Wednesday, March 28, 2012
by Lois Beckett ProPublica
President Obama's re-election campaign is reportedly building a massive database of information about potential supporters.
The database seems to bring together information about supporters gathered from all branches of the campaign — everything from an individual's donation records to volunteer activity to online interactions with the campaign — aimed at allowing the campaign to personalize every interaction with potential supporters.
Earlier this month, we built an interactive graphic showing how different Obama supporters received different variations of the same email — one way that the campaign may be using data to personalize messages.
We can't describe the Obama campaign's database with certainty because the campaign won't talk about it. Citing concerns about letting Republicans learn its tactics, the campaign declined our request for comment — as it has with other outlets — about what data the campaign collects and what it's doing with the data. The campaign did emphasize that, regardless of what information it gathers, it has never sold voter data or shared its voter database with other candidates.
Here's a guide to what we know — and don't know — about the information Obama is collecting about voters.
1. What information is the campaign collecting about individual supporters?
We know only some of the data it's collecting, but it is clearly collecting a lot.
The Obama campaign has hired a corporate data-mining expert, Rayid Ghani, to serve as its "chief scientist." Ghani has previously researched how to use a retailer's record of customer purchases to predict what a particular customer will buy during a given shopping trip — the same kind of data crunching that Target has apparently used to predict whether shoppers are pregnant. The campaign is continuing to hire "analytics engineers" and other data experts.
Some of the most important data that campaigns need are already public. State voter files include voters' names, addresses and voting histories. Campaigns don't know whom you voted for. But they know when you voted, when you didn't and, in some states, your race and party registration.
The Obama campaign website asks supporters for basic information, starting with your email address and ZIP code. If you sign up for an account on the site or register as a volunteer, you may also be asked for your mailing address, phone number and occupation.
Logging on to BarackObama.com using Facebook gives the campaign permission to access your name, profile picture, gender, networks, list of friends and any other information you have made public.
How much information is the campaign tracking and connecting back to you? The campaign won't give an overarching answer to that.
That doesn't mean it is tracking everything. For instance, the campaign website features an interactive graphic that allows users to see how the health-care reform law might benefit them. To do so, users click through several options, selecting whether they have private health insurance, Medicare, Medicaid or no insurance at all, how many people are in their families, and what their annual household incomes are.
It's worth noting that, as many websites do, the campaign also works with third-party ad vendors that use web cookies to track your browsing online. This enables them to serve you ads on different sites — and to target their ads based on the sites you visit.
2. What will happen to all this personal information once the campaign is over?
It's hard to know.
The campaign wouldn't comment about any future plans but said its track record demonstrated its approach to privacy protection.
After the 2008 election, Obama's list of 13 million email addresses was not given to other candidates or used by the White House. Obama launched "Organizing for America," a Democratic National Committee outreach program that drew on Obama's wide network of supporters to generate support for the president's agenda.
"This campaign has always and will continue to be an organization that respects and takes care to protect information that people share with us," spokeswoman Katie Hogan said.
"As a voter, I would feel a lot more comfortable if campaigns gave voters the option of whether or not they could pass their information on to other groups," said Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum and TechPresident, a site focusing on how technology affects politics.
From a voter's perspective, "the fact that I gave the Obama campaign $10 for six months, or emailed the campaign 10 times, may not be information that I want anyone else to know," Rasiej said.
Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said she's "never heard anyone complain" about Obama's 2008 campaign giving away personal information.
"The success of the Obama campaign in 2008 in getting millions of people to log on to their website to give personal information and volunteer and do all sorts of things for the campaign hinged on trust," she said. "People did not believe that that information was going to go anywhere."
Any choice to share supporters' information should take their preferences into account, Coney said. A campaign could easily create a checklist of politicians and organizations, allowing users to grant permission to share with some groups and not with others.
3. Is there any way to erase yourself from the campaign's database?
As far as we can tell, no.
President Obama's "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights," released last month, says that consumers' right to control their personal data "includes a right to withdraw consent to use personal data that the company controls."
The Obama campaign does make it easy to unsubscribe from email, text messages or newsletters. But we couldn't find any way to take yourself off its database — and the campaign wouldn't comment. There's also no apparent way to see what information the campaign is storing about you.
In a report on consumer privacy released March 26, the Federal Trade Commission called on companies to "provide consumers access to the data collected about them."
Both the "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights" and the FTC's report are meant to serve as guidelines for future legislation regulating companies' use of consumer data. How any laws will apply to political campaigns isn't clear.
A White House official said the Privacy Bill of Rights "applies to how businesses handle consumers' personal data online, and will impact all organizations using personal information collected through commercial means," including campaigns.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
by Daniel Victor ProPublica,
Every local broadcast station has a repository of documents about political advertising that you have a legal right to see but can do so only by going to the station and asking to see "the public file."
These paper files contain detailed data on all political ads that run on the channel, such as when they aired, who bought the time and how much they paid. It's a transparency gold mine, allowing the public to see how campaigns and outside groups are influencing elections.
But TV executives have been fighting a Federal Communications Commission proposal to make the data accessible online. They say making the files digital would be too burdensome — it "could well take hundreds of hours for a single station," according to comments filed with the FCC by the National Association of Broadcasters.
Others have taken their case a step further. As reported by Bloomberg Government, Jerald Fritz, senior vice president of Allbritton Communications, said in an another FCC filing that online availability "would ultimately lead to a Soviet-style standardization of the way advertising should be sold as determined by the government." (NPR's On the Media did an excellent segment recently on broadcasters' opposition to the proposal.)
