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The Four Ordinary People Who Took On Big Pharma

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Beth Macy writes in the NY Times:

In the beginning, there were just four: the Godfather from Philly, the Army sergeant from Georgia, the professor from California and the feisty mom from Florida.

It was the early 2000s, and they usually talked over old-school computer message boards. Occasionally they gathered in person, carrying posters of their children and middle-aged spouses — all dead from OxyContin overdoses.

Today we know just how dangerous this drug is. Purdue Pharma, the company that made OxyContin, the first extended-release opioid to be widely prescribed, may finally be held to account. Some 200,000 people have died from overdosing on prescription opioids, and around 2,000 lawsuits attempting to make opioid makers and distributors pay for the damage unleashed by careless overprescribing are wending their way through the courts. But experts predict it will take more than $100 billion to turn the crisis around, and it’s hard to feel optimistic when you know the story of how long and hard these four labored in obscurity before anyone listened to them.

The four called themselves RAPP, short for Relatives Against Purdue Pharma, and they testified at hearings, lent support at whistle-blower trials and marched outside pharmaceutical-funded physician meetings at fancy resorts. They were outgunned at every pass — by a pharma-funded phalanx of lawyers and by doctors who had become paid spokesmen for the company. One resort even turned a sprinkler on them. But they picked up new members by the week.

Their leader was Ed Bisch, an I.T. worker from Philadelphia who’d lost his 18-year-old son, Eddie, in 2001. They called him the Godfather because he’d brought them together in the first place, via his website, OxyKills, shortly after Eddie’s death.

Mr. Bisch had wanted to believe Purdue’s excuses at first. He was persuaded, even, to change the name of his message board to OxyAbuseKills, after the company approached him about softening his tone, then gave him a $10,000 grant to put toward his education efforts. “They kept blaming it on the ‘abusers,’ but finally I said, ‘Look, at least 50 percent of my emails are from relatives of peoplewho are patients who are either dead or addicted,’” Mr. Bisch recalled. “It took me a while to realize how evil this company was.”

Barbara Van Rooyan, a professor of counseling at Folsom Lake College in California until she retired in 2012, told Mr. Bisch recently that finding his website “saved my life and gave me hope that the grief could be used for some good.” Her 24-year-old son, Patrick, died after taking OxyContin at a Fourth of July party in 2004. “It’s kind of like a muscle relaxant, and it’s F.D.A.-approved, so it’s safe,” the friend told Patrick.

The following year, with support from RAPP, Ms. Van Rooyan petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to recall OxyContin until it could be reformulated to make it harder for abusers to crush or dissolve the pills for a more intense high; she also wanted the drug restricted to end-of-life care and to treatment of cancer and other severe pain. It took eight years before the F.D.A. responded by noting that Purdue had voluntarily reformulated the drug in 2010 (so that point was moot), and her restriction petition was denied.

By 2007, RAPP numbered in the hundreds. That August scores of them converged in the rain outside a tiny federal courthouse in Abingdon, Va., because they wanted “to look evil in the face,” as the Florida mother, Lee Nuss, put it. Three of Purdue’s top executives had flown in to be sentenced on misdemeanor misbranding charges. Purdue’s parent company pleaded guilty to a felony misbranding charge, admitting that for six years it had fraudulently marketed OxyContin as being less prone to abuse and having fewer narcotic side effects than competing drugs.

All four of the original members of RAPP spoke at the hearing. They knew one another so well by then that they car-pooled to Abingdon and doubled up in hotel rooms to save money. One of them, Ed Vanicky, had fed evidence to the Virginia prosecutors — including a now-infamous cassette tape of a public-relations conference in which a Purdue spokesman brushed off the problems of OxyContin in Appalachia by saying, “The fact is, these rural areas have had problems with prescription drug abuse since the Civil War.” (In other words, the hillbillies, not Purdue’s drug, were defective.)

Mr. Vanicky was an Army sergeant in 2000 when he found his 44-year-old wife, Mary Jo, in bed dead after taking OxyContin for a herniated disc. He had just returned home from a yearlong posting in Korea and had never even heard the word OxyContin until the coroner who performed his wife’s autopsy inquired about it.

As she stepped down from the Abingdon witness stand, the Florida mother, Ms. Nuss, brandished a small brass urn containing some of the ashes of her son, Randall, who was 18 when he overdosed on OxyContin. There was a metal detector in the courthouse, and her friends still can’t figure out how she managed to sneak in that urn.

In the end, the company was forced to pay some $634 million in fines. A pittance, compared to the billions it had earned on the drug.

That fine is still the largest paid by Purdue to date, and it would do nothing to slow the epidemic. Not a single executive went to jail, and none of the settlement money went to treatment. OxyContin sales surged in its aftermath, topping $2 billion in 2008.

When Purdue finally reformulated OxyContin to make it abuse-resistant, the pill-addicted switched to heroin and, later, fentanyl to keep their dopesickness at bay. Within another decade, nearly 400,000 people would be deadMore than 2.6 million Americans are now addicted.

