Something’s Rotten in Aramark

PrisonWhile the Michigan Department of Corrections and Gov. Snyder weigh their options in deciding the fate of the controversial three-year, $145 million Aramark prison food service contract in the wake of a string of contractual breaches and findings of employee misconduct, leaders now have even more to consider.

Just yesterday, Ohio prison officials, who have been experiencing similar problems with the private food vendor, slapped the company with a second fine for non-compliance with their $110 million contract signed at about the same time as Michigan’s. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections sent a letter to Aramark levying a $130,200 fine citing maggots, staffing shortages, improper food substitutions, transport of contraband, and sanitation problems at five prisons in the state since the company received their first warning last April when they were fined $142,000.

The Daily Times reports the chief of the Ohio prison oversight committee, Joanna Saul, blamed the problems on underpaid employees:

“You’re making $10 to $11, you can bring in a pack of cigarettes and sell it for $300 — what are you going to choose?”

Ninety-six employees have been banned in Ohio. Michigan has given the boot to about eighty so far. Michigan also recently fined the vendor $98,000 for numerous problems — yet instead of improving, the service appears to be deteriorating. Weekly reports of employee misconduct and sanitation problems continue to plague the vendor.

Earlier this week, the Alger Correctional Facility had to pitch 4,000 pounds of potatoes after they were found to be infested with maggots.

Pressure is mounting as lawmakers and activists continue to urge the governor to dump the vendor before Michigan experiences a prison riot. The Correctional News reports that a decision will be within days.

Aramark has been attempting to deflect the criticism claiming it’s “an ongoing political and media circus about anti-privatization.”

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Aramark rap sheet.

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Michigan’s Baffling Ballot Question Explained

(Edited: July 31, 2014, 3:30 p.m. to include Ernst & Young graphic map)

A week from today, Michigan voters will head to the polls to perform their democratic duty by selecting party candidates for the November general election. They will additionally face a ballot question that requires, at the very least, the rosetta stone to decipher.

Proposal 14-1, the brain child of the Michigan legislature, reads like this:

prop14-1

prop 1 mailerBy golly, that sounds positively delightful — a “yes” vote will modernize the tax system and create new jobs! If you’re thinking that sure sounds like more trickle-down GOP-speak, you may be right.

There’s no organized opposition to the proposal, and Democratic State Senator Gretchen Whitmer recently wrote a Detroit News op-ed in support of the measure. She qualified her come-lately endorsement of prop 1 explaining that she initially had concerns, which have since been put to rest:

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the assurances I needed to answer those questions as the legislation was hurried through without the opportunity for any real debate, leading me to be one of only two senators to vote against it at the time.

Since then, however, the analyses done by local government officials and fiscal agencies have answered my questions and addressed my concerns. Now that I have those assurances, I’m confident Proposal 1 is right for Michigan.

Let’s take a closer look at what we are being asked to swallow — time to un-encrypt the murky language and parse its potential impact.

Although the proposal doesn’t spell it out, the measure is about eliminating personal property taxes on businesses — instead the ballot language just alludes to “modernizing” business taxes. Lawmakers are asking voters to approve the phase-in of a specific part of legislation they passed a couple of years ago as part of a package of bills, known as Public Act 80, designed to give tax breaks to Michigan’s businesses.

Why would this legislature, renowned for thumbing their nose at the electorate, opt to seek such approval? It’s required by Michigan’s Constitution. Article IX, Section 31, requires voter approval for certain types of changes to the tax code. Because PA-80 is composed of a series of pieces of legislation that are tie-barred to each other, if prop 14-1 goes down, so goes the entire package of tax relief measures for business.

Before we get into the nuts-and-bolts of the ballot measure, let’s first be clear that the primary beneficiaries of this are large corporate entities, not the mom and pop businesses the language implies. GOP lawmakers never grow tired of their rhetoric on tax cuts for “job creators” — although Michigan has yet to see evidence of a correlation between making the rich, richer and growing its economy. Yet, there’s plenty of hard data to refute the Republican mantra.

Owen Zidar, Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, found the only kind of tax cuts that generate economic growth are quite different from what Republicans would have us believe:

The empirical relationship between tax cuts for the top 10% percent and job creation is negligible in magnitude, statistically insignificant, and much weaker than that of equivalently sized tax cuts for the bottom 90%.

Another Republican myth is that Michigan’s business taxes are among the worst in the nation. In fact, a 2012 state-by-state comparison compiled by Ernst & Young, in collaboration with the Council on State Taxation (COST), found that Michigan business taxes, as a percentage of state revenue, are the third lowest in the nation. The national average is 45.2 percent, and Michigan businesses pony-up a mere 35.8 percent.