We tend to like the idea of public data being online. Since TV stations won't put it online themselves, we decided to do it ourselves — and we want your help.
Working with students at the Medill journalism school at Northwestern University, we looked at five local stations in the Chicago market.
You can explore the results yourself: Here are detailed breakdowns of when the ads aired, during which programs, and how much each spot cost: Read the documents from the local affiliates of ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX and CW.
Big thanks to Medill students David Tonyan, Julie O'Donoghue, Vesko Cholakov, Safiya Merchant and Gideon Resnick, who visited the stations Monday.
We intend to enlist more readers in checking their local stations as the election campaigns slog on. The general election is likely to usher in even greater spending, and such spot checks could keep an eye on how big spenders are influencing the election. If you'd like to join in, please fill out this form.
Campaigns and super PACs are required to report their spending on independent expenditures to the Federal Election Commission within a day or two, but they often just report how much they paid ad-buying firms, which can disguise how much actual ads cost and where they're airing.
What's more, the files could be a window into what may be otherwise undisclosed spending by "dark money" nonprofit groups that are playing an increasing role in the elections .
For our experiment, we asked our Chicago volunteers to check on spending by five super PACs that individually support Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama. There were no records of spending in Chicago by four of them, but Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney super PAC, advertised on all five stations. The super PAC paid the five stations about $800,000 in the past month.
As our PAC Track interactive chart shows, Restore Our Future has spent more than twice as much as any other PAC so far — nearly $37 million.
Medill student O'Donoghue said getting the files from the ABC station took her about half an hour, most of which was spent wrestling with the copy machine.
Tonyan, another graduate student, said he spent 15 minutes at the CW affiliate, plus a 15-minute drive.
Both said the station employees who helped them were friendly and accommodating. We encountered the same when I visited five stations in New York, Missouri and Florida. Typically, a station employee will simply show you the room where the files are kept and let you dig in.
Such visits don't seem to happen often. A log at the New York CBS affiliate showed only six registered visitors since October 2011.
The Campaign Media Analysis Group, a unit of Kantar Media, tracks ads that have hit the airwaves and estimates what they would cost, but the company charges high rates to obtain the information. The Wesleyan Media Project publishes some CMAG data.
Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, found that $70 million in advertising had been unreported from 2000-10 in Michigan. He got that number by personally examining public files, at one point driving 14 hours for a 15-minute visit to a station.
He told the FCC: "I can testify to you, unequivocally, that the threshold of effort necessary to report this important public interest story is too high for every news organization in Michigan, except mine."
Which is why we're asking for your help. You can help expose spending that might otherwise remain hidden in your television market. Sign up here.
Standing before the cameras at North Charleston City Hall two weeks ago, Sen. Glenn McConnell looked like he was the one pleading guilty to ethics violations and resigning his office. Instead, the grim-faced politician was stepping up from the post of Senate president pro tempore to the office of lieutenant governor.
But, in yet another example of South Carolina's bizarre and byzantine politics, McConnell's move was universally regarded as a demotion for the man who was regarded as the most powerful player in state politics. As Post and Courier columnist Brian Hicks quipped, McConnell gets to bang the gavel and wear a purple robe — and do little else. It's a big comedown for the man who used to run the state Senate like his own private circus.
McConnell is to be commended for accepting this "demotion," if not quite accepting it with grace. It was assumed by many — including this observer — that he would use his notorious parliamentary skills to sidestep the ceremonious lieutenant governor's office.
Although there was speculation that McConnell would be running for his one-time Senate seat in November, the lieutenant governor announced last week that he will not. However, all of the drama and confusion over this change-up at the Statehouse probably means we will be voting soon on another amendment to patch our state's woefully inadequate and ill-conceived constitution.
But enough about Glenn McConnell. This constitutional crisis was brought on by Lt. Gov. Ken Ard, who was indicted on criminal ethics charges for campaign fraud and misuse of campaign contributions for personal expenses.
The details of the scheme do not matter. What is important is that yet another public official has violated the public trust and has been forced from office. Ard is just the latest in a long and colorful tradition of scandal that would include Operation Lost Trust, a federal sting resulting in the conviction of more than 20 members of the General Assembly and other state officials on various bribery and corruption charges; Operation Abscam, another federal sting that led to the conviction of Congressman John Jenrette on bribery and corruption charges; and countless other crimes and misdemeanors leading to the downfall of lesser public figures.
This is not to say that South Carolina is the most corrupt state in the nation — not by a long shot. We cannot measure up to New Jersey, Louisiana, Illinois, and maybe a few others. But what I think makes us distinct is the level of insufferable public piety we provide as a backdrop to our public corruption.
Does any state offer more Bible-thumping, more prayers, more preaching and piety in the public forum than South Carolina? I know of none. And has this shameless behavior made us better people? Has it made our leaders wiser or more honest? The levels of violence, ignorance, poverty, disease, and other quality-of-life indexes would suggest not. And yet we continue to preach and pray and whoop and shout and expect our leaders to do the same. But the truth is that religion is the force that divides us, holds us back, and distracts us from real problems and real solutions.
