Thursday, July 26, 2012

Purity Ring- Shrines REVIEW

Purity Ring laid on the mystique early for Shrines.  With the 2011 online release of three ubiquitous singles- “Ungirthed”, “Lofticries”, and “Belispeak”- the level of buzz surrounding the pop duo had reached an almost procedural level.  Now, over a year later, comes the inevitable release of Shrines and it’s a testament to the craftsmanship of Purity Ring that this imminent hooplah somehow dodged any hint of anticlimax.  Instead, here we are, with a thirty-eight minute collection of sumptiously dazzling synthpop.  In terms of sound, Grimes leaps immediately to mind- as does Fever Ray, Austra, and countless other electronic brethren.  If the singles from 2011 set your world afire, Purity Ring only pours on the gasoline with heavier doses of warped vocals, skittering percusssion and a now signature sugar-laden synthetic edge. And while Shrines drapes comfortably around those earlier tunes, it manages to expand the Purity Ring universe without ever threatening to stray from their infectious first impression.  That said- last summer, if “Ungirthed”, etc left you cold, this offers almost nothing new in terms of sound- simply variations, both relentless and irresistible, on the same overall theme. 

An initial listen to Shrines reveals an alarming lyrical depth, especially in juxtaposition with the coy innocence of Megan James’ vocals.  “Sea water is flowing/ From the middle of my thighs” begins album opener “Crawlersout” establishing Purity Ring’s niche for body imagery.  This theme continues in the graphic depictions within “Fineshrine” of an apparently intimate dissection- “Cut open my sternum/And pull my little ribs around you.”  The tracklist is full of these lyrical Easter eggs and it’s nice to have this cushion when the album occasionally ventures into redundancy.  Let’s face it- Purity Ring are obviously not trying to keep anyone off balance here.  The rhythms, lo-fi beat drops, etc, while not overtly traditional, are familiar enough to become predictable and Shrines has the strongest case of “the claps” of any record in recent memory.  But in lieu of surprises, Purity Ring offers the listener an experience more akin to auditory cleansing than any type of calculated formality.  Shrines is an inescapable album and the best response is to probably just let it wash all over you- then, of course, listen to it again.

 - Fr. Jones

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Metric- Synthetica REVIEW

“I’m just as fucked up as they say…”

Thus begins Synthetica, Metric’s much-hyped followup to their 2009 breakthrough album, Fantasies.  This opening declaration ultimately sets a tone the album can only aspire to sustain for the duration.  It’s edgy, sexy, and committed-   but once the dust settles around the undeniable electricity of the opening three songs, it becomes quite apparent that Synthetica suffers from some of the same issues that plagued Fantasies.  For all of their intense, full-throttle highs, both albums are remarkably hit or miss.  It’s a rare feat of craftsmanship for a band to alternate between effortlessly sustaining accomplished, high-octane stadium rock with yawn-inducing formality, but this oddly seems to be the pattern that Metric is falling into.

Make no mistake about it though- when Synthetica works, it raises the powerhouse sensibilities of Fantasies to another level entirely.  It’s more polished and precise than it’s predecessor (which is saying a lot because the production on Fantasies practically had it’s own sheen).  While her vocal range is limited, Emily Haines sounds less willing to remain comfortable which leads to the album’s aforementioned edginess.  Plus, Metric seems to be glimpsing in new directions in terms of evolving their sound.  “Artificial Nocturne”, “Youth Without Youth”, and “Speed the Collapse” are not exactly reinventing the wheel (in fact, the synthetic pulse of “Youth” sounds downright Goldfrappian) but they show a band not only unreliant on repetition but interested in exploring as well.  This is why it feels all the more disheartening when Synthetica inexplicably loses all inspiration in it’s midsection before regrouping for an above-average final set- beginning with the album’s eponymous track but not counting the meandering “Wanderlust” bizarrely featuring a lost Lou Reed (yes, Lou Reed).  So far, Metric seems to be a victim of their own talent.  It’s impossible to argue the band’s technical merit, but their now trademark inconsistency renders them a frustrating band to enjoy on purely an album basis.  Perhaps their defining release will be a Greatest Hits collection ten years from now.  That thing should be dynamite.    


