Saturday, January 20, 2018

Last Call For Here We Go Again

Yet another Republican in Congress is facing calls to resign after a sexual misconduct scandal, this time it's Republican Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, who actually is on the House Ethics Committee looking into sexual harassment scandals.

Representative Patrick Meehan, a Pennsylvania Republican who has taken a leading role in fighting sexual harassment in Congress, used thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to settle his own misconduct complaint after a former aide accused him last year of making unwanted romantic overtures to her, according to several people familiar with the settlement.

A married father of three, Mr. Meehan, 62, had long expressed interest in the personal life of the aide, who was decades younger and had regarded the congressman as a father figure, according to three people who worked with the office and four others with whom she discussed her tenure there.

But after the woman became involved in a serious relationship with someone outside the office last year, Mr. Meehan professed his romantic desires for her — first in person, and then in a handwritten letter — and he grew hostile when she did not reciprocate, the people familiar with her time in the office said.

Life in the office became untenable, so she initiated the complaint process, started working from home and ultimately left the job. She later reached a confidential agreement with Mr. Meehan’s office that included a settlement for an undisclosed amount to be paid from Mr. Meehan’s congressional office fund.
Sexual misconduct accusations against powerful men across a range of industries in recent months have prompted a national conversation about gender dynamics in the workplace, and the inadequacy of support systems for victims. In Congress, several lawmakers have left office or announced their retirements in recent months over sexual harassment claims.

Still, Congress remains a workplace where victims say they have few effective avenues for recourse.

Mr. Meehan’s case sheds new light on secretive congressional processes for handling such complaints, which advocates say are slanted to favor abusers, allowing them to use the vast resources of the federal government to intimidate, isolate and silence their victims.

Meehan has to go, of course.  But the bigger political picture means this was a disctrict the GOP definitely wanted to keep, one where Meehan won handily in 2016 but Clinton carried his district.  It's exactly the kind of race the Democrats need to win in order to take the House back.

And now Meehan just handed it to them.  Nice.

School's Out Forever

After years of the state resisting, Kentucky GOP Gov. Matt Bevin and state Republicans approved charter schools in the state last year, the last Southern state to do so.  They should have paid attention to the biggest charter school scandal in America just across the Ohio River, where the Education Classroom of Tomorrow program, ECOT, just blew up into $80 million in taxpayer fraud and thousands of students with no classes to attend on Monday.

