Among the very worst ideas for “reforming” the United States Postal Service are proposals to end Saturday delivery and to shift from at-the-door delivery of mail to a scheme that would force Americans to go and collect letters and packages from central delivery spots.
Both approaches would diminish the scope and character of the postal service while increasing the likelihood that private firms will move in to fill the void.
These are the sort of ideas that are peddled by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chair Darrell Issa, R-California, and others who target the USPS for deep cuts. Unfortunately, they’ve turned up in the Obama administration’s budget.
As The Hill newspaper reports:
Obama’s budget would allow USPS to scrap all Saturday delivery — even packages, one of the most rapidly growing parts of the Postal Service’s business. USPS in recent months has shown more interest in expanding when it delivers packages, with Sunday delivery now in limited areas.
The White House budget would also allow USPS to move away from door-to-door delivery to more centralized delivery areas, an idea also panned by Democrats. Plus, USPS could keep a recent temporary increase in the price of stamps — which large mailers loathe — beyond the scheduled two years.
According to the Obama administration, these reforms — along with a proposal to tinker with some of the immediate requirements for pre-funding retiree health-care benefits 75 years into the future — “would set USPS on a sustainable business path, providing it with over $20 billion in cash relief, operational savings and revenue through 2016."
But that’s not how the people who deliver the mail, and who have battled to preserve the postal service, see it.
American Postal Workers Union president Mark Dimondstein says the administration budget echoes “misguided policies… for severe cutbacks that will harm service, drive away business, and eliminate jobs.”
“The budget fails to eliminate the pre-funding requirement of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which is the fundamental cause of the Postal Service’s manufactured financial crisis,” says Dimondstein, who adds that: “With the Postal Service posting operating profits in mail and package delivery, there is absolutely no justification to continue a strategy of austerity. Rather than damaging the infrastructure and network that is essential for providing service, the Postal Service must expand service.”
That’s a message that a new alliance of postal unions — the APWU, the National Association of Letter Carriers, the National Postal Mail Handlers Union and the National Rural Letter Carriers Association — wants to communicate to the president and his budget team. The unions offered this week to meet with the White House to discuss strategies for strengthening the postal service — from changes in shipping rules to the development of a postal-banking system along lines proposed by U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts.
But the first reform has to involve a realistic restructuring of that requirement to prefund retiree health benefits decades into the future.
“Our Postal Service is in need of true reform, not ill‐advised, counter‐productive attempts to slash service,” says National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association president Jeanette Dwyer. “By reworking the Postal Service’s funding of its retiree health benefits, an obligation which accounts for 80 percent of USPS losses over recent years and is forced on no other public or private entity, lawmakers could take the easiest and most sensible step toward getting this venerable institution back on the right page. Allowing the Postal Service to continue to innovate with same‐day parcel delivery and other services will provide a great opportunity to generate needed revenue and allow the USPS to remain a competitive player in the shipping and delivery industry. We need to grow our Postal Service not shrink it.”
Instead of borrowing ideas from members of Congress who want to downsize and dismantle the postal service, White House aides would be well to take the counsel of members who recognize the immense potential of the postal service.
Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, have introduced a smart fix, the Postal Service Protection Act, which has 174 co-sponsors in the House and 27 in the Senate.
Sanders begins with the basic premise that, "First, prefunding must end. The future retiree health fund now has some $50 billion in it. That is enough. This step alone will restore the Postal Service to profitability."
But Sanders does not stop there. The senator and his allies argue that, "(The) Postal Service should have the flexibility to provide new consumer products and services—a flexibility that was banned by Congress in 2006. It is now against the law for workers in post offices to notarize or make copies of documents; to cash checks; to deliver wine or beer; or to engage in e-commerce activities (like scanning physical mail into a PDF and sending it through e-mail, selling non-postal products on the Internet or offering a non-commercial version of Gmail)."
And, along with Senator Warren, Sanders is making the case for postal banking:
A recent report from the Postal Service Inspector General suggests that almost $9 billion a year could be generated by providing financial services. At a time when more than 80 million lower-income Americans have no bank accounts or are forced to rely on rip-off check-cashing storefronts and payday lenders, these kinds of financial services would be of huge social benefit.
