Justice Department Dismisses Corruption Case Against Menendez

From today’s New York Times:

The Department of Justice on Wednesday dismissed all the remaining charges against Senator Robert Menendez, a decision that underscores how a 2016 Supreme Court ruling has significantly raised the bar for prosecutors who try to pursue corruption cases against elected officials.

The motion to dismiss comes less than two weeks after prosecutors said they were intent on retrying Mr. Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and it allows him to run for re-election without having to face a second trial.

The Justice Department on Wednesday cited last week’s decision by Judge William H. Walls to throw out several charges the senator had faced, including bribery counts stemming from accusations that Mr. Menendez lobbied on behalf of a wealthy Florida eye doctor in exchange for political donations. All charges against the doctor, Salomon Melgen, were also dismissed.

“Given the impact of the court’s Jan. 24 order on the charges and the evidence admissible in a retrial, the United States has determined that it will not retry the defendants on the remaining charges,” said Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, declining to provide any more details about the agency’s rationale.

The unraveling of the case against Mr. Menendez is the latest example of how difficult it has become to win public corruption cases after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to overturn the conviction of the former Republican governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, who had been accused of accepting luxury items, loans and vacations in exchange for helping a businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

Read the complete article here.

#RussiaGate: AG Sessions Interviewed in Mueller’s Russia Investigation

Breaking news from today’s New York Times:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was questioned for several hours last week by the special counsel’s office as part of the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the election and whether the president obstructed justice since taking office, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman.

The meeting marked the first time that investigators for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, are known to have interviewed a member of Mr. Trump’s cabinet.

In response to questions from The New York Times, the spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, confirmed that the interview occurred. Mr. Sessions was accompanied by the longtime Washington lawyer Chuck Cooper to the interview.

The attorney general announced in March that he had recused himself from all matters related to the 2016 election, including the Russia inquiry. The disclosure came after it was revealed that Mr. Sessions had not told Congress that he met twice with the Russian ambassador to the United States at the time, Sergey I. Kislyak, during the campaign.

Mr. Sessions, an early supporter of Mr. Trump’s presidential run, had been among a small group of senior campaign and administration officials whom Mr. Mueller had been expected to interview.

Read the complete article here.

Thorny Logistics Of A Federal Shutdown and How It Affects Agency Employees

From National Public Radio:

Hundreds of thousands of federal employees will either be sent home or have been told to not show up to work at all on Monday, as furloughs due to the government shutdown that began Friday night start to affect workers around the country.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gave a foreboding warning from the Senate floor on Sunday.

“The shutdown is going to get a lot worse tomorrow,” he warned. “A lot worse.”

Republicans are insisting the shutdown is less “weaponized” than the last time this happened, in 2013 under then-President Barack Obama, but it’s still sure to have a broad effect across the country and get worse the longer it goes.

“Essential services” will continue, and essential workers will remain on the job, albeit without pay.

But there will be a lot of federal workers — thousands — who will see a change.

Every federal agency has a specific contingency plan, in the case of a loss of funding, and you can look through them all here. In 2013, about 800,000 of the 2.1 million civilian federal employees were furloughed in 2013, according to The Washington Post.

Read the complete article here, including a list of different agencies and the affects the shutdown will have on employees and services.

MLK Day 2018, A Time to Reflect on Socio-Economic Injustice In All Forms

In honor of MLK Day, we post a short educational video here with excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin that draw the connection between racial injustice and economic inequality in the United States. Their insights are as true today as they were fifty years ago, showing just how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. If we want peace, we must work for justice in all its forms.

In win for #VotingRights, Federal Court Rules NC Electoral Map Unconstitutional

From the New York Times:

A panel of federal judges struck down North Carolina’s congressional map on Tuesday, condemning it as unconstitutional because Republicans had drawn the map seeking a political advantage.

The ruling was the first time that a federal court had blocked a congressional map because of a partisan gerrymander, and it instantly endangered Republican seats in the coming elections.

Judge James A. Wynn Jr., in a biting 191-page opinion, said that Republicans in North Carolina’s Legislature had been “motivated by invidious partisan intent” as they carried out their obligation in 2016 to divide the state into 13 congressional districts, 10 of which are held by Republicans. The result, Judge Wynn wrote, violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.

The ruling and its chief demand — that the Republican-dominated Legislature create a new landscape of congressional districts by Jan. 24 — infused new turmoil into the political chaos that has in recent years enveloped North Carolina. President Trump carried North Carolina in 2016, but the state elected a Democrat as its governor on the same day and in 2008 supported President Barack Obama.

