Monday, January 31, 2011

Bloomberg’s Undercover Gun Show Bust Reveals Firearm Sales To Individuals Who Can’t Pass Background Checks

Last month, Jared Lee Loughner shot 19 people in Tuscon, AZ — including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), a federal judge, and a nine-year-old girl — with a semi-automatic pistol equipped with a previously illegal high-capacity magazine. Only days later, a Crossroads of the West gun show was held in Phoenix, and investigators from New York City were on hand to see if they could purchase guns and high-capacity magazines without background checks. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R/I)announced the findings at a news conference today: indeed, the investigators got their weapons easily.
Bloomberg played the disturbing videos at the press conference — first showing a gun purchase with no background check, and then showing a purchase of a gun even after the undercover investigator told the vendor “I probably couldn’t pass” a background check — and then blasted gun show sellers who “continue to flout the law” by selling weapons to people who “have no business buying them.” Bloomberg said the footage highlights the need for a “better system that respects the Second Amendment while upholding the laws designed to protect innocent Americans.” Watch it:
Federal laws require guns to be sold by licensed dealers that must record the sales and perform background checks. However, exemptions in the law intended to allow private citizens to sell or transfer a small amount of guns are frequently exploited by large gun shows, where “private sellers” have large amounts of guns for sale, with no background checks. (Bloomberg noted that in a similar sting in 2009, one “private seller” was found to have a 800-weapon inventory). Bloomberg called for Congress to close these loopholes and require background checks for each gun sale, and for gun shows to begin enforcing these standards anyway in the meantime. “Congress should act now, but gun show operators shouldn’t wait,” he said. “They can do the right thing today by making sure that every gun sale at their shows is subject to a background check.”
Bloomberg also wants “resources and leadership to enhance enforcement of existing gun laws.” Even under the current lax regulations, when the undercover investigator suggested he would not pass a background check, the vendor should have immediately terminated the sale. Federal law prohibits gun sales where the vendor “knows” or “has reason to believe” the buyer would not pass a background check, but Bloomberg’s investigators demonstrated this often does not happen. (In the 2009 investigation, 19 of 30 sellers made the sale after the buyer raised a red flag about himself). “We have demonstrated how easy it is for anyone to buy a semiautomatic handgun and a high-capacity magazine, no questions asked,” Bloomberg said.
A former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms spoke at the press conference, and said that ATF “doesn’t have the resources or the leadership it needs to cut down on this crime for good.” Broken U.S. Senate rules and relentless lobbying from the National Rifle Association have kept the ATF without a director since 2006. This morning, ATF officials told the Washington Post that budget cuts proposed by the White House “would effectively eliminate a major initiative in the fight against firearms trafficking on the Mexican border.”

Judge Vinson Adopts Tea Party Rhetoric In Overturning Health Reform

Moments ago, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson — a Reagan appointee on Northern District of Florida — struck down the entire Affordable Care Act, ruling that since the individual mandate is unconstitutional, the entire law is void. “Because the individual mandate is unconstitutional and not severable, the entire Act must be declared void,” he writes. “This has been a difficult decision to reach, and I am aware that it will have indeterminable implications. At a time when there is virtually unanimous agreement that health care reform is needed in this country, it is hard to invalidate and strike down a statute titled ‘The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.’”
It’s the kind of over-reach that will do more to harm the Republican crusade against the law than help it. At one point, Vinson even embraces the entire Tea Party rationale against the Act and suggests that it could lead to total government domination:
If it has the power to compel an otherwise passive individual into a commercial transaction with a third party merely by asserting — as was done in the Act — that compelling the actual transaction is itself “commercial and economic in nature, and substantially affects interstate commerce” [see Act § 1501(a)(1)], it is not hyperbolizing to suggest that Congress could do almost anything it wanted. It is difficult to imagine that a nation which began, at least in part, as the result of opposition to a British mandate giving the East India Company a monopoly and imposing a nominal tax on all tea sold in America would have set out to create a government with the power to force people to buy tea in the first place. If Congress can penalize a passive individual for failing to engage in commerce, the enumeration of powers in the Constitution would have been in vain for it would be “difficult to perceive any limitation on federal power” [Lopez, supra, 514 U.S. at 564], and we would have a Constitution in name only.
But the “activity” vs. “inactivity” distinction is hard to swallow since the actual text of the Constitution makes no mention of such a difference. The clause as written gives Congress the power to regulate economic decisions, and there is a long line of Supreme Court cases that reinforce Congress’ broad power to enact laws that substantially affect prices, marketplaces, or other economic transactions. Health care comprises some 17 percent of the national economy and the failure to purchase health insurance — the very passivity that Vinson is referring to — is having a significant impact on national health care spending and growing costs.
But this too is an argument that he rejects. “If impact [of the uninsured] on interstate commerce were to be expressed and calculated mathematically, the status of being uninsured would necessarily be represented by zero. Of course, any other figure multiplied by zero is also zero. Consequently, the impact must be zero, and of no effect on interstate commerce.” Caring for the uninsured, in other words, is free and creates no cost shifts throughout the system.
That’s just not true (doctors and hospitals and treat the uninsured for free), and the argument unravels further when Vinson completely dismisses the Necessary and Proper Clause by arguing that it’s subservient to the Commerce Clause. That Clause, Vinson writes “is not really a separate inquiry, but rather is part and parcel of the Commerce Clause analysis as it augments that enumerated power by authorizing Congress ‘To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper’ to regulate interstate commerce.”
This is the kind of distortion that really undermines the entire decision and sets Vinson apart as an activist who has decided that Congress has no power to regulate insurance companies, establish exchanges, extend drug discounts to seniors, and give small businesses tax credits to help purchase insurance are all unconstitutional. Conservatives should be outraged.
Cross-posted on The Wonk Room.
UPDATEMark Meckler, co-founder and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest tea party organizing groups, saw a clear nod: “It’s very exciting. He’s invoking the tea party movement."

