Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pelosi Made Repeated Requests for Military Aircraft, Documents Show

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly requested military aircraft to shuttle her and her colleagues and family around the country, according to a new report from a conservative watchdog group.

Representatives for Judicial Watch, which obtained e-mails and other documents from a Freedom of Information request, said the correspondence shows Pelosi has abused the system in place to accommodate congressional leaders and treated the Air Force as her "personal airline."

Pelosi's office disputed the claim, pointing to White House policy enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks allowing for the House speaker to travel to his or her congressional district via military aircraft whenever possible for security reasons. Her office said she typically uses the same kind of aircraft used by her predecessor, Dennis Hastert.

But Judicial Watch said that Pelosi was notorious for making special demands for high-end aircraft, lodging last-minute cancellations and racking up additional expenses for the military.

The e-mails showed repeated attempts by Pelosi aides to request aircraft, sometimes aggressively, and by Department of Defense officials to accommodate them.

"I think that's above and beyond what other members of Congress are doing and what is expected of our elected officials," said Jenny Small, a researcher with the group.

In one e-mail, aide Kay King complained to the military that they had not made available any aircraft the House speaker wanted for Memorial Day recess.

"It is my understanding there are NO G5s available for the House during the Memorial Day recess. This is totally unacceptable ... The Speaker will want to know where the planes are," King wrote.

In another, when told a certain type of aircraft would not be available, King wrote: "This is not good news, and we will have some very disappointed folks, as well as a very upset Speaker."

Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said the report seemed to be based on only "a few e-mails," and defended the requests for military aircraft for her colleagues as a "function of the speaker's office." Elshami said at least one of the requests in the above e-mails referenced requests made for other members.

Pelosi's office noted that the Department of Defense ultimately makes all decisions on use of military aircraft for travel, and that Pelosi is "extraordinarily appreciative" of the department's effort to accommodate Congress.

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Has Michael Steele Damaged His Credibility Beyond Repair?

By jwilkes

RNC Chairman Michael SteeleIt’s been just over a month since Michael Steele was elected Chairman of the Republican National Committee to raucous cheers from the party faithful, many of whom saw the election of the former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland as the first step toward a new day for the Grand Old Party.

After he was sworn in, Steele promised change, and undertook a media blitz of epic proportions, appearing on morning show after morning show to promote his new idea of a Republican Party filled with minorities and young people and conservatives and independents, and pretty much everyone in America except for hardcore liberal Democrats. And in the process, he’s made a string of jaw-dropping gaffes that scream “inexperienced politician,” and has thrown the entire party into tumult.

There was the appearance on D.L. Hughley’s new CNN talk show, in which he tried to connect with rapper and fellow-guest Chuck D, talking about what it was like using hip-hop music to make it out of “the projects.” Chuck D quickly replied that he’s not from the projects. Oops.

Then, on Carlos Silwa’s morning radio show, Steele sent out some “slum love” to Bobby Jindal, “the slumdog millionaire governor.”

He followed that up with a stop-in for a chat with FOX News’s Neil Cavuto, to whom Steele indicated that he’d be open to withholding party funding for 30-year Republican Senate veteran Arlen Specter’s campaign for reelection in Pennsylvania, by way of a punishment for the legislator’s support of the stimulus plan. Within a week of Steele’s comments, Specter was drawing talk of a primary battle, a contest that could end up handing the seat to Democrats. Oops again.

Then there was the disaster that took Steele from shaky to crumbled. In a moment that we still may not know just how badly will hurt Steele’s career, he proclaimed himself the “de facto leader of the Republican Party” and simultaneously called Rush Limbaugh “an entertainer,” “incendiary,” and “ugly.” That might have hurt him with a few ditto-heads, but that was a smack on the chin compared to the sledgehammer to the face of Steele’s credibility when he publicly apologized to Limbaugh- a glorified disc jockey- for questioning his role among conservatives.

Whether you’re a Steele supporter or not, you have to admit that those antics, especially the last one, were embarrassing to the party as a whole. And Steele was brought on to do just the opposite.

