Trump’s Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Faces Increased Ethics Scrutiny

From today’s New York Times:

Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the Interior Department and a key figure in President Trump’s push to roll back environmental regulations and ramp up oil drilling, is facing increased scrutiny amid federal investigations into allegations that he abused travel spending and maintained close ties with industries he oversees.

The criticism escalated sharply after reports this week that the Interior Department’s inspector general had referred one of the inquiries to the Justice Department, a potential prelude to a criminal investigation.

T​he​​ investigations have raised questions about Mr. Zinke’s oversight of the Interior Department, where he is essentially the largest land manager in the United States. He has authority over the nation’s 300 million acres of public lands as well as vast waters off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Zinke faces at least a half-dozen ethics investigations. At least nine other inquiries into alleged ethics violations have been closed, in some cases because Mr. Zinke was cleared, in others because of a lack of cooperation with investigators.

While it is not known which ​inquiry​ has been referred to the Justice Department, a person familiar with the matter, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said it was most likely one examining a Montana land deal that involved an organization run by Mr. Zinke’s wife​ and a development group backed by the chairman of Halliburton, which is one of the nation’s largest companies involved in drilling for oil and gas on public lands.

Read the complete article here.

Trump pardons Dinesh D’Souza on felony campaign contribution violation

From today’s CNBC “Politics” site:

Conservative commentator and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza revealed on Friday what he said President Donald Trump told him about why he was getting a pardon.

On Fox News, D’Souza said he didn’t know he was going to get it. “I was just in my office working away. And an operator came on the line and said, ‘Is this Dinesh D’Souza?’ Yes. ‘Hold the line for the president of the United States.’ And there was Trump.”

He said Trump said: “”You’ve been a great voice for freedom. I’ve got to tell you man to man, you’ve been screwed.’ He goes, ‘I’ve been looking at the case. I knew from the beginning that it was fishy.'”

D’Souza, who was convicted in 2014 of making an illegal campaign contribution, said, “[Trump] said upon reviewing it, he felt a great injustice had been done. And using his power, he was going to rectify it, sort of clear the slate. And he said he just wanted me to be out there and be a bigger voice than ever defending the principles that I believe in.”

A day earlier, Trump announced on Twitter his decision to pardon D’Souza, an outspoken critic of Democratic former President Barack Obama. D’Souza was prosecuted by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, an Obama appointee who was later fired by Trump.

Read the complete article here.

The face of political corruption in DC? Emails show collaboration among EPA and climate change deniers

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Newly released emails show senior Environmental Protection Agency officials collaborating with a conservative group that dismisses climate change to rally like-minded people for public hearings on science and global warming, counter negative news coverage and tout Administrator Scott Pruitt’s stewardship of the agency.

Emails show collaboration among EPA and climate change deniers

The emails were obtained by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Southern Environmental Law Center through the Freedom of Information Act.

The emails show John Kokus, EPA’s deputy associate administrator for public affairs, repeatedly reached out to the conservative Heartland Institute.

EPA spokesman Lincoln Ferguson says the Heartland Institute is one of a broad range of groups the agency engages with.

Heartland’s Tim Huelskamp says it will continue to work with Pruitt and the EPA against a “radical climate alarmism agenda.”

Read the complete article here.

Trump Undercuts Giuliani’s Comments About Payments to Stormy Daniels

From today’s New York Times:

President Trump undercut his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani on Friday, and said the former New York mayor will eventually get the facts right regarding a payment to a pornographic actress who said she had an affair with Mr. Trump.

“And virtually everything said has been said incorrectly, and it’s been said wrong, or it’s been covered wrong by the press,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Giuliani, who joined Mr. Trump’s legal team last month, “just started a day ago,” Mr. Trump said, speaking to reporters on Friday as he left Washington to attend a National Rifle Association convention in Dallas.

“He is a great guy,” Mr. Trump said. “He’ll get his facts straight.”

It was the first time the president addressed the inconsistent narrativeabout the payment made by his personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, to the actress, Stephanie Clifford, who goes by the stage name Stormy Daniels. Mr. Trump did not offer any details on Friday to clarify the confusion, but said, “It’s actually very simple. But there has been a lot of misinformation.”

Mr. Giuliani released a statement Friday trying to clarify the confusion, saying that his “references to timing were not describing my understanding of the president’s knowledge, but instead, my understanding of these matters.” He also said there had been no campaign violations in the matter.

The comments capped a week of evolving facts surrounding the Oval Office.

The American public learned its president, once described by a doctor as “the healthiest individual ever elected,” actually wrote that description himself, leaving his health ranking among those who held the office before him a mystery. Mr. Trump also hired an attorney he previously had deniedrecruiting. And the president contradicted himself when, this week, he said he paid back Mr. Cohen for the $130,000 given to Ms. Clifford just days before the election. Last month, the president said he did not know anything about the transaction.

Mr. Giuliani kicked off the confusion about the payment with an interviewon Fox News on Wednesday, surprising even some of Mr. Trump’s other attorneys.

Read the complete article here.