The west side of Columbus, Ohio, is a flat expanse of one-story houses, grimy convenience stores, and dark barrooms, and William Lager, in his business wear, cut an unusual figure at the Waffle House on Wilson Road. Every day, almost without fail, he took a seat in a booth, ordered his bottomless coffee, and set to work. Some days he sat for hours, so long that he’d outlast waitress Chandra Filichia’s seven-hour shift and stay on long into the night, making plans and scribbling them down on napkins. 
The dreams on the napkins seemed impossibly grandiose: He wanted to create a school unlike anything that existed, a K-12 charter school where the learning and teaching would be done online, and which would give tens of thousands of students an alternative to traditional public schools across the state. It would offer them unheard of flexibility—a teen mom could stay with her child and study, while a kid worried about being bullied could complete lessons at home. And it would be radically cheaper than a traditional classroom, since there would be no buildings to maintain, no teachers’ unions to bargain with. At the time—the late 1990s—it was a revolutionary idea. Lager called it, in the heady days when the internet seemed to promise a solution to every problem, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. 
But back then—before Lager had his mansion and lake house, before he rose to become a hero of the school choice movement, before Jeb Bush flew in to give ECOT’s commencement speech and Betsy DeVos helped him and his cohort transform Ohio’s educational landscape—Filichia, the Waffle House waitress, could tell Lager seemed broke. Balding, round-faced, and concentrating intently as he scribbled, she even once caught him trying to pass off photocopies of discount coffee coupons. But he didn’t plan on using a Waffle House as his office forever. “One of these days I’m going to have a real big business,” she remembers him telling her, “and you can come work with me, and you won’t ever have to work anywhere else.” 
Lager kept his promise, sort of. His back-of-the-napkin vision soon became an improbable reality, and though she’d never gone to college, in 2000 Lager hired Filichia, and eventually, she says, she became one of ECOT’s registrars. In that role, the 24-year-old had a front-row seat to watch the company’s growth. As it expanded from an upstart to a juggernaut—this year it educated some 12,000 students across Ohio, and two years prior its student body was the largest in America—she began to turn on Lager, angered that the school seemed to provide some students with a sham education, functioned more like a profit center than an educational institution, and ignored its own attendance policies, a fact later corroborated by court documents. “I am a single mom, so obviously I needed money and stayed there,” Filichia told me. “But after so long, when I saw how bad these poor kids were doing, I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Yesterday, after 17 years of operation, the school came to a spectacular end, and many of Filichia’s concerns suddenly seemed prophetic. (Lager and ECOT officials did not reply to repeated requests for comment.) Despite years of critics raising similar concerns, the school’s demise happened quickly, after two Ohio Department of Education reviews from 2016 and 2017 found that ECOT had overbilled taxpayers by $80 million for thousands of students it couldn’t show were meeting the department’s enrollment standards. As a result, last summer the state ordered the school to begin paying back almost $4 million per month in school funds, which ECOT claimed it was was unable to do. Then, last week, the school’s charter sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, claiming concern that ECOT wouldn’t have the funds to last out the year, suddenly announced plans to drop the school. Many of ECOT’s 12,000 current students learned on the nightly news or read in newspapers that unless an emergency deal could be worked out, the institution was in imminent danger of folding up before the start of next semester, set to begin on January 22, leaving many parents confused and panicking, with only days to choose a new school and get their child enrolled.

The drama reached its climax yesterday. The board members of Lake Erie West held a public meeting in Toledo to vote on how they would respond to ECOT’s plea that they remain the school’s sponsor, at least temporarily. About 40 students, parents, and teachers, some of them breaking down in tears, reportedly showed up. “If this is really about our children,” one parent, Lisa Burford, pleaded, “I hope that you consider our children.” Burford explained that her daughter, who was deaf, had struggled with Toledo’s traditional schools and had been better off in ECOT’s online program, where she was scheduled to graduate in May. ECOT had been deeply troubled long before this year—it had a graduation rate of just 40%, and produced more dropouts than any other school in the nation, according to an investigation by the New York Times. But, for some, it was a school of last resort, and now that last resort was about to vanish. All three board members of Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West voted to withdraw their sponsorship of ECOT, effectively shuttering the school immediately. The decision cast doubt over whether or not Burford’s daughter, and thousands like her, would be able to graduate at all this year. But it also cast a doubt over why Lager’s troubled school had been allowed to operate so long, and why it had been given almost a billion dollars in taxpayer money that would otherwise have gone to local school districts. “A lot of these students,” Burford said, “don’t have any other choices.” 
Now, with ECOT imploding, some state politicians have floated the idea that Lager, who has made millions in profits off the school and come a long way from the Waffle House, should be personally held responsible for paying back some of the $80 million owed to the state. But while the coming days will reveal if the political will or mechanisms exist to make this happen, it’s unclear how he might ever be held accountable—because the real scandal is that ECOT grew up legally, with the support of state politicians and national GOP power brokers, and that in many ways it has served as a model for schools like it across the country. Now, the same districts ECOT pulled its funds from are scrambling to find a way to take in its former students, and Ohio is facing a reckoning, after nearly two decades when the state became one of the country’s freest laboratories for pro-charter policies. “Why did it take a generation and a half of kids to go through this crappy system for us to do something about it,” Stephen Dyer, a former Ohio state representative asked me in exasperation in December. “The reason is because a lot of money came in.”

ECOT was held up all though the 2000's as the model of charter schooling and remote learning in America, where the country was sure to be headed in primary education, where expensive teachers and school buildings would be replaced by inexpensive technology and we could educate all of the kids and it would be magical, except what happens is we take your money because we've turned your child's education into a profit center and besides, we need uneducated people to do grunt work and vote Republican.

