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Bizarre campaign ad leads many to ask: 'What is up with Donald Trump Jr. in this video?'

Usually I provide a transcript with these videos, no matter how fucknutted the fucknuttery. But this is one you just have to watch because, seriously, I can't begin to fathom what's going on with Don Jr. in this clip.

Yeah, that's just what we need. A stupefied weirdo summoning a shambolic army of conspiracy-loving "poll watchers."

This is a guy who's accused Joe Biden of using drugs to get through speeches and debates. This guy. The guy who looks like he's auditioning for an after-school special about the life-altering effects of bath salts abuse.

And why is he reading it like it's a hostage video or a quotidian announcement from the Borg Queen?

Seriously, it looks like they shot this three seconds after sandblasting the crusty night gunk out of his face.

I think one of those gyros places on State Street in Madison still has a photo of me taped to their cash register looking like this — with a warning not to serve me.

I've never tried coke, and I probably never will, but if I do wake up some morning with a hankerin', I know now that my first call will be to the Republican National Committee.

Now, I'm not saying Don Jr. is stoned in this video, because accusing someone of taking drugs when you have no proof is really irresponsible (right, Don Jr.?), but he sure doesn't look good. Maybe it's COVID.

I don't know — something is going on.

Many people are saying that.

Many, many people.

news & politics

Here's the real reason Trump is being so open about his plot to steal the election

Donald Trump's refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses in November should alarm every American. "You know that I have been complaining very strongly about the ballots,” he said on Wednesday. “Get rid of the ballots and you'll have a very peaceful — there won't be a transfer frankly. There'll be a continuation.” It was Stalin-esque.

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election '20

Ralph Nader offers practical advice for casting informed votes

Here is some practical advice for casting informed votes to improve the livelihoods of all Americans where they live, work, and raise their children and also to lessen their anxiety, dread, and fear.

Democratic voters should demand that the Democratic Party candidates pledge to vote to (1) raise the long frozen, federal minimum wage of $7.25 to a living wage; (2) support more efficient full Medicare for All (with free choice of doctors and hospitals and no cruel, irritating networks); (3) repeal Trump's two trillion dollar tax cut, with additional loopholes for the rich, and huge corporate subsidies and giveaways; and to use the money to upgrade and rebuild the job-rich public works sector as well as the infrastructure in every community in the country – both in the red and blue states; (4) crack down, with law and order, on the corporate crimewave that bleeds consumers out of trillions of dollars a year; (5) repeal anti-labor laws to facilitate empowering tens of millions of workers who want to join unions to defend their economic and safety interests; and (6) accelerate the transition to a solar-based economy with better air, water, greater neighborhood self-reliance, and to reduce the devastating climate disruption from the burning of fossil fuels.

Democratic candidates will benefit by embracing such a covenant. Moreover, candidates who repeat the planks of this covenant incessantly and authentically in political communications and grassroots mobilizations will be seen as caring for the people in their daily lives and struggles in all the states of our union.

This covenant can be contrasted with the offerings of the Republican Party, which failed to adopt a new platform for 2020. Instead, the Republican National Committee (RNC) said, "The RNC enthusiastically supports President Trump and continues to reject the policy positions of the Obama-Biden Administration, as well as those espoused by the Democratic National Committee today…" The RNC largely supports turning the government over to Big Business and further entrenching Wall Street rule over Main Street.

The contrast also illustrates the Republican Party's callous indifference to the immediate desperate needs of millions of Americans. Senate tyrant Mitch McConnell is blocking the House-passed six-month renewal of the much needed $600 a week Covid-19-driven assistance for families nationwide. This and other crucial aid to states and localities is necessary to make schools safer and to provide protective equipment and other assistance to patients in hospitals and clinics, and to nursing home residents.

Monopolist Mitch is shafting his own state of Kentucky while hypocritically seeking the people's votes for his re-election to extend his long and evil tenure in the Senate, and his more recent total toadying for Trump.

Trump and his "gangster regime" (conservative columnist George Will's words) have failed to deliver on Trump's phony 2016 campaign promises on health care, clean air and water, and creating millions of good-paying jobs. And, with Mitch McConnell's help, Trump has jeopardized public health, soiled the environment, and abandoned workers to global corporations.

Now a few words for voters inclined to support dictator Donald Trump. You surely admit Trump did not deliver for you. How long can you wait? Now, Trump is gathering large crowds of supporters who, shoulder-to-shoulder and mostly without masks, listen to him scoff at the Covid-19 pandemic as he and they flaunt mask requirements in violation of state and local laws. When asked about the safety of these events, Trump ignores public safety and says that he is on the stage and safely far away from the crowd. At least dangerous Donald is not passing out little cups of bleach.

Donald Trump is the hyper-super spreader of the deadly Covid-19 virus and he is endangering the tens of thousands of people attending his rallies. Ask your physician about this 'clear and present danger' to public health and life.

Now, about the reasons you voted for devious Donald in 2016 other than the "anybody but Hillary" rationale. Many Trump voters want anti-choice judges. (You may not recall, for years, Trump was pro-choice.) But the hundreds of federal judges nominated by Trump are also clenched-teeth corporatists, who rule for corporations when the conflicts involve the lives of workers, consumers, and the environment. They are dyed-in-the-wool boosters of expanding big business power and control over you. These extremist judges also support big foreign and domestic corporations getting lavish tax breaks and taxpayer subsidies.

Some people like Trump's talk about "de-regulation," getting big government off your back. In reality, Trump is taking the federal cops off the backs of corporate crooks and de-funding the corporate crime police. This year Trump brazenly said he is stopping or limiting enforcement of the laws designed to protect consumers from companies that sell you and your children hazardous products, pollute your air and water, defraud you in the marketplace, and fail to recall your defective cars/trucks.

Trump even announced in March that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would suspend or postpone inspection of imports from abroad, including the bulk of the medicines that Trump still allows to be imported from China. One would think some serious hoodwinking or just plain lying is going on here.

Well, you might say – at least Trump cut taxes. Come-on, the vast benefits of his tax cuts went to the rich and big corporations. All those bonanzas could have been used to fix your roads, bridges, mass transits, schools, clinics, and drinking water systems. Egomaniac Trump doesn't care about you; for him, it's about using the government to enrich himself and his family members and to bail out his failing hotels and golf courses.

Maybe you still like Trump because he says he is against immigrants "invading" our country. Trump, however, had no problem illegally hiring undocumented workers for his golf course and his residences (and earlier for his construction projects in New York), until he was exposed. Trump has no concern for the exploited foreign workers in the meatpacking, poultry processing, and agribusiness companies owned by his campaign-contributing buddies.

Before you cast your ballot, let's toast your informed self-respect as clear-minded voters who can see an immoral, law-breaking, greedy Trump regime full of plutocrats who couldn't care less about America and the people they've exploited.


Trump made a promise he never intended to keep: 'There was no plan'

Bob Kemper recalls the hope Donald Trump intentionally stirred in 2016 by pledging to revive manufacturing and keep factories busy producing steel, aluminum and other materials for a major infrastructure overhaul.

