Tuesday, July 31, 2007

More Cold Cash

U.S. Representative William Jefferson kept his cash in the freezer; Bill Allen, the chief executive of Veco, handed his out in Alaska to members of the state legislature. The FBI and the IRS have now raided the home of Alaska U.S. Senator Ted Stevens.

My favorite part of the story is that "The Alaska investigation has centered on Allen's efforts to bribe lawmakers by handing out wads of hundred-dollar bills." If you wanted to bribe people, that sure sounds like a good technique.

Stevens asks the public to withhold judgment until all the facts can come out and says that he plans to run for reelection in 2008. Could this be our chance to finally rid the Senate of the famed promoter of the Bridge to Nowhere?

Monday, July 30, 2007

Gonzales and Reality

You know things are getting bad when you need a chart to keep track of the misstatements (or, to put it less politely, lies) the Attorney General is accused of. It's hardly the first time we've had reason to question the candor of Alberto Gonzales (does anyone else think of him as "A.G. A.G.," by the way?), but things are getting out of hand.

The latest news is that a credible source -- well, it's only the Director of the F.B.I. -- contradicts (or, as CNN delicately puts it, "appears to contradict") A.G. A.G.'s account of the infamous night visit to John Ashcroft's hospital room. Gonzales says he wasn't there to talk about the terrorist surveillance program; Mueller says he was. But maybe there are two programs? Could they each be using codespeak for something slightly different?

If Gonzales was a pillar of the community with outstanding credibility, this could all be shrugged off as a misunderstanding. The problem is that he's made so many questionable statements that one hesitates to give him the benefit of the doubt. Senator Leahy has sagely given Gonzales a week to "amend" his testimony. A.G. A.G. should take this last chance to set the record straight.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Not Funny in New Zealand

I'm not one of these people who gets their news from the Daily Show, but sometimes, it is just the most informative place around. If you weren't watching it last night, I bet you didn't know that New Zealand has passed a law prohibiting the use of images captured in its parliament for the purpose of "satire, ridicule, or denigration." Try finding that story in the New York Times or the Washington Post.

So what's more interesting here: that we have to rely on Jon Stewart to bring us international news, or the news itself? I'll go for the news. What are those New Zealanders thinking? (And by the way, I'm sure they have a cute nickname that would have been more appropriate in the last sentence but I have no idea what it is.) I guess it's one of those countries that doesn't really have a constitution (there's another thing I don't know about New Zealand -- Wikipedia to the rescue); it probably revels in its "unwritten constitution," which to us Americans is another word for "not having a constitution at all." Laws like this show why you need a constitution with a Free Speech Clause. It's hard to believe that democratically elected politicians could be so stupid as to pass a law against satiring themselves -- surely if you were such a politician it would occur to you that 71% of the population would disapprove -- but politicians will do anything if they're not constitutionally constrained (and I know, I know, in America some politicians will do anything even if they are constitutionally constrained, but at least it seems better to have the constraint).

Political satire will survive in New Zealand, I'm sure -- I wouldn't want to be the prosecutor who has to bring the first case against New Zealand's equivalent of the Daily Show (I actually looked up some New Zealand nicknames to create an appropriate in-joke name for New Zealand's Daily Show, but believe me, if I had put it in there you wouldn't have understood anyway) -- but it's somewhat amazing to see such a blatant and pointless assault on free speech in a democratic country. I'll stick with the written Constitution, thanks.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Those Darned Wizards

Just one thought about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (not a spoiler, don't worry, this is something that was already clear from previous books in the series):

Wizards (and witches) can make some pretty incredible, stunningly dangerous spells come out of their wands. The spells can stun you, cause you horrible pain, make your body swell up, make you do the spellcaster's bidding, slice parts of your body off, or, of course, kill you.

But -- they can't aim themselves.

Apparently the magical community has spent centuries perfecting what the spells do, but never seems to have given a moment's thought to improving the spells' ability to hit their targets. No, they just wave their wands in the general direction of the target and hope for the best. The spell itself apparently appears as a bolt of visible light (green light, if it's the death spell), which zooms toward the target, but not so fast that the target can't see the spell and twist out of the way.