Today, the group’s prescience is clear. But they are sad, and they are tired. They still believe the company’s owners, the Sackler family, and executives should go to jail. But more than anything, they want the judges overseeing the lawsuits to make sure Purdue and the family use their riches to guarantee Americans access to treatment.

Recent news of the company’s misdeeds — like the allegation from New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, that Sackler family members moved hundreds of millions of dollars into private or offshore accounts, paying themselves when they knew the company was already insolvent or close to it — only confirms what the four have long believed.

In March, Oklahoma settled its case against Purdue and the Sacklers for $270 million — in part because the company was contemplating filing bankruptcy, and the state feared bankruptcy claims would insulate it from paying restitution. That meant all the documents in the case would remain sealed — a fate RAPP laments because it allows the company to hide its tactics from public scrutiny, occluding the dangers of the drug. “I have been saying for years that sealing the lawsuits let them get away with murder,” Mr. Bisch said.

This summer Vanity Fair published a rare interview with David Sackler, grandson of one of the three brothers who founded Purdue Pharma, who said his family had suffered “endless castigation,” including the taunting of his 4-year-old at nursery school. With a tone-deafness reserved for people who can afford to surround themselves with sycophants, he told the writer Bethany McLean, “Look at all the good Purdue has done.”

Mr. Vanicky read the article and told me, “I bet it sucks to be a Sackler these days.” He has personally called the offices of many attorneys general to thank them for filing suit against the Sacklers and Purdue.

Now 72,  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 July 2019 at 3:27 pm

Health Insurers Make It Easy for Scammers to Steal Millions. Who Pays? You.

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Marshall Allen reports in ProPublica:

Ever since her 14-year marriage imploded in financial chaos and a protective order, Amy Lankford had kept a wary eye on her ex, David Williams.

Williams, then 51, with the beefy body of a former wrestler gone slightly to seed, was always working the angles, looking for shortcuts to success and mostly stumbling. During their marriage, Lankford had been forced to work overtime as a physical therapist when his personal training business couldn’t pay his share of the bills.

So, when Williams gave their three kids iPad Minis for Christmas in 2013, she was immediately suspicious. Where did he get that kind of money? Then one day on her son’s iPad, she noticed numbers next to the green iMessage icon indicating that new text messages were waiting. She clicked.

What she saw next made her heart pound. Somehow the iPad had become linked to her ex-husband’s personal Apple device and the messages were for him.

Most of the texts were from people setting up workouts through his personal training business, Get Fit With Dave, which he ran out of his home in Mansfield, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth. But, oddly, they were also providing their birthdates and the group number of their health insurance plans. The people had health benefits administered by industry giants, including Aetna, Cigna and UnitedHealthcare. They were pleased to hear their health plans would now pay for their fitness workouts.

Lankford’s mind raced as she scrolled through the messages. It appeared her ex-husband was getting insurance companies to pay for his personal training services. But how could that be possible? Insurance companies pay for care that’s medically necessary, not sessions of dumbbell curls and lunges.

Insurance companies also only pay for care provided by licensed medical providers, like doctors or nurses. Williams called himself “Dr. Dave” because he had a Ph.D. in kinesiology. But he didn’t have a medical license. He wasn’t qualified to bill insurance companies. But, Lankford could see, he was doing it anyway.

As Lankford would learn, “Dr. Dave” had wrongfully obtained, with breathtaking ease, federal identification numbers that allowed him to fraudulently bill insurers as a physician for services to about 1,000 people. Then he battered the system with the bluntest of ploys: submit a deluge of out-of-network claims, confident that insurers would blindly approve a healthy percentage of them. Then, if the insurers did object, he gambled that they had scant appetite for a fight.

By the time the authorities stopped Williams, three years had passed since Lankford had discovered the text messages. In total, records show, he ran the scheme for more than four years, fraudulently billing several of the nation’s top insurance companies — United, Aetna and Cigna — for $25 million and reaping about $4 million in cash.

In response to inquiries, Williams sent a brief handwritten letter. He didn’t deny billing the insurers and defended his work, calling it an “unprecedented and beneficial opportunity to help many people.”

“My objective was to create a system of preventative medicine,” he wrote. Because of his work, “hundreds of patients” got off their prescription medication and avoided surgery.

There are a host of reasons health care costs are out-of-control and routinely top American’s list of financial worries, from unnecessary treatment and high prices to waste and fraud. Most people assume their insurance companies are tightly controlling their health care dollars. Insurers themselves boast of this on their websites.

In 2017, private insurance spending hit $1.2 trillion, according to the federal government, yet no one tracks how much is lost to fraud. Some investigators and health care experts estimate that fraud eats up 10% of all health care spending, and they know schemes abound.

Williams’ case highlights an unsettling reality about the nation’s health insurance system: It is surprisingly easy for fraudsters to gain entry, and it is shockingly difficult to convince insurance companies to stop them.

Williams’ spree also lays bare the financial incentives that drive the system: Rising health care costs boost insurers’ profits. Policing criminals eats away at them. Ultimately, losses are passed on to their clients through higher premiums and out-of-pocket fees or reduced coverage.