E&Y tax map

Source: Ernst & Young report

Additionally, Michigan is notorious for cutting sweet multi-million dollar tax give-aways to attract and maintain business. In their report, Megadeals: The Largest Economic Development Subsidy Packages Ever Awarded by State and Local Governments in the United States, Good Jobs First found that Michigan had made fully 29 outrageously over-the-top corporate tax give-aways — making the state the national leader, with New York coming in second at 23. Michigan forfeited a whopping $7,101,236,000 (yes, billion) to mostly large fortune 500 type companies in return for little, if anything at all.  These bonuses were untethered to any real and measurable job growth — they were nothing more than a trickle-down wish and a prayer.

Understanding this ballot proposal requires knowledge of what the personal property tax is, and who pays it. The PPT is a tax on business equipment collected by local units of government as a substantial portion of their operating budget — estimated to be about $590 million annually. Lawmakers want to repeal the PPT and replace it with a more reliable revenue stream for local governments from the 6 percent State Use Tax — not to be confused with Michigan’s sales tax. The state describes the use tax this way:

The use tax is a companion tax to the sales tax. Use tax of 6% must be paid on the total price (including shipping and handling charges) of all taxable items brought into Michigan or purchases by mail from out-of-state retailers. Credit is given for tax paid to another state. Use tax is also applied to certain services such as telecommunications and hotel/motel accommodations.

Use tax revenues are more than double those collected from the PPT. One-third of the use tax goes directly to the School Aid Fund, with the remainder sent to the state’s general fund. The plan is to re-allocate a portion of those general fund revenues back to local units of government, and possibly short-change other state budget priorities, say roads, as an example. Yes, it is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The League of Women Voters provides a clear explanation of what the referendum intends to accomplish and what its fiscal impact is expected to be:

LWV-prop14-1

Another salient question is whether lawmakers can be trusted to fully fund local units of government under this tax reform. The possibility for monkey business remains — we need look no further than education funding in Michigan. GOP leaders insist that K-12 spending is up, but real dollars flowing into the classroom are down, especially after being adjusted for inflation.

Local units of government are struggling already and, in spite of the Michigan Township Association’s support of this ballot measure, a Nov. 2012 Michigan Public Policy Survey found that local leaders are wary of the plan:

MMP PPT survey

This proposal provides no constitutional cover for municipalities. With most of them already living on the edge, even a small drop in local government revenues would result in either a decrease in services or an increase in debt, or both — leading to the kind of fiscal death-spiral Michigan’s cities are known for.

Another anomaly about the referendum language is who wrote it. Lawmakers designed this camel, which goes a long way in explaining its cryptic nature. Typically, ballot language would be crafted by the office of the Secretary of State.

Craig Thiel, of the Citizens Research Council points out a potential impropriety with the language:

Article XII, Section 2 of the Constitution requires that questions pertaining to proposed constitutional amendments [even though this is not one] be described in not more than 100 words and “consist of a true and impartial statement of the purpose of the amendment.”  Further, Section 485 of the Michigan Election Law states, “The question shall be clearly written using words that have a common everyday meaning to the general public.  The language used shall not create prejudice for or against the issue or proposal.”

…[O]ne phrase in the language could be interpreted to advocate for passage of the proposal, “. . . modernizing the tax system to help small business grow and create jobs in Michigan.”  Further, some people have pointed out that this phrase is not entirely clear….  It is not clear the phrase comports with the “common everyday meaning” requirement of state law.

And to top it off, there is a gross error in the ballot question itself. The final point of the measure says a “yes” vote would “Prohibit total use tax rate from exceeding existing constitutional 6% limitation”. The state use tax is not locked by the constitution. Although the use tax does bear some constitutional caveats, it is ultimately governed by Public Act 94 of 1937, which allows lawmakers to raise the rate without bumping into constitutional limitations.

Voters will certainly find the ballot question baffling — and its fate will likely be decided along party lines due to the vague, yet loaded GOP language.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Read the comprehensive CRC analysis of Prop14-1.

 

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Schuette’s Attempt to Screw Michigan Taxpayers Doomed to Fail

In the face of today’s U.S. Appeals Court ruling that tentatively strips a half million Michigan residents of a $4,700 healthcare tax credit, let’s check out some good news first where GOP attacks on the Affordable Care Act have backfired on them spectacularly — then we’ll get to the Bill Schuette-led tax hike. (Which by the way, is conflicted by another court’s decision today, so the whole matter is destined for higher review. It’s unlikely to stand-up in the U.S. Supreme Court — they tend to focus on the intent of the law, and prefer uniformity where federal tax law is concerned.)

