Monday, December 01, 2014

Meet You At Eileen Filler Corn's Reception at Chuy's This Weds.

Be there or be square. Ok, corny and dated. But truly don't miss Eileen Filler Corn's reception this Wednesday, December 3, 2014, at the brand new Chuy's, at Springfield Town Center. The fun begins at 5 p.m. and runs until 7 with h'ors d'ouevres and drinks. For price information and to RSVP, please go this site.

Eileen has been a phenomenal delegate in the Virginia House of Delegates, representing the citizens of the 41st District since winning a special election in 2010. Both Dan and I are proud to support her and will be at Chuy's this Wednesday. Hope to see you there.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Islamic State, the New Problem From Hell

Many progressives oppose President Obama’s ordering of air strikes or engaging in any military involvement in Iraq, whether to rescue imperiled civilians or to defeat the rising threat from the Islamic State. Indeed, some of their arguments against intervention are not wrong. After the morass that George Bush and his neo con allies led us into in Iraq in the first place, we should have learned our lesson about nation building and trying to police the world. We should stay out of regional conflicts where the combatants are not a threat to our nation. I agree with them in their arguments against an aggressively interventionist foreign policy. But retreating into isolationism and ignoring those who pose real threats is dangerous too.

In that respect, confusing the Islamic State with other Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, or even Boko Haram is a dangerous misreading of the situation we face. The former groups engage in land disputes, religious and political struggles, and combat within a limited region. Moreover, regardless of how miserable they make their own people, they don’t pose a larger threat to the United States or Europe. While it breaks my heart to be unable to help the civilians they terrorize, it is true that we cannot be the world’s cop.

The Islamic State, however, is different. They are a dangerous threat to the West. Indeed, they are a threat from hell, as Samantha Powers aptly termed it in her book by that name. In fact, the Islamic State is making a rapid descent into the most terrifyingly sulphurous depth of hell. 

They are murderously extreme, known for executing women and children, crucifying civilians, threatening grisly deaths to those who won’t convert to their brand of strict Islam, and often executing those who do convert anyway. They bring terror to civilian populations wherever they go.

And they have international ambitions to go far. According to a security briefing for journalists, as reported in the Washington Post, the Islamic State poses the greatest threat to the U.S. since al Qaeda right before it struck us on September 11, 2001.

 “We have seen an expansion of its external terrorism ambitions” that parallel its aggressive moves in the Middle East, a senior U.S. intelligence official said at a briefing for reporters on the threat posed by the Islamic State ...
. . . The official said the organization has attracted thousands of foreign fighters, including Western passport holders who now rank among its forces in Iraq. Some of its recruits from Europe are leaving with orders to go home and start cells, the official said ...
...U.S. intelligence officials said the group has grown rapidly in numbers and strength since taking control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June and noted that it is in position to bolster its substantial cash holdings with sales of oil. 
The officials said that U.S. intelligence analysts are revising estimates of the group’s size and that it has grown substantially beyond the 10,000 or so fighters it had just several months ago
To be sure, the Islamic State does not have al Qaeda’s capability and technical expertise to launch an elaborate plot in the West yet.  But the Islamic State is better funded and, more ominously, has attracted a steady stream of newly radicalized recruits from Western Europe and the U.S. who have western passports.  Many of these new recruits have been instructed to set up cells when they return home. 

It is also part of their philosophy and goal to expand their reach and spread Islam by the sword.  So is expanding the caliphate, which the Islamic State’s leader, Abu al Bakr Baghdadi has already declared in Syria and Iraq. 

 This is a group to ignore at our own peril

 The question is how to fight them successfully without our becoming mired in another full-scale conflict in Iraq, with the cost of more human life and treasure?

 The answer lies in the realpolitik of the 1990s that both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton practiced. It was a pragmatic and strategic intervention where necessary, with short-term military operations that had clear goals and a clear exit strategy.

Here’s an example. Back in the early 90s, when Saddam Hussein invaded the tiny nation of Kuwait in a conflict that ultimately threatened to spill over into Saudi Arabia and other OPEC member nations, George H.W. Bush sent U.S. troops into a limited operation to contain Hussein. Operation Desert Storm was a successful mission that gave Bush soaring approval ratings at home.

But a few disgruntled neo-cons within his own party grumbled that he did not finish the job. I actually disputed that at the time, asking the critics who they would have proposed leaving in power.  The Shiites, with their Iranian allies?  Or did they want to see the U.S. embroiled in a long, bloody occupation?  Back then, most of Bush’s would-be critics remembered how dangerous the Shiite faction was and still remembered the lesson of Vietnam about avoiding nation building in places where we don’t understand the local culture.