Of course, most of these distractions involve sex. Right now there are several bills in the General Assembly designed to make it more difficult for women to obtain abortions. Paradoxically (or hypocritically), the same Christian elements that do not want women to have access to abortion services have fought for years to keep sex education out of schools, thus assuring that South Carolina will continue to have one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in the nation. Another bill would levy a $100 fine on teens for "sexting." Do our legislators really have nothing better to do? There are still no state laws to protect LGBTs from discrimination in the workplace, but, in 2006, the Christian Right whipped up a great moral crusade to amend our poor old state constitution to ban same-sex marriage.
Now it seems that God wants South Carolina to have a state day of prayer and Charleston Rep. Chip Limehouse has obliged him with a bill to that effect. I don't know whether Limehouse is pandering to the Almighty or to voters when he says, "I would hope every day would be a day of prayer ... and to those who object, my [question] is, 'Why would we not have prayer in our lives?'"
And my question to all the panderers and the preachers is: Why can't we govern with good policy and common sense, rather than false piety and ideology? We may or may not have any less public corruption, but we will surely have more sound and wise public policy.
Sunday, March 18, 2012
This summer, health insurance companies may have to pay more than a billion dollars back to their own customers. The rebate requirements were introduced as part of the 2010 health-care reform law and are meant to benefit consumers. But now an insurer-supported Senate bill aims to roll back the rebate requirements.
Known as the medical loss ratio rule, it's actually pretty simple. Under the health-care law provision, 80 to 85 cents of every dollar insurers collect in premiums must be spent on medical care or activities that improve the quality of that care. If not, they must send their customers a rebate for the difference. The goal, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, is to limit the money insurers spend on administrative costs and profit.
"It essentially ensures that consumers receive value for every dollar they spend on health care," HHS spokesman Brian Chiglinsky told ProPublica.
Last month, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., introduced a bill that would change what costs companies can include in the 15 to 20 percent they are allotted for overhead, salaries and marketing. The bill, similar to a House bill introduced in March 2011 that has yet to come up for a vote, focuses on payments to insurance agents and brokers. Traditionally, these commissions are bundled into the administrative costs when making the final calculation. But insurance regulators have argued that fees paid to insurance agents and brokers shouldn't count.
Such a change could mean big savings for insurance companies — and much smaller rebates for consumers.
This is the first year that companies are required to send out rebates. According to a report by state insurance commissioners, if rebates had been handed out last year, insurers would have had to pay consumers almost $2 billion. If they had carved out the broker fees, as proposed in the two current bills, consumers would have gotten only about $800 million.
Landrieu's office did not immediately respond to our call for comment.
"[The bills] would water down the standard to a point where it becomes ineffective," said Sondra Roberto, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit advocacy group Consumers Union. The group, which also publishes Consumer Reports, recently urged members to oppose the bill.
The rebates have gotten relatively modest attention. Only 38 percent of the public is even aware of the rule's existence, according to a Kaiser poll.
Insurance companies have supported the two bills, claiming that the rebate rule, as it stands now, stifles jobs and actually drives up insurance premiums. A 2011 government report found that most insurance companies were, in fact, lowering their premiums to meet the requirements, as the administration had hoped.
While most insurance companies hit the 80 to 85 percent target, the few that didn't may be required to send out rebates this year.
"Some insurance companies pay an inordinate amount, as much as 40 percent, on administration and profit and not health care," Roberto said.
The rules on rebates differ slightly depending on whether the insurance comes from a large-group plan (employers with more than 100 employees), or a small-group or individual plan. In each case, insurance companies will be required to make all their costs publicly available so consumers can see how their premium dollars are spent.
The government granted insurance companies in seven states extra time to meet the requirements. Insurers that serve states with more rural populations, for example, tend to have higher overhead costs and cannot meet the requirement as easily, according to Eric Fader, a New York health-care lawyer. But the government decided that for all other states, enforcing the requirement wouldn't pose any risk to the market, and that the federal government didn't "need to coddle an inefficient insurance company," Fader said.
Friday, March 16, 2012
It's not easy or safe to be a moral enforcer, either by design or circumstance. It sets a person up for a mighty fall when he fails to live up to the rules he is supposed to live by. For some years now, the Christian Right has tried to make the rules for the rest of us — mostly in the realm of sexual behavior — and we have witnessed spectacular examples of the publicly pious hoisted on their own petards.
Police officers are not publicly pious by nature, but they are charged with publicly enforcing the law, including laws against driving under the influence. Most adults have probably gotten behind the wheel at one time or another when they were chemically impaired. If they were lucky, they arrived at their destination safely and without seeing any blue lights. If they did have an unfortunate encounter with the law, at the very least it was a huge expense and inconvenience. At worst, it was a life-changing experience.
I suspect that will be the outcome for two local police officers — one from Charleston, one from Mt. Pleasant — who were arrested recently on DUI charges. In most lines of work, they would have been able to walk away with their dignity and reputations tarnished, but their careers intact. But these gentlemen were in the business of arresting people for driving under the influence, and it is difficult to square that with the mark now on their records.
To my knowledge, Jenny Sanford never claimed to be an enforcer of laws or social norms, but she certainly flourishes under them. The ex-wife of Gov. Mark Sanford is a wealthy industrial heir, living in a multimillion-dollar beachfront house on Sullivan's Island, one of the most affluent communities in the nation. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but does she understand that her wealth, property value, social standing, and entire way of life is made possible through a complex skein of law, tradition, and regulation?
She demonstrated little understanding of self or society recently when she wrote a letter to the editor of The Post and Courier, complaining that she had been fined $1,040 for letting her dog run free in violation of the town's leash law. When the P&C looked into the matter more deeply with a story by Schuyler Kropf, it turned out that she had a record of leash law violations. Was this privileged scofflaw seeking sympathy?