GOP Attacks Doomed to Fail

A recent Brookings Institute analysis of anti-Affordable Care Act spending in 2013 found that the ads generated increased enrollment, instead of less. Ads attacking the new healthcare law out-spent those in support by 15 to 1, with $450 million pouring into media outlets with the intention of scaring consumers away from the program. The author of the report, Niam Yaraghi, speculated that the ads may have frightened people into enrolling for fear GOP lawmakers may actually someday be successful in its repeal if they don’t take advantage of the affordable healthcare program now.

Using the Department of Health and Human Services ACA reported enrollment data as a ratio against those that potentially could enroll, Yaraghi found that during the 2013 enrollment period, 11 percent was the national average, with Michigan coming-in at a hair under 17 percent of those eligible. Negative ads in Michigan were mostly focused on the Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Battle Creek market areas, where $17,359 was spent to sway residents away from the program.

The bulk of 2013 spending was concentrated in districts where there are hotly contested congressional races this year. Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina got slammed with ads. Well over $2 million went to an attempt to dissuade North Carolinians, yet 17.3 percent of those eligible persisted through the troubled enrollment maze to sign-up.

creepy uncle sam ad

The Brookings report found that the ads backfired primarily in blue states. Michigan, at least in federal elections, remains solidly Democratic, so anti-ACA rhetoric could be a campaign deficit.

Stupid Politicians Persist

Yet, in spite of the data, Michigan GOP contenders are still employing the tactic to attack their opponents in the looming primary.

MPPC Mitchell adIn the mid-state 4th Congressional District, spanning 15 counties from Wexford in the north-west portion of the state, down to Shiawassee in the south-east, candidate Paul Mitchell, a Republican, has chosen to take-on Tea Party endorsed, John Moolenaar over that very topic, citing his opponent’s support for the ACA in his “Big Checks” ad, shaming the lawmaker saying he:

“Voted to create a Michigan Obamacare exchange, and led efforts to pass the budget that expanded Medicaid and funded Obamacare.”

Moolenaar, not to be out-Tea-Partied by his challenger, has sworn a pledge from Repeal Obamacare.com, to ditch the Affordable Care Act. (Great, cuz just what Americans need in congress right now is another lawmaker bent on attempting to rollback, into perpetuity, a popular public policy — fifty attempts is apparently not enough.) Moolenaar’s website “reports”:

Moolenaar pledge

On-line political pledges, of any kind, should remain just as suspect as any other form of absolutism. They represent a new nadir in the divisive beast that is politics. In a way, they are just as invasive a species as third-party issue ads — very much like those that tried to bring down the ACA.

Here are the sum total of Michigan politicians to date that signed the pledge to do-away with affordable healthcare (from the website):

repeal pledge

A name that is conspicuously absent is Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. He’s been wasting tax-payer dollars abusing the power of his office to file reams of amicus curiae in various federal venues attempting to sway cases to appease the far-right, while thumbing his nose at the majority of Michigan’s electorate.

His most recent effort, meant to piecemeal dismantle the ACA, resulted in a decision that could cause half a million Michigan taxpayers to lose a healthcare tax credit of $4,700, but the argument is not nearly over. In his brief, the attorney general argued that the ACA only allows tax credits for enrollees who live in states with state-based insurance exchanges. In 2012, Schuette was front and center fighting against a state-based exchange.

His Democratic challenger, Mark Totten had this to say about Schuette’s action:

“Today’s decision is the culmination of Schuette’s crusade to strip nearly $5,000 a year from a half million Michigan families and ship our tax dollars to New York and California. This case is not really about Obamacare, which remains the law of the land; it’s about Bill Schuette trying to score political points with the most extreme fringe of his party, even at the cost of hurting Michigan families.”

Schuette will fail in this pursuit. He’s little more than a cheap political hack — a hairdo with a law degree.

Extreme politicking and absolutism should have no place in Michigan.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

For more on Schuette’s tax hike click here.

 

 

 

 

 

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Michigan: Dump Aramark Now

PrisonWe can hardly open the daily paper without reading of some new account of Aramark food services breaching their contract with the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Last week, four of their workers were caught on security video engaging in inappropriate sexual contact with inmates in a walk-in cooler at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility. The four were fired, bringing the total number of Aramark employees banned by the MDOC to eighty. In the same week, an employee at the Muskegon Correctional Facility was caught pants-down with an inmate. Two weeks before that, there were multiple reports of maggots found in and around food. Over one hundred inmates at the Parnall Correctional Facility were treated for food-borne illnesses earlier this month.

Ohio is reporting the same problems: sexual contact, maggots, food shortages, staffing shortfalls, smuggling of contraband items. The buckeye state recently fined Aramark $142,000 for contract breeches. On May 28th, guards had to shut-down the breakfast line at one prison to forestall a looming mass demonstration by inmates.