 - Fr. Jones

Sunday, July 15, 2012

How Many Millions of Cellphones Are Police Watching?

by Megha Rajagopalan, ProPublica
In response to a congressional inquiry, mobile phone companies on Monday finally disclosed just how many times they've handed over users' cellphone data to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. By the New York Times' count, cellphone companies responded to 1.3 million demands for subscribers' information last year from law enforcement. Many of the records, such as location data, don't require search warrants or much court oversight.
Both police and cell service providers had long resisted releasing details on the scope of cellphone surveillance. But the new disclosures from cellphone companies still leave a slew of unanswered questions. Here's what we have yet to learn.
So more than a million people had their cellphone records picked up law enforcement surveillance?
Actually, it's probably far more than that, but we can't know for sure.
While the Times calculated the number of overall requests from law enforcement, each of those requests could cover more than one person.
For instance, when seeking location information, law enforcement agencies frequently ask for "tower dumps," which list every phone in range of a cell tower at a particular time. In cities, where cell towers are located close together, it is possible that the locations of thousands of people might be swept up in a single request.
Even outside of urban areas, ubiquitous small boxes known as microcells, which help you get cell reception in crowded places like shopping malls, also record highly precise location data. Sprint noted in its letter to Congress that each subpoena it received "typically" asked for information on multiple subscribers.
The Times' calculation also doesn't include specifics from T-Mobile, one of the four largest carriers, because it refused to provide them, saying "T-Mobile does not disclose the number of requests we receive from law enforcement annually."
When do police have the right to snoop on your location data?
The law isn't settled yet, but location information is generally far easier for police to get than a warrant for a wiretap.
A warrant is generally required for police to place a wiretap or track phones in real time, meaning police must have proof they have probable cause that the search will reveal evidence of a crime. But for police to get location data, many courts hold that police need only show that the data would contain "specific and articulable facts" related to a case.
Privacy activists have long held that requests for location data require a search warrant to be constitutional. They say police are essentially using cellphones as tracking devices. But the Supreme Court hasn't ruled on the issue, and Congress has yet to pass a law addressing it.
Police obtain court orders for basic subscriber information so frequently that some mobile phone companies have established websites— here's one— with forms that police can fill out in minutes.
The Obama Administration's Department of Justice has said mobile phone users have "no reasonable expectation of privacy."
For their part, cellphone companies have supported congressional efforts to make it tougher for police to get location records. An industry representative spoke at House hearing in favor of a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before demanding mobile phone users' location information.
Exactly who are police tracking?
It's unclear how connected to a criminal investigation you have to be for law enforcement agencies to request your cellphone information. Stephen Smith, a magistrate judge in southern Texas who has advocated for clearer standards for location data requests, said law enforcement authorities sometimes even request information for every mobile phone a suspect has called.
"If you call and order a pizza, they might request the delivery guy's records," Smith said. These court orders are usually kept secret— during an ongoing investigation, police don't want to tip off a suspect— but as a result, the vast majority of cellphone subscribers being tracked have no idea police or the FBI have their historical location information, whether they were suspected of a crime or not.
What sorts of investigations do the requests serve?
It's not clear.
Police departments have frequently argued that requiring a warrant to obtain cellphone location information would cripple investigations into violent crimes like kidnapping. But it's unknown what proportion of law enforcement requests actually relate to these types of serious crimes.
"If 80 percent are for drug cases or robberies and two percent are for child sexual predators, it would help if you could put a number on those things," Smith said. "We'd be in a better position to legislate."
So what data did police request the most?
That's also unclear.
Most of the companies didn't release an exact breakdown of police requests. So we don't know how many of the requests were for location data and how many were for call records, billing information or other data.
Some of the overall numbers leave questions too. Sprint has about half the subscriber base of Verizon and AT&T. But it reported that it received about 500,000 requests overall from law enforcement last year. That far outpaces its competitors.
We spoke to Sprint spokeswoman Stephanie Vinge Walsh who said that Sprint counted each person whose data is sucked up via a police request. It's not clear exactly how the other companies totaled the requests they handled.
Which agencies have been requesting the data?
Once again, we don't know.
The cellphone companies didn't say what proportion of requests was made by federal authorities and what proportion came from state and local police departments.
The American Civil Liberties Union earlier this year culled data from dozens of police departments, showing wide discrepancies in the ease with which police could obtain cellphone location data. Some police departments routinely obtained warrants; others requested swathes of records with far less court oversight. In response to a question from Congress about whether police had misused phone tracking, T-Mobile said it had identified two cases, which it referred to the FBI.
What does law enforcement do with the data after it's collected?
It depends on who is requesting it.
As Smith, the Texas magistrate judge, pointed out in a recent paper, any information that's not used as evidence in court is unlikely to become public. Cellphone companies' data retention policies vary widely, and the duration of time law enforcement hangs on to the data it obtains is unknown.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Cellphone Companies Will Share Your Location Data - Just Not With You