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Netflix stands by decision to adapt novel written by supporter of China's Uyghur persecution

Netflix has stood by a decision to adapt a sci-fi novel written by an author who made disparaging remarks about China's Uyghur Muslim minority.The entertainment service stood by its decision in a letter addressed to Republican senators who asked it to reconsider adapting Liu Cixin's 'The Three Body Problem' for home streaming. Liu sparked controversy when he voiced support for China's detention of over a million Uyghur Muslims in so-called reeducation camps."Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks?" Liu said in an interview with theNew ...


Invasive sea lampreys in Great Lakes, and the lake trout they prey on, puzzle scientists

DETROIT — It’s a mystery. Invasive sea lamprey, the Great Lakes’ biggest predator, primarily feed on lake trout, one of the lakes’ most prized sports fish. When trout populations are high, researchers expect to see fewer lamprey-wounded fish, and more of those wounds when lamprey populations are spiking.But that’s not always what scientists are finding.New research into what may be behind the discrepancies holds promise to improve how sea lampreys are controlled in the Great Lakes, protecting a $7 billion fishery. It could allow lamprey managers to examine whether they have switched to other f...


Barr to be honored for ‘Christlike behavior’ with award from right wing Catholic group with strong ties to Trump

Attorney General Bill Barr will be honored for his “Christlike behavior” at Wednesday’s National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, according to Roman Catholic Sister, author, and anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean.

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human rights

Reporters from a conservative outlet get arrested at Louisville protests

Two reporters from the conservative outlet The Daily Caller were arrested Wednesday night while reporting on the protests and unrest Louisville, Kentucky, over the police killing of Breonna Taylor. The reporters were not, from all appearances, doing anything other than their jobs.

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more news

Nancy Pelosi now has real leverage over Mitch McConnell. Here's how she should use it

Over the past year I have been a strong and consistent critic of Nancy Pelosi's very cautious approach to the impeachment of Donald Trump. I continue to believe that it was foolish for House Democrats to focus so narrowly on the Ukraine matter, and equally foolish to rush forward to impeachment on the basis of that alone. More could have, and should have, been done to strengthen the case against the President. It might also have helped to build a strong political case looking toward the 2020 elections.

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Why Trump's Supreme Court nominee believes all Civil Rights legislation is 'illegitimate'

Amy Coney Barrett regards herself as an "originalist," that is, someone who believes that all legal decisions must be based on the "original understanding" of the Constitution. This is often put forward as a straightforward, consistent lens through which law can be viewed, rather than trying to put into context little things like shifting views on race and gender equality. However, originalism is further complicated by a split between groups focused on "intent" and those focused on "meaning." And if you think those are the same things … well, you're just wrong. Intentionalists believe the law is determined by what the original authors of the Constitution intended when they took quill to parchment. Those focused on meaning insist that they support the "public meaning" of the words at the time they were written. People who, like Barrett, belong to the later group, insist that their interpretation is more consistent.

In fact, both approaches require jurists to peer into the minds of 18th-century Americans, interpreting words, attitudes, and relationships that have shifted enormously over two and a half centuries. In short, any claim that the nation can be properly governed by divining the inner monologue of wig-wearing slaveholders not only makes about as much sense as using the plans for a Conestoga wagon as the repair manual on the Space Shuttle, it's also just plain bullshit.

But there's something even more odd about how conservatives like Barrett apply originalism. Because they seem to believe that the "original meaning" of every word and phrase just happens to be a conservative meaning. And where they can't find the meaning that they want, these dedicated preservationists have a second approach … throw it out. Throw it all out. Like the entire 14th Amendment.

The 13th Amendment may have abolished slavery when it was ratified in 1865, but it took the14th and 15th Amendments to define what the end of slavery really meant in terms of law. After all, slavery is more than just forced labor. If slavery "ended" but some people still were denied equal protection, equal rights, and equal representation, was slavery really over? It took until 1868 for the 14th Amendment, upholding citizenship rights and equal protection, to be ratified. It wasn't until 1870 that the 15th Amendment extended this to voting rights.

As far as the 14th Amendment goes, it includes what are now referred to as the Citizenship Clause, the Privileges Clause, the Due Process Clause, and the Equal Protection Clause. In short, it says that everyone born in the United States is a full citizen, with the full rights due to a citizen, and can't be deprived of those rights unless they're given due process of law. All of this makes the 14th Amendment integral to questions of citizenship, and foundational for Civil Rights legislation. It's such an important amendment, that legal scholars have called it "the second Constitution" for its attempts to tear out the elements of slavery built into the original document. Among other things, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 rests entirely on the authority granted to Congress by the 14th Amendment.

For clarity, here's Section 1 of the 14th Amendment.

"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

That's not just pretty straightforward, it's a pretty undeniable good. So how did it come to be that when Barrett writes about this text, she mentions it in this way.

"Congress has to decide whether to … rely on the power conferred by the possibly illegitimate Fourteenth Amendment." Or … "The originalist legislator might have to face questions … such as the legitimacy of the Fourteenth Amendment."

How did originalists, the people who are supposed to be following the text as written, come to doubt the legitimacy of a whole chunk of that text? Specifically, how did they come to X-out the part of the Constitution that ensures rights are extended to people of color and children of immigrants?

Back in 2011, The Atlantic took a look at this question and how conservative Republicans became "14th Amendment deniers." For some Republicans, the 14th Amendment was viewed as being only intended to help those who had been directly enslaved, and not applicable to future generations. This view has become common in right-wing media, and sorry as that sounds, it's not even the most radical view.

The even uglier approach has been to outright challenge the validity of 14th Amendment because members of Confederate states were not seated in Congress when the amendment was proposed just after the end of the Civil War. Because of this, say the deniers, the Congress itself was illegitimate, and so anything it recommended—including the 14th and 15th Amendments—are illegitimate.

This is not even worthy of being called a "myth." There is not the least bit of justification under law to support this position. There never has been. However, this claim has become deeply embedded in the whole Lost Cause, South Shall Rise Again, Back to the Cotton Fields culture of conservatives—especially Southern conservatives. And just like Confederate statues, this mythology has found admirers in the modern Republican Party.

How far has it gone in the past? Far enough that in 1957, Georgia's state legislature passed a resolution titled "A memorial to Congress of the United States of America urging them to enact such legislation as they may deem fit to declare that the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution of the United States were never validly adopted and that they are null and void and of no effect." The reason that Georgia did this in 1957 was simple—it wanted to uphold segregation, and it rightfully understood that the 14th Amendment made that position impossible.

To be absolutely clear, there is nothing in textual originalism that requires adherents to view the 14th or 15th Amendments as any less legitimate than any other additions to the original document. The idea of the "illegitimate 14th Amendment" is simply not a serious legal argument. It is white supremacist mythology that has gained supporters within the Republican Party specifically because it presents the basis by which all Civil Rights legislation can be undone.

That Barrett brings up questions of the 14th Amendment being legitimate in her writings with considerable frequency and apparent support should be an absolute bullhorn to the nation that she believes all Civil Rights legislation to rest on thin air. While Barrett has listed Brown vs. Board of Education among those Court decisions she regards as "super-precedents," she voted in 2017 to refuse a re-hear a case in which a company segregated employees by race to different locations. She has clearly stated her opposition to marriage equality, denied that rights extend to transgender Americans, and all that is on top of her direct threat to Roe.

