FDIC Chairman Martin Gruenberg came under fire Tuesday at a House subcommittee hearing over allegations that Operation Choke Point, a controversial federal law enforcement program, abused its authority by cutting off funding for targeted businesses.
During one exchange, Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wisc., suggested Gruenberg step down as head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation after Gruenberg was unable to answer questions about employees involved with Choke Point as well as specific allegations the agency overstepped its authority.
Duffy said the hearing was called to get answers directly from Gruenberg on what he knew, when he knew it and who has been held accountable.
“You are abusing your power and going after small businesses all over America,” Duffy said. He later added, “Bottom line, you are putting people out of business. They haven’t been fired, they haven’t been reprimanded.”
Under Operation Choke Point, banks and other financial institutions were reportedly pressured to cut off accounts for targeted businesses that included gun stores, casinos, tobacco distributors, short-term lenders and other businesses.
Critics claim the program – overseen by the Justice Department, FDIC and other agencies – was used to squeeze legal companies that some politicians considered morally objectionable.
“Our concern is you have agencies in the Obama administration that are using government as a weapon and they going after industries and people that they don’t like,” Duffy, who co-chairs the Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said. “This is not the old Soviet Union or Venezuela or Cuba. I think it’s important for all Americans to stand up and push back on policies that are an abuse of government.”
Several members of Congress have openly called Operation Choke Point a blatant abuse of power, and an example of government bureaucrats appointing themselves morality police so they could operate around the law.
In response to the controversy, the FDIC put out a statement that said in part: “It is the FDIC’s policy that insured institutions that properly manage customer relationships are neither prohibited nor discouraged from providing services to any customer operating in compliance with applicable law… the FDIC has a responsibility to cooperate with other government agencies and to ensure that the banks we supervise are adhering to laws, including those governing anti-money laundering and terrorist financing.”
Initially, the FDIC put out a list of 30 high-risk businesses, but that list has since been rescinded.
The U.S. Consumer Coalition claimed taking down that list only removed a guideline, and without a specific list of businesses, the subjectivity of who gets targeted was increased.
Brian Wise, with the U.S. Consumer Coalition, points out the irony. “By shutting down the bank accounts of these legally operating businesses, what they’re actually doing is forcing these businesses to deal solely in cash, which is completely opposite of what they have said their intention is,” he said. “It’s a whole lot easier to launder money with cash than having to go through a financial institution.”
Wise said questioning the chairman of the FDIC is a good start, but the problem doesn’t end there. “We know that it doesn’t just stop with the FDIC. This is a program that includes the CFPB, FDIC, Department of Justice and may lead all the way up to the president,” he said.
Al Sharpton picks up where Schultz left off.
There has been a great effort this week to come to grips with the American left’s reaction to the Tucson shooting. Paul Krugman of the New York Times and its editorial page, George Packer of the New Yorker, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek and others, in varying degrees, have linked the murders to the intensity of opposition to the policies and presidency of Barack Obama. As Mr. Krugman asked in his Monday commentary: “Were you, at some level, expecting something like this atrocity to happen?”
The “you” would be his audience, and the answer is yes, they thought that in these times “something like this” could happen in the United States. Other media commentators, without a microbe of conservatism in their bloodstreams, have rejected this suggestion.
So what was the point? Why attempt the gymnastic logic of asserting that the act of a deranged personality was linked to the tea parties and the American right? Two reasons: Political calculation and personal belief.
The calculation flows from the shock of the midterm elections of November 2010. That was no ordinary election. What voters did has the potential to change the content and direction of the U.S. political system, possibly for a generation.
Only 24 months after Barack Obama’s own historic election and a rising Democratic tide, the country flipped. Not just control of the U.S. House, but deep in the body politic. Republicans now control more state legislative seats than any time since 1928.
What elevated this transfer of power to historic status is that it came atop the birth of a genuine reform movement, the tea parties. Most of the time, election results are the product of complex and changeable sentiments or the candidates’ personalities. What both sides fear most is a genuine movement with focused goals.
The tea party itself got help from history—the arrival of a clarifying event, the sovereign debt crisis of 2010. Simultaneously in the capitals of Europe, California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and elsewhere it was revealed that fiscal commitments made across decades, often for liberally inspired social goals, had put all these states into a condition of effective bankruptcy.
This stark reality unnerved many Americans. The tea partiers’ fiscal concerns were real. Despite that, a progressive Democratic president and congressional leadership spent 2009 and 2010 passing the biggest economic entitlement since 1965 and driving U.S. spending to 25%, or $3.5 trillion, of the nation’s $14 trillion GDP. A public claim of that size hasn’t been seen since World War II.
