TPM News

Boy, does Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) have something to be thankful for:

A federal judge spared Sen. David Vitter an embarrassing appearance on the witness stand in a prostitution case when she abruptly canceled a hearing scheduled for next week.

The Louisiana Republican was under subpoena to testify about his ties to a Washington escort service. Deborah Palfrey, the woman accused of running a prostitution ring, had sought to question Vitter about whether he paid for sex.

But U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler canceled the hearing Wednesday, saying it served no purpose in the criminal case. It was Kessler who originally set the hearing but, after seeing Palfrey's witness list, the judge said she was convinced Palfrey was just trying to game the judicial system....

The Nov. 28 hearing was merely a tangent to Palfrey's prosecution, but Vitter's testimony would have drawn a crowd. With Vitter on the stand, attorney Montgomery Blair Sibley said he would ask, "As a client, did you engage in illegal sex acts?"

It's a novel strategy, asking someone to say they paid for sex to help bolster a prostitution case. But Palfrey says she provided a fantasy service, not a sexual one, and anyone who sold sex was a "rogue escort" who violated her employment contract.

Oh, good. No more embarrassment. Like those embarrassing details offered up by New Orleans prostitute Wendy Yow Ellis in Hustler, such as the fact that he insisted that prostitutes not "wear any perfume, body lotions, not even take a shower," because "he did not want any scent on him whatsoever"; that he took his used condoms with him afterwards; or that after he found out that Ellis had the same first name as his wife, he stopped visiting her, although he'd still go to watch Ellis dance at a French Quarter strip club occasionally. Phew!

Saudi Arabia and Libya are both considered U.S. allies in the war on terror. Nevertheless, these allies contributed 60 percent of the foreign fighters who have come to Iraq to kill American troops. Though U.S. officials have focused on Iranian support for the insurgency in Iraq, only 11 Iranians have been detained by the U.S. (New York Times)

Saudi Arabia has had “more than 100 of about 130 citizens return home from Guantanamo, including dozens a military review panel found were security threats.” Yemen, on the other hand, has managed to repatriate only 13 of 110 citizens. Check out the Boston Globe’s report on the story of Ali Muhammed Nasir Mohammed, who In May 2006 was told he would heading home from Guantanamo on the next plane to Saudi Arabia. But when Mohammed explained that he was from Yemen, the plane left without him and he remained in his cell for another18 months. (Boston Globe)

The military tribunal system that President Bush established at Guantanamo has produced more suicides than trials. 330 detainees have been held since 2002 without even being charged with a crime. Only one case has been completed and that was because of a plea bargain. (Boston Globe)

Read More →

It's not just foreign-to-domestic calls involving suspected terrorists. Nor library, business and medical records of American citizens in (mostly) terrorism-related cases. The list of circumstances under which law enforcement can jettison probable cause as a standard for obtaining information is expanding to include... carrying a cellphone.

Federal officials are routinely asking courts to order cellphone companies to furnish real-time tracking data so they can pinpoint the whereabouts of drug traffickers, fugitives and other criminal suspects, according to judges and industry lawyers.

In some cases, judges have granted the requests without requiring the government to demonstrate that there is probable cause to believe that a crime is taking place or that the inquiry will yield evidence of a crime. Privacy advocates fear such a practice may expose average Americans to a new level of government scrutiny of their daily lives.

Basically, as carriers increasingly offer subscribers the ability to stay informed of where their associates are at all times, law enforcement gets an investigative tool. In one recent case, a DEA agent sought a drug-trafficking suspect's Nextel tracking information from a judge simply by asserting that the suspect was trafficking drugs, thereby turning probable cause on its head. The agent didn't get away with it in this case, but in several other recent cases, courts issued warrants based on a determination that the location information provides "specific and articulable facts" relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.

Read More →

Federal investigators are bearing down on Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson for setting up his buddies with contracts and then telling Congress that he didn't "touch contracts."

One contract in particular that prosecutors are scrutinizing involves Jackson's friend, Atlanta lawyer Michael Hollis, who was paid approximately $1 million for managing the Virgin Islands Housing Authority, the National Journal reported last week, adding: "Before landing at the authority, some sources said, Hollis had no experience in running a public housing agency." When asked about the contract, Hollis told National Journal that "he had negotiated his contract with Orlando Cabrera, a senior HUD official, and 'people on his procurement staff.'" A grand jury has issued a subpoena for documents relating to Hollis' contract.

Well, perhaps it's a coincidence, but Cabrera, the Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing, announced that he would resign about a week before that National Journal piece came out. The resignation would be effective January 4th.

Why is he resigning? Cabrera told The Miami Herald, "I've had a wonderful experience these last few years, and I just want to take a few months to spend time with my wife and kids.... I know it sounds like the standard Potomac line, but it's not." He has "no firm career plans," the paper reports. The paper didn't ask him about the investigation, but you gotta wonder.

Ed. Note: Thanks to TPM Reader BK for the tip.

Rudy Giuliani has nothing to hide about his business dealings. Or, rather, he wants everyone to know that if the press finds what he's hiding, everyone will agree that everything's been "totally legal, totally ethical."