Amy Coney Barrett stands as a threat to not just everything Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg achieved in her career, but to work that has been upheld by many members of the court—Democrats and Republicans—over the last half-century and more. She's not an originalist, she's an "eraserist."

Trump’s Supreme Court pick has a serious problem with the Constitution

Nomination of conservative Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court makes us think about the role of government in our lives and the Republican majority view of winning vs. fairness.

That her lifetime confirmation will change the direction of the Supreme Court for many years is a given, and, as it happens a sop toward Donald Trump's re-election efforts.

But what is there to learn here?

Here's the good news about nominee Barrett: There will be no nonsense about a woman as the nominee, and minimal attention on her choices about religion, lifestyle and what she wears. She will get the same black robe as the rest.

It finally is a choice that is about ideas and about visions of what we want as a nation – even if it comes as forced march by a Senate that has no time to deal with coronavirus aid.

Her professed allegiance to "originalism" in the law, the mostly conservative but often libertarian view that the original words of the Constitution and the law should suffice for modern challenges—a view she shares with the other recently named justices — is something we need to understand to chart the Court's future.

We can expect that originalism, for example, will become the substantial legal argument that will lead her to vote to overturn the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, over narrow interpretations of tax law, or to eliminate legal abortion as having been argued previously under the "wrong" section of the Constitution. It's not her particular brand of Catholicism that will drive her anti-abortion decision-making – though she is seriously anti-abortion as a person – but her insistence on interpreting the Constitution literally that will lead to the same place.

Barrett's Record

In her record as clerk, law professor and judge, there is evidence of far more – a tendency to view the Bill of Rights as anything but generous for life choices. Mark Joseph Stern, who writes about law for Slate, noted that in reading through all of her written decisions, what comes across is not conservatism as much as a certain meanness about the fate of the individual against business, institutions and government.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg saw the Bill of Rights and civil rights acts as generous guarantees of human dignity that must be read expansively to achieve their purpose. By contrast, Barrett's view of the law is fundamentally cruel. During her three years on the 7thCircuit Court of Appeals, Barrett either has written or joined a remarkable number of opinions that harm unpopular and powerless individuals who rely on the judiciary to safeguard their rights.

"Faced with two plausible readings of a law, fact, or precedent, Barrett always seems to choose the harsher, stingier interpretation. Can job applicants sue employers whose policies have a disproportionately deleterious impact on older people? Barrett said no. Should courts halt the deportation of an immigrant who faced torture at home? Barrett said no. Should they protect refugees denied asylum on the basis of xenophobic prejudice? Barrett said no. Should they shield prisoners from unjustified violence by correctional officers? Barrett said no. Should minors be allowed to terminate a pregnancy without telling their parents if a judge has found that they're mature enough to make the decision? Barrett said no. Should women be permitted to obtain an abortion upon discovering a severe fetal abnormality? Barrett said no."

Per her record, If the case is about religion or guns, Barrett is for the individual; if it is about abortion or gender, Barrett seems to forget about the individual.

Barrett has criticized Chief Justice John Roberts' decisions to uphold narrowly Obamacare, presumably in part out of a belief that the Court is in no position to simply strip 20 million Americans of health care. So, health care rather than abortion undoubtedly will be the key question that Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee find for focus – because Barrett is on the record. There is no Republican legislative remedy for this, and we will have yet more chaos in the midst of a pandemic – for the right to uphold a strict interpretation of Constitutional law.

From past decisions, it is clear that she will uphold the Trump steamroller to obliterate environmental regulations and to monitor labor grievances or regulate Wall Street.

Futile Confirmation Hearings?

With the votes already lined up, the idea of confirmation hearings seems almost futile. Nevertheless, it is a chance for us to feel as if we know what we will be getting into.

My question for Barrett is this: We get the originalism idea, but how does that concept allow us to pick and choose its way about protection of the individual?

I want to know how she matches the specifics of the law – and its legal precedents – with the realities we face in our country.

Do we believe in justice that advances individual rights? If so, why is religion a shield, and consumerist legislation not? Why is legislation that enables government to decide what constitutes marriage OK, and individual rights to health treatments not OK? Why are Americans to be afforded the right to assault weapons but not clean air? What is the role of actions to balance centuries of racial unfairness?

There is a certain sense that the approach is more important than a sense of "justice." These confirmation hearings always are a bit of a crapshoot since the judges won't really talk about their views. But an examination of their records should tell us about how they approach the job.

There will be attempts to ask about her affiliation with People of Praise, a religious group that until recently referred to its female leaders as "handmaids" ― evoking comparisons to Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel "The Handmaid's Tale." I hope they are set aside quickly – other than establishing that personal beliefs are no substitute for creating a legal precedent.

The Court is about to launch a revolution in exact opposition to the majority of its citizenry. We need to understand how we deal with that.

'Truly horrifying': Fury mounts over Trump nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to SCOTUS

President Donald Trump's nomination Saturday of Seventh Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court sparked a chorus of outrage from Democrats and progressive groups who warned her confirmation could shift the court to one that would dismantle the Affordable Care Act and "work to preserve the Trump agenda for decades to come."

'"To maintain security, liberty and prosperity, we must preserve our priceless heritage of a nation of laws," Trump said during the Rose Garden announcement. "And there's no one better to do that than Amy Coney Barrett.

In her remarks at the ceremony, 48-year-old Barrett praised her former mentor, the late right-wing Justice Antonin Scalia, saying that "his judicial philosophy is mine too."

Republicans, who refused to hold hearings for President Barack Obama's SCOTUS election year nominee Merrick Garland, have already set up a lightning fast timeline for a confirmation vote to replace the seat held by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, reportedly as soon as Oct. 29. That's despite new polling showing a majority of Americans want the seat filled after Election Day.

"Trump's nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett means yet another ultra-conservative jurist could be confirmed to a lifetime term on the court—and that is unacceptable."
—Sean Eldridge, Stand Up America Trump critics say the swift timeline and Barrett's voting record mean issues including access to healthcare and ballots and reproductive and LGBTQ rights—as well as the outcome of the presidential election—are under immediate threat.

In an op-ed published Friday at the Washington Post, David Cole, national legal director of the ACLU and a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, wrote that if Barrett is confirmed, "the resulting shift [to the Supreme Court] will be tectonic."

The change would "fundamentally alter the court's ideological balance, giving it six conservatives and three liberals," wrote Cole, who pointed to major rulings in the past decade that were decided in narrow 5-4 rulings, including the United States v. Windsor marriage equality case.

The top court is already scheduled to begin hearing arguments in a case challenging the legality of Obamacare November 10.

"Trump's nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett means yet another ultra-conservative jurist could be confirmed to a lifetime term on the court—and that is unacceptable," Stand Up America founder and president Sean Eldridge said in a statement Saturday.

"The American people see this rushed process for what it is," said Eldridge. "An attempt to cement a right-wing supermajority on the highest court in order to dismantle the Affordable Care Act in the middle of a pandemic and overturn Roe v. Wade."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who made Medicare for All a pillar of his presidential bids, also warned that millions more Americans could join the ranks of the uninsured if Barrett is confirmed.

"President Trump and Senate Republicans have badly mismanaged a deadly pandemic for months. Now, in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis, they are willing to ram through a Supreme Court nominee—within days—who will vote to destroy the Affordable Care Act, kick millions of Americans off their healthcare, and eliminate protections for millions more who have preexisting conditions," said Sanders.

