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“Just The Tip Of The Iceberg”: The Real Scandal With Tough-Guy Rep Michael Grimm

Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), a two-term Staten Island congressman with stints in the Marines and FBI, grabbed our attention after President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night. More specifically, he grabbed NY1 reporter Michael Scotto after Scotto asked him about a bubbling campaign finance scandal, memorably uttering these words, caught on the rolling camera’s video (watch

Let me be clear to you, you ever do that to me again I’ll throw you off this f—ing balcony…. You’re not man enough, you’re not man enough. I’ll break you in half. Like a boy. [NY1]

Alright, that’s probably a sentiment a lot of politicians have wanted to convey to a reporter. But now, thanks to Grimm’s threats, everybody knows that he is embroiled in, and touchy about, something to do with allegedly illegal campaign donations. Before we get to that story, Grimm decided to address his partial-on-camera outburst with this statement:

I was extremely annoyed because I was doing NY1 a favor by rushing to do their interview first in lieu of several other requests. The reporter knew that I was in a hurry and was only there to comment on the State of the Union, but insisted on taking a disrespectful and cheap shot at the end of the interview because I did not have time to speak off-topic. I verbally took the reporter to task and told him off because I expect a certain level of professionalism and respect, especially when I go out of my way to do that reporter a favor. I doubt that I am the first member of Congress to tell off a reporter, and I am sure I won’t be the last.

MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin sarcastically cuts to the PR lesson:

Well this careful apology should ensure this Michael Grimm story goes away fast

But here’s the story Scotto was asking Grimm about in the Capitol rotunda: Last week, the FBI arrested Grimm’s fundraiser (and ex-girlfriend) Diana Durand on charges of illegally contributing more than $10,000 to Grimm’s 2010 campaign through straw donors. Here’s how the New York Daily News describes the alleged “donor swapping”:

The swapping works like this: A donor who gives the maximum to Candidate A then donates to Candidate B — and in return, a donor or friend of Candidate B gives an identical amount to Candidate A. [NY Daily News]

In one case described by the Daily News, Candidate A was Bert Mizusawa, a GOP House candidate in Virginia, and the maxed-out donor was Washington lawyer Bazil Facchina; Durand was the second alleged donor, and Grimm Candidate B. The newspaper said its review of 2010 federal campaign finance record found at least another 20 such transactions involving Grimm and fellow candidates in California, South Dakota, Illinois, and Virginia.

The Daily News investigation implicates Grimm personally in one questionable transaction, but he’s not listed in the Justice Department indictment. But Grimm has been under investigation for two years, and Durand is merely the newest wrinkle. In August, Ofer Biton — a former top aide to Israeli Orthodox Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto — pleaded guilty to visa fraud; in early 2012, The New York Times reported that Biton and Grimm allegedly sought illegal campaign donations from Pinto followers, including large cash contributions and donations from undocumented immigrants.

Even with those allegations, Grimm’s constituents re-elected him in 2012, 48 percent to 43 percent. He first won election in the GOP wave of 2010, unseating freshman Democrat Michael McMahon by about three points. But let’s face it, campaign finance violations fall into the category of “boring but important,” with an emphasis on boring. Threatening to murder a reporter with your bare hands? Not boring.

And that’s not even the most colorful story in Grimm’s recent past. (No, I’m not talking about this one.) In 2006, after leaving the FBI, he opened up a health food restaurant with an alleged mobster with ties to the Gambino crime family. And in 2011, Evan Ratliff wrote about FBI undercover operations in The New Yorker, including some eyebrow-raising allegations about Grimm from a New York City Police officer who was moonlighting as a bouncer. At the time, July 1999, Grimm was an FBI agent, apparently dating a married woman.

According to the NYPD officer, Gordon Williams, Grimm and the woman entered a nightclub in Queens, Caribbean Tropics, around midnight and ran into the woman’s estranged husband. Williams broke up the ensuing altercation, but says Grimm and the husband returned at 2:30 a.m. for a standoff in the club’s garage, with Grimm waving a gun around, screaming he was going to kill the guy, and saying: “I’m a fucking FBI agent, ain’t nobody going to threaten me.” Ratliff then recounts this epilogue:

Grimm left the club, but at 4 a.m., just before the club closed, he returned again, according to Williams, this time with another FBI agent and a group of NYPD officers. Grimm had told the police that he had been assaulted by the estranged husband and his friends. Williams said that Grimm took command of the scene, and refused to let the remaining patrons and employees leave. “Everybody get up against the fucking wall,” Williams recalled him saying. “The FBI is in control.” Then Grimm, who apparently wanted to find the man with whom he’d had the original altercation, said something that Williams said he’ll never forget: “All the white people get out of here.” [New Yorker]

Completely accurate or not (Grimm says not), that’s a pretty juicy story. And not many people would know about it if Grimm had kept his temper in check Tuesday night.