This strategy served Bush well in Desert Storm and later on was successful for Clinton in Kosovo. We went in, fixed what was fixable, and got out. When regional enemies could not be stopped from battling among themselves, we left them to do so as long their conflict did not threaten either our allies or our nation. And as long as their human rights violations were not too egregious to ignore.

Many people don't like realpolitik. It falls far short of their grand ambitions to see Western-style democracy bloom all over the world.  Its aims are much more modest. It is pragmatic about what can and should be accomplished, which is to limit regional conflicts and to stay out of them when possible. And to limit their spread when they become a larger threat especially to our national interests.

We need our military to be involved in far fewer places. Not everybody’s battle is our battle. But if aggressive interventionism is dangerous, so is isolationism. The world is a smaller place than it used to be, more easily accessible by modern transportation. Moreover, the only way to stop the problem from hell from coming to our borders is to stop it at the Middle East’s borders.  That is why we need to stop the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant before their extremists export their caliphate ambitions and their terrorist threats from reaching us.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Dearth of Diversity in Hollywood Film

American films lack diverse characters and actors who portray them. Further, fixing it could come down to me. This is not as crazy as it sounds, but I will get to that in a minute. First, as Sgt. Joe Friday – that quintessential white male character – would say, “Just the facts.”

The Washington Post last Sunday reported on a study conducted by the University of Southern California Annenberg School of the top grossing 100 films of 2013.The numbers do not look good.

Whites comprise 74 percent of actors cast in all films but only make up 63 percent of the population, which makes them overrepresented. On the other hand, blacks are 14 percent of the characters in film while making up 13 percent of the population, which makes their representation appear just about right. Except most of the black actors are cast in a few blockbuster productions like Fruitvale, The Butler, and Twelve Years a Slave. So they appear to be doing better than they actually are.

However, Hispanics are the most underrepresented group, with only 4.9 percent of film roles, though they comprise 17 percent of the population. Moreover, the minority actors often play stereotypes, especially portraying them all as sex objects. This is something that Rita Moreno has spoken and written about for years. Indeed, after winning an Oscar for her breakout role of Anita in West Side Story, she did not work again in Hollywood for seven years because she turned down roles she considered demeaning to Latinas. That was in the 60s and 70s. The problem has not gone away.

Seventeen percent of Hispanic actors wear tight fitting, revealing outfits in film roles. Thirty-eight percent of Hispanic actresses appear nude or partially nude. Only 32 percent of white actresses do and only 8 percent of white actors appear in sexy costumes. Of course, that begs the question: are white male actors inherently less sexy so nobody cares to see them in tight jeans?

Even more telling is the shortage of diversity behind the camera. Lack of diversity begins there. It could end there. Only 6 percent of directors are black. Black directors have a greater tendency to choose diverse casts for their films. This includes casting for secondary characters such as neighbors, lawyers, doctors, and other minor roles that could be race neutral.

As an aspiring novelist, I confess I could be part of the problem. I am not sure how much I have considered racially diverse characters for the novels I hope to write.

Oh, wait. I do have a racially diverse cast of characters on paper and in outline. In fact, race is a major theme in my future novels.

For a mystery/thriller series, my two main characters are a Jewish-Southern reporter, who comes from one of the original Jewish Confederate families in Richmond, and an African-American police lieutenant. In fact, the Jewish reporter is a direct descendant of Judah Benjamin, one of Jefferson Davis’ closest confidants and the Secretary of State for the Confederate States (yes, he is a legitimate historical character – one who actually had no descendants, which I’ll mention in a prologue so readers will know I’m taking poetic license). 

David Benjamin’s father and grandfather are prominent civil rights attorneys, and the family wrestles with their personal history as Jews who served the Confederacy. Lots of guilt there to explore.

David’s best friend is the black police lieutenant, Isaiah Grace, who is married and religious. Isaiah is fond of quoting the Bible. The two of them play together in a jazz band in their spare time. Isaiah is also one of David’s confidential news sources. Further, Isaiah, who is older than David is by about a decade, is a mentor to David, and keeps him grounded.

My second in the series of novels I have planned involves the murder of a Hispanic high-ranking politician from Miami who aspires to become Florida’s first female Hispanic governor.  The suspects will include her Latino husband, a successful import-export businessman, and several other Hispanic characters, as well as whites and blacks. Miami is a multi-cultural city and it would not be realistic to portray only white characters there.