Breaking: FBI raids Trump lawyer’s office

From today’s LA Times:

President Trump lashed out Monday at news that his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, was the subject of an FBI raid, calling it “a disgraceful situation” and adding that “many people have said” he should fire Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel heading the Russia investigation.

“They broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys,” Trump told reporters before a meeting with his military advisors, adding that “I have this witch hunt constantly going on for over 12 months now.”

“It’s a disgrace,” he said. “It’s an attack on our country. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.”

The raid is “a whole new level of unfairness,” Trump added, saying that he learned about the raid, from news reports, “like you did.”

He called attorneys working under Mueller “the most conflicted group of people I have ever seen.” The raid on Cohen’s office was undertaken by agents working with the federal prosecutor’s office in Manhattan, acting on a referral from Mueller.

“They’re not looking at the other side. They’re not looking at Hillary Clinton and all the horrible things she did,” Trump said, repeating a charge that he has made before that the lawyers working for Mueller were all Democrats.

The president also renewed criticism of Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, saying he “made a terrible mistake” by recusing himself from involvement in the Russia investigation, “a very terrible mistake for the country.”

Read more about the raid 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.

More Workers Are Claiming ‘Wage Theft’

From NYT “Business Day” August 31, 2014 by Steven Greenhouse:

Week after week, Guadalupe Rangel worked seven days straight, sometimes 11 hours a day, unloading dining room sets, trampolines, television stands and other imports from Asia that would soon be shipped to Walmart stores.

Even though he often clocked 70 hours a week at the Schneider warehouse here, he was never paid time-and-a-half overtime, he said. And now, having joined a lawsuit involving hundreds of warehouse workers, Mr. Rangel stands to receive more than $20,000 in back pay as part of a recent $21 million legal settlement with Schneider, a national trucking company.

“Sometimes I’d work 60, even 90 days in a row,” said Mr. Rangel, a soft-spoken immigrant from Mexico. “They never paid overtime.”

The lawsuit is part of a flood of recent cases — brought in California and across the nation — that accuse employers of violating minimum wage and overtime laws, erasing work hours and wrongfully taking employees’ tips. Worker advocates call these practices “wage theft,” insisting it has become far too prevalent.

Some federal and state officials agree. They assert that more companies are violating wage laws than ever before, pointing to the record number of enforcement actions they have pursued. They complain that more employers — perhaps motivated by fierce competition or a desire for higher profits — are flouting wage laws.

Many business groups counter that government officials have drummed up a flurry of wage enforcement actions, largely to score points with union allies. If anything, employers have become more scrupulous in complying with wage laws, the groups say, in response to the much publicized lawsuits about so-called off-the-clock work that were filed against Walmart and other large companies a decade ago.

Here in California, a federal appeals court ruled last week that FedEx had in effect committed wage theft by insisting that its drivers were independent contractors rather than employees. FedEx orders many drivers to work 10 hours a day, but does not pay them overtime, which is required only for employees. FedEx said it planned to appeal.

Julie Su, the state labor commissioner, recently ordered a janitorial company in Fremont to pay $332,675 in back pay and penalties to 41 workers who cleaned 17 supermarkets. She found that the company forced employees to sign blank time sheets, which it then used to record inaccurate, minimal hours of work.

David Weil, the director of the federal Labor Department’s wage and hour division, says wage theft is surging because of underlying changes in the nation’s business structure. The increased use of franchise operators, subcontractors and temp agencies leads to more employers being squeezed on costs and more cutting corners, he said. A result, he added, is that the companies on top can deny any knowledge of wage violations.

“We have a change in the structure of work that is then compounded by a falling level of what is viewed as acceptable in the workplace in terms of how you treat people and how you regard the law,” Mr. Weil said.

His agency has uncovered nearly $1 billion in illegally unpaid wages since 2010. He noted that the victimized workers were disproportionately immigrants.

Guadalupe Salazar, a cashier at a McDonald’s in Oakland, complained that her paychecks repeatedly missed a few hours of work time and overtime pay. Frustrated about this, she has joined one of seven lawsuits against McDonald’s and several of its franchise operators, asserting that workers were cheated out of overtime, had hours erased from timecards and had to work off the clock.

“Basically every time that I worked overtime, it didn’t show up in my paycheck,” Ms. Salazar said. “This is time that I would rather be with my family, and they just take it away.”

Business advocates see a hidden agenda in these lawsuits. For example, the lawsuit against Schneider — which owns a gigantic warehouse here that serves Walmart exclusively — coincides with unions pressuring Walmart to raise wages. The lawyers and labor groups behind the lawsuit have sought to hold Walmart jointly liable in the case.

Walmart says that it seeks to ensure that its contractors comply with all laws, and that it was not responsible for Schneider’s employment practices. Schneider said it “manages its operations with integrity,” noting that it had hired various subcontractors to oversee the loading and unloading crews.

Business groups note that the lawsuits against McDonald’s have been coordinated with the fast-food workers’ movement demanding a $15 wage. “This is a classic special-interest campaign by labor unions,” said Stephen J. Caldeira, president of the International Franchise Association. In legal papers, McDonald’s denied any liability in Ms. Salazar’s case, and the Oakland franchisee insisted that Ms. Salazar had failed to establish illegal actions by the restaurant.