Challenging law and custom to protect the victims of law and custom is an old and honorable tradition in this country. Was Sanford acting to protect her lab from the town's leash law? She didn't frame the issue that way. She cast herself as the victim.
Openly challenging law and custom as a political statement — in the manner of the Civil Rights Movement or Occupy Wall Street — is also an old and honorable tradition. This does not appear to be what Sanford was doing. She made no statement by word or deed that she was protesting the leash law. She just broke it repeatedly, then whined when the town slapped her with the maximum fine.
There is something about her behavior that reminds me of Thomas Ravenel, another conservative Republican with political ambitions who ran afoul of the law. Ravenel, you may remember, was the young state treasurer who was being groomed for the U.S. Senate before he was arrested on cocaine charges in 2007. He resigned his office and spent several months in federal prison.
Upon emerging from the big house, Ravenel announced widely and repeatedly that he is a libertarian and that personal behavior should not be subject to government regulation. Too bad he lacked the courage of these convictions (no pun intended) while he was in public office. At that time, of course, he was standing tall in the party of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. His sudden conversion to libertarianism seems less than sincere.
What I think we actually witnessed in the matter of Jenny Sanford and Thomas Ravenel is the case of two pampered members from two wealthy, powerful political families who believe the rules that the rest of us follow do not apply to them.
On a similar note, it's hard to say what the Laurens County Republican Party had in mind when it adopted a 28-point test to vet potential GOP candidates last week. Among the demands were that candidates pledge that they had never engaged in premarital or extramarital sex and that they would never view pornography. The party backed off its "Purity Pledge" after it drew national and international derision — yet another embarrassment for the GOP and the state that Jon Stewart calls America's whoopee cushion. It's just a shame the pledge was withdrawn before anyone could get caught violating it.
by Cora Currier ProPublica
According to one suit, Bank of America allegedly passed bad loans on to the Federal Housing Administration. According to another, the bank allegedly denied qualified homeowners access to HAMP, the government's loan modification program.
The suits were all settled as part of the overall $25 billion mortgage deal. They were filed under the False Claims Act, which provides incentives for whistleblowers to come forward in cases in which someone has defrauded the government. Whistleblowers can net up to 25 percent of the total settlement from False Claims suits, and in some of these cases, the reward is in the millions.
Details are available for four of the cases; documents in a fifth, against JPMorgan Chase, have not yet been filed in Massachusetts. While the cases were settled as part of the overarching agreement, they still have to be accepted by the courts in which they were originally filed. In reaching the settlements, none of the banks admits or denies the lawsuits' allegations.
We've laid out the details of each case.
Countrywide Defrauded the FHA
Kyle Lagow worked at LandSafe, a contractor of Countrywide, which Bank of America bought in 2008. He brought a suit in 2009 alleging that the company systematically undermined the appraisal process for home loans in order to approve as many as possible:
The result was bad loans passed on to the FHA for insurance, while Countrywide was later able to file millions in claims from the FHA. (Read the complaint, which has plenty of juicy details.)
Lagow alleged that much of the appraisal staff was not properly trained, and that many of the appraisals were done by a developer, KB Home, which had a stake in making sure the loans closed:
Countrywide pressured LandSafe to blacklist appraisers with whom KB Home "had too many issues." (KB Home did not respond to requests for comment.):
Lagow's complaints were ignored or challenged:
He also said he was fired for bringing the issue to Countrywide executives. Lagow's suit was settled for $75 million, and was a component of the FHA's $1 billion settlement with Bank of America over FHA insurance. Documents detailing his cut of the $75 million haven't yet been filed. Bank of America did not respond to requests for comment.
Rampant Robosigning at Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan and Citi
Lynn Szymoniak, a lawyer, was facing foreclosure in 2008 when she received what she believed were fake documents from her bank. She began an investigation and eventually filed a false claim suit against the country's four largest mortgage servicers.
Szymoniak's suit is still sealed, but she told CBS' "60 Minutes" last year about a mystery woman, "Linda Green," who appeared to be the vice president of 20 different banks and whose signature varied on the thousands of mortgage documents she had supposedly signed. Szymoniak also discovered what she called a "sweatshop" company, Docx, which had forged signatures on thousands of mortgage documents. (The banks that Szymoniak named told "60 Minutes" that Docx was hired by subcontractors. The company has since been shut down.)
Her suit was settled for $95 million, and she will receive $18 million. JPMorgan Chase declined to comment, and Wells Fargo and Bank of America did not respond to our inquiries. A spokesman for Citi declined to respond to the specific allegations but said that Citi "is making every effort to ensure that no foreclosure goes forward based on an inaccurate or defective affidavit."
JPMorgan Chase Hid Fees from Veterans Program
Two employees at a Georgia mortgage broker alleged in a suit filed last summer that JPMorgan, along with Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Citigroup, scammed a program that is supposed to make it easier for veterans to get loans. The banks hid fees that would have disqualified loans from the program, lumping them with other items on the clients' bills, and then submitted fraudulent documents to the government for reimbursement under the veterans program:
JPMorgan settled for $45 million. The two whistleblowers, Victor Bibby and Brian Donnelly, told Reuters that together they would receive $11 million. They also said they would continue their case against the other banks. JPMorgan declined to comment.
