Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Obama administration’ Category

U.S. Agency Moves to Allow Class-Action Lawsuits Against Financial Firms

leave a comment »

At last consumers are protected from forced arbitration (which the banks love: they get to pick the arbitrators, so small wonder 99% of arbitrations are decided in favor of the banks). Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Michael Corkery report in the NY Times:

The nation’s consumer watchdog is adopting a rule on Monday that would pry open the courtroom doors for millions of Americans, restoring their right to bring class-action lawsuits against financial firms.

Under the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rule, banks and credit card companies could no longer force customers into arbitration and block them from banding together to file a class-action suit.

The change would deal a serious blow to Wall Street and could wind up costing financial firms billions of dollars.

More immediately, its adoption is almost certain to set off a political firestorm in Washington, where both the Trump administration and House Republicans have pushed to rein in the consumer finance agency as part of a broader effort to lighten regulation on the financial industry.

Continue reading the main story

Under the Congressional Review Act — a 1996 law that had been rarely used before the current Congress employed it to reverse 14 rules from the Obama administration — lawmakers have 60 legislative days to overturn the rule blocking mandatory arbitrations. The rule could take effect next year.

The Chamber of Commerce and other pro-business groups have belittled the rule as nothing more than a gift to class-action lawyers, who tend to be Democratic donors.

But as much as Republicans deplore the consumer protection agency, they may find it difficult to kill a rule that could have wide populist appeal. Across the country, judges, prosecutors and regulators have decried arbitration clauses for allowing corporations to circumvent the courts and for taking away the only tools citizens have to fight illegal or deceitful business practices.

The rule is one of the signature efforts of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was created in 2010 as part of the Dodd-Frank regulatory overhaul to safeguard the rights of millions of Americans in the aftermath of the mortgage crisis.

At a time when Dodd-Frank has come under attack, the arbitration initiative from the consumer finance agency — which operates independently from the Trump administration — is a provocative stand against the prevailing political tide in Washington.

Indeed, the rule is largely unchanged from when it was issued in draft form in May 2016 and the agency began soliciting comments from industry.

It is that kind of independence that has drawn particular ire from Republicans.

Last month, the Treasury Department issued a report recommending that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau be neutered, accusing it of regulatory overreach and calling for the president to be able to remove its director, Richard Cordray.

Supporters of the agency say arbitration is exactly the kind of issue that requires independence from corporate interests.

The rule will unwind a series of brazen legal maneuvers undertaken by major American companies to block customers from going to court to fight potentially harmful business practices.

“These clauses allow companies to avoid accountability by blocking group lawsuits and forcing people to go it alone or give up,” Mr. Cordray said in a statement.

Over decades, financial institutions, led by credit card companies, figured out a way to use the fine print of their contracts to force consumers into private arbitration, a secretive process where borrowers have to go up on their own against powerful companies with deep pockets.

Prevented from banding together in a class and pooling their resources, most people simply abandon their claims entirely, never making it to arbitration at all.

The new rules could change all that when it comes to consumer finance. While the protections would not apply to existing accounts, consumer could pay off old loans and get new accounts that would fall under the new rules.

The new rules do not explicitly outlaw arbitration, but industry lawyers say that they will effectively kill the practice. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 July 2017 at 4:42 pm

Russian Election Hacking Was Very Serious and Very Widespread

leave a comment »

Kevin Drum posts in Mother Jones:

A few days ago the Intercept got hold of an NSA document outlining Russian plans to hack directly into voting operations throughout the US:

Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate actors … executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. company in August 2016, evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions. … The actors likely used data obtained from that operation to … launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations.

Today Bloomberg reports that this was just the tip of the iceberg:

Russia’s cyberattack on the U.S. electoral system before Donald Trump’s election was far more widespread than has been publicly revealed, including incursions into voter databases and software systems in almost twice as many states as previously reported.

