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They're hard to keep straight, the various and sundry friends and business associates of Rudy Giuliani with legal problems. But here's one worth keeping an eye on: Hank Asher. ABC reports that Asher, a former drug-runner, as well as a business partner and "close friend" of Giuliani's, makes an appearance in the recent indictment of Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona on bribery charges.

Carona himself was once a rising star in the GOP, often mentioned as a potential candidate for lieutenant governor of California. Dubbed "America's Sheriff" by Larry King for how he handled the 2002 hunt for 5-year-old Samantha Runnion's kidnapper, he naturally endorsed America's Mayor Rudy Giuliani for president. According to news accounts, he's met Giuliani at least twice. He's also chums with Bernie Kerik.

The indictment alleges that Carona and five associates, including his wife (Deborah) and mistress (named Debra), accepted bribes and generally did what they could to get rich off Carona's position ($700,000 in bribes and kickbacks). Among the dozens of illicit gifts enumerated in the indictment is this one:

On or about December 19, 2002, defendant Deborah Carona and co-conspirator Jaramillo's wife [that's Carona's assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo] accepted as gifts from H.A., a businessman who owned a data mining software company, yellow gold and diamond Ladies Cartier Watches worth approximately $15,000 each.

"H.A.", according to ABC, is Hank Asher, who did indeed own a data mining software company called Seisint at the time (more about that later). Asher himself is worth "north of $700 million," based mostly on his success selling his data mining product, which is called Matrix (he's since sold it to LexisNexis). And yes, he did smuggle cocaine from Colombia to Florida aboard his private jet for eight months in 1980 and 1981. But he says he paid his dues by cooperating with federal agents to stop other runners.

But it sounds like Asher still likes to live large. During that same dinner meeting with the two wives at Carmine's here in New York, he apparently got a bit rambunctious:

When Hank Asher reached into the bag and pulled out the two $15,000 gold Cartier watches, the holiday crowd at Carmine's restaurant on 44th Street in Manhattan noticed, patrons recalled....

During the Carmine's dinner, when Asher's voice began to boom across the room, patrons recall him handing his black American Express card to the restaurant to pay for any inconvenience his boisterous party caused the other guests. He told the staff to buy everyone's dinners and drinks and then peeled off a few $100 bills to tip strolling carolers in the restaurant.

As ABC notes, Asher isn't named as a co-conspirator in the case, and "there is no allegation in the document that he attempted to influence any purchases or other decisions by the county." Maybe it was just a nice Christmas gift. But the timing is enough to raise eyebrows. Because that's when Asher was making a big push for law enforcement agencies to buy his product. Carona, famous as he was for tracking down child predators, would have been an asset to Asher, who was hawking a product designed to help authorities identify suspects by searching billions of public records. Carona and Asher would later serve together on the Board of Directors for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

Certainly Asher had a broad strategy for selling his system. To help him sell to the federal government, his secret weapon was Rudy Giuliani, whom he'd hired for a staggering sum of money -- under a contract that the two of them kept secret for years. More about that in a bit.

It's been a long time since we've had the opportunity to write about Ex-Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) after his ignominious defeat last November (he asked voters for "the benefit of the doubt" and they didn't give it to him). But unfortunately for Weldon, he's back in the news:

Former representative Curt Weldon's chief of staff has agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy charges for allegedly helping a consulting firm that Weldon championed obtain federal funds and for concealing money the firm paid him and his wife, according to court papers unsealed today.

According to the court document, Russell James Caso and a top official at the unnamed consulting firm met repeatedly with Weldon to seek the Pennsylvania Republican's help in obtaining federal funds for the organization's defense projects....

The court papers make no accusations against Weldon. But they say Caso "intentionally" concealed payments of $19,000 from the firm to his wife by failing to report them in congressional disclosure forms "even though he knew he was required to do so."

Although the papers make no direct charges against him, Weldon appears in the charging document as "Representative A," which is mighty bad news. It's a pattern that prosecutors have followed repeatedly in the Jack Abramoff scandal -- getting guilty pleas from former staffers and cutting cooperation deals with them in order to build cases against their former boss. Look out, Curt! It's amazing that the left-wing conspiracy to bring him down has persisted even after his forced retirement.