by Megha Rajagopalan, ProPublica

Cellphone companies hold onto your location information for years and routinely provide it to police and, in anonymized form, to outside companies.
As they note in their privacy policies, Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile all analyze your information to send you targeted ads for their own services or from outside companies. At least tens of thousands of times a year, they also hand cellphone location information to the FBI or police officers who have a court order.
But ProPublica discovered that there's one person cell phone companies will not share your location information with: You.
We asked three ProPublica staffers and one friend to request their own geo-location data from the four largest cellphone providers. All four companies refused to provide it.
Here's how they responded:
On releasing location data to you: "Verizon Wireless will release a subscriber's location information to law enforcement with that subscriber's written consent. These requests must come to Verizon Wireless through law enforcement; so we would provide info on your account to law enforcement— with your consent— but not directly to you."
On responding to requests from law enforcement: " Unless a customer consents to the release of information or law enforcement certifies that there is an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury, Verizon Wireless does not release information to law enforcement without appropriate legal process." A spokesman said being more specific would "require us to share proprietary information."
On releasing location data to you: "We do not normally release this information to customers for privacy reasons because call detail records contain all calls made or received, including calls where numbers are ‘blocked.' Because of an FCC rule requiring that we not disclose ‘blocked' numbers, we only release this information to a customer when we receive a valid legal demand for it."
On responding to requests from law enforcement: "If the government is seeking "basic subscriber information" (defined in 18 USC sec. 2701, et seq) it can obtain that information by issuing a subpoena. If the government is seeking Sprint records relating to our customers that go beyond "basic subscriber information" then the government must furnish Sprint with a court order based on specific and articulable facts. If the government is seeking customer's content then it must obtain a warrant based on probable cause."
On releasing location data to you: "Giving customers location data for their wireless phones is not a service we provide."
On responding to requests from law enforcement: "We do share data with law enforcement as part of a valid legal process - for example, a court order or a subpoena."