Every time reporters press Giuliani on his work with Giuliani Partners, his booming consultancy (Guiliani took home $4.1 million last year and his stake is worth anywhere from $5 million to $25 million), he's got the same answer: I'm not telling, but you should ask the firm. Then the reporter diligently calls over to Giuliani Partners to get the brush-off from its spokeswoman. That's what happened to The Wall Street Journal when the paper had questions about the firm's contract with Qatar. The Chicago Tribune got the same treatment when it asked about the firm's work for a developer's casino resort in Singapore.

When the AP asked him in an interview earlier this month if he'd disclose his client list, he responded that the business was "totally legal, totally ethical," "very ethical and law-abiding" and that there's "nothing for me to explain about it. We've acted honorably, decently." It was unfair to even ask, he said, employing the deft logic that since no one has found anything wrong, people shouldn't even ask the question:

"What's the standard? Giuliani Partners and Bracewell Giuliani are firms. Nobody has ever accused them of doing anything wrong. So all of the sudden, you are going to start jumping to conclusions about them when there are absolutely no suggestion they have done anything wrong?"

But those nasty journalists just keep at it. And though Giuliani won't discuss his clients, he says reporters have done a fine job in doing his disclosure for him. From the Tribune:

Questioned during a campaign appearance Tuesday in Chicago, Giuliani said that, "all of Giuliani Partners' clients, maybe with one or two exceptions, I'm not even sure that's right, are public. ... At least the ones that I was familiar with."

Confidentiality agreements prohibit disclosure of an unspecified number of clients, Giuliani said, "but somehow I think you -- you meaning the press in general -- have been successful in discovering. I'd have to check if it's every client. But just about every single client of Giuliani Partners. You'll have to check with them."

A spokeswoman for Giuliani Partners said that "a number of client relationships ... must remain confidential, as per the specific request of those clients."

She did not respond to questions about whether Giuliani was asking those clients to waive privacy in light of his presidential bid.

So.... just one or two more. The work of helping Rudy Giuliani prove how totally ethical, totally honest, honorable, decent, and law-abiding he is continues!

Yesterday, we noted a story about Iraq veterans who were being asked to return part of their enlistment bonuses because their injuries prevented them from completing their tours. The story focused on one vet in particular, Jordan Fox from Pittsburgh.

Well, the story kicked up something of a firestorm, so Brigadier General Michael Tucker, deputy commanding general of Walter Reed (he was tapped after the scandal broke), showed up on Fox News early this morning.

Reacting to Fox's case, he said, "We're not sure what happened but we're gonna fix it." Here's the clip:

The problem goes far beyond just that one soldier, though. No numbers are available, but the story yesterday quoted estimates by veterans groups that this sort of thing happened to "thousands" of others.

Tucker said that army policy "is that soldiers who are wounded in combat or have line of duty investigation injuries... we will not go after a recoupment of any bonuses they receive." Recouping bonuses, he said, "doesn't pass the common sense test."

But notice that phrasing. While that policy, if implemented, would prevent injured soldiers from having to pay back bonuses they'd already received, they might still not receive their full enlistment bonus. That's because the Army could still withhold parts of the bonus on the basis that the soldiers didn't complete their full tour due to the injury.

Rep. Jason Altmire (D-PA), who introduced a bill last month that would require the Pentagon to pay bonuses to wounded vets in full within 30 days after discharge for combat-related wounds, said he was "heartened" by Tucker's announcement this morning that the Army won't seek repayment of bonuses. He added:

“However, I am disappointed that the policy does not go further by stating that wounded soldiers will also receive the remaining balance of future bonus payments. It is preposterous for our government to have a policy that says that a soldier who has sustained serious injuries in the field of battle has not fulfilled his or her service obligation."

Pentagon rules, Altmire says, prevent enlistees from receiving their full enlistment bonus unless they fulfill their entire military obligation.

The spectacle of defense attorneys struggling to defend their clients against secret evidence has become a familiar one during the Bush Administration. But it's a rare occasion when even the prosecutors are cut out of the loop.

That's what has been happening in the case of Ali al-Timimi, a U.S. citizen who was convicted back in 2005 on terrorism charges. His lawyers are arguing that he was the subject of the administration's warrantless wiretapping program, and that his constitutional rights were violated. It's been a messy appeals process, and yesterday, the judge who presided over the case threw up her hands:

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit sent the case back to [U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema] last year after Timimi's attorneys raised the wiretapping argument. That led to a flurry of secret litigation. Yesterday, at a rare open hearing in the case, Brinkema said it was "ludicrous" that even prosecutors had not been allowed to see a series of filings that the intelligence community submitted to the judge.

"I am no longer willing to work under the circumstances where both the prosecuting team and defense counsel are not getting any kind of access to these materials," Brinkema said, according to a transcript of the hearing. "Frankly, if I can't get some flexibility on the government's part, then I'm going to be inclined to grant a motion for a new trial."

