Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Target Shoplifter Charged; Security Guard Still Fired

In an update to my post from yesterday, on Monday night the Leesburg police charged the Fairfax deputy, who was caught on a high quality videotape, with shoplifting on two separate occasions in Target. According to Tom Jackman, reporting in yesterday's Washington Post, the alleged shoplifter, Robert H. Palmer, age 50, retired from the Fairfax Sheriff's Department on June 3. Both Target managers and employees, and the Leesburg police recognized him as somebody with whom they were personally familiar.

At the same time, the Target security officer who turned him in, Dallas Northington, was fired for allegedly failing to follow proper procedures and for insubordination.  But as Northington has maintained, in the eight years he has worked as a security officer, he has followed the same procedures as he did in the Palmer case numerous times.  The only difference this time is that Palmer was known to both the Target managers and the police department.  Northington's insubordination was not playing along with the cronyism of his superiors and the police department, all of whom wanted to cover up larceny.

Meanwhile, Northington is the father of two children and his wife is pregnant with their third child.  He was fired on June 3, the same day that Palmer put in his retirement papers with the Fairfax Sheriff's Department, which means the Sheriff cannot discipline Palmer for actions unbecoming a law enforcement officer.  Nor will it affect his pension.

Both Target and the Leesburg Police Department may have conspired to protect a thief, even going to the extreme of firing a conscientious employee for simply doing what he was hired to do. Indeed, this spot on Washington Post editorial captures the sordidness of the entire situation, where a major retail business dragged its feet for six weeks before filing charges against a an officer of the law who abused his authority by shoplifting, the police who dragged their feet to protect one of their own, and a retail giant firing its own employee to cover up its complicity in the whole sordid business.  Here's what the Washington Post had to say:

The Leesburg police have been aware of both incidents since May 27, when they saw the video footage of the incidents, in which the suspect’s face is clearly visible. According to Mr. Northington, a police sergeant who watched the video recognized the suspect, who lives in Leesburg. “This is pretty serious,” the sergeant said, according to Mr. Northington. 
Yes, it is. It’s serious if law enforcement personnel get a pass on criminal conduct. It’s serious if a major retailer retaliates against an employee for doing his job. And it’s serious when police turn a blind eye to larceny until a newspaper shames them to acting.
As of Wednesday, July 16, Dallas Northington is still unemployed and still has it on his employment record that he was fired for insubordination and not following proper procedure.  Although the shoplifter will face a court of law, justice will not be entirely done until the employee who blew the whistle on larceny is
 reinstated with a full apology from Target.  And I want to see that apology publicly.  Dallas Northington deserves to have his name cleared and his record expunged so he has an accurate employment record for the future and a job to support his growing family right now.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Target Obstructs Justice and Fires an Employee: Investigate and Boycott!

Dallas Northington's story of being fired from Target for doing his job has gone viral and outraged a lot of people.

Northington is the Target plainclothes security officer who reported a Fairfax Sheriff's deputy caught shoplifting.  Here's the original Washington Post story and Tom Jackman's excellent follow up of five questions for Target about the firing.   

Briefly, Northington caught a deputy sheriff shoplifting in a Leesburg Target and reported it to the Leesburg police.  The pilfering deputy was caught on videotape.  Several Target employees recognized the deputy, and management  not only declined to press charges but fired Northington instead.  The official cause was that he had failed to follow proper procedure before going to the police. 

Northington, however, responded that in his eight years of employment at the Target, he had handled previous cases in exactly the same manner.  In fact, one of Jackman's questions for Target is, "what is the proper procedure?."  Yes, enquiring minds want to know.

Here's the thing.  The slow response of the police department and the manager at the small town Target smack of cronyism.  These people were simply protecting one of their own, which is bad enough and merits an investigation of both the Leesburg Police Department and the Target.  The Leesburg Police Department claims that they were waiting for Target to press charges first.  But shoplifting is a crime and they are public servants whose salary and overhead are funded by taxpayers.  That's who they answer to and when laws are broken their job is to pursue those who commit the crimes.

Finally, after responding to a story gone viral and mounting outrage, Target has filed the charges, which were pending since May.  The Target finally filed the charges this past Monday.  But it took public pressure to embarrass them into it.  Score one for social media.

Unfortunately, though, Northington is still out of a job, the one true innocent victim of this corrupt system.

By the way, it should be noted that there was nothing the Fairfax Sheriff's Office could do about this.  Although they were the deputy's employer, this was Leesburg's jurisdiction.  They were no more culpable for a bad player acting outside of work hours than a private company would be.