Top Republicans Exploit Egyptian Uprising To Shill For More Domestic Oil Drilling

As thousands of Egyptians continue to take part in a pro-democracy uprising that is threatening to unseat President Hosni Mubarak, many in the international community are wondering about theglobal ramifications of the protests and a possible new Egyptian government.
In the past few days, a number of high-profile Republican legislators have responded to the protests not by commenting on the need to support the movement, but by exploiting the uprising to shill for more domestic oil drilling here in the United States. These right-wing figures have argued that the demonstrations are likely to lead to a rise in oil prices and/or result in a government that restricts trade in the Suez canal, therefore the United States should expand its domestic oil drilling here at home:
– Sen. David Vitter (R-LA): Vitter told Fox News that, “in light of the developing situation in Egypt,” gas prices will only continue to increase, “whether it’s because of the Suez Canal or just world conditions.” The senator said that Americas “are fed up” of the Obama administration’s failure to use “our domestic energy resources,” referring to domestic oil drilling. [1/30/11]
– House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI): “The tenuous situation in Egypt underscores our vulnerabilities and the need for American-made energy,” Upton told Politico on Sunday. “Now is not the time for policies that lock away our domestic oil and gas resources.” [1/30/11]
– Rep. Jeff Landry (R-LA): “I want to see Coastal Louisianans allowed back to work finding and recovering our domestic energy sources,” said Landry, responding to the Egyptian protests. “Allowing production to occur in the Gulf…will help alleviate the economic crisis of a Suez Canal shutdown and prevent Americans from pay[ing] 5 dollars a gallon for gas.” [1/30/11
Yesterday, Landry appeared on Fox & Friends, where he compared the situation in Egypt to the OPEC oil embargo in the 1970s and affirmed to the Fox hosts that we need to “drill now” thanks to unrest in the Middle East. The congressman evoked the threat of the Suez canal being shut down to justify his demands for more drilling:
HOST: How serious is a situation with what we see in Egypt with oil prices, and what are you calling on the President and Congress to do immediately?
LANDRY: I think we’re back to where we were in the 1970s. The Department of Energy was tasked, was created, to shield the United States economy from exactly what we’re seeing today, unrest in the economy that is going drive the price of energy through the roof. It is the kind of danger that will just take the steam clean out of any recovery we have out of our economy right now.
HOST: Now, you’re calling for the president to drill now. And obviously given the April 20 explosion there on the Deepwater Horizon rig, there’s all kind of regulations in place for Deepwater drilling, you say this is something they need to start doing today and lift those regulations.
LANDRY: Well, that’s correct. If we hope for any economic recovery to take place, we’re gonna need affordable energy. The amount of daily production in the Gulf of Mexico surpasses the amount of oil that passes through the Suez canal. If we have a problem in the Middle East, if that canal is shut down, the price of oil and the price of gas, that we pay at the pump for all Americans are gonna pay is gonna go through the roof.
Watch it:
It is remarkable that the aforementioned legislators immediately jump to exploit the uprising in Egypt to push their own dirty energy agendas. A quick review of their congressional websites finds that not one of the three has posted statements in support of democracy in Egypt or called into question U.S. military and economic aid to the authoritarian leadership. It appears that they are much more concerned with politicizing the demonstrations for their own purposes.
To claim that the Suez canal is in danger of being shut down is wildly sensationalist. Although there was major unrest in the oil market on Friday, much of it was cleared up by today. “There’s still concern but with the Suez Canal operating as normal…there’s a little bit of relief coming to the market,” said financial analyst John Brady of MF Global. He noted that Friday’s unrest was “driven by a lack of liquidity and the selloff got alittle bit exaggerated.”
UPDATEAs CAP Senior Fellow Dan Weiss notes, the oil industry's profits continue to grow as it battles efforts to rein in taxpayer giveaways.