They expected to take losses in November. What they got instead was Armageddon. Suddenly an authentic reform movement, linked to the Republican Party, whose goal simply is to stop the public spending curve, had come to life. This poses a mortal threat to the financial oxygen in the economic ecosystem that the public wing of the Democratic Party has inhabited all these years.
The stakes for the American left in 2012 couldn’t possibly be higher. If then, and again in 2014, progressives can’t pull toward their candidates some percentage of the independent voters who in November abandoned the Democratic Party, they could be looking in from the outside for as many years as some of them have left to write about politics. A wilderness is a terrible place to be.
Against that grim result, every sentence Messrs. Krugman, Packer, Alter, the Times and the rest have written about Tucson is logical and understandable. What happened in November has to be stopped, by whatever means become available. Available this week was a chance to make some independents wonder if the tea parties, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Jared Loughner are all part of the same dark force.
Who believes this? They do.
The divide between this strain of the American left and its conservative opponents is about more than politics and policy. It goes back a long way, it is deep, and it will never be bridged. It is cultural, and it explains more than anything the “intensity” that exists now between these two competing camps. (The independent laments: “Can’t we all just get along?” Answer: No.)
The Rosetta Stone that explains this tribal divide is Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter’s piece for Harper’s may be unfamiliar to many now, but each writer at the opening of this column knows by rote what Hofstadter’s essay taught generations of young, left-wing intellectuals about conservatism and the right.
After Hofstadter, the American right wasn’t just wrong on policy. Its people were psychologically dangerous and undeserving of holding authority for any public purpose. By this mental geography, the John Birch Society and the tea party are cut from the same backwoods cloth.
“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” Hofstadter wrote. “In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”
Frank Rich, Oct 17: “Don’t expect the extremism and violence in our politics to subside magically after Election Day—no matter what the results. If Tea Party candidates triumph, they’ll be emboldened. If they lose, the anger and bitterness will grow.”
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Tuesday in the Huffington Post: “Jack’s death forced a national bout of self-examination. In 1964, Americans repudiated the forces of right-wing hatred and violence with an historic landslide in the presidential election between LBJ and Goldwater. For a while, the advocates of right-wing extremism receded from the public forum. Now they have returned with a vengeance—to the broadcast media and to prominent positions in the political landscape.”
This isn’t just political calculation. It is foundational belief.
So, yes, Tucson has indeed been revealing. On to 2012.
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Although President Obama said what needed to be said Wednesday night, the memorial service in Tucson had the look and feel of a political campaign event, complete with T-shirts and a special logo.
The memorial for those lost in the Tucson massacre was branded with a special name: Together we Thrive.
Fox News reported the event was attended by nearly 30,000 people.
Those who attended the memorial rally were handed blue and white t-shirts with the “Together we Thrive” logo. One person tweeted, “is it required wearing to get in?”
The event opened with Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man followed by a blessing from Carlos Gonzales, a Native American who rambled about a number of things including his own heritage, connections to various animals and feminine energy coming from the planet.
The crowd ate it up with wild shouts of joy, and the crowd screamed “we love you” when the President was introduced.
Several politicians spoke at the rally, including Janet Napolitano. Napolitano was Governor of Arizona prior to being named Secretary of Homeland Security.
The New York Times reported that the crowd booed when Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican, spoke. So much for the President’s message of unity.
But Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik drew howls of approval from the audience when he was shown on the large screen.
While the President adopted a somber tone with his message, the rally was anything but.
Those expecting to see an solemn event showing respect for the fallen were in for a surprise.
The only thing missing was balloons falling from the ceiling with ticker tape.
The President’s message was good, but the rally itself was too reminiscent of the infamous Paul Wellstone memorial that turned into a Democratic Party campaign rally.
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The role played by the U.S. Senate candidate in a notorious sex case raises questions about her judgment.
The story of the Amiraults of Massachusetts, and of the prosecution that had turned the lives of this thriving American family to dust, was well known to the world by the year 2001. It was well known, especially, to District Attorney Martha Coakley, who had by then arrived to take a final, conspicuous, role in a case so notorious as to assure that the Amiraults’ name would be known around the globe.
The Amiraults were a busy, confident trio, grateful in the way of people who have found success after a life of hardship. Violet had reared her son Gerald and daughter Cheryl with help from welfare, and then set out to educate herself. The result was the triumph of her life—the Fells Acres school—whose every detail Violet scrutinized relentlessly. Not for nothing was the pre-school deemed by far the best in the area, with a long waiting list for admission.
All of it would end in 1984, with accusations of sexual assault and an ever-growing list of parents signing their children on to the case. Newspaper and television reports blared a sensational story about a female school principal, in her 60s, who had daily terrorized and sexually assaulted the pupils in her care, using sharp objects as her weapon. So too had Violet’s daughter Cheryl, a 28-year old teacher at the school.