Aramark’s dismissive response to all this is comically off-base, claiming they were improving service, and calling the situation “an ongoing political and media circus about anti-privatization.” Ohio’s not buying it though. Sally Meckling, spokesperson for the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association replied: “The number of incidences are not decreasing. If anything, they’re increasing.”

A few days ago an Aramark employee was arrested in a narcotics sting in a San Antonio, Texas prison. He was caught smuggling drugs, cigarettes, among other items into the Bexar County Adult Center.

Earlier this year, Democracy Tree enumerated the many offenses that line the Aramark rap sheet. The problems with the company simply can no longer be swept under the rug. After Michigan fined the company $98,000 for violations, even Gov. Snyder admitted it was time to take a serious look at the 3 year, $145 million contract with the MDOC. When asked if he would consider terminating the contract he replied:

“Well, there’s been a number of issues. So I would say we’re approaching those kinds of points, in terms of what needs to be done…I don’t want to start all kinds of speculation, but the performance hasn’t been acceptable and so we need to get these things resolved.”

WLNS reports that Rep. Greg MacMaster (R-105), chair of the House Department of Corrections subcommittee, isn’t so keen on rushing to judgement, claiming this is simply a bid for organized labor, who lost 370 jobs due to the contract, to exploit a few incidents.

All of this started with a MacMaster scheme to find money for Michigan’s crumbling roads.

Seventeen months ago Rep. MacMaster suggested to the Appropriations committee that finding money for Michigan roads was as simple as privatizing prison food services. By his estimate, more than $100 million could be found by outsourcing to the lowest bidder.

In fact, he and his fellow lawmakers were so set on the idea of private bidding that they introduced a bill to prohibit the public sector from competing for bids wherever there was a private sector entity that could perform the task. MacMaster’s bill was styled after a federal bill Senator Thune (R-South Dakota) introduced a few years ago titled the Freedom From Government Competition Act. That bill died in committee, as MacMaster’s will too.

The rationale behind these bills is the notion that the public sector has an unfair advantage in competing against the private sector, and that this is a means of saving tax dollars and creating jobs. They termed it the “Yellow Pages” test. Thune characterized it this way:

“The Freedom from Government Competition Act would codify the “Yellow Pages” test, which states that if the federal government is doing something that can be found in the Yellow Pages, the product or service should be subject to market competition to ensure better value for the taxpayer.”

David Morris, co-founder of the Institute for Local Self Reliance makes a strong argument against this type of legislation. He points out that the private sector frequently relies heavily on tax breaks and subsidies. Morris refers to the system as one of unfair “handicaps” as found in golf.

“Unbeknownst to most of us, the competition between public and private sectors is also handicapped.  But contrary to the popular wisdom, it is the private sector that often cannot compete without being given more strokes.”

Well, we certainly can report that Aramark employees are clearly taking advantage of certain types of “strokes” from Michigan inmates.

It’s time to pull the plug on this failed privatization scheme before Michigan’s prisons become the scene of repeated riots.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

 

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Anti-PAC Pledges from Michigan Democrats — Good Idea?

Unequivocal declarations and pledges are nothing new in political contests. Every candidate for state and federal office receives handfuls of requests for specific policy pledges on a weekly basis. The Grover Norquist no-new-taxes pledge is the most infamous — mostly for tripping-up GOP leaders suffering from buyer’s remorse. Yet other causes, good and bad, continue to flood the mailboxes of contenders.

Signing any kind of pledge, even “good” ones, can be risky business though.

There’s a new kind of political purity pledge making the rounds, but this time it’s mostly Democrats signing-on. The non-partisan group Clean Slate Now is collecting signatures from candidates for public office at all levels across the nation. Their goal is to get special interest money out of politics through promising to not accept contributions from political action committees. From their website:

Democracy is undermined in a profound way when we finance campaigns from wealthy interests who contribute to buy excessive political influence. To get corrupting money out of politics, we advocate for candidates who refuse special interest PAC campaign contributions and agree to run respectful campaigns. There aren’t many of these candidates, but there are some, and the list is growing.

“There aren’t many” is an understatement. Thus far nationally, they have recruited 13 Democrats, 4 Republicans, and 4 Independents. With one from Michigan, Betsy Coffia, a Democrat running for the open 104th state House seat.

Coffia is among a small number of Michigan House candidates that have opted to turn away contributions from PACs, including those from unions and progressive groups. She is joined by Robert Kennedy, running for the 106th. Without having signed the pledge, his website put it this way:

Kenndey website

Other candidates are making statements alluding to their stand against PAC dollars, without the full-throated commitment of Coffia and Kennedy.