How many people actually know the name of the last RNC Chairman? It was Mike Duncan, a Bush loyalist who was largely installed at the RNC to hold down the fort. And just like every RNC chairman before him, Duncan kept a low profile, stayed off the cameras, and conducted business on a local scale. He spent time with state party chairmen finding out what they needed, and worked from there. That’s a far cry from Steele’ showboat style. And it’s becoming clearer whose method was better.

If Steele can’t even keep from firing torpedoes at himself and his party with what has turned out to be an enormous mouth, how can he possibly accomplish everything he claims he will. As of yet, he still hasn’t said how he plans to accomplish his lofty goals of multiculturalism and bipartisanship in the GOP. In fact, all he has said is that he’s not changing a single plank of the traditional party platform…apparently Steele thinks all those new voters will just come to him.

Michael Steele is good for Democrats. He’s all talk, no substance. And even when he is “talk,” it’s the most damaging kind of talk possible. His buffoonery is alienating the very people he’s trying to court, and leaving the typically reliable rank and file shaking their heads at the media circus their party has become. And worse, it’s created a power vacuum that has pushed the GOP closer to complete chaos.

So the question remains: how much longer will Republicans stand behind him?

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Highway robbery? Texas police seize black motorists' cash, cars

Tenaha, Texas

A Texas senator aims to rein in search-and-seizure practices like those used in Tenaha, where scores have been targeted but never charged with any crime. (San Antonio Express-News photo by Lisa Sandberg / February 6, 2009)

TENAHA, Texas— You can drive into this dusty fleck of a town near the Texas-Louisiana border if you're African-American, but you might not be able to drive out of it—at least not with your car, your cash, your jewelry or other valuables.

That's because the police here allegedly have found a way to strip motorists, many of them black, of their property without ever charging them with a crime. Instead they offer out-of-towners a grim choice: voluntarily sign over your belongings to the town, or face felony charges of money laundering or other serious crimes.

More than 140 people reluctantly accepted that deal from June 2006 to June 2008, according to court records. Among them were a black grandmother from Akron, who surrendered $4,000 in cash after Tenaha police pulled her over, and an interracial couple from Houston, who gave up more than $6,000 after police threatened to seize their children and put them into foster care, the court documents show. Neither the grandmother nor the couple were charged with any crime.

Officials in Tenaha, situated along a heavily traveled highway connecting Houston with popular gambling destinations in Louisiana, say they are engaged in a battle against drug trafficking and call the search-and-seizure practice a legitimate use of the state's asset-forfeiture law. That law permits local police agencies to keep drug money and other property used in the commission of a crime and add the proceeds to their budgets.

"We try to enforce the law here," said George Bowers, mayor of the town of 1,046 residents, where boarded-up businesses outnumber open ones and City Hall sports a broken window. "We're not doing this to raise money. That's all I'm going to say at this point."

But civil rights lawyers call Tenaha's practice something else: highway robbery. The attorneys have filed a federal class-action lawsuit to stop what they contend is an unconstitutional perversion of the law's intent, aimed primarily at blacks who have done nothing wrong.

Tenaha officials "have developed an illegal 'stop and seize' practice of targeting, stopping, detaining, searching and often seizing property from apparently non-white citizens and those traveling with non-white citizens," asserts the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Texas.

The property seizures are not just happening in Tenaha. In southern parts of Texas near the Mexican border, for example, Hispanics allege that they are being singled out.

According to a prominent state legislator, police agencies across Texas are wielding the asset-forfeiture law more aggressively to supplement their shrinking operating budgets.

"If used properly, it's a good law-enforcement tool to see that crime doesn't pay," said state Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee. "But in this instance, where people are being pulled over and their property is taken with no charges filed and no convictions, I think that's theft."

David Guillory, an attorney in Nacogdoches who filed the federal lawsuit, said he combed through Shelby County court records from 2006 to 2008 and discovered nearly 200 cases in which Tenaha police seized cash and property from motorists. In about 50 of the cases, suspects were charged with drug possession.

But in 147 others, Guillory said the court records showed, police seized cash, jewelry, cell phones and sometimes even automobiles from motorists but never found any contraband or charged them with any crime. Of those, Guillory said he managed to contact 40 of the motorists directly—and discovered all but one of them were black.

"The whole thing is disproportionately targeted toward minorities, particularly African-Americans," Guillory said. "None of these people have been charged with a crime, none were engaged in anything that looked criminal. The sole factor is that they had something that looked valuable."