Update: Here's the "information," the document that lays out the charges to which Caso is pleading guilty.

Check out Dan Matthews and Julian Assange's Wikileaks analysis of the difference between the 2003 and 2004 Guantanamo Bay manuals. Matthews and Assange note that the 2004 manual restricts detainees' access to prison chaplains -- most likely in response to the case of James Yee, an Army chaplain then suspected of espionage for al-Qaeda and since cleared of all charges. The result of the Yee Affair was, apparently, a transformation of religious-comfort services into a potential intelligence-collection operation:

In March 2003, the chaplain could access detainee areas unaccompanied, and could “speak freely with detainees”, but by March 2004, the chaplain is “assigned an escort” to visit detainee holding areas – potentially a form of surveillance. And the chaplain can “speak with detainees” - but apparently not so freely as before.

Furthermore, in other parts of the manual, the chaplain is again disempowered – from making announcements on the PA system (sections 16-3 and 16-5), from providing religious items (section 16-13). And guards are no longer encouraged to seek the chaplain's advice on religious matters (section 16-14).

Matthews and Assange also note how the manual expresses hostility for the International Committee of the Red Cross:

Edits to the manual suggest that further hurdles may have been placed in the way of the Red Cross. Sction 17-2 stipulates that the Red Cross “is restricted from all buildings without prior approval... except the Detention Clinic and the Detention Hospital.” Then, the Red Cross is required to be aware of “scheduled guard feeding times” and adjust their schedule accordingly.

The Red Cross is prohibited from passing mail between detainees in both manuals. The 2003 manual stipulates in chapter 13 that “At no time should [Red Cross] reps pass any mail between detainees”.

By 2004, the military saw fit to make the stipulation, if nothing else, louder: “AT NO TIME should ICRC reps pass any mail between detainees.”

From Bloomberg:

Former Democratic fundraiser Norman Hsu, charged in September with cheating investors in a $60 million ``Ponzi'' scheme, was formally indicted by a federal grand jury on similar allegations, U.S. prosecutors said....

Hsu, 56, faces as much as 20 years in prison on the most serious counts. He is being held on separate charges stemming from a 1991 prosecution in which he entered a no-contest plea to charges he stole $1 million from 20 investors in a scheme to buy and resell nonexistent latex gloves.

ABC has a copy of the indictment, which is very similar to the charges filed in September. Once again, prosecutors charge that Hsu made "direct and implied threats" to those who invested with him in order to coerce them into contributing to his favored candidates, particularly Hillary Clinton.

Even with the Democrats in the majority and the FBI on his tail, he's still got it:

Senior Republican appropriators in the Senate have collected more money in earmarks than any other members of Congress, even though President Bush and GOP leaders have forcefully criticized “pork-barrel spending.”

Not only have these lawmakers defied their leaders, they have also taken a much greater share of the pot set aside for rank-and-file Republicans than have senior Democrats....

Sen. Thad Cochran (Miss.), ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, has collected $774 million worth of earmarks in 12 spending bills. After Cochran, Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska), the second-ranking Republican on Appropriations, secured more money for special projects than any other member of Congress: $502 million.

Not surprisingly, Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA) took the gold in the House. And the bronze went to Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), who's earmarking activities are also under investigation.

It's a minor victory, one that won't be recorded in the history books. But it looks like the Senate Republican leadership's strategy to keep Senate campaign disclosure reports from being easily searchable is on its way to success.

As we laid out before, they've long been fighting a bill to require the disclosure reports to be filed electronically, something the House did six years ago. The latest coup was a move by Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) to add a poison pill to the simple and thoroughly uncontroversial bill (it's got 41 co-sponsors, including 16 Republicans). Ensign said that bill is going nowhere unless it has his amendment, which would require non-profits that file ethics complaints against senators to disclose all donors who gave $5,000 or more, a measure that would effectively discourage ethics complaints against senators.

Last month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) asked pretty please if Ensign might offer the amendment separately, since it has nothing to do with the underlying bill. Today, his answer came: no (sub. req.). And that means that senators will most likely not be required to electronically file in the run-up to the 2008 election -- definitely good news for candidates who will be receiving contributions they'd rather not have to explain.