"This is an absolute outrage," he said.

According to advocacy group Indivisible, "Barrett is a conservative's dream to fill RBG's seat." In a Twitter thread following her formal nomination, the group highlighted parts of Barrett's voting record to show why she is "a truly horrifying pick":

Writing at Intelligencer, Sarah Jones likened Barrett to Equal Rights Amendment foe Phyllis Schlafly to emphasize the Trump nominee's far-reaching threats. Jones wrote Saturday:

For all the power the right wing is about to hand her, though, Barrett has indeed chosen a self-limiting ideology, and not just because of her views on Roe. Conservative women aren't interested solely in abolishing abortion, or in limiting the scope of modern gender equality laws. Schlafly was an anti-communist who belonged to the John Birch Society before she ever campaigned against the ERA. Her anti-feminism comprised one strand of a comprehensively dangerous ideology. The women who serve the Trump administration aren't much different, and neither is Barrett. A Supreme Court justice with right-wing perspectives on labor, the environment, immigration, and criminal justice can harm women from all backgrounds in all aspects of their lives. That is the intention, and not the accidental byproduct, of constitutional originalism. As embraced by jurists like Barrett and her old boss, Antonin Scalia, originalism is its own dogma; the extension of a political theology committed to an older and more exclusionary version of America.

Barrett understands all that. She's exactly as intelligent as her advocates say, and she's made all her choices with a sound mind. Her reward is power. If she's confirmed by the Senate, she'll be able to finish what Schlafly once started. She could help lock in Trump for another four years. She'll be able to deal democracy and yes, the feminist movement the blows the Christian right has dreamed of landing for years.

In light of what's at stake, Barrett's critics are calling on senators, Democrats and Republicans alike, to refuse to vote on a replacement for RBG's seat until after the election.

Among that chorus are Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, co-chairs of the Democratic Attorneys General Association.

"The nomination of arch-conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett should alarm anyone who cares about the future of this country," said Healey and Rosenblum, warning that "healthcare, marriage equality, the right to abortion, worker protections, access to the ballot box, and so much more" is on the line.

"To every member of the Senate: find your backbone, buck McConnell, and let the people vote first," they said.

People For the American Way president Ben Jealous directed his attention to Republican senators, asking in a statement: "Will they follow Trump and Mitch McConnell over the cliff in ramming this disastrous nomination through? Or will they stand up for their constituents who want their healthcare protected and expanded during this pandemic, and the millions of Americans who could lose coverage for preexisting conditions?"

"It comes down to this," said Jealous. "Senators who ignore the will of the people so they can put another nail in the coffin of healthcare are putting another nail in the coffins of their own constituents. Come November, voters will remember this betrayal."

Sitting federal prosecutor says AG Barr has ‘brought shame’ and ‘unprecedented politicization’ to DOJ

Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts James D. Herbert on Thursday slammed Attorney General William Barr for his "unprecedented politicization" of the Department of Justice, marking the first time a sitting U.S. attorney has publicly rebuked the head of the DOJ.

Herbert made the remarks in a letter published by the Boston Globe, arguing the attorney general's efforts to serve President Donald Trump are "a dangerous abuse of power."

"While I am a federal prosecutor, I am writing to express my own views, clearly not those of the department, on a matter that should concern all citizens: the unprecedented politicization of the office of the attorney general," Herbert wrote. "The attorney general acts as though his job is to serve only the political interests of Donald J. Trump. This is a dangerous abuse of power."

Herbert cited Barr's "misleading summary of the Mueller Report" as one example of the attorney general's apparent willingness to protect the president at the expense of truth. Barr offered his abridged summary of the report in 4-page letter to the members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committee, and also commented on the report during an April 18 press conference. Mueller himself said Barr's letter "did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance" of his report.

"William Barr has done the president's bidding at every turn," Herbert argued in his letter to the Boston Globe. "For 30 years I have been proud to say I work for the Department of Justice, but the current attorney general has brought shame on the department he purports to lead."

Here's why Brad Parscale was a major train wreck for Trump’s reelection campaign: conservative

In an article published by The Bulwark early Tuesday morning, June 23, Never Trump conservative Jonathan V. Last poses a question: why does Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale — following the debacle at President Donald Trump’s June 20 rally in Tulsa — still have a job? And the answer, according to Vanity Fair, appears to be: he probably won’t have one much longer. Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman has reported that Parscale is mulling a resignation from the campaign (though others insist he will stay on).

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Here's the truth about the White House and DOJ's 9 discarded ballots in Pennsylvania

Major news is coming in over the "case" of the nine "discarded" ballots from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania that President Donald Trump revealed to Fox News Radio on Thursday.

Here's what appears to have happened, and we're going to bullet point this so it's easy to follow.

  • The ballots were discarded by a temporary, or "contract" worker assigned to sort the mail who appears to have been following direction.
  • The ballots were military ballots, not absentee or other by-mail ballots.
  • The county immediately reported what happened to federal officials, who appear to have immediately politicized the issue.
  • "Because these ballots were returned in envelopes similar to absentee ballot requests, elections officials opened them," The Washington Post reports. "If the ballots weren't then enclosed in another envelope which shielded the actual vote being cast, they may have been considered 'naked ballots,' a term used to describe mail ballots returned without the voter's intent being protected.
  • The Trump campaign and the Pennsylvania GOP in a lawsuit argued that "naked ballots" should not be counted. They won that lawsuit. These nine ballots appear to be "naked ballots," and that appears to be the reason they were thrown out.

Here's how MSNBC's Chris Hayes sums it up: It's the GOP's fault.

  • The contract worker has been told to not return.
  • Buzzfeed adds it appears the DOJ violated its own policy by issuing a press release about the "discarded" ballots, and even worse, suggesting this is a case of election fraud, and even worse than that, suggesting one candidate over another was favored.
  • MSNBC adds that county officials were not aware of who the ballots were for until the DOJ's press release was issued.
  • Attorney General Bill Barr personally briefed President Trump about the discarded ballots. Trump and his White House press secretary then politicized the event.
  • The county elections supervisor was exceedingly thorough. "Garbage from the Elections Bureau from September 14 through September 16, the time the independent contractor was on County property, was put in a dumpster and secured by County staff," a local Pennsylvania news report states. "The trash was then searched by the FBI, the Luzerne County District Attorney's Office, the Pennsylvania State Police and county staff. All contents relating to the matter were taken by the FBI."

GOP-led legal inquest into Bloomberg helping Florida felons vote condemned as attempted voter suppression

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody's call for state and federal investigations into billionaire Michael Bloomberg's effort to raise millions to pay off court fees to help Florida felons restore their voting rights was a "gross abuse" of power, "voter suppression," "a fearmongering tactic used before" and based on a "fundamental misconception" of anti-corruption laws, according to experienced campaign lawyers and former federal election regulators.

"It's not just that an investigative process and grand jury proceedings would likely extend past Election Day, but also that we've seen this fearmongering tactic used before," said Jonathan Diaz, legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., founded by Trevor Potter, a Republican and ex-Federal Election Commission (FEC) chair. "There are countless examples of elected officials or law enforcement announcing 'bombshell' investigations like this with no evidence of actual wrongdoing (for example, recently in Texas and Georgia) and indeed, no actual conclusions that any misconduct has taken place."

