Michigan Campaign Finance Network Applauds Court Decision, Warns of Possible Loophole in Michigan

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A statement from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network:

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Caperton v. Massey Coal Company establishes that extraordinary campaign spending to support the election of a judge can create an unconstitutional probability of bias that requires the judge to disqualify himself from a case involving his campaign’s financial supporter.

The U.S. Supreme Court noted that the Caperton case was extreme, but “because the States may have codes with more rigorous recusal standards than due process requires, most recusal disputes will be resolved without resort to the Constitution, making the constitutional standard’s application rare.”

This decision underscores the wisdom of the Michigan Supreme Court’s ongoing effort to establish workable recusal standards for itself that will consider extreme campaign spending of the sort that has become a regular feature of contemporary Michigan Supreme Court election campaigns.

However, rigorous recusal standards for the Michigan Supreme Court will be undermined by the failure of Michigan’s Campaign Finance Act to require disclosure of contributors to organizations such as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the state’s political parties that sponsor candidate-focused “issue” advertisements that seek to define judicial candidates’ records, qualifications and suitability for office without explicitly exhorting a vote for or against a candidate. Without knowing who contributes to the committees that sponsor candidate-focused issue ads, it will not be clear when a motion for recusal rightfully should be filed.

The decision in the Caperton case provides an important buttress for citizens’ due process rights to an impartial judicial hearing. However, Michigan legislators must address the shortcomings in our campaign finance disclosure regulations if this protection is to have its full effect.

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Lobbyists Exploit Provision Allowing them to “Honor” Lawmakers

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USA Today–certainly not well-regarded as a source for hard-hitting journalism–has a surprisingly good piece that looks at how lobbyists are able skirt campaign finance regulations by contributing funds to “honor” lawmakers. The paper writes:

Despite a ban on gifts to lawmakers and limits on campaign contributions, lobbyists and groups that employ them can spend unlimited money to honor members of Congress or donate to non-profits connected to them or their relatives. The public – until now – had little insight into the scope of this largely hidden world of special-interest influence.

For the first time, those contributions are being tracked due to ethics rules adopted in 2007. What USA Today found in their comprehensive review wasn’t pretty: lobbyists and their corporate backers are using the loophole to influence lawmakers.

Two specific examples from the article:

Last year, the telecommunication industry gave more than $72,000 to non-profits and charities in honor of Rockefeller, who advocated legislation to provide legal immunity to phone companies that participated in the government’s anti-terrorism eavesdropping program. The largest donation came from AT&T. At the time, Rockefeller chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee and helped broker a deal on the bill, which passed last year.

Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House energy committee, asked an energy company to donate to a foundation that bears his name. His daughter-in-law, Amy Barton, is the unpaid director.

Utility giant Exelon gave $25,000 to the non-profit last June and $50,000 in 2006, according to federal records and interviews with company officials.

Barton wrote to Exelon CEO John Rowe, seeking the money, says David Brown, Exelon’s top lobbyist. The company is one of the nation’s largest producers of nuclear energy. Barton has long advocated on the industry’s behalf, pushing for the opening of a nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain, outside Las Vegas.

Local and Michigan Headlines: Film Looks at Philanthropy in Grand Rapids; Family Research Council Candidate for Hoekstra’s Seat

Here are some interesting articles published elsewhere in the past 24 hours covering Grand Rapids and Michigan:

Report Looks at Michigan’s Gay Marriage Ban and the Lessons that Can Be Learned from It

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The Center for American Progress–a liberal/centrist think-tank–has released a new report that examines the 2004 ballot initiative that banned gay marriage in Michigan.

The report is titled “The Faithful Divide Over Wedding Vows: A Profile of Michigan’s 2004 Battle Over Marriage Equality” and it takes a comprehensive look at how opponents of gay marriage were able to wage a successful campaign to ban the practice in Michigan. The report looks at the organizing on both sides of the debate to draw lessons that progressives in Michigan and other states can use to inform future organizing.

