Orie Trial Set For February

The corruption trial of State Sen. Jane Orie is now set for February 13th after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected her appeal of double jeopardy.  She also waived a preliminary hearing of forgery and perjury charges emanating from her original trial which was halted during deliberations.  Orie’s defense presented altered documents designed to impeach the testimony of her former chief of staff’s testimony the Senator had used her state offices, staffers and resources for campaigns.  Allegations she ran the State Supreme Court campaign for her sister Justice Joan Orie Melvin on the public dime now have her in the dock.  The new trial was set for Monday but the charges are being consolidated into one trial and it will commence in February.

Lackawanna Commissioners Guilty in Federal Probe

As federal investigators continue homing in on corruption in northeastern Pennsylvania one current and one former Lakawanna County Commissioner were found guilty of 26 counts in federal court.  A.J. Munchak, uncle of Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Munchak and former Commissioner Robert Cordaro face heavy fines  and long prison terms.  The 18 counts against Cordaro include extortion, mail fraud and money laundering.  Munchak was found guilty on eight counts including extortion.  In order to gain contracts with the County when the two were the majority Republican Commissioners businesses were required to bribe the men.

This case and its companion one in adjoining Luzerne County (Kids For Cash) both highlight the danger of privatizing government services.  Once traditional duties of government are contracted out on a for profit basis and the primary goal becomes making money instead of tending tot he public good a Pandora’s box is created filled with mischief and corruption.

On Being A Titan, Part One, Or, See It, Say It, Sue It

Got a simple little story for you today of a multinational corporation that wants to build a great big cement plant in North Carolina really, really, bad, and the local opposition to what appears to be a corrupt and distorted decision process.

Two local activists in particular have drawn the ire of Titan Cement, the Grecian corporation who seeks to build the plant-and because the Company doesn’t like what the activists have been saying about what the impact of that plant will likely be or how the deal’s going down…they’re suing Kayne Darrell and Dr. David Hill, residents of North Carolina’s New Hanover County, and the two folks who are doing the complaining the Company dislikes the most.

The Company further claims that they were slandered and defamed by the damaging statements that were uttered by the two at a county commissioners’ meeting and that they have lost goodwill and the chance to do business with certain parties as a result of these statements.

But what if everything the Defendants said was not only true…but provably so-and the Company was, maybe…just looking to shut people up by sending teams of lawyers after them?

As I said, it’s a simple story today-but it’s a good one.

We have tomorrow

Bright before us

Like a flame.

Yesterday, a night-gone thing

A sun-down name.

And dawn today

Broad arch above the road we came.

We march!

–From The New Negro, by Alain Locke

So here’s the deal, as it sits today: for a number of years now Titan Cement has been looking to build this great big cement plant near the environmentally sensitive North Carolina coast (part of the site includes 600 acres of “pristine wetlands“), and part of running a cement plant is running cement kilns.

Ya gotta cook limestone, sand, and clay, along with some other ingredients, at very high temperatures (above 2700 degrees F), which sort of fuses everything together; that makes “clinker”, which eventually becomes cement, and that’s why you need giant kilns and, often, pre-heater towers.

You need fuel for those really hot kilns and towers, and our friends at the Army Corps of Engineers advise that, in the kiln fuel game, you can actually kill two birds with one limestone by burning hazardous waste as a substitute for anywhere from 20% to 50% of your original “fuel of choice” (which is often coal).

According to the Corps, you can burn 12 tons of fuel an hour in one kiln, and that means up to six tons of…

byproducts of pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and electronics manufacturers;

solvents and inks used to print newspaper and other publications;

solvents used to recycle paper;

dry-cleaning solvents;      

paint thinners and paint residues;

sludge from the petroleum industry;

used motor oil;

agricultural wastes;

and scrap tires.

…might be going into the mix every hour-and as it turns out, that stuff might contain:

…arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, nickel, thallium, and zinc.

Now if you’re burning that stuff, it’s either going up the smokestack or out the door as a component of the clinker you just made, and if you live anywhere near this plant, you’re going to be at least a little concerned…and if you have the impression that the people who are trying to get the permits are running a big ol’ hustle to get those permits, you’re going to be even more concerned…and it looks like that’s what’s been going on…and if you put all this together, and you lived in the neighborhood, you might show up at a local County Commissioners’ meeting and say something like this

“From lawsuits for price fixing and court-ordered mine closures of Titan’s Florida plant, to allegations of corruption coming from Raleigh, to emails raising suspicion whether Titan was ever even considering any other location, which would make incentives completely unnecessary, the clouds of corruption grow dark as new controversies emerge almost daily.”