It's "outrageous and likely an extortionate threat designed to suppress the vote and deny citizens their constitutional right to vote," said Benedict Kuehne, the Miami attorney whose team recently won a settlement to save digital images of ballots if there's a presidential election recount. "Not at all unexpected. But still an abuse of power."

The fray is the latest development in one of the nation's most important voting rights battles. Two years ago, a majority of Floridians approved Amendment 4, which restored voting rights for nearly 1.4 million former felons. Florida's Republican-led state government responded by passing laws and going to court to impede the rights' restoration, mainly by requiring former felons to pay off all court fees and fines before being eligible to register to vote.

As legal battles are continuing in the courts—where delays mean that these Floridians won't necessarily be eligible to vote this fall unless they pay fees that typically are between $500 and $5,000—many celebrities and philanthropists have been making donations to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), which led the Amendment 4 campaign, to help pay the fees.

The FRRC raised about $6 million in the past year for that effort, the Miami Herald reported, noting that celebrities like NBA star LeBron James contributed. To date, FRRC has helped about 4,000 people pay off their fines, NPR reported, noting that an estimated 775,000 former felons have unpaid fines.

But a September 22 Washington Post report that said Bloomberg had raised $16 million to help about 32,000 people clear those debts prompted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to ask the state Attorney General Ashley Moody (both are Republicans) to launch federal and state anti-corruption investigations into Bloomberg's effort.

Political Theater

Beyond the obvious election-year politics, the issue is what constitutes illegal vote-buying.

"I sent a letter to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation into potential violations of election laws," Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody said via email. "And I have instructed the Statewide Prosecutor to work with law enforcement and any Statewide Grand Jury that the Governor may call."

On September 23, Moody asked state and federal authorities to investigate whether Bloomberg's efforts, as reported in the Washington Post, violated state and federal laws that make it illegal to give another person anything of value in exchange for their vote. That Washington Post report quoted an unnamed Bloomberg adviser who said that paying the fines "immediately activates tens of thousands of voters who are predisposed to vote for Joe Biden."

"Governor DeSantis has asked that my office review recent allegations found in the enclosed September 22, 2020 Washington Post article and relevant law," began Moody's letter to the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The letter cited a 2016 advisory opinion from Maria Matthews, Florida Division of Elections director, to a now-defunct political committee, saying that "[e]ven otherwise innocuous offering of an incentive simply to vote could run afoul" of corruption laws. Moody concluded, "it appears further investigation is warranted."

The preceding paragraph in that 2016 opinion, which was not cited in Moody's cover letter but was found in attached documents, said that the Division of Elections had concluded in the 1980s that Florida law "does not prohibit a person from giving an elector 'a gift certificate or other consideration if the consideration is not intended to buy or corruptly influence another's vote.'"

That advisory opinion identifies a tipping point—whether a gift is tied to an explicit vote. Its ambiguity—"[it] could run afoul"—is the hinge upon which Florida Republicans have launched an investigation into Bloomberg, implying, but not concluding, that he has crossed a line into vote-buying. That peg was all that right-wing media needed to start attacking Bloomberg.

On the other hand, the clearer prior precedents in Florida Department of State advisory opinions, and Florida and federal laws that absolve Bloomberg of any wrongdoing, are what has drawn extraordinarily strong denunciations of Moody's actions by voting rights attorneys, former campaign finance regulators and Florida Democrats.

"Let's not forget that Florida has spent the last year telling federal courts that these legal debts are simply criminal penalties that have nothing to do with voting and are therefore not a poll tax—but as soon as someone like [former New York] Mayor Bloomberg shows up and offers to help pay them, Florida turns around and accuses him of illegally buying votes," said the Campaign Legal Center's Diaz. "The state can't have it both ways: either it's charging people to vote in violation of the Constitution and this is a poll tax, or it's not, and Mayor Bloomberg has done nothing wrong by donating funds to help people become eligible [voters]."

Another former Federal Election Commissioner, Karl Sandstrom (appointed by President Bill Clinton), said that Florida Attorney General Moody was misapplying legal standards by citing an ambiguous state agency opinion to launch a federal and state anti-corruption probe.

"The Florida attorney general's reading of the relevant statutes flies in [the] face of the rule of lenity which is [a] well-established principle of criminal statutory interpretation that requires a court to apply any unclear or ambiguous law in the manner that is most favorable to the defendant," he said. "Under her interpretation, a corporation that gives employees time off to vote would be guilty of a felony if the corporation expected that were likely to prefer one candidate over another."

"This [gambit] raises voter suppression to a whole new level," said Chris Sautter, an election lawyer specializing in post-election recounts. "What next? Will they start prosecuting voter protection lawyers who advise voters on their rights to cast a ballot?"

Democrats and Florida Lawyers React

Outside of Florida, other seasoned election lawyers said that Bloomberg's effort was legal.

"I'm not a neutral expert on this," said Joseph Sandler, one of the Democratic Party's top campaign lawyers. "But we do advise on this issue all the time, and there's no doubt in my mind this is legal because payment of the fine is not tied to whether the person agrees or promises to commit to vote at all, let alone to vote for a particular party or candidate. The relevant statutes—which go to corruptly influencing a person to vote a certain way—do not remotely apply. The threats of prosecution for this are indeed a gross abuse [of power]."

Inside Florida, Democrats made the same point. Moody was wrong on the vote-buying law.

"I think the fundamental misconception (whether inadvertent or deliberate) is that enabling people to cast a vote is the same thing as telling them, or demanding of them, to vote in a particular way for a particular candidate. That is just not what is happening here," said Joseph Geller, a Democratic state legislator and veteran of Florida's 2000 presidential recount. "These potential voters are being freed to vote, but there is no insistence or requirement as to how they will exercise their discretion as to which candidates they will vote for."

Of course, it is impossible to separate the timing of Moody's call for state and federal investigations from the 2020 election cycle. Her action's purpose was to deter voting by the roughly 32,000 former felons for whom Bloomberg was poised to clear the existing court fees.

"Our thoughts are: yes, donors can pay off the fines and fees of Floridians. The Florida AG's outrageous letter is a blatant voter suppression tactic that has no basis in law," said Corey Goldstone, a Campaign Legal Center spokesman. "We're treating it more like a press release than a serious legal filing. None of these people have to vote, no one has been induced to take any particular action. The donors who are contributing to the Florida Rights Restoration Council merely allows people to be eligible to vote—something that most people enjoy cost-free."

This loan company ripped people off

On an afternoon in mid-June, Analleli Solis was walking home from her brother's house just down the street when she noticed someone she didn't know retreating from the front door of her modest brick home.

Solis approached the woman, who handed her an envelope.

Inside was a lawsuit from Oportun Inc., a personal loan company Solis had turned to for years when she and her husband didn't have enough cash to cover rent, fix their cars or take a vacation.

Now, the company was suing Solis to recoup some of that money, demanding $4,196.23 including fees and interest.

Solis' shock quickly gave way to anger. Three months earlier, after she missed a few of her $130 bimonthly payments, she said she called Oportun to tell the company she had lost her jobs as a hotel housekeeper and fast food worker because of the coronavirus pandemic and needed some relief.

The 43-year-old mother of three expected the company would understand.