Target is completely culpable as is the Leesburg police.  Sure Target is a private company, not funded by the taxpayers.  And Virginia is an at will state, which means an employer does not have to give a reason for firing an employee.  But firing a security officer for turning in a lawbreaker is technically obstructing justice. 

Since Northington was acting in his official capacity and responding to a crime, he is now technically a whistleblower who was wrongfully dismissed by a company obstructing justice and preventing a criminal investigation.  Just so we are clear here: Target is crooked as they come and should be investigated for wrongful firing, obstructing justice, and violating whistleblower protections.

Absent that, anybody up for a boycott?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Don't Fall For IRS Summer Scams

Friday I got a robocall from the IRS.  My caller ID displayed an unknown phone number, which was my first indication that this was probably not legitimate.  Then the robocall instructed me to call a toll free hotline within the next 24 hours and no further legal action would be taken.  Something tells me whoever was calling was trying to scare me and expected me to quickly call the number they left.  I mean, "IRS" and "legal action" are the two terms that when used close together you never want to hear, right?

Well, let's just say, boy did they pick the wrong mark.

I worked for the U.S. Department of Treasury for over 20 years.  Two of those years were in the IRS as a personnel clerk.  When I think of IRS, I don't think of jackbooted agents grimly coming to drag me to debtor's prison because I made a mistake on a tax form.  I think of former employers and coworkers whom I liked a lot.  I also have an accountant do my taxes and if there was a problem, I'd simply contact him and we'd both go straighten it out after an audit.  Big deal.  I keep my records and if I had to pay a penalty for a mistake, I'd pay and then question that accountant very carefully.  But one thing I know, nobody would be calling me on the phone to settle it.  And certainly not by robocall.

That's not how IRS works.  There have been far nastier scams than the one I got.  Long past tax season, scammers are still calling and posing as IRS agents, threatening to revoke people's drivers licenses, shut down their businesses, garnish their wages, and jail them.  To avoid dire consequences, they demand payments on preloaded debit cards that can't be traced.  These people can often quote the last four digits of a person's credit card and they will give you fake badge numbers. Boy I wish I had gotten one of those.  I would have enjoyed patiently explaining real IRS procedure to them before threatening legal action of my own.

The first thing to remember is that the IRS will never demand any personal information from you on the phone and they certainly don't demand payment of preloaded debit or credit cards. 

If you get a call here's what you should do:
The IRS doesn’t ask people to pay with prepaid debit cards or wire transfers, and doesn’t ask for credit card numbers over the phone. When the IRS contacts people about unpaid taxes, they do it by postal mail, not by phone. Read Government Imposter Scams for more tips on avoiding a scam. 
And what if you got a robocall from Heather or someone else? In addition to reporting it:
  • Hang up the phone. Don't press 1 to speak to a live operator and don't press any other number to get your number off the list. If you respond by pressing any number, it will probably just lead to more robocalls.
  • Consider contacting your phone provider and asking them to block the number, and whether they charge for that service. Remember that telemarketers change Caller ID information easily and often, so it might not be worth paying a fee to block a number that will change.
Also, it would be a good idea not to call any number that they leave on your voice mail because it's most likely not really an IRS number.  

The IRS may be guilty of a lot of things, but they do want people do know about these scams and they put out official notices:  here and here.

So, don't reflexively jump up if you get a call from somebody claiming to be from IRS.  That's not how they roll.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Happy July 4 to All

Taken outside my house on July 4, 2014

Happy Independence Day to all.  Enjoy your day and stay safe.


Thursday, July 03, 2014

How the Native American Church Got to Use Peyote and Women Got the Hobby Lobby Decision

UPDATE:  As I predicted earlier in this post, the Supreme Court has already expanded an employer's right to deny women access to birth control insurance coverage.  According to Robert Barnes, reporting in today's Washington Post, the court decided in an unsigned opinion that Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian college, does not even have to comply with the remedy the court itself laid out in its Hobby Lobby decision. 

Wheaton College, like the Sisters of the Poor and Notre Dame, objects to filling out the form that states they will not provide the coverage based on their religious beliefs so that the insurance companies can bypass them and provide the coverage directly to the female employees.  Wheaton claims it is a religious burden because it still makes the them complicit in permitting their employees to obtain such insurance coverage.  In other words, if they can't prevent their employees from getting birth control, it's a burden on their consciences. 