That's the right reform. The White House should rewrite the sections of its budget proposal relating to the postal service, reject austerity and embrace an agenda that it good for the USPS and the communities it serves.
Late Wednesday afternoon, a White House pool reporter asked President Obama about the explosive allegations made by Senator Dianne Feinstein on Tuesday morning that the CIA was spying on, and removed documents from, congressional staffers who were investigating Bush-era torture.
The question came during a brief media availability at a White House event on women and families. Obama’s response, in full:
The first day I came into office, I ended the practices that are subject to the investigation by the Senate committee, and have been very clear that I believed they were contrary to our values as a country. Since that time, we have worked with the Senate committee so that the report that they are putting forward is well informed and what I have said is that I am absolutely committed to declassifying that report as soon as the report is completed. In fact, I would urge them to go ahead and complete the report and send it to us and we will declassify those findings so that the American people can understand what happened in the past and that can help guide us as we move forward.
With respect to the issues that are going back and forth between the Senate committee and the CIA, John Brennan has referred them to the appropriate authorities and they are looking into it and that’s not something that is an appropriate role for me and the White House to wade into at this point. But the one thing that I want to emphasize is that the substantive issue, which is how do we operate even when we are threatened, even when even gone through extraordinary trauma has to be consistent with the rule of law and our values. And I acted on that on the first day and that hasn’t changed.
About 95 percent of Obama’s remarks involve declassifying the 6,300-page Senate report on “enhanced interrogation” by the CIA, and he restates his desire to have the report be made public.
But the president’s one line on the CIA-Senate debate is deeply troubling: “With respect to the issues that are going back and forth between the Senate committee and the CIA, [Director] John Brennan has referred them to the appropriate authorities and they are looking into it and that’s not something that is an appropriate role for me and the White House to wade into at this point.”
Here’s the problem: Obama’s framing in that sentence very much wades into the debate.
The important context here is the Department of Justice is running two parallel investigations into the CIA’s removal of the so-called “Panetta review”—one into wrongdoing by the Intelligence Committee, and one into CIA wrongdoing.
The CIA claims that Senate staffers illegally obtained a copy of that review, which damns the CIA for it’s role in Bush-era interrogations and is at odds with public statements from the CIA.
But Feinstein strenuously, and at great length, contested that claim in her Senate floor speech on Tuesday. She explained how the Panetta review came into the committee’s possession: either by intentional or unintentional disclosure by the CIA while turning over the 6.2 million documents related to the interrogation program, or by a “whistle-blower” either at the agency or working for the private contracting firm that was vetting the documents. She went on to explain that the Senate Legal Counsel affirmed to her that these were not classified documents, and that the committee was permitted to have them.
Furthermore, Feinstein explicitly alleged that the CIA’s referral of a criminal report might have been an effort to intimidate Senate investigators.
So when Obama says that “John Brennan has referred [the matter] to the appropriate authorities,” it reads as an implicit rebuke of the intimidation charge. That he mentions only the allegation of Senate misconduct by Brennan and not the parallel investigation into CIA wrongdoing is also troubling.
Obama’s remarks came on the heels of a revelation by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney earlier on Wednesday that the White House was aware of the criminal complaint the CIA planned to file against Senate investigators, but did not intervene.
Feinstein’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Obama’s remarks from The Nation.
Read Next: Frederick Schwartz on why we need a new Church Committee
Three cheers and a glass of fair trade, organic bubbly for Moshe Z. Marvit for winning the March Sidney Award for his Nation article, “How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine.” The Sidney is a monthly prize awarded by The Sidney Hillman Foundation to an “outstanding piece of socially conscious journalism.” In recognizing Marvit’s work Sidney Award judge and investigative journalist Lindsay Beyerstein said, “Marvit casts a light on a previously obscure, but profoundly exploited class of workers.”
Crowdworkers are the vast, invisible labor force who toil in the hidden cracks of the Internet—the spaces where digital ingenuity fails and human skill steps in. Working through online brokerages like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and Crowdflower, these workers perform a range of monotonous “microtasks” (think brief surveys, tagging photos, identifying porn and other tasks a computer cannot do) for both large corporations, like Twitter, and random individuals who commission their labor. For this they are paid as little as $2 to $3 an hour, often less.
