in the New York-Washington axis, that globalization is a great and inevitable thing. I heard this constantly at BusinessWeek where I worked as an editor and bureau chief in the 1980s and 1990s.

What’s lost in the laud of so-called “free” trade is what happens to the people who lose. Their secure employment turned overnight into a new world of Medicaid, food stamps and family strife.

Big Journalism doesn’t seem to care much. “Even globalization guru Tom Freidman, writing in “The World Is Flat,” briefly acknowledges the agony caused by offshoring.” But she notes that it’s easy for him to say since Friedman, “lives in an 11,400 square foot house with his heiress wife” in Bethesda, Md., a “cushy” Washington suburb five hours by car from the turmoil farther south.

For years, Bassett and its sister factories were part of a network of Southern-style company towns with their own issues, such as paying African-American workers half of what whites got. By the 1970s, U.S. furniture quality and productivity were slipping. A Taiwanese chemist discovered how to make rubber trees useful for furniture after they stopped producing latex, giving rise to an expanded Asian export furniture business.

Chinese industrialists took over. They visited U.S. factories, where, according to Macy, naïve executives handed over their production secrets. In short order, cheap Chinese knockoffs were stealing market share from the Americans. A Chinese executive named He Yun Feng bluntly suggested to JBIII that he shut his plants and hand his business over. Proud JBIII didn’t turn tail. Instead, he shored up his production and cut costs while preserving as many jobs as he could. He also bucked his reluctant industry and challenged the Chinese for dumping and manipulating their currency to give them unfair trade advantages.

“The last thing they wanted to hear was that China may have been breaking the law.” Macy quotes JBIII as saying. That’s the nut of Macy’s excellent book. A tighter edit, especially in the early history of the Basset family, might have helped, but her story is powerful and well told.

OPC member Galuszka lives in the Richmond, Va. area and is author of “Thunder on the Mountain; Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal” St. Martin’s Press, 2012.

Why Virginia Has No Renewable Energy

offshore wind By Peter Galuszka

For all the hew and cry over renewable energy sources and the “War on Coal,” it is extremely interesting to see just how much progress Virginia has made with renewable energy. The answer: hardly any to none.

A moment of clarity came when I was perusing blog postings by IvyMain, a D.C. area lawyer and Virginia Sierra Club activist who is quite often ahead of the curve on energy issues.

She posted a table of how Virginia compares with neighboring states in development of solar and wind power.

Leading her list is West Virginia with 583 megawatts of wind power. Next is North Carolina with 335 megawatts of solar power. Maryland is almost equally split between solar and wind with 262 megawatts.

And Virginia? A whopping 18 megawatts of solar and zip-o wind.

The State Corporation Commission has written against proposal EPA regs limiting carbon emissions saying it would shut down too many coal-fired plants. Solar and wind could make up some of it, but the SCC claims that “there is still zero probability that wind and solar resources can be developed in the time and on a scale necessary to accommodate the zero-carbon generations levels needed” to help meet the EPA’s carbon emission goals by 2030. Even more curious, the SCC used EPA figures that Virginia has 351 megawatts of renewable power. Hmmm.

One can almost see a clever and duplicitous scheme here. One reason why Virginia’s neighbors have remarkably more renewable power than Virginia is that they have mandatory renewable portfolio standards. In Maryland, 20 percent of all electricity generated must come from renewable sources by 2020. In North Carolina, it is 12.5 percent by 2021 and in coal-rich West Virginia, it is 25% renewable by 2025.

Virginia’s “voluntary” goal is 12 percent by 2022. Why so little and voluntary? Easy. Dominion Virginia Power has a legal deal going where it has a “monopoly” on electricity distribution and according to IvyMain cracks down wherever possible on independent solar generation. She notes that Dominion squelched a solar project at Washington & Lee University a few years ago and has attacked similar plans. After preventing renewable power from developing, Dominion and its allies can then say we must keep big, traditional  facilities (nuclear, natural gas and coal-fired) going because there’s so little available on the renewable front.

Dominion, of course, is a huge political contributor. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Dominion and Dominion Resources combined are the No. 1 corporate donors in this state. They gave about $1,042,580 this year. The No. 3 corporate donor is Alpha Natural Resources, a major coal company based in Bristol that gave $218,874.

Conservative commentators regularly pin the EPA’s flexible but stricter rules on a so-called “War on Coal” led by President Barack Obama. Yet, Virginia is a small coal producer compared to West Virginia, which is presumably ground zero in the fight against the Black Diamonds. So, how come West Virginia, the No. 2 coal state, has mandatory renewable standards and leads the pack in renewable energy?