The report looks at the 7 ballot committees that supported the measure, fundraising efforts on behalf of the ban, and the role that various religious groups played in building support for the amendment. It’s an exhaustive look at the issue that provides some critical analysis and understanding of why the amendment passed.

Given how long it has been since the proposal passed, the most important part of the report are its recommendations for future organizing. Based on its analysis, the Center for American Progress recommends that LGBT advocates build relationships with progressive faith leaders to challenge the anti-gay religious monopoly, that whole denominations not be entirely written off, and that the message of LGBT rights should be framed in a mainstream way. In addition, the report argues that the campaign against Proposal 2 was limited by an ineffective media and organizing campaign.

As always, there is good reason to be skeptical of portions of their analysis, but it’s worth considering, especially with talk about a possible effort aimed at reversing the ban.

Nader Charges Democrats Offered to Pay Him to Stay Off Ballot in 2004

Ralph Nader

Last week, the Washington Post reported that Ralph Nader was offered money by Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair Terry McAuliffe to drop out of the presidential race in 2004. Nader said in an interview that McAuliffe offered him money–which he believes were Democratic Party funds–that he could spend in 31 states if he agreed not to campaign in 19 “battle ground” states. Nader said that he immediately rejected the offer, saying that “It’s completely inappropriate. The inappropriate behavior cannot be rationalized.”

Terry McAuliffe is currently running for governor of Virginia and his campaign has denied the allegations. A McAuliffe advisor said that he “engaged in a conversation with Nader to try to convince him not to run, or at the very least to not compete in the targeted battleground states” but that he did not offer Nader money. According to media reports, McAuliffe did offer to send Nader around the country to talk about issues–on the DNC’s dime–if Nader agreed to limit his campaign. Under federal law, that is legal, although it’s pretty hard to imagine being able to justify such an offer.

While it has largely been forgotten, Democrats engaged in an aggressive campaign to keep Nader off the ballot in 2004. It included lawsuits, public appeals, and other tactics–most of which was justified under the guise that Nader was simply a “spoiler” and that he “cost” Al Gore the presidency in 2000.

How’s that for democracy? It’s the kind of slimy, anti-democratic behavior that makes so many people swear off electoral politics.

Headlines: White House Asks Court to Block Torture Photos’ Release; Nader: Ex-DNC Chair Offered Money to Drop Out of ’04 Race

Democracy Now Headlines: White House Asks Court to Block Torture Photos' Release; Nader: Ex-DNC Chair Offered Money to Drop Out of '04 Race

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

White House Asks Court to Block Torture Photos’ Release

The Obama administration has formally requested the censorship of hundreds of photos of torture committed at U.S. prisons overseas. On Thursday, the administration asked a federal appeals court to block the photos on the grounds they would incite violence against U.S. troops. The administration’s court filing cited two secret statements from top U.S. generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, who have both lobbied for blocking the photos’ release.

Admin Denies Photos Depict Rape, Sexual Abuse

The move came one day after the head of the Abu Ghraib inquiry, Major General Antonio Taguba, said the photos include images of the rape and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs denied the claim.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: “I think the Pentagon has been very clear in a statement saying that the story is not true. I want to speak generally about some reports I’ve witnessed over the past few years in the British media, and in some ways, I’m surprised it filtered down.”

Anti-Torture Activists Call for Prosecutions, Photos’ Release

Meanwhile here in New York, anti-torture activists with the group World Can’t Wait held a protest at Grand Central Station calling for the photos’ release. Protesters donned orange jumpsuits and black hoods similar to those worn by Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Samantha Goldman of World Can’t Wait rejected the Obama administration’s argument for censoring the photos.

Samantha Goldman: “What enflames anti-American sentiment is U.S. military bases around the world, what enflames anti-U.S. sentiment is torture, is what we’re actually going over there to do. That’s what enflames anti-American sentiment, prosecuting the criminals, which, to do that, you need the photos to be released, to actually prosecute Bush era criminals, you would need to have the photos as evidence.”