Didn't it ever occur to these folks that if they can make a bolt of light come out of a hickory stick and kill someone or overpower his mind, they might want to equip that light with just a tiny bit more intelligence and have it follow the target as the target tries to run away? It must take a fair bit of mental capacity for a bolt of light to take over someone's brain; surely it could sense where the brain is and follow it? At least give it some heat-seeking desires.

Sheesh. Even we Muggles realized a long time ago that it's no use having a great missile if the missile doesn't hit its target. A couple of heat-seeking servomechanisms help a lot. You'd think somebody might have worked out a magical equivalent.

And if not, could they at least send the students out for target practice once in a while? That skill seems sadly missing from the Hogwarts curriculum.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Virginia's Road Rage

Virginians keep getting more and more upset with the state's new "abusive driver fees," first reported by the Washington Post back in June. Under the new system, drivers convicted of certain traffic offenses will get hit up with an extra "fee" on top of the ordinary fine they're assessed by the judge. And the fees are hefty: if you drive more than 20 miles an hour over the speed limit, you'll pay the ordinary $200 fine and then get assessed a "fee" of $1,050 by the state. Quite an unhappy surprise.

And, oh, by the way, the fees apply only to Virginians -- out-of-state bad drivers don't have to pay them.

Since the fees were first reported by the Post they've led to a long series of articles about how upset Virginians are: first there was a report of a "growing backlash," then an "outcry" and a claim that some of the fees were "mistakes," then a petition for repeal that got over 100,000 signatures. The latest word is a report on the unintended consequences of similar fees in other states that have adopted them, such as an increase in unlicensed drivers (people who've had their licenses suspended because they can't afford to pay the fees), and a suggestion that the fees haven't done much to improve safety in those states.

The fundamental problem, I would say, is that once fees become detached from their original purpose, it's impossible to deal with them properly. The purpose of fines for speeding and other driving offenses should be to punish and deter bad driving. The fees should be set at a level sufficient to make people think twice about speeding or doing something else that's hazardous. The goal should be to improve safety on the roads.

It's clear, however, that the purpose of the new Virginia fees is to raise revenue. The fees originated as a substitute for a statewide tax increase. Once that becomes the goal, there's no stopping point. Why not charge speeders $5,000? And $10,000 for drivers running a red light?

Once fees become primarily about revenue, their ability to serve their original function can be greatly reduced. The best example, I think, is the rush-hour times on Washington's subway, the Metro. When I arrived in town, evening rush hour was defined as ending at 7 pm. In 1995, it was extended to 8 pm.

Now, that was ridiculous. The purpose of rush hour (during which the fares are higher) is to spread out passenger traffic by giving people an incentive to leave work later. Rush hour ending at 7 pm can do that with some success. But if rush hour goes until 8, the number of people willing to wait is going to decrease pretty sharply.

The obvious problem was that Metro's board had detached rush hour from its purpose. They didn't extend it until 8 because that made sense in terms of spreading out passenger traffic; they just needed more money, and so they decided to hit up more riders -- basically, almost all the commuters -- for the rush hour fares. But once they did that, rush hour couldn't serve its function of spreading out passengers, because people wouldn't want to wait until 8. I presume the trains got a lot more crowded from 5:30 - 6:30, as the people who used to wait until 7 just went home when they really wanted to. Today, the rush hour fare (officially known as the "regular fare," isn't that nice) has returned to its more sensible 7 pm ending time.

Virginia will, doubtless, experience a similar fate if it keeps its "abusive driver" fees. They may sound like a safety measure, but so long as they are really a revenue measure, I doubt they will be set at a level that will best serve the safety function. They'll be too high, they will have unintended consequences, and you'll see a lot of unsmiling Virginians on the roads.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Making Nice -- Too Nice

What's the point of scheduling an all-night Senate debate if you guarantee that there won't be any votes during the night? The whole point of the exercise is to force the filibustering minority to stay on their feet through the small hours -- to see if they've got the fortitude to filibuster for real. When they get too tired and cranky to keep debating, you hold the vote.

