In their push for approval of pipelines, oil and gas companies like to assure the public that pipelines are a safer way to ship their products than railroads or trucks. But government data makes clear there is hardly reason to celebrate. Last year, Politico noted (4/22), more than 700 pipeline failures killed 19 people, injured 97 and caused more than $300 mln in damage. Two of the past five years have been the worst for combined pipeline-related deaths and injuries since 2000.

After a series of deadly accidents, culminating in a 1999 rupture in a gasoline pipeline in Bellingham, Wash., that killed three people and a 2000 natural gas explosion in New Mexico that killed 12 people, Congress created the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, an obscure agency that was created to oversee the nation’s sprawling network of oil and gas pipelines, but lacks the resources to inspect the nation’s 2.6 mln miles of oil and gas lines, Elana Schor and Andrew Restuccia reported at Politico (4/22).

Charles Pierce notes at Esquire.com (4/22) that Politico “almost gets it right today in its longform analysis of the dangers of the country’s energy pipelines, and, specifically, of how the Pipeline And Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is supposed to be the federal regulatory body governing the nation’s pipeline, has been rendered toothless by the usual suspects — except, alas, the usual suspects go unnamed.”

For example, Pierce cites the disastrous 2013 rupture of the Pegasus pipeline that deluged Mayflower, Ark., with 200,000 gallons of heavy crude. The Little Rock suburb’s congressman at the time was Tim Griffin, a staunch Republican and former Karl Rove aide who was skeptical of federal regulations and strongly in favor of pipelines. But after the Pegasus pipe burst, forcing the evacuation of 21 homes, Griffin challenged PHMSA’s secrecy when ExxonMobil, the owner of the 65-year-old pipeline, refused to release the full engineering analysis conducted after the leak. PHMSA deferred to the oil company’s decision. So Griffin obtained a copy of the massive report and posted it on his congressional website. Weeks later, he released three more reports on the failed pipeline’s condition that ExxonMobil and PHMSA had tried to keep under wraps. “They politely requested that I not” share the data, Griffin recalled in an interview. “And I did.”

As a member of Congress, he was very much the typical conservative on the subject of environmental laws, and federal regulations in general. He voted against the EPA’s proposed expansion of the “waters of the United States” in 2014, which he said “would subject Arkansans, especially farmers and ranchers, to costly and overly burdensome federal regulations, harm our agriculture industry that is vital to our state’s economy and replace state and locally based conservation efforts with a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. Our vote today stops this massive government overreach in its tracks and requires federal agencies to consult with states and local governments when proposing these regulatory measures on local waters.”

Griffin also sponsored the 2013 bill to force the Obama Administration to approve the XL Pipeline without the environmental review now required by law. Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times noted the Koch Brothers have a stake in Griffin, who got $167,000 form the Kochs in his maiden run for Congress,citing Greg Palast’s research. In 2014, Griffin was elected attorney general of Arkansas.

Pierce noted that the analysis by Politico has a serious “both sides do it” element running through it. “It engages one critic from each party — Fred Upton is the Republican and Peter DeFazio is the Democrat — and it is tough on the current administration for neglecting the PHMSA. (There hasn’t even been a permanent director since October. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.) But the fact remains that there is not a single Republican presidential candidate who says anything about federal regulations except what a job-killer they are. There is not a single Republican politician who has stood up in any substantial way against the deregulatory frenzy that has overtaken the party over the past 35 years, and against the government-is-the-problem philosophy from which it emerged when Saint Ronnie began the process of rolling back the stone from the tomb of the Mellons and the Carnegies. Support for the Keystone XL death funnel is as rigid a litmus test within the party as anything is.”

In 2013, InsideClimate won a Pulitzer for their investigation of the 2010 Enbridge pipeline rupture that spilled 840,000 gallons of diluted bitumen from tar sands into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, which ended up being the most costly pipeline spill on record but was little-reported in the media, Pierce noted. “And one of the things they discovered was that the approach of the two parties on the issue of regulating pipelines tracked perfectly with what you might have expected,” he noted.