By: Peter Weber, The Week, January 29, 2014

January 30, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Michael Grimm | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“We Live In States Of Insanity”: Trigger Happy In The Gunshine State

Doug Varrieur likes to shoot.

Problem is, it’s 25 miles to the nearest range, where they charge $45 an hour. What’s a gun enthusiast to do?

Lucky for him, Varrieur lives in Florida. Problem solved. Just erect a makeshift range in the back yard and fire away. It’s perfectly legal.

Re-read that if you want. It’s just as nutty the second time around.

In a story by my colleague Cammy Clark that appeared in Sunday’s Miami Herald, we learn that Varrieur, who lives on Big Pine Key, once complained to a gun-shop owner about what a pain it was going to the range to shoot. The owner put him onto Florida statute 790.15, which lists the conditions under which one may not legally discharge a firearm in the state. Turns out there aren’t many. You may not shoot “in any public place or on the right-of-way of any paved public road, highway or street,” over any road, highway or occupied premises, or “recklessly or negligently” at your own home.

Otherwise, let ‘er rip.

There are no mandatory safety requirements. Indeed, the language about recklessness and negligence was only added in 2011. Prior to that, apparently, it was even legal to blast at shadows and hallucinations, assuming you did so in your own back yard. Shooting actual people is presumably still illegal, though the family of the late Trayvon Martin might beg to differ.

Because he is a responsible gun owner, Varrieur, who has been shooting in his back yard once a week for a month, took precautions, even though, again, he is not required to. They include a wooden backstop seven feet high, eight feet wide and a foot thick.

Can you imagine living next door to this guy? Worse, can you imagine living next door to a Doug Varrieur who doesn’t take the precautions the law says he doesn’t have to bother with?

For what it’s worth, even Varrieur thinks the law is too “loose” and would like to see safety precautions mandated. County Commissioner George Neugent, also a gun owner, says the law is “a little scary.”

Ya think?

They call Florida the “gunshine state.” But this madness is not Florida-centric. In Colorado, you can have a gun in class. In Arizona, you can take one to the bar. In Georgia, they’re trying to make it legal to take one to church. So this isn’t just Florida. It’s America. We live in states of insanity.

As it happens, I have been corresponding with a reader who wrote me with what I regarded as promising ideas for moving the gun-rights argument forward. They included mandatory gun-safety training and mandatory liability insurance.

The dialogue faltered on his contention that he needs his gun because crime is spiraling out of control, and the country is not as safe as it was 20 years ago.

This, of course, is false: Crime is at historic lows. In 1993, according to the FBI, the violent-crime rate was 747.1 per 100,000 people. In 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available, it was 386.9. Almost 10,000 fewer people were murdered in 2012 than in 1993.

My reader was impressed with none of this. “Forget stats,” he said, “talk to victims.” If I did, I’d learn that road rage and knockout incidents are way up and that nightly, there are home invasions, robberies, stabbings and, ahem, shootings.

His insistence on perception over fact is emblematic of the nation we’ve become, so terrified by local TV news and its over-reportage of street crime that we think every shadow has eyes and we need guns in school, the bar, the movies, church.

Until some of us get over this media-driven paranoia, even promising ideas for ending the guns impasse are doomed. So I will close with some words of advice to anyone thinking of visiting or living in Florida or any other state of American insanity. One word, actually:


By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., The National Memo, January 29, 2014

January 30, 2014 Posted by | Gun Violence, Guns | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It’s All About Who’s In The White House”: Republicans Only Oppose NSA When ‘Big Brother’ Isn’t Them

Let’s cut to the chase: If Big Brother wants you, he’s got you, Act 215 telephone “metadata” notwithstanding. This disconcerting fact of modern life has been true more or less since the invention of the camera, the microphone and the tape recorder.

