TPM News

New details are emerging about the government's extreme eagerness to ensure that Bank of America didn't walk away from its deal to buy Merrill Lynch back in December. The Wall Street Journal reports (sub. req.) that Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke threatened that if the deal fell through, the government would remove Bank of America's directors in the event that it needed more bailout funds. The details suggest the control that the federal government has enjoyed over the financial sector since last fall's bailout. (Wall Street Journal)

A former employee of the Interior Department was sentenced yesterday to probation and fined $2,000 for his role in a scandal at the Minerals Management Service. Milton Dial received the minimum sentence for one charge of violating federal interest laws and the judge even apologized to Dial for sentencing him at all, saying that, "high executives in our government violate all the time" and go unpunished. Dial's crime is connected to a wider scandal involving the preferential awarding of contracts by DOI that has already ensnared several current or former department managers. (KATC)

A contractor for the U.S. Army pleaded guilty yesterday to manslaughter after shooting a handcuffed Taliban member in Afghanistan. The case was the first in which a contractor working in either Iraq or Afghanistan was prosecuted under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000, a law that allows such prosecutions. The case could set a significant precedent for other contractors working abroad. The contractor acted after he heard that the Taliban man had caused significant and eventually fatal injuries to a colleague. (Washington Post)

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Now this is welcome news. Congress gave its lickety-split approval yesterday to a bill that would extend a subtle but crucial authority to Neil Barofsky, the federal prosecutor who is serving as the inspector general investigating the Troubled Assets Relief Program, a.k.a. the financial bailout.

If you remember, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) raised a stink last week when he heard that Barofsky was delayed in getting data from bailed-out banks due to the limits of an obscure law called the Paperwork Reduction Act. The bill that Congress okayed last night, however, appears to make Grassley's concerns very moot.

It states that Barofsky's office does not need advance approval from the Justice Department to perform the following duties specified in the 1978 Inspector General Act:

(A) carry a firearm while engaged in official duties as authorized under this Act or other statute ...

(B) make an arrest without a warrant while engaged in official duties as authorized under this Act or other statute ... for any offense against the United States committed in the presence of such Inspector General, Assistant Inspector General, or agent, or for any felony cognizable under the laws of the United States if such Inspector General, Assistant Inspector General, or agent has reasonable grounds to believe that the person to be arrested has committed or is committing such felony; and

(C) seek and execute warrants for arrest, search of a premises, or seizure of evidence issued under the authority of the United States upon probable cause to believe that a violation has been committed

Obama's Day Ahead President Obama is speaking at 9 a.m. at the National Prayer Breakfast. At 11 a.m. he will sign an executive order establishing the President's Advisory Council on Faith, which will revamp the former Bush Administration's faith-based initiatives. At 12 p.m. he will speak at the Department of Energy. At 3 p.m. he and Joe Biden are meeting with Tim Geithner, and at 3:45 p.m. Obama and Biden will meet with Hillary Clinton. At 8 p.m. ET he will speak to the House Democrats' Issues Conference.

Biden Meeting With O'Malley, Cardin And LaHood Joe Biden is holding a public event at 10 a.m. with Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and Senator Ben Cardin, plus Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, to discuss the need for greater investments in infrastructure.

Today: Minnesota Supremes Hearing Case For Franken Certification The Minnesota Supreme Court will be hearing arguments in a very important lawsuit at 10 a.m. ET this morning: The Franken campaign's case that he is entitled to a certificate of election, while Norm Coleman continues to dispute the election result in court. Franken's attorneys believe they have found a state statute that requires a certification, as opposed to the conventional wisdom that one can't be issued until the court case is over, and also argue that he is also entitled to his Senate seat under the federal Constitution.

Gregg: We Need To Work Together On Economic Measures I've Recused Myself From In his interview with CNBC yesterday, Judd Gregg called for bipartisanship as Washington works to improve the economy: "I think it's necessary we work together." Note: Gregg has recused himself from voting on the stimulus package while his nomination for Secretary of Commerce is pending, which in terms of parliamentary procedure is the same as if he were voting No on every cloture motion.