  • Joan Braush, running for the 98th says ” We are going to be raising our money just like Barack Obama did — from individual donors.”
  • Dave Morgan, a contender for the 62nd seat, describes himself as “A leader with integrity and the courage to fight the very special interest groups looking to buy Lansing”.
  • Mike Moroz, a candidate for the 59th, says nothing of money, but puts distance between himself and the Democratic Party, saying: “I am independent minded, beholden to no one and will vote an informed conscience that represents my constituents. I will not be disabled by outside interests or party politics”.

Independence at What Cost?

Is snubbing union-based financial support, and all PAC money, including that from genuine grassroots groups, a winning campaign strategy? Is unilateral disarmament truly a good idea in this post Citizens United world?

In our latest Michigan Policast report, I posed that very question to the statewide expert on Michigan campaign finance reform, Rich Robinson, Executive Director of the non-partisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Robinson railed against undisclosed “dark money”, Super PAC issue ads, and the overall corrupt path our campaign finance laws have taken, but he cautioned against these purity pledges. In our interview, Robinson said this of PAC money:

I have never seen any kind of problem about political action committees, at least as originally conceived. They started-out as a way for people of like-mindedness, shared interests, to band together to amplify their influence in the political process.

Robinson explained the problem in Michigan as one of a lack of limitations on individual contributions to PACs, as illustrated by a group called Citizens for Michigan. The law requires 25 “unique” contributors to establish a PAC. This group consisted of two $5 members, twenty-three that ponied-up a single buck each, and one guy who dropped $200,000 on the venture. That’s corruption — no doubt.

But not all PACs are bad, and those of genuine grassroots origins should not be painted with the same brush. Robinson agrees:

At its heart, the idea of a PAC was a democracy idea — that many people of similar circumstances could band together. It’s been twisted in a lot of ways. But, I would encourage people to take a second look before they unilaterally decided that political action committees were bad somehow.

Robinson’s point is well-taken: It’s not the concept of PACs themselves that is evil, but the corruptive effect of lax regulatory oversight and the lack of transparency that give them a bad name among progressives.

In the absence of reform, pledging to forego PAC dollars is a brave and admirable stand. Yet, there are downsides to consider with the no-PAC pledge. The obvious one would be fundraising. Candidates that accept only individual contributions must exhaust considerably more energy in that pursuit. For incumbents, that could leave a bad impression — that they’re spending too much time focused on fundraising, and too little on lawmaking.

Choosing to eschew PACs runs another risk — that of not being taken seriously by potential supporters and endorsers, including the crucial nod from editorial boards of local papers. Fair, or not, a candidate’s ability to assemble a sizable war chest factors into the equation.

In Coffia’s case, her team has been active for quite some time priming the fundraising pump. To date, her campaign has banked just under $23,000, from 309 individuals. She’ll need more though when she squares-off against her Republican challenger in November. There are eight GOP candidates vying for the seat, currently depleting their funds in a primary battle, which is good news for Coffia’s camp.

The 104th will prove to be an interesting race. Republicans can’t afford to lose the seat. Third-party issue ads, robo-calls and mailers may play a significant role — it could be decided by Super PACs battling it out, regardless of the convictions of the candidates.

Until the day Citizens United is no longer the law of the land, anti-PAC pledges remain a gutsy move.

Best of luck to those committed to a pure campaign.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Listen to the entire Michigan Policast interview with Rich Robinson by clicking here.

 

 

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Michigan To Crack Down on Charter Schools

Good journalism can make all the difference, and the Detroit Free Press is a shining example of the power of the fourth estate. Their recent exposé on the corruption in Michigan’s charter school system has brought a swift response from the office of the Department of Education. In a press release, titled “State Superintendent to Suspend Charter Authorizers That Don’t Measure Up”, Michael Flanagan vows to revoke the charter issuing authority of institutions found lacking in proper oversight and transparency. The release cites “a recent series of news articles” as the impetus behind the regulatory zeal — which begs the question: What was Flanagan waiting for? He certainly must have been aware of the malfeasance occurring in the charter world — that’s his job.

Among the guidelines expected to be instituted are:

  • Clearly identify the school governing board as the party ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the school, and clearly define the external provider as a vendor of services;
  • Prohibit the management company from selecting, approving, employing, compensating, or serving as school governing board members. In Michigan, management companies are allowed to recruit board members and are free to hire friends and relatives of board members without disclosing that information;
  • Require the school governing board to directly select, retain and compensate the school attorney, accountant and audit firm. In Michigan, management companies can and often do perform this function;
  • Require that payments from the authorizer to the school go to an account controlled by the school governing board, not the management company. Michigan already requires this, but management companies can and do immediately move the money out of the board-managed account;
  • Require all instructional materials, furnishings, and equipment purchased or developed with public funds to be the property of the school, not the management company;
  • Condition charter approval on authorizer review and approval of the management contract;
  • Grant charter school renewals only to those that have achieved the standards and targets stated in the charter contract; are organizationally and fiscally viable; and have been faithful to the terms of the contract and applicable law;
  • Clearly communicate to schools the criteria for charter revocation, renewal, and non-renewal decisions that are consistent with the charter contract;
  • Require evidence of a management company’s educational and management success;
  • Require a proposed agreement with a management company to include performance evaluation measures, fee structures, financial controls, oversight and disclosure, and renewal and termination details;
  • Require a management company to disclose and explain any existing or potential conflicts of interest between the charter school governing board and proposed service provider or any affiliated business entities;

Of course it remains to be seen if these rules will be implemented, and in a timely manner. Superintendent Flanagan certainly has a spotty history with critics.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Jones Day Threatens SLAPP Suit Against Detroit-Area Blogger

Jones Day, the third largest law firm on the planet, is focusing their weighty legal acumen and collective wrath upon the head of one lone Detroit-area blogger who dared to poke serious fun at their activities in the Detroit bankruptcy proceedings. Also found in the blogger’s sardonic cross hairs is one of the firm’s former associates, Kevyn Orr — aka, Detroit’s Emergency Manager — both parties are being scorched in parody by the outspoken blogger over their joint roles in looting the already decimated city coffers.

The anonymous writer titled the blog after the emergency manager, KevynOrr.com, and decided the best way to get his/her message across was through the time-honored art of parody — a form of critique of which those doing the public’s business should certainly be acquainted with in this country. However, the powers that be at the mega-law firm took exception to being included among the list of carpet-bagger corporations on the site, credited thusly:

“Detroit’s Economic Coup D’etat Has Been Brought to You By”…

The law firm was joined on the list by Bank of America, Chase, ALEC, UBS, Quicken Loans, among others — each appearing in the form of their official trade mark.

Jones Day is profiting handsomely over Detroit’s misfortune, to the tune of an $18 million contract, purportedly to help steer the Motor City through bankruptcy. Yet, they still had the billable hours to spare to pen this letter to the Detroit blogger:

Jones Day letter

colbert dominosYep, of the firm’s 2,500 lawyers, Ducatman is from a stable of 266 litigators at Jones Day who specialize in intellectual property law and want to send a message to bloggers and critics alike, inviting them to feel as though they’re putting their head in the lion’s mouth by making a statement through parody — a form of speech that enjoys first amendment protection. Had it not, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, along with their writers, would have long ago been silenced.

The type of suit they threatened the Detroit blogger with is commonly known as a SLAPP suitStrategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. They are typically filed by large corporate interests with the intention to censor, intimidate and silence activists and critics through costly, frivolous, and un-merited ligation. Jones Day was in the news several years ago for a SLAPP against another party over trademark infringement and links to their webpage. That suit settled, as these things frequently do.

Unfortunately for Jones Day, in this case, they’re just plain wrong with their claim — and they know it. Parody is protected speech, including the use of identifying marks and products. The Electronic Frontier Foundation replied to the cease and desist with a two-page screed citing the law firm for grossly misrepresenting their specious cause of action.

eff letter

You can read the full letter here.

Furthermore, a close inspection of the Jones Day cease and desist notice indicates it was copied to the domain registrar and web host Go Daddy at abuse@godaddy.com, with whom the blogger is presumably doing business. If Go Daddy takes any damaging resultant action against the blogger or causes the blogger to expend time and money fighting the claim, it could possibly open-up Jones Day to a lawsuit for “tortious interference with contractual relations”, i.e. messing with another party’s ability to do business.

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive”…

Sheesh! Corporate lawyers, like the firms they represent, often can’t see past the end of their up-turned patrician noses.

Orr lizardThus far, the site is still up and running, with the Jones Day logo in plain sight, but now it appears in two places: on the faux corporate sponsor list and also next to a caricature of Orr as an illuminati shape-shifting lizard person, wearing a human mask. Yes, there really are conspiracy theorists who truly believe the world is secretly ruled by lizards. In a poll conducted in April of 2013 by Public Policy Polling on the topic of conspiracy theories it was found that 4 percent of voters questioned held that peculiar belief.

Our mystery blogger cleverly employed that theme to make the point about Detroit existing in a state of Potemkin democracy.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

 

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Another Michigan GOP Fail: Guns in Schools

While Michigan legislators are schmoozing over the course of their 12 week-long summer break, after yet another session of mostly goofy and ineffectual lawmaking, maybe one of them, between fundraisers of course, could possibly consider moving forward with legislation to close the loophole that allows open carry in public schools. Admittedly, a highly unlikely occurrence, considering the GOP majority is interested in one thing, and one thing only — corporate dollars with which to line their war chests.