The answer is that West Virginia’ leadership knows that its coal days are numbered and this started long before Obama came to power. The Mountain state has plenty of, well, mountains that can be great foundations for wind. So, too, does Virginia – the exact same mountain ranges in fact. But that doesn’t seem to matter. One noted right-winger blogged about the supposed “War on Coal” and then tried to preempt responses that broadened the reasons for coal’s demise:

“No lectures about the coal industry, please. I understand that the current woes of the coal industry stem in large measure from coal’s loss of competitiveness to natural gas as a fuel and to cyclical movements in the market for metallurgical coal (used by the steel industry). However, the Appalachian coal industry still produces a lot of steam coal for power plants, and the EPA rules would destroy much of that market. Clearly, the EPA rules, which are not yet in effect, have not yet destroyed a single coal-mining job. Come back to me in 2020 and it will be a very different story.”

Today’s New York Times has a story about political races in West Virginia where coal and Obama are naturally issues. The story contains this revealing passage:

“The coal industry’s long decline is economically complex. When Alpha Natural Resources, one of West Virginia’s largest coal operators, warned 1,100 employees of potential layoffs in July, it blamed a worldwide glut of coal, competition from cheaper natural gas, and lower-cost coal from western basis – as well as Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

“But in the charged political arena, complexities fade and both sides identify a sole culprit for the industry’s struggles: the administration’s anti-coal regulations.”

So there you have it. In Virginia, rules are set up to prevent renewables from being established while political types and their conservative blogger handmaidens beat the drum against the EPA and Obama.

Brat’s Strange Immigrant-Bashing

BratBy Peter Galuszka

It must have been an interesting scene. Congressional candidate David Brat had been invited to a meeting of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce along with his Democratic rival Jack Trammell to outline his views on immigration and undocumented aliens.

Brat, an obscure economics professor who nailed powerhouse Eric Cantor in a Republican primary for the 7th Congressional District in June, danced around the topic, according to a news account.

It took several attempts to get him off his spiel on just how wonderful free market capitalism is to actually address the issue at hand. Before him were a couple dozen business executives, many of them Hispanic.

They, naturally, were interested in Brat’s views because of his over-the-top Latino-baiting during the primary campaign. One of Brat’s ads trumpeted: “There are 20 million Americans who can’t find a full time job. But Eric Cantor wants to give corporations another 20 million foreign workers to hire instead.”

Finally, Brat claimed, “I have never said I’m against legal immigration.” He later said, “nations that function under the rule of law do well.” Brat also said he wants to “secure” the U.S. border with Mexico. Trammell said he supports the DREAM Act that could provide a path to U.S. citizenship for some of the 11 million undocumented aliens in this country.

Brat’s immigrant-baiting and his “rule of law” smacks of a lot of ugliness in American history. “Know–Nothings” of white Anglo Saxons beat and harassed Catholic immigrants, primarily from Ireland. Chinese were harassed on the West Coast and Japanese-Americans were locked up in concentration camps during World War II. Jewish newcomers were met with restrictive covenants and college quotas.

In Richmond during the 1920s, efforts by Catholic Italian-Americans to build a monument to Christopher Columbus were fought by the Ku Klux Klan, which insisted that any such statue not dirty-up Monument Avenue and its parade of Confederate generals. Columbus had to go elsewhere in the city.

There’s a new twist and judging from Brat’s behavior on Tuesday. He seems uneasy by getting so out front on immigrant-bashing. He’s not the only Republican to take such strident stands. Look at New Hampshire, where Scott P. Brown, a Republican, faces Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, in a closely-watched race for the U.S. Senate.

Groups backing Brown, such as John Bolton, the surly former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, have run anti-Shaheen ads showing throngs of people clambering over a border just before showing Islamic militants beheading James Foley, a journalist and New Hampshire native, according to the New York Times. The ad was pulled after the Foley family complained, the Times says.

A major coincidence is that the Times‘ description of New Hampshire almost matches that of Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. Neither seems a hot bed of immigrant strife and threats.

The Granite State has one of the smallest populations of illegal immigrants in the country, the Times says. Of the state’s 1.3 million residents, only 5 percent are foreign-born and 3 percent are Hispanic.

The Virginia district has a population of 757,917 of whom 12.7 percent are foreign born and 4.9 percent are Hispanic. Most of the residents, 74.3 percent are white.