Insurance companies “are more focused on their bottom line than ferreting out bad actors,” said Michael Elliott, former lead attorney for the Medicare Fraud Strike Force in North Texas.

As Lankford looked at the iPad that day, she knew something else that made Williams’ romp through the health care system all the more surprising. The personal trainer had already done jail time for a similar crime, and Lankford’s father had uncovered the scheme.

Scanning her ex-husband’s texts, Lankford, then 47, knew just who to call. During the rocky end of her marriage, her dad had become the family watchdog. Jim Pratte has an MBA in finance and retired after a career selling computer hardware, but even the mention of Williams flushed his face red and ratcheted up his Texas twang. His former-son-in law is the reason he underwent firearms training.

Lankford lived a few minutes away from her parents in Mansfield. She brought her dad the iPad and they pored over message after message in which Williams assured clients that their insurance would cover their workouts at no cost to them.

Lankford and Pratte, then 68, were stunned at Williams’ audacity. They were sure the companies would quickly crackdown on what appeared to be a fraudulent scheme.

Especially because Williams had a criminal record.

In early 2006, while Williams and Lankford were going through their divorce, the family computer started freezing up. Lankford asked her dad to help her recover a document. Scrolling through the hard drive, Pratte came upon a folder named “Invoices,” and he suspected it had something to do with Williams.

His soon to be ex-son-in-law had had a promising start. He’d wrestled and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Boise State University, and a Ph.D. at Texas A&M University, before landing a well-paying job as a community college professor in Arlington. But the glow faded when the school suddenly fired him for reasons hidden by a confidential settlement and by Williams himself, who refused to reveal them even to his wife.

Out of a job, Williams had hustled investments from their friends to convert an old Winn-Dixie grocery store into a health club called “Doc’s Gym.” The deal fell apart and everyone lost their money. The failure was written up in the local newspaper under the headline: “What’s up with Doc’s?”

Inside the “Invoices” folder, Pratte found about a dozen bills that appeared to be from a Fort Worth nonprofit organization where his daughter and Williams took their son Jake for autism treatment. As Pratte suspected, the invoices turned out to be fake. Williams had pretended to take Jake for therapy, then created the false bills so he could pocket a cash “reimbursement” from a county agency. . .

Continue reading. There’s more. And see also:

Health Insurance Hustle: The Confounding Way We Pay for Care

That’s a series of stories, of which the blogged report is one.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 July 2019 at 12:02 pm

How America Got to ‘Zero Tolerance’ on Immigration: The Inside Story

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Jason Zengerie reports in the NY Times:

On the last day of March, Kirstjen Nielsen set off for what was supposed to be a weeklong trip to Europe with a packed itinerary. In London, she would meet with British officials on counterterrorism matters, then travel on to Stockholm to discuss election security with her Swedish counterparts and finally head to Paris, where she would represent the United States at a meeting of Group of 7 interior ministers. These are some of the far-flung obligations of the secretary of homeland security, who bears responsibility for not only thwarting terrorist attacks and preventing foreign interference in American elections but also cleaning up after hurricanes and ensuring that the United States doesn’t cede control of the Arctic to Russia and China.

But the Department of Homeland Security’s mission had increasingly been telescoped into a single, all-encompassing concern. “Under Trump,” says Juliette Kayyem, a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who served as an assistant secretary at the department under President Barack Obama, “it’s a department that looks at homeland security only through a lens of border enforcement.” A few days before Nielsen left for London, she learned that, in March, the number of undocumented immigrants Customs and Border Protection stopped as they were crossing the country’s Southwest border would top 100,000 — the first time the monthly statistic had hit six figures in 12 years. In response, President Trump threatened to halt all cross-border traffic, people and goods between the United States and Mexico — a move that would wreak havoc not only on the Mexican economy but on the American one as well.

Nielsen went ahead with the trip to Europe and spent her flight to London ordering “emergency surge operations” on the border. At least 750 Customs and Border Protection officers assigned to process cars and trucks at ports of entry were redeployed to the border to hunt for people who crossed the border illegally. But after 24 hours in Britain, following a series of calls with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, Nielsen cut her European trip short. She rushed back to the United States to conduct a series of emergency border visits, if only to demonstrate to the president — her “audience of one,” as a Nielsen adviser described him — that she was working to fix the problem. Stockholm and Paris were scrapped in favor of El Paso; Yuma, Ariz.; and Calexico, Calif., where, on the first Friday in April, she met Trump at the Calexico Border Patrol Station.

In the squat, sand-colored building in the Sonoran Desert, Nielsen looked on as Trump held a press event with C.B.P. officers. He praised their work capturing migrants trying to cross the border and praised Mexico for its recent efforts to prevent migrants from reaching it. “I’m totally willing to close the border, but Mexico, over the last four days, has done more than they’ve ever done,” Trump said. “They’re apprehending people now by the thousands and bringing them back to their countries, bringing them back to where they came from.” During those four days, Nielsen had been in regular contact with Mexican officials, assuring them that Trump “was as serious as a heart attack about sealing the border,” a former administration official told me. When Mexico responded, the official says, “it felt like the president had been walked back from the brink.”