Among enthusiasts, crowdwork is often hailed as a kind of new labor ideal—a worker Xanadu where freedom, self-determination and flexibility reign. Yet most crowdwork, Marvit reveals, is little more than latter-day piecework draped in high-tech gloss. Working from home, crowd workers, who come from all over the world and are believed to number in the millions, enjoy little in the way of today’s labor protections: because they are classified as independent contractors, they do not qualify for basic employee protections; and because the technology is so new, and the system largely unmonitored, employers can engage in practices that are clearly not legal. The result, Marvit writes in his article: a vast and virtual free market that critics have called “the most unregulated labor marketplace that has ever existed.”
Marvit, who is an attorney focusing on labor and economic law, first came across crowdworking in graduate school. As he tells Beyerstein in an interview published on the Hillman Foundation site, he learned of it from colleagues who were using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to get survey answers. Curious, he began exploring. His research took him from the offices of Amazon, which brought Mechanical Turk online in 2005, to the eighteenth-century court of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, who commissioned the original Mechanical Turk, an automaton that audiences believed could play chess. It also took him into the worlds of actual workers, like Stephanie Costello, a full-time turker who has been known to stay up all night to try to find “good-paying” crowdwork. Her definition of good? One hundred and fifty dollars for sixty hours of work a week.
Yet, if the piece offers a devastating portrait of one of today’s more exploitative labor spheres, Marvit also sees it as a warning for potential dangers to come. As he tells Beyerstein, “Many conservatives have been pushing for greater deregulation of labor—such as lowering or eliminating the minimum wage, getting rid of child labor laws, dismantling protections for union organizing—and in Mechanical Turk we can see the world we’d be living in if such deregulation occurred.”
Or, to bring it home: in conservatives’ imagined deregulated dystopia, we are all Mechanical Turks.
(For Lindsay Beyerstein’s full Backstory interview with Moshe Marvit, check out the Hillman Foundation site, here. And for the full version of Marvit’s original article, “How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine,” go here.)
California Representative Barbara Lee responded to Representative Paul Ryan’s Wednesday remarks lambasting “inner city” men for not “learning the value or culture of work.” Her message: we know whom you’re talking about, Mr. Ryan.
In a statement, Representative Lee called out the Wisconsincongressman for invoking dog-whistle politics to support work requirements for benefits. She did not hold back.
“My colleague Congressman Ryan’s comments about ‘inner city’ poverty are a thinly veiled racial attack and cannot be tolerated,” Lee said. “Let’s be clear, when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says, ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black.’”
Representative Lee added, “Instead of demonizing ‘culture,’ and blaming black men for their poverty, Mr. Ryan should step up and produce some legitimate proposals on how to tackle poverty and racial discrimination in America. His uninformed policy proposals continue to increase poverty, not solve it.”
Representative Ryan made his controversial remarks on Bill Bennett’s Morning in America radio show. Responding to a question about the “fatherless problem” in poor neighborhoods, Ryan said, “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”
Read Next: Michelle Goldberg on Paul Ryan’s “culture canard”
Seventy-five percent of the world’s population owns a cell phone, billions of which are made in China. As the demand for cheaper consumer electronics grows, workers are paying the price.
There are hundreds of chemicals that are routinely used in electronics manufacturing processes in China—some are known carcinogens and reproductive toxins, and others are largely untested. Manufacturers do not readily disclose the chemicals they use and factories do not typically provide adequate training or protective gear. Workers exposed to these dangerous chemicals can develop cancer, leukemia, nerve damage, liver and kidney failure, and reproductive health issues, depending on the chemical and level of exposure.
Join The Nation and Green America in calling on industry leader Apple to commit to eliminating benzene, n-hexane and other harmful chemicals from its supply chain. With millions of people working in its supplier factories in China, Apple’s leadership on this issue could make a big difference.
Head to Green America’s “Bad Apple” campaign site to learn more about the use of toxic chemicals in the electronics industry.
In the short film Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics, documentary filmmaker Heather White tells the stories of workers in China who struggle for recognition and compensation after discovering that they have been poisoned by toxic chemicals at their jobs.