The district runs from the largely white and well-off western Richmond suburbs in Henrico and Chesterfield Counties and scoots northwest across mostly rural farmland to east of Charlottesville and up to Madison. With only 7.6 percent of the people living below the poverty level, it isn’t exactly a barrio of Los Angeles.

It is hard to imagine hordes of brown-skinned people swarming from up Mexico or Central America displacing the managerial executives, small business people and farmers in the Seventh. People that Brat seems to be worried about are employed in other nearby areas, such as the poultry plants of the Shenandoah Valley. But those workers are there because of local labor shortages. One wonders where Brat gets his ideas that illegal immigrants are going to steal true-blue American jobs in his district.

Last June during the primary, there was plenty of news about thousands of young Hispanic children coming across the southern border from Central America. At the time, there were estimates that up to 90,000 such children might come illegally into the U.S. this year. Many are fleeing gang violence in their homelands.

This is apparently what Brat is running against – a bunch of poor, 12-year-old Nicaraguans out to steal jobs and provide cover for Islamic terrorists. Their plight is a serious issue, but it is a humanitarian one. Brat chose to make it an odd classroom lesson in economics. He says the U.S. should not put up “green lights” and “incentivizing children from other countries to come here illegally and at their own peril.”

The news from the border seems to have calmed down since June. Brat may have found that now it is likely he’s going to Washington, playing the Hispanic-baiting card may not work as well on the national scene as it apparently did in his mostly-white district. It could be why he was hemming and hawing so much before the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Illegal immigrant Ayn Rand

Illegal immigrant Ayn Rand

Perhaps other Republican politicians are having the same epiphany. As the New York Times writes: “Republicans have long relied on illegal immigration to rally the conservative base, even if the threat seemed more theoretical than tangible in most of the country. But in several of this year’s midterm Senate campaigns — including Arkansas and Kansas, as well as New Hampshire — Republicans’ stance on immigration is posing difficult questions about what the party wants to be in the longer term.”

There’s another strange contradiction with Brat. He’s a former divinity student interested in probing how unfettered free market capitalism can magically make the right choices for the betterment of mankind.

He draws a lot of his thinking from Ayn Rand, the famous thinker, refugee from the Bolsheviks and backer of her own brand of anti-government capitalism.

It may interest Brat that by today’s standards, Rand would have been an illegal immigrant.

When Big Data Turns Bad

Big Brother is listening

Big Brother is listening

How the heck did this happen? From Wired magazine: Five police agencies in Hampton Roads have been compiling a massive database of telephone records under the aegis of the Hampton Roads Telephone Analysis Sharing Network. The localities include Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Chesapeake and Suffolk. Writes Wired:

The effort is being led in part by the Peninsula Narcotics Enforcement Task Force, which is responsible for a “telephone analysis room” in the city of Hampton, where the database is maintained.

The unusual and secretive database contains telecom customer subscriber information; records about individual phone calls, such as the numbers dialed, the time the calls were made and their duration; as well as the contents of seized mobile devices. The information is collected and shared among police agencies to enhance analysis and law enforcement intelligence.

Rob Poggenklass, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia said:

The database runs afoul of a privacy law in Virginia known as the Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act, designed to curb the overcollection and misuse of digital personal information by state and local agencies.

He points to an interpretation of that law issued last year by Virginia’s attorney general in reference to controversial automated license-plate readers that police departments nationwide have adopted enthusiastically in recent years.

Maybe there’s an innocent explanation for this. Maybe it marks a scary expansion of police power. One way or the other, we need a full airing of what’s going on.

–JAB

More Coal Industry Propaganda

coal woman By Peter Galuszka

If you read a blog posting just below this (the one with the coal miner with an intense look on his grit-covered face), you will see how hyperbole, confusion, misunderstanding, ignorance and one-sided arguments twist something very important to all Virginians – how to deal with carbon dioxide and climate change – into a swamp of disinformation..

The news is that the State Corporation Commission has responded to the federal government’s proposed rules that carbon emissions be cut 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 by complaining that it would cost ratepayers up to $6 billion.

This is because Virginia utilities may have to shut down 2,851 megawatts worth of electrical generation with only 351 megawatts (at present) of “unreliable” wind power to replace it.

The image one gets from the presentation of the blog post is that it is “The EPA’s War on Virginia” with the haggard-looking miner thrown in, we are given the impression that it is more of the “War on Coal” that the coal industry has been promoting in recent years to blunt much-needed mine safety laws and moves to police highly destructive mountaintop removal practices.

The author does not address any of this. But since he’s handing us the “War on Coal” propaganda line, let’s take his arguments apart. This won’t take too long.

