TPM News

Congressional Quarterly's Tim Starks has the scoop:

House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi was to meet with Rep. Alcee L. Hastings late Tuesday to close the door on his bid to become chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, a congressional aide said.

But Pelosi, D-Calif., has not yet decided who will get the job, according to the aide. . . .

Pelosi met with Harman two weeks ago to discuss the House Intelligence Committee chair job. There is little to suggest Pelosi will reverse her intention to replace Harman atop the panel.

And the medal for most imaginative ethics ruling goes to... Texas! From The Houston Chronicle:

A Texas official who receives any sum of cash as a gift can satisfy state disclosure laws by reporting the money simply as "currency," without specifying the amount, the Texas Ethics Commission reiterated Monday.

The 5-3 decision outraged watchdog groups and some officials who unabashedly accused the commission of failing to enforce state campaign finance laws.

"What the Ethics Commission has done is legalize bribery in the state of Texas. We call on the commission to resign en masse," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, who heads Texas Citizen, an Austin-based group that advocates for campaign finance reform.

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat, said the "currency" interpretation would render it "perfectly legal to report the gift of 'a wheelbarrow' without reporting that the wheelbarrow was filled with cash."

Presumably that trick would also work with a bathtub, a pinata, or any other vessel that you'd care to give your lawmaker or state official.

Earlier this year, the commission ruled that a gift of a check, no matter the amount, could simply be disclosed as "checks."

The ruling stems from a case last year, when Houston millionaire and GOP attack group funder Bob Perry gave Bill Ceverha, a member of the State Employees Retirement System board, a $50,000 check, which was disclosed only as "check." According to the Chronicle, "[b]oth men have said the check for $50,000 was supposed to help cover legal fees Ceverha incurred defending himself against a civil lawsuit related to his role as treasurer of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay's Texas fundraising operation."

"Several members of a government board appointed to guard privacy and civil liberties during the war on terror say they're impressed with the protections built into the Bush administration's electronic eavesdropping program," the Associated Press assures us today.

Not so fast.

The panel in question, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, is a largely toothless effort. It has no real powers of investigation, such as subpoena power; its members are appointed by the President; and it's not clear Congress has any control over what the group does or to whom they deliver their findings.

This is how the White House-selected panel executes oversight: They sit in a room. An expert (also chosen by the administration) gives a presentation on a given program's constitutional protections. I would hope he entertains a few questions. Then he leaves.

The board can't demand documents; it can't force bureaucrats who actually implement the program -- and who might be aware of malfeasance -- to speak with them under oath. Instead, its sole and complete authority is to take the administration at its word.

How was it handed the power to pretend, rather than the power to probe?

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When the White House nominated Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL) to succeed Ken Mehlman as Chairman of the Republican National Committee, some wondered why they'd exchanged one man with a Jack Abramoff problem for another.

The RNC won't vote to approve Martinez until January. But we hear that new revelations about Martinez's ties to the now-imprisoned Abramoff are due to be released before that happens. If that happens, and it jeopardizes Martinez's bid to lead the GOP, the party could face some serious questions about why it can't seem to find a qualified, muck-free leader.

As we've noted before, Abramoff had aggressively courted Martinez when he was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development on behalf of his tribal clients. In his guilty plea, Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) admitted to lobbying Martinez on Abramoff's behalf. And when Martinez launched his Senate bid in 2004, Abramoff co-chaired a fundraiser that netted him $250,000. Martinez has said that he never met Abramoff when he was Secretary of HUD. But it seems there's more to that tale.

Ken Mehlman, of course, despite his protestations to the contrary, was close to Abramoff -- so close that Abramoff's associates referred to him as their "rock star" for his many favors on their behalf.

Yesterday, we noted that the Justice Department's Inspector General had announced in a letter to Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) that his office was probing the National Security Agency's warantless wiretapping program.

You can read the letter announcing the investigation, in all its four-paragraph glory here (click to enlarge):

ABC's now reporting that First Daughter Barbara Bush has left Argentina, while her sister Jenna will stay behind for ten days.