See the excellent German film The Lives of Others for details. The Stasi managed to collect vast libraries of gossip and slander against East German citizens entirely without computerized databases. It wasn’t people’s smartphones that betrayed them to the secret police, because they didn’t have any. Mostly it was colleagues, neighbors, friends and family.

Similarly, when J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI wanted to dig the dirt on Martin Luther King, they bugged his hotel rooms and infiltrated his inner circle with hired betrayers. Once the target was chosen, technological wizardry was secondary.

I am moved to these observations by the fact that the Republican National Committee has now joined the Snowdenista left in pretending to be outraged by something they manifestly do not fear.

The same GOP that rationalized torture and cheered the Bush administration’s use of warrantless wiretaps as recently as 2006 now denounces the National Security Agency’s “Section 215” bulk collection of telephone data as “an invasion into the personal lives of American citizens that violates the right of free speech and association afforded by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

Oh, and the Fourth Amendment too. See, keeping a no-names database of phone numbers called, date, time and duration threatens fundamental privacy rights, although actual wiretapping evidently did not. Never mind that Republicans in Congress approved it.

It’s easy to suspect that for the RNC, it’s all about who’s in the White House. The End.

However, there’s an equivalent amount of exaggeration at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Partly for dramatic effect, people talk about data collection as if it were equivalent to surveillance.

Here’s the estimable blogger Digby Parton on the “chilling effect” of NSA data hoarding:

“It’s the self-censorship, the hesitation, the fear that what you say or write or otherwise express today could be lurking somewhere on what Snowden referred to as your ‘permanent record’ and come back to haunt you in the future. The collection of all this mass data amounts to a government dossier on every individual who has a cell phone or a computer. It’s forcing journalists, teachers and political dissidents to be afraid of doing their jobs and exercising their democratic rights. It’s making average citizens think twice about even doing silly things like search Amazon for pressure cookers or take a look at a controversial web-site.”

I don’t think Digby herself is afraid for one minute. I know I’m not. Are you?

She adds that “no matter how much you may trust Barack Obama not to abuse that information, it was only a few years ago that a man named Dick Cheney had access to it.”

Point taken.

Oddly enough, that’s pretty much what President Obama had to say in his speech proposing NSA reforms: “Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say: Trust us. We won’t abuse the data we collect. For history has too many examples when that trust has been breached.”

Accordingly, Obama proposed several reforms calculated to make misuse of NSA data more unlikely. He accepted the suggestion of his own commission to take telephone records out of NSA’s control. Instead, the data would be stored either by the phone companies where it originates or by some third party as yet undefined.

To access that database, NSA would need an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. No intelligence bureaucrat would be able to spy on his ex-wife or your mother-in-law strictly on his own say-so.

The president also proposed adding citizen advocates to the FISA court specifically to defend civil liberties—making that body function less like a grand jury and more like a court of law. He added a presidential directive explicitly forbidding NSA from spying upon domestic political critics.

Obama would also sharply limit the number of people whose records can be searched even with a valid FISA warrant.

Taken together, these are fairly substantial reforms. As a pro-cop liberal, I worry that forcing NSA to gather data from hither and yon might prove too cumbersome in an emergency. Sometimes, though, perfect efficiency ill accords with democratic values.

Meanwhile, however, the 18th century ain’t coming back. Anybody who imagines that NSA data gathering and cyber-espionage are going away may as well yearn for a world where there are no hostile, anti-democratic powers or mad religious extremists eager to bring down the Great Satan through whatever combination of sabotage and mayhem they can inflict. Indeed, we must pray that our adversaries are as fearful and intimidated by U.S. intelligence agencies as are some of our more imaginative countrymen.

By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, January 29, 2014

January 30, 2014 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Republicans | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Sinister Policy Implications”: The GOP’s Glaring State Of The Union Hypocrisies

The 19th-Century British politician Benjamin Disraeli once said, “A conservative government is an organized hypocrisy.”  This was obviously a prescient review of the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address.

Mind you, it’s hard to know which Republican response to respond to, given that there were (at least) four.  But let’s start with the official one, delivered by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wa), the highest-ranking woman in the House Republican caucus.  With a lulling tone and a living room-like backdrop, McMorris Rodgers’s response was less like a speech and more like a bedtime story trying to use her sweet biography to mask more sinister policy implications.