  • The author fails to note part of the Richmond Times Dispatch story upon which he bases his opinions. There is a very important comment: “It appears the staff has misread the rule,” said Cale Jaffe, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Virginia office. “Analyses that we have reviewed show that Virginia is already 80 percent of the way to meeting Virginia’s carbon pollution target under the Clean Power Plan. “Almost all of those reductions are coming from coal plant retirements and natural gas conversions that the utilities put in place long before the Clean Power Plan was even released,” Jaffe said.
  • That said, let’s take a look at coal-fired plants in the state which are the biggest carbon offenders. For starters let’s look at Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest utility. It has already converted three coal-fired plants – Altavista, Southampton and Bremo Bluff – to biomass. The 50-plus-year-old Yorktown plant (335 megawatts) is due to retire in 2015. Another aging plant – Chesapeake (609) megawatts — is also due to retire by 2015. The point here is that these plants are being closed because Dominion realizes that it is just too hard to keep 50 or 60 year plants operating efficiently and cheaply. It would be like keeping that 1960 Corvair because you don’t want to put oil workers out of work.
  • Dominion’s biggest problem and the biggest single air polluter in the state is the Chesterfield station with 1380 megawatts. Yes, it does need more controls. Then there’s Clover (882 megawatts) and Mecklenburg (138 megawatts). That brings us up to 2400 megawatts that might need upgrades. Let’s see. The two nuclear units at North Anna put out a little more than 1,700 megawatts just so we get some scale here. Dominon also has Virginia City (585 megawatts) which just opened, uses coal and biomass and has advanced fluidized bed burning methods.
  • Out west, Appalachian Power has 705 megawatts at Clinch River and 430 megawatts at Glen Lyn. Two of those three units there were built in (my God!) 1944 so I guess the blog author wants to keep those great granddaddies running to save miners’ jobs. Actually they are so unneeded that they have been on extended startups.Besides these Cogentrix has a couple small, modern plants in Portsmouth and Hopewell.
  • One reason there so little renewable generation (6 percent) is that the utilities do not have mandatory renewable portfolio standards to force them into wind and solar, etc. Virginia’s neighbors do.

All of this gets back to Jaffe’s point that the blog author so easily ignores. A lot of the carbon cuts are going to come from plants that are aging and are going to be closed anyway.

The SCC may complain about the $6 billion but guess what, you beleaguered electricity users? If Dominion puts a third nuke at North Anna, that’s easily $10 billion. Is that going to raise rates sky high? Where’s the outcry? It’s almost double what helping save the planet from carbon dioxide will cost.

The blog author’s hyperbole about the poor coal industry shows his ignorance of the topic. Virginia’s rather small coal industry (No. 12 in production) reached its peak in 1991. Natural gas has displaced a lot of expensive coal. Gas prices would have to triple to make Central Appalachian coal competitive again. There’s lots of metallurgical coal for steel, but the Asian economic slump has dropped prices maybe 60 percent.

I won’t comment on the author’s lame and misunderstood point about climate change not happening.

The blog author may want to blame that on Obama and the EPA but that would be almost as ridiculous as his blog post. I decline to name him because I don’t want to embarrass him.

“The Icy Elegance of Arthur Ashe”

Arthur-Ashe-2 By Peter Galuszka

 Arthur Ashe is one of the finest athletes Virginia ever produced and is well known for his work in social and social justice. There have been been many books written about him, including his autobiography, but here’s one of the latest, written by a professor at Georgia Southern University. Here’s a book review I did for Style Weekly:

The Life magazine cover photo from Sept. 20, 1968, nails it.

In traditional tennis whites contrasting against his dark skin stands a lean, intense, Richmond-born athlete at the net clutching a tennis racket. The headline reads: “He topped the tennis world. The Icy Elegance of Arthur Ashe.”

Ashe was all that and more. He spent his childhood hitting the ball about segregated Brook Field Park in Richmond’s North Side and endured decades of racism at home and abroad. By 1968, he was using his vicious backhand and killer serve — 26 aces in one match — to become the first black player to win the U.S. Open. It was just one rung on a marvelous tennis career in a sport that had been almost completely closed to members of his race.

Ashe was anything but conventional. His father, Arthur Sr., was a strict disciplinarian who taught him courtesy and responsibility. As a gentlemanly young player in the 1950s, he quietly endured insults from the likes of the Country Club of Virginia, where he was unwelcome to play in city tournaments. He ended up working the all-black American Tennis Association circuit before finally escaping Richmond’s racism to St. Louis and then the University of California at Los Angeles, where he emerged as a top U.S. Davis Cup team member.