Michigan law provides for few gun-free zones: banks, churches, courts, theaters, sports arenas, daycare centers, hospitals, and liquor stores. Concealed carry permit holders are also not permitted to have a concealed weapon in those places, but through a twist of legislative idiocy they are allowed to open carry there, in addition to schools, college campuses, dormitories, casinos, and bars.

The Ugly Side of Open Carry

Open carry is a hot button political issue across the nation, especially in light of the recent Bundy ranch-inspired puffery among Second Amendment activists. When advocates started carrying weapons into places a sane person might find inappropriate, the NRA at first condemned the practice, then under pressure from open carry groups, they quietly tip-toed back from their criticism.

This kind of thing is just the ticket to get the stupid juices flowing among those that love their guns, but haven’t quite read the Second Amendment in its entirety — and recent reports indicate that some certainly have failed to make it as far as the Fourteenth Amendment too.

A few days ago, racially-motivated open carry activists in an Ohio community participated in what they believed was an exercise of their constitutional right to bear arms, but instead just terrorized the neighborhood. The Raw Story reports:

Police arrested one of four people who walked through a Cincinnati neighborhood while openly carrying AR-15 rifles and repeatedly using racial slurs and profanity.

One of two men in the group, which included two women, filmed their open carry rally in the East Price Hill neighborhood, where they walked past District 3 police headquarters and marveled that they were exercising their constitutional rights.

“Broad day, you see this? Walking down the street with a AR-15,” says the man filming the demonstration, who police later identified as Jesse Deboard.

Deboard posted the “rally” on You Tube, a video which was liberally laced with racial obscenities — not to be repeated here. He was subsequently arrested for “menacing by stalking”, and remains behind bars on a $25,000 bond.

Was this incident an anomaly? Sadly, no.

In fact, a documentary film titled Welcome to Leith is in the works about a similar group of white supremacist, open carry advocates that have waged an organized campaign of terror on the small community of Leith, North Dakota. The extremists plotted to take over the town, which was nearly abandoned by 2012. They have since used open carry intimidation against the few remaining residents, especially targeting one inter-racial couple.

Michigan’s Dilemma 

The group Open Carry Michigan, thankfully has the occasional moment of sanity, as found in their support of legislation designed to hone-in on the definition of “brandish” to include the intent to intimidate, but they aren’t budging on open carry in Michigan’s public schools. Yet, the Michigan Open Carry website currently lists K-12 laws as “Not Yet Determined”.

Last year, Rep. Andy Schor (D-68) introduced HB 4104 and 4105, bills now stalled in committee, meant to close the open carry loophole. The legislation was inspired by open carry advocates intimidating local libraries with weapon displays. Open carry activists are absolutists though, and refuse to recognize sensible restrictions.  MLive reported the following:

Phillip Hofmeister, the president of Michigan Open Carry, a group that advocates for the open carry of firearms, said after the bill was introduced that the state law should not be changed.

“I think people need to have a way to protect themselves wherever they go, and because of current pistol-free zones, it’s the only way people can protect themselves in some places,” Hofmeister said.

A position reflected in the national Open Carry motto: open carryThat attitude doesn’t sit well with school administrators, even in gun-loving Georgia where conservative lawmakers recently granted teachers the right to carry weapons. The law goes into effect July 1st, but so far there are no takers, and school administrators are upset that they’ve been dragged onto the Second Amendment battleground. Georgia is among ten states that passed guns-in-schools laws in the wake of the Newtown shootings. Michigan lawmakers passed a similar billon the day of the Sandy Hook massacre, but Gov. Snyder wisely vetoed the measure.

Republicans Shoot for the Moon

Instead of closing the open carry loophole, Republican lawmakers are pushing for more guns in Michigan schools. In response to school shootings, Tea Party lawmaker Rep. Greg MacMaster (R-105) introduced HB-4098, a bill that would permit school administrators the option to authorize the arming of teachers. A twin bill was introduced by Sen. Michael Green (R-31). SB-112 would similarly allow teachers to carry weapons. Green then upped the ante with SB-213, to allow guns in schools, and to additionally repeal restrictions altogether in certain specified gun free zones. All of these bills remain stalled in committee. None of them address liability issues, which would be near the top of any school administration’s list of concerns.

Policy Turmoil in Schools

As Democracy Tree recently reported, Traverse City Area Public Schools are struggling with the problem of how to react to open carry activism. They have publicly wavered in recent policy-making on the subject. The district has now tentatively settled on a policy to lock-down a school if an individual enters the building with a weapon. They reached an agreement with local law enforcement to have an officer remain with the armed individual until they leave the building.