In some cases, police used the fact that motorists were carrying large amounts of cash as evidence that they must have been involved in laundering drug money, even though Guillory said each of the drivers he contacted could account for where the money had come from and why they were carrying it—such as for a gambling trip to Shreveport, La., or to purchase a used car from a private seller.

Once the motorists were detained, the police and the local Shelby County district attorney quickly drew up legal papers presenting them with an option: waive their rights to their cash and property or face felony charges for crimes such as money laundering—and the prospect of having to hire a lawyer and return to Shelby County multiple times to attend court sessions to contest the charges.

The process apparently is so routine in Tenaha that Guillory discovered pre-signed and pre-notarized police affidavits with blank spaces left for an officer to describe the property being seized.

Jennifer Boatright, her husband and two young children—a mixed-race family—were traveling from Houston to visit relatives in east Texas in April 2007 when Tenaha police pulled them over, alleging that they were driving in a left-turn lane.

After searching the car, the officers discovered what Boatright said was a gift for her sister: a small, unused glass pipe made for smoking marijuana. Although they found no drugs or other contraband, the police seized $6,037 that Boatright said the family was carrying to purchase a used car—and then threatened to turn their children, ages 10 and 1, over to Child Protective Services if the couple didn't agree to sign over their right to their cash.

"It was give them the money or they were taking our kids," Boatright said. "They suggested that we never bring it up again. We figured we better give them our cash and get the hell out of there."

Several months later, after Boatright and her husband contacted an attorney, Tenaha officials returned their money but offered no explanation or apology. The couple remain plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.

Except for Tenaha's mayor, none of the defendants in the lawsuit, including Shelby County District Atty. Linda Russell and two Tenaha police officers, responded to requests from the Tribune for comment about their search-and-seizure practices. Lawyers for the defendants also declined to comment, as did several of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

But Whitmire says he doesn't need to await the suit's outcome to try to fix what he regards as a statewide problem. On Monday he introduced a bill in the state Legislature that would require police to go before a judge before attempting to seize property under the asset-forfeiture law—and ultimately Whitmire hopes to tighten the law further so that law-enforcement officials will be allowed to seize property only after a suspect is charged and convicted in a court.

"The law has gotten away from what was intended, which was to take the profits of a bad guy's crime spree and use it for additional crime-fighting," Whitmire said. "Now it's largely being used to pay police salaries—and it's being abused because you don't even have to be a bad guy to lose your property."

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McCain: 'I don't want him to fail'


After a losing presidential campaign in 2000, John McCain came back to the Senate and established himself as a force no White House could ignore. Eight years later, he’s home from defeat again, facing a very different landscape dominated by President Barack Obama and the collapsing American economy.

From Afghanistan and Iraq to military procurement reform, McCain tells POLITICO he is already working with Obama. Last week alone, he had breakfast with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, appeared with the president at a White House press event and took a phone call from Vice President Joe Biden soliciting McCain’s input on how to crack down on pork barrel spending.

“These are terrible, perilous times, so I will seek ways to work with the president of the United States,” McCain says in an interview. “I don’t want him to fail in his mission of restoring our economy.”

But there’s the rub: On the central issue of the economy, the two men are so far apart it is difficult to see them collaborating effectively.

Until they are, it’s harder for McCain to be the swing vote he once was — operating against a president not of his own party. McCain isn’t immune to calls from prominent figures whom he admires, like Warren Buffett, who has likened the economic crisis to Pearl Harbor.

“I think that the Republicans have an obligation to recognize this as an economic war and realize you need one leader,” Buffett told CNBC Monday.

To a remarkable degree for a man now 72, McCain has revamped his legislative profile: dropping the Commerce Committee he once chaired and adding three others to gain a foothold on health care and energy policy — two Obama priorities.

But on the economy, the Arizona Republican was his party’s point man last month in opposing Obama’s economic recovery plan. He has been scathing since in debate over a $409.6 billion omnibus spending bill before the Senate and is dismissive of the president’s new budget for next year as “certainly not something I can support.”

