Friday, September 30, 2005

Cindy or Bring in the Clowns

When media folk want to validate their prejudices, they commission a poll to verify them, a junk in, junk out phenomena.

It is a foolhardy fallacy to think that people believe everything they read. The opposite may be true: We are dealing with a readership that has “come of age” and tends to be hypercritical. But you cannot form a sound opinion around an empty space: People cannot mentally grope data that has never registered in their minds. The media’s sins of commission pale in respect of their sins of omission. And, of course, if it’s not there, a poll cannot measure it.

Here is a harmless example: In September, a political commentator wrote a column asserting that Cindy Sheehan’s protest against the war in Iraq was rendered ineffective because people were too easily distracted. The column was titled, “Weather Distracts Nation From Iraq War.”

“As a nation,” the commentator wrote, “we seem to be unable to pay attention to more than one thing at a time. Iraq, Iraq - whoa! Look at those gas prices! Gas, gas - whoa! Look at that hurricane!”

No doubt the writer had her own reasons for wishing to keep the nation’s eyes fixed on Sheehan. But there is abundant evidence, much of it printed in the newspaper for which she writes, that nothing short of Armageddon would distract the media from focusing on the Iraq war -- particularly those aspects of it that are nettlesome to President George Bush.

It is true that Ms. Sheehan’s Washington protest was shoved off the front pages by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But then, “All Cindy All the Time” would have been – indeed, is – an insufferable bore.

And here we arrive at the nub of the problem. It could plausibly be argued that by the end of September 2005, the nation had a surfeit of Sheehan reportage. We were up to our necks with Cindy, and most of the incidents reported were, in any case, plucked from an anti-Viet Nam war script more weathered than New Orleans.

See Cindy say “this country is not worth dying for.” See Cindy say her son Casey “was killed in the Global War of Terrorism waged on the world and its own citizens by the biggest terrorist outfit in the world: George and his destructive neo-con cabal.” See Cindy refer to foreign terrorists in Iraq as “Freedom Fighters.” See Cindy refer to President Bush as "a lying bastard… that jerk… that filth spewer and war monger... that evil maniac,” and wonder plaintively, while the cameras are yet rolling, why the president should refuse to meet with her a second time.

During Cindy’s first audience with Bush, she was a bit more passive, perhaps because her new friends – particularly International Answer, one of the sponsoring groups of the Washington peace rally and a front group for jihadism -- had not yet stuck their pitchforks in her.

See Cindy arrested by Washington DC police for obstructing a public pathway. See her booked and returned to the street for photo ops.

How retro 70’s can you get?

War protests are necessary, even advisable. But this protest was bound to alienate the affections of those who had come of age in our brave new world.

Even former New York City Mayor Ed Koch – no rightist; Koch thinks the president should bring the troops home , the sooner the better, and deposit the whole mid-East tar baby into the hands of the United Nations – was prepared to write off Sheehan after her Washington DC performance.

“Many Americans, myself included,” Koch wrote in one of his columns, “now see her as a person who has come to enjoy the celebratory status accorded to her by the radicals on the extreme left who see America as the outlaw of the world. These radicals are not content to be constructive critics. They are bent on destroying this country.”

Right on!

It wasn’t Katrina or Rita that elbowed Sheehan off the front pages: It was Cindy’s runaway mouth, her too ardent friends, and a host of incurious reporters who omitted in their stories many of her quotes presented here.

You just can’t do that and expect to be convincing in an age as robust and foolproof as ours.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Bi-Partisan Campaign Reform Group Lays an Egg

The bipartisan legislative working group formed two months ago to resolve differences between Democrats and Republicans in the matter of campaign finance reform is a signal failure. In order to understand the failure, it helps to remember that “bipartisan” working groups are not non-partisan working groups.

According to one news report, the working group concluded its business by agreeing on a “broad framework” for a voluntary system of public financing; the group also agreed to apply campaign restrictions to lobbyists, state contractors and political action committees.

Un-huh.

The “broad framework” recalls the infamous “framework for peace” Viet Cong and U.S. negotiators struggled to bring about during the Vietnam War. The groups that sat down together to resolve matters of war and peace ended up spending months deciding what shape the negotiating table should be. The perpetual meeting provided an illusion of conciliation, but peace escaped the negotiators, and eventually the war was decided by the communist Viet Cong and Jane Fonda.