On releasing location data to you: "No comment."
On responding to requests from law enforcement: "For law enforcement agencies, we release customer information only when compelled or permitted under existing laws. This includes, but is not limited to, circumstances under which there is a declaration from law enforcement of an exigent circumstance, as well as other valid legal process, such as subpoenas, search warrants, and court orders."
As location tracking by cell phone companies becomes increasingly accurate and widespread, the question of who your location data actually belongs to remains unresolved. Privacy activists in the U.S. say the law has not kept pace with developing technology and argue for more stringent privacy standards for cell phone companies. As Matt Blaze, a University of Pennsylvania professor put it, "all of the rules are in a state of enormous uncertainty and flux."
The Obama administration has maintained that mobile phone users have "no reasonable expectation of privacy." The administration has argued against more stringent standards for police and the FBI to obtain location data.
The FBI also says data collected by cell phones is not necessarily accurate enough to pose much of a threat to your privacy— for instance, in a strip mall, cell phone records may not show whether you are in a coffee shop or the apartment next door.
But that is quickly changing. Blaze said as the number of mobile phones continues to rise, cell phone companies are now installing thousands of small boxes known as microcells in crowded places like parking garages and shopping malls to enable them to provide better service. Microcells, he said, also enable the phone companies to record highly precise location data. While your phone is on, he said, it is constantly recording your location.
T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon and AT&T all refused to disclose how many requests from law enforcement they receive.
Our idea to test whether cellphone companies will give users their own location data came from a German politician who successfully obtained his data last year from Deutsche Telekom. Consumers in Europe have greater protections.

Correction (6/27/2012): This story has been corrected after we mistakenly repeated T-Mobile's comment as Sprint's response. We have also updated the story to include an additional response from AT&T.

Dumb Like a Fox

By Will Moredock
Last week I had the pleasure of leading a book discussion hosted by the local activist group Media Reform SC. The book in question was The Fox Effect: How Roger Ailes Turned a Network Into a Propaganda Machine by David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt, in conjunction with Media Matters for America, a media watchdog group that investigates right-wing media.
In more than 300 pages, Brock, Rabin-Havt, et. al, document the history of Fox News and Roger Ailes, the man who created it for media mogul Rupert Murdoch. They present scores of lies, distortions, and assaults on good sense and decency committed by Fox News and its talking heads, and it meticulously documents them with 32 pages of end notes.
Fox News president Roger Ailes has never worked as a journalist, has never called himself a journalist, and has, in fact, expressed considerable disdain for journalists. Like many of his on-air personalities, Ailes comes out of the entertainment business, in his case, The Mike Douglas Show.
From the creation of Fox News in 1996, Ailes used his network as a megaphone to reach the conservative faithful with the kind of flag-waving, anti-government, pro-corporate, Christian evangelical message gauged to attract the broadest possible right-wing audience. With the inauguration of Barack Obama on Jan. 20, 2008, that changed. Fox News morphed into an active arm of the Republican Party, dedicated to making Obama a one-term president. For the past three years it has made itself into a GOP forum and contracted potential presidential candidates, paying them lavish six-figure salaries as "special contributors." It has actively organized and promoted Tea Party rallies and used its muscle to hurt and humiliate Obama any way it can.
The Fox Effect cites studies by the University of Maryland, the Program on International Policy Attitudes, and The Quarterly Journal of Economics, showing that viewers of Fox News are less informed than the average American media consumer and that their quality of information seems to affect their voting patterns. Thanks to Fox News, millions of Americans believe Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, global warming is a hoax, and President Obama is a Kenyan, a Muslim, a socialist, and a Nazi.
One of the most insightful stories to come out of the book relates how Fox sought to destroy Media Matters for its work at exposing the fraudulent news network. Starting in June 2011, conservative pundits and Fox News contributors began a coordinated attack across several right-wing media platforms and multiple Fox programs, urging listeners and readers to contact the IRS and demand it revoke Media Matters' 501 (c)(3) tax status. Within three weeks, Fox had run dozens of on-air segments attacking Media Matters and urging the IRS to shut them down. Prominent links on the Fox Nation website urged users to sign pre-filled complaint forms to the IRS. The existence of The Fox Effect is evidence that the campaign failed.
Our book group discussed what an average citizen can do to counter the toxic effect of Fox News on our society and democracy. Of course, it was citizens acting in concert who ended the Fox career of megalomaniac Glenn Beck after the host called President Obama a racist in 2009. The group Color of Change organized a boycott of Beck's sponsors. Within weeks, some 70 companies had dropped Beck's program. Sponsorship and viewership continued to decline until Beck left in June 2011. He still has his radio program and a successful web following, but this once ubiquitous charlatan has become culturally irrelevant since he disappeared from Fox News.
There are other things citizens can do to purge the stench of Fox News from the public forum. I offered this to our discussion group last week, and now I offer it to you, good reader.
In keeping with the often retrograde attitudes in this very conservative town, many restaurants and other businesses have Fox News on a television in full view of their customers. Why they would seek to politicize a benign social and business environment is a mystery to me. Requiring someone to watch Fox while they eat their lunch is akin to forcing them to watch religious programming. Religion, like Fox News, requires faith. It is not supported by fact. And it should not be supported by us, either. If a proprietor will not change the television to another station, simply take your money and go elsewhere. That's a lesson in capitalism any Fox News fan will appreciate.
Will Moredock is a South Carolina native with degrees from the University of Georgia and the University of South Carolina. He is an award-winning journalist and short-story writer and author of Banana Republic: A Year in the Heart of Myrtle Beach.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Land of the Free: the Best Investigative Reporting on U.S. Prisons