Along the way, he slowly developed a sense of social justice that burned in him until his death in 1993 from AIDS, which he acquired in a blood transfusion during heart surgery. Ashe’s rise as an activist against racism is well documented in Eric Allen Hall’s new book, “Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era,” (Johns Hopkins University Press). It should be of special interest locally, with Ashe’s statue standing in marked contrast just down Monument Avenue from the Confederate generals.

To read more, click here:

Good Ruling on Congressional Redistricting

The 3rd Congressional District

The 3rd Congressional District

 By Peter Galuszka

A panel of federal judges in Richmond has scrambled the carefully laid plans of legislators, most of them Republicans, to pack African-American voters into one congressional district to give the GOP an advantage in some of the  state’s 10 other districts.

The panel of U.S. District Court judges decreed that the General Assembly’s 2012 decision to draw new boundaries in the 3rd Congressional District stretching from Richmond east to several Tidewater cities was in error.

The state has until next April to redraw the 3rd District, now represented by U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, a Democrat who is the state’s only African American congressman.

That will undoubtedly impact other districts represented by white Republicans including U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes of the 4th District, U.S. Rep. Scott Ringell of the 2nd District and Robert J. Whitman of the 1st District.

This is indeed an interesting start to what could end up being a messy line of dominoes falling. And it shows just how wrongheaded politicians are when they tinker with voters by race by packing people of color in one district so races in other ones will be decidedly less competitive.

It also raises other questions about ways the GOP is doing its best to minimize the influence of young and non-white voters through the use of voter identification cards and other means.

To get an idea of how nuts the 3rd District is, look at a map. Moving west to east, it goes through eastern Richmond and Henrico County, swoops down the James River peninsula, and hop-scotches parts of the 1st District to include heavily African-American parts of Newport News and Hampton. Then, the District crosses Hampton Roads to include heavily black parts of Norfolk and Portsmouth and then heads west again to take also-black parts of counties on the south shore of the James River.

Scott is Virginia's only African-American Congressman

Scott is Virginia’s only African-American Congressman

This scheme packs African-Americans into one unit while mostly-white parts of Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Chesapeake and Williamsburg are covered in the 1st, 2nd and 4th Districts, all represented by white Republicans. Mostly-black Petersburg, a city of 32,000, was taken out of the 4th District and put in Scott’s 3rd District, giving white Republican Forbes of the 4th District an advantage.

Democrats such as State Sen. Mamie Locke have long complained about schemes that hop-scotch geography to give white candidates an advantage. They want tighter, more contiguous districts.

One can tell just how serious this is when Del. William Howell, the Republican House Speaker, had nothing to say about the court’s decision. He will have to somehow help navigate drawing up new district plans.

He’s really under the gun. He can’t just set up a road block as he did with Medicaid expansion and tell Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe where to stick it. If Howell shuns a bipartisan effort, then McAuliffe would likely veto whatever he and his colleagues come up with. Then it would go back to the judges to decide.

It is in Virginia’s interest to make sure all of its districts and not just ones for Congress are shaped to allow for more competitive races. Very few elections for state positions are contested. This, in turn, ruins bipartisan consensus and makes the primaries, usually for Republicans, more consequential than the races themselves. The results are either legislative gridlock or laws that have little to do with the wishes of many voters.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is what Mother Jones magazine has identified as a large-scale, national effort, mostly by Republicans, to make it harder for minorities and young people to vote. They tend to vote Democratic and helped Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008 and in 2012.

Since 2012, 22 states have passed new voting restriction laws that shorten voting hours or require a government-issued identification card or proof of citizenship. North Carolina has perhaps the worst of such measures. There are shorter hours and no more same-day registration to vote. It even gives the nod to “poll watchers” who can stand around outside polling places and hassle voters about their eligibility to vote. I guess that means if you look black or Hispanic or youthful, you get rousted by vigilantes. The odd part is that states, including Virginia, went for more restriction when there wasn’t much evidence of voter fraud.

To be sure, Virginia’s redistricting efforts were begun by federal initiatives such as the Voting Rights Act which gave Bobby Scott an opportunity to win as an African-American in the early 1990s. The Voting Rights Act was meant to ensure that minorities were represented but that concept has been cynically morphed into a Frankenstein that keeps minorities “packed” in a district or districts so whites maintain their hold on most of the other districts in a state.

The court’s decision is most welcome. Let’s hope it grows into a movement to return democratic competition and ends undemocratic restrictions like demanding extra and unnecessary pieces of identification for qualified voters.