Tea Party Judge Roger Vinson ‘Borrows Heavily’ From Family Research Council To Invalidate Health Law

The most surprising part of Judge Roger Vinson’s ruling was his argument that the individual mandate was not severable from the health care law as a whole and must therefor bring down the entire Affordable Care Act. “In sum, notwithstanding the fact that many of the provisions in the Act can stand independently without the individual mandate (as a technical and practical matter), it is reasonably ‘evident,’ as I have discussed above, that the individual mandate was an essential and indispensable part of the health reform efforts, and that Congress did not believe other parts of the Act could (or it would want them to) survive independently,” Vinson writes.
But a closer read of his analysis reveals something peculiar. In fact, as Vinson himself admits in Footnote 27 (on pg. 65), he arrived at this conclusion by “borrow[ing] heavily from one of the amicus briefs filed in the case for it quite cogently and effectively sets forth the applicable standard and governing analysis of severability (doc. 123).” That brief was filed by the Family Research Council, which has been branded as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
“The Family Research Council (FRC) bills itself as ‘the leading voice for the family in our nation’s halls of power,’ but its real specialty is defaming gays and lesbians,” SPLC says. Indeed, so-called FRC “experts” (who most recently lobbied to preserve Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell) have argued that “gaining access to children” “has been a long-term goal of the homosexual movement” and claimed that “[o]ne of the primary goals of the homosexual rights movement is to abolish all age of consent laws and to eventually recognize pedophiles as the ‘prophets of a new sexual order.” FRC President Tony Perkins has even described pedophilia as a “homosexual problem.”
Here is how Vinson lifts FRC’s argument:
Severability is a doctrine of judicial restraint, and the Supreme Court has applied and reaffirmed that doctrine just this past year: “‘Generally speaking, when confronting a constitutional flaw in a statute, [courts] try to limit the solution to the problem,’ severing any ‘problematic portions while leaving the remainder intact.’” [...]
The question of severability ultimately turns on the nature of the statute at issue. For example, if Congress intended a given statute to be viewed as a bundle of separate legislative enactment or a series of short laws, which for purposes of convenience and efficiency were arranged together in a single legislative scheme, it is presumed that any provision declared unconstitutional can be struck and severed without affecting the remainder of the statute. If, however, the statute is viewed as a carefully-balanced and clockwork-like statutory arrangement comprised of pieces that all work toward one primary legislative goal, and if that goal would be undermined if a central part of the legislation is found to be unconstitutional, then severability is not appropriate. As will be seen, the facts of this case lean heavily toward a finding that the Act is properly viewed as the latter, and not the former.
Severability is fundamentally a doctrine of judicial restraint. “Generally speaking, when confronting a constitutional flaw in a statute, we try to limit the solution to the problem.” [...]
The question of severability is a judicial inquiry of two alternatives regarding the nature of a statute. One possibility is that Congress intended a given statute as a bundle of separate legislative embodiments, which for the sake of convenience, avoiding redundancy, and contextual application, are bundled together in a single legislative enactment. This makes a statute a series of short laws, every one of which is designed to stand alone, if needs be. The second possibility is that a given statute embodies a carefully-balanced legislative deal, in which Congress weighs competing policy priorities, and through negotiations and deliberation crafts a package codifying this delicate balance. Congress is thus not voting for separate and discrete provisions. Instead, Congress is voting on a package as a whole, any modification of which could result in the bill failing to achieve passage in Congress. As both Plaintiffs‟ briefs and the following argument shows, the Individual Mandate falls within the latter category, not the former.
Vinson’s conclusion is peculiar because Congress usually defers to Congress on questions of severability. In fact, even Judge Henry Hudson — the Virginia Judge who also found the individual mandate to be unconstitutional — left the whole of the law intact noting, “It would be virtually impossible within the present record to determine whether Congress would have passed this bill, encompassing a wide variety of topics related and unrelated to health care, without Section 1501…Therefore, this Court will hew closely to the time-honored rule to sever with circumspection, severing any ‘problematic portions while leaving the remainder intact.’”
As Chief Justice John Roberts noted in Free Enterprise Fund et al. v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, “Because ‘[t]he unconstitutionality of a part of an Act does not necessarily defeat or affect the validity of its remaining provisions,’ Champlin Refining Co. v. Corporation Comm’n of Okla. , 286 U. S. 210, 234 (1932) , the ‘normal rule’ is ‘that partial, rather than facial, invalidation is the required course.’”

$25,000 reward in Phylicia Barnes case

Missing NC Teen

Teen has been missing for a month. 'Someone knows something,' her mother says.
MONROE Phylicia Barnes' friends and family marked the one-month anniversary of her disappearance Friday with a prayer vigil and an offer of $25,000 for information that helps solve the case.

The reward offer was announced during a morning news conference at Union Academy, the Monroe charter school where Phylicia is a senior. The money would come from a school foundation designed to help students in need.