Bank of America Cut Qualified Homeowners Out of HAMP
Gregory Mackler worked at Urban Lending, a company contracted by Bank of America to handle HAMP requests. His suit, filed last summer, alleged that Bank of America actively sought to reduce the number of people who qualified for the government's loan modification program, HAMP, pushing instead the bank's often less affordable proprietary loan modifications. This approach saved Bank of America money but cost homeowners. (Read the complaint.)
Mackler's complaint describes many ways that Bank of America, through Urban Lending, allegedly disqualified homeowners for HAMP.
Payments were intentionally processed incorrectly so that they would be deemed late:
Houses that were owner-occupied were declared not so based on "drive-by" inspections:
In some instances, Countrywide started foreclosure proceedings on homeowners who had been told they were "under review" for HAMP modifications. (ProPublica has detailed many similar instances.) And the customer advocates assigned to HAMP customers didn't have access to the information that they needed:
When Mackler raised concerns with Bank of America executives, the suit alleged, he was ignored or told that Bank of America was "not of course interested":
According to the suit, Mackler was fired "in retaliation" in March 2011. Bank of America did not respond to our requests for comment.
The suit was settled for $6.5 million, and Mackler's cut has not been finalized.
Sunday, March 11, 2012
FR: Can you tell us a little about the band name and how you guys got together?
JS: Yeah. John started it off as a solo project a long time ago. He was mostly doing ambient music solo. And one of his buddies did some artwork for an album cover. It was kind of scrambled and John asked him what it was and he said the picture was of a bear in heaven. So he went with that name- and then it turned into a band, a completely different band, in Atlanta. Several years later, the band formed in New York- I was friends with Adam in the band because we went to college together. I didn’t really know any of the other guys in the band. They were all friends from Atlanta from various different sources. Some of them went to high school together, some have known each other since childhood. James knew some of them from working for Table of the Elements, this record label that is no longer around. That’s how Adam met John and they needed a drummer when they decided to start writing music and they asked me to play.
FR: Your previous album titles come across as a little cryptic- intentional or not. Your new album title, I Love You It’s Cool- is there any significant meaning behind that?
JS: It’s pretty straightforward. We’re not trying to be cryptic here at all. It came inadvertently from our friend, Sadek, while we were writing the record. At one point, Sadek used to play with us in the band but he had to stop because he has his own graphic design company that he wanted to focus his efforts on. He came by the space one time and wanted to hear some of the demos. He drew a couple of drawings for me and John. The one for John was of this weirdo with like three eyes and four elbows that said “I love you, it’s cool”. We were kind of bouncing around a few different titles for the record- but we settled on that. It seemed to fit the intention we wanted to get across. It’s just a mood.
FR: How would you say the new album compares to the others? Your single, “Sinful Nature” feels more sensual and slightly less expansive.
JS: It’s difficult when you’re as close to it as we are to really categorize it. We’ve listened to all the songs in so many different iterations at this point. I’m sure we hear everything in an entirely different way than other people do. I feel like the categorization is best left to other people. I will say that this is the first time we’ve gotten together and written songs front to back intended for a record. The last one was written over a really long period of time and a lot of the songs changed drastically over the year and a half. I think that definitely influences us.
FR: How do you think your sound translates to a live setting?
JS: I think we do a pretty faithful job of keeping the mood of the songs. We translate it pretty faithfully. They get a little bit bigger when we play live. They get a little bit louder.
FR: You guys are getting ready for SXSW. Have you ever played that before?
JS: Yeah. The last time we were down there was two years ago. And I think we were down there a year before that. No, wait- the only time Bear in Heaven was down there was two years ago. No, that’s not true-we’ve been down there twice. Shit, I’m confused at this point. We haven’t been there in a few years. We are looking forward to going back. It’s going to be crazy. We’re playing like nine shows.
FR: Bear in Heaven has an affinity for drone. I’ve read that there is a version of the album slowed down to last several thousand hours.
JS: It’s streaming. You can check it out on the website right now.
JS: I’m mostly listened to it in chunks of late night stupor. I’ve definitely gotten sucked into it on a number of occasions. I decide to check out what’s going on with the drone and there’s some nice, trippy visuals going on at the website. You can definitely get wrapped into a meditative mindset. So I’ve listened to it in a few chunks but Adam listens to it nonstop. He’s got in his earbuds right now. He drinks a lot of Code Red and listens to the drone.
FR: Speaking of evolving sound- in the past decade, the music industry has really changed with the advent of Napster, then itunes, and now Spotify. Where does the band see the music industry going in the next ten years?
JS: Into the shitter? Is that an acceptable response?
FR: That is an acceptable response.
JS: It’s hard to say. It seems like the only way people can make money these days is through advertising which is very unfortunate because it leads to a lot of people creating music specifically intended for a commercial- like, perfectly fit for a McDonalds commercial or something. If you’re making music with the intention of putting it in a Macy’s ad, the whole kind just fucking fails.
FR: On the same note, music is available in a variety of formats- digital downloads, CDs, vinyl, even cassettes are making a comeback. Is there any method that you guys like to hear music? In which format do you feel Bear in Heaven sounds best?
JS: We just got our vinyl the other day and it sounds phenomenal. That would be my method of choice. I would say to hear it really, really loud on your home stereo on vinyl and you should probably buy the 2 terrabyte hard drive that has our entire slowed-down record on it, play that at the same time, drink a lot of Red Bulls, and jump out of a window.
FR: How do you feel about Lana Del Rey ?