by Cora Currier, ProPublica
'The U.S. has the highest reported incarceration rate in the world. We've rounded up some of the best investigative journalism on U.S. prisons and the problems that plague them. These stories cover juvenile justice, private prisons, immigration detention and other aspects of America's vast incarceration system.

Louisiana Incarcerated: How we built the world's prison capital, The Times-Picayune, May 2012
Louisiana's incarceration rate tops the U.S.'s, Iran's and China's. This eight-part series explains how it got there: lobbying from private prison companies, cash-strapped municipalities, harsh sentencing, and limited rehabilitation for those who make it out.

America's Expensive Sex Offenders, Salon, April 2012
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Bail Burden Keeps U.S. Jails Stuffed With Inmates, NPR, January 2010
Thousands of inmates are stuck in jail for petty, nonviolent crimes simply because they can't make bail. This NPR series showed how the country's bail system "exists almost solely to protect the interests of a powerful bail bonding industry."

What the Jail Guard Saw, Village Voice, July 2007
Some guards at New York City's prison island, Rikers, weren't just turning a blind eye to violence--they were encouraging it. The Voice has been covering the fallout from Rikers' " Fight Club" ever since, and five years later, they obtained gruesome photos showing rampant violence persists, despite the Correction Department's efforts.

Hellhole, The New Yorker, March 2009
Atul Gawande looked at the U.S.'s widespread use of isolation, which has ballooned in the past 20 years. At least 25,000 prisoners are now held in isolation just in so-called super-max prisons. And their minds can quickly degrade. "The experience," Gawande writes, "typically leaves them unfit for social interaction."

Why Are Prisoners Committing Suicide in Pennsylvania? The Nation, April 2012
An investigation the effects of solitary confinement on mentally ill prisoners in Pennsylvania. Also see this account from the Arizona Republic: nineteen prisoners in Arizona have killed themselves in the last two years, many of them while in solitary confinement—a widespread practice in the state.

The Devil's Playground, Westword, February 2011
Earlier this year the Justice Department laid out new rules aimed at eliminating widespread sexual abusein U.S. prisons. This article chronicles the ordeal of one inmate who tried to report rape in a Colorado prison.

Uncompromising Photos Expose Juvenile Detention in America, Wired, April 2012
America locks up children at a quicker rate than all other developed countries, with about 60,000 juveniles imprisoned on any given day. Photographer Richard Ross spent five years photographing the little-seen conditions inside 350 correction centers across the U.S.

For teens guilty of murder, penalties can vary widely, New England Center for Investigative Reporting, December 2011, and Direct Fail: Colorado's policy of sending teens to adult court, 5280 Magazine, December 2011
In light of the Supreme Court's decision this week  to strike down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, it's worth revisiting these exposes of juvenile justice in Colorado and Massachusetts, two states that often sentence teens as adults.