It seems that the Republicans were right after all -- the all-night debate was just a piece of political theater. Majority Leaer Reid wasn't really putting the minority to the test; he just wanted a good show.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Time for a Real Filibuster

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid plans an all-night session to highlight Republican intransigence on allowing Iraq war measures to come to a vote. And about time, too! It's bad enough that the filibuster has become such a routine mechanism that basically nothing can get through the Senate without a 60-vote supermajority. Even worse is the practice of allowing the filibustering minority to keep bankers' hours.

If the Republicans want to filibuster the Democrats' proposals to bring our troops home from Iraq, they have they power under the rules, but let's make them really do it. Let's see them on their feet all night, in good, old-fashioned, real filibuster form. Maybe holding their feet to the floor long enough will inspire a little compromise on actually bringing matters to a vote.

Risky Business

I guess the District of Columbia (my home) has little choice but to seek Supreme Court review of the D.C. Circuit's decision striking down its gun-control law, but it's a risky business. As things stand, the D.C. Circuit's decision is an unusual interpretation of the Second Amendment that will only affect the nation's capital. The Supreme Court might reverse it, but it could also affirm, and then gun control will be revolutionized nationwide.

The Second Amendment was a sleepy constitutional backwater until pretty recently, starting, I would say, with Sanford Levinson's article, The Embarrassing Second Amendment. Prof. Levinson pointed out that perhaps the Amendment really does mean that there is an individual right to bear arms. Ever since, the debate has gotten more lively.

I'm kind of agnostic on gun control. My old friend Eugene Volokh has written quite a lot about it and suggests that the statistics really do show that widespread gun ownership makes society safer. I've never investigated the matter thoroughly, but I have a lot of respect for Eugene.

In any event, the District is taking on a big project and a big risk. If the Supreme Court grants cert, watch for the sparks to fly.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Tax Protestor Gets Off!

Here's an oddball story: Tommy K. Cryer, a man who proudly proclaims that he hasn't paid his income taxes in ten years, and who made a series of videos explaining that there's no law requiring most people to pay taxes, is prosecuted for failing to file and is acquitted! His analysis: "The court could not find a law that makes me liable or makes my revenues taxable." Could it be true?

Of course not. Criminal income tax cases are subject to a special rule: the government has the burden of proving, not only that the defendant didn't pay his taxes, but that the defendant knew he had to pay his taxes. This is very unusual. Usually, in the criminal law, if you do the thing that constitutes the crime, and you know what you're doing, whether you know that your conduct is illegal is irrelevant. But in tax cases specifically, the government has to prove that you knew you were breaking the law. So if you really believe all this tax protestor nonsense about there being no law requiring people to pay income tax, it's not a crime for you to fail to pay.

But, I hasten to add for anyone getting any ideas here, you still owe the money. Crazy beliefs may keep you out of jail, but they don't change the fact that you owe your taxes, plus the interest, plus the penalties -- which can add a whole lot to your tax bill. It's cheaper to pay what you owe. The government, one can be confident, will be coming down on Mr. Cryer for a pile of cash.

In any event, his acquittal, of course, doesn't show that there's no law requiring people to pay taxes. It just means he convinced the jury that he really believes he doesn't have to pay -- or really, only that the government failed to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he knows he does have to pay. Every few years a protestor gets off on this ground, and justice goes on -- another protestor was convicted yesterday.

The sad thing is that Tommy Cryer is an attorney. He even went to a decent law school (LSU) and graduated with honors. It's inconceivable that such a person could really believe tax protestor theories.