McMorris Rodgers spoke of her son, who has Down’s Syndrome. The doctors, McMorris Rodgers said, “told us all the problems. But when we looked at our son, we saw only possibilities.”  That was the moral of her story, that we all have boundless and equal opportunity in life and the only thing getting in our way is government—because of Democrats.   What a nice story.  It just happens to be utterly untrue.

Take just one example—when McMorris Rodgers insisted, “Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not the government’s.”  Planned Parenthood quickly pointed out that just five hours before McMorris Rodgers spoke those words, House Republicans passed a set of sweeping bills that would significantly reduce the number of private health insurance plans that cover abortion.  That, in other words, is Republicans using government to interfere in the private marketplace and control the decisions that women about their own bodies.

Disraeli might be disappointed—a well organized hypocrisy would probably wait at least 24 hours before uttering such a flagrant contradiction.   But wait, there’s more.

McMorris Rodgers added, “whether you’re a boy with Down syndrome or a woman with breast cancer … you can find coverage and a doctor who will treat you.”  What a great idea!  Hey, there should be a health care reform law that prohibits private insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions—which, of course, is only possible if we expand the pool of people in private insurance pools.  Republicans should, I dunno, get behind a law that supports that, doncha think?  Instead of voting again and again and again to repeal it?

McMorris Rodgers started her speech by noting that she worked at a McDonald’s drive-thru to help pay for college and then, after talking about her son, said, “whether we are born with an extra twenty-first chromosome or without a dollar to our name—we are not defined by our limits, but by our potential.”  Yes, but the problem is that Republican policies are expressly limiting that potential.  When we allow highly profitable corporations like McDonald’s to pay their workers poverty wages at the same time we give those big businesses giant tax breaks and government handouts, we are limiting the potential for hard work to pay off in America.  When instead of passing comprehensive immigration reform, we allow unscrupulous employers to exploit undocumented workers—driving down wages and working conditions for immigrants and citizens alike—we undermine equal opportunity.  When we fail to acknowledge the simple reality that women and people of color and rural white folks in America face profound wage and wealth disparities not because they don’t try hard but because of policies that have stacked the deck against them, policies Republicans have continued to embrace, we naively pretend that the playing field of opportunity in America is a level one.  It is not.

Talking about your son with Down’s Syndrome as a metaphor for the values of a Republican Party that cut federal funding for Down’s Syndrome research over the past several years is hypocrisy.  Being a major political party that represents millions of Americans and yet fails to grasp the very real barriers to opportunity those Americans face, barriers made worse by your own policies, is beyond hypocritical.  It’s sad.


By: Sally Kohn, The Daily Beast, January 29, 2014

January 30, 2014 Posted by | GOP, State of the Union | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Is Barack Obama A Tyrant?”: Spoiler Alert, The Answer Is No

A typical State of the Union address is criticized for being a “laundry list,” little more than an endless string of proposals the president would like to see enacted. The criticism usually has two parts: first, most of the items on the laundry list will never come to pass, and second, it makes for a boring speech (the pundits who make the criticism seem to care more about the second part). Last night’s SOTU didn’t have the usual laundry list (which of course meant that it was criticized for being too vague), but the one specific proposal getting much attention today is President Obama’s idea to require that on future federal contracts, all workers be paid at least $10.10 per hour. So naturally, Republicans are crying that this is the latest example of Obama’s tyrannical rule, in which he ruthlessly ignores the law whenever he pleases.

As Ted Cruz wrote in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Of all the troubling aspects of the Obama presidency, none is more dangerous than the president’s persistent pattern of lawlessness, his willingness to disregard the written law and instead enforce his own policies via executive fiat.” Is there anything to this criticism? Is Obama more of a tyrant than, say, his immediate predecessor? Let’s take a look.

We’ve seen this again and again with Republican critiques of Obama, that a substantive criticism over a policy often gives way to a process criticism. For instance, Republicans often complain that the Affordable Care Act was “rammed through” Congress before anyone had a chance to know what was happening, by which they mean it was debated for over a year, sent through endless hearings, and eventually passed by both houses of congress and signed by the President, and how could that be legitimate? In this case, they know that debating the merits of a minimum wage increase is a political loser, since an increase is supported by between two-thirds and three-quarters of the public in every poll. So it’s much safer to criticize this executive order as inherently unlawful.

