Thursday, October 23, 2014

Top GOP Donor Robert Mercer Sued Over How He Treats His Help

The Huffington Post, 10-23-14

The race for Iowa's open U.S. Senate seat is among the closest in the nation, and one of a handful that could determine control of the Senate this fall. In her final debate with four-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst recently said she doesn't see a need to reform current campaign finance laws, because she believes in "political free speech."

Since the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United decision in 2010, big money has flooded into politics at levels never seen before, giving the ultra-wealthy the green light to use their megabucks to fund the kind of "political free speech" that's capable of drowning out everyone else's.

And that's the game being played by one of Joni Ernst's biggest donors, New York hedge fund co-CEO and near-billionaire Robert Mercer. Described by Bloomberg News as "one of the most powerful men in Republican politics that nobody is talking about," and ranked #6 on ABC News' recent list of 2014's "Mega-Donors," Mercer is fast becoming a GOP kingmaker.

Robert Mercer in 2012

By contributing $5,200 to Ernst this cycle, Mercer maxed out his legally permissible individual contributions to Ernst's Senate campaign. Yet, as revealed in a report released this week by the Brennan Center for Justice, Mercer's extensive support for Joni Ernst won him the dubious distinction of being 2014's "biggest-spending double-dipper." Double-dipping means donating the legal maximum allowed to a candidate, then supporting them with even more money by dumping cash into a super PAC set up solely to benefit that same candidate. Such super PACs can accept unlimited donations.

According to the report, Mercer spent $350,000 this year to "virtually fully fund" a super PAC called American Heartland, which is supporting Ernst. Despite its name, American Heartland is run out of Washington, D.C.

In this year's Iowa Republican primary, Mercer was outed as the money man behind American Heartland when the super PAC spent $140,000 opposing former energy company CEO Marc Jacobs, Ernst's closest rival for the GOP nomination. Jacobs' campaign manager said "Ernst has relied on out-of-state special interests" who were behind the attacks, and implored voters to "ask themselves, before they vote, will Joni Ernst represent them or a New York billionaire...something doesn't smell right."

But Mercer's generosity towards Republican political candidates and conservative super PACs he supports allegedly doesn't extend to his domestic help.

Last year, Mercer was sued by former members of his household staff for supposedly not paying overtime and docking wages when maids and other employees failed to promptly restock shampoo bottles, change razor blades in shavers, straighten pictures, or committed any of a laundry list of other offenses.

From the complaint:

Defendants deducted money from Plaintiffs' semiannual bonuses as a form of punishment or "demerits" related to Plaintiffs' alleged poor work performance. Demerits initially began at $10 and during the course of Plaintiffs' employment, rose to $20 per demerit. Plaintiffs received demerits throughout the work year for alleged poor work performance, including but not limited to the following: failing to replace shampoos and other toiletries if there was an amount of less than one-third of a bottle remaining; failing to properly close doors; failing to leave extra towels in the bathroom; failing to change the razor blades in the shaver; failing to level pictures; leaving cleaning items out; leaving items in the refrigerator; and improperly counting beverages.

The lawyer representing Mercer's former domestic employees, Troy Kessler, said, "This is a social justice case. Domestic, low-wage workers are frequently taken advantage of and (in) this case it's particularly egregious."

According to Forbes, Mercer was the 16th highest paid hedge fund manager in the country in 2011, with a total pay package of $125 million. In 2012, he took home $90 million.

Entrance to Owl's Nest in Head of the Harbor, NY

In addition to his Owl's Nest mansion, located on a Long Island estate, Mercer owns a 186-foot luxury yacht named the Sea Owl.

Mercer was the 16th largest donor to super PACs in the 2011-12 election cycle, as estimated by the Center for Responsive Politics. During that period, he gave $5.5 million to pro-Republican super PACs, including $2 to Karl Rove's American Crossroads, and $1 million to Restore Our Future, the pro-Mitt Romney PAC. He also donated $600,000 to the Club For Growth's super PAC, whose attack ads were crucial to the rise of national Tea Party mouthpiece Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).

This year, Mercer and his wife rank #6 on the list of the country's 100 top political donors, with $3.75 million in reported contributions to federal candidates and PAC's for the 2014 cycle.

Mercer is also 2014's highest single contributor to Freedom Partners Action Fund, the super PAC that the Koch brothers set up over the summer. Mercer wrote a check for $2.5 million to the fund, which was set up to bankroll ads that explicitly attack Democratic candidates and support Republicans.