The campaign finance reform working group has disbanded after two months of negotiations, and none of the divisive issues that necessitated the formation of the committee have been settled. In fact, the respective positions of both Democrats and Republicans have not evolved materially since the Big Bang.

The act of creation that was supposed to usher in the age of campaign finance reform began when Gov. Jodi Rell, much to the dismay of her Republican rear guard, announced that she had leapt over the political fence. The governor said she was prepared to accept public financing of campaigns, a position that long had been the darling of campaign reform advocates and liberal commentators in Connecticut’s media.

The Republican’s newly minted reform posture was that they would agree to public financing of campaigns – provided Democrats would assent to a broad framework of reforms that, taken collectively, would separate politicians from political corruption.

Standing alone, public financing of campaigns would do little to end corruption in Connecticut as we know it; additional measures would be needed. Republicans proposed measures that, if adopted, would put a serious dent in the cozy relationship between incumbents, lobbyists and state contractors. They insisted that anti-corruption measures and public financing should be yoked together. Additionally, Republicans wanted to put an end to “ad-book” solicitations, a method used by incumbents to extort campaign contributions from lobbyists and state contractors.

And here was the sticking point – at the beginning, now and ever after, world without end, amen.

Around the time former Sen. Ernest Newton was accepting a bribe from a non-profit agency, an indiscretion that very well may land him in jail, Speaker of the House James Amann was shaking down lobbyists and contractors for contributions to a charity that has retained him on its payroll.

Democrats and Republicans have been dancing around the negotiating table ever since the proposals were launched by Rell.

It is the Democrat’s flaccid response towards the anti-corruption part of the campaign reform package that has made some commentators suspect that the party of forward progress has now become the party of the status quo.

Democrats control every position of power in state government but the governor’s office. Their lukewarm response to measures that immediately would impact the state’s putrid lobbyist/politician complex suggests that they desperately want to hang on to their sinecures and fear substantial change the way one suffering from vertigo fears the heights.

It is a great pity to see the party reduced to such a low estate – because none of the reform proposals will affect the distribution of power in state government. Term limits and an anti-gerrymandering provision that redraws district lines so as to make them as much as possible contiguous with town lines would change the political universe for the better, strengthen political parties and increase the political influence of municipalities. But Republicans – fast becoming the new party of forward progress in Connecticut – are not there yet.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Ernest Newton's Plea Bargain

Sen. Ernest Newton, the fourth ranking Democrat in the state legislature, pleaded guilty in a Bridgeport court on a charge he received a bribe. Prosecutors also charged that Newton used campaign contributions as a “private piggy bank.”

The plea bargain surprised no one who had been following the story.

Very early on, newspapers reported that prosecutors had in their hot little hands reams of recorded conversations allegedly showing that Newton had solicited and then accepted a bribe from Warren Godbolt, the director of Progressive Training Associates, in return for which the senator secured a grant for Godbolt’s non-profit agency.

Connecticut is wearily familiar with such prosecutions, and charges of this kind are not lightly made. That an incumbent politician, safe in his political sinecure, would be sorely tempted to use campaign funds for private purposes should surprise no one who believes in the frailty of human nature. Now that ethicists have made a concerted effort to clean up political precincts,” errant behaviors winked at in the bad old days of Tammany Hall have been criminalized -- and this presents any number of problems.

One problem is related to the ease of prosecution. RICO legislation has facilitated the prosecution of political crimes, even though the architect of the legislation, a Massachusetts professor, had warned that the legislation was not designed for use in political prosecutions.

As such prosecutions become more effortless, the question arises: Who shall face investigation and possible prosecution?

In an op-ed article in a Hartford newspaper, Rep. Arthur O’Neill, who served with distinction on a panel charged with recommending the impeachment of former Gov. John Rowland, applied some moral pressure on leading Democrat legislators to begin an investigation of Newton.

O’Neill wrote that “failure by the Senate to investigate Newton would imply either a double standard or a fear of what such an investigation might expose. According to ethics filings, there are more than two dozen legislators who have jobs similar to the one Newton claimed to have at Godbolt's nonprofit. These nonprofit and for-profit entities derive significant portions of their income from the state, money legislators must approve. Questions may be asked about other projects funded through the same process as the Godbolt grant.”

So then, circumstances similar to those that ensnared Newton also brood over more than two dozen legislators who have jobs like the one the senator claimed to have at Godbolt’s nonprofit. And two dozen legislators represent a sizable load of frail human nature. Is state prosecutor Kevin O’Connor investigating them? And if not, why not?

