Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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Still no real pick up of the Randy "Duke" Cunningham home sale of a lifetime story. But when cruising through Google News we did notice that the Duke has this OpEd in today's USAToday supporting the flag burning amendment.

ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero has more on the flag burning amendment today at TPMCafe's Table for One and how close it apparently is to passage in Congress.

Yes, I know, a Randy "Duke" Cunningham -- TPMCafe guest-blog harmonic convergence. But, hey, what can we do.

More later on the Duke's adventures in real estate.

Yet another Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) update ...

San Diego's North County Times has a follow-up on Cunningham's response to the article which appeared over the weekend regarding the questionable sale of his home.

Apparently neither Cunningham or his staff would take calls. But his office did release a statement. And in that statement he cuts to what has to be the central issue: Was $1.675 million a reasonable market value for the house or not?

The fact that it sold again for well under a million dollars less than a year later points strongly to the conclusion that the price was inflated. But was there an appraisal at the <$Ad$>time? And what were the comps?

In his statement Cunningham says: "Mr. Wade was interested in purchasing our home. He received comparables from an independent source establishing the value of the home. He made an offer based on that evaluation. Nancy and I accepted that offer. I have no reason to believe the value of the house was inflated then, and I have no reason to think so today. (emphasis added)"

But other news accounts seem to suggest that the 'independent source' was Elizabeth Todd, who happens to be a major campaign contributor to Cunningham.

Now, just because she gave Cunningham large campaign contributions in the past doesn't mean the comps she assembled weren't legit. And it is probably fair to say that major real estate operators are often contributors to their local member of Congress.

But her independence is certainly open to question.

As far as I know, none of the reports on this question that I've seen have had a look at the actual comps Todd assembled, which suported the $1.675 million purchase price.

Isn't that the next obvious place to go in this story?

We learn today from the Carpetbagger Report that Roll Call has now followed up (sub.required) on the story of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) and the apparent 3/4 million dollar favor he got from a defense contractor with business before two of his committees.

We've been doing some of our own reporting on this. And Roll Call reports one detail we were working: the real estate agent who arranged the deal, though handled it as a non-listed private transaction, also happens to be a major campaign contributor to Cunningham. In the 2001-2 cycle, Elizabeth Todd and her husband donated $3000 to Cunningham's campaign.

And we think there's more still to be told.

Given the central role of Ahmed Chalabi in 'unearthing' documents which triggered the UN oil-for-food scandal, can someone tell me why the New York Times still has Judith Miller covering the story?

I know Judy Miller-bashing is a full-time employment for many media critics and bloggers. But this isn't just a swipe at Miller or a throwaway smack at the paper of record. It's a pretty practical point: I'd actually like to follow what's happening in these investigations.

But if you know any of the history of the last five years it's simply impossible to read Miller's articles on this subject and have any confidence that what you're reading is anything that, by any measure, can be considered the straight story.

You're forced to discount all of it.

This may seem like a totally off-topic post for this site. But twice over the last year I asked readers for advice and suggestions about Tablet PCs, which they liked or didn't like, whether they found them useful, etc. I got a slew of very candid and helpful emails, in which many of you shared your experience and so forth. So I wanted to take a moment to report back on my experience to repay the favor.

If this isn't a subject that interests you, by all means, hope down to the next post for more of the standard TPM fare.

For those of you who aren't familiar with what I'm talking about, a Tablet PC is basically a laptop that is only a screen -- no keyboard. Instead of using a keyboard to input commands and text, you use a special pen that 'writes' on the screen. The computer then interprets your handwriting and converts it into text or simply stores it as your handwriting. In the later case it's pretty much like using a paper tablet. The screen has a virtual lined piece of paper and there you have all your words and doodles and all the rest.

I wanted to get one for two reasons. The main one had to do with how I keep notes. When I was more of a full-time reporter back in the earlier part of this decade I had a whole system in place for how I took my reporting notes. I typed them all into Word documents as I did the reporting. Any other system I found unworkable since it's critical to be able to do searches back through what are often copious notes.