It’s time for K-12 public school boards and administrators to exercise the level of authority they already possess in terms of permitting access to school facilities. First, visitors must provide a legitimate reason to be on school grounds. Second, they may not disrupt the school environment — this includes for example, a vigorous display of First Amendment rights which may infringe upon the educational environment — the kind of behavior that is protected in general public, but may be prohibited on school grounds. Traverse City officials toyed with making a case for disturbing the peace, which the county prosecutor rejected. But, if school officials have the authority to eject someone over free speech without citing a misdemeanor, then those powers should extend to open carry. Albeit, the police escort will probably do the trick too.

Sure, this is uncharted policy area for school leaders, but they must take the lead on this — be the front line protection for students, even if they have to force the issue with lawmakers by standing-up to open carry abusers by tossing them out on the street.

 

dtree-default-imageAmy Kerr Hardin

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Launch! Michigan Policast – A NEW Podcast Series on Political Issues

rocketLaunch Party!

Democracy Tree is pleased to announce the inaugural edition of a new podcast series on the topic of Michigan politics, which we’ve named “Michigan Policast“. It’s a joint venture, with veteran political junkies and policy wonks — Walt Sorg, Christine Barry, and myself, along with a variety of guests. Each show will round-up what’s in the news, behind the scenes, and what it all means for Michiganders — with a liberal amount of commentary.

Meet our illustrious emcee. Walt has held senior appointive positions in all threeWalt Sorg branches of state government, including a stint as chief spokesperson for the Blanchard administration economic development program. A poly-sci geek since his years at MSU, he’s a self-described “guy who has been following politics, especially state government, for his entire life”. He’s also hosted a progressive radio program in Lansing for four years. Walt blogs on Facebook as “CitizenSorg”.

Christine BarryChristine is a pioneer of Michigan political blogging. She launched Blogging for Michigan (BFM) in 2007, which was so well-read by Michigan leaders that within months, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop briefly blocked lawmaker access to her blog — sparking a statewide media firestorm on First Amendment issues. Christine is passionate about all-things political, and after honing her podcasting skills at BFM, this new venture is Christine’s latest brain child.

As a former political campaign manager, politics was already in my blood. Amy Kerr HardinDemocracy Tree was launched in early 2012, with one of its first posts breaking the story of how lawmakers had cleverly hidden, through intentionally opaque language, a requirement for abortion seekers to have an invasive transvaginal ultrasound. That day I realized the power of the written word, and the importance of citizen watchdog journalism. The bill did not pass, but Democracy Tree has since thrived.

Click HERE to listen to our latest show, which covers the following topics:

Privatization

Career politicians

Extras

Join the discussion by commenting on the new Michigan Policast website and our facebook page. We welcome your feedback and suggestions.

dtree-default-imageAmy Kerr Hardin

 

 

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U.S. Supreme Court: Good for Goose, Not So Much for Gander

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down an expected ruling today that overturned a Massachusetts law which required a buffer zone around the entrances of abortion clinics. The only surprise is that the decision was unanimous.

Earlier this year, the Court heard oral arguments on the case McCullen v. Coakley. The plaintiff’s attorney argued that the Massachusetts law providing a 35 foot zone to keep protestors away from clinic doors is discriminatory because the law makes an exemption for employees to pass. The suit, brought by right-to-life activist Eleanor McCullen, additionally asserted that the buffer law doesn’t provide for any alternative means to get her message across to potential abortion seekers.

The Justices agreed that the buffer zone was a violation of the First Amendment, and struck down the law, but their opinions were not in lock-step. Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, was joined by Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor in reasoning that there remained ways for the state to protect women’s privacy without violating free speech.

Massachusetts had unsuccessfully argued that the buffer zone prevents all protestors from accessing the zone, including pro-choice activists. The state originally had in place a law similar to one in Colorado, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2000, (albeit, by a more moderate court at that time). The Colorado law has a 100 foot zone in which there is an 8 foot “floating bubble” around individuals within the protected area — meaning no one may approach a woman to “educate” or “counsel” her.

Massachusetts abortion clinics have historically been the scene of protests, some of which turned violent, including a shooting that killed two back in 1994. The state can choose to adopt a Colorado-style law, which would likely survive a court challenge.

gooseJustices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas signed-on to a separate concurring opinion that criticized the majority for not taking an absolutist stand on the First Amendment. Justice Alito wrote his own opinion.

The irony of this ruling, as reported by Democracy Tree last January, and particularly with the concurrent opinion, is that the U.S. Supreme Court has its own buffer zone in which protests are banned. Found in the high court’s building regulations code, a protest-free zone was enacted one year ago this month:

Reg 7

So much for free speech at the U.S. Supreme Court.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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