Barnes, who was 16 when she disappeared, was last seen Dec. 28 at the northwest Baltimore apartment of her stepsister Deena Barnes, whom Phylicia was visiting over the holidays. Her stepsister's ex-boyfriend told investigators the Monroe teen said she was leaving to get something to eat.

Numerous searches by Baltimore, state and federal authorities have turned up nothing.

Now the hope is that a financial incentive will help break the case.

"Someone knows something," said Phylicia's mother, Janice Sallis, who drove from her new home in Atlanta to attend the news conference Friday. Sallis moved from Monroe to Georgia this month, saying she wanted the support of family members.

Baltimore police have said that despite thousands of hours of investigative work, police have turned up nothing. Police spokesman Anthony Gugliemi said investigators theorize any break in the case would come from the public.

"We need someone who knows something to come forward," he said.

Union Academy Foundation raised more than $200,000 during its annual auction in November. Foundation officials said the reward would be offered through the Phil Hargett Memorial Fund, an arm of the foundation named for a former Monroe city leader who was the grandfather of several Union Academy students and who died late last year.

The school was a sea of purple Friday as students dressed in Phylicia's favorite color and hung purple ribbons on trees, doors and walls in and near the school. The spirit rock was painted purple with a message, "Phylicia we love you."

Earlier this week, the school staged a performance of music, poetry and dialogue, giving students a chance to express feelings about a classmate who disappeared, seemingly without a trace. The "Pray for Phylicia Barnes" Facebook page has more than 19,000 friends and is loaded with statements of hope and support from friends.

On Friday morning, about 90 minutes before the news conference, Union Academy students gathered on the football field behind the school for a prayer vigil. It's at least the third such vigil the students have conducted since the Monroe teen disappeared.

Sallis was flanked by a number of her daughter's classmates during Friday morning's news conference. She read a poem about her daughter and then said, "I love her, and I'm waiting to pick up on my nurturing of her."

The last major search for Barnes took place late last week, when police drained a well and rummaged through a large shed on property in southwest Baltimore. Earlier efforts included a major search of a city park, including the use of helicopters and police dogs. Baltimore police even sent divers into a park pond, looking for some clues.

