TPM News

Call it a rookie political mistake. It's one thing for a politician to lend a hand to his constituents, particularly the ones who can afford to make campaign contributions. But please; be discreet.

Last week Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning ordered Nelnet, a student lending company caught up in the recent industry-wide scandal, to pay a fine of one million dollars. Nelnet has, at least twice, paid university administrators who recommended that students finance their debt through the firm. The company is also hired by universities to educate students about how to pay for college; not illegal, but surely a conflict-of-interest practice that they have agreed to stop.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, except the million dollars is actually a fine that Bruning assigned the company all the way back in April, a fine that he forgave only two weeks ago.

Bruing erased the fine after New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo ordered a similar punishment for Nelnet. Cuomo has made investigating student lenders a focus of his office; already, several banks have been ordered to contribute to a national education fund. Cuomo announced on July 31st that Nelnet would be paying $2 million to the fund.

Upon hearing the news, Bruning immediately forgave Nelnet his part of the obligation. He also used the opportunity to take a few shots at his fellow AG, saying that he “never believed that the investigation was particularly useful.” Bruning went even further, saying, "Nelnet is an ethical, decent, honest company…. I will never apologize for being a defender of Nelnet."

Read More →

Don't get your hopes up yet. But the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has told the government that it needs to submit an argument for why the court shouldn't disclose rulings from earlier this year on the warrantless surveillance program that prompted the Bush administration to gut the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Ten days ago, the ACLU filed a motion with the secret court seeking the release of two contentious rulings in particular: a January 10 ruling that Alberto Gonzales described as "innovative" enough as to allow the surveillance program to be placed under FISA; and the ruling from the spring that led to the wholesale FISA revision. In a conference call today, Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU disclosed that around lunchtime, the court, in response to the ACLU's "unprecedented request," asked the government to file any objections it has to a disclosure by August 31. Jaffer cautioned the court action doesn't herald actual disclosure, but it shows that the court is taking the ACLU's request seriously.

The workings of the FISA Court have been a black box in the entire affair. It remains hard to understand how the court could be so "innovative" in January with regard to the Terrorist Surveillance Program but so restrictive in the spring. The court's notice today brings us a step closer to finding out how much revision to FISA was really warranted.

The verdict is clear: Alberto Gonzales is the lying-est attorney general in recent history. "I don't trust you," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) told him last month. Ranking member Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) sounded him out for his "lack of credibility." "He tells the half truth, the partial truth and everything but the truth," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said that Gonzales. “He’s one sneaky, lying S.O.B., to put it bluntly" is Rep. David Obey's (D-WI) frank take.

But even though we've been cataloging the troubles, and Gonzales' dwindling credibility, at the Justice Department for the past several months, we hadn't yet done a rundown. So we've collected below what are, as far as we can tell, Gonzales' six most brazen public untruths.

To do this, we were forced to constrain the endeavor. Gonzales' amazingly faulty memory is clearly cause for strong suspicion -- but his countless "I don't recall"s have not yet been proven to be dishonest. And there have been a stream of dubious statements -- such as that he'd never fire a U.S. attorney for political reasons or his insistence that they were fired for "performance" reasons -- countered by weighty circumstantial evidence. But we've set a high bar. Certainly we expect our little list to lengthen in the future as more evidence is produced -- and as Gonzales continues to speak publicly.

We arrived at the six statements below. Some can be judiciously described as lies, i.e. apparently consciously false statements made with the intent to deceive. Some are better described as "wily" prevarications, or as literally true statements made with the intent to deceive or cover up. (I count #2-5 in the former category, #1 and #6 in the latter.)

Yesterday, Sen. Leahy requested that the Justice Department's inspector general investigate five public statements that Gonzales had made -- the same five statements that we chose as #1-5 in our tally. Certainly these statements will play a significant role in impeachment proceedings, should Democrats decide to go that route.