The unusually blunt decision by the panel could lend momentum to two other challenges on gerrymandering that are already before the Supreme Court — and that the North Carolina case could join if Republicans make good on their vow to appeal Tuesday’s ruling.

In October, the court heard an appeal of another three-judge panel’s ruling that Republicans had unconstitutionally gerrymandered Wisconsin’s State Assembly in an attempt to relegate Democrats to a permanent minority. In the second case, the justices will hear arguments by Maryland Republicans that the Democratic-controlled Legislature redrew House districts to flip a Republican-held seat to Democratic control.

Read the complete article here.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) to resign amid many accusations of sexual harassment

From today’s LA Times:

Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives, resigned Tuesday after his support among fellow Democrats collapsed amid accusations of sexual harassment by several female employees.

Conyers endorsed his son, John Conyers III, in a rambling radio interview with Detroit host Mildred Gaddis.

“I am retiring today, and I want everyone to know how much I appreciate the support, incredible undiminished support I’ve received,” Conyers said.

Conyers’ use of the word “retiring” rather than “resigning” left some uncertainty over when he was vacating the congressional seat he has held since 1965. Later in the day, however, he sent a letter to congressional leaders saying he was stepping down “effective today.”

Conyers’ replacement will be chosen in a special election.

The Detroit-area seat is strongly Democratic, so Conyers’ departure will not affect the balance of power in the House. But it does set up a potential family fight: While the congressman endorsed his son to succeed him, a great-nephew, state Sen. Ian Conyers, has publicly said he intended to seek the seat.

The announcement by John Conyers came after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), fellow Congressional Black Caucus leader Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and increasing numbers of House members urged him to quit as former aides offered detailed accounts of inappropriate sexual advances he had made over decades.

A longtime civil rights activist — the only remaining member of Congresswho was elected in the 1960s — Conyers is the highest-profile political figure to be forced from office in the midst of a national debate over sexual harassment that began weeks ago with accusations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein.

Conyers has continued to deny any wrongdoing, although on Nov. 26, he agreed to step down as the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee in what served as the first acknowledgment of his vulnerability.

Read the entire article here.

Is it responsible government spending? GOP tax plan gives billions back to billionaires, adds trillions to the deficit

From today’s New York Times:

A Republican requirement that Congress consider the full cost of major legislation threatened to derail the party’s $1.5 trillion tax rewrite last week. So lawmakers went on the offensive to discredit the agency performing the analysis.

In 2015, Republicans changed the budget rules in Congress so that official scorekeepers would be required to analyze the potential economic impact of major legislation when determining how it would affect federal revenues.

But on Thursday, hours before they were set to vote on the largest tax cut Congress has considered in years, Senate Republicans opened an assault on that scorekeeper, the Joint Committee on Taxation, and its analysis, which showed the Senate plan would not, as lawmakers contended, pay for itself but would add $1 trillion to the federal budget deficit.

Public statements and messaging documents obtained by The New York Times show a concerted push by Republican lawmakers to discredit a nonpartisan agency they had long praised. Party leaders circulated two pages of “response points” that declared “the substance, timing and growth assumptions of J.C.T.’s ‘dynamic’ score are suspect.” Among their arguments was that the joint committee was using “consistently wrong” growth models to assess the effect the tax cuts would have on hiring, wages and investment.

The Republican response points go after revenue analyses by the committee and by the Congressional Budget Office, which scores other legislation, saying their findings “can be off to the tune of more than $1.5 trillion over ten years.”

The swift backlash helped defuse concerns about the deficit impact long enough for the bill to pass by a vote of 51 to 49. Some deficit hawks in the Senate caucus were sufficiently concerned about the report on Thursday night to delay the tax vote by a day, but the only Republican lawmaker to vote no was Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, whose last-minute efforts to cut the size of the package or otherwise offset the deficit impact were unsuccessful.

Instead, Senate Republicans questioned the timing of the analysis’ release on Thursday, and a spokeswoman for the Senate Finance Committee released a statement saying the findings are “curious and deserve further scrutiny.”

That sentiment was repeated over and over, before and after the vote. “We think they lowballed it,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the majority whip, told reporters on Thursday. On Sunday, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina said on CNN that “there’s no doubt that the J.C.T. has been consistently underestimating the activity in our economy.”