“President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget would increase funding for the agency. Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget does not specify how much PHMSA should receive, but it recommended slashing funding for the Department of Transportation, which encompasses PHMSA.

“The Democratic Party has been feckless and timid on this subject. The Republicans, on the other hand, especially now that the Supreme Court has legitimized influence peddling on a grand scale, have been little more than vandals. That makes a difference, or ought to, anyway.”

TPP CARTOONIST WINS PULITZER. Congratulations to Adam Zyglis, staff cartoonist for the Buffalo News, for winning the Pulitzer Prize (4/21). Adam’s work is syndicated to many newspapers, including The Progressive Populist, through Cagle Cartoons. Dan Perkins, a.k.a. Tom Tomorrow, whose cartoon, “This Modern World,” is a feature in TPP, was a Pulitzer finalist.

ANTI-HILLARY BOOK RELIES ON HOAX TO BACK UP ACCUSATIONS. Republicans have been clucking that a forthcoming book by Peter Schweizer on Hillary Clinton’s ties to the family’s charity would crush her chance to win the White House, but Laura Clawson noted at DailyKos.com (4/21) that Schweizer “has a serious record of screw-ups—or things he got wrong on purpose to smear Democrats, figuring the retraction would get less attention than the allegation. That’s why billionaire Republican donors fund people like him. So it’s no big surprise that, before Clinton Cash has even been released to the general public, ThinkProgress has already identified a major mistake.”

Schweizer’s book claims that foreign governments, companies, and individuals bought influence with Hillary Clinton in her role as secretary of state through their donations to the Clinton Foundation and through speaking fees to former President Bill Clinton.

In one case, Aviva Shen noted at ThinkProgress, “[Schweizer] links the timing of the State Department’s generally positive report on the Keystone XL Pipeline with a slew of Clinton speeches paid for by TD Bank, a major shareholder in the project. As proof of how crucial Clinton’s support for the pipeline was to the bank, Schweizer quotes a press release that claimed TD Bank would ‘begin selling its $1.6 bln worth of shares in the massive but potentially still-born Keystone XL crude pipeline project’ after Clinton left office. The press release was quickly revealed to be fake in 2013. Yet Schweizer, apparently unaware of the hoax, remarks, ‘Too bad for TD Bank. But the Clintons got paid regardless.’”

This is the book that the New York Times’ Amy Chozick described as “potentially more unsettling” because of its “focused reporting.” ThinkProgress’ Aviva Shen, by contrast, describes it as inconclusive at best:

“Schweizer makes clear that he does not intend to present a smoking gun, despite the media speculation. The book relies heavily on timing, stitching together the dates of donations to the Clinton Foundation and Bill Clinton’s speaking fees with actions by the State Department.

“Schweizer explains he cannot prove the allegations, leaving that up to investigative journalists and possibly law enforcement. ‘Short of someone involved coming forward to give sworn testimony, we don’t know what might or might not have been said in private conversations, the exact nature of the transition, or why people in power make the decision they do,’ he writes.”

Clawson concludes, “The point, in other words, is to stir up speculation without any kind of proof. And apparently by citing hoax press releases where it’s convenient, the kind of move that Schweizer has long engaged in. This is what the New York Times and Washington Post are on board for,” as they have agreed with Schweizer to further investigate some of the issues raised in the book.

POLL SHOWS TURNAROUND ON OBAMACARE POPULARITY. For the first time, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s monthly tracking poll shows a plurality of Americans are in favor of Obamacare. The gap isn’t large — 43% see it favorably vs. 42% unfavorably — and it falls within the survey’s margin of sampling error. Opinion still is sharply divided by party, with 70% of Democrats viewing the law favorably and 75% of Republicans viewing it unfavorably. Independents fall in the middle: 42% like it and 46% don’t.

The “fix-it or repeal-it” numbers remain consistent: 46% combined say either improve it (24%) or leave it alone (22%) while 41% want it either scaled back (12%) or repealed (29%).