O’Conner has said that prosecutors stumbled upon Newton’s irregularities in the course of an investigation that targeted former Bridgeport mayor Joe Ganim. The lit fuse of corruption led irregularly from Ganim to Newton. It is possible that the fuse is connected to other powder kegs. In their investigation of Newton, is it possible that state prosecutors had stumbled upon incriminating facts that might lead to an investigation of the more than two dozen legislators who have jobs similar to Newton’s?

Newton has claimed that his ethnicity had caused prosecutorial lightening bolts to strike only him, a view derided by politicians and commentators alike who assert correctly that politicians now jailed for corrupt activity -- including former Gov. John Rowland, Ganim and former Mayor of Waterbury Phillip Giordano – do not belong to Newton’s ethnic grouping. But Newton’s view might be partially vindicated if it could be shown that none or few of the more than two dozen uninvestigated legislators mentioned in O’Neill’s opinion piece were African Americans.

Justice requires an impartial application of the laws -- which is why Lady Justice wears a blindfold. And if two dozen other legislators similarly situated escape close scrutiny, Newton may well ask: Why me? Why not them?

In political prosecutions, plea bargains offered by prosecutors and assented to in secret corners always will resemble Star Chamber proceedings. In open public proceedings – trials, impeachments and the like – justice wears the blindfold, and one may be relatively certain that the truth will emerge in the adversarial process; in private plea bargain agreements, the public is blindfolded and asked to trust in the virtue of prosecutors.

And when the truth is not tried in open proceedings, those who have been forced to plea under threat always will be able to claim, however implausibility, that they had been unjustly sent up the river.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Twilight Zoning Board in Chester

In a government of laws not of men, citizens ought to be able to appreciate the difference between the following two propositions: 1) whatever is not proscribed is permitted; and 2) only actions prescribed by law are permitted.

The first proposition means that the governing authority cannot prohibit the actions of a person living in a free state unless those actions violate a law. The second proposition means that every action unaddressed by the laws is illegal and actionable.

A zoning officer in Chester, Connecticut, a town that apparently has managed to escape 2,000 years of Western law, has told a widow that she must disinter the eight month old remains of her husband, buried on private property they own, because private burials are not addressed in zoning regulations and therefore are not allowed.

The burial, overseen by a funeral director, was in accord with common practices. The violation of the non-existent zoning regulations was discovered after the widow had donated a large portion of her estate to the Chester Land Conservation Trust. Apparently, town cemeteries in Chester are full and the widow wanted to spend her last days enjoying the fruits of a successful marriage with her departed husband close at hand.

But zoning officials in Chester have determined that if an action is not expressly permitted in the town’s zoning regulations, it cannot be allowed.

Not everyone in Connecticut may have the pleasure of living in Chester, but its zoning regulations very likely are not much different than those of other towns. It may be safely assumed that since the town fathers of Chester have not included in their zoning regulations permissions and prohibitions against the burial of husbands on private property, neither do the regulations remark on the burial of household pets.

Does the failure to mention the disposition of pets in Chester’s zoning regulations mean that the town is prepared to order its citizens to disinter the cremated remains of family dogs that some householders may have buried in their back yards or farms?

What about cats? If the zoning regulations in Chester do not prohibit Mrs. Smith from planting Fluffy’s remains by the flower garden where the good lady on warm July days may visit the spot and remember hallowed times spent with her pet, is Mrs. Smith safe from the storm troopers who will invade her privacy and order her to dig up Fluffy so that zoning regulations in Chester, which make no mention of the burial of cats, may suffer no violation?

What about mosquitoes? If Mr. Smith slaps a mosquito at a family picnic and it falls to the ground mortally wounded, will Mr. Smith be forced to move the remains to an adjoining town because zoning regulations in Chester do not mention a word concerning the proper disposition of mosquito carcasses?

It is a safe bet that the zoning regulations in Chester, though they be they a mile long and two miles high, probably do not mention whether it is permitted to outwit pestiferous moles by placing a square of Ex-lax in their holes – Try it, it works – and yet, according to zoning regulators in Chester, this reliable method of mole riddance is illegal because there is no mention of the proper disposition of moles in Chester’s zoning book.

The mind reels and swoons when it considers the vast number of things and human actions not mentioned in zoning books in Connecticut – all of them, according to the Solons of Chester, illegal.