Poll: Dems Start Out Ahead In Wide-Open 2010 Ohio Senate Race A new Quinnipiac poll shows Republican former Congressman Rob Portman trailing two potential Democratic candidates in the 2010 Ohio Senate race, which is an open GOP-held seat. The undecideds remain rather high, though: Portman trails Democratic Lt. Governor Lee Fisher by a 42%-27% margin, and Portman trails Dem Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner by 38%-28%.

Mitt To Headline GOP Dinner The Hill reports that Mitt Romney will be headlining the National Republican Senatorial Committee's annual fundraising dinner, keeping his name and political presence out there for any potential 2012 presidential candidacy. The dinner is scheduled for April 1.

Iowa's David Yepsen Leaving Journalism David Yepsen, the long-time top political columnist in Iowa, is leaving the Des Moines Register to become director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Southern Illinois. Yepsen has been a major presence in the coverage of past Iowa caucuses, and his departure is a sign of just how much the political journalism field is now changing.

AP Makes Copyright Infringement Claim On Obama "Hope" Poster The Associated Press is claiming copyright infringement on the iconic "Hope" poster of Barack Obama, which appears to have been modeled after a photo of Obama from 2006. The AP wants credit and compensation for the use of the photo, while poster creator Shepard Fairey believes he is protected by fair use, and his attorney is in discussions with the AP.

The Franken legal team have made it clear that they don't intend to simply play defense and prevent Norm Coleman from gaining the 226 votes he'll need to win. In fact, they're playing a very active offense to pick up as many additional votes as they can.

This afternoon, Franken attorney David Lillehaug was questioning Washington County elections official Kevin Corbid, attempting to make a case that some precincts in his county lost ballots during the recount and gave Coleman a net "gain" of ten votes. Corbid's theory has been that ballots were double-scanned by the machines on Election Night, but he admitted that ballot-loss is a possibility, and the evidence isn't complete.

At his press conference earlier this evening, Coleman lawyer Ben Ginsberg fired back. "What you've now seen today is Mr. Lillehaug's attempt to denigrate the results of the election, to call it into question," Ginsberg said, accusing Franken of running down the integrity of election officials -- apparently with no sense of self-awareness.

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In a press conference just now, Coleman lawyer Ben Ginsberg made an interesting declaration: The fact that the Minnesota Senate seat is now empty, depriving the state of full representation, is the Democrats' fault.

Ginsberg was lambasting the Franken campaign's lawsuit to force the state to issue Franken a certificate of election -- which will be argued at the state Supreme Court tomorrow -- as an undemocratic attempt seize the seat, charging that the Franken team know they will lose when all the votes are counted.

When asked by a reporter about the problem of Minnesotans being under-represented Ginsberg explained that there is a constitutional solution to this impasse: Having the Senate declare the seat officially vacant, empowering the governor to make an appointment to the seat. "They don't want to do that because the governor is a Republican," Ginsberg said.

It should be pointed out that Minnesota law currently empowers the governor to make an appointment to a vacant Senate seat, with no special election until the next cycle -- that is, November 2010.

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Barney Frank, the chair of the House Financial Services committee, has invited the heads of the first eight banks that received bailout funds to testify at a hearing next Wednesday on the bailout, reports

Those CEOs are:

Ken Lewis of Bank of America; Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase; Vikram Pandit of Citi; Ronald Logue of State Street; Robert Kelly of Bank of New York; John Stumpf of Wells Fargo; John Mack of Morgan Stanley; and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs.

But notice that word "invite." It appears that the corporate titans are free to choose not to attend -- even though Frank is seeking crucial information about what their firms did with the hundreds of billions in taxpayer money we gave them.

Indeed, adds:
A press secretary declined to comment on whether any of the CEOs have accepted the invitation.

So it sounds like a real possibility that at least some of those CEOs might just go ahead and decline Frank's polite invitation.

We've contacted the committee's press office to ask whether subpoenaing the CEOs was considered, or might still be in the future. We'll let you know what we hear.

President Obama's Labor Secretary nominee, former Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA), will get her long-awaited confirmation vote in the Senate labor committee tomorrow, a aide to that panel just told me.