But I would still find myself writing a lot of my notes out in longhand on real paper tablets. And more and more so in recent years. The problem was that after a few days all that information was pretty much lost to me because there was no ready way to access it.

So for that and related reasons I wanted to see if there was some way for me to take longhand notes -- in a way that really felt and functioned like taking notes on a scratch pad or tablet -- that I could save and later access electronically.

The other reason was specific to TPM. I still haven't really gotten around to it as much as I'd like. But I've wanted to do more on the site with posting documents -- often public records. And what's helpful is to be able to actually mark them up to highlight points of interest for readers. So again, my interest in having a way to be able to mark-up or write on electronic documents -- images, pdfs, etc.

I got hundreds of emails from readers. And from a mix of their advice and my own research I decided to get the Motion Computing 1400. Some manufacturers make Tablets with keyboards that you can swing into place when you need to use one. But Motion specializes in 'slate' tablets, that is, just a screen that you write on. No keyboard. (You can of course attach one separately.) From what I could tell, and from the majority of readers told me, when it comes to slates, Motion is really the premier designer and manufacturer.

(I bought mine from Infocater, which seems to be the best place for buying these things by mail order.)

So how did it go?

Well, in so many words, the technology more than exceeded my expectations. And that's probably both a comment on the particular hardware I bought and the state of the technology in general. Over the last four or fives months mine has become completely integrated into almost all the work I do. And I can't imagine not using one.

Having used one for more almost half a year now, I'm actually quite surprised that the technology hasn't been more widely adopted -- a factor, I suspect, of computer economics which I'll try to touch on in another post.

I don't think I'd ever want to have a Tablet PC as my only computer. When I write at length I almost always use a keyboard. I'm writing on a desktop with a keyboard right now, for instance. The simple fact is that I can write a lot faster on a keyboard than I can with pen and paper. So when I'm writing a post or working on an article I usually use the keyboard. But for taking notes on a phone conversation or while I'm reading a book or an article or for editing my own writing, I now invariably use the Tablet.

One question I had before I got one is just how well it would be able to read my handwriting. If I had to stylize my handwriting in a particular way or write super-neatly, then that would defeat the purpose. In practice, though, the handwriting recognition is almost amazingly good. I don't have the worst hand-writing in the world. But my script is certainly not neat. And it can accurately interpret pretty much everything I write -- without my making any particular effort to write slowly or legibly.

And the key thing is the computer can quite easily search through your hand-written text for a particular word or combination of words. That for me was really the key, reams of handwritten notes that my computer can search through in a split second.

Here, for instance, is an example from the notes I took for the review I wrote of David McCullough's new book 1776 in The New Yorker. This is probably neater than my normal note-taking handwriting. But stuff that's far more of a scrawl the thing can easily get through.

The other thing I find the Tablet most useful for is editing my own posts or columns. In the past I would always have to print them out and then work over them with a pen. Now I just do it all on the Tablet.

Most manufacturers sell Tablets mainly through 'vertical' markets, to sales forces, hospitals, etc. So it's actually quite difficult to find more than one of them on display on at your local computer store. Often there aren't any. And without getting your hands on one it's hard to shell out the money since you really don't know how or how well the things work. I think that's one of the main reasons they haven't taken off yet with consumer and non-specialist business purchasers.

(ed.note: I hope it goes without saying. But in case not, I paid full freight for the machine I described in this post. And I received no payment, preference or inducement to write any of the above. Strictly my candid opinion.)

I'm really curious to see whether this story (noted below) about Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) gets much pick up or not in the press.

From the plain facts of the matter, as reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune yesterday, it seems like there's a pretty strong case that this defense contractor, Mitchell Wade, gave a congressman a personal gift of almost three-quarters of a million dollars and hid it in the form of home sale. And this was a congressman who was in a position to -- and by his own account apparently did --help the contractor secure numerous defense and intelligence contracts valued in the tens of millions of dollars.

That sounds like sort of a big deal, doesn't it?

So far Google News shows no pick ups for the story, only a reprint in a paper from just north of San Diego.

Misleading at best ...

On our sister site yesterday, David Gelber called readers attention to a piece by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books in which Danner writes that "Never in my experience has frank mendacity so dominated our public life."