Tea Party Republican Launches Bid To Become Senate’s Lone Black Member

Michael Williams announced a bid Thursday for Texas’ Senate seat. The Tea Party loves him, but can he overcome a tough primary to become the Senate’s lone black member? Williams talks to Benjamin Sarlin about his plan to win, his friendship with George W. Bush, and his trademark bowtie.
As far as Republicans go, Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams is pretty easy to recognize. There usually aren't too many African-American men sporting a giant bowtie and cowboy boots speaking at conservative gatherings.
Article - Sarlin WilliamsWin McNamee / Getty Images
The boots are easy enough to explain. “Well, I’m from Texas,” Williams told The Daily Beast in an interview, his bass-heavy drawl reverberating from the phone. The bowtie? It started as a bit of a prank while he was serving as a White House education official under President George H.W. Bush. After being called up to testify in front of a hostile audience of Senate Democrats, his staff suggested he try to cut the tension and stand out from the crowd with some offbeat neckwear. “I wanted to bring a light moment to the hearing, be humorous,” he said. “We had a very confrontational hearing anyway. But I had bought all these bow ties…” Soon he had a trademark.
“Marco Rubio’s race is the classic example,” Williams said. “He started behind in the polls, way behind in money, he began raising small dollar money, and then before you know it, the graph of his fundraising looked like a hockey stick.”
On Thursday, Williams declared his candidacy for Senate, entering what’s expected to be a crowded and competitive Republican primary to replace the retiring Kay Bailey Hutchison. Political observers and early polls peg him as an underdog against Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, who is expected to enter the race and enjoys better name recognition and a large personal fortune to help back his campaign. But Williams’ unconventional background and strong grassroots outreach gives him unusually high potential to break out as a national Tea Party star.
Already, his candidacy is ruffling feathers in Washington. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), the conservative lawmaker who lent endorsements to successful Tea Party candidates like Rand Paul and Christine O’Donnell in tough primaries, backed Williams last year for a Senate run to replace Hutchison, who was then planning to leave office to run for governor before deciding to hold off until her term ended. After vowing a less hands-on approach to primaries for 2012, this week DeMint put out an email talking up Williams as an “outstanding conservative leader” and praising another dark horse, former state Solicitor General Ted Cruz, all while notably downplaying Dewhurst. His meddling irritated Senator John Cornyn (R-TX): "Is that guy from Texas?" he told Hotline On Callwhen asked about DeMint.
Supporters look to brand Williams as the next in a line of recent Republican candidates who scored upset primary victories against more entrenched politicians with heavy Tea Party support.
“It’s definitely going to be Tea Party grassroots vs. establishment,” Ken Emanuelson, a Tea Party activist in Dallas who organized a "Draft Williams" Facebook page told The Daily Beast. “Within the grassroots in Texas, Michael is known and loved very much. To the extent there can be anyone described as the grassroots candidate in this race, I think he would be the guy—and second place isn’t even close.”
RedState blogger Erick Erickson has taken to labeling the Texas Lieutenant Governor “DewCrist,” after the moderate former Florida governor who ditched the GOP last year while running against Tea Party icon Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). Williams cited Rubio’s race as his own campaign model.
“Marco Rubio’s race is the classic example,” he said. “He started behind in the polls, way behind in money, he began raising small dollar money, and then before you know it, the graph of his fundraising looked like a hockey stick.”
While the substantive policy differences between Dewhurst and his challengers are considered minor, Dewhurst bears the burden of having presided over a State Senate through some difficult budgets—the legislature has come under criticism from anti-tax groups for restructuring taxes to extract greater revenue from business, for example.
Williams declined to address Dewhurst’s record, but certainly didn’t shy from the insider/outsider message.
“People are telling me what they want in Washington is someone with a record as a consistent conservative who has the courage to stand up to the Washington establishment and who can rally Americans around the next generation of conservative principles,” he said, when asked what distinguished him from the field. “Whether I’m an establishment candidate or an outsider, I’ll let them make that distinction.”
After evangelizing for oil and gas and decrying “the fantasy called global warming” over the last decade (the misleadling Railroad Commission actually regulates energy), Williams told The Daily Beast he’s looking to turn his sights on federal spending and immigration laws as his top priorities if elected. He cited the Republican Study Committee’s proposal to cut $2.5 trillion from the budget over the next decade as “a very good start.”
“We have to get back to limitations on the federal government,” he said. “There’s no way anyone can go to the Senate and not be focused on reducing spending and unleashing the marketplace so we can create jobs and prosperity.”
Spending and immigration are the two areas that have most tarnished President George W. Bush’s legacy with his conservative base. Williams and the former president, who first appointed him to his current position in 1999 while governor of Texas, have had a close relationship spanning decades—Bush personally ran Williams’ first political campaign, an unsuccessful run for county attorney in Midland, in 1984. The ex-president recounted his friendship with Williams in his book A Charge To Keep: My Journey to the White House, describing him as “a good honest man,” and writing that his appointment as the first African American to hold statewide office one of his memorable moments in the statehouse.
Williams has fond memories of the president, whom he first met when they volunteered together as officers of the United Way of Midland.
“This was someone who was very concerned about his community, was engaged in his community, and was concerned about helping uplift people less fortunate than the two of us,” he said. “That was my first impression and still the impression today.”
Nonetheless, he is blunt discussing their differences.
“There’s no doubt I think there were many of us who disagreed with the administration with regards to spending and patrolling the border,” he said. “There’s no doubt that many of us disagreed with the comprehensive immigration reform put forward by the president. While we understand the motive and the interest behind it, the first thing is to control the border.”
As for his unusual background, Williams admitted that he and his parents, who were Republican as well, stood out politically growing up. But he said the election of two African-American congressmen signified that those with natural conservative tendencies were no longer “being cowered by the left.”
“More African Americans are saying ‘I believe what I believe and I won’t let the left dictate to me what I believe,’” he told The Daily Beast. “‘You will not scare me, you will not cower me: I am comfortable with who I am.’”
If elected to the Senate, Williams would become its only black member.