Enjoy:

Read More →

Wired's Ryan Singel has a great find in his review of FBI Director Robert Mueller's March 2004 notes on the warrantless-surveillance imbroglio. One of the aides Mueller met with the day Acting Attorney General James Comey likely informed him that he wouldn't reauthorize the surveillance program is Michael A. Fedarcyk, then the chief of the Counterterrorism Division's Communications Exploitation Section. That meeting may shine a light into how information generated from the National Security Agency's surveillance of international communications made its way into domestic terrorism investigations.

The Communications Exploitation Section is where FBI counterterrorism analysts sift through communications of suspected terrorists to determine patterns of communication within the U.S. to discover hidden networks. Singel notes that Fedarcyk's presence at the March 9, 2004 morning meeting with Mueller indicates that his office was involved, somehow, in the NSA surveillance effort: "perhaps only as a receiver of leads from the NSA -- perhaps as a partner in the government's alleged data-mining of U.S. citizens phone and internet usage records."

Read More →

Who is the man behind the key scandals erupting in Alaska? It's Bill Allen, former CEO of Veco Corp., of course. But how did he get to be such a political force in the state? The Los Angeles Times take us through Allen's story:

Of all the scandals and investigations, the one that has drawn the most attention here -- and that could lead to a watershed change in Alaska politics -- centers on Allen, a high school dropout from Socorro, N.M., who arrived in Alaska in the 1960s as a welder.

When oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, Allen formed the VECO oil-services company with a partner who later left, and then rode the roller-coaster economy of the Alaska oil fields.


Veco filed for bankruptcy in the 1980s, but was saved by (of all things) the Exxon Valdez spill which drenched Prince William Sound with millions of gallons of oil. Veco got the major contract to clean it all up.

Allen had become a big political player in Alaska by then, and his clout only grew over the years. The Times points out that it's hard to pin down Allen's drive, whether its greed or a thirst for political power (or both).

Read More →

Former U.S. Attorney for New Mexico David Iglesias has signed a book deal.

Iglesias, remember, has been at the center of the firings controversy ever since he went public with the revelation that two New Mexico Republicans had pressured him about indicting a state Democrat shortly before the 2006 elections. The book promises to focus on Iglesias' experiences as a U.S. attorney in the Bush administration and his role in the scandal, before and after the firing. It's anticipated to be released in April, 2008.

Also, we hear that the book will spend some time discussing Iglesias' handling of voter fraud cases -- how the administration directed Iglesias' focus on the issue, and how that direction made Iglesias uncomfortable. Remember that Republicans all the way on up to Karl Rove and President Bush were frustrated with Iglesias' failure to indict liberals for alleged instances of voter fraud. Apparently Iglesias was no stranger to such pressure.

John Wiley & Sons is the publisher.

A county body in Florida voted today to send back Rep. Don Young's (R-AK) $10 million earmark. Young rewrote the language in the bill while it was on its way to the President's desk -- after passing both Houses of Congress.

Originally, the $10 million was allocated for an I-75 expansion project in Lee and Collier Counties. But after Young's fast one, the money could only be used for an interchange to Coconut Road. That project is unpopular in the area, but a boon to real estate developer Daniel Aronoff, who held a fundraiser that brought in $40,000 for Young right before the earmark appeared.

This morning, the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization voted 10-3 to return the money and ask that it be reallocated for the broader project. It's not clear if that will work. Some experts told me the signed legislation carries the force of law. But, this situation is unprecedented. We'll keep following the saga as it unfolds.

The Naples Daily News first broke that Young was behind the Coconut Road earmark and then how he changed the language. They are blogging the MPO meeting live, here.

