Students nationwide stage walkouts for stricter gun laws after last month’s deadly school shooting in Florida

From today’s LA Times:

Students across the country — from middle school to college — walked out of class Wednesday, calling on state and federal legislators to enact stricter gun laws one month after the mass shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Seventeen students and staff members were killed at the school in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14. On Wednesday, students at hundreds of schools across the nation left class at 10 a.m. local time for 17 minutes — one minute for each victim.

At Marjory Stoneman Douglas, two walkouts took place. Citing safety concerns, student government officials and administrators urged students not to leave campus, but to walk to the football field with teachers. Some students balked at the idea of a chaperoned walkout, saying they wanted to get off campus and spread their message to the broader public.

As students made their way to the football field, past a sculpture of the school Eagle mascot, they walked hand in hand or with their arms around each other. Only a few carried placards. There were no chants. Helicopters buzzed overhead.

David Hogg, 17, one of several students at the school who’ve gained national prominence for advocating gun control, livestreamed the walkout on his YouTube channel.

“We have to stand up now and take action,” Hogg said. He interviewed several of his classmates.

“This is about the need for change,” another student told Hogg. “Yes, the prayers from politicians are nice, but we need real change.”

Organized by the youth branch of the Women’s March, called Empower, the National School Walkout is urging Congress to take meaningful action on gun violence and pass federal legislation that would ban assault weapons and require universal background checks for gun sales.

Read the complete article here.

Some Dems ready to loosen tough bank regulations passed after financial crisis

From today’s LA Times:

Before the 2008 financial crisis, BAC Community Bank in Stockton made about 100 mortgage loans a year. Now, after new regulations mandated in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the figure is down to about two dozen.

“We were never a big mortgage lender, but we did quite a bit more before Dodd-Frank,” said Bill Trezza, the bank’s chief executive. “It basically pushed us out of that to the point where we will do mortgages only for our customers if they request it.”

He and other small bankers hope that’s about to change. And a political shift is making that possible.

Nearly a decade after the financial crisis, some Democrats are ready to go along with a Republican push to significantly loosen the landmark law enacted to try to prevent the next one.

Senate legislation focused on easing new mortgage and other rules for small and mid-sized and regional banks has been co-sponsored by a dozen Democrats, several of them moderates up for re-election this year in states won by President Trump in the 2016 campaign.

The bipartisan support has the bill on track to be approved as soon as this week in what would be the first major overhaul of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

The House, which has approved more extensive financial deregulation, is likely to go along with the Senate’s more modest changes. Trump, who has called Dodd-Frank “a very negative force” in the economy and vowed during the campaign to dismantle it, would be expected to sign any bill that reduces its authority.

“The tone has shifted in D.C. from where regulation was necessary to protect the economy to the concern where regulation has gone too far and might be a drag on the economy,” said Ed Mills, a Washington policy analyst for financial services firm Raymond James. “Where that shift has occurred, it gave an opening to the smaller and medium-size banks to pursue these changes.”

But while there’s broad support for easing unintentional burdens in the law for small banks, many liberal Democrats are fighting the bill from Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). They say it goes too far by also providing significant benefits for some larger financial institutions.

The legislation would exempt about 30 banks and other firms from the stricter oversight put in place by Dodd-Frank after the 2008 financial crisis. That 2010 law was an attempt to prevent a repeat of the bailouts and damage to the economy.

Read the complete article here.

When Wall Street Writes Its Own Rules, It’s An Age of Unprecedented Corruption

From today’s New York Times:

On July 25, 2013, a high-ranking federal law enforcement officer took a public stand against malfeasance on Wall Street. Preet Bharara, then the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, held a news conference to announce one of the largest Wall Street criminal cases the American justice system had ever seen.

Mr. Bharara’s office had just indicted the multibillion-dollar hedge fund firm SAC Capital Advisors, charging it with wire fraud and insider trading. Standing before a row of television cameras, Mr. Bharara described the case in momentous terms, saying that it involved illegal trading that was “substantial, pervasive and on a scale without precedent in the history of hedge funds.” His legal action that day, he assured the public, would send a strong message to the financial industry that cheating was not acceptable and that prosecutors and regulators would take swift action when behavior crossed the line.