The New York Times sat on a story for three years about the United States’ and Pakistan’s joint secret efforts to protect nuclear weapons at the request of the Bush administration. The paper asked the administration if they could publish the Sunday story in light of recent developments in Pakistan that made it newsworthy, and this time, the “White House withdrew its request that publication be withheld.” (Politico)

Justice Department lawyers are concerned that an “unprecedented expansion” of the “speech or debate” clause of the Constitution may have the unintended effect of hampering corruption probes and investigations of members of Congress. The expansion, which occurred in a ruling during William Jefferson’s (D-LA) trial, bans "cursory exposure to legislative materials without a Member's consent.” (Washington Post)

While other senators have bolted the capitol for the holiday, senator Jim Webb (D-VA) is holding down the fort. Webb is remaining in the Senate to hold pro-forma sessions that will prevent Bush from making recess appointments. (New York Times)

Read More →

Why can't people just trust Rudy Giuliani?

As today's piece in The Chicago Tribune points out, Giuliani is a deviation from the mold of the successful businessman turned politician. Instead, Giuliani went from politics into business, and the success of that business relied in large part on Giuliani's continued prestige and the promise that he would eventually return to politics.

Giuliani Partners (not to be confused with Bracewell & Giuliani, the law firm he joined in 2005), which has been steadily growing since it's formation in 2002, is a consultancy. Which is a fancy way of saying that it does whatever its clients need it to do. Mostly, that seems to have been some form of security consulting -- but it's been nearly impossible to find out, because Giuliani won't say who the firm's clients are or were.

Today's Tribune takes a look at one of those clients:

Nine days after registering his presidential exploratory committee last November, Rudolph Giuliani appeared in Singapore to help a Las Vegas developer make a pitch for a $3.5 billion casino resort....

Giuliani's public involvement in the gaming bid began at a September 2006 news conference in Singapore hosted by Mark Advent, CEO of Eighth Wonder LLC, a Las Vegas development company heading one of three consortia competing to build the Sentosa Integrated Resort.

Giuliani Security & Safety LLC, a division of Giuliani Partners, was to provide security on a celebrity-studded, multibillion-dollar project featuring participation by soccer legend Pele, chef Alain Ducasse, New Age guru Deepak Chopra and designer Vera Wang, according to Advent.

Advent estimated that he spent more than $30 million to assemble and present his plans to Singaporean authorities.

He declined to disclose the fees paid to Giuliani, but described them as "fair and priceless."

Besides the obvious potential conflicts of interest this creates for a future president, there's the more pressing concern of not knowing who Giuliani has chosen to do business with. You might say his track record of business associates doesn't quell suspicion.

The piece goes on to tug on one thread. Giuliani Partners was working for Eighth Wonder, one of the companies making the resort bid -- and Eighth Wonder partnered with another company (called Melco) to make that bid. It turns out that the former CEO of that company, Stanley Ho, is "a controversial Hong Kong billionaire who has ties to the regime of North Korea's Kim Jong Il and has been linked to international organized crime by the U.S. government." A mobbed-up casino mogul is the shorter version of that description. The company is currently run by his son.

Now, Giuliani didn't work directly for Ho, and the spokeswoman for his firm called the link between Stanley Ho and the Eighth Wonder partnership "a stretch." And surely, if his business ties become an issue in the campaign, there will be other relationships that will prove more troublesome. But it just goes to show what little people know about how he's made his money for the past five years.

Just in time for the holidays, there's a special place in Hell just waiting to be filled by some as-yet-unknown Pentagon bureaucrat. Apparently, thousands of wounded soldiers who served in Iraq are being asked to return part of their enlistment bonuses -- because their injuries prevented them from completing their tours. From Pittsburgh's KDKA:

One of them is Jordan Fox, a young soldier from the South Hills.

He finds solace in the hundreds of boxes he loads onto a truck in Carnegie. In each box is a care package that will be sent to a man or woman serving in Iraq. It was in his name Operation Pittsburgh Pride was started.

Fox was seriously injured when a roadside bomb blew up his vehicle. He was knocked unconscious. His back was injured and lost all vision in his right eye.

A few months later Fox was sent home. His injuries prohibited him from fulfilling three months of his commitment. A few days ago, he received a letter from the military demanding nearly $3,000 of his signing bonus back.

"I tried to do my best and serve my country. I was unfortunately hurt in the process. Now they're telling me they want their money back," he explained.

Perversely, President Bush phoned Fox's mother to ask after Fox in May. Now his administration is taking money out of the pockets of wounded veterans like him.

Back in October, Rep. Jason Altmire (D-PA) introduced a bill, the Veterans Guaranteed Bonus Act, that would require the Pentagon to pay bonuses to wounded vets in full within 30 days after discharge for combat-related wounds. Back then, the Pentagon's flack vaguely assured The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "We are going to give our wounded warriors and their families what they need to recover and return to duty or private life." But apparently the policy has yet to change. It seems that the enlistment contract that at least some troops sign (whether it's service-specific is unclear) allows for withholding some of the signing bonus if a tour isn't completed. We're in touch with the Pentagon to clear this up, and we'll let you know as soon as we do.

Thanks to TPM Reader DB.