She was a longtime customer, after all. Her latest loan, which she took out to repair her aging SUV, was her fifth with Oportun since 2013, she said, and she had never missed a payment. Staffers were always friendly and helpful.

Silicon Valley-based Oportun, a subprime installment lender that operates in 12 states, also portrayed itself as a financial ally to the Latino immigrant community, its primary customer base, and had built a reputation as a more affordable and humane alternative to payday lenders. In its business filings and on its website, the company — whose name is short for “oportunidad," Spanish for opportunity — claimed to work with borrowers grappling with cash-flow problems beyond their control. Just two weeks into the pandemic, it announced a special hardship program that postponed payment due dates as long as impacted customers notified the company in advance.

But over a series of phone calls, Solis said, Oportun agents told her there was nothing they could do to help her, even though her financial situation was particularly dire as her husband had also recently lost his job. She said they didn't offer a payment plan or mention the hardship program.

“I feel powerless not being able to pay them," Solis, who immigrated from Mexico as a teenager, said in Spanish.

Solis is among tens of thousands of Oportun borrowers who have found themselves in a similar predicament in recent years, according to a monthslong investigation by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune that drew on more than a million Texas court records, hundreds of pages of company financial filings, and interviews with more than a dozen consumer advocates, attorneys and industry experts.

Our reporting revealed a company that draws clients in by depicting itself as a benefactor of the Latino immigrant community yet charges high interest rates, keeps customers like Solis on the hook with repeated refinancing and routinely uses lawsuits to intimidate delinquent borrowers into paying again.

An analysis of court records in nine of Texas' largest counties — home to the vast majority of the 80 kiosks and strip mall storefronts the company operates in the state — found that Oportun has sued borrowers after they fell behind on their payments more than 47,000 times from May 2016 through July of this year. That's 30 lawsuits per day on average.

So far this year, Oportun has filed nearly 10,000 lawsuits against customers in those counties, with more than half of those coming after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic in mid-March.

That number of filings makes Oportun the most litigious personal loan company in Texas and one of the most litigious debt collectors in the state overall this year. It is rivaled only by larger companies like Conn's HomePlus, Capital One and a handful of firms that buy unrecovered debts from banks and other creditors.

Asked why it sues so many of its customers, particularly during a pandemic, Oportun referred ProPublica and the Tribune to a recent blog post from company CEO Raul Vazquez that said the company used lawsuits as “a mechanism of last resort to get the small minority of our customers who have fallen behind in their payments and not answered our calls, letters, texts or emails for several months to reengage with us."

That was the case with Solis, according to a statement Oportun released after she gave the company permission to comment on her account.

“According to our records, this customer did not reach out to us and was unresponsive to our repeated attempts to reach them," the statement said, adding that “if a customer tells us they are impacted by the pandemic, they are eligible for our emergency hardship programs."

Vazquez defined the “small minority" of loans resulting in lawsuits as less than 6% over the past five years. Though he didn't say how many lawsuits that represented, he said that it had “become a big number" over time and announced that the company would drop all pending debt claims — including the one against Solis — and temporarily suspend the filing of new ones. He also vowed to reduce the company's filing rate by more than 60% and cap interest rates at 36%, an annual percentage rate that consumer advocates consider an absolute maximum for smaller personal loans. (While the company says its average APR is already 36%, ProPublica and the Tribune found that it has often charged rates as high as 66.99% in Texas and California.)

The blog post came after the company discovered that reporters from ProPublica and the Tribune, as well as The Guardian, were investigating its debt collection practices in Texas and California.

“We have always designed our products and practices to benefit our customers, so we asked ourselves how we can better serve our customers, especially in the current environment, while keeping our commitments to other stakeholders," wrote Vazquez, a former Walmart executive who grew up in El Paso. “After extensive discussions and with enthusiastic support from our leadership team and Board, we have decided that we can do better and I'm writing today to share how we intend to do that on a permanent basis."

Vazquez acknowledged that his company had become the No. 1 filer in small claims courts in both states. Still, the ProPublica/Tribune analysis shows Oportun has filed so many lawsuits that it would remain among the most litigious debt collectors in Texas even if it filed 60% fewer debt claims.

The company declined to make Vazquez available for an interview or respond to an exhaustive list of written questions regarding its legal collections strategy and general business practices.

Instead, it released a one-paragraph statement that touted its high customer satisfaction scores and rates of repayment. It also said it had enrolled more than 112,000 customers in its emergency hardship deferral program since the start of the pandemic, representing a total loan balance of more than $300 million.

“[Oportun is] consistently recognized by leading consumer advocates as a company that does right by its customers," the statement said. “We are proud to have proven that it is possible to lend responsibly in low-and-moderate income communities and we are proud to receive customer satisfaction scores that are consistently on par with beloved brands like Ritz-Carlton, Apple, and USAA."

But the same consumer advocates and legal aid groups who have recognized Oportun as a bright spot in the largely predatory world of subprime lending said they were disturbed by the scope of its legal collections activity. While the share of the company's loans that lead to lawsuits may seem low, they said the rate is far higher than that of its peers — particularly for a lender that paints itself as a flexible benefactor. The ProPublica/Tribune analysis of the company's loan originations show that its 6% filing rate would translate to well over 100,000 lawsuits.

Consumer advocates and legal aid groups also noted that the company has been certified for years as a Community Development Financial Institution, an esteemed federal designation for banks, credit unions and other lenders with clienteles that are largely low-income or in underserved communities of color, and said its collections practices fly in the face of that title.

Ann Baddour, director of the Fair Financial Services Project at the nonprofit advocacy group Texas Appleseed, said the scope of Oportun's legal collections activity is “really problematic."

“We've generally seen them as a positive player in the marketplace, so it was really shocking to me to see them as a major filer," Baddour said, when informed of the publications' findings. “We hope they will revisit their collections practices and look at aligning them with the community development mission that they have long highlighted as key to their business model."

Baddour is particularly familiar with Oportun as she recently served alongside Vazquez on the Consumer Advisory Board of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal watchdog agency formed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis to better guard Americans from abusive lending practices.

Other consumer advocates say the measures Vazquez announced don't address what they see as the root cause of the problem: Oportun lends money to people who can't pay it back and not just during the pandemic. That's evident not just from its voluminous lawsuits, but also its practice of refinancing high-interest loans, which makes it appear that borrowers have paid them off but actually keeps them on the hook, sometimes for years.

“When we saw the announcement, we didn't immediately pop any Champagne bottles," said Kiran Sidhu, policy counsel for the Center for Responsible Lending's state policy team. (The center was started with support from the Sandler Foundation, which provided most of the original funding for ProPublica and remains its largest donor.)

Oportun's Origin Story

Oportun — originally called Progreso Financiero — was founded in 2005 by James Gutierrez, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, who launched the company while earning his master's in business administration at Stanford Business School. His vision was to help Latino immigrants gain access to mainstream financial services — and prove that subprime lending with zero collateral could be done compassionately and profitably with the right kind of underwriting.

“I wanted to make a big impact on our social problems in America, and I wanted to do something that helped the Hispanic community find economic opportunities," Gutierrez told Bloomberg TV in 2009, the year he turned 32.