A Death in Texas: Profits, poverty and immigration converge, Boston Review, December 2009
Privately run immigration detention facilities have proliferated along the U.S.-Mexico border. But the small towns where they're located have rarely benefited. (Such tales aren't limited to the border, as this report from Georgia tells).

Private Prisons Profit From Immigration Crackdown, Federal And Local Law Enforcement Partnerships, Huffington Post, June 2012
The country's two largest private prison companies have spent tens of millions on lobbying in the past decade and doubled their campaign contributions, as the government launched tougher immigration rules. Since 2005, they've also more than doubled their revenues from immigration detention.

Clarification (6/29): We've clarified this story to note that the U.S. has the highest reported incarceration rate in the world. There are a few countries—notably North Korea—for which reliable prison statistics aren't available.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Drone Documents: Why The Government Won't Release Them

by Cora Currier, ProPublica
The covert U.S. effort to strike terrorist leaders using drones has moved further out of the shadows this year — targeted killing has been mentioned by President Obama and defended in speeches by Attorney General Eric Holder and Obama counterterrorism adviser John Brennan. The White House recently declassified the fact that it is conducting military operations in Yemen and Somalia.
But for all the talk, the administration says it hasn't officially confirmed particular strikes or the CIA's involvement.
Over the past year, the American Civil Liberties Union and reporters at The New York Times have filed several requests under the Freedom of Information Act seeking information about the CIA's drone program and the legal justification for attacks that killed terrorists and U.S. citizens. The government answered with a Glomar response — neither verifying nor denying that it has such documents.
So both the Times and the ACLU sued, claiming that there is widespread acknowledgement by government officials of drones and targeted killing, as well as the CIA's involvement.
Last week, the Justice Department submitted a motion in a federal court in New York seeking to dismiss the lawsuits. The government's argument, it turns out, mostly reiterates its Glomar response.
Any public statements by the administration, the motion states, were carefully phrased to avoid discussing specific operations and don't constitute official acknowledgement of targeted killing or the drone program. This includes Obama's statements on the killing of U.S. citizen Anwar Al Awlaki — "the President plainly did not acknowledge whether the United States was responsible for his death" — and Holder and Brennan's speeches this spring, which, according to the motion, address only the "potential targeting" of U.S. citizens, but not specific operations.
However, the motion says the CIA can now acknowledge that it has some documents related to "the use of targeted lethal force" against U.S. citizens — including, namely, the public speeches given by Holder and Brennan this spring:
The motion cites some existing legal analysis related to targeted killing and those public speeches:
But it says the government can't reveal more about the documents — neither their names nor how many there are:
Because whether or not the U.S. was involved in specific targeted killings, or whether the CIA is involved in targeted killing — at all — remains classified:
Similarly, the motion says that to acknowledge any number of records on drones would reveal whether the CIA possesses drones:
Finally, the government's brief adds that a few of the documents sought by the FOIA requests could be identified but are protected under executive privilege — because they involve internal deliberations in the Office of Legal Counsel, or are related to preparations for public statements by administration officials or meetings with the president.
The ACLU's deputy legal director said that the organization is preparing its opposition brief. A federal appeals court will hear arguments in September in another of the ACLU's FOIA lawsuits over the CIA's drone program.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