Then Trump charged toward a different precipice. Still speaking to the C.B.P. officers but now directing his comments to potential immigrants, he made a proclamation. “This is our new statement,” Trump said. “The system is full. Can’t take you anymore. Whether it’s asylum, whether it’s anything you want, it’s illegal immigration. We can’t take you anymore. We can’t take you. Our country is full.” Trump went on: “So turn around. That’s the way it is.”

This position had long been a bone of contention between Trump and Nielsen. A year earlier, during a cabinet meeting at the White House, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, told Trump that to solve the immigration crisis, his homeland security secretary, Nielsen, simply needed to stop letting people into the country, according to two former administration officials. (Sessions could not be reached for comment.) Nielsen tried to explain that this wasn’t something she believed that she — or the United States, for that matter — could do. Under federal law and international treaties, people fleeing persecution in their home country may seek to live in safety in the United States. If someone arriving at the border requested asylum, she said, the United States could not legally turn that person away without processing the claim, and there was no legal mechanism by which the United States could hang a “no vacancy” sign at its borders.

But Trump brushed her argument aside, dressing her down for several minutes, in front of her cabinet colleagues, for being weak and naïve. The tongue-lashing was so intense that after the meeting, Nielsen discussed with Pence whether she should resign. (Pence told her she shouldn’t.)

After the C.B.P. press event, Nielsen, sporting aviator sunglasses and a navy blue quilted vest, escorted Trump across a dusty field to inspect a new section of border wall. Briefly pulling him aside from the Kevlar-clad C.B.P. officers and gun-toting local law-enforcement officials who were accompanying them, Nielsen, according to two people familiar with the conversation, reviewed with the president the options available to him short of refusing to let people in. Trump wasn’t pleased. Kevin McAleenan, then the commissioner of C.B.P., one of the agencies under the D.H.S. umbrella, was also on the wall-inspecting trip. According to two people familiar with the encounter, Trump urged him to block asylum seekers from entering the United States. If McAleenan went to prison for doing so, Trump said, he would pardon him. (The White House has denied that Trump said this.)

Flying back to Washington that evening, Nielsen arranged for a meeting with the president in the White House residence on Sunday afternoon. According to the former administration official, she intended to ask the president to create a “border czar” position, headquartered in the White House, to oversee the administration’s border and immigration policy in her place. It was an extraordinary request — a cabinet member voluntarily proposing to cede a share of her power. Before she could fully discuss it, though, Trump told her that he thought it was time for a change. Nielsen offered to step down, left the White House and wrote her resignation letter.

On Sunday night, she was preparing to leave her post, when, according to two former senior administration officials, she and her advisers received urgent calls from White House officials, asking her to stay in the job a few extra days. Trump intended to name McAleenan as acting secretary, but in order for him to do so, the White House would need to fire Nielsen’s acting deputy secretary, Claire Grady — who by law would become acting secretary once Nielsen stepped down. Nielsen would also need to rewrite the department’s orders of succession so that in the absence of a secretary and a deputy secretary, the head of C.B.P. became acting secretary.

In a subsequent conversation, Nielsen told Mulvaney, according to a person familiar with the exchange, that she thought it was a bad idea and that Trump should just nominate McAleenan to be secretary. But Mulvaney explained that Trump preferred the “flexibility” of having his homeland security secretary be an acting one. (Mulvaney currently serves as Trump’s acting chief of staff.) Nielsen acceded to Trump’s wishes. “I share the president’s goal of securing the border,” Nielsen told a gaggle of reporters outside her rowhouse in Alexandria, Va., the next morning as she headed to D.H.S. headquarters. “I will continue to support all efforts to address the humanitarian and security crisis on the border. And other than that, I’m on my way to keep doing what I can for the next few days.”

From the first day of his 2016 presidential campaign, when he used his kickoff speech in Trump Tower to rail against Mexican immigrants who were “rapists” and who were “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime” to the United States, immigration has been Trump’s lodestar. In his first week in the White House, Trump issued his “travel ban” executive order blocking citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. Last December, he shut down the federal government for five weeks — the longest government shutdown in American history — over congressional Democrats’ refusal to allocate $5 billion for the construction of a border wall. Today, Trump’s extreme focus on combating illegal immigration is manifested in the overcrowded detention facilities packed with sick, unwashed and hungry adults and children along the Southwest border.

Supporting Trump in all this are a group of immigration restrictionists — officials and advisers who have single-mindedly pursued a policy of not just cracking down on illegal border-crossing, in the manner of conventional immigration hawks, but also limiting all immigration to the best of their ability. Chief among them is Trump’s senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller. Since arriving in Washington a decade ago, Miller, who is 33, has been even more focused than Trump on reducing both illegal and legal immigration to the United States. In 2014, as an aide to Sessions — who was an Alabama senator at the time and who holds similar views — Miller worked with media allies at Breitbart and The Daily Caller to gin up conservative outrage that was instrumental in scuttling bipartisan immigration-reform legislation. In 2016, as a staff member on Trump’s presidential campaign, he not only wrote the candidate’s hard-line anti-immigration speeches but also often served as the warm-up act at his rallies. “They say, ‘Oh, well, we’re going to secure the border,’ ” Miller told a crowd in Las Vegas in June 2016. “Do they ever get it secure, folks?” The crowd roared: “Nooooooo!”