Columbia Students Busted For Drugs Will Ask For Treatment Not Jail

NEW YORK (AP) — They were students who juggled an elite education with criminal extracurriculars, dealing an array of drugs from dormitory rooms and fraternity houses, prosecutors say.
But beneath the surface of academic success, some of the Columbia University students charged in a campus drug takedown struggled with substance abuse, their lawyers say. Attorneys for two of the five students plan to ask a court to prescribe treatment instead of prison — one of the most high-profile tests so far of a recent overhaul of New York’s once-notoriously stringent drug laws.
The outcome will be watched closely by opponents and proponents of 2009 changes to mitigate what were known as the Rockefeller drug laws. Backers called the lesser punishments a more effective and humane approach to drug crime; critics said they gave drug dealers a pass.
With the bid for what’s known as “diversion” to treatment, the Columbia bust “is probably the case that’s going to cause light to be shed on what these new laws mean: When diversion is appropriate, and what the Legislature intended when it cut back so drastically the Rockefeller laws,” said Marc Agnifilo, who represents one of the students, Christopher Coles.
Coles and fellow students Harrison David, Adam Klein, Jose Perez and Michael Wymbs were arrested in December, have pleaded not guilty and are due back in court in March. Authorities called the arrests one of the largest drug takedowns at a New York City college in recent memory, and the prestigious setting at an Ivy League university made the case a media magnet.
Each student made some of the 31 sales in which an undercover officer bought about $11,000 worth of marijuana, cocaine, LSD, Ecstasy and prescription stimulants over five months, authorities said. Drugs, paraphernalia and more than $6,600 in cash were found in the students’ rooms, according to the office of special narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan.
Prosecutors have indicated they’re likely to add to the charges, but at least for now, only David faces mandatory prison time if convicted.
In 1973, Nelson Rockefeller, governor at the time, pushed strict laws through the state Legislature that he said were needed to fight a drug-related “reign of terror.” Critics long complained the laws were draconian and racist and filled prisons with people who needed treatment, not incarceration.
The 2009 revisions took away some mandatory minimum terms — after the harshest terms were eliminated in 2004 — and let hundreds of nonviolent drug offenders seek to shorten their sentences. The latest changes also gave judges more latitude to send nonviolent offenders to treatment programs or other alternatives to prison, on the premise that addressing addictions would do more to change some offenders’ criminal behavior than would locking them up.
Coles and Wymbs hope a judge will use that discretion to channel their cases to a special drug court, their lawyers said. Drug court defendants generally undergo a year or more of treatment and may end up with their charges dismissed or reduced to misdemeanors.
To their lawyers, Coles and Wymbs are ideal candidates to illustrate the drug law reform’s rehabilitation-minded message.
Coles, 20, is charged with selling marijuana and pairing in some amphetamine sales with Perez. An anthropology and political science major involved in a campus effort to combat sexual violence, Coles told police he sold drugs to pay tuition, prosecutors said.
But Coles’ lawyer said the student was in the throes of a roughly $70-a-day marijuana habit. It had become so problematic that his father had called Columbia to express concern, Agnifilo said; a university spokesman declined to comment.
Wymbs, charged with selling LSD and Ecstasy, also has “a demonstrable problem with some substances,” said his lawyer, Michael Bachner, declining to be more specific. A senior applied-mathematics major, Wymbs, 22, worked as a biostatistician for a cancer-research program last summer and plans to apply to graduate school, his lawyer said.
“At the end of the day, Michael Wymbs is better off among us, working to help society, than being labeled as a felon and being ostracized,” Bachner said.
Prosecutors declined to comment on the students’ request. A judge has yet to weigh it.
By law, their bid for treatment depends on showing that drug dependency drove their alleged crimes. But their circumstances also raise delicate questions about how to weigh issues of privilege and promise.
While their backgrounds and plans might augur well for their success in treatment, “are we to then look at those who are less privileged in our society and may have more difficulties, and punish them more harshly, when (the students’) options were clearly more extensive?” said Democratic state Rep. Jeffrion Aubry, who represents a predominantly black district in Queens and was a key backer of the drug law changes. “It’s a complex issue.”
The move toward sending more offenders to treatment was a fraught part of the drug-law debate, with opposing sides disputing whether it would provide people opportunities to change their lives or give opportunists an easy way out. One critic of the 2009 changes said he wasn’t sure they were meant to mitigate punishments for defendants like the Columbia students.
“I think you really have to take a close look at this, and is this really what we meant by a second chance?” said state Sen. Martin Golden, a Brooklyn Republican.

Rallying Against The Koch Agenda, Van Jones Warns Of ‘Excessive Concentrations Of Economic Power’

ThinkProgress is reporting from the Koch summit in Palm Springs, CA. See our coverageherehere, and here.
This weekend, David and Charles Koch, the co-owners of the $100 billion Koch Industries pollution conglomeratehosted their annual meeting in Palm Springs to coordinate strategy and raise funds for the conservative movement. For decades, the Kochs have quietly led a political agenda to concentrate America’s wealth and power among the richest few in the name of “liberty,” at the expense of the health and opportunity of the middle class.
At an event organized by Common Cause to “Uncloak the Kochs,” Center for American Progress senior fellow Van Jones described the threat that concentration of economic power poses to American liberty, democracy, and justice:
I hear a lot of talk now about liberty. There is a movement in our country that has grown up, the Tea Party movement, that has raised the question of liberty, and I say, “Thank goodness.” I’m glad that someone’s raised the question of liberty. There’s nothing more precious to an African American than liberty and justice for all. I’m glad to hear that somebody’s concerned about liberty.
But I think that what we have to be clear about is liberty always has two threats, there’s always two threats to liberty. One is the excessive concentration of political power — excessive concentration of political authority — the totalitarian threat to liberty. And that is a threat to watch out for. But there is another threat. And it is in our country a graver threat. And it is the threat that comes from excessive concentrations of economic power. Excessive concentrations of economic power in our country pose as big a threat, and frankly a greater threat than any concentration of political power. What we have to remember is that our republic is founded not just on the question of liberty, but also on democracy and justice.
And it is when the predatory, monopolistic dimension of the economic system starts to gain momentum, then the question of justice and democracy has to come forward too. Not just liberty and property rights, but justice and human rights, and democracy, and the people’s rights to be free from economic tyranny and economic domination. We will not live on a national plantation run by the Koch brothers. We’re not going to do that. We refuse to do that.
Watch it:
Sharing Jones’ concern, former Sen. Russ Feingold said recently that “this entire society is being dominated by corporate power in a way that may exceed what happened in the late nineteenth century, early twentieth century. The incredible power these institutions now have over the average person is just overwhelming.”
According to UC Santa Cruz professor G. William Domhoff, “the average income of the top 400″ richest Americans — many of whom are attending the Koch’s secret event — “tripled during the Clinton Administration and doubled during the first seven years of the Bush Administration.” The richest 0.01 percent of the United States — now receive 6 percent of all U.S. income.
Top on the Koch agenda is the elimination of the estate tax for billionaires, the end to an open Internet, and the prevention of limits on their toxic pollution. Spending millions of dollars a year — a tiny percent of their pollution-based wealth — the Koch brothers and their ideological allies intend to manipulate American democracy to protect their private economic interests. Their selfish pursuit puts everyone else’s liberties at terrible risk, threatening the “four essential human freedoms” articulated by President Frank Delano Roosevelt: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, from want, and freedom from fear.