Steven A. Cohen, the founder of SAC and one of the world’s wealthiest men, was never criminally charged, but his company would end up paying $1.8 billion in civil and criminal fines, one of the largest settlements of its kind. He denied any culpability, but his reputation was still badly — some might argue irreparably — damaged. Eight of his former employees were charged by the government, and six pleaded guilty (a few later had their convictions or guilty pleas dismissed). Mr. Cohen was required to shut his fund down and was prohibited from managing outside investors’ money until 2018.

Now, with the prohibition having expired in December, Mr. Cohen has been raising money from investors and is set to start a new hedge fund. He’ll find himself in an environment very different from the one he last operated in. His resurrection arrives as Wall Street regulation is under assault and financiers are directing tax policy and other aspects of the economy — often to the benefit of their own industry. Mr. Cohen is a powerful symbol of Wall Street’s resurgence under President Trump.

As the stock market lurched through its stomach-turning swings over the past week, it was hard not to worry that Wall Street could once again torpedo an otherwise healthy economy and to think about how little Mr. Trump and his Congress have done to prepare for such a possibility. Stock market turbulence typically prompts calls for smart and stringent financial regulation, which is not part of the Trump agenda. One of Mr. Trump’s first acts as president was to fire Mr. Bharara, who made prosecuting Wall Street crime one of his priorities. Mr. Trump has also given many gifts to people like Mr. Cohen.

Read the complete article here.

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.

Millions of ex-cons lost the right to vote. Now they might get it back.

From today’s NBC News:

Dean Turner never voted before he went to prison. But his right to cast a ballot was the last barrier to rebuilding his life once he got out.

Released in February 2016, after more than a decade behind bars for selling drugs, the 50-year-old Virginian worked his way up from dishwasher to line chef by Googling how to cook. He started mentoring young men, and coaches a writing class at Virginia Commonwealth University based on the book he helped write while incarcerated. But until last fall, Turner was one of the estimated 6.1 million Americans — 2.5 percent of the nation’s voting-age population — barred from voting by a felony conviction.

“When you’re able to vote, that means you have a voice in the world,” Turner told NBC News. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, restored his voting rights last year, and Turner cast his first-ever ballot in November 2017.

“It was the best feeling,” he said. “That was the little stamp of approval that I turned myself around, I’m a citizen of society.”

Virginia isn’t the only state with a recent push to restore voting rights to ex-offenders. AlabamaWyoming and Maryland have also begun easing voting restrictions for released felons, while Florida organizers announced Tuesday that they had succeeded in gathering enough signatures for a ballot initiative this November that would rewrite the state’s permanent felon voting ban and give an estimated 1.5 million ex-offenders the vote.

Nearly every state has laws to prevent people convicted of a felony — a crime more serious than a misdemeanor — from voting, though policies vary. Some 14 states disenfranchise felons while in prison, and another 22 disenfranchise during post-release periods like probation and parole as well, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But Virginia is one of 12 states that bars ex-offenders from voting even after their sentences are complete. In order for ballot access to be restored, these states require waiting periods, an application process, or action from the state’s governor. McAuliffe used his executive authority to individually reinstate voting rights to some 173,000 ex-offenders, including Turner, before leaving office in January.

Read the complete article here.

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 Cutting taxes, the Economic Odds and Historical Experience Are Against Trump

From today’s New York Times:

When President Trump adds his distinctive signature to the tax bill, he will also be making a huge bet that the Republican strategy of deep cuts for businesses and wealthy individuals will fuel extraordinary growth across the board.

Perhaps more than any other American political leader, Mr. Trump knows that long shots, like his own presidential bid, sometimes pay off. In that vein, he and congressional Republicans are arguing that their bitterly contested and expensive rewrite of the tax code will ultimately create more jobs and raise wages.

