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Another invitation lost in the mail!

From Roll Call:

Undeterred in the face of a federal corruption probe, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is hosting a small klatch of top lobbyists and others this weekend for a fishing and fundraising trip to his home state.

The getaway, billed as the “Ted Stevens El Capitan Fishing Event,” combines “three days of some of the best salt water fishing you will ever have,” according to the invite, with a fundraising reception expected to net at least $2,300 per person for the Senator’s re-election campaign.

Apparently, lobbyists must fly into Seattle or Anchorage and then take a boat or a float plane to get to the El Capitan Lodge on the remote Prince of Wales Island. On top of their donation for accommodations, fishing and meals, participants pay $2,500 to rub shoulders with Stevens at the El Capitan.

What 83 year-old William Sidwell of Queen City, Missouri found in his mailbox last week scared him. It was a letter from the Republican National Committee, but it seemed to bear grave news: "Our records show that you registered as a member of our Party in Schuyler County, MO," the letter said. "But a recent audit of your Party affiliation turned up some irregularities."

Audit? Irregularities? Was he in trouble? Were they threatening him? Sidwell went immediately to his ask his son, Dennis, a licensed public accountant, for advice. You can see the letter, and the accompanying "Voter Registration Verification and Audit Form," right here. Particularly puzzling to the both of them, Dennis told me, is that his father is a life-long Democrat.

The letter, it turns out, is just a misleading pitch for a contribution to the RNC -- one of the "irregularities" cited in the letter is that "I cannot find a record of you taking a single action in support of the Republican Party -- not locally, not nationally!" A contribution, the letter suggests, would help set the record straight.

The letter is signed by Bill Steiner, the director of the RNC's Office of Strategic Information, a title Steiner assumed at the end of July. His responsibilities "include managing the RNC’s national voter file and Voter Vault, the committee’s highly touted micro-targeting operation," Roll Call reported last month. And indeed, the voter "audit" requests detailed information about the voter's voting history and current opinions on the 2008 presidential race.

It's unclear how many similar letters (tens of thousands? millions?) have been sent by the RNC. The RNC did not respond to our requests for comment.

The letter "appears to be in a gray area," David Becker, Director of People for the American Way's Democracy Campaign and a former voting rights attorney at the Justice Department, told me. "It could potentially run afoul of the law if it led an eligible voter to believe they're no longer eligible to vote." The letter, Becker said, "appears designed to give that mistaken impression."

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From the AP:

Lawyers for Guantanamo Bay detainees asked a federal judge Thursday to invalidate a days-old law that lets government agents eavesdrop on suspected terrorists without first getting court-approved warrants.

They said the measure signed into law Sunday by President Bush is illegal because it gives the national intelligence director and the U.S. attorney general too much power to intercept communications of suspected terrorists overseas -- even when they are talking to someone in the United States.

That didn't take long.

Things aren't looking good for Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK).

The Anchorage Daily News reports that the FBI found a thank-you note Stevens hand-wrote to former US Attorney Wev Shea after the White House hosted a dinner in the Republican senator's honor in May. In the June 7th note, Stevens makes it sound like he got a good deal on the 2000 remodeling of his home:

"This is a sad portion of my life -- it will take time to explain," Stevens said in the two-page note. "Catherine and I personally paid over $130,000 for the improvements to our chalet in Girdwood. Someone -- or more than one -- keeps telling the FBI that's not so. Takes time to go back over five years to prove they are wrong."

Stevens has claimed before that there was nothing nefarious about the job, despite oil services Veco Corp. acting as general contractor while Stevens was in Washington.

But the Daily News' story raises pretty clear doubts about how Stevens could have managed to get all the work done for that amount of money:

If $130,000 is an accurate total, it would raise questions about how such a major renovation could have been accomplished within such a tight budget. The carpentry contractor alone said he was paid more than $100,000 by Stevens. Another contractor, who raised up the house to make room for the new first floor and built part of the foundation, said he too was paid by Stevens, though he didn't recall the amount. The earth-moving contractor who prepared the ground for the job also said he was paid by Stevens.

That would leave little if any left over for a range of other work that was done, everything from design to plumbing and electric to a new roof. As recently as this week, Stevens declined to answer questions about how the project was billed and financed.

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Support the troops (but not their education)! The administration is fighting efforts by Democrats to provide 100% free schooling to Iraq war veterans. The bill, which resembles the original G.I. Bill, would cover all expenses, including tuition, boarding and books. Current legislations covers approximately 75% of the veteran's tuition. Support the troops. (ABC's The Blotter)

The troubles just keep coming for Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA). Doolittle is being sued by one of his constituents for spamming her email account. The woman claims that she received about 8,000 emails from Doolittle over six weeks. Via Dump Doolittle. (Sacramento News 10)

You know the scandal is official when someone makes a bio of the key players. Check out this one-stop shop for your background on your favorite corrupt Alaskan politicians. (Anchorage Daily News)

A Justice Department program that has ex-officers follow up complaints of lewd Internet content (read: a program where ex-cops surf pornography) has so far produced not a single prosecution, despite the fact that the program has received over 67,000 referred complaints. (NY Times)

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The drumbeat against Iran from the administration has been constant this year -- reaching its highest pitch in February, when anonymous military briefers laid out the case to reporters. The Quds force, an elite military brigade, the administration line went, was channeling EFPs (explosively formed penetrators, a particularly dangerous type of IED) into Iraq to be used against U.S. soldiers.