In this particular case, however, there’s no question that what President Obama has proposed is neither illegal nor particularly tyrannical. Does the president have the authority to set rules that federal contractors must abide by through an executive order? Yes he does. Does that extend to the wages of the employees who work on federal contracts? Yes it does. If Congress wanted to pass a law rewriting these rules, it could, but unless it does, the president can do it himself. And of course, the next president could reverse Obama’s rules if he or she chose.

So there’s nothing illegal or oppressive about this executive order; the problem conservatives have with it is substantive. It’s possible, however, that they have a broader case to make that Obama is a tyrant. This is a familiar debate, because all presidents chafe at the limits on their power, and many have tried to test those limits. For instance, George W. Bush pushed at the limits of presidential power mostly in the area of national security. I myself can recall using the “tyranny” word with regard to the case of Jose Padilla, whom you may recall as the “dirty bomber,” though the government eventually gave up their assertion that he planned to set off a dirty bomb. What was so dangerous about the Padilla case was that the official position of the Bush administration was that the president had the authority to order a U.S. citizen arrested on U.S. soil, then imprison him for life without charging him with any crime or giving him a trial. It also held that the courts had no right to examine their decision to do so. I do not exaggerate; that was their position. (In the end, when the Supreme Court was about to rule on the case and it was clear the administration would lose, they changed course and put Padilla through the civilian criminal justice system, after holding him for years without charge and subjecting him to a program of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation that quite literally drove him insane.)

There were other memorable ways the Bush administration asserted, sometimes quite openly, that it was above the law. Sometimes it would simply attach a new name to what it was doing; torture is illegal, so when we torture prisoners, we’re not actually torturing them, we’re using “enhanced interrogation.” My personal favorite may be when Dick Cheney proclaimed that as a member of the executive branch, he could use executive privilege as a justification for ignoring congressional subpoenas for documents, but that he was also exempt from laws covering the executive branch, because the vice president is also President of the Senate and therefore part of the legislative branch, though he isn’t subject to their rules either. Cheney declared himself a kind of quantum government official, existing simultaneously in both places yet in neither place, so that he was subject to no laws that restrained either branch.

As for President Obama, there are certainly some areas in which he has tested the limits of presidential power. Just like every president before him, he has made recess appointments when Congress is in something that may or may not qualify as a “true” recess (the Supreme Court is taking up this question). He ordered that deportations of “dreamers”—young people brought to America illegally who are completing school or military service—should be a low enforcement priority, which was a legal way of temporarily creating a situation similar to a law (the DREAM Act) that hasn’t yet been passed. And he has delayed some of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act like the employer mandate, which conservatives cried was outside his authority to do, complete with the requisite invocations of King George III. But as Simon Lazarus noted, delays of regulatory enforcement are common, and the courts rarely find the delay illegal unless it goes on indefinitely and can’t be justified.

In all these cases, it’s true that Obama sought ways to bend the law to his policy preferences. But in every case, he found a way, completely within the law.  (As it happens, Obama has issued relatively few executive orders—168 so far, compared to George W. Bush’s 291, Bill Clinton’s 364, Ronald Reagan’s 381, and Franklin Roosevelt’s 3,522. The volume doesn’t tell you how many of the orders were constitutionally questionable, of course, but if he were really a tyrant one might think he’d work harder at it.) That’s what’s happening with the minimum wage; he can’t raise it for all workers without Congress passing an increase into law, but he can raise it for those who work on federal contracts, so that’s what he’s going to do.

You may recall that some conservatives have been calling Barack Obama a tyrant almost from the moment he took office. That’s because they viewed his very occupation of the White House as fundamentally illegitimate, so anything he does must by definition be outside the law. For months they railed angrily against White House “czars” who were supposedly wielding unaccountable power and were the prime evidence of Obama’s tyrannical rule, even though none of them could explain what a “czar” was and how it differed from a person who works on the White House staff. But that lessened their fury not a whit. And none of them were concerned in the least about the ways George W. Bush circumvented the law. That’s because they agreed with the substance of Bush’s policies.

So no, Barack Obama is not a tyrant. If conservatives want to argue that it would be a bad thing if people working on federal contracts made an extra buck or two, they should try to make that case. But I doubt they will.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, January 29, 2014

January 30, 2014 Posted by | Republicans, State of the Union | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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