But from the beginning, prosecutors cast Gerald as chief predator—his gender qualifying him, in their view, as the best choice for the role. It was that role, the man in the family, that would determine his sentence, his treatment, and, to the end, his prosecution-inspired image as a pervert too dangerous to go free.
The accusations against the Amiraults might well rank as the most astounding ever to be credited in an American courtroom, but for the fact that roughly the same charges were brought by eager prosecutors chasing a similar headline—making cases all across the country in the 1980s. Those which the Amiraults’ prosecutors brought had nevertheless, unforgettable features: so much testimony, so madly preposterous, and so solemnly put forth by the state. The testimony had been extracted from children, cajoled and led by tireless interrogators.
Gerald, it was alleged, had plunged a wide-blade butcher knife into the rectum of a 4-year-old boy, which he then had trouble removing. When a teacher in the school saw him in action with the knife, she asked him what he was doing, and then told him not to do it again, a child said. On this testimony, Gerald was convicted of a rape which had, miraculously, left no mark or other injury. Violet had tied a boy to a tree in front of the school one bright afternoon, in full view of everyone, and had assaulted him anally with a stick, and then with “a magic wand.” She would be convicted of these charges. Cheryl had cut the leg off a squirrel.
Other than such testimony, the prosecutors had no shred of physical or other proof that could remotely pass as evidence of abuse. But they did have the power of their challenge to jurors: Convict the Amiraults to make sure the battle against child abuse went forward. Convict, so as not to reject the children who had bravely come forward with charges.
Gerald was sent to prison for 30 to 40 years, his mother and sister sentenced to eight to 20 years. The prosecutors celebrated what they called, at the time “a model, multidisciplinary prosecution.” Gerald’s wife, Patricia, and their three children—the family unfailingly devoted to him—went on with their lives. They spoke to him nightly and cherished such hope as they could find, that he would be restored to them.
Hope arrived in 1995, when Judge Robert Barton ordered a new trial for the women. Violet, now 72, and Cheryl had been imprisoned eight years. This toughest of judges, appalled as he came to know the facts of the case, ordered the women released at once. Judge Barton—known as Black Bart for the long sentences he gave criminals—did not thereafter trouble to conceal his contempt for the prosecutors. They would, he warned, do all in their power to hold on to Gerald, a prediction to prove altogether accurate.
No less outraged, Superior Court Judge Isaac Borenstein presided over a widely publicized hearings into the case resulting in findings that all the children’s testimony was tainted. He said that “Every trick in the book had been used to get the children to say what the investigators wanted.” The Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly—which had never in its 27 year history taken an editorial position on a case—published a scathing one directed at the prosecutors “who seemed unwilling to admit they might have sent innocent people to jail for crimes that had never occurred.”
It was clear, when Martha Coakley took over as the new Middlesex County district attorney in 1999, that public opinion was running sharply against the prosecutors in the case. Violet Amirault was now gone. Ill and penniless after her release, she had been hounded to the end by prosecutors who succeeded in getting the Supreme Judicial Court to void the women’s reversals of conviction. She lay waiting all the last days of her life, suitcase packed, for the expected court order to send her back to prison. Violet would die of cancer before any order came in September 1997.
That left Cheryl alone, facing rearrest. In the face of the increasing furor surrounding the case, Ms. Coakley agreed to revise and revoke her sentence to time served—but certain things had to be clear, she told the press. Cheryl’s case, and that of Gerald, she explained, had nothing to do with one another—a startling proposition given the horrific abuse charges, identical in nature, of which all three of the Amiraults had been convicted.
No matter: When women were involved in such cases, the district attorney explained, it was usually because of the presence of “a primary male offender.” According to Ms. Coakley’s scenario, it was Gerald who had dragged his mother and sister along. Every statement she made now about Gerald reflected the same view, and the determination that he never go free. No one better exemplified the mindset and will of the prosecutors who originally had brought this case.
Before agreeing to revise Cheryl’s sentence to time served, Ms. Coakley asked the Amiraults’ attorney, James Sultan, to pledge—in exchange—that he would stop representing Gerald and undertake no further legal action on his behalf. She had evidently concluded that with Sultan gone—Sultan, whose mastery of the case was complete—any further effort by Gerald to win freedom would be doomed. Mr. Sultan, of course, refused.
In 2000, the Massachusetts Governor’s Board of Pardons and Paroles met to consider a commutation of Gerald’s sentence. After nine months of investigation, the board, reputed to be the toughest in the country, voted 5-0, with one abstention, to commute his sentence. Still more newsworthy was an added statement, signed by a majority of the board, which pointed to the lack of evidence against the Amiraults, and the “extraordinary if not bizarre allegations” on which they had been convicted.