If they are proved correct, they will be repudiating not only historical experience, but most experts. From Congress’s own prognosticators to Wall Street’s virtuosos, scarcely any independent analyses project anything like the rosy forecasts offered by the president’s top economic advisers.

To Mr. Trump and his allies, the normal models just do not fully capture the high-octane “rocket fuel” embedded in the tax plan. Mr. Trump intuitively understands just how much attitudes and expectations can shape economic decisions.

With a businessman in the White House, Mr. Trump argues that companies, large and small, have a renewed faith in the economy. And the corporate tax cut, combined with the rollback in regulation, will prompt waves of new investment and hiring, as middle-class Americans liberally spend the extra money in their pockets.

Read the complete article here.

Al Franken will resign from Senate after more allegations of sexual improprieties

From today’s LA Times:

Al Franken announced Thursday he will resign his Senate seat, falling to a whirlwind of sexual misconduct allegations like those that have enmeshed other politicians, business leaders and media figures across the country in recent months.

The Minnesota Democrat, a second-term senator once seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2020 or beyond, earlier had said he would not leave office but would submit to a Senate ethics investigation into his behavior. He had acknowledged some misconduct, but denied other allegations.

His fate appeared sealed, however, on Wednesday, when more than half of Senate Democrats issued calls for his resignation in an uprising led by female senators. The choreographed move came as yet another woman came forward to accuse Franken of unwanted advances before he was elected to the Senate, and Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York privately met with Franken to tell him the time had come to quit.

Franken’s announcement marked the second departure this week of a once-heralded Democrat caught in unsavory accusations. On Tuesday, the senior member of the House, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, quit after multiple complaints by aides that he had sexually harassed them.

The departure marks the end of the legislative career that began when Franken squeaked into office on an exceptionally narrow win, was reelected more easily and had emerged as a well-regarded member of the party’s growing liberal wing.

Franken’s resignation will not change the balance of power in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority with 52 seats. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a fellow Democrat, will appoint a replacement to serve until a special election can be held in November 2018. The winner of that election will hold the seat until what would have been the end of Franken’s second term, in January 2021.

Read the entire article here.

Takeaways From Tuesday’s Elections

From today’s New York Times Election Review:

By any measure, Tuesday was a big night for Democrats, especially in Virginia, where they swept the top offices, including governor, and made strong gains in the General Assembly. Here are some key takeaways from the biggest election night since President Trump’s victory a year ago.

Susan Johnston helping coordinate canvassing efforts at the Mainers for Health Care headquarters in Portland on Tuesday. Maine became the first state to vote to expand Medicaid. 

A suburban rebellion propels Democrats. It was largely a suburban rebellion, where more moderate voters rejected Mr. Trump and embraced Democrats. Be it New Jersey, Virginia or Charlotte, N.C., Democrats rode a miniwave of victories that will give them energy for candidate recruitment and fund-raising heading into the midterm elections next year.

In addition to winning the top races, for governor of New Jersey and Virginia, Democrats also captured the mayoral post in Manchester, N.H., the State Senate in Washington, along with other important victories in statehouse elections. Maine also became the first state to vote to expand Medicaid, the 32nd in all under President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act.

It’s hard to have Trumpism if you don’t have Trump. Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, tried his best to sound the call of Mr. Trump’s followers in stoking the nation’s culture wars. He was harsh on immigration, supportive of Confederate monuments and opposed to those N.F.L. players who have taken a knee. But his public record before, as a national party chairman, White House counselor and Washington lobbyist, had few of those harsh edges. And like a lot of Republicans, he only grudgingly supported Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Most notably, Mr. Gillespie did not seek to campaign with the president in Virginia, settling for support via Twitter. That left him with almost all of Mr. Trump’s baggage and few potential benefits.
Read the entire review article here.

Pence casts deciding vote in Senate to deny consumers rights to sue banks

From today’s Washington Post by Ken Sweet:

Call it a win for “the swamp.”

President Trump and Republicans in Congress handed Wall Street banks a big victory by effectively killing off a politically popular rule that would have allowed consumers to band together to sue their banks.