A subject I’ve been writing about for, oh, the past decade or so—the media’s sad, tragic performance during the run-up to the US attack on Iraq—never gets old, at least for me. It provides such a revealing glimpse of, and warning about, how leading media outlets usually cave to the “official narrative” from the “serious” policymakers and pundits. Howard Kurtz, now at Fox, calls it, aptly, the media’s “biggest failure of modern times.”
Obviously this is relevant in today’s world where the US is pushed to intervene abroad by many of the same macho crew from 2002-2003, who have no shame, from Senator John McCain to “liberal hawks” such as Bill Keller. Consider how close we came to going to war in Syria a few months ago, when much of the media again fell short again.
The New York Times and Judith Miller get much of the blame for the media failures in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, so let me shine a light here on the Washington Post. My book So Wrong for So Long reviews the article Kurtz wrote for the Post in 2004, taking the newspaper to task for some of its misconduct (the paper itself did not assign is own probe).
Because of the notoriety surrounding Judith Miller, the Post’s almost equally poor coverage and opinion pieces drew too little attention after WMD were not discovered. The Post ran Kurtz’s critical August 12, 2004, piece on the front page, something it inevitably failed to do with stories skeptical of the march to war.
By the Post’s own admission, in the months before the war, it ran more than 140 stories on its front page promoting the war, while contrary information “got lost,” as one Post staffer told Kurtz. So allow me to pursue a few points (see my book for much more on media misconduct in war coverage). First, two quotes (beyond the Woodward gem) from Post staffers that speak for themselves:
• “There was an attitude among editors: Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all the contrary stuff?” —Pentagon correspondent Thomas Ricks.
• “We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power.“ —Reporter Karen DeYoung.
“[Bob] Woodward, for his part, said it was risky for journalists to write anything that might look silly if weapons were ultimately found in Iraq.”
Next, consider the highly revealing excuses, offered by Post editors:
• Executive Editor Downie said experts who questioned the war wouldn’t go on record often enough. But his paper, and others, quoted unnamed pro-war sources willy-nilly.
• Downie also asserted that “voices raising questions about the war were lonely ones.” This is simply rewriting history. On the eve of the invasion, polls showed that half the public wanted to delay the invasion to give the United Nations inspectors more time to do their duty, and millions had already marched in the streets. Many of the editorial pages of major US newspapers (though, crucially, not the Post’s) were expressing their own doubts about the need for war. Key intelligence experts questioned the administration’s evidence but were given little play, on or off the record, at the Post.
• Liz Spayd, assistant managing editor for news, offered another weak defense in explaining why a key article questioning the existence of WMD by thirty-two-year Post veteran Walter Pincus was finally published on Page A17. Pincus’s stories are “difficult to edit,” as she put it. Matthew Vita, then national security editor and now deputy assistant managing editor, offered another defense for the Pincus miscue: “We were dealing with an awful lot of stories, and that was one of the ones that slipped through the cracks.”
• That rationale also applied to another sad case. In the days before the war, Dana Priest and Karen DeYoung finished a piece that said CIA officials had communicated significant doubts to the administration about evidence linking Iraq to an attempted uranium purchase. The story was held until March 22, three days after the war began. “Editors blamed a flood of copy about the impending invasion,” Kurtz explained.
• Vita had a different excuse on another missed opportunity. One of the fresh revelations in the Kurtz piece was how, in October 2002, Thomas Ricks (who has covered national security issues for fifteen years) turned in a piece titled “Doubts,” indicating that Pentagon officials were worried that the risks of an invasion of Iraq were being underestimated. It was killed by Vita. He told Kurtz that a problem with the piece was that many of the quotes with names attached came from “retired guys.” But the Post (and much of the rest of the media) rarely shied away from “retired guys” who promoted the war.
• Other excuses rippled through the Kurtz piece, featuring phrases like “always easy in hindsight,” “editing difficulties,” “communication problems” and “there is limited space on Page 1.” One editor explained, “You couldn’t get beyond the veneer and hurdle of what this groupthink had already established,” even though the British press somehow managed to overcome that. Amid all the excuses, Post staffers denied that the paper was under any pressure from the White House.
• At the end of the Kurtz piece, Downie offered his ultimate defense. “People who were opposed to the war from the beginning and have been critical of the media’s coverage in the period before the war have this belief that somehow the media should have crusaded against the war,” Downie said. “They have the mistaken impression that somehow if the media’s coverage had been different, there wouldn’t have been a war.”