Although perhaps I shouldn't rule it out -- Cryer's had his share of trouble in the past. In the 1980s, he was hauled before a bar disciplinary committee for neglecting a professional matter (he failed to record a deed properly, and continued to fail for two years after the client called the matter to his attention, and also delayed reimbursing the client for the damages it suffered as a result), and he had his penalty reduced on the ground that he "suffered from a depressive illness" and "was on the brink of an emotional breakdown and also in severe financial straits" because his father had died while he was still young (only 28) and because he had "entered into the private practice of law without adequate funds or business." Louisiana State Bar Ass'n v. Cryer, 441 So.2d 734 (La. 1983). So, even though a doctor concluded that "recurrence of the depressive condition is unlikely," perhaps Cryer still has some mental condition that causes him, an apparently intelligent attorney, to fall for tax protestor nonsense.

Still, it's an embarrassment that an attorney is so associated with the tax protestor movement. The man should be disbarred. If he's giving his income tax theory as advice to actual clients, then he's violating the requirement of competence, and even if he isn't, he's still engaging in conduct that involves "deceit or misrepresentation" and "conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice", which also violates the rules.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Schadenfreude Follow-Up

Of course it was a given that more juicy stories would come out of the release of phone records from D.C. Madam Jeane Palfrey, and somehow one knew that the more strait-laced, Republican, and outwardly pious a politician was, the more likely his phone number was on the list. That's why it's hardly a surprise to learn that Senator Vitter (R-La.) has confessed to "a very serious sin" in his past. Vitter bills himself as "a conservative who opposes radically redefining marriage, the most important social institution in human history," so naturally he would prefer to handle marriage the tradiational way -- by cheating on his wife with call girls.

Funny, isn't it, that so many of the Republican defenders of marriage are on their second or third wives or caught up in extramarital sex scandals. Oh, I know there have been equally guilty Democrats, but it's more fun when the Republicans get gored on their own stakes.

The Surgeon General Speaks Out

I complained previously that President Bush's stem cell decisions seemed to be driven by politics, not public health concerns. It turns out that someone else shares my view -- and it's only Bush's own former Surgeon General.

Richard H. Carmona, Surgeon General form 2002 to 2006, says that the Bush Administration "routinely" screened his speeches for political sensitivity and prevented him from speaking out on public health issues for politicial -- and even theological -- reasons. Carmona was blocked on the basis of what he called "preconceived beliefs that were scientifically incorrect."

The Bush Administration has long had a reputation for muzzling its own scientists for political reasons. Now one of Bush's own top political appointees confirms this practice.

The Bush response? You know, of course, that the White House will try to blame and discredit Dr. Carmona. But even knowing that in advance, the chutzpah of White House spokesman Tony Fratto takes one's breath away. He said: "As surgeon general, Dr. Carmona was given the authority and had the obligation to be the leading voice for the health of all Americans. It's disappointing to us if he failed to use his position to the fullest extent in advocating for policies he thought were in the best interests of the nation."

First muzzle him, then blame him for being muzzled.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Off With His Head

I'm not a big fan of the death penalty, but one has to admit that China's execution of the head of its equivalent of the FDA sends a pretty clear signal and offers an interesting contrast to what other countries -- say, the U.S.A. -- might do in a comparable situation.

Zheng Xiaoyu, the executed former official, was convicted of taking bribes to approve an antibiotic blamed for at least 10 deaths. So it's not just a case of official incompetence, but of criminal corruption showing a reckless disregard for the value of human life. The execution sends a strong message that such behavior will not be tolerated -- not even from top government officials. Those responsible for the safety of the Chinese people (and, to the extent that others import things from China, for safety around the world) will, one suspects, pay close attention. I'm not saying that a long prison sentence couldn't have accomplished the same goal, and I'm not necessarily endorsing the death penalty here, but even death penalty opponents would have to recognize that China has sent a powerful symbolic message to its officials and to the world. It's certainly a powerful contrast to the lack of any responsibility for official misbehavior that we've seen in this country for the last six years.

There's also something valuable in having the execution now for a conviction that occurred in May. In America, when we sentence someone to death, we are really saying, "we might execute you in 8 or 10 years, after we get done wrangling about it." By that time, the original crime is a distant memory. Again, without endorsing the death penalty, I would just note that if you're going to have it, there's something valuable in carrying it out while the public is still engaged with the original crime. If the execution occurs only after everyone has moved on to other events, the public can't possibly get the same message that the original crime is being punished seriously.