Meanwhile on this side of the river in Bevinstan, Matt Bevin's promise not to cut education funding lasted about as long as a butterfly fart in a hurricane.

Scott County Schools Superintendent Kevin Hub estimates, after hearing Gov. Matt Bevin’s budget address Tuesday, that his district could take at least “a $10 million hit” in state budget cuts, $2.1 million of that in transportation. 
Hub is among the Kentucky school officials concerned about picking up most of the tab for student transportation. Hub said the district was already covering half of its needed transportation expenses. 
“Everybody expects us to put good, well-maintained buses with well-experienced drivers on the road, and we are not going to scrimp on those funds. We’re going to be receiving less than $1 million for a fixed expense that costs us nearly $5 million,” Hub said. 
Bevin’s budget proposal would cut about $138 million in state funds for student transportation in school districts. In his speech, Bevin said he wanted districts to make up that money by spending some of the $950 million in their reserve funds. 
“We are going to expect the local school districts to contribute to transportation more than in the past... they are not going to be funded to the same degree by the state as they have historically,” Bevin said. 
Administration officials said they wanted to focus on the classroom, so the savings came from transportation. 
The shift of costs “will be a significant concern” to many districts, especially those that are large geographically and are already financially strained, said Eric Kennedy of the Kentucky School Boards Association.

Guess who will bear the brunt of those cuts?  That's right, urban schools in Lexington and Louisville will take about half those cuts by themselves, while poor mountain districts with limited tax bases and students that depend on buses getting through winding roads will hurt too.

But considering Bevin is also cutting $112 million from the roads budget, it's going to be a grim trek for kids to get to school in Kentucky.  Or much of anywhere, for that matter.

And I guarantee you the state GOP will follow through with Bevin's cuts.  They've been wanting to do it for decades.

Immigration Elmination

The House GOP has their own DACA fix bill called the Securing America's Future Act, which is such a massively horrible immigration bill that even the Cato Institute's David Bier finds it repugnant.

By far the worst aspect of the SAF Act cuts overall legal immigration by 25 percent—some 2.6 million people per decade (pp. 5-21). Given how fiscally and economically positive the average immigrant to the United States is, this is a huge unnecessary blow to the economy. Eliminating the random diversity visa lottery is welcome, but unlike the bipartisan Senate deal—which replacesit with a merit-based system—SAF simply eliminates those green cards. Even ending the other family based categories might be worth swallowing if the bill shifted the numbers to the employment-based side. But the employment-based increase is just 55,000 compared to a reduction of more than 315,000 elsewhere. 
SAF also changes asylum law to make it more difficult for asylum seekers to apply by greatly increasing the standard of proof to apply for asylum (p. 23). I have previously written about how these changes will make it virtually impossible for asylum seekers who don’t already have attorneys waiting for them and evidence gathered to prove their claims to even apply for asylum. 
The worst enforcement provision is criminalizing simply being in the United States without status or violating any aspect of civil immigration law (p. 170). This would turn millions of unauthorized immigrants into criminals overnight. It would also criminalize legal immigrants who fail to update their addresses, carry their green card with them at all times, or otherwise abide by the million inane regulations that Congress imposes on them. Take, for example, the status provided to Dreamers in this bill. It requires them to maintain an annual income of at least 125 percent of the poverty line (p. 396). If they fall below that level for 90 days—not only are they subject to deportation again—they would be criminals. This bill literally criminalizes poverty among Dreamers. This legislation would immediately undo much of the progress that the Feds have made on criminal justice reform and reducing its prison population
Several other security provisions are also problematic. Mandatory E-Verify (p. 87) will impose massive regulatory costs on small businesses, establish a federal national identification system that includes all U.S. workers, and cause hundreds of thousands of Americans to have their jobs delayed or lost entirely due to database errors—all while having a track record of failure in every state that has tried to use it to prevent illegal employment. My detailed comments on this specific E-Verify proposal are here
Biometric exit (p. 356) is a multi-billion dollar boondoggle that would add absolutely nothing to security while imposing huge costs of travelers and intruding into Americans privacy. Increasing the number of Border Patrol agents by 25% at a time when each agent is already catching less than two crossers per month makes no sense (p. 319). Authorizing states to use the National Guard along the border on the U.S. taxpayer dime is another provenwaste of money (p. 286)—even Border Patrol says so
The bill authorizes spending of $124 billion over five years on border security alone (p. 348). The bill makes little effort to find a means to pay for this gargantuan sum. For comparison, the entire Border Patrol budget last year was $3.8 billion
Republicans are essentially asking Democrats to trade the legalization of 700,000 unauthorized immigrants for the criminalization of all others, banning 2.6 million legal immigrants over the next decade, the elimination of almost all family sponsorship preference categories and the diversity visa lottery, deporting tens of thousands of asylum seekers, huge increases in border security spending, a massive new regulatory program that applies to every employee and employer in the country (“E-Verify”), and so much else. This bill has no chance of becoming law, but it is a remarkable illustration of how far apart the parties are on this issue.