Miller is the architect of the Trump administration’s immigration policy — but staffing an entire federal government with Stephen Millers is an unrealistic proposition. Expertise and experience must be drawn on, however reluctantly; career agency employees can’t just be fired and replaced en masse. A defining conflict of the Trump administration, accordingly, has been the one between the small group of ideologues like Miller and the much bigger cadres of conventional Republican appointees who have gone to work for Trump.

For that group, Trump’s presidency has offered a Faustian bargain. Because many of the senior, thoroughly qualified Republicans who would have filled out, say, a Jeb Bush administration refused — or were refused — jobs under Trump, his presidency has provided a remarkable opportunity for more junior, or less distinguished, bureaucracy climbers to ascend to heights of government that they might not otherwise have reached anytime soon, if ever. But doing so has required them to acquiesce to, and often execute, policies that both Democratic and Republican administrations previously considered beyond the pale — all while reassuring themselves that if they were not there, the administration’s policies would be even more extreme.

Perhaps nowhere has the bargain been rendered in starker terms than in the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees most of the country’s immigration system. This article is based on interviews with more than 20 current and former department and government officials. Most of them requested anonymity so that they could speak candidly and because they feared retribution. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a list of detailed queries regarding this article. In response to an inquiry, Hogan Gidley, the principal deputy White House press secretary, said in a statement: “These are just more baseless, phony fabrications from angry Beltway bureaucrats who oppose the president’s strong determination to create a lawful, sane immigration system that serves the American people.”

The story the current and former officials tell is one of a cabinet department buffeted by “irrational” demands and “silly ideas,” as it has struggled with its role as the tip of the spear of the president’s top policy priority. Indeed, for the past two and a half years — whether it was the travel ban or family separation or now the humanitarian crisis at the border — D.H.S. has found itself at the center of some of the Trump administration’s greatest political controversies and moral dilemmas. . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more. It’s comprehensive report.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 July 2019 at 5:52 pm

Home elevators have killed and injured kids for decades. Safety regulators won’t order a simple fix.

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The government is not doing its job. Todd Frankel reports in the Washington Post:

It was lunchtime when 2 1 /2-year-old Fletcher Hartz opened the door to the elevator at his grandparents’ home in Little Rock.

His mother, Nicole Hartz, stood a few feet away in the kitchen making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She didn’t see him walk into the hallway and pull open the elevator door, which looked like an ordinary closet door. But she heard him cry.

She thought Fletcher, a curious little boy with thick brown hair, was upset because he couldn’t reach a light switch. She went to check on him and found Fletcher trapped behind the door to the elevator, which her in-laws had installed a few years earlier to accommodate their own elderly parents at the two-story home.

Nicole yanked on the door. It was locked, automatically secured by a safety device after being closed. But she could pull it open a crack. She could see Fletcher was caught in the narrow gap behind the outer door and just in front of an accordion door that closed off the elevator car, a no-man’s land where the floor ended and the edge of the elevator car began. The space was only a few inches wide, just enough for his tiny body.

She didn’t panic. He wasn’t hurt. It’s going to be okay, she recalled telling him that day in February 2017.

But she didn’t know what many in the elevator industry had known for more than 70 years: that children caught between the doors had been killed and injured before, crushed by moving elevators when their tiny bodies collided with the door frame above or fell into the elevator shaft below — a danger allowed to exist all these years by companies and regulators despite a simple solution, according to interviews with 28 officials, parents and regulators, plus a review of hundreds of documents from courts, companies and government agencies.

Corporate memos going back to at least 1943 highlighted the hazard. Lawsuits filed on behalf of dead and injured children since 2001 further spelled out the risk. In 2005, several elevator experts tried to change the nation’s elevator safety code to shrink the door gap — and were rejected. After more accidents, the elevator code finally changed in 2017, but it applied only to new installations. Nothing was done to fix hundreds of thousands of existing residential elevators, despite a problem that could be solved with a $100 space guard, according to elevator experts.

“It’s a hazard with an urgency that’s second to none,” said Bob Shepherd, executive director of the National Association of Elevator Safety Authorities, which certifies elevator safety inspectors.

But the Consumer Product Safety Commission — the federal agency responsible for regulating safety in 15,000 consumer products, including residential elevators — has done little to address the problem, despite knowing about child fatalities since 1981 and having studied the issue closely since 2013. The agency’s inaction highlights how a lack of urgency by regulators and resistance from companies can combine to stop the CPSC from warning the public or demanding a recall, even when a hazard poses a particular threat to children.

“What is the safety agency there for if not this?” said a frustrated senior agency official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

CPSC spokesman Joe Martyak said the agency is working “to come up with a solution to the complex issues involved.”