Michael Rubin, one of the lawyers who sued Schneider, disagreed, saying there are many sound wage claims. “The reason there is so much wage theft is many employers think there is little chance of getting caught,” he said.

Commissioner Su of California said wage theft harmed not just low-wage workers. “My agency has found more wages being stolen from workers in California than any time in history,” she said. “This has spread to multiple industries across many sectors. It’s affected not just minimum-wage workers, but also middle-class workers.”

Many other states are seeing wage-theft cases. New York’s attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, has recovered $17 million in wage claims over the past three years. “I’m amazed at how petty and abusive some of these practices are,” he said. “Cutting corners is increasingly seen as a sign of libertarianism rather than the theft that it really is.”

In Nashville last February, nine housekeepers protested outside a DoubleTree hotel because the subcontractor that employed them had failed to pay a month’s wages. “The contractor said they didn’t have the money, that the hotel hadn’t paid them,” said Natalia Polvadera, a housekeeper. “We went to the hotel manager — he showed receipts that they had paid the contractor.”

Nonetheless, the protests persuaded DoubleTree to pay the $12,000 in wages owed.

Mr. Weil said some executives had urged him to increase enforcement because they dislike being underbid by unscrupulous employers.

His agency has begun cracking down on retaliation against workers who complain, suing a Texas company that fired a janitor when he refused to sign a statement that falsely said he had already received back wages due him from a Labor Department investigation.

“This is just not acceptable,” Mr. Weil said. “You can’t threaten people to lose their jobs because they are asserting rights that go back 75 years.”

Business behaving badly, why fines don’t deter corporate malfeasance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This last year was a record one for fines and financial settlements levied against corporations for breaking laws and wreaking havoc on the economy, especially banks and other financial institutions primarily responsible for creating the Great Recession.

The question is whether forcing corporations to pay changes their bad behavior.

Watch this New York Times video that reviews three examples of businesses behaving badly because they view such fines and settlements as the cost of doing business.

The question is whether more severe penalties, including jail time for executives who are responsible for the behavior of their corporations, can incentivize them to follow the law.

After all, corporations are citizens, and when citizens commit felonies, they often lose their rights. Perhaps we need legislation so that corporations that break the law lose their rights as well.

Justice Department, SEC give up investigation into Goldman Sachs

The Department of Justice announced it will not bring civil or criminal charges against investment bank Goldman Sachs, despite its probable violations of various banking and securities laws that precipitated the financial collapse of 2008. In a statement it released yesterday, investigators said they “ultimately concluded that the burden of proof to bring a criminal case could not be met based on the law and facts as they exist at this time.”

On the same day Goldman Sachs also revealed that the Securities and Exchange Commission was ending its investigation into a $1.3 billion subprime mortgage deal without bringing charges.

Given the close ties between Goldman Sachs and the government, the timing of these announcements raises red flags about the adequacy of banking and financial regulations and signals a lack of political will to hold large banks accountable for creating our present economic mess.

These announcements are surely disappointments to millions of mortgage holders, consumers, and taxpayers who are shouldering the costs of Goldman Sachs and other large banks’ complicated and ill-conceived banking practices. Although the Justice Department and SEC claim there is insufficient evidence to prosecute, these announcements in no way exonerate the large investment bank from its share of responsibility in creating and sustaining America’s largest financial disaster since the Great Depression.

Despite election year rhetoric pinning America’s economic problems on President Obama’s shoulder the real problem  appears to be lax Congressional oversight, impotent laws, and regulatory agencies with cozy ties to their friends in the banking industry. Without the political will in Congress to write stronger laws to regulate this industry, mortgage holders, consumers and taxpayers alike are unlikely to see any substantial relief from the financial and political corruption that is rife in this country.

House passes anemic STOCK Act, corruption is business as usual

 

Last week, Congress passed a much-weakened version of the STOCK Act banning insider trading by its members and their staffers. The law was significantly weakened by failing to place curbs on “political intelligence,” as well as failing to provide new clean-government rules for oversight of the financial dealings of Congressional members.

The legislation makes clear that lawmakers and key staffers are bound by the insider trading laws, but members of Congress are already bound by the laws of the United States so it is unclear what the purpose of this legislation is—except perhaps to promulgate convoluted language so they may continue to practice questionable financial dealings without much oversight. For example, the House version of the bill bars lawmakers from participating in IPOs, but whether this provision will remain in the conference version of the bill, which is reconciled between the Senate and House, remains to be seen.

Further proof that the law is anemic and intended to protect corruption in Congress can be found in two provisions that were cut at the last minute. One provision found in the Senate version requiring members and staffers who collect and trade so-called political intelligence—information from government that can move markets and stock prices—to register just like lobbyists was eliminated by House Republicans. Their version of the bill also cut a provision that cracks down on officials who are guilty of taking actions on the job to benefit themselves financially.

The STOCK Act represents an attempt by House Republicans to take the teeth out of the Senate version of the bill, and thereby preserve the political and financial corruption that have become hallmarks of Congress. The revisions even led Republican sponsors of the Senate version to criticize members of their own party. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) called the changes “astonishing and extremely disappointing.”