JS: I could give a shit. I heard a couple songs. I thought they were boring. How do I feel about any big fucking studio artist that gets pushed in everybody’s fucking face? I try to ignore it as much as possible.
- Fr. Jones
Friday, March 9, 2012
I have the distinction of being one of the few people in the world to write a thesis on the subject of spring break. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?
I did manage to visit some notorious spring break locations, but it was all research and the matter at hand was actually pretty grim. The title of my thesis was "Safe Break: A Demonstration of the Need and a Theoretical Structure for Public Information Campaigns to Help College Women Avoid Sexual Assault on Spring Break." It was very academic, but it had its purpose.
The dirty little secret about spring break is that it is the perfect petri dish for sexual assault. You have tens of thousands of young people meeting and mingling in an unstructured environment, far from the restraints and regulations of campus life — and it's all awash in alcohol. When tragedy strikes, the victim is in a strange city, hundreds of miles from home, likely surrounded by people who are in a festive mood and don't want to deal with her "bad experience." If the incident does get reported to local authorities, they have every incentive to bury it as deep and fast as they can. No vacation town wants to be known as the place where women go to get raped.
After my thesis was accepted by the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina, I sent out synopses to the police and public safety departments of a couple dozen leading spring break destinations from South Padre Island to Virginia Beach, with the idea that they might be able to put some of my ideas to use and even be willing to hire an eager young consultant to create a public information campaign for them. I received a couple of polite "thank yous" and that was the end of my consulting career.
The problem of spring break sexual assault is still there two decades after I tried to sound the alarm. Google "sexual assault" and "spring break" and you will get more than 15,000 hits. But the good news is that many of these sites are posted by colleges and women's organizations, telling women how to avoid spring break sexual assault. The advice they give is the same advice young women have been hearing from their mothers, big sisters, and campus security and women's services for years: 1. Stick with friends you know and trust; 2. Drink in moderation; 3. Don't get isolated in a strange place with strange people; 4. Watch your drink and do not accept an open drink from anyone; 5. Plan a time and place to check in with your friends; 6. Trust your instincts and be ready to act on them.
It all sounds familiar enough, doesn't it? But for some reason these well-earned precautions seem to get left in the dresser drawer when young women pack their bags for spring break. And you can understand why. They're going on vacation. They're fleeing the troubles and travails, the headaches and heartbreaks, of the campus for a few carefree days of partying late and sleeping till noon. What they forget, of course, is that the threat of sexual assault does not take a holiday. In fact, it is probably more prevalent in the swarming, frenzied mass of young people in places like Daytona Beach and Myrtle Beach than back home on their staid and respectable campuses.
Twenty years ago, the problem of spring break sexual assault was unacknowledged and unstudied. I wrote my thesis with the idea that spring break municipalities and hotels might market themselves and enhance their reputations with public information that showed they were concerned about the risk of sexual assault. How naïve I was.
The tourist industry will do nothing to acknowledge a threat to its visitors, lest they frighten said visitors — and their money — away. This was demonstrated by the slow response of Florida tourism officials to the wave of murders of its tourists in the early 1990s. Only the bad publicity forced them to take action.
And so it has happened that in the past 20 years college campuses have taken the initiative in warning their female students of the dangers of spring break. The College of Charleston is like most American college campuses today; the school has posted this reminder on its website: "Don't forget to take along your most valuable companions — personal safety precautions ... Acquaintance rape and robbery top the list of crimes committed against college students on spring break."
Websites did not exist 20 years ago when I was writing my thesis, but if they had, I doubt such a message would have been found. The last two decades have seen sweeping changes in communication technology and in attitudes toward women's safety. They are probably related.
Last month, when House Democrats introduced the DISCLOSE 2012 Act to try to stop the flow of secret "dark money" into the electoral process, it marked an ironic twist.
A decade ago, it was Republicans who were pushing for disclosure of donors to nonprofit social welfare groups who are now pouring millions into political attack ads and House Democrats who opposed them.
Now the parties have exchanged positions.
The groups in question are nonprofits known as 501(c)(4)s, after the section of the tax code that describes them.
The best-known of the newer c4's are the Karl Rove-affiliated Crossroads GPS, which last year raised a $33 million war chest to support Republicans, and the Obama-affiliated Priorities USA, which is expected to play a similar role for the president. Like super PACs, c4's can accept unlimited donations. But Super PACs have to reveal their donors; c4's do not.
The 501(c)(4) category is not new. Many older interest groups (including some that engage in little or no political activity) are organized as social welfare groups, from the Sierra Club to the National Rifle Association. But the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United case -- a case filed by a c4 -- eliminated restrictions on campaign activity by these social welfare groups and other types of corporations, taking their political spending to another level.
The legislative battle over donor disclosure in the summer of 2000 shows how history often repeats itself when it comes to campaign finance regulation and how the partisan divide was not always what it is today.
Social welfare groups came under scrutiny in 2000 when Congress, led by Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., sought to close a loophole involving 527s, other groups that were running campaign ads without revealing their donors. A pro-Bush 527 called Republicans for Clean Air had hammered McCain with $2.5 million in negative ads during the GOP presidential primary, which the senator ultimately lost.
In June 2000, a McCain-sponsored amendment passed the Senate that required 527s to disclose their donors. Then some House Republicans proposed extending the disclosure requirements to apply to 501 (c)(4), (5), and (6) organizations -- social welfare groups, unions, and business trade associations, respectively.
"We need disclosure by section 527 organizations, but when 501(c) groups intervene in the political process, they should disclose what they are doing and who is paying for it as well," said House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Amo Houghton, a New York Republican who helped draft a bill to expand disclosure.
Houghton's bill would have required 501(c )(4) (5) and (6) organizations that spent more than $10,000 per cycle on political ads and other election activity to reveal donors who gave more than $1,000. The proposal met stiff opposition from the nonprofit community, which argued it would have a chilling effect on donations.
But Republicans on the Ways and Means committee –- as well as McCain -- supported the measure.
Democrats on the committee opposed it. Some argued that expanding disclosure requirements was a "poison pill" designed to make the legislation unpalatable and to prevent any reform from passing. Others said the bill imposed "overly broad and uncertain disclosure requirements" on social welfare groups. A top aide to House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., told the newspaper Roll Call that the Houghton bill "goes too far."
Ultimately, the Republican leadership in the House concluded that it did not have the votes to force disclosure for 501 groups. The House approved the narrower bill that had passed the Senate and President Clinton signed it into law in July 2000, closing the 527 loophole.
But lawmakers recognized even then that big donors seeking ways to influence campaigns anonymously could turn from 527s to social welfare groups.
"[Q]uite honestly, I believe these groups are perfectly capable of hiring good tax lawyers and going out and finding another way of getting around this if you aim it at specific tax sections," said Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., at a June 2000 news conference, explaining why he supported disclosure requirements for social welfare groups.
Castle left politics in 2011 after losing a GOP Senate primary to Tea Party favorite Christine O'Donnell. Now a partner at law firm DLA Piper, he said this election cycle has vindicated his concerns about anonymous money being routed through social welfare groups.
"You've got these groups that can essentially contribute huge sums of money, first of all without limitation and secondly without disclosure," Castle said. "I think it's just a terrible injustice to a fair election system."
Thursday, March 1, 2012
A new report from the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security is likely to fan rather than extinguish the debate over the safety of X-ray body scanners deployed at airports across the country.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and other lawmakers have called on the Transportation Security Administration to conduct a new, independent health study. No such tests were carried out for the report, which instead relied on previous radiation tests, most of which have been available on TSA's website.
"This report is not the report I requested," Collins said in a statement to ProPublica. "An independent study is needed to protect the public and to determine what technology is worthy of taxpayer dollars."
The amount of radiation emitted by the body scanners, known as backscatters, is "negligible" and "below acceptable limits," according to the report obtained by ProPublica and scheduled for public release on Tuesday.
But the 28-page report also notes that not all TSA screeners have completed required radiation safety training. Inspectors found inconsistencies in how the machines are calibrated to ensure radiation safety and image quality. And the TSA made more than 3,500 maintenance calls in the first year the scanners were deployed, meaning that, on average, each machine needed service more than once a month.
X-ray body scanners became part of routine screening at airports nationwide after the underwear bomber tried to blow up a plane on Christmas 2009. The machines emit very small doses of ionizing radiation, the type of radiation that has been shown to cause cancer.
Radiation experts who have been critical of the TSA acknowledge that the machines emit only tiny amounts of radiation. But they say that as tens of millions of airline passengers are exposed for routine screening, it is likely that a few of those people will develop cancer from the machines.
ProPublica reported in November that the TSA has glossed over the scientific nuance in declaring the machines safe, that the United States was almost alone in the world in deploying the X-ray scanners and that the Food and Drug Administration went against its own advisory panel in allowing the machines to fall under voluntary standards.
A day after the story, TSA administrator John Pistole agreed to a request by Collins to conduct a new, independent health study of the scanners. But a week later, Pistole backtracked saying this report, then still being finalized, would render a new study unnecessary.
"We believe the report fully endorses TSA's extensive efforts to keep the traveling public safe," Pistole said in a response letter that was attached to the report. "As a result of intense research, analysis and testing, TSA concludes that potential health risks from a full-body screening with a general-use X-ray security system are miniscule."
The report notes that an airline passenger would have to be screened 47 times per day to reach the annual radiation dose limits set by professional organizations. The inspectors said that no accidental radiation overdoses have ever occurred from the scanners.
The inspector general's office did not test the machines but instead reviewed radiation measurements taken by the manufacturer's maintenance contractors and Army health physicists.
The report does not address the potential health effects of exposing tens of millions of people to low-dose radiation. Nor does it weigh the risk and benefit against a safer type of body scanner that uses the electromagnetic waves, which have not been linked to cancer. That machine, known as a millimeter-wave scanner, is already used by the TSA in dozens of airports, such as Atlanta Hartsfield, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Francisco.
The report also raises questions about maintenance. From May 2010 to May 2011, the TSA made 3,778 service calls in response to mechanical problems with the backscatter units. That works out to 10 calls per day, or an average of more than 15 calls per machine per year. But the report noted that only 2 percent of those calls were significant enough to require a radiation test.
Although the inspectors did not find any scanners that had been calibrated improperly, they found that some airports calibrated the machines less frequently than others and recorded the results differently.
The inspector general recommended that the TSA develop a process to ensure that all screeners receive radiation safety training. Several screeners told the inspectors that they were unable to complete online training because of computer delays and time constraints associated with doing their jobs.
Last month, a group of six Republican and Democratic senators on the homeland security committee introduced a bill that would require the TSA to post signs about the radiation at the front of security checkpoints and to hire an independent laboratory for a health study. House Republicans filed a companion bill in mid-February.
Officials in Broward County, Florida, recently voted to demand more information from the TSA on the safety of scanners in use at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. They are now reviewing the agency's response.
And in Alaska, a state lawmaker who decided to take a ferry back from Seattle rather than undergo a pat-down required to fly, last week proposed bills to outlaw the use of body scanners in that state and to study the health effects of airport screening.
Last August, the Associated Press launched a series detailing how the New York Police Department has extensively investigated Muslims in New York and other states, preparing reports on mosques and Muslim-owned businesses, apparently without any suspicion of crimes have been committed.
The propriety and legality of the NYPD's activities is being disputed. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who claimed last year that the NYPD does not focus on religion and only follows threats or leads, is now arguing that, as he said last week, "Everything the NYPD has done is legal, it is appropriate, it is constitutional." Others disagree. In fact, Bloomberg himself signed a law in 2004 that prohibits profiling by law enforcement personnel based on religion.
This week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told a congressional committee that the Justice Department is reviewing whether to investigate potential civil rights violations by the NYPD.
To get a better understanding of the rules governing the NYPD — and whether the department has followed them in its surveillance of Muslims — we spoke to Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center at NYU School of Law.
The NYPD did not respond to our request for comment about allegations it has violated the law.
ProPublica: So, Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have said everything that the NYPD did was legal and constitutional. Others have disagreed. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, for example, said wholesale surveillance of a community without suspicion of a crime "clearly crosses a line." What restrictions is the NYPD operating under?
Patel: They are operating under at least three sets of rules. The first and most basic set of rules is the consent decree from the Handschu case — the so-called Handschu guidelines. This was a 1970s-era political surveillance case that was settled through a consent decree. The NYPD had been conducting surveillance of a number of political groups in the 1960s and '70s. The initial consent decree regulated the NYPD's collection of intelligence about political activity. It first said the NYPD can only collect intelligence about political activities if it follows certain rules. For example, the NYPD had to get clearance from something called the Handschu authority, which was a three-member board that consisted of two high-level police officials and one civilian appointed by the mayor.
Then, post-9/11, the NYPD went to court and asked a judge to review the consent decree because they wanted greater freedom in their counterterrorism operations. What they wound up doing was adopting guidelines based on the FBI's guidelines from 2003, issued by Attorney General John Ashcroft. These were different in several important ways. The first was that there was no pre-clearance at all ... no requirement that the NYPD get approval from the Handschu authority before they undertook any intel gathering about political activity. The second was that the guidelines explicitly say the NYPD can attend any public event or gathering on the same basis as another member of the public. So, if I can go to a church, the NYPD can go to a church. But it goes on to say that the NYPD can't retain the information it gathers from such public events unless it is connected to suspected criminal or terrorist activity.
ProPublica: So, if you look at, say, the NYPD's guide to Newark's Muslim community obtained and published by AP — which maps out mosques and Muslim-owned businesses without mentioning any suspected crimes — aren't the police retaining exactly this kind of information?
Patel: There are a couple of documents that suggest they may have violated Handschu — for example, the [2006 NYPD report] on the Danish cartoon controversy, which is a collection of statements in mosques and other places that have been taken by undercover officers or confidential informants.
ProPublica: What other rules does the NYPD operate under?
Patel: The second set is that the NYPD has a profiling order in place, and New York City also has a racial profiling law. They are slightly different. The NYPD order [issued in 2002] does not include religion among the categories that they define as profiling. But the New York City law does. It prohibits police officers from relying on race, ethnicity, religion or national origin as a determinative factor in initiating law enforcement action. Normally, you have quite a difficult time in racial profiling cases showing they've used one of these factors as the determinative factor. In this case, if you look at the documents, it seems quite clear that the NYPD had its eyes quite firmly on the Muslim community, so it's possible it is also in violation of this law.
The third set of rules is, of course, the U.S. and New York state constitutions. Within the [U.S.] Constitution, you're looking at at least two broad categories of provisions — potential First Amendment claims for free speech, freedom of association and free exercise of religion. The other piece of it would be potential equal protection claims.
ProPublica: Another AP story this week reported that federal grant money and equipment were used in the NYPD surveillance and investigation of the Muslim community. Does that muddy the legal questions about whether the police were following federal rules?
Patel: The federal program that was giving them money is the HIDTA program — High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. It's geared toward providing funds to combat drug trafficking. HIDTA itself does allow for counterterrorism spending to be an incidental purpose. It requires the HIDTA executive board to basically make sure that funds were being used for the purposes that they were supposed to be used for. So, I think there's a real issue about accountability and oversight of the use of HIDTA funds here.
ProPublica: So, if the NYPD did potentially violate the Handschu guidelines and city law you mentioned, what are the penalties?
Patel: Well, the Handschu lawyers already went to court last year and told the judge that the documents that had been released by the AP suggested that there had been violations of the Handschu decree. They asked for discovery so they could check the files of the NYPD to see whether they had violated the prohibition on keeping dossiers. I believe that that discovery will likely be starting soon. So, there's clearly a remedy through the Handschu mechanism. Because it's a consent decree, it's an ongoing thing. The judge has supervisory jurisdiction. There are also issues under the racial profiling law and under the First Amendment.
We've also turned to the question of oversight. The FBI, for all its faults, does have a fair amount of oversight — an inspector general internally and congressional oversight. We think a similar thing would be a great idea for the NYPD.