Income Inequality In The U.S. Is Worse Than In Egypt

Protests in Egypt continued for a seventh day today, and pro-democracy demonstrators are organizing a “march of millions” to take place tomorrow. As financial markets dip across the Middle East, financial prognosticators are trying to divine what continued unrest will mean for the economies of the Middle Eastand the price of oil.
One of the driving factors behind the protests is the decades-long stagnation of the Egyptian economy and a growing sense of inequality. “They’re all protesting about growing inequalities, they’re all protesting against growing nepotism. The top of the pyramid was getting richer and richer,” said Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the Middle East.
As Yasser El-Shimy, former diplomatic attaché at the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wrote in Foreign Policy, “income inequality has reached levels not before seenin Egypt’s modern history.” But Egypt still bests quite a few countries when it comes to income inequality, including the United States:
According to the CIA World Fact Book, the U.S. is ranked as the 42nd most unequal country in the world, with a Gini Coefficient of 45.
In contrast:
– Tunisia is ranked the 62nd most unequal country, with a Gini Coefficient of 40.
– Yemen is ranked 76th most unequal, with a Gini Coefficient of 37.7.
– And Egypt is ranked as the 90th most unequal country, with a Gini Coefficient of around 34.4.
The Gini coefficient is used to measure inequality: the lower a country’s score, the more equal it is. Obviously, there are many things about the U.S. economy that make it far preferable to that in Egypt, including lower poverty rates, higher incomes, significantly better infrastructure, and a much higher standard of living overall. But income inequality in the U.S. is the worst it has been since the 1920′s, which is a real problem.
Currently, the top one percent of households make nearly 25 percent of the total income in the country, after they made less than 10 percent in the 1970′s. Between 1980 and 2005, “more than 80 percent of total increase in Americans’ income went to the top 1 percent.”
According to the latest data, “the gaps in after-tax income between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the middle and poorest fifths of the country more than tripled between 1979 and 2007.” And there’s even a stark divide within that one percent. “The share of the nation’s income flowing to the top one-tenth of 1 percent of households increased from 7.3 percent of the total income in the nation in 2002 to 12.3 percent in 2007,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted.
Yale economist Robert Shiller has said that income inequality “is potentially the big problem, which is bigger than this whole financial crisis.” “If these trends that we’ve seen for 30 years now in inequality continue for another 30 years…it’s going to create resentment and hostility,” he said. But tax and spending policies that provide adequate services and allow for economic mobility — along with a robust social safety net — can head off trouble that may come down the road.