Industry officials have argued to the CPSC that the problem is complicated and, in some cases, overblown in scale and not their responsibility, according to interviews. It was an argument they made during two recent private meetings with the CPSC as the agency faces renewed pressure from victims’ families to take action.

The elevator industry’s plan for dealing with regulators was laid out in an email accidentally sent to The Washington Post. Alesa McArthur, executive director of the National Association of Elevator Contractors, wrote that industry representatives had agreed that during a meeting with the CPSC last month they would argue “they did not think a recall would be a good idea or even all that useful” because of the “difficulty in reaching” elevator owners and because the industry believes the size of the door gap was “appropriate.” McArthur did not respond to additional requests for comment.

Another industry official who attended the private talks with the CPSC cautioned that the agency needed to appropriately evaluate the risks.

“There are many risks in the home,” Mark Townsend, a director of the residential-elevator trade group Accessibility Equipment Manufacturers, said in an interview. “You don’t stick your knife into your toaster to get the toast out, and you don’t play around with an elevator as a little kid.”

So far, the industry’s arguments against a recall have prevailed, over the objections of some in the agency’s leadership.

“No parent should have to experience this,” said Elliot Kaye, a CPSC commissioner who wants the agency to require the elevator industry to fix the problem. “There are just some things we should be beyond as a society.”

In Little Rock, as Nicole struggled to free Fletcher, she phoned her mother-in-law for help unlocking the door, according to police reports and interviews. A friend of hers . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 July 2019 at 4:46 pm

White Security Guard Pulls Gun on Black Cop in Full Uniform Because the Black Cop Had a Gun

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Stephen A. Crockett Jr. writes in The Root:

An Ohio police officer in full uniform, you know, the uniform that clearly identifies him as a police officer and as such gives him reason to have a radio, taser, and gun, faced some scary and tense moments when a security guard pulled a gun on him and tried to arrest the POLICE OFFICER for carrying a gun.

According to ABC 13, Lucas County Sheriff’s deputy Alan Gaston stopped by a local IRS office on May 31 to ask a question about a letter he received. I don’t know if I mentioned this earlier but Gaston was in full uniform including his police badge and belt and his police-issued holster that housed his police-issued gun.

Gaston was on duty and trying to get a phone number when he came very close to losing his life. See, this is America and Gaston is a black man.

Full stop.

That’s it.

That’s the crime.

Didn’t matter that he was in a police uniform. How did the guard Seth Eklund aka “Paul Blart” know that Gaston hadn’t stolen it? How was Blart to know that Gaston was an actual officer? Sure he was wearing an officer’s uniform but don’t they sell those around Halloween? And yes he had a badge, but was that an official police badge?

Gaston told ABC 13 that Blart asked him to leave his gun in his car and Gaston informed the fake cop that as a real cop he can’t do that. That’s when Blart drew his weapon and the conversation ended. Gaston left the office.

“Basically preparing myself to be shot at that moment. Bracing for a shot in my back,” Gaston told the news station.

Luckily for Gaston, the entire debacle was caught on tape. Blart can be seen following the actual cop into the hallway with his gun drawn trying to take Gaston into custody.

“There’s really no way to know how you’re going to act when there’s a gun pointed at you and when you think you’re going to lose your life,” said Gaston.

Gaston, who works with the police department as a defensive tactics instructor, says that he kept trying to de-escalate the situation by walking away.

And here is where this already bizarre case takes an even more bizarre turn. Someone called the police and said that there is a man with a gun that he won’t relinquish but conveniently forgot to mention that the man with the gun is a uniformed deputy sheriff!

Gaston told the news station that while he was concerned for his own safety he was also worried about the other people in the building who may be hit if this crazed fake cop began firing.

“If I’m going to get shot,  . . .

Continue reading.

Video at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 July 2019 at 4:36 pm

When Facebook’s Bill Lumbergh Tries to Start a Currency

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Matt Stoller publishes a very interesting on-line column (and newsletter) about monopolies in the US and the power they wield. Today is about Facebook, and I’ll quote just some from the column, but do read the whole thing.

There are many ways to describe the governing regime under which Western commerce and politics has operated since the late 1970s. But the most visceral way is to understand that the basic goal, not necessarily by design, was to put men like the fictional character Bill Lumbergh from the movie Office Space in charge of everything.

I was reminded of Lumbergh yesterday while watching Facebook’s VP in charge of their new crypto project, David Marcus, testifying before the Senate Banking Committee to try and justify the company’s attempt to create a global parallel currency.

Lumbergh is one of the most brilliant and iconic characters of 1990s era cinema. He runs Initech – the generic technology company – through fear, extending control over every aspect of his employees’ lives. He’s a passive aggressive bully to everyone around him, except for the notable exception of the “Bob’s,” two management consultants brought in to lay off employees. Both are named Bob, and are equally greedy, manipulative, and repugnant. Management’s short-sightedness and penchant for micro-management humiliates the engineers, leading to bad engineering choices. One such choice creates an opening for the attempt to steal large sums of money, which animates the plot. An equally passive aggressive manager runs the chain restaurant who humiliates the love interest of the main character. The Bob’s, and Lumbergh, are cultural touchstones today for a reason. Characters like them run our institutions and businesses, and our lives.