Back from Break

Sorry to keep you waiting so long, faithful readers, but your correspondent was busy last week . . . playing bridge! It was the big annual tournament for the DC area.

My partner and I had our best finish ever -- second in Flight B of the "Jerry Machlin" Pairs, a local event named for a famous tournament director. That's roughly comparable to coming in second in a tri-state golf tournament for players whose handicaps are at least 12 -- not anything to swell one's head, but a good result for B players like us. Previously, we'd never even made the cut in this event.

The only problem was that we felt terrible! We should have won. We were in first place by a pretty strong margin going into the last round of play and could have won with even marginally decent results in the last round. But we managed to botch up both deals and came in second. It literally came down to the play of one card in the last deal -- one different card, and we would have won. Phil Mickelson's collapse at the last hole of the U.S. open at Winged Foot came to mind.

Well, I'm still pleased with our progress. It was a very good tournament for us. And just wait till next year.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Beat the Drum

Of course the Democrats are appropriately bashing President Bush's decision to commute Lewis Libby's sentence. The problem, if I know the Dems, is that they will make a suitably big stink about it for a week or so, and then let it fade into the background.

If President Clinton had pulled something like this, the Republicans would have talked about it every day until the next election and beyond. They would have fired up their media machine and made sure this was on everybody's mind for years. It would have been their talking point, their talking point, their talking, talking, talking point, until they'd pounded it permanently into the public consciousness.

The Dems need to take a lesson from the Republican playbook. Commuting the sentence of one of your own minions who committed crimes to further your political agenda (smearing critics of the Iraq war) is so blatant, so shameless, that it deserves to be a talking point indefinitely.

Don't let this die down, Dems. Talk about it, not just every day this week, but every day this year, and next year too.


In America, everyone is equal before the law -- everyone, that is, except members of the Bush administration. They get the ultimate special treatment. They're not before the law; they're above it, as the President showed yesterday by commuting the sentence of vice presidential aide Lewis Libby.

In case you were wondering whether the President has any vestige of shame -- whether he even hears that little voice saying that maybe it would be better if his administration's corruption were not completely exposed to public view -- the answer is no. The strategy is clear: seek every possible political advantage, even if you have to commit crimes to do so, then use the pardon power to keep the criminals out of jail.

There's so much hypocrisy in this commutation (it's not quite a pardon) that it's hard to know where to start. Of course, the Republicans now praising the President's action (or even suggesting that it should have been a full pardon) weren't exactly showing similar concern for the harsh treatment that another fine public servant, President Clinton, received at the hands of a zealous prosecutor when he, too, was accused of lying in a case in which the underlying charge never really went anywhere. I don't recall anyone's calling for the President to pardon Martha Stewart, or even commute her jail sentence.

And of course President Bush has used the pardon power less than any other recent President. It's not a priority for him.

But I think my favorite bit of flummery in connection with this shameful action is the suggestion by vice president Cheney's spokeswoman that she doesn't know what the vice president advised. Obviously this thing has Cheney's fingerprints all over it. We know what Cheney advised: he advised that Bush give Libby a full pardon, a promotion, and a Presidential medal of honor.

It's just too shameful. The Administration goes to every length to smear its opponents and cover up its corrupt buildup to the Iraq war, no blinking at crime where necessary, and then uses clemency to keep the criminals out of jail.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Security Alert

Police arrest two more in connection with the bomb attempts in Britain. On Friday, police found two Mercedes packed with propane gas, gasoline, and nails.

Has anyone noticed that police, FBI, and so on seem to break up these plots with some regularity, but always by intelligence efforts? Has airport security ever stopped a terrorist plot? All of us taking off our jackets, our shoes, our belts, calmly (or not so calmly) waiting in the endless lines and walking through machines -- have these security people ever caught any terrorists? I remember a lot of recent headlines about police discovering and stopping terrorist plots, but I can't remember one about airport security stopping a terrorist.