Two responses to that final excuse come quickly to mind.
Most of those against the war did not ask for a media “crusade” against invasion, merely that the press stick to the facts and provide a balanced assessment: in other words, that the Post do its minimum journalistic duty. If anything, the Post, and some other major news outlets, came closer to crusading for the war.
And did Downie honestly believe that nothing the media might have done could have possibly stopped the war? Especially when, as noted, public and editorial opinion on the eve of war was divided? Does he take issue with Walter Lippmann’s notion that the press plays a vital role in “manufacturing consent”? And does he really believe his must-read newspaper lacks any clout? If so, what does that say about the state of modern newspapering?
Greg Mitchell’s So Wrong for So Long, on the media and the Iraq war—with a preface by Bruce Springsteen—has been published in an expanded edition for the first time as an e-book.
Read Next: Frederick A.O. Schwarz Jr.: Why We Need a New Church Committee to Fix Our Broken Intelligence System.
For a little while—a very, very little while—it looked like Paul Ryan was going to lead the GOP away from the reflexive demonization of the poor.
Last November, his office put out word that he intended to essentially revive compassionate conservatism. “Paul Ryan, GOP’s budget architect, sets his sights on fighting poverty and winning minds,” read the headline of a long Washington Post piece. It described Ryan’s “ambitious new project: steering Republicans away from the angry, nativist inclinations of the Tea Party movement and toward the more inclusive vision of his mentor, the late Jack Kemp.”
Now, this softening was never more than rhetorical: He still sought to slash food stamps and other benefits. Nevertheless, it was an improvement on the Republican tendency to openly scorn struggling people as lazy, entitled moochers. As Paul Krugman wrote last week, “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. So when you see something like the current scramble by Republicans to declare their deep concern for America’s poor, it’s a good sign, indicating a positive change in social norms. Goodbye, sneering at the 47 percent; hello, fake compassion.”
Well, it looks like Krugman’s adieu was premature. Today, Ryan went on Bill Bennett’s Morning in America radio show to preview his legislative proposals for reforming the safety net. There, as Think Progress first reported, he cited Charles Murray to argue that entrenched poverty derives from a culture of indolence among the poor.
“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working, just generations of men not even thinking of working, or learning the value and the culture of work,” said Ryan. “So there’s a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.” Part of the way Ryan intends to deal with this culture problem is by tightening work requirements. As he wrote in The Wall Street Journal in January, “In 1996, Congress required people on welfare to work, and the results were encouraging. Child-poverty rates fell by double digits. The trouble is, we haven’t applied this principle far enough.”
The culture-of-poverty thesis is like a horror movie villain—it will probably never stop coming back. But it’s particularly perverse to invoke it at a time when welfare been virtually eliminated and huge numbers of those receiving benefits are already working.
“The overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work do so,” says a Center On Budget and Policy Priorities report on the relationship between food stamps and work. “Among SNAP households with at least one working age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP—and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP.” Meanwhile, the black unemployment rate—which counts only those who are actively looking for work—is consistently twice that of whites. We’re in the middle of a jobs crisis and it’s not going to be cured by Calvinist exhortation. If there’s a cultural problem here, it lies in the culture of callousness among conservatives. They might want to move beyond blaming the poor, but they just can’t help themselves.
Read Next: Michelle Goldberg writes on how “Paul Ryan’s CPAC Speech Was Based on a Lie.”
Yesterday was sunny and warm in New York, and Mayor Bill de Blasio was announcing his appointment of an impressive group of people to criminal justice posts. After weeks of tough headlines, “Today is a good news day,” the mayor declared, in part because of some cheery crime statistics. As the mayor explained:
During the first 10 weeks of 2014, the NYPD has driven down already historically low levels of crime. Overall, major crime has gone down 2 percent in the first 10 weeks of 2014 compared to where the levels stood a year ago. That’s overall—that’s all major crime categories—a 2 percent decline. But let’s talk about homicides. Homicides are down nearly 21 percent from this time a year ago. Shooting incidents down more than 14 percent from this time a year ago. This is extraordinary progress. It is not surprising to me, given that we have the finest police force in the world, that this progress is made. It’s not surprising to me, given that we have the finest police leader in the world, that this progress has been made. Some naysayers suggested that you couldn’t bring down crime while bringing police and community back together. I think these last 10 weeks show—yes, you can and yes, we will. And I just want to thank Commissioner Bratton and all the men and women of the NYPD for their extraordinary efforts. This is real evidence of what they can achieve and will continue to achieve.