Report: Cables Indicate Doctor Role in Zubaydah Torture

The investigative website ProPublica is reporting a team of doctors may have been involved in monitoring the torture of suspected al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah in August 2002. Secret CIA cables contain several ‘medical updates’ on Zubaydah’s interrogation, where he was waterboarded at least 83 times. The updates contain detailed information that suggests doctors actively monitored the waterboarding in what would be a violation of medical ethics.

Obama Renews Call for Israeli Settlement Freeze

President Obama hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House Thursday for their first formal talks. Obama criticized the Israeli government for rejecting his call to stop expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank, but also expressed tacit support for the Palestinian Authority’s repression of opposition groups in the West Bank through its U.S.-trained security forces.

President Obama: “On the Israeli side those obligations include stopping settlements. They include making sure that there is a viable potential Palestinian state. On the Palestinian side it’s going to be important and necessary to continue to take the security steps on the West Bank that President Abbas has already begun to take, working with General Dayton. We’ve seen great progress in terms of security in the West Bank.”

The Israeli government has put itself at odds with Obama over its refusal to end settlement growth and accept the principle of Palestinian statehood. Abbas said the key to peace lies in Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab lands.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: “Mr. President, I believe that the entire Arab world and the Islamic world, they are all committed to peace. We’ve seen that through the Arab League Peace Initiative that simply talks about land for peace as a principle. I believe that if the Israelis would withdraw from all occupied Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese land, the Arab world will be ready to have normal relationships with the state of Israel.”

Report: 20,000 Civilians Killed in Sri Lanka Conflict’s Final Weeks

The Times of London is reporting more than 20,000 civilians were killed in the final days of Sri Lanka’s attack on Tamil Tiger rebels–three times the official figure. Citing what it says are secret UN documents, the Times says around 1,000 people were killed every day from late April until the conflict ended ten days ago. The Sri Lankan military was accused of indiscriminately shelling no-fire zones, including two attacks on a major hospital. Tamil Tiger rebels were accused of using civilians as human shields. The Times says the evidence strongly supports allegations most of the civilians were killed by Sri Lankan military attacks. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has called for an independent probe of war crimes during the conflict.

13 Killed in Pakistan Attacks

In Pakistan, thirteen people were killed Thursday in militant attacks targeting police officers. It was the second straight day of gun-and-bomb attacks from militant groups. The strikes are believed to be retaliation for the anti-Taliban offensive that has displaced more than two million people in the northwestern Swat valley. On Thursday, United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes called Pakistan’s internal refugee crisis “unprecedented” in recent years.

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes: “This is a plan for I think for 543 million dollars to deal with the current very severe and dramatic humanitarian situation that has arisen there. The scale and the speed of the displacement that we’ve seen over the last few weeks are really unprecedented, certainly in Pakistan but also in recent memory anywhere.”

Iraq to Arrest 1,000 Officials on Corruption Charges

The Iraqi government says it plans to arrest more than 1,000 officials in a massive corruption scandal that has forced its Trade Minister to resign. Trade Ministry workers are accused of profiting from Iraq’s importing of food supplies for programs that feed 60 percent of Iraqis. Video has also surfaced of trade officials at a party drinking alcohol and insulting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Amnesty: Human Rights Abuses Increasing in Mexico

In Mexico, Amnesty International says Mexican soldiers and police officers were involved in an increasing number of human rights abuses last year. Amnesty International’s Arturo Herrera criticized what he called growing impunity in Mexico.

Arturo Herrera: “Due to impunity, practically generalized also where authorities have not been at the height of circumstances, not only with regards to human rights abuses but also a situation of insecurity which prevails in the country which has not found an accurate response.”

Amnesty days the abuses have grown with the expansion of Mexico’s crackdown on drug cartel violence. Earlier this week, ten mayors of Mexican towns were arrested for allegedly collaborating with the cartels.