Finally, there is the mystery many people have urged me not to write. Some background.

When I first began slugging, that unique hitchhiking tradition practiced among Northern Virginia professionals who commute to work in DC, I had the brilliant idea that it would be the perfect setting for a murder mystery. Who is killing off all the slugs (for my non-Virginia friends, those are the passengers)?  That cast would include an Asian-American scientist, several black professionals, Hispanics, and whites. Probably also some Middle Easterners. After all, this is NOVA and DC. How realistic would it be not to have diversity here? Besides, the clash of cultures is interesting to explore in books.

When I enthusiastically shared my idea with some of my more literary fellow slugs and those who picked us up, a few turned pale, got sick looks on their faces, and asked me not write it.  I quickly saw their point. Why give anybody any ideas while we all had to get in strangers’ cars every morning?

So the verdict is out on that last book. Of course, also, I have no idea if I have the talent to bring this to fruition. After all, many would be writers have great ideas. It is all in the execution.  There is a reason there are not more bestsellers, let alone more published novelists. It takes hard work, discipline, skill, and talent. 

But if ever I had an incentive, it’s now. This has become a social justice issue. If the world of fiction and maybe even major film is to become diverse, perhaps, I’d better get cracking. Furthermore, when I sell the film rights, I will insist upon an African American director who will be perceptive enough to choose a racially diverse cast that looks like America. And then again, I may just have delusions of grandeur.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Could Europe's Rising Anti-Semitism Defeat a Palestinian Homeland?

To answer my question straight away, yes, I think it could.  The strong uptick in Europe's anti-Semitism is lending legitimacy to Israel's hard-liners and giving credence to those who argue that without a strong Jewish state with secure borders and lots of land to accept immigrants fleeing deadly attacks, Jews everywhere are imperiled.  Rising anti-Semitism throughout Europe is making the case for Benjamin Netanyahu's intransigence and hindering efforts to forge a compromise peace deal in the Middle East.  And that unquestionably hurts Palestinians as well as Israelis in the long run.  But first let's look at what is actually going on across the European continent.

To put it bluntly, over the past several years, anti-Semitism has been making a spirited comeback and since the recent conflict in Gaza, it's increased even more.

As Newsweek reports, the rise in anti-Semitism is coming not only from young, disaffected Muslim youth, but also from some of Europe's fringe parties of the far left and right. Far right groups like Greece's Golden Dawn, Hungary's Jobbik, and the French National Front have made some of the most disconcerting statements and perpetrated ugly incidents against Jews.  To be fair, these parties are also strongly anti-immigrant in general, oppose the European Union and are home grown nativists and fascists.  They are happy to foment conflict among Jews and Muslims in the same way that American racist groups dream of instigating a race war in the U.S.

Meanwhile, on the British far left, anti-Semitism masquerades as disagreement with Israeli policy and sympathy for Palestinians, but as Newsweek also points out, many of Europe's Jews themselves are sympathetic to Palestinians and opposed to Israel's hard-liners.  Here's the quote:
It is not anti-Semitic to criticise the Israeli government or its policies towards the Palestinians, say Jewish leaders. A reasoned, open debate on the conflict is always welcome – especially now, when passions are running so high over Gaza. But the morbid obsession with the only democracy in the Middle East, they say, its relentless demonisation and the calls for its destruction are indicative of anti-Semitism.
Nowhere is this more true than in France, where groups of young Muslims have launched vicious attacks against Jews. According to NPR, three children and their teacher were killed in Toulouse, France in 2012, and more recently in Belgium four people were gunned down in front of The Jewish Museum this May.  In addition, some of the most virulent anti-Semitic sentiment has ocurred at so-called pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Paris and Berlin that have been led by Muslims, where slogans such as "Death to the Jews" and "Jews to the gas chambers" can be heard being chanted by demonstrators.
The new wave of anti-Semitism is coming from a young generation of Muslims of African and North African descent who are spurred on by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Martine Cohen, a religious expert at France's National Center for Scientific Research. 
"Jews know that French authorities are behind them and want to defend them," she says. "This is not a state anti-Semitism. It's an anti-Semitism coming from society."
In fact, because they no longer feel safe in France, many educated French Jews are planning to emigrate to Israel.  So are Jews from other parts of Europe, such as Malmo, Sweden, where the Jewish community of 700 people experienced 60 anti-Semitic incidents, including a bomb exploding in a Jewish community center and it's former mayor criticized Zionism but not these attacks.
A survey published in November 2013 by the Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union found that 29% had considered emigrating as they did not feel safe. Jews across Europe, the survey noted, “face insults, discrimination and physical violence, which despite concerted efforts by both the EU and its member states, shows no signs of fading into the past”.
Two-thirds considered anti-Semitism to be a problem across the countries surveyed. Overall, 76% said that anti-Semitism had worsened over the past five years in their home countries, with the most marked deteriorations in France, Hungary and Belgium. The European Jewish Congress has now set up a website,, to give advice and contacts in the events of an attack.