It’s not too hard to imagine how Office Space analogizes to Boeing, a company run by engineers taken over by Lumbergh-types in the 1990s. The engineers were pushed aside and humiliated, repeatedly, not just over pay, but over what they really care about, which is the engineering and safety integrity of the machines they create. Short-sighted control-freak management can boost stock in the short-term, but ultimately, planes fall out of the sky. This is true for Hollywood as well, where creativity is slowly being drained out of films as the suits dominate the creatives. Which brings me back to the Libra experiment, and the hearings yesterday and today.

I was reminded of Bill Lumbergh because Facebook’s David Marcus sounded like what I imagine Lumbergh would sound like if he were testifying to Congress (though Marcus has an unspecified European accent.) Marcus was polite, smooth, evasive, and passive aggressive. Such powerful executives are common in D.C., and usually Congress treats them with deep respect, even reverence.

Though Marcus is clearly talented, and normally such a man from such a powerful company would have Congress eating out of the palm of his hand, the hearings did not go well for Facebook. Senator Sherrod Brown started out by saying that Facebook was like a toddler playing with matches, and has a record of committing “arson,” calling each instance of arson a “learning experience.” It got worse from there. Republican Senator Martha McSally was openly angry and sarcastic over Facebook’s gall in launching the project, and Republican Senator John Kennedy meticulously went through Facebook’s litany of lies around data. Senator Pat Toomey, who is quite friendly to Facebook, asked how it is that the Libra Reserve, which may pay large dividends to investors, is chartered as a nonprofit.

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez got from Marcus that the Libra Association may not enforce U.S. sanctions. Jon Tester pressed on the potential for bank runs. Senator Mark Warner spent time asking about whether Facebook would exclude competitors from the payments space, and Marcus, while he said Facebook would support other wallets, implied Facebook would probably be embedding its own wallet into its services. As everyone involved in consumer-oriented network systems knows, such defaults are a key way to dominate markets.

Marcus had no answer to any Congressional concerns. The utter disaster of the Senate hearing is being repeated today in the House Financial Services Committee, where members are deeply unhappy about Facebook’s project. The virtually unanimous wall of frustration will empower and press regulators to become far more aggressive in dealings with Facebook. I suspect the Federal Reserve got the message, and will slow walk the Libra project to an ultimate quiet death.

But I thought the most interesting moment of the hearing was when Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz noted the private conversation he’s had with some of the other 27 members of the Libra Association. This association includes companies like Uber, Mastercard, and VISA, as well as nonprofits like MercyCorps. Facebook has portrayed the Libra Association as a collective, as if Facebook is just one of many voices in this venture. But as Schatz revealed, Facebook’s voice is more like the godfather’s voice in the family. It’s true that it’s just one voice among many, but, you know, it’s also the only voice that matters. Here’s what Schatz said: . . .

Do read the column. The US is rapidly changing in directions that I believe the majority do not want.

Later in the column:

I’ve written before about the wave of terror in American commerce. From low-paid workers to coders to aerospace engineers to venture capitalists all the way to large companies like VISA, fear is now pervasive. Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported on the wave of tech IPO’s, and how the market power of Amazon and Google loomsover basically of them. This fear is coming from the concentrated market structures that allow these kinds of companies to set the terms and conditions for all businesses that use their essential services.

Both parties, starting in the late 1970s, decided to place power over our industrial commons into the hands of financiers, because leaders and Americans broadly believed, for good reason, that our corporate structures were faltering and needed radical change. Part of this project involved allowing financiers to structure markets into monopolies, part of it involved transferring the power to set market rules from public institutions to private monopolies.

We are now forty years into this experiment. And the shift of sovereignty from democratic bodies to autocratic ones was on display in the hearing over Facebook’s Libra in a particularly overt way. And that is why Marcus reminded me so much of Bill Lumbergh. He was polite and disdainful, passive aggressive and dishonest, untrustworthy yet all-powerful.

The question is no longer whether we want Bill Lumbergh-types running our corporations. It’s whether they will start governing every facet of our society.


Written by LeisureGuy

17 July 2019 at 7:39 pm

Make the Guarantee Clause Great Again

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Matt Ford has an interesting article in the New Republic:

The Supreme Court’s 5–4 ruling in Rucho v. Common Cause last month dealt a harsh blow to American democracy. For the last decade, federal courts were the strongest bulwark against partisan gerrymandering in the states, but Chief Justice John Roberts closed the door on that remedy in the future. In his opinion, though, he accidentally hinted at another way to challenge warped legislative maps on constitutional grounds.

“The District Court nevertheless asserted that partisan gerrymanders violate ‘the core principle of [our] republican government’ preserved in [Article I, Section 2], ‘namely, that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around,’” Roberts wrote, referring to the lower court’s finding that North Carolina’s maps were unconstitutional. “That seems like an objection more properly grounded in the Guarantee Clause of [Article IV, Section 4], which ‘guarantee[s] to every State in [the] Union a Republican Form of Government.’”