In Illinois, investigators found evidence that cyber intruders tried to delete or alter voter data. The hackers accessed software designed to be used by poll workers on Election Day, and in at least one state accessed a campaign finance database. Details of the wave of attacks, in the summer and fall of 2016, were provided by three people with direct knowledge of the U.S. investigation into the matter. In all, the Russian hackers hit systems in a total of 39 states, one of them said.

….Such operations need not change votes to be effective. In fact, the Obama administration believed that the Russians were possibly preparing to delete voter registration information or slow vote tallying in order to undermine confidence in the election. That effort went far beyond the carefully timed release of private communications by individuals and parties.

As we all know, last year the Obama administration tried to promote a bipartisan declaration that voting equipment was “national critical infrastructure,” which would have given the FBI and others more authority to investigate and deter Russian hacking. This failed because Mitch McConnell didn’t care about Russian hacking. He cared only that public acknowledgement of Russian hacking might somehow hurt Republicans. Mitch is quite the patriot, no?

Written by LeisureGuy

13 June 2017 at 11:23 am

Pay attention to Donald Trump’s actions, not his words

leave a comment »

Zachary Karabell writes in the Guardian:

There’s an emerging consensus that the presidency of Donald Trump has radically altered the warp and woof of American life. His supporters – which make up at least a third of all Americans – believe that he has accomplished great things in the past four months. His detractors, who are legion, see more harm than good in his record thus far.

What remains striking about Trump, however, is how much of the push back against him is provoked by his words, and how Americans are prone to ascribe weight to those words. This is not a Trump phenomenon. It is a very American one, stretching back many years, and starkly evident during Obama’s tenure just as much as it is during Trump’s early months in the White House.

In short, we pay too much attention to words and not enough to action. We have a cultural tendency to assume that words, political words, are reflections of reality, when very often they are not.

The decision to withdraw from the Paris accords is a case in point. That was immediately lauded by the Trump base and decried by most everyone else as a dramatic action. In terms of the symbolism of US global leadership, it is, but in terms of consequences for the environment it is not.

American soft-power may be damaged by Trump’s rhetoric, but progress toward a less carbon intensive future will likely not be dentedby that decision. The Paris accords are voluntary and non-binding, and much of the movement in the United States towards reducing emissions has come from and will continue to come from major states such as California, large multinational companies such as GE and small businesses that see the economic advantages of using renewables.

Trump’s words suggest major changes in American policies toward emissions, when even if the US does end up withdrawing from the accord in 2020, which is how long it will take to withdraw, the reality is that forces other than the federal government are driving us toward a lower carbon future.

Then take immigration. By most accounts, the first months of the Trump administration have created a widespread climate of fear among the millions of undocumented immigrants who live in the United States. That fear stems from the harsh rhetoric from multiple voices in the Trump administration, including from the president himself and the Attorney General Jeff Sessions, combined with numerous stories of deportation raids conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice).

The shift in tone is undeniable. What is also undeniable is that the first months of deportation policy under the Trump administration don’t differ greatly from the deportation policies in place during Barack Obama’s first term.

Between 2009 and 2013, there were more deportations than at any other
point in American history, close to 3 million people. Many have noted that, under Obama, authorities made a point of de-emphasizing non-violent undocumented immigrants and allowing them a degree of protection from deportation. But according to Ice records, about half of all deportations in those years were for non-violent immigrants.

It is true that immigration policy changed during Obama’s second term, with much greater emphasis on criminal immigrants. But it is equally true that the actions of his first term should have created widespread panic that deportation was a clear and present threat.

Yet while many Hispanics, who tended to be more directly affected by these harsh immigration policies, were critical of Obama’s immigration approach in his first term, they remained supportive of him and positive about his administration overall. Unlike Trump, Obama’s soaring and inclusive words created a culture of hope that served to offset the way his actions were perceived.