The dynamic duo was recently asked to leave the country by the U.S. embassy, which had concerns for their safety, ABC reported. (The embassy has since denied this.) The two have been in Buenos Aires since last week for what what was planned to be a two-week trip in celebration of their 25th birthday. As one reader pointed out, the sisters apparently skipped the Bush Thanksgiving dinner in favor of drunken carousing in the antipodes. So much for family values?

Court Rejects N.Y. Times on Leak Probe "The Supreme Court ruled against The New York Times on Monday, refusing to block the government from reviewing telephone records of two Times reporters in a leak investigation concerning a terrorism-funding probe.

"The one-sentence order came in a First Amendment battle that involves stories written in 2001 by Times reporters Judith Miller and Philip Shenon. The stories revealed the government's plans to freeze the assets of two Islamic charities, the Holy Land Foundation and the Global Relief Foundation.

"U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is trying to track down the reporters' confidential sources for the stories. Fitzgerald's spokesman, Randall Samborn, declined to comment on the Supreme Court's order." (AP, WSJ)

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Over at the New Republic's Plank blog, Michael Crowley raised eyebrows with a couple striking pre-invasion quotes from could-be House intel chair Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA). Glenn Greenwald added a couple more, detailing Harman's for-it-but-against-it take on the NSA's domestic wiretapping program.

If Democrats are looking for a chief intelligence overseer who will be strong on constitutional protections and intel analysis that "gets it right," these quotes indicate they may want to look beyond "the best Republican in the Democratic party," as Harman has called herself.

Harman on-the-record quotes are legion, likely owing in no small part to her love of the spotlight (and the microphone). We've put a few we dug up together with those already unearthed. Heard a good Harman quote? Send it along.

On Colin Powell's U.N. speech: "I happen to know that our intelligence agencies made absolutely certain that it was totally accurate, and that anything put out there had been reviewed 100 times to make sure it was accurate." (Fox News, Big Story with John Gibson, 2/6/03)

On Saddam Hussein's WMDs: "There's a strong intelligence case that Iraq has not destroyed its weapons of mass destruction and is building the capability to use them." (Washington Post, 1/30/03)

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The election battle continues in Florida's 13th District this week, as the state begins its audit of electronic voting machines. At issue is why Sarasota County's electronic voting machines failed to register a vote in Florida's 13th District congressional race for more than 18,000 voters, an "undervote" rate far higher than the 13th's other counties. Analyses of those undervotes show that they cost Jennings (who lost the official tally to Republican Vern Buchanan by fewer than 400 votes) the race.

But that audit, conducted by the state's Division of Elections, has drawn criticism for a number of reasons. As we noted last week, the state's lead computer expert is a die-hard Republican. The conditions of the audit have also drawn fire from Democrat Christine Jennings camp.

Speaking earlier today, Jennings lawyer Kendall Coffey pointed to what he saw as key deficiencies in the audit, which might undermine Jennings' efforts to contest the election results. Jennings' lawsuit is on hold until the state completes its audit this Friday.

Above all, Coffey said that the state's process went against "the basic notion of an audit that it's supposed to be independent." Instead, "the same state agency that is responsible for the reliability of voting systems and software are now conducting an audit to find out where that agency created problems."

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AP reports:

In a letter to House Judiciary Committee leaders and obtained by The Associated Press, Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said his investigators would focus on the Justice Department's role in carrying out the spying program run by the National Security Agency.

Fine wrote that he wants to ensure that prosecutors are following laws governing the handling of information NSA gathers when spying on suspected terrorists in the United States.

"After conducting initial inquiries into the program, we have decided to open a program review that will examine the department's controls and use of information related to the program," Fine wrote in the four-paragraph letter.

President Bush earlier stonewalled a similar inquiry, you might recall. In July, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told Congress that the president had personally prohibited investigators from DoJ's Office of Professional Responsibility from obtaining the security clearances they needed to determine whether senior Justice officials had broken the law when they approved and monitored the secret NSA domestic surveillance program.

Curiously, when Fine asked for clearances from the White House he got them, according to his letter. It's not immediately clear how -- or if -- Fine's probe differs from OPR's thwarted effort.

Update: You can read Fine's letter here.