I disagree with Bier on that last part.  Republicans could make this bill law in days if they wanted to.  There's nothing stopping Mitch McConnell from ending the filibuster and passing this in the House and Senate and putting it on Trump's desk other than will.

They still might tie this thing to must-pass budget or debt bills.  Who knows at this point anymore.

But understand that Republicans want to criminalize and deport millions, maybe tens of millions.  They are looking for a way to do it, and they keep moving to put the infrastructure they will need to do it in place.

Jared, The Galleria Of Crime

The Trump money laundering empire doesn't just involve Russian money, as two stories involving Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner hit yesterday, buried under the government shutdown fight.  First, Kushner is the point man behind the Trump organization's Chinese financial ties. And once again the focus is on a foreign ambassador to the US, in this case China's chief diplomat in America, Cui Tiankai, and Rupert Murdoch's ex-wife, Wendi Deng Murdoch.

By the spring of 2017, investigators in charge of evaluating whether to give Kushner a permanent security clearance had new information to consider. U.S. intelligence agencies aggressively target Chinese government communications, including Cui’s reports to Beijing about his meetings in the United States.

According to current and former officials briefed on U.S. intelligence about Chinese communications, Chinese officials said that Cui and Kushner, in meetings to prepare for the summit at Mar-a-Lago, discussed Kushner’s business interests along with policy. Some intelligence officials became concerned that the Chinese government was seeking to use business inducements to influence Kushner’s views. The intelligence wasn’t conclusive, according to those briefed on the matter. “I never saw any indication that it was successful,” a former senior official said, of Chinese efforts to compromise Kushner. The Chinese could have mischaracterized their discussions with Kushner. But the intelligence reports triggered alarms that Chinese officials were attempting to exploit Kushner’s close relationship with the President, which could yield benefits over time. “They’re in it for the long haul,” the former official said. (A spokesman for Kushner said, “There was never a time—never—that Mr. Kushner spoke to any foreign officials, in the campaign, transition, and in the Administration, about any personal or family business. He was scrupulous in this regard.”)

In March, 2017, Bill Priestap, the F.B.I.’s chief of counterintelligence, visited the White House and briefed Kushner about the danger of foreign-influence operations, according to three officials familiar with the meeting. Priestap told Kushner that he was among the top intelligence targets worldwide, and was being targeted not only by China but by every other major intelligence service as well, including those of the Russians and the Israelis. Priestap said that foreign spy agencies could use diplomats and spies masquerading as students and journalists to collect information about him. (An F.B.I. spokesperson declined to comment.)

Priestap and Kushner discussed some of Kushner’s contacts, including Wendi Deng Murdoch, the ex-wife of Rupert Murdoch. Kushner and Ivanka Trump had known her for about a decade, and she was a regular guest at their Washington home. U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials have long speculated about Wendi Murdoch’s ties to the Chinese government. Internally, some Chinese officials spoke about her in ways that suggested they had influence over her, the former senior official, who was briefed on the intelligence, said. Other officials said that the intelligence was inconclusive.