Pentagon to Launch Cyberspace Command

Back in the United States, the New York Times is reporting the Pentagon is planning a new military command focusing on cyberspace. The command would direct the military’s computer-based attacks. The news comes as President Obama is expected to announce a civilian office run by a ‘cyber-czar’ tasked with overseeing the protection of the nation’s computer networks later today.

Record 12% in Foreclosure, Behind on Payments

New figures show a record twelve percent of Americans are behind on their mortgage payments or in foreclosure. The Mortgage Banker Association says the first quarter results mark a four percent rise from the same period last year. Subprime loans accounted for more than 43 percent of delinquent mortgages.

Time Warner-AOL to Split

In business news, the media giant Time Warner has announced it will spin off internet stalwart AOL into a separate company. The two corporations merged nine years ago.

Study: Minimum Wage Hike Provides “Stealth Stimulus”

A new study says recent hikes to the U.S. minimum wage are acting as a “stealth stimulus” to the economy. The Economic Policy Institute says increases to the minimum wage will boost consumer spending by $4.9 billion dollars.

Creditors, Workers Approve GM Deal

Creditors of the auto giant General Motors have approved a deal that would see the U.S. government take at least 70 percent control of the company to save it from collapse. The Canadian government and the United Auto Workers union would also take up smaller ownership shares. On Thursday, a majority of UAW members also approved the ownership deal in return for major concessions on wages and benefits.

Study: Insured Families Pay Additional Costs for Uninsured

A new study says the average family with health insurance paid a hidden premium of more than $1,000 dollars to cover the medical costs of the uninsured. The group Families USA says $42 billion dollars, mostly in emergency room fees, was passed on to insurance companies by uninsured patients. The insurers in turn made up for the costs by imposing higher premiums on their customers.

Single-Payer Advocates Hold National Day of Action

A coalition of advocacy groups meanwhile is holding a national day of action Saturday for the establishment of a single-payer health care system. Events in more than 50 cities are set to include town hall meetings, rallies, vigils and protests outside insurance companies that profit from the medical system. The day of action is being organized by the Leadership Conference for Guaranteed Health Care.

Nader: Ex-DNC Chair Offered Money to Drop Out of ’04 Race

The consumer advocate Ralph Nader is accusing former Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe of trying to bribe him to stay off the presidential ballot in 2004. Nader says McAuliffe offered his campaign an unspecified amount of money if he withdrew in 19 battleground states. McAuliffe is currently running for the Democratic nomination in Virginia’s gubernatorial race.

N.Y. Police Kill Off-Duty Black Officer

And here in New York, an off-duty African-American police officer has been killed by a fellow officer who mistook him for a criminal. The slain officer, 25-year old Omar Edwards, had come across a man breaking into his vehicle. He chased the man with his gun drawn when three police officers came upon him and opened fire. Edwards was recently married and the father of two children.

Anti-Gay Candidate Elected to GRCC Board of Trustees

Richard Ryskamp

A few weeks ago, we wrote about Richard Ryskamp, an anti-gay “morality” candidate for Grand Rapids Community College’s (GRCC) Board of Trustees. Unfortunately, Ryskamp won the seat. He received the second highest number of votes in the election.

In an article from the Grand Rapids Press, Interim President Ann Mulder seemed concerned over Ryskamp’s election. She was quoted saying, “I have faith the top three will understand the significance of this college and will put aside any individual agenda to address the real issues of education and the viability of this college.” Over the past several years, Ryskamp has appeared at board meetings and consistently criticized the school for its policies.

We wrote a detailed piece about his politics, but it’s worth noting a further substantiation of his anti-gay views. Earlier this year, Ryskamp submitted a letter to the editor in the Grand Rapids Press weighing in on the controversy over WOOD TV 8’s decision not to air an anti-gay television special. Not surprisingly for Ryskamp–who has criticized gay speakers at GRCC–ranted against the “radical homosexual agenda” and “radical gay activists.”