…or this…

“The bottom line is we know from numerous studies that if we build this thing, more children will get sick, a handful of them will die. We also know from the adult studies that more adults will get sick and quite a few more of them are going to die as well. Which ones? Can’t tell you. That makes it difficult, but there will be some.”

…which are the two utterances which are today at legal issue. (Ms Darrell is being sued for the first statement, Dr. Hill, the second.)

The reason we are all gathered here today is to figure out whether either of those statements are truthful or not…because if the statements are truthful, they cannot be either slanderous or defamatory.

So let’s break it all down, one clause at a time:

Ms. Darrell talked about lawsuits for price fixing, and sure enough, CemWeek (“Global Cement Industry. Knowledge”) ran a story in October of ’09 entitled “Nine US cement companies accused of price fixing“, describing a lawsuit filed for price fixing in which Titan was one of the Defendants.

Court-ordered mine closures? Coffey Burlington, attorneys at law, recount their success with a certain case on their website (Sierra Club v. Army Corps of Engineers, Rinker Group, Tarmac America, Florida Rock Industries, APAC-Florida and Miami-Dade Limestone Products Association), which did in fact result in a court-ordered mine closure of Florida facilities operated by Tarmac America, which is a Titan subsidiary.

Allegations of corruption? How about this, reported in January of 2010 by the Wilmington, NC, StarNews:

A corporation that shares an address and president with a Titan America subsidiary bought a Wilmington office building for more than twice its tax value from Democratic fund-raisers under scrutiny by state and federal prosecutors.

To add to this element of the story, the current Governor, Bev Perdue, has asked the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) to look into Titan’s permitting process, which is something that usually follows allegations, if I recall correctly.

Let’s move on: the folks in the Wilmington, NC, area have a private economic development committee that has negotiated secretly with Titan for some time; the result of that effort was the decision to provide $4.2 million in local government incentives to Titan.

But here’s the thing: if Titan never meant to build anywhere but on that one site, and they still hustled the community for the incentives by using the threat of building somewhere else…well, that’s why Ms. Darrell was talking about:

“…emails raising suspicion whether Titan was ever even considering any other location, which would make incentives completely unnecessary…”

In 2008, Keith Barber, he of Wrightsville Beach Magazine, documented Titan’s multi-decade interest in this particular location:

Titan has made very little effort to conceal the fact it plans to move forward with construction of a cement plant and limestone mining operation on the banks of the Northeast Cape Fear River. In a 2005 interview with Titan CEO Aris Papadopoulos in Cement Americas magazine, Papadopoulos confirmed the Greece-based company had been considering building a plant in Castle Hayne for nearly two decades…

… In addition, even though the permitting process is 18 months to 2 years out, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) Web site reveals that CSX Railroad is already constructing a new spur track at the site of the proposed Carolinas Cement Company.  

The Charlotte News & Observer documents the existence of those pesky emails in a January 2010 editorial:

…[Titan lobbyist John] Merritt said he would talk to then-Commerce Secretary Jim Fain. Earlier, he had advised a company spokeswoman on how to respond to questions without raising suspicions that Titan might not qualify for a state grant.

“It is very important that the company not do anything that suggests that this is the only site you are looking at,” Merritt e-mailed. And sure enough, in its application for incentives Titan asserted that it was considering sites elsewhere.

Let’s jump in for just a second and take a look at where we are:

Ms. Darrell made this statement…

“From lawsuits for price fixing and court-ordered mine closures of Titan’s Florida plant, to allegations of corruption coming from Raleigh, to emails raising suspicion whether Titan was ever even considering any other location, which would make incentives completely unnecessary, the clouds of corruption grow dark as new controversies emerge almost daily.”

…and based on what we’ve seen so far, every single word of that statement turns out to be absolutely, provably true:

–There was a price-fixing lawsuit.

–There was a court-ordered mine closure of Titan’s Florida plant.

–It’s alleged that something funny was going on with that office building, and North Carolina’s SBI is investigating.