The allegations against Wendi Murdoch are complicated by her divorce from Rupert Murdoch. On January 15th, some of the allegations were published in the Wall Street Journal, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch. (A spokesperson for Wendi Murdoch said, “The idea that she is involved in anything covert is so absurd, it could only have come from an unnamed source.” A spokesperson for Rupert Murdoch said that Murdoch does not believe Wendi is a spy.)

When Kushner was briefed by the F.B.I., he saw little cause for alarm, according to a person close to Kushner. He had no doubt that China and other countries were trying to persuade him to do things or to provide information, but he was, despite his inexperience in diplomacy and intelligence, confident in his ability to navigate these situations. After all, he told others, New York real estate is not “a baby’s business.”

Kushner thought he was smarter than the intelligence communities of both Russia and China.  Of course, he was wrong.  Not only does the FBI have Kushner in their sights, but so does Robert Mueller.  And Mueller just got a heap of new ammo to use in his fight from the Germans, who are cleaning house over at the Trumps' favorite European money laundering outfit, Deutsche Bank.

A German business magazine is reporting that Deutsche Bank, the German financial giant which is a major lender to both President Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, identified “suspicious transactions” related to Kushner family accounts, and has reported them to German banking regulators. The bank is reportedly willing to provide the information to special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s team of investigators.

Manager Magazin, a respected German business magazine, reported in its latest print edition, which hit German newsstands on Friday, that Paul Achleitner, chairman of Deutsche Bank’s board, had the bank conduct an internal investigation and the results were troubling. Those results have been turned over to the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority—Germany’s bank regulatory agency, which is commonly known as BaFin.

“Achleitner’s internal detectives were embarrassed to deliver their interim report regarding real estate tycoon [Jared] Kushner to the financial regulator BaFin,” the Manager Magazin article, translated from German, reports. “Their finding: There are indications that Donald Trump’s son-in-law or persons or companies close to him could have channeled suspicious monies through Deutsche Bank as part of their business dealings.”

The magazine did not provide additional details about the “suspicious monies”, but Manager Magazin reports that Deutsche Bank’s leadership is worried about the public relations hit the bank might take when—not if—the results of the investigation are turned over to Mueller. “But what BaFin will do about [the bank’s findings] is not the bank’s greatest concern,” the article states. “Rather, it’s the noise that US special counsel Robert Mueller (73) will make in his pursuit of Trump. For he will likely obtain this information—a giant risk to [the bank’s] reputation.”

The article also claims that the investigation into Kushner and his family business is not over, and that internal technical issues are complicating the search, adding that “Achleitner simply doesn’t have a view of the whole picture.” Deutsche Bank did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Abbe Lowell, Kushner’s personal attorney.

If the report is true, it joins a flurry of efforts to unravel the Kushners’ financial dealings with the bank. In December, a German newspaper reported that Mueller had subpoenaed documents from Deutsche Bank —a report that Trump’s attorneys pushed back on. The bank is, by far, Trump’s largest creditor, having lent him more than $300 million in recent years through it’s private bank—a division that caters to wealthy clients and is sometimes willing to make loans that the commercial banking division won’t. The Trumps and Kushners relationship to Deutsche Bank is a particularly large conflict of interest, given the bank’s history of clashing with regulators—it has made several multi-billion dollar settlements with regulators in the US and Europe for its role in the LIBOR-rigging scandal and the 2008 mortgage crisis. It continues to be under investigation for its role in a possible money-laundering scheme that helped Russians evade sanctions and move money out of that country.

In other words,  Kushner's involvement in both the money laundering side and the political influence side of the Mueller investigation is as deep as it gets.  I wonder if he'll rat out his father to save his own neck?

Ahh, but we know Steve Bannon is cooperating with Mueller, so maybe Kushner's window has closed.  We'll see.  2018 is when Mueller closes in on the biggest scandal in US history.
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