Well, the court agreed with this position, although the three female justices are outraged and consider it reneging on what the court itself had agreed to in its earlier opinion.  And it's hard to think the expansion will be limited to just the four contraceptives specified in the Hobby Lobby decision.  More challenges will be coming.  Slippery slope, anybody?

The Hobby Lobby decision (go here for the plain English version) handed down this week would not have happened without the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993.  Indeed, Congress passed the RFRA because the Constitution’s First Amendment failed to protect two members of the Native American Church who were fired for ingesting peyote as part of a religious ceremony and then were denied unemployment benefits.  The case is State of Oregon Employment Division v. Smith.
 
Precisely because the Supreme Court in the 1990s was less activist than today’s SCOTUS, they ruled that as long as a law was religiously neutral and broadly applied, the First Amendment did not exempt religious groups or persons from that law.  So, the plaintiffs were not protected, even for religious reasons, from a drug law, which was not aimed at interfering with religious liberty and that applied broadly to the general public.  Without the RFRA, it’s hard to see how Hobby Lobby would have prevailed today.
 
The RFRA, however, was written to protect individuals and was never intended to be applied to for profit corporations to deny their employees insurance coverage for contraception.  Unlike the Constitution, whose writers’ intentions can only be guessed, those who wrote and voted to pass the RFRA are still here to tell us their intentions, as Leslie Byrne did in her letter to the Washington Post today.
 
Besides distorting the intention of the RFRA, the Hobby Lobby decision is dangerous for one other important reason. It sets a precedent upon which other decisions that erode individual freedom can be based.  It’s called incrementalism and it’s the right’s current very smart strategy to limit access to women’s health and reproductive rights without ever overturning Roe v. Wade.  And contrary to what some court watchers think, it can do mischief to the recent string of victories the LGBT community has won in the same court too. 
 
To show you how subtle and dangerous this approach is, let’s first look at what Hobby Lobby doesn’t do and how that can give everybody a false sense of security
 
At first glance, the decision seems limited in scope.  It only applies to “closely held” corporations, which are usually family-owned small businesses that incorporate for tax purposes and to protect the owners from legal liabilities. The decision also is applicable to just four forms of birth control, leaving sixteen more that Hobby Lobby has provided and will continue to provide.  But Justice Alito has already admitted that the exemption could be expanded to exempt closely held corporations from providing any contraception coverage if that is their religious view. And there are religious people out there who own businesses and oppose all birth control. So expect that challenge in the future.

In addition, nothing actually prevents the court from eventually expanding the exemption from the closely held corporation consisting of a family to publicly held corporations in other rulings based on different circumstances.  Indeed, David Davenport, writing in Forbes, seems to think it could happen. His analysis also agrees with mine that the remedy for more decisions like this is for Congress to amend RFRA to specify the definition of "person" and limit it to only "natural persons."  Unfortunately, with a Republican-controlled House, don't look for that any time soon.

Other specific landmines are tripped by the Supreme Court’s proposed solutions for women who need the IUD or Plan B or Ella, the specific contraceptives Hobby Lobby is now exempt from covering. 

While the court suggested that the federal government could pay for a subsidy to go directly to the women, Alito and the rest of the majority are being disingenuous.  As soon as the government starts subsidizing anything to do with contraceptives, the same religious right that is applauding this decision will be out there objecting to taxpayer money funding something they religiously object to.  Remember, one of the big controversies in the original ACA was whether tax money would go to fund abortions.  So expect that challenge immediately following any attempt by the government to provide the funding for contraceptives too.
 
The one viable option on the table is the same solution currently used to cover those services for employees of religiously based nonprofits, which is to let the insurance companies bypass the company completely and simply offer the services to women they cover for free. If you’re wondering why an insurance company would do this, it’s because covering birth control is cheaper than paying for all the medical services for pregnancy. 

 But in order to do that, the company first has to declare itself a “conscientious objector” and fill out paperwork stating that it objects to paying for that coverage based on religious grounds.  Currently, the Colorado based Little Sisters of the Poor and Notre Dame University are challenging this in court on the grounds that even filling out the paperwork is a religious burden because doing so still enables their employees to get contraceptives, which is the same as if they provided the birth control, so it still violates their religious beliefs .  So look for that challenge too.
 
I’d like to believe that somewhere down the line, the judges will rule enough is enough and that the burden shifted from the legal fiction of the corporate person to the real flesh and blood woman who needs these services.  But given that the majority that decided this are all traditionalist Catholics, I suspect any expansion of rights are going to the other way.
 
That is the way the game of incrementalism is played. The right has been slowly, surely winning in inches what it could never gain outright, ending women’s ability to get needed health services.
 