–We did in fact discover that emails exist raising suspicions as to whether Titan was considering any other location.

–And here we are, talking about one of the new controversies that emerge almost daily.

Today’s tale of legal bullying is running pretty long already, and we still have half of the story to go…so let’s take a break for today, and we’ll pick this up by looking at the statement made by Dr. Hill when we get together next time.

In the meantime, if you’re keeping score…I’m thinking that after Round One, it’s Defendants, 1, Titan, 0.

Does God send natural disasters as punishment?

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Governor Blagojevich Impeached

The Illinois legislature voted to impeach Gov. Rod Blagojevich this afternoon by a vote of 114-1.  The lone vote against was cast by a House member who does not believe in impeachment.  The Governor remains in office pending a trial in the Illinois Senate.  This is far more serious than the “indictment” impeachment process in the House.  Impeachment trials need actual evidence of wrongdoing which may be difficult to mount in this case.  Only the federal prosecutor has possession of much evidence though legislators already have considerable cause to oust their executive.

Sen. Stevens Convicted

Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was convicted yesterday of all seven counts against him for corruption.  Though done in by his own words the feisty Alaskan insists he was railroaded.  This man’s own worst enemy is himself.

Arrogance and hubris are epidemic in Washington and after forty years serving pork to his home state he couldn’t help but give himself a nice thick slice.  This is a story about how powerful energy companies are in Alaskan politics.

Lack of Real Reform in Harrisburg

There are but a few weeks remaining in this legislative session.  A session last two years, basically since January 2007 to now.  What serious, bottom line reform has happened in that interim?  Nothing on the major, fundamental reforms which would actually change the way Harrisburg operates.  Some minor bills passed such as limiting lawmakers from working into the wee hours passing things like 37% pay raises for themselves.

Just try talking serious reform to some of these officials and see what happens.  I ran into my State Senator at the Oley Fair Friday evening.   After joking around some about the weight I’ve lost he said he expects he’s earned my vote.  He hasn’t because I haven’t seen him do anything about campaign finance reform, lobbying restrictions and the legislative slush funds.  

I wanted to spend a few minutes asking him why but he turned around and walked away.  At that point he REALLY lost my vote.  It isn’t that he needs my vote but he does risk having articles like this written as a consequence.  It tells me I don’t count to him.  That’s OK, but don’t expect to get my vote.

My Senator has done quite a bit, especially for the fat cat donor who underwrites his campaigns.  When it comes to the anti-gerrymandering law, legal notice reform, restricting the power of Committee Chairs in Harrisburg and local Party reform he’s been AWOL as far as I can tell.  I could be wrong but since I didn’t get the opportunity to discuss this with him that’s his loss.

When you go to vote this fall base your vote on whether your incumbent has actually introduced or co-sponsored serious legislation the past two years.  This goes beyond reform issues and encompasses the dog law bills, healthcare for all, marriage equality, funding educational mandates, real solutions to the property tax nightmare such as a progressive income tax, and similar important legislation.  If you based it only on reform none of them would qualify.  Ask the hard questions when you run into them on the campaign trail.  If they turn their backs on you let them know they just lost your vote.

BonusGate Spreading to GOP

BonusGate is beginning to affect the Republican House caucus as they try to use the scandal to capture seats this fall.  For some inexplicable reason the Republican Party seems to be deceiving voters into thinking only Democrats abused their tax dollars and used them for partisan political purposes.

Wrong.

The grand jury is now investigating the Republican caucus and is looking into a computer system, installed at taxpayer expense, used to catalog voters and track new registrations for partisan political purposes.

Within three years, the caucus was paying $1.8 million for a sophisticated database system that tracked information.

The contract, with Aristotle Inc., a Washington, D.C., data firm, is now the subject of a probe by a state grand jury. The jury has questioned current and former employees of former House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia.

A copy of the contract, obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, contains a May 30, 2003, amendment to an older contract between the House Republicans and Aristotle, outlining an array of services that at points openly refer to elections. Pennsylvania law forbids the use of state funds or resources for campaign purposes.

Both Parties abused the taxpayers and as the investigations continue both caucuses in both legislative bodies will be investigated and many more indictments will follow.  Unfortunately for Democrats Attorney General Tom Corbett timed his inquiries so the indictments of House Democrats would occur prior to his re-election effort got underway this fall.  The manipulation of state resources for political purposes goes much farther than simply the legislature.