Ernst probably first met Robert Mercer when she attended the Koch brothers' August, 2013 big donor retreat in New Mexico. At the time, Ernst was a little-known, first-term Iowa state Senator who had just announced her candidacy for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination against three male rivals.

As Politico reported, the Koch-sponsored twice-annual meetings "generally attract top conservative talent, for whom they can be quite useful, providing an opportunity to build rapport with some of the movements' deepest-pocketed backers."

Returning to this summer's retreat in California, Ernst was one of three GOP U.S. Senate candidates to address the donors, along with Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Colorado's Cory Gardner. "It started right here with all of your folks," said Ernst, offering her gratitude for the support of what she termed "this wonderful network" of wealthy, right-wing multi-millionaires and billionaires. A few days after her appearance, Charles Koch, his wife, son and daughter-in-law all gave the maximum legal contribution to Ernst's campaign, $2,600 apiece. Koch Industries also kicked in $5,000.

Ernst has lots of extreme views that probably find favor with her right-wing donors. She wants to abolish the EPA, IRS, and the U.S. Department of Education. She opposes abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest, believes "the UN is behind" a thoroughly debunked conspiracy to relocate farmers from rural lands into cities, and opposes a federal minimum wage (because she says "$7.25 is appropriate for Iowa").

But most pleasing to their ears must be the fact that Ernst supports a flat tax on income.

If Joni Ernst goes to Washington, Robert Mercer's support for her candidacy will have earned huge dividends. He'll be one step closer to paying taxes on his enormous fortune at the exact same rate as the domestic workers he's been accused of nickel and diming over shampoo bottles and razor blades. For one of 2014's top "Mega-Donors," that would count as a great return on investment.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ebola Travel Ban Would Put Blood On GOP's Hands

The Huffington Post, 10-17-14

How would President Mitt Romney respond to the global Ebola threat? Or President Ted Cruz? Dropping the hypotheticals, what about House Speaker John Boehner, who is not just the current highest-ranking Republican in the U.S. government, but second in the line of presidential succession?

All three GOP leaders and many other Republicans are parroting Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump's call for the United States to fight Ebola by banning incoming flights from West Africa. This ill-thought out, half-baked idea would encourage people who might be infected with the deadly disease to circumvent the ban by traveling to other countries first. Just as Thomas Eric Duncan, the first patient diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S., traveled from Liberia to Belgium before flying into Dallas two weeks prior to his death.

Potentially infected travelers could then enter the United States without being properly screened or quarantined at domestic airports. Which in turn could exponentially increase the number of U.S. Ebola cases.

This preference for demagoguery over common sense is one of the many reasons American voters rejected Republican presidential nominees in 2008 and 2012. And why a Republican takeover of the Senate in this year's midterms could make it harder for the U.S. to contain the current Ebola outbreak.

Campaigning for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown in New Hampshire this week, Mitt Romney said, "I haven't been briefed on all the reasons not to close down the flights, but my own reaction is we probably ought to close down the border with nations that have extensive Ebola spreading and that means not bringing flights in from that part of Africa." Maybe Romney skipped the briefing and instead read Trump's recent tweet on the subject, when he called President Obama either "stupid" or "arrogant" for not instituting a ban. Which was only Trump's latest idiotic pronouncement on Ebola.

Unless travel was banned from every country that has not itself banned travel from Ebola-affected countries, a West African travel ban would encourage people who are potentially infected with Ebola and trying to reach the U.S. to do so via connecting flights.

Unfortunately, public health officials haven't stressed this point enough. When CDC Director Tom Frieden was questioned on October 2 about the government's Ebola response, he primarily talked about how a travel ban would affect the flow of health workers travelling from the U.S. to help stop the outbreak. "The approach of isolating a country is going to make it harder to get help into that country," Frieden said. "It's going to make it harder to get people to respond because they're not going to want to come out. They're not going to be able to come out if they go in."

This reasoning makes perfect sense, yet doesn't drive home how a travel ban wouldn't work and could actually lead to increased U.S. Ebola cases if infected travelers arrive in the U.S. from other countries. When summoned before a House panel earlier this week, on October 16, Frieden finally made the argument clear. "We won't be able to check (individuals) for fever when they arrive. When they arrive, we wouldn't be able to impose quarantine," he said.

But his words fell on deaf ears. Top Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee responded with a letter to President Obama calling for...no surprise...a travel ban. "We have listened with interest to the arguments articulated by officials within the Administration in opposition to a ban on travel from affected countries," said committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and border subcommittee head Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. "Unfortunately, such arguments seem to have little, if any, merit."