While his grad school friends joined Wall Street hedge funds, Gutierrez set up folding card tables at Latino supermarkets in California and spent half a year trying to prove to angel investors that he could successfully lend to people with modest incomes and negligible credit histories using a scoring system that took into account hundreds of unique attributes to determine the likelihood an applicant would repay a loan.

He never broke even, but succeeded enough.

Before he left the company in early 2012, Gutierrez — who founded a competing firm a year later — had closed tens of millions of dollars in new funding from major players including Madrone Capital, run by the eldest son of Walmart founder Sam Walton, and Greylock, known for its early investments in tech startups like Facebook. The infusions bankrolled the opening of dozens of kiosks and storefronts in California and Texas, the states with the largest Latino populations.

The week after his departure from the company, Gutierrez told the Los Angeles Times that Progreso was finally on track to break even. But that wouldn't happen for years, even after Vazquez took the helm.

Under Vazquez, the company has expanded into 10 more states, started offering auto loans and an Oportun-branded credit card, and executed a major rebranding and overhaul of its marketing and public relations strategies. Last September, the company went public.

To date, it's disbursed more than 3.9 million loans totaling more than $9 billion. At the end of 2019, it had nearly 800,000 active customers, its first annual filing shows.

Revenues are up in recent years thanks to the expansion, and the company has reported five consecutive years of pre-tax profitability. But business filings show that as its operating expenses have soared, its profits have been modest and spotty.

In the first two quarters of 2020, Oportun's net profits dropped by $50 million, compared with the same period in 2019, amid the widespread economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its 2019 year-end filing to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Oportun explained the financial challenges ahead, saying it would need to continue with its rapid expansion to “achieve and increase profitability."

Even if it succeeded, it said “we may not be able to maintain or increase our level of profitability over the long term."

Oportun's Business Model

Nearly a decade ago, Texas Appleseed — Baddour's group — highlighted Oportun in a report as one of several new, non-bank players striving to offer affordable small-dollar loans. But, it said, few had reached significant scale.

Many statistics would indicate Oportun is bucking the trend. It added hundreds of retail locations across the country in the past five years and has grown its active customer count by more than 300,000 since 2016. In a filing announcing its initial public offering, it said that the vast majority of dollars lent had been repaid.

“Our track record as a responsible lender is clear — 92% of our customers have historically paid us back on time and in full," Oportun said in a statement to ProPublica and the Tribune, adding that its so-called loss rates compare favorably to prime lenders.

But consumer advocates say the large number of lawsuits Oportun is filing raises the question: Under what circumstances are those repayments occurring?

The company wouldn't say how much money it has recouped after “reengaging" customers via the legal system. And the ProPublica/Tribune investigation found that the company has other ways to retain borrowers that consumer advocates describe as questionable.

Under its “Good Customer Program," Oportun allows borrowers to take out larger loans with lower interest rates, which typically translates to lower monthly payments. To qualify, they must have never missed a payment, maintained their current loan for a year or paid off 40% of it.

“If a customer stays with us, we give them more capital and drop their rate," Vazquez, the Oportun CEO, said last month in an interview with the nonprofit Financial Health Network, in which he described the average Oportun borrower as 42 years old with a family to support and a $45,000 annual salary. “A customer should see a benefit for performing well on their loan."

But consumer advocates and attorneys say the program can trap consumers in a cycle of debt because they are repeatedly rewriting potentially unaffordable loans, thus paying more interest than principal.

“In general, a model that pushes refinancing is not a good idea," said Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center. “Refinancing is masking troubles."

Oportun doesn't disclose its refinancing rate or how many customers are enrolled in its “Good Customer Program," but figures in its public filings and other publicly available information show the company depends heavily on repeat customers, which have comprised some 80% of its principal balance since at least 2017, according to the company's latest annual filing. And the 3.8 million loans the company has disbursed to date have gone to about 1.7 million people, meaning each person takes out an average of more than two.

A significant share of the company's revenue — more than 90% — comes from interest income, though that includes late fees.

Solis, the hotel worker in Houston, said she took advantage of refinancing several times. She doesn't recall whether her payments or interest rate dropped as a result but said she found the $130 bimonthly payments on her most recent $6,000 loan reasonable.

In its statement regarding Solis, Oportun said, “Each loan came after the customer had paid down a substantial portion of their balance, each loan came with a lower APR, and the customer's credit score was steadily improving."

Solis said her daughter tried to borrow from Oportun to help cover payments, but she was denied.

“It's really hard to get sued for something that's out of your control," she said.

Despite Oportun decreasing its interest rates with each refinance — compared with payday lenders that peddle short-term, single-payment loans with APRs that can top 400% — they are still high.

In May 2018, Oportun lent $800 at a 66.9% interest rate to a woman in McAllen, a city on the Texas-Mexico border, who needed it to pay rent. The terms: 15 months with bimonthly payments of $40. (That meant she would have paid a total of $1,189.70, including $389.70 in interest.)

But even that was too much. Struggling to juggle other loans, the woman defaulted, and Oportun sued her last year.

Her pro bono attorney, Amy Clark of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, was able to settle the case by arguing that Oportun had harassed her client during the collections process by repeatedly calling the personal references the woman gave when she applied for the loan.

“They had collected information on 'references' as though it was to get the loan, but it was for collection purposes," she said.

Despite the near 67% interest rate in her client's loan, Oportun maintains that its average APR is 36%. But it doesn't disclose comprehensive data on its rates or fee structure and declined to disclose its median interest rate, a better indicator of the rate it typically charges.

Some websites that review credit products for consumers have pointed to that lack of transparency as a red flag and advised consumers to seek other options before borrowing from Oportun.

“Oportun loans are expensive, though the company is not transparent about their overall rates and fees, which vary by state," according to a May review in WalletHub, which noted that Oportun's opaqueness brought its score down considerably despite the company's “positive reputation."

The Texas Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner, the state agency that regulates lenders, declined an open records request for Oportun's lending disclosures, which shed light on the number of loans disbursed and interest earned, citing confidentiality. But similar reports from California's Department of Business Oversight show that last year Oportun charged APRs between 40% and 69.99% on nine out of every 10 loans under $2,500 issued or refinanced in that state.

With those kinds of interest rates, the main reason Oportun's loans are more affordable is that the company allows customers to pay them back in installments with terms that range from six to 48 months. But Baddour of Texas Appleseed said multiyear terms for these kinds of consumer loans can become burdensome for borrowers who struggle to maintain consistent income.

The Lawsuits

In 2010, Oportun obtained its first batch of operating licenses in Texas and now has 80 grocery store kiosks and strip mall storefronts in more than a dozen counties across the state.

Court records covering nine of the state's most populous counties show that Oportun didn't start suing borrowers until 2016, when its expansion was well underway, the ProPublica/Tribune analysis found.

That year, Oportun filed at least 3,500 debt claims in three of the largest Texas counties, those home to Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth. Its filings have grown every year since then.

Oportun sued more than 9,000 borrowers during the first half of 2020, nearly 2,500 more than it did in the same period of 2019, the analysis found. In Harris and Dallas counties, where more detailed records are available, the median claim amount this year is about $1,400.

Consumer advocates and attorneys say Texas' court system also makes it efficient for Oportun to sue.

