Albion Monitor

The Enron-Cheney-Taliban Connection?

Enron is a scandal so enormous that it's hard to wrap your mind around it. Not just a single financial disaster, it's actually a jigsaw of interlocking scandals, each outrageous in its own right.

There's Enron the Wall St. con game, where company bookkeepers used sleight of hand to turn four years of steady losses into stunning profits. There's Enron the reverse Robin Hood, which stole from its own employees even as its executives were hauling millions of dollars out the backdoor. There's Enron's Ken Lay the Kingmaker, who used the corporation's fraudulent wealth to broker elections and skew public policy to his liking. And then there are the Enron coverups, as documents are shredded and the White House seeks to conceal details about meetings between Enron and Vice President Cheney.

The coverups are still very much a mystery. What were the documents that were fed into the shredder -- even after the corporation declared bankruptcy? What is the White House fighting to keep secret, even going to the length of redefining executive privilege and inviting the first Congressional lawsuit ever filed against a president? Were the consequences of releasing these documents more damaging than the consequences of destroying them?

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The Pooh Files

Call it the case of Bear v Rodent; call it W. Pooh v M. Mouse; call it one of the biggest lawsuits that you've never heard of. But whatever the name, the court battle between the Walt Disney Co. and a Beverly Hills family may be now approaching trial after 11 years, with almost all of the proceedings conducted in total secrecy.

The family is suing over royalties generated by revenues from Winnie the Pooh, the beloved character created by British author A.A. Milne. It was the Disney artists who transformed the ragged teddy bear -- the back of his head worn from endless trips being dragged bump, bump, bump down the stairs -- into the jolly orange and marshmallow-puff cartoon figure known around the world. That "Silly old Bear" adds billions of dollars annually to the Disney honey pot, and Pooh's popularity makes Mickey's ratings look ratty. But the family that owns the rights to Pooh has spent most of its Disney royalty money trying to collect the fortune it says that Disney truly owes.

At stake is the right to sell Pooh and his pals Eeyore, Tigger, Piglet and Christopher Robin in the United States and Canada, an enterprise that globally is said to contribute as much as one-fifth of the $25 billion Disney generated in 2001 from sales on every continent but Antarctica. The judge in the case has said the family can terminate the Pooh contract if breach or fraud is found at trial sometime later this year.

The case now encompasses hundreds of thousands of documents and Disney has a small army of clerks, secretaries, lawyers, accountants and executives that have worked on the case for years. But all records -- except a 34-page list of some of the documents filed, an 18-page list of papers Disney wants to suppress and the judge's 1992 order that sealed and a December 2001 order that reopened it -- have been completely closed to public view for more than a decade.

Judge Ernest Hiroshige, who writes about issues of daunting complexity with remarkable clarity, has found that the Disney organization destroyed at least 40 boxes of documents that might have provided evidence to the widow of Stephen Slesinger -- the agent who secured the rights in 1929 from A.A. Milne. As a result, Hiroshige imposed some of the most severe issues sanctions any lawyer has ever seen.

That means that the Disney studio has virtually no hope of winning the case. Disney, fundamentally, is not allowed to argue that it doesn't owe royalties on the sale of nearly a billion dollars in Pooh videos and children's computer software, plus both the wholesale and retail gross of sales of stuffed dolls going all the way back to 1983, when the last contract between the two parties was signed.

But the sanctions, which were kept secret for two years, have never been revealed to Disney stockholders, who have been hit by wave after wave of bad news from the studio since 1998. If a jury decides the case in the family's favor, the cost to Disney could be enormous. The studio would likely be obliged to pay a fat chunk in royalties each year as well as past royalties and interest. For Disney, the alternative would be too horrible to imagine: Losing twenty percent of its revenues if the Slesingers license the Pooh franchise to a rival theme park operator and studio like Vivendi Universal.

So what's the big secret?

There are several comparisons here to the current Enron scandal. As everyone knows today, the totally-connected $86 billion Houston energy firm evaporated after its outside accountants -- who were simultaneously its business consultants -- guided its commodity traders through unbelievably complex deals that benefitted a host of offshore energy companies that were often headed by Enron executives. So in a rush to avoid spending the rest of their lives in prison, the auditors and executives shredded thousands of pages of potentially incriminating documents. They failed to shred one document, though, in which a courageous female executive warned that absolute disaster loomed ahead if the company did not change its accounting methods to reflect the hidden losses.

Disney, too, destroyed thousands of pages of potential evidence -- and is accused of a role in destroying another 500 or so boxes of documents held by Canasa, a subsidiary. But it failed to shred one little piece of paper that had just five words and a dash: "Winnie the Pooh - legal problems." Each one of those words and the dash is now potentially worth a hundred million dollars or more -- the amount Disney might have to pay for the U.S. and Canadian commercial rights to Pooh held by the Slesinger heirs. In a first order on sanctions in June 2000, Hiroshige found Disney liable for "willful suppression of evidence."

News of the sanctions did not reach Disney stockholders, though, until Garry Abrams, a columnist for the legal newspaper Los Angeles Daily Journal wrote a column in early January 2002 that quoted the Slesinger's famed Hollywood "superlawyer" Bert Fields as saying that the family had asked the judge to let them cancel the contract. That day, a generally good one for the market, Disney dropped almost a dollar, and lost another half-dollar the next. It recovered a few cents the next day, and then plunged another dollar when the overall market was badly hit by the Enron news.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times, joined by the online American Reporter and two New York Yiddish publications, had gone to court on Nov. 7 in yet another effort to get the case records unsealed. For the Times, attorney Jens Koepke argued that a case could not be sealed if the court left no way for the public or the press to argue from the sealed documents that they were not legally entitled -- as "trade secrets" would be -- to be sealed. Judge Hiroshige granted the motion last month, citing "the public's right to know what is going in in their courts."

Disney was battered again when three judges of California's Second Appellate District Court of Appeal turned down a lengthy Disney request to toss out the sanctions before trial. Disney had not shown any "extraordinary circumstances," the higher court ruled, to justify canning sanctions now, instead of in an appeal after trial. Now, Disney has now appealed that ruling to California's Supreme Court, but observers give it little chance.

But what is the underlying case all about? What did Disney do that was so wrong? Why were the Slesingers willing to go so far -- spending virtually all the money they made from Disney -- to win the case? Why was there no settlement offer, or at least any that both sides would acknowledge? And are there more parallels to the Enron matter lurking in Disney's arm's-length partnerships with companies like Canasa, the Tokyo-based Oriental Land Company and its subsidiary, Asian Sourcing? Insiders hint that charges of money laundering and other dirty deeds may arise as the case gets closer to a trial expected this summer.

The answers to those questions will largely have to await that trial, since most of the documents remain sealed. But thousands of documents that were released January 18 provide clues -- including that the Walt Disney Co,. paid at least $750,000 to the family in 1982 after it was accused of cheating them on royalty payments and threatened with a lawsuit.

The $750,000 -- a sum that was later increased, the heirs say -- shows that Disney's behavior as alleged in the current case seeking hundreds of millions in back royalties "is a second offense" in a troubled relationship the heirs have repeatedly threatened to end.

The documents also show that Disney paid royalties to the heirs for 15 years on at least two computer software titles and then claimed it had done so in error and did not owe royalties for that category of merchandise. The change of heart apparently claim as revenue from computer-related products soared with the public's discovery of the Internet.



Problems with Disney began as early as 1966

The new documents reveal a long, complex story that began in 1929, when New York literary agent Stephen Slesinger purchased most U.S. and Canadian rights to Pooh from British children's author A.A. Milne, who had created the beloved bear for his son, Christopher Robin Milne.

In a 1932 letter agreement, Milne and Slesinger expanded the original grant of rights to include live television, radio and puppet shows, as well as phonograph records and devices that would be "analogous" to television in the future.

The meaning of the 1932 agreement is still being disputed by Disney in 2002, which acquired other rights from the Milne estate and his late wife Dorothy, and all the rights not held by the Slesingers in 2001 for $340 million.

The relationship between the Slesingers and Milne and his estate, as described in the documents, was a friendly and cooperative one. Milne's mind "was greatly relieved" when Slesinger agreed to allow him to develop the property's film rights while still seeking new ways to boost Pooh's sales. Slesinger was entitled to revenue for movies using the characters in dramatizations not based on the stories in the original four books, to which Milne retained the rights.

Slesinger developed a best-selling set of phonograph records featuring the characters in the '30s and '40s, oversaw the making if a popular Pooh cartoon, and in the 1950's his widow placed a line of Pooh children's clothing at major department stores across the country, including Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. On getting the license in 1961, Disney almost immediately relicensed the characters to Sears & Roebuck, the 1960's retail giant that dominated the U.S. dry goods market.

But problems began as early as 1966 in the relationship with Disney when the Slesinger's widow, Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, began to find Pooh items on sale at Sears and elsewhere that were not recorded in her royalty reports. As the number of such items grew with the character's popularity, her lawyers threatened Disney with a "cease and desist" order terminating the contract unless the disputed payments could be amicably resolved.

The $750,000 "catch up" payment indicates that Disney eventually chose to resolve the dispute, but a long list of Pooh items sold at Disneyland and elsewhere continued to grow. Many of those were listed and illustrated, along with a private detective's notes, in the volumes examined yesterday covering activity in the case from 1998 to the present.

The Slesingers, backed up by multiple legal opinions released yesterday and and other documents that were part of the legal discovery process and remain under seal, say that Vince Jefferds, Disney's senior vice-president for merchandise licensing, and Disney attorney Peter Nolan assured them a revised agreement that incorporated the 1930 contract with Milne, the 1932 letter, and the 1961 agreement and would cover "private" video rentals not made to public institutions such as schools, and also computer software.

An undated page of lawyer's notes say "Jefferds confirmed" that private rentals of video, then a business in its infancy, were not "public" and thus would be subject to royalty payments. The letters still under seal , which Petrocelli said he will investigate for their authenticity, support the same claim, he says.

But whether those documents are sufficient to prove the heirs' claim or not may be immaterial, since in an August 2001 ruling on sanctions sought against Disney by the Slesingers for destroying evidence in the case, Judge Hiroshige ordered that Disney will not be able to claim at trial that Jefferds had not promised to pay video royalties.

Disney can claim that Jefferds did not have the authority to make such promises, Judge Hiroshige said, but the late executive's signature is on a number of contracts for merchandise that have now been made public.

The studio appeal the sanctions order to the California Supreme Court on Jan. 10. Earlier, in a Nov. 7 petition for a writ of mandate that would terminate the sanctions, the studio told the California Court of Appeal that the sanctions were "potentially crippling" and that Hiroshige had given the Slesinger "virtually everything they asked for."

Disney seeks to keep the court from releasing more documents, and Judge Hiroshige will address that issue in a hearing on March 1.

The Trashing of the President

In January, George W. Bush entered office promising to change the tone in Washington, bringing dignity and respect back to the White House. But in less than a week, the new administration was actively involved in a deception and petty conspiracy against its enemies. Give Bush credit for hitting the ground running: It took Nixon almost four years to organize an efficient dirty-trick squad.

In the days following the inauguration, recall that Clinton still dominated the headlines. There were those questionable last-minute pardons (although it would still be a few weeks before the Marc Rich pardon would take the spotlight). There were accusations that the Clintons had accepted expensive and inappropriate gifts. But the tales that set tongues wagging were reports that embittered Clinton staffers had trashed the White House, and that the Clinton family had looted Air Force One on their farewell flight.

Most famously, the White House damage included "W" keys removed from some computer keyboards. But soon new details began to spill out. Fox News anchor Brit Hume told viewers that the vandalism included "pornographic pictures left in computer printers, scatological messages left on voice mail, and cabinets and drawers glued shut." And the Washington Times reports that the presidential 747 that flew Bill and Hillary Clinton to New York on inauguration day was stripped bare... silverware, and salt and pepper shakers, blankets and pillow cases, nearly all items bearing the presidential seal, were taken by Clinton staffers who went along for the ride.."

The New York Daily News quoted a "senior Bush official" as saying, "We've been told not to say anything about it... his command decision has been made not to comment in the hopes that it helps set the new tone we've been talking about. It's not very George W. Bush to discuss things like this. We prefer to be gracious rather than talk about the past."

It may not be "very George W. Bush" to trash the Clintons, but it was second nature to elements of the press. Soon the stories became the signature epilogue for the Clinton era. A cache of Colgate toothpaste was pilfered from the airplane. Vandalism was found throughout the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, with its hundreds of offices. Glass desktops were smashed. Obscene graffitti was found in bathrooms. Door locks were jiggered so that Bush staffers were locked inside. "Bush Sucks" was spray painted on a hallway. Computer keyboards were "doused with fluids." U.S. emblems were pried off of doors. Voice mail messages were changed to obscene greetings ("one Bush staff member's grandmother was horrified by what she heard on the other end of the line when she called," reported the Birmingham Post). The vice-president's office was in "complete shambles." The final bill to clean up the whole mess could reach up to $200,000.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer took the high road. The new adminstration was going to be "cataloging what took place," but the compassionate Bush was not going to pursue the issue. "The president understands that transitions can be times of difficulty and strong emotion," he said. "He's going to approach it in that vein." Pressed to describe more about the vandalism, Fleischer said, "I choose not to describe what acts were done that we found upon arrival, because I think that's part of changing the tone in Washington. I think it would be easy for us to reflect and to discuss these things, and to be critical... as far as we're concerned, it's over."

But this last Clinton presidential scandal was far from over. Letters and editorials appeared in newspapers for weeks. A sample:

- "While Clinton's staff was busy vandalizing taxpayer property, Clinton and his wife were looting Air Force One. We'll be paying for the last eight years for a very long time. Thank you Democrats. You must be very proud of your man. Please do us all a favor and tell Clinton he's not the president anymore." (Letter, Indianapolis Star, Feb. 5)

- "Clinton requested the big plane for his trip to New York, and he or his people took flatware, linens, jackets and any loot that had a Presidential Seal. Much of this has been offered for sale on eBay." (Letter, Lancaster, PA Intelligencer Journal, Feb. 12)

- When the loaned aircraft returned to its hangar at Andrews Air Force Base, it looked as if it has been stripped by a skilled band of thieves -- or perhaps wrecked by a trailer-park twister. Gone were the porcelain dishes bearing the presidential seal, along with silverware, salt and pepper shakers, pillows, blankets, candies -- and even toothpaste. It makes one feel grateful that the seats and carpets are bolted down. (Columnist Tony Snow, Jan. 26)

- Thurman Walden of Manchester, Tenn., is finishing his federal income taxes early. He's 74 and retired and has the time. With the marriage penalty, his wife still working and 85 percent of his Social Security benefits taxed, Walden and his spouse will be signing a big check to Uncle Sam. While unsettling, Walden says he expected it. But his discontent will flare into anger if any of his check goes to pay for repairing the damage left by departing Clinton and Gore staffers to White House offices. (Editorial, The Tennessean, Feb. 10)

Ex-president Clinton asked aides to look into the matter, offering to pay for any damages. That only seemed to enrage his enemies. Rep. Jim Traficant -- an Ohio Democrat who has the odd distinction of leaning farther right than most Republicans -- saw fit to make a little floor speech on the matter:

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The Rolling Information Blackout

Much to the dismay of consumer activists, California's Governor Gray Davis has held exclusive meetings with the heads of Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison. The two companies, which helped craft the much-maligned 1996 deregulation law, have wracked up billions in unpaid wholesale energy bills they claim they can't pay. Few outside Davis' inner sanctum, from reporters to citizens, know exactly what goes on during Davis' closed-door meetings. The matter is aggravated by the fact that two of Davis' energy advisors have ties to Edison.

Most of the non-insiders are unsure how many meetings and conference calls have been held since the state's two-year old deregulated energy market went haywire and who besides PG&E and Edison have been included. What is known is that a deal on how and who will pay off the two investor-owned utilities's humongous debts is in the works.

The multibillion dollar question is this: What will the state get in return for paying off their debt, if anything? The size of their financial hole -- be it $13+ billion that PG&E and Edison claim, or a fraction of that 11-digit figure as ratepayer advocates insist -- is a matter of hot debate.

Fears that a Secret Deal Will Surface After November 2002 Elections

According to Davis' spokesperson Steve Maviglio, negotiations to resolve the energy crisis must be secret to allow Davis to cut a beneficial deal that allows the private utilities to pay their bills and stabilize the teetering deregulated market. That requires the state's administration to hold their cards close to their vests and hidden from the out-of-state generators, he said. The generators, which include Texas-based Enron and Reliant Energy, as well as Calpine, Duke and Dynegy, jacked up wholesale energy prices to unprecedented levels.

Up until the third week of February, Maviglio said the governor held three exclusive talks with the heads of PG&E and Edison, John Bryson and Robert Glynn respectively, since the beginning of the year.

"All information will be released at the appropriate time," Maviglio said, acknowledging the frustration of those outside the inner circle trying to be informed.

Since late February, Davis began meeting almost daily with the utility executives.

In the meantime, consumer and ratepayer advocates fear Davis will cut a deal that ultimately knocks up consumers utility rates, but only after the November 2002 elections when the governor is up for reelection.

"It is very troubling," said Mike Florio, senior attorney for TURN, a 25-year-old organization that works to protect ratepayers. Florio explains that his organization's role has been limited to letting the governor know what they like and dislike about the proposals he releases. Other activists, including those from the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, Global Exchange and California Public Interest Research Group, have had no access to the governor and/or limited contacts with key legislators.

"Everyone, except for a select few, is running into walls," said Doug Heller, consumer activist with the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. The foundation launched the successful insurance initiative in 1988 that led to more than $1 billion in customer rebates and rate rollbacks. The group may put an initiative on the ballot next year that would create a state power authority to run the electricity business if Davis and the legislators fail to protect the state's consumers.

Rushed Hearings, Although Billions of Dollars of Taxpayer Money Were on the Table

Heller says that late last January he got a call from a TURN lobbyist saying that he and another ratepayer advocate were heading to a meeting with Assembly speaker Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys). Heller rushed to Hertzberg's office and waited outside his office door for 30-minutes but was never let in. Hertzberg's spokesperson Paul Hefner said he was unaware of the event, adding that the speaker has met with a number of consumer representatives.

For Heller, Davis' inner circle, which includes Hertzberg, is a "den of thieves."

Hertzberg's advisors included two investment bankers from Wall Street's Credit Suisse First Boston Bank, whose client list includes many of the generators selling power into the California market at astronomical rates. Hefner acknowledged that Credit Suisse bankers were part of Hertzberg's team of experts, but said they worked on a temporary basis and for free. In addition, two of Davis' energy advisors were formerly employed by Edison, Michael Peevey and Larry Hamlin. Peevey, who was appointed as Davis' special advisor, is a former president of Edison. Hamlin, an Edison vice president who is on leave, is the new power plant construction chief for the state.

Benjamin and others in the Public Power Campaign have attempted without success to meet with the governor to counter the lobbying efforts of the utilities, generators and Wall Street.

Meanwhile, momentous changes moved ahead with minimal public input. In January and early February, emergency legislation was passed and signed into law at breakneck speed. Committee hearings were called last minute and public participation was scant, although billions of dollars of taxpayer money was on the table.

In mid-January, the state stepped in to buy electricity for the two private utilities and spent $45 million a day of taxpayer money, for a total of $540 million. In spite of the sky-high price tag, how much electricity the state bought is a well-guarded secret.

Later that month, emergency legislation was passed that dissolved the Cal-ISO board and replaced it with a much smaller board that Davis hand-picked.

Also signed into law was a bill that allowed the state to enter into long-term power contracts, which was backed by $10 billion of the state's General Fund money. The terms of the contracts have been kept secret, for "competitive purposes."

On February 8, the governor issued a series of emergency orders to speed up the construction and retrofitting of power plants. Several hours after the press conference, when his orders were finally available, it appeared the new batch of electricity supplies from the plants would be at the expense of the environment, contrary to Davis' claim.

The governor is in the midst of exclusive negotiations with PG&E, Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric to work out a possible purchase of their 25,000 miles of electrical wires strung across the state. Ratepayers fear he will buy them at an inflated value.

"The administration and legislature seem hell-bent on crafting a solution behind closed doors while the public remains -- literally at times -- in the dark," said Kent Pollock, executive director of Sacramento-based California First Amendment Coalition. "They apparently are confident that we will trust the self-serving nuggets of information they release following closed-door meetings."

How Much of This Energy Crisis is Manufactured?

Davis first declared an energy emergency on January 17, after it appeared the major utilities would go belly up and the grid would dry up. The powers of the legislature and the governor have extraordinary power at their disposal during emergencies. Urgency legislation can be passed with little debate or public input. The governor can issue emergency orders that ignore environmental protection laws and also take over assets, such as power plants and run them to keep the lights on.

Crisis management, however, often comes with a price. "Haste is what got us into this mess in the first place and we're not going to make that same mistake again, "acknowledged Roger Salazar, Davis' spokesperson.

Many consumer advocates and legislators worry about the speed at which things are coming down the Capitol pike. They point to the grave consequences arising from the 1996 deregulation law by Senators Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista) and Jim Brulte (R-Cucamonga), which was rammed through the legislature and devoid of adequate public debate. It passed on a unanimous vote and Governor Pete Wilson eagerly signed it into law.

Sacramento's Assemblyman Darrel Steinberg defended the governor's and legislators recent actions saying. "Given the crisis at hand, the consequences of inaction are great in and of itself."

A looming question though, in light of the emergency powers, is how much of this energy crisis is manufactured?

A letter from Credit Suisse First Boston Corporation, which was posted on their web site, indicated the state's energy shortage is a means to an end. "[T]he rolling blackouts in California are more likely intended to soften up the Legislators and the voters to the need for a rate increase than they are indicative of a permanent 'when the lights went out in California scenario,'" states the January 18 letter.

The memo was brought to Hertzberg's attention but he didn't see it as a cause for concern, Hefner said. "It is not from the folks on the ground," he added.

Heller reacted very differently, contending that Hertzberg should have taken the letter to state Attorney General and initiated a racketeering investigation into the generators' practices.

Since the beginning of the year, the Public Power Campaign has been trying to cast some light on the fast moving, high stakes energy game and Davis' maneuverings. Group leaders have made numerous phone calls, sent faxes and letters to the Governor to set up a meeting in his office, but to no avail.

They strive to not only prevent legislation saddling consumers with the investor-owned utilities debts but also stop measures that weaken environmental safeguards to boost energy supplies. The coalition wants profit driven private utilities replaced by public power agencies -- like the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Activists arrested

At the end of January, Medea Benjamin, the Green's recent candidate for U.S. Senate, and Susan Rodriguez from Citizens Power Lobby, along with about two dozen citizen activists, marched to the governor's office. The two women had petitions bearing 9,000 signatures to deliver that urged Davis to not foist on consumers PG&E and Edison's debts caused by the deregulation law. The petitions also took issue with the 9 percent utility rate increase granted by the California PUC in January to help the utilities mop up some their red ink caused by the breathtaking increase in wholesale energy costs. The governor, however, refused to meet the consumer advocates.

On February 7, and coincidentally the day after Davis had dinner with the head of Edison, Benjamin and Rodriguez demanded to see the governor once again. They waited for half an hour in the Capitol to schedule a meeting.

Then they got mad.

The two women attempted to march into Davis' office but were grabbed by CHP officers at the door. Benjamin and Rodriguez were arrested and taken to Sacramento County Jail.

Rodriguez was released but Benjamin was thrown into jail for 15 hours. She said she was given neither food nor a blanket. At 5:00 a.m. the next day, she was released from jail after friends posted $1,000 in bail and learned she was charged with resisting arrest and battery against the arresting CHP officer. Benjamin is under 5 feet tall and weighs less than 100 pounds.

"I was the one who was battered," she said, then quipped she would have been better off spending the $1,000 on campaign contributions to Davis.

At the March 1 court hearing, Benjamin demanded a trial on grounds the charges against her are baseless.

As early March, Davis' office had not scheduled a meeting with Benjamin or Rodriguez.

Power Companies Shield Billions in Profits

The information outages leading up to Benjamin and Rodriguez's arrests also raised the hackles of their fellow activists. The leaders are calling on the governor to drive a hard bargain with the generators and utilities to keep the state's sizable budget surplus from all washing down the electricity drain. That requires Davis to step up to the plate and use his authority to take over power plants and implement a windfall tax on the generators excess profits.

But that move has yet to happen. Instead, on January 19 Davis signed a bill passed by the legislature, authorizing the state to spend $400 million to buy power for the utilities' customers on a temporary basis.

"They just threw $400 million down the toilet without providing any protection to the taxpayers," Heller lamented, noting the state could have bought a utility power plant for that price.

A few days later, during a Senate energy committee hearing it was revealed the state was spending about $45 million a day to buy megawatts for the private utilities. (One megawatt powers about 1,000 homes). How much power California received for the hefty sum was very hush hush.

Spokesperson Maviglio said the price had to be kept under raps because the state is buying energy every day. Revealing the sum would only increase the generators leverage, he said. The price tag circulating in the capitol hallways was said to be $.30 a kilowatt hour, more than five times higher than what Davis said he would pay. (To put the price in perspective, PG&E ratepayers now pay a capped rate of $0.065 kilowatt-hour. One kilowatt/hour is the equivalent of 10 100-watt light bulbs burning for 60 minutes.)

Until a few months ago, PG&E and Edison were sitting pretty. According to recent Public Utilities Commission audits, they reaped $16 billion from the deregulation law, which required ratepayers to pay off the companies' bum investments, such as cost overruns at nuclear plants. They also have benefited from the unprecedented wholesale energy costs because they sell electricity from their fossil fuel, nuclear and hydro power plants into that market.

The audits also revealed the utilities sold off large chunks of their aging power plants and much of the money they raked in under the deregulation scheme went to their parent corporations. But the parents, PG&E Corp and Edison International, which are worth billions of dollars, have refused to throw their subsidiaries a lifeline.

After agreeing to buy power PG&E and Edison said they couldn't afford, Davis floated the idea of having the state take stock options in exchange for the companies debt. After it was released, consumer groups attacked the plan as seriously flawed. The utilities would be bailed out with shares of questionable value.

"The revenue they might one day generate is a drop in the bucket under the most optimistic scenarios," said Nettie Hoge, the executive director of TURN. Another problem was that the ratepayers' shareholder profits would be tied to utility rates. If their utility bills rose so too would their shareholder returns. There was also inherent risk of owning stock in companies owning and operating nuclear power plants, notably possible leaks and decommissioning costs, which can run into the billions of dollars.

In spite of Davis' moves, the energy crisis continued to spiral downward. Then the day before Groundhogs Day, Davis signed emergency legislation by Assemblyman Fred Keeley (D-Santa Cruz), which allowed the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) to enter into long-term power contracts and sell the electricity to PG&E and Edison customers. DWR's purchases are backed by $10 billion in taxpayer money. Just how that money will be paid back is still a mystery and so is the impact on ratepayers. In addition, the price tag of the watts has been kept in the dark.

DWR requested sealed bids from generators and after its first round of bidding received a fraction of the power it needed to cover the shortfall. Many consumer advocates didn't take issue with the secret bidding process because the state's power costs would go even higher if generators knew what their competitors were charging. But the activists insist that after the long-term bids are in the terms should be assessed by more than the administration and DWR, who are venturing in new territory. Especially given the huge amount of taxpayer money at stake.

"It's a little risky to have the state enter into deals that few people understand," warned Dan Jacobson, Cal-PIRG legislative advocate. Maviglio countered that Davis' experts are well-versed in power purchases.

State Treasurer Kathleen Connell, however, thought it would be a good idea to inform the public about how their money was being spent. She announced February 8 that she was launching a web site that listed the amount of power the state bought daily, its purchase price and how the taxpayers would be repaid. But her efforts were intercepted by the administration.

The next day, the controller reversed course saying, "After discussions today with senior Davis officials, it is clear that final negotiations regarding long and short-term energy contracts would be impacted by disclosure of payment information."

The Department of Finance revealed the state as of mid-March has spent $2.7 billion on power.

Paying Over Twice the Value for an Aging System

On top of the secret bids and Davis' closed door meetings with utilities, the governor has curbed and spun information from agencies he controls.

For example, Davis appointed a new board of directors to the California Independent System Operator in January. An emergency bill by Assemblyman Keeley and signed into law allowed Davis to appoint his own Cal-ISO board.

Four of the five new Cal-ISO board members have worked with the governor, with TURN's Mike Florio being the odd man out. During the new board's first meeting, statements were made indicating the organization's independence would take a hit.

When the Cal-ISO board of directors was a 26-stakeholder board, made up of utility, generators, industry and consumer representatives, the agency's public relations office did little to filter its news. In fact, it made impressive efforts during the weeks of initial chaos to keep the media up to date. Recent calls to the Cal-ISO office, however, have been directed to the governor's office.

Davis spokesman Roger Salazar denied trying to control the information coming from official sources but admitted the administration has sought to curb the information coming out of Cal-ISO. "One thing we have asked them is that they speak with one voice so the messages aren't mixed," he said.

Over at the Public Utilities Commission, Davis has imposed a short leash. Almost immediately after he appointed former Office of Planning & Research director Loretta Lynch to the head of the commission in March 2000, the formerly-open members of the commission staff quit returning phone calls to reporters, citing directives from Lynch's office. The commission had shut down public access little-by-little in the last decade while under Republican rule, but the change in information access was quite abrupt with Lynch's appointment. Her office responds, but all information must get filtered through the PUC president's office, her staffers said.

At the time the bill that would create the new Cal-ISO was being debated, a number of legislators expressed concerns about having Davis call the shots on selecting new board members. Senator Deborah Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) later introduced legislation that would require new Cal-ISO board members to be confirmed by the Senate. "This will balance the power of the executive and legislative branches," she said at a February 22 Senate Energy Committee hearing.

In early February, Davis executed a series of Emergency Executive Orders to speed up the building and expanding of power plants. He touted his plan as accelerating requisite plant permitting to add 5,000 megawatts of new juice every year for the next four years.

"My proposal and executive orders will build our energy supply and maintain our environment commitment," Davis announced, while standing beneath huge circuit breakers at a power plant under construction in Yuba City. At the February 8 press conference, press releases were handed out that supposedly summarized his orders, but copies of the directives were not included. Several hours passed before the governor's office released the orders and the language indicated that air and water quality protections would be sacrificed in the name on new power supplies.

Two days after the February 14 launch of the citizen power campaign, Davis unveiled his framework for grabbing the out-of-control energy market by the horns. Prior to the start of the three-day Presidents' Day weekend, he said a key ingredient of his rescue package was a state buy-out of PG&E, Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric's 25,000 miles of high voltage wires. Earlier, Senator Burton introduced a bill to have the state take over the system but the legislation was watered down to authorize Davis to cut a deal with the utilities.

At a packed press conference, the governor refused to say how much we would pay for the three private utilities' electrical wires. After being pressed by reporters, he would only concede that the sales price "would be some multiple of book value," which is $3.2 billion. A final purchase price will help the utilities pay off their debt -- by how much is a matter of great dispute.

TURN and other ratepayer advocates have been kept out of Davis' exclusive meetings to cut a transmission highway-for-debt swap. The advocates were, however, somewhat pleased to learn the governor's idea of exchanging stock options for the utilities debts was no longer on the table and that a valuable asset was part of a deal. But their immediate concern became the cost of the transmission system.

The following week, Davis said the sales price under consideration was 2.3 times above book value: $7.36 billion. Ratepayer groups said the wires were not worth that amount and that it was a backdoor utility bailout. Sections of the private utilities transmission systems date back to the 1920s. Upgrades of the aging system that suffers notorious electron bottlenecks are estimated at $1 billion and expansion is needed.

In one of the odder alliances, Republicans agreed with the consumer groups this time. After the proposal to buy the lines was released not one backed Davis' grid-for-utility-debt exchange, in no small part because they too were left out in the cold. "They view it as a complete capitulation to the utilities," said Assemblyman Bill Campbell's (R-Villa Park) spokesperson Jaime Fisfis.

READ California Energy Crisis Puts Governor On Hot Seat

Last summer, after San Diego ratepayers saw their utility bills triple and quadruple, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights began working with the San Diego County Board of Supervisors to protect ratepayers. They concluded that creation of a state power authority to generate and deliver power to homes and businesses was the route to market stabilization. On November 28, before the electricity chaos spread across the state, the foundation announced its draft of a ballot initiative for 2002 that would let voters decide if they wanted nonprofit public power to replace the current greenback-driven system.

The foundation head, Harvey Rosenfield, said his group wanted to work with Davis and legislators but added his group would not participate in any non-public legislative negotiations or discussions. "We have nothing against private discussion on public policy, but we believe the process of developing legislative proposals to fix this disaster should occur before the full scrutiny of those who are most affected -- the public."

Recently, the group got wind that momentum was building to knock out the potential initiative -- either via legislation or a prohibition woven into a court settlement of PG&E and Edison' lawsuits against the state over their ability to raise rates.

"The prospect of the Legislature and Governor attempting to muzzle the voters would fuel an extraordinary and appropriate public backlash," Rosenfield warned.

"This is an unbelievable giveaway, an unbelievable scam."

If one steps away from the energy market frenzy, Davis' actions -- his exclusive rendezvous and information blackouts -- may seem like politics as usual. But the huge amounts of money involved and given that the commodity is electricity, an integral part of our modern life style, his wheeling and spinning gets cast in a harsher light.

"It is all the things we know and dislike about politics but to the extreme," Benjamin said. Much of the blame is attributed to the utilities and/or generators political contributions that have gone to Davis and all but a handful of the 119 state legislators.

Another important critic is Barbara George, an activist since the 1960s and founder of Women Energy Matters (WEM), a group that promotes environmentally sound energy practices in the home. Domestic consumption soaks up slightly less than a third of the state's energy.

The evening after Davis announced his deregulation fix-it proposal, Benjamin and George met with a group of about 50 people at a cafe in downtown Sacramento to discuss the energy dilemma.

"This is an unbelievable giveaway, an unbelievable scam, for which we will be paying for many, many years unless we stop it," Benjamin said. She warned that failure of Davis and the Legislature to get to the root of the problem would drain the once-sizable budget surplus, depriving California of needed funds for myriad programs -- from education to health care.

But, she and George did not deliver all bad news. They noted that citizen and ratepayer advocates helped shoot down Davis' plan to use public funds to buy the utilities debts in exchange for stock options, which wouldn't come close to reimbursing the state.

George added that the energy chaos also presents a golden opportunity to rebuild the energy system to address the needs of the 21st century and reduce global warming. Deregulation squelched conservation, non-polluting energy and the expansion of the network of public power agencies, but they are being given new life.

Opportunity to further promote that agenda will arise when bills to carry out Davis' plan as well as other legislative proposals for curing the very sick energy market are debated at public hearings.

If the people don't like what they get, they can back the initiative that may call for the state to run the electricity market. Citizens and ratepayer may also have an opportunity to finally have their voice heard at the state Capitol and express their dissatisfaction during the next election.

JA Savage contributed to this story.

Power Hungry

As a heat wave baked the West Coast during the first week of August, Californians were startled to learn that the electrial grid was on the verge of overload. Any day could bring a "stage three emergency" where "rolling blackouts" would cascade through the state, shutting down cities wholesale.

Welcome to the current state of the electricity industry, where brownouts and blackouts are getting as common as visits from your relatives.

Companies that develop new power plants are anxiously waiting for states to permit new building. Some have broken ground in the last few months. These builders are not the ubiquitous U.S. utilities of yore -- they are deep-pockets companies that develop power plants in India, South America and wherever else capital flows and privitization is allowed. Developers, might, however, include a recent explosion of utility affiliates that are unregulated by state agencies and the federal government.

In California, a state much farther along in deregulating its electric industry, five plants have been approved so far, with another 19 holding formal applications. If built, those would produce 15,000 megawatts of power, theoretically enough to plug in 150 million new homes. Dozens more developers wait in the wings.

The new plants could be a great step forward if you depend on air conditioning and uninterruptable Internet access, or are a manufacturer or other big business. It does not bode well, however, for environmental quality.

Being left out of the equation is that fact that power plant development is inextricably linked with water policy, air pollution mitigation experiments with emissions trading, cries for environmental justice and threats to endangered species.

In California, no policy maker nor agency is investigating the huge environmental and economic effects of siting more than two dozen facilities. Instead, the new "merchant" plants are being approved on a case-by-case basis. Energy reliability concerns, real and perceived, are calling the shots, and the cumulative impacts of development being given short shrift.

To make matter worse, the authority of the California Energy Commission (CEC), which is responsible for licensing new plants, was limited by lawmakers last year. Local water boards, air boards and state wildlife departments like Fish & Game, may look at power plants individually, or on a regional basis. But all the agencies feed into the energy commission, which can ignore or embrace their concerns, as well as those of local citizens.

The new generation of merchant plants are by all measures state-of-the-art as far limiting pollution and resource impacts, but with so many on the table, concern is growing about the lack of consideration of cumulative effects.

"The cumulative impact issue is not getting its just review," said Marc Joseph, attorney for a coalition of construction unions called California Unions for Responsible Energy (CURE). The coalition has objected to many development projects being reviewed by the energy commission, taking tough environmental positions often disputed by CEC staff.

Like the coalition of environmentalists and unions in Seattle protesting the World Trade Organization, in the case of new power plants, unions are finding that saving the environment actually means keeping jobs, not taking them away.

"For construction workers in California, long-term economic success comes from sustainable development," explained Joseph. When water is used up and air quality offsets no longer are available "The first victims are the construction workers because they don't get to work on the next job."

As an intervenor in nearly every siting case, Joseph is probably the most concerned about cumulative environmental and economic impacts. He said the massive amount of construction jobs on any one plant is not worth it if the environmental impacts are too offensive.

The commission has wide latitude in its decisions, according to Steve Larson, CEC executive director. Most agree, however, that the commission's decision-making has yet to be influenced by the total weight of all these proposed plants. The most recent analyses try to address some cumulative concerns but staff is harried, faced with the abundance of cases that have a one-year deadline.

"There's some fundamental questions about where we're going with water policies and air offset availability," noted Bob Therkelsen, CEC deputy director, energy facilities siting and environmental protection.

Water -- the crux of California's development -- is often the most controversial issue involved in power plant siting.

Specifically, the most obvious cumulative concern in our semi-arid state is the use of fresh inland water to cool power plants. The state has a long-standing policy on water use -- that fresh water is the last choice for power plant cooling. However, it is not being enforced by the commission. The formal rule is called the State Water Resources Control Board Resolution 75-58.

The state Attorney General's office and CURE's Joseph are questioning the lack of enforcement of that 1975 policy. "When clean, high quality water is consumed by a disfavored use, such as cooling towers, this is nothing but reckless waste," stated Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Stern in a letter to the state water board.

Most of the water sucked up by power plants would come from the Sacramento-San Francisco Bay-Delta, the heart of California's water supply network and largest estuary on the West Coast. For example, the cooling towers of a recently licensed project near the Mojave Desert, the High Desert Power Project, would consume 4,000 acre-feet of Delta flow a year. That amount of water would fill a city block to a depth of 1,060 feet. On top of that, an additional 13,000 acre-feet of water would be stored in the region's groundwater basin for use in dry years. A facility in Kern County, the La Paloma Plant would use up 5,500 acre-feet of Delta origin out of the State Water Project's aqueduct.

Taking more water out of the Delta can impact water quality, and consequently supplies for cities, agriculture and ailing fisheries.

A coalition of state and federal water resources and wildlife agencies, known as CalFed, recently released a long -awaited blueprint for addressing the state's future water quality and supply needs. CalFed's plan, which is estimated to cost more than $10 billion over a 30-year period, does not factor in the guzzling of fresh water by new power plants. When water for cooling power plants is not coming from surface supplies, it is coming from groundwater. Groundwater can be pumped by new power plant owners from their own property or bought from water agencies.

One big cluster of plants is slated for California's Central Valley, known for its agribusiness and its oil fields. There are six plants proposed for Kern County alone -- trust me, that's a lot of power plants.

Most of these proposed plants will be using "banked" groundwater. The water is injected and stored in an aquifer with fresh surface water diverted from the long fought-over Bay-Delta.

Developers in the Central Valley, however, do not feel squeezed by water concerns. "People were fighting each other to sell us water," said Roger Garrett, the lead developer for PG&E Generating's La Paloma Plant. Another project developer, Sempra (the parent company of San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Gas), with its Elk Hills project, noted no opposition for water use.

If large quantities of water is not being used to cool power plants, a process called air-cooling is installed. But it is not a cure-all.

Cooling powerful turbines with fans uses a fraction of the water of evaporative cooling, but is not as efficient. More noteworthy for developers is the fact that dry-cooled facilities energy production losses occur during heat waves when power prices are highest. Air pollution impacts -- Vehicles are the primary culprit of California notorious smog, according to air pollution agencies but, power plants remain a significant source of pollution.

Some think that air might get cleaner due to the more stringent scrubber requirements for new plants.

According to Chris Ellison, attorney for some of the developers, "There are counter-intuitive benefits from these projects when their cumulative impact on the operation of older, less efficient and far more polluting facilities is taken into account." But, that assumes old plants will be retired and not used for peak electricity demand on smoggy, hot days

"There is some cumulative analysis, but any [air pollution] increases are hard to deal with," explained Sayed Sadredin, direct of permit services for the San Joaquin Valley Unified Air Pollution Control District -- site of the Kern County developments. He added, though, that even if cumulative emissions were noted, the district would only deny a plant's permit if there was a new violation of law -- but a denial is unlikely.

New power plant development has initiated recrimination between air agencies that are supposed to have the same mandate. For instance, air agencies downwind from Kern County take a much harsher view of new power plant development and ask for a wide-lens focus.

"The cumulative air quality impacts statewide if these projects [in Kern County] are approved could be substantial," noted a coalition of regional air quality control boards including San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura, calling themselves the South Central Coast Basinwide Coalition. They asked the energy commission to look at development in its totality. "Equally disconcerting is an apparent change in agency emphasis on permitting these projects, with less emphasis on energy conservation programs that could reduce the need for new power sources."

There are only so many air emissions credits in any one air basin, and that alone should limit plans for new power plant development. But it has not. The "bank" of air credits is rather murky, according to analysts.

Different credits have different life spans -- a credit from making a diesel-fired water pump more efficient has a life span of a few years, a credit from shutting down a plant is never-ending.

Two parties in the cases of siting power plants in the Central Valley, the unions and the South Central Coast Basinwide Air Pollution Control Council, question the validity of certain credits claimed by developers in the area. And Kern County is just one cluster of new plants.

"The air districts are not enforcing offsets," alleged the union's Joseph. He added that some of the offsets being claimed by power plant developers are so old they are no longer legal.

The Basinwide agencies cite Environmental Protection Agency disputes over some credits that the EPA says are unenforceable. Basinwide also contends that the total amount of credits are overblown due to calculations made by developers.

"Air credits are not as simple as they might seem on the surface," agreed PG&E's Garratt. He said that in creating those credits it may turn out that the process was incorrect and that one group of pollutants might be substitutable for another instead of rigidly being for one, like particulate matter, or another, like NOx.

There's also the critter problem. Again, taking Kern County as a model, where, for many humans, it's a flat, hot, uninteresting landscape punctuated occasionally by crane-like oil drillers. But to the San Joaquin kit fox and the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, it is home sweet home.

The energy commission is encouraging compensation of lands away from the power plants in the Lokern Natural Area -- three acres for every one that has permanent disturbance; 1.1 acre for every acre of temporary disturbance. That is, developers buy land at an increased swap ratio at a better site for critters than the already-destroyed oil fields on which they are, or want to, be building. "There is no habitat value [at the building site] to begin with," noted PG&E Gen's Garratt.

Plant construction is the most stressful for animals, with the potential for becoming road kill or having their habitat flattened by heavy machinery. But, Donna Daniels, environmental specialist with the California Fish & Game Department says she's "pretty happy" with mitigation on the potential sites. "A biologist will be present during construction if any habitat or animal is sighted and construction workers will go through species' sensitivity training."

While sensitivity training might seem an anathema to the burly guys who normally push around heavy equipment, both government agencies and developers say it works.

Wildlife issues in the central Kern County area are dealt with "simply by putting the power plant in the right place," noted Sempra's Rowley. That is, putting them in regional wastelands.

But then there is the "take" permit -- another way of saying the government will allow a developer to kill endangered species. If the on-site biologist and the sensitivity training fail and a species gets squashed or its habitat destroyed, that means the government has to bless the accident with a "take" permit -- small comfort to the dead kit foxes and blunt-nosed leopard lizards. Environmental justice is left to the people who live around and near the fossil-fuel fired plants, which are largely low-income and/or minorities.

Pressure to apply civil rights law to protect poor neighborhoods and communities of color from more polluting facilities is mounting from community activist and federal legislation. A 1994 federal executive order requires the EPA and all other U.S. agencies to develop environmental justice strategies.

"Environmental justice recognizes that we all have to bear our fair share of obnoxious facilities," said Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Van Nuys). Alarcon authored a bill this year that would have required the energy commission to look at the cumulative environmental justice impacts, but it had its teeth removed while winding through the Capitol's corridors.

Cumulative economic impacts of multiple power plant siting are simply not contemplated. While the environmental impacts of these facilities are better understood -- even if not on a Big Picture basis -- economic impacts in the budding deregulated industry are not well grasped, nor predicted.

Cumulative impacts can make good economic sense for investors and benefit the economy. Cumulative economics can also mean sudden risk for both the specific investor and the state's economy on whole.

The California Energy Commission is not looking at the plants in cumulative economic terms because the financial risk is borne by the developer, CEC deputy director Therkelsen explained.

With electric industry deregulation, plants that may come to be depended upon by both the local economies and electricity consumers can simply sink out of sight with none of the usual regulators to demand that their owners stay in business as they did with the former utility-owned generation.

"It's the basic Faustian bargain. Policy makers said that the market will provide a reliable source of energy. But it may be [deregulation] is fatally flawed," the union's Joseph said, adding given the long lead times for building plants boom-and-bust economic cycles are inevitable.

Policy considerations of the deregulated market are just now being grazed by politicians -- meanwhile overwhelmed energy commission staff is trying to get a grasp on what all these plants mean to the state as a whole, while new power plants seem to be approved with alacrity.

Furthermore, drowned out in the cry for new power plants are calls for big boosts in energy efficiency, conservation, and greater use of renewable energy. "Renewables are a hedge against high fuel prices and an in-state source of reliable power," said John White, head of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. If White had his druthers, plant developers with the cleanest and most environmentally sophisticated mitigation proposals would be sent to the head of the power plant licensing line.

"We are suffering the consequences of the rush to build nuclear plants and dirty power plants," said Bill Magavern, Sierra Club lobbyist, of the recent push for siting multiple plants. "It will be a scandal if poor siting decisions are allowed."

J.A. Savage and Elizabeth McCarthy write for California Energy Markets.

Debunking Elian

Sometime before dawn on November 20, thirteen adults and two children clambered aboard a boat hidden in a Cuban mangrove swamp. It was generous to call it a boat at all; it was a homemade job soldered together from aluminum pipes, and powered by an old 50-hp outboard. Almost immediately, the engine failed. After rowing the boat back to shore for repair, the mother of one child had second thoughts and took her little girl to stay with a relative. The mother of Elian Gonzalez decided to keep her 5 year-old with her as the boat was launched again two days later.

Even if you have closely followed the Elian story, there are almost certainly details in the above paragraph that you didn't know. Fewer than one percent of the newspaper reports even mentioned that his journey began on a boat, not an inner tube; only two lone stories have noted how the deathtrap was cobbled together from irrigation pipes.

According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs' Newswatch, 360 Elian stories aired on network evening news in five months. If this continues, his will be the first story to surpass the O.J. Simpson record (431 reports in a little over six months of 1994). But despite this massive news coverage, aspects of the story have been widely ignored. Some appeared in the Florida press only; others appeared in a single national paper or wire service, but weren't picked up by the media at large. As a result, distortions and untruths are added without challenge.

It is particularly important to have rigorous accuracy in this story because the tale has become a powerful myth, and myths can be dangerous things. Not so long ago, there was an overarching myth about the "New World Order." Parts of it had grains of truth; federal agents at places like Ruby Ridge and Waco made mistakes that killed innocents. Thrown into the mix were other elements that weren't true at all -- government plans to confiscate guns, hovering black helicopters, and the whole conspiratorial mess. The result was the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Timothy McVeigh didn't kill those innocent people because he was a Branch Davidian seeking revenge; he murdered because he was waging battle against a myth.

The Elian story has generated exactly that sort of emotion. Since authorities took the boy from his Miami relatives, death threats were received by a deputy police chief who was merely seen in a car with INS and border patrol agents. Cuban- American jurors told a Miami judge that they could not consider giving prosecutors a fair hearing. The impact zone extends far beyond the community of Cuban ex-pats to any conservatives that have made Elian a Cause. On SF Bay Area hate radio station KSFO, for example, there is rarely a Hispanic voice heard, but still non-stop howling about the actions of federal agents in Little Havana.

Of the U.S. press, highest marks go Miami New Times and the Washington Post; had their stories been widely distributed, we might not be facing the creation of a new extremist myth. But it is the responsibilty of the entire media to defuse this by making known the full and accurate details of the entire story instead of seeking just emotional soundbites.

The Good Mother

Any pursuit of truth in this story begins with this seminal question: Why did Elizabet Broton Gonzalez take her child on such a potentially dangerous trip? Your response determines how you will view all developments that followed. Either his mother was courageously helping her son escape tyranny -- or she was taking completely irresponsible risks with his life.

Crucial to finding an answer is knowing more about a Cuban man named Lazaro Munero. He was Elizabet's boyfriend -- not Elian's "stepfather," as he is identified by groups that want to keep the boy in the U.S. (MSNBC also mistakenly uses this ID).

Most of the available information on Munero comes from two sources only: a feature in the April 23 issue of NY Times Sunday Magazine, and an 11,000 word report in Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba's Communist Party. While the Cuban newspaper might be expected to stink of bias, the Times story also is suspect; much is made of the great-uncle's resistance to Castro in the 1960s, but no mention at all is made of their more recent legal woes, as described in the section below. But about Munero, both sources agree: He was a hustler with a reputation for brawling and violence.

Nicknamed "El Loco" apparently for his volatile temper, Elizabet met him at a nightclub four months after her breakup with Elian's father. Munero was 22, six years younger than her. A high school dropout, his work history included stints as an unlicensed taxi driver, a waiter, and sometimes selling beer and pop to tourists on the beach. He had already spent over a year in prison for robbing a tourist, and maybe additional time for chopping off someone's finger. "He was tough, maybe hardheaded (and) a hustler," one of his uncles told Miami New Times. "He was troubled."

Within two months of their meeting, he was living with Elisabet and Elian. Friends and relatives were concerned; he had a child that was still an infant. The girlfriend and mother of that child later described him as a "domineering and violent" drunk to Granma -- although the NY Times says that she described him in "softer, more complex terms" than others. The Cuban paper also says that Elisabet was found with black eyes and a swollen wrist, which she supposedly blamed on a dog.

Less than a year later, Munero fled in a boat to Miami with a couple of pals. Life in the promised land wasn't so great, he found; he spent a few months working at a carwash for 5 bucks an hour. Disillusioned, he headed back to Cuba at the end of 1998 and moved back in with Elisabet -- after another short turn in jail.

While in prison, Munero supposedly changed his mind again and became determined to flee Cuba once more. Elisabet -- who was always described in terms such as "easy-going" -- agreed this time to go with him to Florida. With his father, Munero began soldering together pipes for the 16-foot boat, large enough to carry Munero's parents, his brother, Elisabet and Elian, plus seven friends of Elisabet. Munero charged at least two of them $2,000 each.

When Munero's ship was finally launched again on November 22, behind it were floating three inner tubes salvaged from Russian truck tire inner tubes. Three days later, only two of Elisabet's friends and Elian survived, thanks to luck and those floats. The boat sank around midnight of the same day of its fateful launch. Presumed dead, INS officials said that Munero would be prosecuted for human smuggling and murder if he ever turned up alive.

Not Exactly Saints

Elian had disappeared. That was all his father knew on November 22, when the boy was absent was school. By evening it was apparent that Elizabet and Munero were probably on a boat headed for Florida, and he made a collect call to uncle Lazaro in Miami.

He called the wrong uncle -- and that is why we are today discussing Elian Gonzalez as the biggest news story in five years.

There are three great-uncles in the Elian story, all brothers of Elian's paternal grandfather. All of these great-uncles live in Florida. Followers of the Elian story are forgiven if there is some confusion: "I'm still trying to figure out the family tree," great-uncle Manuel joked to a writer for the Miami New Times weekly. But each of these male elders has a distinct role in the story. For background, here's a thumbnail sketch of the Gonzalez brothers:

-Lazaro 49, given custody of Elian by INS. No steady employment for the last five years. Convicted of DUI 1991, 1997

-Delfin 62, a fisherman who sold lobster traps in Florida Keys until Elian's arrival, when he became a familar character at Lazaro's household. Convicted of DUI 1991, 1996

-Manuel mid-50s (?) occupation unknown. Lives in Pompano Beach, north of the Miami/Dade County area. No convictions, no known arrests

Others in the extended family include the Cids, two brothers and a sister that are cousins to Elian via a great-aunt. Georgina Cid Cruz was an early media spokesperson for the clan, and her twin brothers frequently came by to play with the boy or take him on outings. Both brothers have long arrest records; Luis with robbery and gun charges, and Jose with five charges including burglary, grand theft, and robbery with force.

All of this is relevant, of course, because this is the extended family that claims it offers Elian a better life than the one he would have with dad in Cuba. Should the case ever actually get to family court, Lazaro's two drunk-driving convictions would likely be points against awarding him custody. So would his habitual unemployment; until Elian arrived, he was doing freelance auto body repair at home. Hearing that Elian's guardian was out of work, a director at the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation gave him a job at his auto dealership, then immediately placed Lazaro on "indefinite leave."

As Molly Ivins noted in her April 25 column, these black marks against the Miami relatives aren't widely known, although they were documented in January by Miami New Times. Even less has been reported about great-uncle Manuel Gonzalez, however, who split with the family and came out on the side of Elian's father.

In retrospect, it was a terrible mistake for Juan Miguel to contact his uncle Lazaro instead of Manuel; perhaps he would have made a different choice if he knew that Elisabet had died at sea and the boy was already alone. Manuel was the only great-uncle that Elian knew -- he was the only Florida relative who made annual trips to Cuba to visit family members there.

As the situation grew tense in February, Elian's father asked Manuel to seek custody from the court. It was a nasty scene; after Manuel filed the papers at the federal building, he was chased down the street by protesters yelling, "Communist! Communist!" A few days later, he was hospitalized for chest pains.

On March 1, Manuel and others in the Gonzalez family testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Manuel said that he had visited Elian in Lazaro's home, and was concerned that the boy was "in shock" and not acting normally. "He doesn't know where he is. And one must act urgently and give this child the attention he needs," Manuel said. It directly contradicted Marisleysis and others who said that the boy was happy and wanted to remain with them.

For such a betrayal, Manuel was ostracized from the greater family. On his last visit to Lazaro's house, his brothers refused to speak to him. Elian would not bestow his customary kiss.

The Fisherman Who Wasn't

When federal agents begin the assault on the Gonzalez home Saturday morning, the first to react is Donato Dalrymple, sleeping next to the front door. Jumping up, he quickly grabs the boy from the lap of Lazaro Gonzales. With the startled child yelling "Que Pasa?" Dalrymple weaves through the tiny house towards the second bedroom. Close on his heels follows photographer Alan Diaz. (By some reports, a family member guides him to the room.) Dalrymple takes position with his back against the open closet. Perhaps by coincidence, he has chosen the best location for the cameraman in the small space -- the cameraman has a clear view of the doorway through which agents must come, and there is no space for the cops to maneuver between the boy and the camera lens. Before the agents enter, Dalrymple turns and says something to Diaz, as shown in a little-circulated AP photo. Considering that he was asleep just seconds before, Gonzalez family members are screaming in the other room, and INS officers are battering down the doors, Dalrymple looks surprisingly unruffled.

The rest is well known: The boy is snatched up by government agents, and newspaper editors rush to tear up the Easter Sunday front pages to make room for the famous picture. To describe the man holding Elian, the Associated Press cannot resist noting the irony: "They found him in a closet in the arms of the same fisherman who had rescued him from the sea on Thanksgiving Day -- and now had to hand him over."

But like dodgy past of Elian's Miami kin, the national press has handled Dalrymple gently. Most Americans (and at least one editorial cartoonist) would surely be surprised to learn he is not a fisherman at all; his "last known employment was cleaning apartments," according to his hometown Fort Lauderdale newspaper. On that Thanksgiving Day when he and his cousin spotted the boy adrift, they were in a little 25-foot boat enjoying the holiday. "My cousin's the one who's into fishing, not me," he later told a reporter.

Dalrymple soon ingratiated himself with the Miami relatives, and "Uncle Donato" became a fixture in the small house. "I'm here, pretty much every day," Dalrymple told the Boston Herald. "The bond Elian and I share... all I can say is that it's very special."

Special, indeed. Dalrymple has made much of a mystical connections between himself and the boy with bizarre comments such as "we gave birth to that child in the ocean." A Pentecostal evangelist and once a missionary, he told the Washington Post that Elian was his destiny: "In church a man once prophesied that I would be involved in something big, The man didn't know me, and he was weeping when he said it... What I get out of this is that God can still use me. [Elian] was in my path and I did what God wanted me to do. I saved the boy's life."

Making these remarks even more peculiar, Dalrymple has joined the faction of Miami Cubans who see the boy as a messiah -- which would put Donato first in line to claim status of apostle. "A child doesn't emerge from such a miracle without being destined for great things," he told USA TODAY. "In the end, I believe God will give Elian the grace to lift the cloak off Castro," he told the NY Daily News.

Although he's an Anglo who knows only a few words of Spanish, Dalrymple has enthusiastically embraced the Miami Cuban's political cause, and uses any opportunity to attack Fidel and Elian's father. "I'm appalled at what's going on," Donato told the Daily News in early April, "and the way Castro has been allowed to orchestrate this fiasco. I am not a father, myself, but I think all of this could have been avoided had Elian's father come here and declared his claim to his son right after we found him. If he had to get on a raft himself, he should have come. If he has to die for the love of his son . . . well, better men have died for less."

Before his April 9 meeting with Elian's father, Dalrymple made it clear that he felt the Cuban father was obligated to him: "This man owes us more than a shake of his hand... I want to pour my heart out to this man, and hopefully he will listen to what I have to say about the rescue, and about how his son has bonded with me." But typical of how the press has coddled Dalrymple, only the French wire service AFP and three newspapers used this arrogant claim from a 40 year-old man with no kids of his own.

But while print and broadcast media have portrayed Dalrymple as a credible figure in hundreds of reports, mostly ignored is his harshest critic -- the other man on the boat that Thanksgiving morning. Dalrymple's cousin Sam Ciancio.

A roofer and father of two, Ciancio told reporters shortly after the rescue that it was he who dived into the ocean to rescue the boy. In some of the first news stories, Ciancio also is quoted offering to care for the child. Before his meeting with Elian's father, Ciancio had made statements that he felt strongly that the boy should stay in the U.S. But Ciancio emerged from that meeting convinced that the child should be immediately reunited with his father. "He is a loving father," Ciancio told reporters. "Things were said yesterday about Juan Miguel owing me something. Juan Miguel owes me not one thing."

Ciancio also made it clear that day that a serious rift had formed between him and Donato. Leaving the meeting alone, he said, "Me and my cousin have different opinions. Donato Dalrymple does not speak for me." Ciancio later told the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel that he is convinced Dalrymple is profiting from his connections to the Gonzalez family and supporting community.

The day before the agents took Elian, Ciancio spent the evening with great-uncle Manuel Gonzalez, who sides with Elian's father. Ciancio told the Sun-Sentinel that both expected the raid to take place on Saturday, and that Juan Miguel had invited him to Washington to be part of his reunion with his son. "They (Miami relatives) put that child in the same danger his mother did when she brought him over in a raft," he told the Florida newspaper. "The bottom line is that this little boy had to be reunited with his father."

The Miracle Child

Word spread fast through the Miami Cuban community about the boy plucked from the sea, and by at least the second day, a new and important part of the myth was being repeated: That the boy was in perfect condition and a school of dolphins had protected the child from swarming sharks.

Whether dolphins really had any role in Elian's survial is impossible to prove or disprove. There is no witness other than the 5 year-old, who was immediately placed in the custody of his religious Miami relatives. It is only truthful to say that the boy spoke often of dolphins while living in his great-uncle's house; when being interviewed by ABC's Diane Sawyer, he drew a little picture of himself on the ocean with a dolphin alongside.

Dolphins indeed often follow human boats and rafts, holding a friendly niche in the history of legend. Ancient Greeks revered them, and even then they were credited for helping guide lost sailors to port. In Cuban legend there is both the notion of dolphins being guided by angels and the well-known story of Our Lady of Charity, which portrays the Virgin Mary protecting three fisherman lost at sea. Thus it's really no surprise that the Elian myth soon evolved to portray him both seeing angels hovering overhead as well as being surrounded by dolphins. Dalrymple is again at the center of this part of the story, telling the L.A. Times that Elian remembers "when an angel appeared to him at nighttime."

Angels aside, there are serious questions whether the memory of dolphins was suggested by Dalrymple and the Miami Cubans. Making claim for his special connection to Elian, Dalrymple also told the Times that the boy called him, "the man that pulled me out of the water when there were a lot of dolphins around me." But that doesn't mesh with another statement -- that no dolphins were in the area when he and his cousin found the boy, just what Dalrymple termed "dolphin-fish." Elian's 21-year-old cousin Marisleysis also made one of her first press statements to the Ft. Lauderdale paper the day after his rescue by telling a reporter "He says he doesn't remember anything." The entire dolphin story might be a false memory borrowed from the Elian-myth.

The other part of the survival myth is that he emerged from two days at sea unharmed. In a typical statement, Marisleysis told the London Times, "People need to believe in miracles. This kid was in the middle of the ocean, his feet hanging over an inner tube and he had no fish bites, no scratches, nothing. How can that be? The other two survivors had blisters, holes in their legs and were sunburnt. Elian had nothing. It was like God sent the fishermen to get him."

Again, the myth doesn't fit the facts. The boy did show signs of exposure; all three survivors were treated at local hospitals for dehydration and minor cuts. All were listed as in good condition.

It is likely, however, that the child actually was in better condition than the two adults. His mother had wrapped him in her coat before lashing him to the Russian truck tire inner tube and giving him a bottle of water. Not only did he have protection from the sun because of the coat, he might not have had any part of his body in the ocean at all, depending on the size of the rubber tube.

While it's still wonderous that the boy survived, the image of him bundled in a coat and tied down is not the romantic picture painted by artists who portray him surrounded by happy dolphins and reaching for the embrace of angels. Nor do they add the gruesome element to the portrait: the corpse of 60 year-old Merida Loreto Barrios, which bobbed in the water next to Elian's inner tube, tangled in rope. A later autopsy found her cause of death was "drowning and compression of the neck by rope," apparently from a botched effort to likewise tie herself to the inner tube. Not for Merida Loreto the protectorship of the Blessed Virgin.

True Believers

"I myself truly believe God saved Elian," Miami Mayor Joe Carollo told the Washington Times. "If some don't see the miracle, I am sorry for them." It was a politician's well-crafted remark designed not to offend. Certainly both sides would agree that it was miraculous that the boy survived the hazards of being afloat two days upon the open ocean. But the word miracle is coded here to appeal to the sizeable population of Miami Cubans who believe that Elian Gonzalez is literally their messiah. One believer told the Washington Post, "if he stays in the United States, Elian will rise to defeat the Castro regime and bring salvation to Cuba."

Until Thanksgiving, the 800,000 Cubans in the larger Miami area only agreed that Castro should be deposed -- somehow. But once Elian was found, the child became the obsession of the community, both a symbol of the Cuban diaspora and a potent icon in its own right.

Almost immediately, Elian became El Nino Milagro -- the Miracle Child. Within two days of his rescue, the dolphins story was being spread on Miami talk radio; soon clergy and the pious were seeking to place religious meaning on the Elian story.

Rev. Jose Luis Menendez, pastor of Corpus Christi Catholic Church, is only one of several mainstream religious figures who have compared Elian's saga to the story of Jesus in the New Testament. "Herod -- Castro -- is waiting in Cuba," Menendez told the Washington Post. "Pontius Pilate is washing his hands in Washington, and that is President Clinton. And the suffering of this child is the suffering of the Cuban people."

Others highlight parallels to the story of Moses, noting that the Old Testament figure was also set adrift by his mother. "The daughter of the pharaoh took in Moses and this changed the history of the Hebrews," wrote newspaper columnist Jose Marmol. "Moses lived to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt to the promised land of Israel, an exodus that lasted 40 years -- about the same as our exile from Cuba."

But whether the kid most takes after Jesus or Moses is a non-issue; these are just different flavors of sermons. Far more important is the heartfelt reaction from the community. Put another way, it was not notable last month when Miami's auxiliary Roman Catholic bishop conducted an outdoor mass and proselytized about the Castro-Herod metaphor; what was important about that event was that thousands joined the ceremony, their bodies forming a massive human cross in a Little Havana street intersection.

For anyone so inclined, a religious fevor took hold. Rumors that an image of the Virgin Mary appeared in a bank window soon drew believers to create a shrine of candles and pictures -- and the bank to hire a security guard to protect the image from attempts to clean it off. The same day that Little Havana was abuzz over the bank apparition, members of the Gonzalez family believed that the Virgin also appeared on the mirror in the bedroom Elian shared with Marisleysis. Across the street, a poster portrayed Elian cradling the baby Jesus with the caption, "Elian Knows Christ -- Others Do Not." And perhaps the best example of the mondo weirdness surrounding the story, one reporter noted a man reciting the rosary through a megaphone outside the Gonzalez home -- at midnight.

Running parallel to this madness, another cult was developing: Hatred against the Justice Department for insisting that the boy's father should have custody. According to reports in the Flordia press, Miami AM talk radio programs have aired a steady stream of invective against both President Clinton and Attorney General Reno for months, cumulating in a pair of alleged death threats in early April.

And spotted among those standing guard outside the Gonzalez house were members of Alpha 66, an anti-Castro terrorist group skilled in handling automatic weapons and explosives. The group, founded by Bay of Pigs veterans, believes that guerilla war is the only way to rid Cuba of Fidel, and Reno's justice department has prosecuted members several times for gun-running. Another member was convicted in 1996 for selling a pipe bomb to an undercover FBI agent.

While it's unlikely that the feds were worried about members of Alpha 66 chucking bombs in Little Havana or having a showdown with INS agents, it is almost certain that the terrorists were conducting a different type of operation: Recruiting. According to a 1998 Miami New Times profile, the group seeks out youths for their cause, holding weekly training exercises at their secluded camp.

There is no doubt that Alpha 66 and other anti-Castro groups will exploit the Elian myth to the fullest. It also seems likely that anti-American groups will use the story -- particularly the photo of the seizure -- to stir rage. Much like the time after Waco in 1993, a fuse has been lit beneath extremists; all that remains is to hope that we can avoid the inevitable explosion.

And Why Not Nader For President?

We've reached a point in the history of our species and our planet when the only practical solution may be the radical solution. That's why I'm going to work hard for and cast my votes for Ralph Nader, candidate of the Green Party in the 2000 presidential primaries and general election.Barring a miracle, Nader won't win. In fact, there's something to the argument that a vote for Nader could help elect a George Bush, Jr. However, the "lesser of two evils" conundrum is much less an issue in the presidential sweepstakes than in any other type of election held in the United States. That's because uniquely, presidential elections are won and lost based on electoral, not popular, votes. Such was the wisdom of the founders.If by election day, it's pretty clear that the Democrat or the Republican has a decided lead in any given state, and therefore will take all the electoral votes from that state, there's really no need to "waste" your vote on a major party candidate. Instead, use the opportunity to vote your conscience. It won't make any difference in the outcome of the election, but it will demonstrate the size and therefore the potential strength of that part of the electorate that is truly disgusted with politics as usual and wants a progressive alternative. Recent polling indicates this group to be substantial, but a poll is not an election.Perhaps the most tangible benefit that could accrue from a Nader candidacy would be qualification of the Green Party for federal matching funds in 2004. The Reform Party has $12 million to work with this year because Ross Perot exceeded the requisite 5 percent threshold in 1996. That's why Pat Buchanan is attempting to market his AmericaFirst! xenophobia under the Reform banner this year. It would be wonderful for the Green Party to actually have a campaign budget to start out with in 2004. Nader can get us there.Gore has gone along with the administration's destructive policies on forests worldwideA stint in the U.S. Congress at the beginning of the decade convinced me that throwing our lot in with the so-called reformers of the Democratic Party is nothing but a kind of complacency, or even delusion. What passes for reform Democrat-style is mostly just another way to reconfigure the status quo. For example, consider the vaunted Bill Bradley health plan, a centerpiece of the former senator's "insurgency." The plan, conceived originally by the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation, purports to insure the nearly 50 million Americans who lack coverage. But under closer scrutiny, it becomes clear that the Bradley plan would transfer $200 billion of tax dollars to the private insurance industry while millions of uninsured would continue to fall through the cracks. Lower-income Americans, promised a choice, would be relegated to using their skimpy government handouts to purchase the same lower standard of care they receive today. The Chicago-based Physicians for a National Health Program has panned the Bradley plan, calling it "the wrong prescription."Friends of the Earth stepped forward to endorse Bradley some months ago, citing his superior record on environmental issues. But considering Bradley's silence around the recent events in Seattle, it's hard to believe that FOE had really thought things through. While Bradley's environmental numbers (based on League of Conservation Voters scorecards) are slightly higher than Gore's, New Jersey, the state Bradley represented in the Senate for eighteen years, regularly battles Louisiana for top spot on the EPA's annual compilation of toxic emissions. While Bradley often co-sponsored environmentally-friendly bills, he rarely took a leadership role. He even backed President Bush's Clean Air Act revisions of 1990, which opened a market in pollution credits, a scheme which greens derisively term "cancer bonds."When candidate Bill Clinton chose Al Gore as his running mate in 1992, he sealed the deal for many doubting progressives. I remember watching then Senator Gore debate biotechnology issues as a senator, and knew of his strong statements on global warming, ozone depletion and other environmental threats. His book Earth in the Balance was considered the most thoughtful book on the environment ever penned by an American politician. "I have come to believe that we must take bold and unequivocal action: we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization," wrote Gore. A few years into his vice-presidency, the joke was that Gore had not only not written the book, he hadn't even read it. Now seven years later, the Gore environmental record is a sad joke. It seems doubtful that even the strongly Democrat-leaning Sierra Club will endorse him.Gore has gone along with the administration's destructive policies on forests worldwide, including supporting the so-called global free trade agreement on timber, a recent major bone of contention in Seattle. Gore opposes efforts to end commercial logging on public forest land, despite the fact that these lands provide only a small fraction of national timber production. Gore has repeatedly favored sprawl at the expense of environmental protection, including in the super-sensitive Everglades National Park in Florida. Gore also promised to keep offshore oil and gas drilling away from the Florida coastline, then failed to do so. Now, seven years later, Gore says he will oppose new offshore leases, a position that puts him in line with such ardent environmentalists as Governor Jeb Bush of Texas and our own Gray Davis of California.As a candidate in 1992, Gore promised to stop the gigantic hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio. Today, the project is completed and polluting the community. Despite strong statements in his book, the ozone hole has continued to grow under Clinton-Gore. Gore also broke his commitment to protect wetlands, failed to keep radioactive materials out of commercial products and remained silent as the environmental protection budget was slashed over the past seven years.McCain and Bradley are trying hard to create the illusion that they are "insurgents" running against the systemNeither Gore nor Bradley have liberal credentials worth bragging about. Both favor the continuation of obscene military budgets. Bradley's recent comment to the Des Moines Register that "I don't want to battle the doctrine till we do the analysis" is indicative of his reticence to challenge conventional military thinking. Like Gore, he has avoided any comment on U.S./UN sanctions against Iraq, even though it is commonly acknowledged that these sanctions are condemning thousands of Iraqi children monthly to sickness and premature deaths. Nor did Bradley raise a peep about the recent war against Serbia. One might have thought that an 18-year veteran of the US Senate would complain about the continuing dismemberment of the War Powers Act, under which Congress is supposed to have a hand in committing the nation to extended conflict.To his credit, Bradley was one of only 24 senators who opposed the 1996 overhaul of the federal welfare program. Bradley correctly predicted that the "end of welfare as we know it" would end up increasing poverty as we know it. Meanwhile, Gore has basked in the fanciful notion that moving people from welfare to marginal employment without benefits, often without housing, is a step forward for the growing legions of the marginalized in bloated America. Neither man has a plan to deal with the explosion of child poverty, now afflicting nearly one American child in four. Bradley talks grandly about halving the number of poor children. Come on, Bill, why not go all the way?Perhaps the less said about the choices on the Republican side the better. George W. Bush, known less than affectionately as "Shrub" in his home state, is living up to his early billing as a kind of "Dan Quayle without the experience." Molly Ivins, a much smarter Texan than the guv, recently pointed out that a man who claims Jesus Christ as his personal mentor might want to rethink a few of his gubernatorial positions. Would Jesus really have fought to keep 200,000 poor Texas children from getting medical insurance? Vetoed a bill that would have assured poor people being held in jail a chance to see a lawyer within 20 days? Discouraged people who qualify for Medicaid from applying for it? Signed more than 100 death warrants, including those of people who were clearly insane or profoundly retarded? You get the point.And who are these doctors who have given John McCain a clean bill of health? Perhaps they need to be examined! After all, can a man who still expounds that the Vietnam war could have been won had the US sent ground forces into North Vietnam and launched a strategic bombing campaign using B-52s be considered truly sane? As Daniel Ellsburg pointed out about the loquacious McCain, "The fact that he says what he thinks is in his favor. But what he thinks is cockeyed."McCain supports Star Wars, complains unendingly about the underfunding of the Pentagon, supports privatization of Social Security, the flat tax, and, of course, the current "lock-'em up" approach to crime. He opposes gun control, abortion, and increasing the minimum wage. He supported every single item in Newt Gingrich's 1994 Contract With America. He voted against protecting homosexuals from job discrimination, and (though he's since reversed his position), voted against making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday.McCain, and Bradley, are trying hard to create the illusion that they are "insurgents," running against the system. Both stump for campaign finance reform, particularly in opposition to the "soft money" contributions used by major donors, mostly large corporations, to get around the single contributor and PAC limits currently in effect. Interestingly, campaign finance reform is not polling very high among Americans' major concerns in this election year. Even if it were, neither McCain nor Bradley are credible standard-bearers. Dollar Bill is a ferocious fund-raiser, having raked in more than $20 million from a dazzling array of sources led by the financial sector (i.e., Wall Street), Washington lobbyists, e-commerce firms, and drug companies. McCain, who came to national prominence as one of the Keating Five, rakes in millions through his position as chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee. McCain's intervention on behalf of interests with business before the Federal Communications Commission, interests who just happen to make large financial contributions to the senator, has become a national story over the past two weeks. Meanwhile, McCain flies the corporate jets, railing against the corruption and corrosion of American politics caused by the "big money" that keep his campaign, at least for the moment, aloft.The Nader of 2000 has absorbed the lessons of '96 and believes the time is ripe.A leader is best When people barely know that he exists, Not so good when people obey and acclaim him, Worst when they despise him. 'Fail to honor people, They fail to honor you;' But of a good leader, who talks little, When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, They will all say, 'We did this ourselves.'Ralph Nader is as different from the four major presidential contenders of 2000 as the above idea of leadership is from our current celebrity-obsessed perspective. While the vast majority of politicians are focus group and image-driven, Ralph Nader remains quintessentially, for better or worse, Nader.Ralph Nader believes in the power of people taking control of their lives. He invented the modern concepts of consumer advocacy, citizen activism, and public interest law because he truly believes that if we "do it ourselves" it will have much greater meaning, and longer lasting power, than if even the most benign and enlightened government does it for us.How can a man who has never been elected to any office, never held any position other than the unofficial title of "Public Citizen #1" become broadly acknowledged as one of the great Americans of the 20th century? It is because he, unlike the vast collection of gasbags who ply us with platitudes, honors us with his belief in us.Nader's stands on the issues of the day grow directly out of his belief in the dignity of the individual. He, alone among the major candidates, stands up unequivocally against child labor and the denial of worker rights, for universal health care, for an end to child poverty in America. He supports public funding of political campaigns, withdrawal from the World Trade Organization, vigorous protection of the environment, an end to the consolidation and monopolization of financial institutions, firm limits on biotechnology and genetic manipulation, slashing the military budget and halting sanctions against Iraq.For some, Nader remains a problematic candidate. Working for his campaign in 1996, I experienced a little of the anguish that comes from working with a candidate who sometimes seems to lack a strong sense of self-promotion. Contemplating another time around, many of us worry about a repeat, a campaign without funds and worse, without a sufficiently "driven" candidate.But the Nader of 2000 has absorbed the lessons of '96 and believes the time is ripe for a much more complete effort. He rose to the occasion heroically in Seattle, debating ferociously against the minions of globalization with the same energy he employed to fight the automobile industry three decades ago. Nader has pledged to visit every state at least three times during this campaign. He has pledged to raise funds and to have a campaign structure with paid staff. Nader has promised that this will be a real campaign. What more can we ask? The rest is up to us.Nader often quotes his father telling him that the United States didn't need a third party so much as it needed a real second party. In truth, we are well down the road of having only the choice between two wings of the business party. The Democrats and Republicans quibble over a range of issues, but the core injustices, inequalities, and stupidities continue or worsen as the years, and decades, roll by. Nader likens the major parties to Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the rival fiddlers of old who were incapable of stopping their musical feud despite the fact that their tunes were indistinguishable. It's high time to reject them both, and demand a politics that calls forth, in the immortal words of Lincoln, "our better angels."Dan Hamburg is a former U.S. congressperson from northern California. He was the Green Party candidate for governor of California in 1998 and currently serves as executive director of Voice of the Environment, a San Francisco-based nonprofit.

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