It's time to end corruption in Columbia

By Will Moredock
In 1989, FBI agents moved into the world of bars and clubs around the Statehouse in Columbia and set up a massive sting called Operation Lost Trust. Over the next two years, they offered bribes to legislators to support a sucker bill to legalize horse- and dog-track betting. Too many South Carolina lawmakers were happy to sell their votes.
When the feds sprang the Lost Trust trap in 1991, they snared 17 General Assembly members, seven lobbyists, and three others on bribery, extortion, and drug charges. All were convicted or pleaded guilty.
The epic sting and convictions made for riveting reading and reverberated around the nation. It even shocked this jaded old state, which has seen just about everything. In the end, archaic ethics laws were rewritten, and legislators swore they had found religion. It was going to be a new day in Columbia. From now on, there would be clean government, sunshine, transparency, and accountability.
That was a generation ago, and apparently all those pledges and lofty intentions have been forgotten, as demonstrated by recent reports from the Capital City. First, there is Gov. Nikki Haley, who faces a House Ethics Committee investigation. While she was in the House of Representatives, she was on the payroll of a Lexington County hospital at the same time she was pushing legislation the hospital desperately wanted.
In an apparent effort to distract the Ethics Committee and the public, Haley's attorney has promised to make public a list of other legislators who have received money from organizations that lobby at the Statehouse. Whose names are on that list and who are they working for? What legislation have they written or advanced to benefit their paymasters? That's a revelation we can look forward to in the weeks ahead — that is if Haley's attorneys ever produce the much-talked-about list.
In the meantime, Haley and her attorney have cited attorney-client privilege in declining to surrender e-mails sought by the Ethics Committee in their investigation. Haley is beginning to sound like Richard Nixon.
Last week, in a stunning revelation, The Post and Courier reported that in recent years Rep. Jim Merrill, the powerful Daniel Island Republican, has been on the payroll of the S.C. Association of Realtors. While receiving some $158,000 in consulting fees from the Realtors, he was the "primary sponsor and leading voice on legislation" to cut property taxes, making it easier for Realtors to sell houses.
Not only did his one-man consulting firm handle direct mail for the Realtors, but "Merrill's work included advising the Realtors as to which legislators would fall in line with their priorities so the group could back those lawmakers' campaigns," the P&C reported. The Charleston daily also notes that the group paid Merrill to design an ad that appeared in newspapers around the state, urging further tax cuts by the S.C. House.
Was there anything wrong in what Merrill, Haley, and perhaps others in the General Assembly are doing when they take money from special interests who lobby the Assembly? Sadly, the answer is no, according to the staff of the House Ethics Committee. "There's nothing unethical about it whatsoever," Merrill declared, citing the staff of the Ethics Committee as his legal authority.
And Merrill had something else to say, something that was even more troubling: "The General Assembly doesn't mean that much to me. I'm to the point that I have been there long enough to be jaded now, so my I-don't-give-a-damn meter is way off the charts."
A couple of observations about this sterling public servant and his colleagues in Columbia. First, Merrill will be re-elected in November because he has no opposition, nor has he had any since 2002. "I guess they think I'm doing a pretty good job," he said of his constituents. I guess they do.
My second point is that a number of people outside the Statehouse think that what is going on there stinks. Armand Derfner, a prominent public interest lawyer, told the P&C that Merrill's behavior in other states would be deemed "unethical and criminal, but here in South Carolina, it's the norm."
Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, said of Columbia, "That's the political culture and that is a very hard thing to change." Indeed, he suggested it might be time for another federal intervention in Columbia to clean house and drain the cesspool. He didn't say it, but I will: We need another Operation Lost Trust.
All of these revelations come less than four months after Lt. Gov. Ken Ard pleaded guilty to campaign law violations and resigned his seat. And thanks in part to these unfortunate events, South Carolina feels evermore like a Third World country — Afghanistan, perhaps, or Haiti — where Uncle Sam tries to impose democracy and modern values only to have its efforts thwarted every time by tribal leaders and special interests. You can't save those who don't wish to be saved.

Will South Carolina Refuse Medicaid Expansion?

Over 340,000 from South Carolina could be added to Medicaid rolls by 2019 under an expansion in the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that states can opt out without risk of losing federal support for Medicaid, raising the stakes that some may do so. 