Editorials in every major and minor paper in the state applauded the Board’s findings. District Attorney Coakley was not idle either, and quickly set about organizing the parents and children in the case, bringing them to meetings with Acting Gov. Jane Swift, to persuade her to reject the board’s ruling. Ms. Coakley also worked the press, setting up a special interview so that the now adult accusers could tell reporters, once more, of the tortures they had suffered at the hands of the Amiraults, and of their panic at the prospect of Gerald going free.
On Feb. 20, 2002, six months after the Board of Pardons issued its findings, the governor denied Gerald’s commutation.
Gerald Amirault spent nearly two years more in prison before being granted parole in 2004. He would be released, with conditions not quite approximating that of a free man. He was declared a level three sex offender—among the consequences of his refusal, like that of his mother and sister, to “take responsibility” by confessing his crimes. He is required to wear, at all times, an electronic tracking device; to report, in a notebook, each time he leaves the house and returns; to obey a curfew confining him to his home between 11:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. He may not travel at all through certain areas (presumably those where his alleged victims live). He can, under these circumstances, find no regular employment.
The Amirault family is nonetheless grateful that they are together again.
Attorney General Martha Coakley—who had proven so dedicated a representative of the system that had brought the Amirault family to ruin, and who had fought so relentlessly to preserve their case—has recently expressed her view of this episode. Questioned about the Amiraults in the course of her current race for the U.S. Senate, she told reporters of her firm belief that the evidence against the Amiraults was “formidable” and that she was entirely convinced “those children were abused at day care center by the three defendants.”
What does this say about her candidacy? (Ms. Coakley declined to be interviewed.) If the current attorney general of Massachusetts actually believes, as no serious citizen does, the preposterous charges that caused the Amiraults to be thrown into prison—the butcher knife rape with no blood, the public tree-tying episode, the mutilated squirrel and the rest—that is powerful testimony to the mind and capacities of this aspirant to a Senate seat. It is little short of wonderful to hear now of Ms. Coakley’s concern for the rights of terror suspects at Guantanamo—her urgent call for the protection of the right to the presumption of innocence.
If the sound of ghostly laughter is heard in Massachusetts these days as this campaign rolls on, with Martha Coakley self-portrayed as the guardian of justice and civil liberties, there is good reason.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee wants to paint Scott Brown as a Wall Street crony who is out of touch with the normal, everyday people of Massachusetts. Considering their candidates’ disdain for retail politics, that’s a rather laughable accusation anyway, but the DSCC goes from laughable to jaw-droppingly inept with the imagery used in the ad. In order to represent Wall Street, which building do you suppose the DSCC used in conjunction with Brown?
A new ad from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee uses an unlikely symbol of Wall Street greed: The World Trade Center.
The image in the attack on Scott Brown for his alleged closeness to Wall Street pictures the Trade Center and the destroyed Marriott Hotel on its western side.
A National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman, Brian Walsh, attacked its use.
“Using the image of a site where over 2,700 Americans died in a terrorist attack to distort Scott Brown’s position on regulating Wall Street is both distasteful and disrespectful. Martha Coakley should immediately renounce this ad and call for it to be removed from the airwaves,” he said.
Has anyone ever seen a major campaign this badly handled in one short week? Most of the blame goes to Coakley, but the DSCC was the group that sent Michael Meehan to help with messaging this week. His first contribution was to commit assault and battery on a reporter for the Weekly Standard. Now the DSCC chooses an image of the World Trade Center, Ground Zero on 9/11, to represent Wall Street and to attack Brown. That’s not just “distasteful and disrespectful” to someone who served in the war on terror and remains in the National Guard to this day, it’s flat-out stupidity.
And don’t believe it when the DSCC claims it was a mistake, either. The World Trade Center is a very distinctive-looking building, one that every American grew to know in the endless replays of the 9/11 attack. Anyone working in politics who didn’t recognize it either has been asleep for nine years or is irretrievably dense.
When the dust settles on this campaign, Democrats will be quick to blame Coakley for its failure (assuming she loses), but she won’t be the only one who screwed up this election.
Update: My good friend Guy Benson says this on Twitter: “Coakley is SO opposed to the death penalty for KSM that she put a picture of the building he plotted to bring down in an attack ad.” (Explanation of death-penalty issue here.)
Update II: Real Clear Politics has the original ad, which the DSCC pulled.
Update III: Rudy Giuliani is… not amused:
“Never in their wildest dreams did they think they would lose in Massachusetts,” says Giuliani. “Now they’re using imagery from an area of New York where thousands of Americans died.” The ad, he concludes, “just understates how excessively negative they’ve become since they’re so paranoid about losing this seat. They’re now using buildings that were destroyed on 9/11 — which is just unthinkable — and somebody better look into what they’re really trying to say.”
What are they really trying to say? My best guess is, “Help me, I’m drowning!”, but honestly, your guess is as good as mine.