Given the way de Blasio’s opponents in the fall predicted bloodshed and mayhem upon his taking office, the mayor deserves a little room to crow. And he was quick to give street cops the credit they deserve rather than claiming all of it for his polices.
But regardless of who gets credit or blame, it’s unwise to put too much weight on small changes in the crime rate, or on trends over a short period of time—because when the numbers turn in the other direction, the cheering will turn to panic. Time and again in recent years, the city’s tabloid press has reacted to mini-spurts of crime as if they augured a return to the “bad old days.” In the end, the trends never last, and the overall crime rate keeps falling. In fact, just about a month ago, the Post was screaming about the 33 percent increase in murders during the first month of the de Blasio administration.
The very lowness of the key crime statistic—the murder rate—only enhances the danger of playing the stats game. If I went out and killed fifteen people in 1990, it would have increased the murder count by about six-tenths of 1 percent. If I go out and do that today (which is extremely unlikely, but can never be totally discounted), the murder rate this year might go up 5 percent as a result. When the base number is low, small changes look very large.
That’s not to say something very cool isn’t happening: Over the past year, even before the federal court ruling, even before de Blasio took office, the number of stop-and-frisk encounters was collapsing but—contrary to those naysayers—crime kept falling. The ten weeks the mayor points to are part of that longer trend.
And that trend, in turn, is part of something even larger: For two decades, under four different mayors, through economic booms and busts, violence and lawlessness have been decreasing in New York and throughout most of the country.
Focusing on short-term peaks and valleys misses that broader landscape of policy success. Beyond that, the stats obsession feeds back unhelpfully into politics and, then, into policy. When the Giuliani administration began its intense focus on crime statistics, with Bill Bratton and Jack Maple taking the lead, the numbers were intended to serve as a tactical guide for police commanders. But they became a politically charged barometer for mayoral performance. It’s hard to see how that eventually led to situations like the scandal in the 81st Precinct, where a cop recorded his commanders ordering officers to take steps to discourage the reporting of crime.
This is the dark side of the ascendance in the past decade of the use of metrics in government. It’s great to hold government accountable, and the numbers can help with that—I use them ad nauseam in my reporting. But when they become the lone, nearly instantaneous indicator of whether a government is succeeding or failing, they’re dangerous. Numbers can be manipulated, and can be understood to say more than they really say. And they can go from being a tool to being a master.
Read Next: Why are subway arrests up 300 percent under de Blasio?
Though Chris Christie had a relatively successful appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week—despite his mediocre results in CPAC’s straw poll, won by Rand Paul—back home in New Jersey it looks like the noose is tightening.
The twin inquiries into the various scandals surrounding the governor—one by a joint committee of the state legislature and another by the US Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey—have both expanded in recent weeks. And now, there’s a third, related investigation just underway, looking into the conflict-of-interest problems surrounding David Samson, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and a key Christie ally. The legislative committee, which began with the lane-closing scandal at the George Washington Bridge, has broadened its inquiry to include the charges by Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that the Christie administration threatened to withhold Superstorm Sandy recovery aid unless Zimmer threw her support behind a $1 billion development project in the town, whose lawyers just happened to be David Samson’s law firm, Wolff & Samson. And US Attorney Paul Fishman, who at first seemed to concentrate on the Hoboken story, has recently refocused on Bridgegate, too. (Back in January, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Fishman already had issued subpoenas to Governor Christie’s re-election unit and to the New Jersey state Republican party.)
And yesterday, in a New Jersey courtroom, lawyers for two former Christie aides, Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Stepien, both ousted in the Bridgegate scandal, pleaded with a judge to quash subpoenas demanding their emails and other records.