One million dollars. That’s how much it cost the Defense Department to ship two 19-cent washers after a South Carolina small supplies shipping company exploited an automated shipping system designed to quickly get supplies to American troops. Charlene Corley, the owner of C&D Distributors LLC, pleaded guilty yesterday to wire fraud and money laundering when she and her late sister Darlene Wooten overcharged the government by over $20 million through a loophole in the automated system. (AP)

Someone doesn't want the government to continue its raids against immigrants: the Census Bureau. The agency is trying to prepare for the 2010 population count, and it worries that the raids will erode what remains of the trust between immigrants and the federal government. (Associated Press)

First there were student loans scandals. Now investigators are looking into study abroad programs. The New York attorney general is looking into allegations that study abroad programs have been unfairly influencing universities to adopt their programs by giving cash incentives and perks to administrators. (NY Times)

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-FL) is looking for help with his legal defense fund. Unfortunately, one of the first contributors is Tyng-Lin Yang, a federal contractor whose close relationship with Feeney got both men in trouble when Feeney was a state representative. (Orlando Sentinel)

Read More →

What did John Ashcroft really know about the warrantless surveillance program?

According to FBI Director Robert Mueller's notes on the March 10, 2004 visit to Ashcroft's hospital room, Ashcroft told Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales that "strict compartmentalization rules" by the White House prevented him from "obtaining the advice he needed" about the warrantless surveillance program. At first glance, I thought that meant that Ashcroft himself was prevented from knowing certain aspects of the program. Several commenters read it differently, and judged that Ashcroft was complaining that his key advisers were barred from information about the program that would inform Ashcroft about its legality. And today, the Washington Post backs them up, citing anonymous official sources.

This, however, seems like two sides of the same coin. If Ashcroft couldn't consult with senior legal advisers about Program X, the White House was essentially keeping Ashcroft -- and the Justice Department -- in the dark about the legal basis for the surveillance program, expecting him to simply bless the effort without asking too many questions. After all, Ashcroft's tenure showed a consistent deference to presidential prerogative -- most notably, when he warned the Senate about the Patriot Act that "those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists." If Ashcroft couldn't vet the program with his legal advisers, it's an open question about what he really "knew" about its legality. Sure enough, as soon as the program was opened to Ashcroft's deputy, Jim Comey, a longtime U.S. attorney and Justice official, Comey saw a program riddled with legal problems.

Read More →

There's no shortage of intrigue over the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance efforts contained in FBI Director Robert Mueller's just-released notes on the March 10, 2004 tussle in John Ashcroft's hospital room between Alberto Gonzales, Andy Card and Jim Comey.

First thing to note. Mueller testified on July 26, contra Gonzales, that the legal dispute between Gonzales and Acting Attorney General Jim Comey that prompted the rush to Ashcroft's hospital room had to do with the program now known as the Terrorist Surveillance Program. (Gonzales insisted on July 24, as he had in testimony last year, that Comey objected to "other intelligence activities," not the TSP.) The surveillance program known as the TSP was but one component of a constellation of surveillance activities, even though Comey and others at the time of the March 2004 controversy considered the whole effort -- authorized under a single 2001 executive order -- to be a unitary enterprise. Now notice that all throughout Mueller's memo, he refers to "program" -- singular.

Secondly, the only non-redacted portion of the notes concerns the Ashcroft hospital visit, which takes up only a scant four paragraphs. Ashcroft -- who, contrary to Gonzales' portrayal, is described in Mueller's notes as "feeble, barely articulate, clearly stressed" -- isn't talking about what happened during the visit. But Mueller reveals something intriguing. According to the FBI director, Ashcroft tells Card and Gonzales that "he was barred from obtaining the advice he needed on the program" -- again, note program, singular -- "by the strict compartmentalization rules of the [White House.]" Now that's cronyism! For the first time, there's the suggestion that even John Ashcroft -- the attorney general of the United States and by all accounts a loyal Bushie -- didn't know all there was to know about the warrantless surveillance efforts. Apparently, Ashcroft wasn't considered trustworthy enough to be kept in the loop on the most legally controversial program of them all -- though his counterpart at the White House, and eventual successor, clearly was.

Read More →

TPMLivewire