(The piece is actually an edited version of a recent commencement address.)

There was a good example of the point on the front page of yesterday's Washington Post, in an article by Dan Eggen and Julie Tate.

The upshot of the piece is fairly straightforward. In the push for the renewal of the Patriot Act, the president and other administration officials have been publicly and volubly claiming that the administration's tough anti-terrorism tactics have resulted in some 400 terrorism-related indictments, with more than half of those leading to convictions.

Only, as Eggen and Tate point out, that's not true.

The president is telling people his administration has nabbed some 400 terrorists. But actually the overwhelming majority of the cases don't involve terrorists in any way. They're people who got swept up in this or that terrorist investigation and then got nabbed for some immigration violation or false statement to investigators.

In the words of the Post: "Among all the people charged as a result of terrorism probes in the three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, The Post found no demonstrated connection to terrorism or terrorist groups for 180 of them." Most of the remainder had nothing to do with al Qaida but were rather narco-traffickers, Palestinians accused of armed violence against Israel, Rwandan war criminals and others.

For the details, see the piece. The point though is that the president is out on the hustings spouting what in common English we call a 'lie'. And yet the best the Post writers can do is say that the president's "numbers are misleading at best."

This isn't so much a criticism of the writers who wrote a thorough and important piece, or even the Post which placed it on A1.

But it does illustrate on aspect of Danner's point: Public mendacity, statements meant to deceive the public on matters of great import, have become so commonplace that they now barely hold any capacity to shock. And the best journalism can do is issue anemic phrases like "misleading at best."

A phrase which is, in this case, itself misleading at best.

It's always curious how some people succeed wildly in one line of business and then fail just as miserably in another.

A fine example seems to be that of Mitchell Wade.

Wade is the owner of MZM, Inc., a defense contractor, which says on its website that it has "Offices in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore, Md.; Charlottesville, Va.; Tampa, Fla.; Martinsville, Va.; San Diego, Calif.; Seoul, South Korea; Stuttgart, Germany; and Baghdad, Iraq."

Back in November 2003, Wade was apparently looking for a house to purchase and 'flip' in the San Diego area. So he purchased the San Diego home of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R), a prominent member of the House Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee, for $1,675,000.

But pretty much from the start Wade dealt himself deep in the hole because he turned around and put it right back up for sale at about the same price. As you can see, here Wade severely constrained his ability to profit from reselling the house because he was offering to sell it for the same price he'd just bought it for.

But things only got worse from there.

As this article in today's San Diego Union-Tribune explains, the house sat unbought and unoccupied for 261 days. And Wade had apparently seriously overestimated the value of the property.

When the place finally sold, it went for only $975,000, thus saddling the unfortunate Wade with a loss of some $700,000.

I guess it goes without saying that that experience probably soured Wade on the real estate game for good.

But at the same time as all this was happening, according to the article, Wade's defense contracting business started going like gang-busters. In the words of the article, "Wade, who had been suffering through a flat period in winning Pentagon contracts, was on a tear – reeling in tens of millions of dollars in defense and intelligence-related contracts."

(Cunningham is also a member of House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.)

Now, it seems some pesky government do-gooder types are asking whether something might not have been quite above board about all this. When the Union-Tribune tried to get in touch with Wade, it turned out he was "traveling without access to a telephone." But MZM official Scotty Brumett explained that -- contrary to what I had assumed -- the purchase was not part of a money-making venture but the company's effort to raise its profile in the San Diego area: "We were looking at expanding our company presence in San Diego. We looked at the property and thought it would work for us. But after we bought it, we realized that it did not meet our security or our corporate needs."

Meanwhile, Cunningham told the paper that "My whole life I've lived aboveboard. I've never even smoked a marijuana cigarette ... I feel very confident that I haven't done anything wrong."

Cunningham told the paper he couldn't discuss the contracts he'd helped MZM land because they were "very, very classified."

There's a very apt analysis at Gadflyer of the Times piece today on life expectancy and how it affects the Social Security debate. Spot on. Disappointing work.