The complications of the case were brushed aside, but despite an organized media offensive by the administration, it was not a wholly successful campaign. But lately the case has been revived. And now McClatchy reports that Dick Cheney has been pushing for strikes against Iranian forces in Iraq. But don't worry -- Cheney says that the administration ought to wait for "hard new evidence":

Behind the scenes, however, the president's top aides have been engaged in an intensive internal debate over how to respond to Iran's support for Shiite Muslim groups in Iraq and its nuclear program. Vice President Dick Cheney several weeks ago proposed launching airstrikes at suspected training camps in Iraq run by the Quds force, a special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to two U.S. officials who are involved in Iran policy....

Cheney, who's long been skeptical of diplomacy with Iran, argued for military action if hard new evidence emerges of Iran's complicity in supporting anti-American forces in Iraq; for example, catching a truckload of fighters or weapons crossing into Iraq from Iran, one official said.

There is the expected divide within the administration on the question -- with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on the other side. But a Cheney spokeswoman tells McClatchy "'the vice president is right where the president is' on Iran policy."

Note: The Los Angeles Times has an interesting companion to McClatchy's piece this morning, reporting on Bush's continued attempts to convince Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki that Iran is "not a force for good." From Maliki's perspective -- and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's -- things are obviously a lot more complicated.

Good luck with this one. Yesterday, the ACLU filed a motion (pdf) to declassify recent rulings of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court that administration officials cited in order to press legislators to massively overhaul FISA.

In particular, the civil-liberties watchdog wants the January 10, 2007 FISA Court ruling that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales cited as "innovative" enough to merit moving the Terrorist Surveillance Program under FISA; as well as the mysterious spring ruling that FISA applied to foreign-to-foreign communications routed through the United States.

Members of Congress referenced and characterized certain of the sealed materials in explaining support for the amendments (to FISA). Over the next six months, Congress will consider whether these amendments should be made permanent. Publication of the sealed materials will permit members of the public to participate meaningfully in this debate, evaluate the decisions of their elected leaders, and determine for themselves whether the proposed permanent expansion of the executive's surveillance powers is appropriate.

And if the public-interest argument the ACLU makes doesn't work, it adds another: Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) already revealed the outline of the ruling anyway.

The Anchorage Daily News made it out to Rep. Don Young's (R-AK) pig roast fund-raiser last night, where a boisterous crowd of 70 to 80 protesters shouted from the street.

Outside Don Young’s annual pig roast fundraiser on Wednesday night, a raucous crowd of all ages and political persuasions taunted the guests with shouts of “oink, oink,” waved signs against corruption and big money in politics, and generally protested anything Young was for.

Protesters also voiced their opposition to special guests Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) who made an appearance.

It might seem from a national perspective that an assembly of 70 to 80 people is a low turnout, but the Daily News calls it "remarkable." When I spoke with protest-organizer John Farleigh yesterday he said he hoped a dozen people would join him, and if 15 showed up he'd consider it a success.

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They say that earmarking is a rigged system, a system of organized bribery (the "favor factory" as Jack Abramoff called it). But rarely has there been such startling evidence of a quid pro quo as Rep. Don Young's (R-AK) $10 million earmark for a highway interchange in Florida (the state farthest from Alaska). The earmark came only days after a real estate mogul raised $40,000 for Young at an event in Florida.

But it gets worse. It turns out that Young had to bend, if not break, Congressional rules to do it.

The Naples Daily News reports that he probably changed key language in the bill after it had been passed in the House and Senate. The language left zero ambiguity about where exactly all that cash was supposed to go:

The words "Coconut Road interchange" were not in the federal transportation bill approved by Congress in 2005.

Those words were attached to a $10 million earmark sometime after the House and Senate votes but before the president signed the bill into law.

Within that time, someone with access to the bill deleted the earmark’s original language that would have given $10 million more for widening and improvements to Interstate 75 and attached the phrase "Coconut Rd. interchange I-75/Lee County," according to a study by a former federal official who lives on Sanibel Island.

The wording must have changed during a process called "bill enrollment" when grammatical and technical -- not substantive -- changes are allowed to be made. As Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense tells the paper, "I’ve seen little gimmicks and little tricks used to make sure somebody’s friend or contributor is taken care of but this is by far one of the more underhanded, surreptitious examples I’ve seen — ever."

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Free Thomas Kontogiannis! Well, he hasn't been sentenced yet after pleading guilty to a count of money laundering in the Duke Cunningham case, so he can't be "freed." But freeing the transcripts of his plea agreement would be a welcome start for anyone interested in understanding more about the most mysterious aspect of a bribery scandal that brought down a congressman.

Nearly everything about Kontogiannis' guilty plea has been shrouded in secrecy. It wasn't until June that Judge Larry A. Burns even unsealed the plea, made by Kontogiannis in February. And that secrecy has come at the behest of the prosecution, which has sought to keep the proceedings under wraps -- even going so far as to make the novel argument that it can classify judicial records. The U.S. attorney's office further argued that it couldn't publicly disclose the reasons why such secrecy is necessary.

But now, after pressure from the San Diego Union Tribune to open the proceedings up, the prosecution is backing down -- somewhat.

Federal prosecutors said yesterday they would agree to release portions from some sealed transcripts concerning the guilty plea of a key figure in the Randy “Duke” Cunningham investigation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Forge said the portion of a hearing in February where New York developer Thomas Kontogiannis pleaded guilty could be made public.

Forge also said prosecutors do not object to the release of 85 percent of the material in transcripts from four hearings regarding the plea that were conducted in February and April. All those transcripts are under seal and were the subject of a federal appellate court hearing Monday.

It's still unclear what substantive information from the pleading will emerge. But this is the first indication in months that some aspect of Kontogiannis' very unusual plea arrangements will become public.