Solis' nomination had been slowed down by Republicans seeking to twist her arm on the Employee Free Choice Act, a longtime priority of the labor movement and a stated goal of the Obama administration. (Here's more from Matt on the internal politics of that debate.)

The committee has the votes to approve Solis even if every GOPer dissents. The question then is if, and how quickly, a Republican senator subsequently places an anonymous hold on her nomination. We'll be watching.

A federal grand jury probe of the firings of nine U.S. attorneys during the Bush administration is focusing on the role played by recently retired Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and former senior Bush White House aides in the 2006 dismissal of David Iglesias as U.S. attorney for New Mexico, according to legal sources familiar with the inquiry. The federal grand jury is investigating whether Domenici and other political figures attempted to improperly press Iglesias to bring a criminal prosecution against New Mexico Democrats just prior to the 2006 congressional midterm elections, according to legal sources close to the investigation and private attorneys representing officials who prosecutors want to question.  Investigators appear to be scrutinizing Iglesias' firing in the context of whether he was fired in retaliation because Domenici and others believed that he would not manipulate the timing of prosecutions to help Republicans.

Previously, Domenici was severely criticized by two internal Justice Department watchdog offices, the Department's Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), for refusing to cooperate with their earlier probe of the firings of the U.S. attorneys. In part because of their frustration that Domenici and his chief of staff, Steve Bell, as well as several senior White House officials, would not cooperate with them, the Inspector General and OPR sought that a criminal prosecutor take over their probe. It is unclear whether Domenici will now cooperate with the criminal probe. Domenici's attorney, Lee Blalack, in an interview, declined to say what Domenici will do when he is contacted by investigators.

The focus of the grand jury probe was described by a federal law enforcement official, two witnesses who have been recently been asked to answer questions from investigators, and an attorney representing a former Justice Department official who has been told that investigators want to question his client.  People who had been contacted by investigators spoke on the condition that they not be named because they did not want to upset federal law enforcement officials who would question and investigate them and also because they believe that simply being questioned might unfairly tarnish their reputations.

Nora DannehyThe grand jury investigation is currently being led by Nora Dannehy, the acting U.S. attorney in Connecticut.  Then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey named Dannehy to "determine whether any prosecutable offense was committed" in the course of the firings following September's report by the Inspector General and OPR on the firings.

The report found that Iglesias was fired largely as a result of complaints made to the White House by Domenici and Bell. But the report also concluded that the probe was severely "hindered" by the refusal by Domenici, Bell, and several senior Bush administration officials to cooperate with the investigation. 

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As the testimony continues today in Minnesota, Franken lawyer David Lillehaug has made a very tough criticism of Norm Coleman's legal team: They haven't done their homework.

Lillehaug has now begun cross-examining Washington County elections official Kevin Corbid, who was called by the Coleman team to explore their case that there remain unfairly excluded ballots. Earlier today, Corbid mentioned that he'd gone back to his office yesterday and done further research on four rejected ballots that the Coleman team had brought up.

Lillehaug decided to explore this, having Corbid go over his review of those four cases mentioned above. It turned out one of the voters went to the precinct on Election Day; another had obtained a second absentee ballot, after the first one had problems, and has been properly counted; another one was actually counted on Election Night, but the empty ballot envelope was accidentally placed in the rejected pile; and one remains rejected, with Corbid standing by the decision.

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And zero-gravity chairs, for that matter?

What follows is the entire text of an amendment that Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), that stalwart foe of earmarks, has proposed to add to the stimulus bill. (emphasis mine)

None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available under this act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, arts center, or highway beautification project, including renovation, remodeling, construction, salaries, furniture, zero-gravity chairs, big-screen televisions, beautification, rotating pastel lights, and dry heat saunas.

Late Vindication Update: As a commenter alerts us, Coburn actually has nothing against pastel lights -- it's the Centers for Disease Control's use of pastel lights that's got him down. Coburn's oversight subcommittee uncovered evidence in 2007 that the CDC spent $35,000 to add zero-gravity chairs, lights, and a sauna to its Atlanta employee gym.

The moral of the story is, do not piss off Sen. Coburn. So on that note, we apologize for insinuating any anti-pastel light vendetta.