Over the past several days, various newspapers—including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Newark Star-Ledger and the Bergen Record—have each reported that the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, issued and then withdrew a subpoena asking the Port Authority to hand over records, including e-mails, pertaining to Samson’s conflict-of-interest problems. Since the start of Bridgegate, there has been a deluge of reports that Samson, who had power over the awarding of huge construction and development contracts by the PA, apparently used that power to benefit his law firm, Wolff & Samson, which represented many of the developers and construction firms. A very detailed accounting of Samson’s political influence was published this week by The Asbury Park Press, and Christie Watch has reported on the Samson story here, here, and here.
There are questions about why Bharara issued the subpoenas and then withdrew them. Apparently, he withdrew them in order to clear the way for Fishman, in New Jersey, to reissue them and look into Samson’s activities as part of his broader investigation. But why did Bharara issue them in the first place? To prod Fishman? More likely it was to provide political cover to Fishman, since he can assert that the inquiry into Samson began in New York and that he is just following up.
Last month, the Star-Ledger called on Samson to quit. This week, several other papers have penned similar calls on their editorial pages, including The Asbury Park Press, The New York Observer and The New York Times. In its editorial, the Times noted the long list of self-dealing actions by Samson, concluding:
Underneath these and other seamy details lies a fundamental truth: the Port Authority needs fundamental reforms. And it should be run by professionals, not political hacks like the 50 or so political associates Mr. Christie has put into jobs at the authority. Mr. Christie owes it to the millions of people who use and pay for the Port Authority’s facilities to find professionals to do these jobs. And he can begin by telling Mr. Samson it is time to retire.
Oddly enough, one person who hasn’t weighed in on whether or not Samson ought to quit—or be fired—is New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo. A few weeks ago, the PA executive director, Patrick Foye, who was appointed by Cuomo, declared that Samson no longer has the “moral authority” to run the PA. But Cuomo has been silent on the matter. Last week, two New Jersey newspapers, the Record and the Star-Ledger, ran major investigative pieces describing how Christie and Cuomo ran a scam to create political cover for toll hikes on the bridges and tunnels across the Hudson River two years ago. The two governors allowed aides to float a proposal for a much higher toll increase, after which the governors stepped in like knights on white horses to propose a smaller increase—even though that had been the original level they wanted all along. And, though it was Christie’s aides who orchestrated the subterfuge, especially Bill Baroni and David Wildstein—both now fired over the lane-closing fiasco—it appears that Cuomo enthusiastically supported the idea. In the end, much of the cash generated by the toll hikes was used to fund PA projects involving Wolff & Samson clients. Now, all Cuomo will say is that whether or not Samson goes or stays ought to be up to Christie. Cuomo told WNYC:
The chairman of the Port Authority is an appointee of the governor of New Jersey and I will leave it to the governor of New Jersey to make that decision.
Several former PA officials who spoke to Christie Watch on background said that ever since taking office Governor Cuomo and his appointees at the PA, including Foye and half a dozen PA commissioners, seemed willing to play ball with the Christie-Baroni-Wildstein machine at the agency. Though it appears, so far at least, that Cuomo and his allies didn’t used the PA as a patronage machine the way Christie and Samson did, the New York governor and his team traded favors with the New Jersey team. When New York wanted something from PA, such as money for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, Baroni and Wildstein said in exchange that they wanted the PA to hire a list of Christie appointees.
Here’s the way it worked, according to Port Authority insiders: Baroni would say that New Jersey’s PA officials would support projects that New York wanted. They’d say, ”I think we’ll get all of NJ’s votes for this.” But then they’d add that Governor Christie “has a few people, here are their resumes, we’d like to bring on board.” (Indeed, Christie appointed more than fifty patronage employees at the PA.) And, according to the former officials, Baroni and Wildstein made it clear that New Jersey’s votes on those projects were “contingent on hiring these particular people.”
The New York Times and other papers have called for sweeping reforms at the PA. According to several accounts, when Baroni and Wildstein were at the agency, they ran a two-fisted political campaign to get done what Christie and Samson wanted. It was outright political patronage, and it helped Christie build his political machine in New Jersey, winning the support of mayors, local officials and construction unions. (That’s why the Newark Star-Ledger called it a “slush fund.”) But it isn’t known exactly when Governor Cuomo realized the extent of the Port Authority shenanigans. Certainly, he knows now. But what did the New York governor know and when did he know it? And what is he going to do about it?
Read Next: How Christie built the Port Authority ‘slush fund.’