In the final hours before and after the bill passed, party leaders insisted that the tax plan would produce enough economic growth to pay for themselves with additional tax revenue from growing businesses and higher-paid workers. “I’m totally confident this is a revenue-neutral bill,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, told reporters early Saturday morning after the vote. “Actually a revenue producer.”

Yet there was no data to support those claims, despite promises by the Trump administration that such an analysis would be forthcoming. The Treasury, whose secretary, Steven Mnuchin, has said repeatedly that his department was working on an analysis to show how the tax cuts would not add to the deficit, has not produced any studies that back up those claims. Last week, the Treasury’s inspector general said it was opening an inquiry into the department’s analysis of the tax plan.

The attack on the joint committee and its analysis is a change from the praise Republicans have long heaped on the body, which is staffed with economists and other career bureaucrats who analyze legislation in depth.

“The people who prepare our cost estimates are the best in the business,” Republicans on the House Budget Committee said on a page that has since been removed from their website, “and they’ve been working on this issue for years.”

The critique is the latest example of Republican lawmakers muddying the waters on empirical research in an effort to boost their policy agendas. During the debate over repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, lawmakers lashed out preemptively at the Congressional Budget Office over how many people would lose health insurance.

Read the entire article here.

Trump says Flynn’s actions during presidential transition were lawful

From today’s Reuter’s News Service:

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday that actions by his disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn during the presidential transition were lawful and said that there was no collusion between his 2016 White House campaign and Russia.

Flynn was the first member of Trump’s administration to plead guilty to a crime uncovered by special counsel Robert Mueller’s wide-ranging investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and possible collusion by Trump aides.

Flynn, a former Defense Intelligence Agency director, held his position as Trump’s national security adviser only for 24 days. He was forced to resign after he was found to have misled Vice President Mike Pence about his discussions with Russia’s then-ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak..

“What has been shown is no collusion, no collusion,“ Trump told reporters as he departed the White House for the New York trip. ”There’s been absolutely no collusion, so we’re very happy.”

As part of his plea on Friday, Flynn agreed to cooperate with the investigation.

The retired U.S. Army lieutenant general admitted in a Washington court that he lied to FBI investigators about his discussions last December with Kislyak.

In what appeared to be moves undermining the policies of outgoing President Barack Obama, the pair discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia, and Flynn asked Kislyak to help delay a United Nations vote seen as damaging to Israel, according to prosecutors.

Flynn was also told by a “very senior member” of Trump’s transition team to contact Russia and other foreign governments to try to influence them ahead of the vote, the prosecutors said.

Sources told Reuters the “very senior” transition official was Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor. Kushner’s lawyer did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Watch the video here.

Sexual harassment claims in Congress have been buried from public oversight

From today’s Buzzfeed by P. McLeod and L. Villa:

Michigan Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat and the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives, settled a wrongful dismissal complaint in 2015 with a former employee who alleged she was fired because she would not “succumb to [his] sexual advances.”

Documents from the complaint obtained by BuzzFeed News include four signed affidavits, three of which are notarized, from former staff members who allege that Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the powerful House Judiciary Committee, repeatedly made sexual advances to female staff that included requests for sexual favors, contacting and transporting other women with whom they believed Conyers was having affairs, caressing their hands sexually, and rubbing their legs and backs in public. Four people involved with the case verified the documents are authentic.

And the documents also reveal the secret mechanism by which Congress has kept an unknown number of sexual harassment allegations secret: A grinding, closely held process that left the alleged victim feeling, she told BuzzFeed News, that she had no option other than to stay quiet and accept a settlement offered to her.

“I was basically blackballed. There was nowhere I could go,” she said in a phone interview. BuzzFeed News is withholding the woman’s name at her request, because she said she fears retribution.

Last week the Washington Post reported that the office paid out $17 million for 264 settlements with federal employees over 20 years for various violations, including sexual harassment. The Conyers documents, however, give a glimpse into the inner workings of the Office of Compliance, which has for decades concealed episodes of sexual abuse by powerful political figures.

Read the entire article on Congressional coverups here.

Bad news for American consumer rights, as CFPB director announces departure

Richard Cordray, the head of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is stepping down at the end of the month. The bureau was created in the wake of the financial crisis and has recovered $12 billion from financial firms on behalf of consumers, but Republicans have fought Cordray and the bureau, claiming its very existence is illegal and that it has harmed consumers by stifling lending.

Listen to the NPR Roundtable discussion about his announcement, and what it means for American consumers here.