Police Thwart Plot To Bomb Largest Islamic Center In North America

Last Monday, Deaborn, MI police arrested Vietnam War veteran Roger Stockham, 63, for plotting to blow upthe Islamic Center of America, the largest mosque in North America. Stockham drove from his home in Imperial Beach, CA in a car packed with illegal fireworks and explosives, including M-80s, and parked outside the mosque. More than 500 members were attending a funeral at the time. Police found Stockham after receiving a tip that Stockham had threatened to harm the mosque while drinking in a Detroit bar earlier that day:
Dawud Walid, executive director of CAIR’s Michigan chapter, said he learned from police that the suspect had been drinking in a Detroit bar on Monday when he threatened to do harm to a mosque in Dearborn. A bar employee followed the man outside and wrote down his license plate and called Detroit police who in turned contacted authorities in Dearborn, Walid said.
Dearborn police began searching areas around mosques in the city and allegedly found Stockham inside his vehicle outside the Islamic Center of America, Walid said, with a load of M-80s in his trunk and other explosives. Inside more than 500 members had gathered for a funeral service, Walid said. It was not known whether the suspect knew a funeral was underway.
Members of the Islamic Center of America were alerted to the threat during Friday’s prayer service, Walid said.
“We thank law enforcement authorities for their quick and professional actions in this troubling incident,” Walid said. “The increased number of bias incidents targeting American Muslim institutions must be addressed by local, state and national officials and law enforcement authorities.”
Stockham has been charged with “one count of a threat of terrorism” and one count of explosives. Possessing a long history of anti-government activities, Stockham has “served time in federal prison for threatening to kill President George W. Bush and bomb a Vermont veterans’ clinic in 2002.” In the Vermont incident, Stockham called a local paper twice to say he was going to explode bombs in the neighborhood and identified himself as “Hem Ahadin,” a “local Muslim terrorist on a roll.” According to the affadavit filed at the time, he threatened to carry out “jihad” against the VA office. Two weeks ago, he posted a “rambling statement” on Facebook where he again “refers to himself as ‘Hem Ahadin,’ calling it his Muslim name.”
While it appears Stockham was acting alone, police did not immediately release details because, while they believed “there was no ongoing threat,” they “were also worried that the alleged plot could inspire copycats.” After all, this mosque has been targeted before. In 2004, two New York men sent threatening emails to the mosque and was vandalized in 2007 when someone scrawled “9/11 Terrorists Go Home” on the side of the building. And this is only the latest incident in the growing number of hate-filledattacks on Muslim places of worship, let alone Muslims themselves. As the Islamic Center’s Imam Sayid Hassan Al-Qazwini puts it, “When America only talks about Muslims being terrorists, they will turn a blind eye on their own terrorists.”
And while there’s no indication that Stockham was influenced by any political figure or faction, his actions are by no means isolated. As more and more pundits and politiciansencourage paranoia and vilify Muslim Americans rather than responsibly speaking outagainst it, they cultivate an Islamophobic atmosphere of hate that make incidents like this more likely. After all, with the House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-NY) preaching that “80 percent of mosques in this country are controlled by radical Imams,” it seems only a matter of time before someone like Stockham offers a “radical” solution.

After Lobbying To Kill The Stimulus, Koch Meeting Attendees Guarded By Police Saved By Stimulus

Stimulus-Funded Riverside County Sheriffs Guarding The Resort Hosting The Koch Brothers

his weekend, ThinkProgress reported from the ground at Rancho Mirage, California for the conservative fundraising meeting convened by Charles and David Koch of Koch Industries. The event — disclosed by a ThinkProgress report last October detailing the twice annual gathering of wealthy business executives, Republican politicians, conservative “journalists,” and political operatives — was met by a protest organized by the good government advocacy group Common Cause. A coalition of progressive and California-based groups assembled about 1,500 people for a demonstration yesterday outside the gate of the resort where the Koch meeting was occurring. Activists from Code Pink and the Ruckus Society staged a civil disobedience action resulting in the arrest of 25 individuals, who were charged with trespassing.
The Koch gathering was highly guarded by a phalanx of police officers, a helicopter, and even a no-fly zone around the resort. David Dayen, who chronicled much of the demonstration, reported that the city of Rancho Mirage contracts its police force from Riverside County sheriffs. Ironically, Koch’s front groups lobbied aggressively to kill some of the funding for the very sheriffs who worked tirelessly to ensure safety at the event. In 2009, Koch’s Americans for Prosperity (AFP) front group started a website “” to defeat President Obama’s stimulus plan. AFP also held Tea Partyrallies denouncing the stimulus, and during the midterm campaign even ran adsattacking candidates for voting for the “failed” stimulus. Watch it:

Despite the Koch claim that the stimulus “failed,” it helped save dozens of jobs for Riverside County sheriffs. In recent years, the Riverside County sheriff’s department faced massive budget shortfalls, according to Melissa Nieburger, a spokeswoman for the department who spoke to ThinkProgress. President Obama’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus, provided $13 million in emergency funding and helped maintain about 50 sheriff jobs in the county. The stimulus-supported sheriffs weren’t only guarding the Koch brothers, but also Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), a Koch meeting attendee whose party is now seeking to defund the unused money from the stimulus.
Although the Koch’s mask their right-wing, dangerous business agenda with rhetoric about the virtues of the “free market,” Koch Industries is notoriously dependent on government services, taxpayer money, and special carve-outs. Yasha Levine, writing for the Observer, notes a number of examples of Koch exploiting government programs to pad their bottom line. Koch Industries also leveraged its relationship with Republican administrations to squash millions of dollars in penalties for leaking cancer-causing chemicals in Texas and to win lucrative oil contracts with the government on both the state and federal level. There is even a line in the federal tax code, written by Koch lobbyists, specifically benefiting one of Koch Industries’ refineries in Minnesota. In reality, Koch Industries takes advantage of government money for the same reason it funds climate change-denying journalists, academics, front groups, and think tanks: its goal is to maximize profit, even if it comes at the expense of the American public.