Being an author of legal thrillers, John Grisham knows a sophisticated bribery scheme when he sees one. And frankly, he seems a little disappointed in his fellow Mississippian and friend Dickie Scruggs. Or at least that's the impression one gets in reading his comments about his friend's predicament to The Wall Street Journal:

"This doesn't sound like the Dickie Scruggs that I know," Mr. Grisham said yesterday. "When you know Dickie, and how successful he has been, you could not believe he would be involved in such a boneheaded bribery scam that is not in the least bit sophisticated."

As we detailed last week, the indictment alleges plenty of boneheadedness. Would a villain in a Grisham book be so dumb as to refer to a bribery payment as "the package?" Surely not. Is he wrong to expect at least as much from his friends?

According to internal State Department cables obtained by TPMmuckraker, the State Department has slated two Diplomatic Security officials who oversee private-security contractors guarding U.S. diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan for salary bonuses. The optional bonuses, called Senior Foreign Service Performance Pay Awards, come months after administrative investigations have raised questions about the propriety of State's relationship with security contractors like Blackwater.

In late October, Richard Griffin, head of the department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, resigned after an internal State Department review of contractor relationships implicitly rebuked the office for insufficient oversight. That lack of oversight contributed to the September shooting deaths of over a dozen Iraqi civilians by Blackwater security guards at Nisour Square, and has inflamed Iraqis, who view State Department guards Blackwater, Triple Canopy and DynCorp as having a license to kill without legal consequence. Yet shortly after Griffin's resignation, ABC News reported that two key deputies who worked closely with the security contractors, Kevin Barry and Justine Sincavage, received quiet promotions. One outraged State official told ABC, "What does it say when State promotes the two people into DS' most senior positions, when if they had properly managed the programs under the responsibility, we wouldn't be in this mess?"

That question could also be asked of their recent pay bonuses.

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Rudy Giuliani is the only Republican candidate who remains involved in private business and recent scrutiny of his relationships has raised serious questions about his judgment. The New York Times reports that Rudy’s firm Bracewell & Giuliani has lobbied Congress for legislation that President Bush believes is a threat to anti-terrorism efforts in Africa. One state department official noted that Bracewell & Giuliani’s lobbying is harmful to a relationship with an ally. (New York Times)

Brent Wilkes, recently convicted of bribing former U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, will not be able to subpoena reporters and government officials regarding grand jury leaks. Wilkes argued that the leaks deprived him of his right to a fair trial but a federal judge ruled that leaks had "no material affect on the verdict." (AP)

In the wake of September 11, Congress created a $1 billion insurance fund (The World Trade Center Captive Insurance Company) to cover the claims of sick workers. Now, the inspector general for the Homeland Security Department is looking into why the fund "has chosen to litigate all claims instead of settling whenever possible." (AP)

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Score another one for Wikileaks. This morning -- thanks to a source known only as "Peryton" -- the open-source website for whistleblower documents published the 2004 manual for U.S. military detention operations at Guantanamo Bay. You can read it, with commentary, here.

Last month, Wikileaks published the 2003 edition of the manual. Among other controversial provisions, the manual instructed officials to hide certain detainees from the International Committee of the Red Cross, a practice that the military repeatedly denied was in existence at Guantanamo. Spokespeople for the U.S. military's Southern Command, which oversees Guantanamo Bay, said the manual was outdated and assured that some instructions that violated the Geneva Conventions were no longer in effect.

It's unclear so far what portions of the 2004 manual remain in place. (Maybe Peryton will enlighten us in the future.) The Washington Post's Josh White quotes Guantanamo Bay spokesman as saying that "things have changed dramatically" at the camp since 2004. But Wikileaks finds that, in key areas, the 2004 manual didn't change so much from 2003:

Systematic denial of Red Cross access to prisoners remains. The use of dogs remains. Segregation and isolation are still used routinely and systematically – including an initial period of at least 4 weeks "to enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee", only terminated at the behest of interrogators. Both manuals assert that detainees will be treated in accordance with the "spirit" of the Geneva conventions "to the degree consistent with military needs", but never assert that the conventions are actually being followed at Guantanamo. Put into practice, neither manual complies with the Geneva conventions.

So is the past prologue? We'll find out. For now, though, dig into the 2004 manual and let us know in comments what you think is most significant.