Joan McCarter noted at DailyKos.com (4/21), “This all reflects the recent Bloomberg poll that showed more people believing the law should be left to work rather than repealed, and that the repeal crowd is the same group of dead-enders it’s been from the beginning. That crowd—the base the Republicans continue to play to—isn’t going to change. But it’s also not the population that is most helped by Obamacare since it skews old enough to be on Medicare.

“All of this should be weighing on the minds of at least two Supreme Court justices—Chief John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy—while they consider whether or not to gut subsidies to people buying health insurance on the federal exchanges. A decision to gut the law is not going to be popular, and it’s not going to help their Republican friends in Congress one bit.”

SOUTHERNERS TRAPPED IN MEDICAID GAP. Just four states in the South have 61% of the roughly 4 mln people who are denied Medicaid coverage, the Kaiser Family Foundation found in its latest Medicaid survey. As of March 2015, 22 states were still refusing to accept the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare. (Since then, the Montana legislature voted to expand, if the Obama administration signs off on the plan. But just four states — Florida, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina, have the majority of people who remain without coverage. And it’s people in the south who are predominantly left out because Republicans refuse to have anything to do with President Obama.

“As a whole, more people — and in particular more poor uninsured adults — reside in the South than in other regions,” KFF reported. “Further, the South has higher uninsured rates and more limited Medicaid eligibility than other regions. Southern states also have disproportionately opted not to expand their programs, and half (11 out of 22) of the states not expanding Medicaid are in the South. These factors combined mean 89% of people in the coverage gap reside in the South.”

It also noted, “Nonelderly adults of all ages fall into the coverage gap. Notably, over half are middle-aged (age 35 to 54) or near elderly (age 55 to 64). Adults of these ages are likely to have increasing health needs, and research has demonstrated that uninsured people in this age range may leave health needs untreated until they become eligible for Medicare at age 65.”

Joan McCarter noted at DailyKos.com (4/21) that in “Florida, where there are roughly 669,000 people in the gap and where Gov. Rick Scott [R] is suing the federal government to try to avoid having to take the Obamacare Medicaid money and still keep his state’s hospitals—and finances—afloat. There’s a simple solution to all of this. Take the damn free money and start getting people covered.”

RICHEST 0.01% OF AMERICANS GAVE 42% OF POLITICAL DONATIONS IN 2012. The top 0.01% of Americans gave nearly 42% of all political donation dollars in the 2012 election cycle, Crowdpac.com reported (4/20). Just over 30,000 individuals contributed nearly half of all money in political campaigns. In 1990, Stephen Wolf noted at DailyKos.com (4/21), the figure was just under 13%. “If we expanded the scope to the full 1%, you can be damn sure they gave the overwhelming majority of dollars in recent years,” Wolf wrote.

“Candidates devote 80% of their time to begging rich people for money. Any extremist Republican can get a billionaire sugar daddy. The world’s eighth richest man can summon the entire Republican primary field to kiss his ring. Millionaires are now complaining about being ignored in favor of billionaires. The average member of Congress is a millionaire,” Wolf wrote.

“It should come as no surprise that policymakers look after the ultra-wealthy instead of the rest of us. This trend of increasing economic and political inequality shows no sign of abating. Inequality is incompatible with democracy and it has created a plutocracy. Republicans like Marco Rubio are even proposing abolishing capital gains taxes in an all-out assault on those who actually earn their income.”

TALENT FOLLOWING SUPER PAC MONEY. Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign appears to be outsourcing many of its operations to a super PAC that will be run by one of Jeb’s closest friends. Mike Murphy, a close friend and confidant of Bush for decades who appeared destined to be a strategist for Jeb’s campaign instead is expected to run Bush’s super PAC, which under the new post-Citizens-United campaign rules can raise unlimited contributions but cannot communicate with the candidate or any campaign officials, Tim Alberta and Shane Goldmacher noted at National Journal (4/18).