When offensive lineman Jonathan Martin did the unthinkable and walked away from the Miami Dolphins in the middle of the 2013 season, some said he would never play in the NFL again. Never mind the fact that he was suffering from severe depression, with ideas of self-harm on his mind. Never mind the revelations that he was dealing with the hazing, bullying and even assault perpetrated by teammates, led by his “friend” Richie Incognito. Never mind that there were coaches complicit in this scenario. His pro football days were done, not only because he left the team, but also because of what his decision to leave supposedly revealed about his character. As Reggie Rivers, a former NFL player, wrote in The Denver Post in a column titled, “Is Jonathan Martin in the Wrong Career?,” “Martin may be too quiet, too unwilling to speak up for himself and too emotionally fragile to handle the vicissitudes of the NFL. It was bad enough when Incognito was bullying him, but now that a national scandal has erupted, the situation is far worse for Martin. He may feel too humiliated to ever play in the NFL again.”
At his sports blog, Jake Elman also wrote last November, “Jonathan Martin, despite seeming to be the victim of bullying, death threats, and racism, will not play again in the National Football League. Martin has entered a list of players who teams won’t want on their rosters simply by leaving the Dolphins, exposing things that are supposed to stay in the locker room, and hiring a lawyer to investigate allegations of workplace abuse…. Martin, has one of the worst qualities you want from a player…. he’s become a distraction.”
Neither of the above pieces was unsympathetic to Martin, and the two writers should not be singled out as outliers. To the contrary, both reflected a common sentiment repeated often on sports radio: Martin was too “soft,” too “vulnerable” and too much of a “distraction” to get another chance in the National Football League. Now we know that Martin’s NFL career is not over, and this is cause for relief. The 24-year-old second-round draft pick and two-time All-American is now a member of the San Francisco 49ers, traded by the Dolphins for a song—a seventh-round draft pick that Miami receives only if Martin makes the team. It is difficult to think of a better landing place than the 49ers. They have a strong foundation, veteran leadership, a solid offensive line and most importantly, are coached by Martin’s Stanford University coach Jim Harbaugh.
Martin thrived under Harbaugh’s tutelage at Stanford. His old college coach also gave him a major boost, as Deadspin noted, when NFL investigator Ted Wells was assembling his report on Incognito and the Dolphins locker-room culture. One of the contentions of Incognito and his defenders was that Martin had no business in an NFL locker room and they should not be faulted just because he lacked the mental fortitude to handle the pressure. Ted Wells wrote in his assessment:
Jim Harbaugh, Martin’s former head coach at Stanford and the current head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, told us that he had never doubted Martin’s tenacity, work ethic and dedication to the game, and that he had never seen Martin exhibit problems with social adjustment. Coach Harbaugh told us he believed that Martin likely could continue to have a successful career in the NFL. It appears that Martin was up to the challenge of dealing with physical or verbal intimidation by opposing players during NFL games, but fell victim, at least in part, to persistent taunting from his own teammates.
It matters that Martin is getting this second chance. The idea that having mental health issues makes a person a “distraction” is not something that should be accepted with a shrug of the shoulders but needs to be challenged. The idea that having the courage to blow the whistle on an abusive situation makes a person “emotionally fragile” is so backward, one does not even know where to begin. The idea that the victim of hardcore bullying could then become further victimized by being denied a future at the age of 24 should be seen as manifestly unacceptable. This has always been about not just the NFL but about the messages the NFL sends. Mental health issues are not impermeable “handicaps” but a part of life, and admitting that you need help should never be, as Mr. Rivers wrote, “humiliating.”
This entire situation has been a stench-producing view into the reality of one NFL locker room. Jonathan Martin getting a second chance is a sign that something productive could emerge from the toxic landfill in Miami. Another positive sign was news that after trashing his own car with a bat, Richie Incognito admitted himself into a mental health facility. There is no shame in needing help. Degradation is only assured if someone pretends all is well, thinking that they are going to “man up,” when in reality they are just biding time to a greater fall. It is hard to find someone who does not hope Jonathan Martin makes it all the way back from whatever depths of depression he found himself in last year. We should hope Richie Incognito makes it back as well, whether or not that means finding a place on an NFL team.
Read Next: After Darren Sharper, the NFL must address violence against women.