Even on areas of common ground, there are tensions. Obama’s 2010 budget uses a cap-and-trade regime both to address climate change and to raise $645 billion in revenues. “It’s been very harmful to the whole issue of cap-and-trade,” McCain says. “I never looked at cap-and-trade as a way to increase revenues. ... Never did I envision it would be a vehicle for raising $650 billion, which would just be a tax increase on the American people.”

On the central issue of stabilizing the nation’s faltering banks, McCain again offers little help for Obama. When running for president, the two men voted together for the Treasury’s $700 billion financial markets rescue last fall. But when both former President George W. Bush and Obama asked for the release of the second half of the money in January, McCain voted no, even as his more conservative colleague, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) supported the new president.

“We’re pouring billions and billions of dollars into (banks) with not only no improvement, but their stocks continue to plummet,” McCain says. “I think we have been pursuing the wrong strategy.”

“There is no clear message,” he says of Obama’s Treasury. “They’re just sort of lurching from one crisis to another, and that’s the perception the American people have.”

Many Republicans — and Wall Street — have been pounding Obama to come forth with a more specific commitment of resources to help the banks. But Treasury can’t afford to ask Congress for more money without more confidence in having the votes.

McCain could be a tremendous asset then for the president, but he shows little willingness thus far to play this role.

“Only under circumstances which are vastly different from what they are doing now,” he says. “They would have to present a blueprint that not only convinces me but frankly that convinces the Warren Buffetts and the Jack Welches ... people we would look up to who are experts who would say this plan will work. We don’t hear that.”

“Clearly, their policies are evolving,” McCain says of Treasury. “I was supportive of their housing proposal. I didn’t think it went far enough, but I was supportive of that.”

“It’s the housing crisis that started this conflagration, and it will be the stabilization of home values that stops it.”

The past week’s floor debate on the omnibus spending bill illustrates these tensions.

Filling 1,132 pages, the giant package is really nine bills in one, covering more than a dozen Cabinet-level departments and agencies for the current fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. The FBI, Securities and Exchange Commission and Internal Revenue Service are among those included — all now living under a stopgap spending bill due to expire Wednesday night.

Senate Democrats hope to send the bill to the White House before then; given the impact on government operations, the president’s advisers have said he will sign the measure into law. But McCain continued Monday to hammer Obama on the floor, calling on him to veto the measure because of costly spending earmarks he had promised to do away with as a candidate last year.

“We both campaigned on change. That was the president’s promise,” McCain said in his interview with POLITICO. “Now they’re saying this is last year’s business.”

The situation is reminiscent of another $397.4 billion omnibus bill in January and February of 2003. The budget process had collapsed the prior year, and after consolidating their power in the 2002 elections, Republicans crafted the bill quickly and sent it to then-President Bush, who also wanted the issue quickly resolved, since he was about to take the U.S. into war with Iraq.

Data compiled by Citizens Against Government Waste indicate that the level of earmarks in the 2003 omnibus was substantially higher than it is today. But McCain voted for the earlier package, and Senate Democrats made no attempt to block the bill, even though it cut spending for their priorities.

Asked if there was a parallel to today, McCain rejected any suggestion that he had cut one president slack and not the other.

“There are no similar circumstances to the circumstances we are facing now since the Great Depression,” he said. “I strongly disagree that you can compare 2003 and 2009 in any way.”

No one questions McCain’s career of voting against earmarks, however he voted in 2003. But what angers him most is not the cost but the fear of corruption.

“I see it lurching completely out of control. I continue to see it breeding corruption,” he says.

“Yes, I’m angry. If someone doesn’t appreciate that anger or think there’s something wrong with it, I respect their opinion. But it makes me angry, because I know how hard people work to pay their taxes, and this is corruption.”

He spoke to Obama about the issue last week when at the White House but is still waiting for Biden to follow up on his call. “I said I’ll be available any time, any place of your choosing,” McCain said. “I haven’t heard from him since.”

“Loyal opposition in my mind means loyal, but it also means opposition where you have fundamental philosophical disagreements,” he says.

“We are at a crucial time in America’s history, the question of whether our economy will survive — I think there’s a lot of common ground driven by this overwhelming issue of America’s economy, which motivates me to work with the president and seek out ways that I can work with the president. Not to have them seek me out, but I seek them out and try.”

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