It is through such misinterpretations of the rule of law – not a series of statutes but rules and conventions that affect the making of governments and laws – that republics and democracies fail. Romans in the twilight of their republic suffering under the rule of a succession of Caesars, each nuttier than the tyrant he supplanted, knew that Nero could make the trains run on time; but they also knew that power vested in people rather than in laws corrupts absolutely – which is why the praetorian guard stood idly by when Nero poisoned himself. Julius Caesar was murdered in the senate by patriots yearning for a return to republican self rule.

According to news reports, the widow intends to sue Chester’s Twilight Zoning Board. May she find a judge who agrees with the doctrine that what the law does not prohibit is permitted, a rule of law neatly encapsulated in the familiar provision that rights and immunities unmentioned in constitutions are retained by the people.

And after the widow wins her case, here's hoping she might consider running for Chester’s zoning board.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Strange Case of Ernest Newton; Or What Would Plunkitt Have Done?

A political tipping point in the case against state Sen. Ernest Newton came when Warren Godbolt admitted under oath that he had given a bribe to an as yet unnamed senator -- who almost certainly was Newton.

A similar tipping point occurred in the case of former Gov. John Rowland when the governor admitted that he had intentionally misled the media in statements relating to his acceptance of gifts from state contractors.

After that admission, the political universe under Rowland’s feet was pitched at an angle that could only take him downwards. Following a grand jury empanelled to take evidence of criminal wrongdoing from the governor’s close associates, a relentless media barrage, the convening of a committee of impeachment, calls from leading Democrats and some few Republican that Rowland should resign -- and other such horrors – the governor slid down the angle and was deposited, following a plea bargain, into an out of state prison.

There is an evolution of opinion and positions in all such matters; what had been appropriate before the tipping point, may not be useful or prudent after the ground under Newton’s feet had been pitched 45 degrees to the horizon.

When Newton was first implicated in federal court early in August of taking a bribe in return for which he had helped to secure a $100,000 state grant for a non-profit agency headed by Godbolt, it was possible to argue plausibly that the senator should remain at his post in the legislature until reasonable men could in good conscience presume he was no longer fit to serve.

It is not necessary for legislators to wait upon a finding of guilt in a law court before they take action against a legislator or a governor: Rowland was not found guilty in court before the legislature formed a committee of inquiry, a preliminary step to impeachment. Impeachment proceedings and disciplinary measures available to the legislature are political measures, not legal proceedings.

Back in August, Rep. William Hamzy – then serving as the Republican Party chairmen, and clearly a partisan – thought Newton should be deprived of his legislative seat because multiple raids by the FBI on Newton’s home and office confirmed, as he said at the time, “There’s something big going on here.”

Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams retorted that Newton was entitled to the presumption of innocence and rebuffed Hamzy’s demand. “I think we took the appropriate step when we met with Sen. Newton very early on,” Williams said, “and addressed the issue of his chairing the public safety committee (which Newton voluntarily surrendered.) That was the right decision to make early on, and we’re just waiting for the (FBI) investigation to conclude.”

Of course, Williams – who is a capable partisan leader of the senate – did not at that time have the advantage of a crystal ball. He could not have known that Godbolt later would be prosecuted and disgorge under oath exceedingly damaging information against Newton. Godbolt confessed to bribery; and nearly every impartial observer of court and investigatory data, including non-partisan objective reporters, is convinced that Newton was the recipient of the bribe.

But times and circumstances change; those who do not change with them fall under iron wheels. The times of patronage and power politics, they are a’changing. In some ways, both Rowland and Newton are the victims of times past, when who you knew rather than what you knew was a passport to felicity.

There was much in the old way of doing things to recommend them: George Washington Plunkitt, the New York ward boss and practitioner of “honest graft” immortalized in William Riordon’s “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, may have been a goodhearted, slightly crooked street politician, but at least he was not a thumb sucking, Cotton Matherish, puritanical ethicist, living in fear that someone, somewhere in the political precinct might be happy.

State Rep. Arthur O’Neill, a Republican who served with distinction as co-chairman during Rowland’s impeachment hearing, has sensibly suggested that the legislature need not wait for the conclusion of a criminal proceeding to expel Newton; a “common understanding” or an "allegation that a member has behaved improperly" is all that is necessary.