In their haste to exploit public fears over Ebola and whip up anti-Obama sentiment for the midterms, right-wing Republicans and commentators have been competing to see who can come up with the craziest theory to explain why the Obama Administration hasn't yet followed their brilliant travel ban advice.

Writing in the tycoon-funded Fiscal Times, Fox News columnist Liz Peek (whose CEO husband's firm received $2.3 billion in taxpayer bailout funds through the TARP program in 2009) blamed Obama's supposed "ambition to be a hero to Africa" and alleged jealousy over George W. Bush's approval ratings on that continent for why there was no ban in place.

Louisiana Governor and probable 2016 GOP presidential candidate Bobby Jindal was one of the first GOP officials to call for a ban. In an October 3 statement, he pontificated, "The Obama administration keeps saying they won't shut down flights. They instead say we should listen to 'the experts.' In fact, they said it would be counterproductive to stop these flights. That statement defies logic. How exactly would stopping the entry of people potentially carrying the Ebola virus be counterproductive?"

Rush Limbaugh, as always, outdid them all, by claiming it was either "political correctness" on the part of the Administration, or that Administration officials secretly want Ebola to spread in the United States, as payback for America's involvement in slavery.

How despicable. Limbaugh commands an immense public platform, able to reach more than ten million listeners directly through his national radio show. Donald Trump is a celebrity, a public figure whose pronouncements are reported by media around the country. And yet, at a time when our world faces a global health crisis like the current Ebola outbreak, instead of helping disseminate vital facts to the public, right-wing idiots like these spread lies and disinformation.

To President Obama's credit, he has sent U.S. military personnel to lead the international effort to contain the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. A similar military-led disaster response effort was mobilized in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. But according to the right-wing echo chamber, this is all part of Obama's plan to infect our troops with Ebola. The reality, as National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins recently stated, is that an Ebola vaccine would likely have already been developed if not for the past decade's worth of largely GOP-imposed budget cuts.

We might still be able to shut this outbreak down more quickly if conservative pundits and GOP officials would devote even a fraction of the time they've spent spreading Ebola panic to letting people know they can do something immediately to help. Modeled after this year's enormously successful ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, one of the players on Sierra Leone's national soccer team, Michael Lahoud, has created the Kick Ebola In The Butt Challenge. It's an innovative way to encourage donations to groups like Doctors Without Borders who are sending badly needed medical professionals to West Africa, in order to deal with the crisis at its source. This is the kind of response that could harness social media to direct charitable resources where they can help the most.

If the Administration caves into the nonsensical GOP demands for a travel ban, the blood of future U.S. Ebola casualties will be on the hands of all the Republicans and their right-wing media enablers who have whipped up Ebola hysteria in a blatant attempt to influence the midterm elections. Shame on them.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Absentee Senator Pat Roberts Survives, But Bruised by Tea Party in Kansas Primary

The Huffington Post, 8-6-14

On Tuesday night, the Tea Party lost its last, best chance to knock off an incumbent Republican U.S. Senator this year. By a margin of 48-41 percent, three-term Kansas Senator Pat Roberts prevailed over Milton Wolf, a radiologist and first-time candidate who was mostly known for being Barack Obama's conservative second cousin.

Milton Wolf confronts Pat Roberts on July 30

Roberts appeared vulnerable earlier this year after questions were raised about his residency in Kansas, similar to what helped defeat veteran Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) two years ago. The New York Times reported in February that Roberts was renting space from a supporter in order to maintain his voter registration in Kansas, an address where neighbors hadn't seen him in years. He compounded his problems with a verbal slip last month, when he admitted in a radio interview that he returns to Kansas "every time I have an opponent."

Home of Pat Roberts' supporters in Kansas where he is registered to vote

And Wolf was extreme enough to be a credible Tea Party standard bearer. While parlaying his family ties and far right wing views into frequent guest spots on Fox News and a column for the Washington Times, over the past few years Wolf repeatedly compared Obama and liberal Democrats to Hitler and the Nazis. He insisted "(Sarah) Palin indeed was right...death panels are all too real," about supposed secret provisions in the Affordable Care Act.

According to Wolf, the Act's requirement that people who choose not to buy health insurance be modestly fined (since by doing so, they risk burdening society with future emergency health care costs) was reminiscent of "Stalin's iron-fisted gulags." And he pledged to replace the ACA with his own "PatientCare" initiative, which would effectively destroy Medicaid by block-granting it to the states and changing it to a "premium-support plan" that would generously "afford the needy the ability to purchase their own private insurance."