We’ll keep an eye on Ryskamp and what he advocates. It’s unfortunate that a school that is known for taking serious steps to promote diversity and LGBT inclusion, now has such a man serving on the board.

Silver Line Bus Millage Fails

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The millage for the “Silver Line” bus rapid transit (BRT) system that was proposed by The Rapid was defeated yesterday. The proposal was defeated 52% to 47% overall, with Grand Rapids and East Grand Rapids being the only cities to vote in support of it. Grandville, Walker, and Wyoming all voted against it.

The millage had decent bi-partisan support from various politicians and organizations, but in the end it didn’t have enough support from the voters. While the increase wouldn’t have taken effect until 2012, the millage’s supporters say it likely failed because of the current economic situation.

The Rapid needed the millage to secure $32 million in federal funding for the project. According to the Executive Director of The Rapid, the money may no longer come to Grand Rapids.

The Rapid can place the millage on the ballot next year if it wants, but at the current time its future is unknown.

Vote Today

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For those living in the Grand Rapids and Greater Grand Rapids area, there are a number of different local elections today. There is a Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education election, the Rapid Silver Line millage proposal, and the Grand Rapids Community College Board elections.

You can find your polling location on the Kent County website and you can read more about the elections by consulting the following items on MediaMouse.org:

Education Action Group Mailing Warns Against “Union Puppets”

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When I opened up the mailbox today, I was greeted by a postcard from a group called the Education Action Group urging me to vote against the “union puppets” running for the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board. The mailing says that the Grand Rapids teachers’ union “wants expensive health insurance and a 6-10 percent raise.” According to the post card, that’s something that the district can’t afford and we need to vote to stop the “union takeover.”

Of course, it’s open knowledge that the Grand Rapids Public Schools and the Grand Rapids Education Association are engaged in an ongoing dispute over the state of the contract between the union and the Grand Rapids Public Schools. Even as the candidates seek to talk about other difficult issues facing the district, the media is largely defining the race based on the contract dispute.

A lot has been said about the Education Action Group and its agenda elsewhere. But it’s worth noting once again that the organization is engaged in a statewide campaign to undermine the Michigan Education Association and to attack teachers’ unions. To that end, it has a secret donor list that funds a variety of outreach activities including these mailers, videos featuring the rather slimy consultant Dick Morris, travel expenses, and it pays an organizer to oppose teachers’ unions across the state.

The Education Action Group claims to be “a struggling group fighting for our children” that is heroically taking on the unions in defense of the proverbial “little guy (or gal).” They say they are advocates for the silent majority that opposes the teachers unions. They claim to be “an independent, non-partisan organization.”

However, they have close ties to the Republican Party and the rightwing establishment in Michigan. The group’s head–Kyle Olson–was paid $29,000 by the group to lead its efforts. Olson’s a Republican and he was a lobbyist for the Michigan Association of Realtors, he managed Republican Gerald VanWoerkem’s campaign for state Senate in 2002, and he ran unsuccessfully for the Muskegon Board of Commissioners. He was also on Republican Mitt Romney’s Michigan presidential campaign.

The Education Action Group doesn’t divulge its board of directors or donors, but there are links to other prominent rightwing groups in Michigan. The organization’s incorporator, Eric Doster, is on the board of the Great Lakes Education Project a group that is part of Dick and Betsy DeVos’ ongoing efforts to promote school vouchers and attack public education. This has fueled speculation that the Education Action Group might have ties to the DeVos family and the rest of the anti-public education forces in Michigan. Kyle Olson’s brother Ryan Olson, was Director of Education Policy at the rightwing Mackinac Center which has long been critical of public education in Michigan and that advocates a wider agenda of privatization. Back in 2000, it was involved in a failed effort to adopt a statewide school voucher campaign.

For those who want a more balanced look at the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board election, check out the voters guide produced by the League of Women Voters.