Records show that non-attorney staffers called “legal collections specialists" — some of them straight out of college — file lawsuits en masse in justice of the peace courts, where claims are capped at $10,000, you don't have to be an attorney to sue and filing fees, typically about $50, are hundreds of dollars less per case than in county or state courts.

“I think it just doesn't cost them that much, so why not?" said Anderson Simmons, an Austin-based consumer attorney who regularly represents consumers in debt collection cases, though never against Oportun. “They have to pay employees to fill out the forms, but they could have someone doing that for $15 an hour, so it's probably just a mass assembly line."

In his July blog post, Vazquez described Oportun's legal collections activity as a success. That's why the company has dropped some two-thirds of the lawsuits it's filed, he explained.

Mary Spector, who directs the civil and consumer law clinic at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law, said that suing a debtor with no intention of litigating the case is an abuse of the legal system.

“It smells like harassment and intimidation," she said. “Especially when cases are filed in large numbers."

Carl Smart, a Dallas-based consumer attorney who regularly represents borrowers in Oportun suits, said Oportun staffers always move to dismiss cases as soon as they realize the borrower has an attorney.

Smart said that's unusual because “these kinds of cases are generally fairly easy for the creditor to win because all they have to do is prove the debt is this person's."

Like Solis and other borrowers ProPublica and the Tribune interviewed for this story, Smart said it is often hard to get through to Oportun by phone.

Smart said many of his clients are Latino immigrants who don't speak English or understand the difference between a civil and criminal lawsuit.

“They don't understand their rights. They think they're going to jail," Smart said. “I do kind of think that Oportun takes a little bit of advantage of that."

Oportun's contracts say borrowers are considered in default if they miss just one payment and must immediately pay the full amount remaining on the note — and that the company doesn't have to notify them in advance that it will demand they do so.

Borrowers have very little recourse unless they specifically opt out of provisions in the contract that bar them from joining a class action lawsuit against the company or taking disputes to trial, but legal aid and private consumer attorneys said that rarely happens.

Most of those provisions are standard in consumer contracts. But they “are what allows these companies to operate at will, because individual cases are like bug bites to them," said Clark of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

Consumer advocates and attorneys say Oportun's legal strategy is also likely effective because many of its borrowers are undocumented and fear the legal system.

Oportun allows borrowers to use an individual tax identification number in lieu of a Social Security number when they apply for loans, making them easily accessible to undocumented immigrants. Even then, others may use Social Security numbers that they borrow or buy when they arrive in the country.

Oportun declined to say how many of its borrowers might be undocumented, but a review of available petitions in the 467 lawsuits Oportun filed in June in Harris County shows the company had Social Security numbers on file for fewer than half of the defendants.

While Oportun drops two-thirds of the lawsuits it files, Baddour noted that it files so many in Harris County — where it has the most retail locations — that it also secures more rulings there than most other debt collectors. The vast majority of those are won by default because the defendant doesn't respond to the lawsuit.

Very few Oportun defendants obtain lawyers, the ProPublica/Tribune analysis showed. Last year in Harris County, 105 out of 7,600 of them did, and it made a difference: Their cases were dropped 96% of the time before a ruling.

Like Solis, several Oportun borrowers said the lawsuits against them came as a surprise.

In late November, Augustine Ayala said he borrowed $300 to fix his car, but he fell behind on his payments totaling $30 a month after he contracted COVID-19 and was sent home from his warehouse job.

The 22-year-old, whose take-home pay was about $400 per week, was served at home on June 11 while awaiting a second negative diagnostic test so he could return to work. The lawsuit said he owed $305.28.

Ayala told ProPublica/The Texas Tribune in July that he was trying to pay the loan back, but it was challenging with interest still accruing.

“It just keeps going up and up and up, and I'm like … can y'all work with me?" he said. “It's been stressful because I have to worry about still having to help my dad, I have to give him rent money every month, and then I still have to pay off this loan … and I don't get that much of a check, you know."

Oportun declined to comment on Ayala's account without his written consent, which he didn't provide prior to publication.

“You Don't Get in Debt Because You Want To"

While Oportun has dropped all pending lawsuits and says it won't file new ones for a while, it will remain one of the top debt collectors in the state under the measures it announced in late July. The ProPublica/Tribune analysis showed that even if Oportun reduced its legal filings by 60%, its ranking would only drop from second to fifth by year's end.

Vazquez also didn't specify how the 36% rate cap would be applied, including whether the company would charge that much on all its loans, which range from $300 to $10,000. Consumer advocates have long considered that APR an acceptable maximum for personal loans but only for smaller ones, limited to a few thousand dollars at most.

Thirty-six percent is also still far higher than interest rates on subprime credit cards, which hover around 25%.

Sidhu of the Center for Responsible Lending said none of the measures address what she points to as the root cause: Oportun is lending money to a lot of people who can't repay, and its proprietary scoring model to determine whether an applicant will do so isn't all that accurate.

“If they aren't radically reshifting the way they understand their clientele, I don't see any real impetus for meaningful change," she said.

To Carla Nuñez, a Venezuelan immigrant and single mother who lives in suburban Houston, the Hispanic community is “easy prey" for Oportun.

She said Oportun approved her for a $6,000 loan last year even though she needed less than half that to cover a three-month deposit on a new apartment.

In a complaint filed with the state of Texas last year, Nuñez claimed that Oportun refused to arrange a payment plan with her when she fell behind on her $120 bimonthly payments after her teenage daughter was hospitalized with a rare breathing disorder and she had to quit one of her jobs to help care for her.

Nuñez is among at least three dozen people who have filed complaints against Oportun with the Texas Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau since 2011. Complaints range from refusal to offer a payment plan to harassing phone calls to a legal threat.

Nuñez and Oportun resolved the matter without going to court, records show. She said she paid off her loan earlier this year after she got her income tax return. Still, she said, the ordeal had profound and long-lasting financial implications.

In a second complaint filed last December, Nuñez said that her credit score had been damaged after Oportun charged off her account, meaning it didn't expect to be repaid, despite the fact that she had resumed payments. Because of that, Nuñez said she was unable to purchase a special breathing machine that her daughter needed.

“You don't get in debt because you want to," she said in an interview. “Their best weapon is hurting your credit, because they know that closes a lot of doors."

Oportun declined to comment on Nuñez's account without her written consent, which she did not provide prior to publication. But in its one-paragraph statement, it suggested the number of complaints Texans have lodged against it is small in comparison to the more than 800,000 loans it has disbursed in the state since 2014.

“Each of those complaints was investigated and cleared with no finding of any impropriety," the statement said.

In Houston, Solis has been back at work for about two months now, but she's also the sole provider for her household — her husband hasn't been able to find another job — and is still struggling to catch up on bills after being unemployed for so long.

She received an email from Oportun on Aug. 5 saying it was dropping the lawsuit against her. She said it gave her some relief but that she is still uneasy knowing she can't pay back what she owes.

“They have no compassion for what you're going through," Solis said. “They only care about the money."

Security expert: Unredacted batch of Ukraine documents 'reveal key decision points' that underscore White House legal troubles

It remains to be seen when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will send the two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump to the U.S. Senate: although the U.S. House of Representatives indicted Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on December 18, Pelosi was still holding onto the articles on January 2. But Democrats certainly have a mountain of evidence to work with, and security expert Kate Brannen examines some of the Ukraine-related documents in an in-depth report for Just Security.

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