And that presents a problem for those who actually want peace in the Middle East. Threatening Europe's Jews with the specter of renewed anti-Semitism confirms the worst suspicions in Israel and America. It strengthen the hand of hard-liners in both places. Worse still, it gives Netanyahu's refusal to negotiate with Palestinians in Gaza a legitimacy it wouldn't and shouldn't have. It gives credence to arguments that without Israel, Jews are not safe anywhere in the world.

So if people who truly care about the Palestinians want fewer Jewish settlers grabbing land that could be used for a Palestinian state, it would behoove them to not create conditions outside of Israel - especially in Europe - that encourage more Jews to flee to Israel.  Look at it this way, how much harder do you think all those French Jews are going to fight against a Palestinian state once they've arrived in Israel rather than if they had remained back in Paris feeling safe there?

To the far right it won't matter since they would happily see both Jews and Muslims destroy each other.  But for principled moderates of the center left and center right, as well as for Muslim groups in Europe, it should matter a great deal. Enough for them to work to dial back the worst of the anti-Semitic rhetoric and deeds in Europe while working for just solutions in the Middle East.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Mark Warner Supports Export Import Bank Because He's a Job Creator

This past Monday, I attended a gathering of union port workers in Norfolk who met with Senator Mark Warner to support his efforts to introduce legislation to reauthorize the Export Important bank and increase its spending authority from $140 billion to $160 billion over the next five years.  Both Virginia senators, Tim Kaine and Warner, issued a press release stating their intention to introduce the measure in the Senate.

The Export-Import Bank finances the sale of U.S. products overseas and assumes credit risks that private banks are unable to carry.  According to Sen. Warner, the Export Import Bank has financed $1 billion in exports for over 100 Virginia business, large and small, since 2007.  The bank was first created in 1934 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and has been popular with both Democratic and Republican administrations until -- you guessed it -- the extreme Tea Party wing of the Republican Party began opposing it because they are in a thrall to an anti-government, so-called free market ideology that opposes any government attempt to help Americans, even businesses.  Warner's opponent in the senate race, Ed Gillespie, is on record opposing it as he panders to the anti-business, hard right ideological wing of the Virginia Republican Party.

To put it in perspective, not only has support for the Ex Im Bank been bipartisan and pro business, even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers supports it. You can go here to get more information on the Virginia businesses, large and small, the Ex Im Bank has benefited.  And The August Free Press has a partial list of Virginia businesses who've been helped by it.

Of course, other countries not only have government sponsored banks that provide similar loan guarantees and even more financial support for their countries' exports. Additionally, the Ex Im Bank has actually lowered the federal budget deficit and turned a profit last year.  And it levels the playing field overseas for our businesses.  As Warner said at the Monday meeting, why would the U.S. unilaterally disarm itself economically in the global competition for overseas markets?

As Warner said at the Monday meeting as reported in The Daily Progress:
"We live in the real world, not the theoretical world. And when China, Brazil, France, Canada all use these tools to the advantage of their companies, and somehow America, which has been using this Export-Import Bank for decades, would suddenly say, `Alright, we're going to take away this support.' This would cost us thousands of American jobs. That makes absolutely no sense," Warner said earlier this week during a speech in Norfolk.
Warner made his comments at a campaign event with about a dozen unionized port workers standing behind him at a riverfront park in view of two port terminals. He said the bank helps ensure cargo moves through the Port of Virginia, supporting 10,000 port-related jobs. The Port of Virginia is the third busiest on the East Coast.
  For additional information, you can go here and here.  And by the way, I took the photo on both those sites.  Below are a few other pictures from the Monday gathering that I took.

The last picture is my husband, Dan Duncan, getting ready to introduce the Senator in Norfolk.  My role was to snap the shots on an iPhone.

But nepotism aside, this is a serious issue.  Talk about free markets is fine but when your ideology trumps your business sense, as it does neophyte candidate Ed Gillespie, you might not be the right candidate for U.S. senator from business friendly Virginia, a place where both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and smart union members realize that supporting local businesses through leveling the global playing field is the ultimate job creator. 

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.