“That Bush’s team would believe it’s in his best interest to send away a top strategist is an emphatic indication that the era of super PAC supremacy has arrived,” Alberta and Goldmacher wrote. “Viewed at the outset of the 2012 presidential cycle as illegitimate if not downright unethical—so much so that President Obama initially forbade his lieutenants from forming one on his behalf—super PACs emerged by Election Day 2012 as the most devastating force in modern presidential politics. Their ability to raise bottomless money, and the deployment of those funds toward destroying rival candidates, instantly altered the political landscape, and in the 2016 campaign’s nascent stages, their reach has dwarfed that of official campaigns.”

Ed Kilgore noted at WashingtonMonthly.com, “But isn’t it kind of weird, and potentially either dangerous (if the law is complied with) or grossly illegal (if it’s not) to locate not only the financial but the operational control of a presidential campaign in an organization that’s not supposed to coordinate with the candidate?

Alberta and Goldmacher answer that with a metaphor that Kilgore bets we are going to hear a lot this cycle:

“Candidates are looking for the political equivalent of a perfect bridge partner, someone with whom they can continually cooperate without ever being able to coordinate—or ever ask for advice. The imperative for a candidate is to choose ‘someone you love but can live without,’ says Stuart Roy, who in 2012 advised the pro-Rick Santorum super PAC the Red White and Blue Fund. ‘It ranks right there with the top personnel decisions that a campaign makes for an entire cycle.’”

In other campaigns, Rand Paul recently tapped Jesse Benton, a family member and longtime associate who ran his Senate campaign as well as his father’s 2012 presidential bid, to take the wheel of America’s Liberty PAC. An alliance of super PACs supporting Ted Cruz have been organized by close friends, including Texas attorney Dathan Voelter, and sources close to Cruz expect him to designate a top political lieutenant to take over the reportedly $31 mln outfit. And Carly Fiorina’s super PAC, Carly for America, is being led by Steve DeMaura, a friend and associate who formerly was the political director of Fiorina’s other PAC.

In any previous cycle, Kilgore noted, it’s a near-certainty that these people and others tapped to run a candidate’s super PAC would have served in a principal position on the campaign—as a senior strategist, or political director, or even perhaps campaign manager.

FBI BOTCHED HAIR ANALYSIS. An elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000, the Washington Post reported (4/18).

The Justice Department acknowledged that of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95% of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.

The cases include those of 32 defendants sentenced to death. Of those, 14 have been executed or died in prison, the groups said under an agreement with the government to release results after the review of the first 200 convictions.

The FBI errors alone do not mean there was not other evidence of a convict’s guilt, but defendants and federal and state prosecutors in 46 states and the District are being notified to determine whether there are grounds for appeals. Four defendants were exonerated.

HOUSE PAC EXPECTS BENGHAZI REPORT PRE-ELECTION. As if there was any question that the House “special committee” investigating Hillary Clinton’s response to the deadly 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, was little more than a Republican political action committee operating on taxpayer funds, Bloomberg News reported (4/22) that the committee will not issue its report until next year, just months before the general election.

Benghazi PAC Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) issued a widely derided statement saying, “Secretary Clinton’s decision to seek the presidency of the United States does not and impact the work of the committee.”

Democrats, including Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, noted there already have been as many as seven congressional inquiries into the 9/11/12 attack on the US compound in Libya in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed. Clinton was secretary of state at the time.

Republicans have been trying for more than two years to prove that Clinton failed to bolster security before the assault and should share blame for what they say is the Obama administration’s initial, erroneous account of what happened.

The Benghazi committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), notes that it has held only three public hearings since May but spent nearly $2.5 mln.

“Rather than using the Select Committee—and its taxpayer-funded blank check—to target Secretary Clinton ahead of the 2016 election, Republicans should be using the Select Committee to help implement reforms to improve the safety and security of our officials serving overseas,” Cummings said in a statement.