These nut-job ideas helped him attract the support of Tea Party groups including former S.C. Senator Jim DeMin's Senate Conservatives Fund (now led by defeated Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli), who spent $580,000 backing Wolf; Fight for Tomorrow; the Madison Action Fund; and the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, who paid for a last-minute ad falsely accusing Roberts of improperly "taking a special exemption from ObamaCare."

But Roberts hit back hard and early, helped by his far superior campaign war chest. He refused to debate Wolf, which a week before the primary led to a memorable confrontation between the two when Wolf ambushed the Senator on the street prior to a campaign event.

Roberts' ads attacked Wolf over revelations that he had posted gunshot victims' X-rays to Facebook in 2010, accompanied by snarky, joking comments that Wolf was eventually forced to admit were "insensitive." And highlighted other missteps like Wolf's failure to vote regularly in local or state elections.

Except for an ad questioning Wolf's conservative credentials with an out-of-context clip of him saying he wanted to see Barack Obama succeed, Roberts refused to argue over policies, instead making the primary a referendum on Wolf's personal character. It was the same playbook that worked for other incumbent Senators who successfully fended off Tea Party challengers this cycle, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who beat back a well-funded campaign by businessman Matt Bevin. And Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), whose defeated opponent is still challenging Cochran's 7,667-vote runoff win on June 24 in their ugly primary fight.

Wolf was a flawed candidate, but he held Roberts to under 50% of the vote. His failed primary challenge effectively made the case to many Kansas voters that Roberts has been in Washington for too long. Roberts first went to D.C. in the 1960's as a congressional aide, was elected to the House in 1980, and moved up to the Senate in 1996.

Recent polls have shown a closer-than-expected race between Roberts and his Democratic opponent in the fall. Chad Taylor is the sitting District Attorney of Shawnee County, the county that includes Topeka, the capitol of Kansas. The telegenic, 40-year old Taylor was first elected in 2008, and re-elected in 2012 after facing no opposition. He won his own primary Tuesday night by a margin of 53-47%, beating a former U.S. Senate candidate with statewide name recognition. Taylor was endorsed by the Kansas City Star, who called his candidacy "impressive," listed his priorities as "growing jobs and the economy," and said he "promises pragmatic, bipartisan work."

Taylor has won accolades for eliminating his office's backlog of over 4,000 cases that he inherited from his predecessor. He made national headlines in 2011, when to draw attention to budget cuts, his office stopped prosecuting domestic violence cases, calling on the city of Topeka to provide funding. In a surprise response that was widely criticized, Topeka actually repealed its ordinance outlawing domestic abuse, which led Taylor to announce that his office would resume prosecuting such cases.

Last month, one SurveyUSA poll showed Taylor within five points of Roberts. This caused Steve Kraske, political correspondent for the Kansas City Star, to declare "something...dramatic is going on in Kansas politics," and said it "may be the closest a Democrat has been to a sitting Republican senator since Herbert Hoover bade farewell to the White House."

Roberts is also facing other headwinds. Kansas is experiencing a Brownback backlash, after current Republican Governor Sam Brownback swung the state hard to the right once being elected in 2010. Brownback, a staunch religious conservative and longtime Koch brothers ally, formerly served beside Roberts in the U.S. Senate, and ran for President in 2008, dropping out before the primaries began. While in the Senate, Brownback co-sponsored the Constitution Restoration Act of 2005, which would have forbidden courts from ruling on matters involving church/state issues, and stated that judges who did hear such cases would be subject to impeachment and prosecution.

As Governor, Brownback has pushed through drastic cuts to state education spending. He declared that life begins "at fertizilation," and signed five anti-abortion bills, including a May, 2011 law that forbids insurance companies to offer health care coverage for abortions except to save a woman's life, with no exceptions for rape or incest. He also blew a hole in the state's budget by slashing the top income tax rates in Kansas. In response, last April the state's debt rating was downgraded by Moody's Investor Service.

All year, polls have shown a tight race between Brownback and his current challenger, Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis. Unhappiness with Brownback's term has led nearly 100 Republican current and former officeholders from Kansas to endorse Davis.

In his classic 2004 book What's The Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank explored the rise of anti-elitist conservatism, and how the radical right had managed to hijack populism in our country's heartland. It detailed how long before the Tea Party came to national prominence, the state's far-right conservatives were waging war with moderates for control of the Republican Party. Ten years later, extreme right-wing craziness and heartless social policies may have finally gone too far even for a bastion of red state America like Kansas.

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