O’Neill, not a rabid partisan, feels that should the legislature fail to hold such a hearing, embarrassing questions might be asked concerning the “more than two dozen legislators who have jobs similar to the one Newton claimed to have at Godbolt’s nonprofit.”

Rowland was hung on a gibbet before the public was treated to a trial and an impeachment that might have exposed the extent of corruption in both his and other administrations. And Newton will be hung on a gibbet before a full and impartial investigation exposes anyone’s delinquencies but his own.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The M.O.B. Meeting On Blumenthal's Suit

EXPURGATED MINUTES OF THE M.O.B. MEETING

The meeting commenced on Sept 11, 2005. Present were the parties, whose names are here omitted, involved in a settlement, a polite expression for plea bargain, with Connecticut’s Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. The meeting was addressed by one of the lawyers, name omitted, who arranged the $30 million settlement deal. Noticing that the audience appeared downcast, the attorney sought to introduce a little levity into the proceedings.

“Welcome to the M.O.B.,” he began, causing a few eyebrows to arch upwards. The acronym, he explained, stood for Meeting of Brokers, “Not, you know, that other thing.”

Eventually, the attendees – some brokers and representatives of the three major Connecticut insurance companies involved in the settlement, names omitted, warmed to the speaker, but it was a stiff climb upwards.

“Why all the frowns?” the speaker asked. “Ah, I think I know. As everyone here is aware, a brokerage house,” name omitted, “had arranged to steer insurance products to three major Connecticut companies,” names omitted, “so as to maximize commissions and stiff the competition. An alert New York Attorney General early on got wind of the scheme and began to prosecute. It was not long before copy-cat prosecutors in other states followed suit – no pun intended. Anyway, to make a long story short, we settled with Connecticut’s attorney general, and all of us now are understandably glum because the settlement calls upon us to disgorge $30 million of our alleged ‘ill gotten gains’ to the clients steered by brokers to three large insurers – herein after ‘The Big Three.’ But every dark cloud has a silver lining. Under terms of the settlement arranged with the attorney general, we have been permitted to keep the remainder of the alleged ‘ill gotten gains’ – a cool $150 million.”

At this announcement, the room brightened up considerably.

“And,” the speaker continued, smiling broadly, “none of you will be Stewartized,” an arcane reference, we learned afterwards, to Ms. Martha Stewart, who did not enter into a plea bargain with prosecutors and ended up spending some time in prison. Upon her release, Ms. Stewart was forced to wear an unfashionable and unsightly ankle bracelet.

“No ankle bracelets for you,” the speaker joked.

Pumping his fist in the air, the speaker continued, “All the damaging publicity has been marginalized. Although the CEO’s of the Big Three, some of whom are here with us, conspired with a major brokerage firm to fix the market on insurance products, none have been named in Mr. Blumenthal’s suit as defendants. They will emerge from this ‘close call’ with their reputations and future earning potential intact.”

Though some news reports, the speaker said, described the verbiage of the suit as “scathing” towards the CEO’s of the Big Three, industry analysts – and very likely the consumers of insurance products – tend to regard such legal documents as press releases; and indeed, it is common practice for attorneys general such as Spitzer and Blumenthal to pre-release such information to reporters, pad their suits with self serving propaganda, and cut deals to make themselves look heroic to the general public. Blumenthal, he noted, used to dabble in journalism while in law school. Some bad habits, he said, are impossible to shake.

The bottom line, the speaker said, is this: Everyone gets a little piece of the political pie – except, maybe, clients served by the insurance companies. In the short term, they’ll get a few pennies rebated from commissions. But in the long term, they’ll be paying more for their insurance products because, the speaker said, the arrangement found offensive by Spitzer and Blumenthal might have provided insurance carriers with more customers, thereby enabling them to reduce the cost of their product to compete in an aggressive business environment made less profitable by, among other things, publicity hunting attorneys general willing to make political hay from well known and widespread industry practices.

This last remark produced a hearty round of applause.

END OF MINUTES

ADDENDA

The CEO’s of the Big Three, whose names were not mentioned in Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s suit, requested the same courtesy in these minutes. For reasons of clarity, the secretary would like to mention their names in this ADDENDA, which may become a public document. During the time of the alleged unethical activity, the CEO of Travelers was Jay Fishman; the CEO of the Hartford was Ramani Ayer and the CEO of CNA was (NAME DELETED OVER PROTEST OF THE SECRETARY.)