Deportations under Obama were rarely emphasized; Obama didn’t brag about them

or draw attention to them. He emphasized instead the country’s healing from the Great Recession and its move away from the military entanglements of the Bush years. He spoke in uplifting tones about America and an inclusive vision for the future.

Deportations weren’t the only disjuncture between words and deeds. Between 2006 and 2011, fencing and barriers were constructed along nearly 700 miles of the US-Mexican border; some of that began in 2006 under a law passed by Congress that then-Senator Obama voted for. It was not the big, beautiful fence touted by candidate Donald Trump, but it was wire, and fence, and concrete and cameras and it did cost billions. Here again, Obama did not trumpet its construction, or point to it as an example of America first. But it was built nonetheless.

Words can calm or agitate; they can uplift or depress; they can motivate or enervate. But in politics, they are not tantamount to action. The fact is that the immigration actions during Obama’s first term should have produced a climate of fear, while the actions during Trump first few months have arguably generated more fear than the actions themselves warrant. In both cases, words are driving our collective sense of reality out of proportion to the actions taken.

Under Obama, supporters listened to the words and discounted the actions, while opponents often discounted the words and focused on the actions. Under Trump, the only difference is that both opponents and supporters take his words as indicative of far more action than is actually the case.

This isn’t just an Obama-Trump phenomenon. For much of the 1950s, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 June 2017 at 1:12 pm

D.E.A. Misled Overseers on Deadly Honduras Operations, Watchdogs Say

leave a comment »

Disgusting story about the DEA, which seems to feature in a lot of disgusting stories. Charlie Savage reports in the NY Times:

The Drug Enforcement Administration misled the public, Congress and the Justice Department about a 2012 operation in which commando-style squads of American agents sent to Honduras to disrupt drug smuggling became involved in three deadly shootings, two inspectors general said Wednesday.

The D.E.A. said in response that it had shut down the program, the Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team.

Under the program, known as FAST, squads received military-style training to combat Taliban-linked opium traffickers in the Afghanistan war zone. It was expanded to Latin America in 2008 to help fight transnational drug smugglers, leading to the series of violent encounters in Honduras in 2012.

A scathing 424-page joint report from the inspectors general of the Justice and State Departments underscored the risk that Americans accompanying partner forces on missions in developing countries, ostensibly as trainers and advisers, sometimes drift into directly running dangerous operations with little oversight.

The report focused on the first shooting, on a river near the village of Ahuas on May 11, 2012. A boat collided with a disabled vessel carrying American and Honduran agents and seized cocaine. Gunfire erupted, and four people on the boat were killed.

The D.E.A. said at the time that the victims were drug traffickers who had attacked to try to retrieve the cocaine, but villagers said they were bystanders. The inspectors general found no evidence to support the agency’s version, disputing a claim that surveillance video showed evidence that the people on the boat had fired on the disabled vessel.

“Even as information became available to D.E.A. that conflicted with its initial reporting, including that the passenger boat may have been a water taxi carrying passengers on an overnight trip,” the report said, “D.E.A. officials remained steadfast — with little credible corroborating evidence — that any individuals shot by the Hondurans were drug traffickers who were attempting to retrieve the cocaine.”

The inspectors general also rejected the D.E.A.’s insistence at the time that the operation — as well as two others, in June and July 2012 — had been led by Honduran law enforcement officials. The review “concluded this was inaccurate” and said D.E.A. agents “maintained substantial control.”

In the shooting on the river, the report said, a Honduran police officer did fire a machine gun from a helicopter at the boat, but an American agent directed him to do so. In one of the later missions, American agents shot to death smugglers they said had refused to surrender who they feared might be reaching for weapon.

Indeed, the report said, only D.E.A. agents, not the Hondurans, had the necessary equipment to command the operation and had direct access to intelligence. Rather than taking orders from Honduran police, the agents gave “tactical commands” to the Hondurans during missions. Accounts of all three shootings, it said, showed that agency leaders “made the critical decisions and directed the actions taken during the mission.”