Which States Will Refuse Medicaid Expansion?

by Charles Ornstein, ProPublica

See our interactive map of how health reform could expand Medicaid in each state.
For many people without insurance, a key question raised by the Supreme Court's decision today to uphold the Affordable Care Act is whether states will decline to participate in the law's big Medicaid expansion.
Although the court upheld the law's mandate requiring individuals to buy insurance, the justices said the act could not force states to expand Medicaid to millions by threatening to withhold federal funding.
Republican leaders of some states already are saying they are inclined to say thanks, but no thanks.
Tom Suehs, the Texas Health and Human Services Executive commissioner whose state could cover an additional 1.8 million people by 2019, praised the court for giving "states more ability to push back against a forced expansion of Medicaid. The court clearly recognized that the Affordable Care Act put states in the no-win situation of losing all their Medicaid funding or expanding their programs knowing that they would face billions of dollars in extra costs down the road."
The act, signed by President Obama in March 2010, required "states to extend Medicaid coverage to non-elderly individuals with incomes up to 133 percent of the poverty line, or about $30,700 for a family of four," according to a March 2012 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank. The extension was expected to cover nearly 16 million people by 2019, one of the law's main ways of reducing the ranks of the uninsured.
The 26 states that challenged the health care law together account for an estimated 8.5 million of those who would benefit from Medicaid's expansion by 2019, more than half the total, according to ProPublica's analysis of an Urban Institute report prepared for the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Stanford University health economist Dr. Jay Bhattacharya wrote on Stanford's medical school blog that some states may opt out. "Cash-strapped states will almost certainly consider this option since they will ultimately be on the hook for financing at least a portion of this expansion," he wrote. "If enough states decide to deny the Medicaid expansion, this may substantially reduce the ability of ACA [the Affordable Care Act] to expand insurance coverage."
Medicaid is a joint state-federal program that provides health coverage to the poor and disabled, with states putting up a portion of the money and the federal government funding the rest. Each state's matching percentage is based on per capita income.
According to a separate Kaiser foundation report, "Medicaid currently provides health coverage for over 60 million individuals, including 1 in 4 children, but low parent eligibility levels and restrictions in eligibility for other adults mean that many low income individuals remain uninsured. The ACA expands coverage by setting a national Medicaid eligibility floor for nearly all groups."
Under the law, the federal government would cover nearly 93 percent of the costs of the Medicaid expansion from 2014-22, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
"Specifically, the federal government will assume 100 percent of the Medicaid costs of covering newly eligible individuals for the first three years that the expansion is in effect (2014-16). Federal support will then phase down slightly over the following several years, and by 2020 (and for all subsequent years), the federal government will pay 90 percent of the costs of covering these individuals. According to CBO, between 2014 and 2022, the federal government will pay $931 billion of the cost of the Medicaid expansion, while states will pay roughly $73 billion, or 7 percent."
States that challenged the law argued that it was coercive to require them to either expand Medicaid or risk losing all Medicaid funding, a practical impossibility given the size of the program in most states. The court ruled that while it was constitutional for Congress to offer states money to expand Medicaid, it could not take away funding for their existing program if they declined, according to SCOTUSblog.
Immediately after the ruling, some Republican state officials said they were inclined to reject the new federal money, although there has been no deadline set for doing so.
In Missouri, according to The Associated Press, "House Majority Leader Tim Jones says the Republican-led Legislature will not consider the expansion. Republican Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder called the Medicaid expansion a 'break-the-bank provision.'"
The Birmingham Business Journal said that "opting out of the Medicaid expansion seems increasingly likely for Alabama — though Medicaid officials said they were still reviewing the court's ruling."
After all, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said, "The health care law is an overreach by the federal government that creates more regulation, bureaucracy, and a dramatic increase in costs to taxpayers."
And South Dakota's attorney general, Marty Jackle, was likewise blunt: "I am relieved that the Act's Medicaid expansion has been declared unconstitutional and has been significantly limited by the Court."
That said, rhetoric does not always translate to action. Many Republican governors said they would not accept funds from the 2009 stimulus package, but they ended up taking the money in the end. Three governors, in Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio, turned down money to build a high-speed rail line. Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford tried to turn down federal education stimulus money, but his state Supreme Court rejected that. And former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin rejected some state energy funding, but her Legislature overruled her.
ProPublica reporter Michael Grabell contributed to this report.