The 51-50 vote in the Senate, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the deciding vote, means bank customers will still be subject to what are known as mandatory arbitration clauses. These clauses are buried in the fine print of nearly every checking account, credit card, payday loan, auto loan or other financial services contract and require customers to use arbitration to resolve any dispute with his or her bank. They effectively waive the customer’s right to sue.

The banking industry lobbied hard to roll back a proposed regulation from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that would have largely restricted mandatory arbitration clauses by 2019. Consumers would have been allowed to sue their bank as a group in a class-action lawsuit. Individual consumers with individual complaints would still have to use arbitration under the rules.

President Trump is expected to sign the Senate resolution into law, overturning yet another Obama-administration initiative. Trump spent months of the 2016 campaign accusing his opponent Hillary Clinton of being in the pocket of the big banks and therefore unwilling to take on Wall Street.

At least among voters, the CFPB’s regulations had bipartisan support. A poll done by the GOP-leaning American Future Fund found that 67 percent of those surveyed were in favor of the rules, including 64 percent of Republicans. Other polls on the subject show similar levels of support.

The overturn marks a significant victory for Wall Street. After the financial crisis, Congress and the Obama administration put substantial new regulations on how banks operated and fined them tens of billions of dollars for the damage they caused to the housing market. But since Trump’s victory last year, banking lobbyists have felt emboldened to get some of the rules repealed or replaced altogether. Top or near the top of the list was the CFPB’s arbitration rules.

“(The) vote is a giant setback for every consumer in this country. Wall Street won and ordinary people lost. This vote means the courtroom doors will remain closed for groups of people seeking justice and relief when they are wronged by a company,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, in a statement.

The big banks and its lobbyist groups are calling this a victory for U.S. consumers, saying that arbitration is faster and the rules would have been an economic stimulus package for class-action trial lawyers. They also cite statistics from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s own 2015 study that show that the average award from a class-action lawsuit is roughly $32 while an award from arbitration is $5,389.

But reality is more complicated. At best, the banking industry’s arguments twist the truth.

The reason why the award for most class-action suits is small is because people don’t typically sue individually his or her bank over a small sum of money, like an overdraft charge or account service fee, because it’s not worth the financial effort to recover a $10, $25, or $35 fee. Arbitration cases are less common, and usually involve more substantial disputes, hence the larger awards. Also the majority of consumers resolve their dispute with their banks in person, typically at a branch or over the phone.

If the CFPB’s rules had gone into effect, companies like Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Equifax would have been exposed to billions of dollars in lawsuits for future bad behavior. The Center for Responsible Lending estimates the U.S. banking customers paid $14 billion dollars in overdraft fee last year, and the industry has gotten in trouble in the past for shady tactics like transaction reordering, where a bank would reorder a day’s debits and withdrawals to extract the most overdraft fee income from its customers that day.

To overturn the CFPB’s rule, Congress used the Congressional Review Act. The CRA allows Congress to overturn any executive agency’s rules or regulations with a bare majority vote, but more importantly, the law prohibits that agency from issuing any “substantially similar” regulations without Congressional authorization. That means that until Congress passes a law to restrict arbitration, the CFPB’s hands are now permanently bound on this issue.

The political winds are in Wall Street’s favor going forward. Cordray’s term at the CFPB will end in mid-2018 but he is expected to step down before then to make a run for Governor of Ohio. Trump will be able to choose his own appointee and will likely pick someone more likely to favor the banks.

The CFPB was created after the financial crisis as part of the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform law that passed in 2010. The bureau was crafted to be independent and powerful, funded by the Federal Reserve instead of through the traditional Congressional appropriations process. Its director has considerable authority to pursue issues he or she considers important and generally cannot be removed from office.

There’s another major financial consumer protection now pending in front of Congress focused on the payday lending industry. The CFPB finalized new regulations weeks ago that would severely restrict the ability for payday lenders to make loans that its customers, often the poor and financially desperate, cannot afford. The payday lending industry is pushing hard to overturn these rules using the same process that was used to overturn the arbitration rules.