The D.E.A. refused to cooperate with the State Department as it sought to investigate what had happened in Ahuas. Michele M. Leonhart, then the agency’s administrator, told the inspector general she had approved that decision because subordinates told her there was no precedent for the State Department to investigate a D.E.A. shooting and it might compromise its investigations, the report said. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 May 2017 at 6:50 pm

US spies heard Russian intelligence agent vowing to target Clinton: report

leave a comment »

Mark Hensch reports in The Hill:

U.S. spies reportedly heard a Russian military intelligence officer bragging about his organization planning to target Hillary Clinton in May 2016.

The officer told a colleague that GRU would cause havoc in America’s presidential election, Time reported Thursday.

The officer reportedly described the intelligence agency’s effort as retribution for what Russian President Vladimir Putin considered Clinton’s influence campaign against him while serving as secretary of State.

Senior U.S. intelligence officials told Time that American spies transcribed the conversation and sent it to headquarters for analysis.

Time reported that an official document based on the raw intelligence was then circulated.

“We didn’t really understand the context of it until much later,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said.

Putin publicly accused Clinton of conducting a major operation against Russia when protests erupted in more than 70 cities in 2011.

The Russian leader said that Clinton had sent “a signal” to demonstrators and that the State Department had actively worked to fuel the unrest.

The State Department countered that it had only funded pro-democracy organizations. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 May 2017 at 5:45 pm

Companies Steal $15 Billion From Their Employees Every Year

leave a comment »

Ben Schiller reports in Fast Company:

When employers fail to pay overtime, withhold tips from waitresses and waiters, or misclassify workers as exempt from minimum wage regulations, they’re stealing income from the poorest members of society. “Wage theft,” the collective term for this practice, can take many forms. But it comes down to something simple: bosses stiffing workers out what they are legally owed.

This workplace larceny is worse than you might think. The Economic Policy Institute, a think-tank that investigates labor issues, analyzed records for the 10 most populous states. Looking just at one form of wage theft–failure to pay minimum wages in each state–it documents $8 billion in annual underpayments. Extrapolated across the U.S. as a whole, it calculates a total of $15 billion a year in employer misappropriation, which is more than the value of all the property stolen during robberies, burglaries, and auto thefts across the country.

The report finds 2.4 million workers affected across the ten states: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. And it says workers suffering minimum wage violations lose an average of $64 per week, almost a quarter of their weekly earnings. An average wage theft victim earns just $10,500 in wages a year–and loses up to $3,300 of that to unscrupulous bosses.

“Property crime is a better understood, more tangible form of crime than wage theft, and federal, state, and local governments spend tremendous resources to combat it,” the report, written by EPI analyst David Cooper and research assistant Teresa Kroeger, says. “In contrast, lawmakers in much of the country allocate little, if any, resources to fighting wage theft, yet the cost of wage theft is at least comparable to–and likely much higher than–the cost of property crime.”

Cooper and Kroeger say that wage theft could be reduced through better enforcement of labor laws, including increasing penalties for violators, protecting workers from retaliation, and improving collective bargaining rights. It notes that the U.S. Department of Labor, which is responsible for investigating minimum violations, is chronically under-staffed. In 2015, its Wage and Hour Division (WHD) employed about the same number of investigators as 70 years ago–about 1000–despite a huge expansion of the economy over that time. The U.S. workforce is about six times larger today (135 million in 2015) compared to the 1940s (22.6 million in 1948).