When states put personhood amendments on the ballot in referendums, they were overwhelmingly defeated even in places as conservative as Mississippi.  Polls have not changed in years, with the country divided over the issue of abortion but just slightly over 50 percent always favoring keeping it legal.  And 99 percent of women have used some form of birth control in the lives  While the country is divided over abortion, there is no ambiguity that Americans support a woman’s right to contraception and family planning services.
 
Yet without ever overturning Roe v Wade or outlawing abortion or contraception, women could lose access to both for all practical purposes.  When you deny women insurance coverage for contraception, you limit her access to it.  When you pass TRAP laws that make it prohibitively expensive for a small business person or doctor to operate an abortion clinic, you also limit a woman’s options and her access.  All of that amounts to denial for practical purposes even though it remains legal on paper.
 
Additionally, those small businesses that don’t want to provide services to gay couples getting married – those bakers, photographers, and others in the wedding industry – will now probably revive their law suits, seeking the same exemption given to Hobby Lobby.  I think there is a very good chance this court will rule in their favor for the same reasons.  Expect that challenge.

Because the religious right has failed to win hearts and minds and even support and votes for its position, it is playing a game of throwing down obstacles and limiting access.  And because it is occurring gradually rather than the sudden overturning of a law, which would be met with howls of protest, there is no outrage beyond the usual suspects, those already highly politically engaged on both sides of the aisle.  For the average person, nothing will change overnight and it’s easy for them to wonder what all the fuss is about.  Until, like the frog in the boiling water, it’s too late to jump out and reclaim what they’ve lost. And that is the game of incrementalism and how it’s played against persons who don’t incorporate.

 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Puckett and Brink and False Equivalencies


When I saw the announcement that Del. Bob Brink was resigning from the Virginia House of Delegates to accept the position of deputy commissioner for aging services for the Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services, my first reaction was dismay. 

Sorry, Del. Brink, this has nothing to do with you or your fitness to be the deputy commissioner and everything to do with appearances.  That’s because of events beyond your control, specifically the superficial similarity to the situation of Sen. Phil Puckett’s resignation.

Given the turmoil over Phil Puckett’s resignation from the Senate immediately ahead of an important budget vote, the inevitable question had to come up: what’s the difference between these two situations?
 
I’ll be the first to admit that at first glance they appear similar. They are alike in the way that apples and oranges are both fruit. But that’s where the similarities end. Here’s the more savory set of circumstances.
 
Governor McAuliffe just announced Del. Brink’s appointment to an existing and vacant position that needed filling.  There is nothing about the timing of Del. Brink’s resignation that would bring any special value to either the governor or any other party.  Nor does Brink’s resignation in any way alter the balance of the House of Delegates.  So, other than Brink getting a good job and the state getting the services of a competent deputy commissioner, there’s no hint of any unfair benefit to either party.
 
In truth a governor (or chairman) has the right to appoint a sitting legislator to fill a legitimate vacancy regardless of how inconvenient it is for the party that loses that seat (and leadership).  It’s been done before.  Sure partisans may call foul and label the guy who resigns a traitor.  But the actions do not rise to the level of illegality.  That’s not the real issue. What is an issue, however, are the facts of the following particular situation.
 
Ironically, the Washington Post on the same day as the Brink announcement ran an article on a series of emails by the principals regarding the offer of a job to Phil Puckett. Look at that narrative for Puckett’s circumstances and see if you don’t spot several important differences from Brink’s resignation and subsequent appointment.
 
Del. Terry Kilgore, who heads the Tobacco Indemnification and Revitalization Commission, created a position for Sen. Phil Puckett – one where Puckett was asked to write his own job description.  The offer of this newly created position came immediately before an important senate vote on the governor’s budget and the hotly contested Medicaid expansion.  And Puckett’s resignation would tip the balance of the Senate into the hands of the party to which the person creating and offering the job belongs.
 
The interim executive director of the tobacco commission, Timothy Pfohl, even recognized how dicey this would look. The Washington Post, today, reported on the series of emails between Pfohl, Kilgore, and Puckett, where Pfohl pointed out the timing problem and suggested that they “decouple” the offer from the resignation.  This looks like an underling leaving a paper trail to cover his own back.  He had to do what his boss, Kilgore, told him to do.  But he wanted it on record that he objected and offered an alternative.
 
I am going to admit straight out that I don’t know whether Kilgore and Puckett’s actions are illegal.  But the whole mess certainly reeks of something fishy.  And it doesn’t just start and end with the suspiciously timed job offer.
 