Dark Days For Fumo: Second Computer Tech Cops Plea

A second computer technician ordered to delete emails and other incriminating documents at the State Senate computer lab pled guilty yesterday.  Vince Fumo allegedly ordered Mark Eister and Leonard Luchko to obstruct an FBI investigation into $3.5 million he skimmed from taxpayers, a museum and his non profit organization for his personal expenses.

The federal corruption case resulted in Fumo’s dropping out of his re-election bid.  Eister and Luchko will be testifying against the Senator in his upcoming trial and its difficult to see how he can explain their actions.  The U.S. Attorney’s office was looking into a $17 million contribution given to the non profit by PECO Energy allegedly at the Senator’s demand.  The computer techs were charged with deleting that evidence.

Vince Fumo, a millionaire in his own right, was obsessed with using “other people’s money” and it brought down a great and influential career in Harrisburg.  Let this be a reminder to all there that arrogance and hubris can be your downfall.

Lawsuit Targets Corbett

Republicans believe in privatization because it feeds their campaign coffers.  By turning public service into private profit for their friends through no bid contracts they force tax payers to pay more for government services and enrich their corporate friends.  Their corporate friends then return the favor with lavish campaign contributions.

Its a rather nice gravy train and who cares if the citizens get short changed?  Well Tom Corbett, the Pennsylvania Attorney General has gotten his hand caught in the cookie jar.  After charging House Democrats with the improper use of taxpayer funds he has now been accused of the same by a former prosecutor.

Thomas D. Kimmett has sued Corbett for firing him after trying to blow the whistle on the operation.  Kimmitt accuses Corbett of privatizing a program to collect delinquent taxes and giving a company 40% of the recovered proceeds in a no bid contract.  Settlements with taxpayers were sent to the collection agency in spite of the fact settlements had been reached.  Once you reach a settlement there is no need for collection.

This was a blatant attempt at making kickbacks to the collectiona gency in my opinion.  Corbett is no better than Mike Veon and Bill DeWeese in his conduct.

“The private collection agency, chosen without any bidding process by the attorney general’s office, would then collect a fat commission after having done little or nothing to earn it,” Kimmett said in his lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg. The defendants include officials in the attorney general’s office and the state Revenue Department, which collects state taxes.

Of course Tom Corbett is owned, lock, stock and barrell, by Bob Asher, the Montgomery County candy maker and convicted felon (for political corruption).  It is an outrage that our Attorney General would allow himself to be associated with the likes of Asher who was convicted of extorting a $300,000 contribution to the PA Republican Party through his cohort Bud Dwyer, the State Treasurer at the time.  This was also about a no bid contract.  Dwyer committed suicide rather than face prison.  Asher went to federal prison for a year.  Now he is the single largest financial benefactor for Pennsylvania Republicans.

Why do supposed prosecutors like Todd Stephens of Montgomery County associate themselves with someone convicted of political corruption?  Perhaps the same lack of ethics that allows Stephens to accept campaign contributions from the lawyers for people he is prosecuting is at work here.  

After all, in Todd Stephens’mind, once you accept money from a crook like Asher why not sell the DA’s office to the defense lawyers too?  Is this the sort of person we want representing us in Harrisburg?  I know Rick Taylor and Taylor’s ethics would never permit such an appearance of corruption.

Luchko Pleads, Will Testify Against Fumo

Democratic Senator Vince Fumo is facing a tougher and tougher trial as another former aide copped a plea yesterday and will testify against the powerful Senator from Philadelphia.  Leonard Luchko formally pled to conspiring with Fumo to destroy evidence in the form of emails and other documents implicating Vinnie in corruption charges filed by Federal authorities.

The charges claim Fumo, a rich man in his own right, was obsessed with spending “other people’s money” instead and tapped into $2 million of tax dollars and other funds controlled by a non profit and museum he controlled.  Destroying the emails made it impossible for the FBI to gain evidence on millions he may have allegedly tried to extort from PECO Energy and Verizon for his non profit.  PECO gave his non profit $17 million.  Without the evidence, of course, those charges couldn’t be added to the 139 counts that were, indeed, filed.