PODCASTING TROLL PATENT KNOCKED DOWN. The Electronic Frontier Foundation won a victory for podcasters when it won a challenge to a patent that was being used to threaten the popular method of distributing programs over the Internet.

In late 2013, after small podcasters started getting threat letters from Personal Audio LLC, the EFF filed an “inter partes review,” challenging the original patent that claimed Jim Logan invented a “system for disseminating media content representing episodes in a serialized sequence” in 1996. EFF found examples of earlier technology, including CNN’s “Internet Newsroom,” which the US Patent and Trademark Office ruled were cause to invalidate the patent, Joe Mullin reported at ArsTechnica.com (4/10).

EFF has taken up various tactics to fight “patent trolls,” but its fight against Personal Audio was the first time it crowd-funded a patent challenge, raising more than $80,000 from the public to pay for the challenge.

Personal Audio gave up on getting royalties from podcasters in 2014 after a lawsuit against comedian Adam Carolla almost went to trial. Carolla, who has a popular podcast, rallied his listeners after he was sued by Personal Audio and spoke out against “patent trolls” in Congress. He raised more than $500,000 from his fans, but ultimately settled with the company. Personal Audio backed off individual podcasters, not because it recognized the limits of its patent, but rather because they were too poor to be worth suing. However, the company pushed ahead against TV studios, believing that its patent covered “episodic content” that included online video. It took its case against CBS to trial and won $1.3 mln.

“We’re glad the Patent Office recognized what we all knew: ‘Podcasting’ had been around for many years and this company does not own it,: said EFF lawyer Daniel Nazer. But another EFF attorney, Vera Ranieri, noted that Personal Audio is still seeking podcasting-related patients. “We will continue to fight for podcasters, and we hope the Patent Office does not give them any more weapons to shake down small podcasters,” she said.

WOMAN CITES RELIGIOUS FREEDOM LAW TO FEED HOMELESS. Joan Cheever has been serving meals to San Antonio’s homeless for 10 years. But police officers (4/10) handed her a ticket with a potential fine of $2,000. Despite having a food permit for the food truck she cooks out of, which she calls the Chow Train, she was cited for transporting and serving it from a different vehicle.

That hasn’t stopped her from continuing to hand out three-course meals to the homeless. She went back to Maverick Park with 50 supporters to hand out food (4/18), and this time she wasn’t ticketed. Cheever has argued that she has a right to feed the homeless under Texas’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act because she considers it exercising her religious beliefs.

Her situation has caught the attention of the City Council. Councilman Ron Nirenberg called for a hearing on how city police deal with its homeless population, which numbers nearly 3,000, saying, “We need to do what we can to identify smart policy that helps us encourage compassion, rather than discourage it.” Their tactics have come under scrutiny before after an investigation found that in under two years, they had handed out more than 12,000 citations to the homeless themselves for violating ordinances aimed at criminalizing homelessness. Offenses range from “aggressive panhandling” to sitting or lying down in a public right of way.

But plenty of other cities have used similar tactics against the homeless and those who seek to help them. Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old veteran, has been arrested and cited for feeding the homeless in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida after the city passed an ordinance to crack down on people who hand food to the homeless. In Daytona Beach, Florida, a couple was given a more than $600 fine. A pastor in Birmingham, Alabama was blocked from feeding the homeless because he didn’t have a $500 permit needed to comply with a new regulation for food trucks.

Meanwhile, ordinances aimed at criminalizing homelessness such as bans on panhandling, lying down, having possessions in public, and sharing food have been on the rise at the city and state level.

Other places take a different approach. Some are considering enacting a Homeless Bill of Rights that would enshrine their right to move about freely, rest in public, and accept and eat food. Three states already have such laws. Others have housed entire portions of their homeless populations by taking a housing first approach that puts the homeless into housing and then addresses any other issues they may have. That ends up being much more cost effective than leaving them outside where they are at risk of police encounters and emergency room visits. (Bryce Covert, ThinkProgress, 4/18)

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2015


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