The truth is even without the tobacco commission job, the fact that Puckett claimed he stepped down so his daughter, Martha P. Ketron, could be confirmed for a judgeship isn’t much more ethical.  The fact that Tommy Norment, the new majority leader in the Senate, was holding up confirmation since the last session where he presided as majority leader (under the McDonnell administration) simply adds the element of coercion rather than outright bribery to the mix.
 
One thing I don’t understand and so far nobody that I’ve read has explained is the so-called Senate policy of not appointing the close relative of a sitting member to any judgeship.  While I realize the motive is to avoid nepotism, I’d like an explanation of whether this is an informal tradition, a written policy, or an actual law.  How long has this policy been observed?  Why is it just in the Senate and not the House? I find it interesting that every reporter has simply accepted the explanation given without questioning it further.  But if I were still a reporter, I’d be digging for some answers to truly understand the backdrop for what happened.  Here’s why.
 
A reasonable person concerned with this could ask whether this tradition is longstanding or was concocted to keep a qualified person from being confirmed for some additional motive having nothing to do with nepotism.  Was it part of the game plan to force a senator out of his seat so that his daughter could get her job? And does that make it less quid pro quo to resign for his daughter’s gain rather than for his own personal gain?
 
I will repeat that I don’t know that any of this rises to the level of breaking the law.  But I spent a number of years working in government and I am familiar with ethics rules and regulations.  Generally in a well-run government, simply refraining from illegal activities is the bare minimum that you do.  Public servants are required to go above and beyond that standard and to refrain from any activity such that a reasonable person could conclude that there was a conflict of interest. 

Even if you don’t believe what Phil Puckett and Terry Kilgore did was illegal, by the true measure of ethical behavior, all but the most partisan would agree that these were not honorable men nor dedicated public servants putting their constituents before their own selfish gain and power grabs. 

And that is very different from a public servant simply changing jobs to continue serving the people of Virginia.  By the way, a hearty congratulations, Del. Brink.  After explaining the difference, I am not dismayed anymore.  I think he will do an excellent job serving Virginia honorably.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Last Waltz - One Last Update

UPDATE:  I will be taking this blog offline and making it private on Sunday night.  I will not delete it or abandon it because I do plan to eventually get back to blogging in about four years - or whenever I actually retire.  Until then, I've decided to simply keep it private.  But I won't actually be updating anything so nobody will be missing any new posting, I promise.  Once again, my readers have given me great joy for the past five years. See you all in the next permutation of life :)

Readers may have noticed that I've been posting less and my posts have not been as overtly political as usual.  I won't be coy about it.  I have been slowly disengaging from blogging because it's time to close up shop.

I did this once before because I was getting burned out and wanted to move on to try different forms of writing.  But once I had taken a much needed break, I realized how much I truly missed blogging and came back.  This time is different.

First of all, I'm not burnt out.  And I already know that I will miss it.  My reason for leaving is much simpler now than it was the first time I took a break.  I have a new job that would make blogging a conflict of interest.  I won't go into the details about the job, but please believe me that it would present a real conflict for me and my employer if I were to be running a blog and publicly sounding off about politics and other controversial issues.

I will still keep my Twitter and Facebook accounts as those are personal social networking sites.  But even there, my writing will be less about politics and more about personal sharing although, of course, I will still avidly be following politics.  I just won't be as expressive with my own opinions.

As much as I have enjoyed sharing those opinions through my blog, it is time for me to move on and to once again try something different and in this case, that something different pays very well.

I hope my readers are happy for me.  Please know I will miss all of you very much because I have had the best audience a political blogger could ever hope for.  You have been thoughtful, intelligent readers whose comments, even when disagreeing with me, have always challenged me and made me think about my own positions and why I held them.  I will miss that give and take.

And I am profoundly grateful to all my fellow bloggers whose support for my efforts have meant so much to me.  Across the aisle and across the political spectrum, I have truly found a group of people who have shared my passion for better government and for improving people's lives, even when we've disagreed about the best way to do so.

To be honest, I don't consider this leave taking permanent because in four years I will be thinking about retirement.  No matter how much I may love a job - and I very much expect to be loving the new one - I believe there is a time for everything under the sun and that includes moving on and discovering still other adventures.  One of those might be coming back to blogging.  Or by then, there may be even more innovative media and fresher opportunities.

For now, though, that new opportunity lies in a change in my day job that will present challenges and adventures which will engage my time and energy in fresh directions.  While I will miss what I leave behind, I am looking forward to what lies ahead.

So, till we meet again...