“This court,” he added, “has several times concluded, however, that the Guarantee Clause does not provide the basis for a justiciable claim.”

What if the clause did, though? While the court has long held that the clause can’t be invoked in federal courts, that interpretation of the Constitution isn’t without its critics. The resurgence of anti-republican measures in the laboratories of oligarchy, and the Roberts Court’s unwillingness to intervene, cry out for alternatives. Like Excalibur resting at the bottom of a lake, the Guarantee Clause waits to be pulled from the constitutional netherworld and wielded on behalf of the people.

While the Constitution’s first three articles define the federal government’s three branches, Article 4 dwells on the interlocking relationship between federal, state, territorial, and tribal powers. Among its provisions is a deceptively simple-sounding one: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.” The first portion is typically referred to separately as the Guarantee Clause.

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison framed the guarantee as a way to ensure that no member of the Union drifted toward forms of government rejected in the revolution. “In a confederacy founded on republican principles, and composed of republican members, the superintending government ought clearly to possess authority to defend the system against aristocratic or [monarchical] innovations,” he wrote. This fear may sound ridiculous today, but it was hardly unreasonable in an age where kings and emperors were the norm and American republicanism was the exception.

“At a minimum, the guarantee of a republican form of government was meant to protect against a monarchy,” Erwin Chemerinsky, a Berkeley Law School professor, wrote in a 1994 law review article calling for the Guarantee Clause to be justiciable. “What was so objectionable about a monarchy? In a monarchy, citizens do not get to choose their rulers, power is fixed and inherited; in a republican form of government, the people ultimately retain sovereignty and choose their officeholders.” It’s no great leap to conclude that partisan gerrymandering, where lawmakers pick their voters instead of the other way around, could also qualify.

Madison took care to note that the clause would not give the federal government free rein to interfere in a state’s internal structures. “As long, therefore, as the existing republican forms are continued by the States, they are guaranteed by the federal Constitution,” he wrote. “Whenever the States may choose to substitute other republican forms, they have a right to do so, and to claim the federal guaranty for the latter. The only restriction imposed on them is, that they shall not exchange republican for anti-republican constitutions; a restriction which, it is presumed, will hardly be considered as a grievance.”

The Supreme Court’s first brush with the Guarantee Clause came after one of the most esoteric struggles in American political history: the Dorr Rebellion. By the 1840s, every state in the Union but one had adopted its own constitution. The sole exception was Rhode Island, which instead relied upon the royal charter granted to it by Charles II in 1663 as its basic law. State leaders made some changes after independence by statute. But one key provision remained: a suffrage requirement that restricted the vote to men who owned more than $134 in land.

The charter thus empowered wealthy rural Rhode Islanders while condemning to political isolation the state’s poorer urban residents and its growing Irish immigrant community. After multiple failed efforts to persuade the state legislature to reform state law, activists took a more extreme approach. In 1841, they organized a constitutional convention without the charter government’s assent and drafted the People’s Constitution. It received the expanded electorate’s assent in a referendum that year. By 1842, the state had two rival governments: a constitutional one led by Governor Thomas Dorr and a charter one led by Governor William King.

King’s government eventually declared martial law to suppress the rebellion, a task made easier by Dorr’s failure to capture the state arsenal in Providence in May 1842. Luther Borden, a state official tasked with rounding up the uprising’s participants, broke into Martin Luther’s house and arrested him for his role in the crisis. Luther responded by suing Borden for trespass, arguing that Borden’s actions were unlawful because the state government he served violated the Guarantee Clause. When Lutherv. Borden reached the Supreme Court in 1849, Chief Justice Roger Taney concluded that it was for Congress, not the courts, to determine which state government was legitimate.

Under this article of the Constitution, it rests with Congress to decide what government is the established one in a State. For as the United States guarantee to each State a republican government, Congress must necessarily decide what government is established in the State before it can determine whether it is republican or not. And when the senators and representatives of a State are admitted into the councils of the Union, the authority of the government under which they are appointed, as well as its republican character, is recognized by the proper constitutional authority. And its decision is binding on every other department of the government, and could not be questioned in a judicial tribunal. It is true that the contest in this case did not last long enough to bring the matter to this issue, and, as no senators or representatives were elected under the authority of the government of which Mr. Dorr was the head, Congress was not called upon to decide the controversy. Yet the right to decide is placed there, and not in the courts.

Taney’s broad language went beyond what was necessary to resolve the case, a habit that would prove disastrous ten years later. The Guarantee Clause limped on until the 1912 case Pacific States Telephone & Telegraph v. Oregon, which challenged direct-democracy laws in the state that gave voters the power to introduce laws and to reject those passed by the legislature. The ruling was not a high point for judicial sobriety: Chief Justice Edward White implied that the claim would bring about “anarchy” and concluded it would produce “strange, far-reaching, and injurious results.” The Supreme Court then transmogrified Luther into a general rule that Guarantee Clause claims were nonjusticiable. It would be up to Congress, not the courts, to decide when a state was no longer republican. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 July 2019 at 3:32 pm

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