The Obama Administration expanded the WHD from 700 to 1,000 staff and appointed the first WHD administrator in more than a decade (other appointees had been held up in Senate confirmation battles). David Weil, a professor at Boston University and author of the book The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done To Improve It, is credited with stepping up misclassification investigations and helping to prosecute several offenders of labor law. By contrast, President Trump has yet to appoint a WHD administrator (or many other positions at the U.S. Department of Labor). His original choice for Secretary of Labor, Andrew Puzder–a rapid opponent of minimum wage laws–was never confirmed amid domestic abuse allegations. Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, Trump’s second choice, is considered to be more favorable towards labor. But it remains to be seen how independent he’ll be from the White House and whether he builds on the enforcement regime of the last administration. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 May 2017 at 2:54 pm

In Secret Court Hearing, Lawyer Objected to FBI Sifting Through NSA Data Like It Was Google

leave a comment »

Secret courts making secret decisions regarding secret laws is in my mind strongly associated with totalitarian regimes, which do not want the public to know what the government is up to. But that’s what we have in the FISA court. Alex Emmons reports in The Intercept:

In her first appearance representing the American public before the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2015, Amy Jeffress argued that the FBI is violating the Fourth Amendment by giving agents “virtually unrestricted” access to data from one of the NSA’s largest surveillance programs, which includes an untold amount of communications involving innocent Americans.

The NSA harvests data from major Internet companies like Facebook, Google and Apple without a warrant, because it is ostensibly “targeting” only foreigners. But the surveillance program sweeps up a large number of Americans’ communications as well. Then vast amounts of data from the program, including the Americans’ communications, are entered into a master database that a Justice Department lawyer at the 2015 hearing described as the “FBI’s ‘Google’ of its lawfully acquired information.”

The FBI routinely searches this database during ordinary criminal investigations — which gives them access to Americans’ communications without a warrant.

Jeffress, a former federal prosecutor now serving as an independent “friend of the court,” expressed frustration over the casualness with which the FBI is allowed to look through the data. “There need be no connection to foreign intelligence or national security, and that is the purpose of the collection,” she told Thomas Hogan, then the chief judge of the court. “So they’re overstepping, really, the purpose for which the information is collected.”

The ACLU obtained the hearing transcript and other legal documents related to the secret court proceedings under the Freedom of Information Act, and released them to the public on Friday.

The FISA Court has been widely criticized for its secrecy, its extreme tendency to defer to the government, and the fact that until recently it only heard the government’s side of the case. In 2015, Congress passed a law establishing the position of “amicus curiae” to represent the interests of the public and civil liberties, and Jeffress is one of five amici now serving.

Jeffress, who is now a partner at the law firm Arnold and Porter, declined an interview request, citing the sensitivity of the FISA Court’s proceedings.

The NSA program in question, called PRISM, operates under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is scheduled to sunset in December unless it is reauthorized by Congress. What critics call the FBI’s “backdoor search loophole” is likely to be a major topic of debate in the coming months. Section 702 also authorizes a program called “Upstream,” which grabs massive amounts of data off major Internet backbones inside the U.S. without a warrant — again, because it is ostensibly “targeting” foreign communications.

The FBI’s backdoor searches are so controversial that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed measures in 2014 and 2015 requiring agents to get a warrant before conducting them, although the Senate refused to take up either proposal.

“Section 702 backdoor searches of Americans’ private communications are plainly unconstitutional, and the FBI’s warrantless searches are especially troubling,” said Ashley Gorski, a staff attorney with the ACLU.

The CIA and even the NSA itself have imposed a requirement that each query they run on 702 data involving a U.S. person be supported by a statement of facts that explains why the information being sought is relevant to foreign intelligence – as the independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board recommended in 2014.

But when Hogan asked if the FBI were willing to do the same thing, the lawyer representing the Department of Justice at the hearing – whose name the government redacted in the transcript – brushed him off.

The lawyer said that searches of the FBI’s “lawfully acquired data” are so common that requiring agents to document them would be impractical, and even dangerous.

“If we require our agents to write a full justification every time — think about if you wrote a full justification every time you used Google. Among other things, you would use Google a lot less,” the Justice Department attorney said. “We want the FBI to look and connect the dots in its lawfully acquired information.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 April 2017 at 10:25 am

%d bloggers like this: