“Texas is the national testing ground for bad public policy,” the journalist Molly Ivins used to say.
It was a Texas attorney general, Gregg Abbott, who sued in federal court in Brownsville, Texas, challenging Barack Obama’s 2014 executive memorandum that attempted to provide temporary legal status for undocumented parents of children born in the United States. Twenty-five other Republican state attorneys general joined Abbott in the lawsuit.
Abbott, currently in the media spotlight because floodwaters created by Hurricane Harvey have inundated much of the city of Houston, used to brag that his job entailed “going to the office in the morning, suing the federal government, and going home in the afternoon.” He prevailed in Brownsville, blocking the implementation of Obama’s program, thus denying legal status to some 4 million undocumented residents of the United States. Their children might be citizens, or legal residents, but Abbott’s lawsuit ensured that they continue to live in the shadows.
Since filing suit against the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program (DAPA), Abbott was elected governor, and has moved further to the right, out of both conviction and a legitimate concern that his lieutenant governor, an evangelical extremist not unlike Vice President Mike Pence, will challenge him in a primary.
Abbott’s successor in the elected AG’s office is Ken Paxton, perhaps as extreme as Abbott, if not as bright and articulate, and currently under indictment for securities fraud.
In the footsteps of Abbott, Paxton is now leading a group of Republican state attorneys general in a lawsuit in the same Brownsville federal court, this time attempting to overturn a widely popular Obama executive action that currently defers the deportation of 886,814 young, undocumented residents, allowing them to obtain work permits and driver’s licenses, after paying a $495 fee and passing a background check.
It’s an odd designation, applicants are not granted “legal residence” per se, but rather allowed certain privileges while their deportation is deferred for two years, after which they can reapply to renew their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. DACA status provides no path to citizenship, nor can people granted DACA status receive any federal financial benefits, such as Social Security, college financial aid, or food stamps.
But Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an implacable opponent of immigration reform while he was in the Senate, appears to be at least supportive of Paxton’s lawsuit, telling “Fox and Friends” hosts: “I like that our states and localities are holding the federal government to account, expecting us to do what’s our responsibility to the state and locals, and that’s to enforce the law.”
Easy to confuse, two similar acronyms for two Obama programs for undocumented immigrants, DACA for children; and DAPA, which has been suspended while tied up in court, for parents. At least it was suspended until Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly rescinded it in mid-June, months before becoming Trump’s Chief of Staff.
For Paxton, rescinding DAPA, which was never implemented because it was tied up in court, wasn’t enough. On June 27, Paxton wrote to Sessions, demanding that he also order the Secretary of Homeland Security to end DACA.
Paxton warned Sessions that if the administration fails to issue a memorandum rescinding DACA by September 5, he will amend the lawsuit that successfully blocked DAPA and ask the same federal court to kill DACA.
Kill is not a legal term, but Paxton writes that unless the Trump administration rescinds Obama’s DACA order, he will ask the court for a ruling that lets the program die: “We respectfully ask the Secretary of Homeland Security to phase out the DACA program.…Specifically…not renew or issue any new DACA or Expanded DACA permits in the future.” If that request is not met, Paxton will go to court.
The suit Paxton intends to amend is sitting in the courtroom of Judge Andrew S. Hanen, whose animus toward undocumented immigrants is of record. As we reported in February 2015, Hanen was the author of a 2015 legal opinion in which he ruled on the enforcement authority of a federal agency, then went on to write 50 superfluous pages of dicta critical of the nation’s undocumented population.
A few examples:
“In 1992, the Attorney General estimated that the country’s immigrant population was as low as three million individuals. Today, California alone is said to have at least that many illegal aliens residing within its borders.”
“Evidence shows that Texas spends $9,473 to educate each illegal alien child … Texas also complains of the millions of dollars it must spend each year in providing uncompensated health care for these increasing numbers of undocumented workers.”
“This influx, for example, is causing the States to experience severe law enforcement problems … And in [Arizona’s] most populous county, these aliens are responsible for disproportionate share of serious crime.”
There is more in the public record that illustrates Hanen’s anti-immigrant bias.
Abbott was aware of Hanen’s hostile disposition toward undocumented immigrants when he carefully steered his 2015 DAPA lawsuit into his Brownsville courtroom. Now, Paxton will be trying his DACA case on the same playing field.
If Paxton goes ahead with the lawsuit, it will be left to Jeff Sessions to put together a defense for the 886,814 Dreamers whose temporary legal status Paxton is determined to end. After all, Paxton and his fellow attorneys general are suing Sessions’ client: the federal government.
On the campaign trail, Trump promised to rescind DACA, but he has been ambivalent since taking office, suggesting that children shouldn’t be held responsible for their parents’ decision to bring them into the country.
But all this might be beyond Trump’s control, unless he requests Sessions to make the DACA suit go away, as he requested him to stop the criminal prosecution of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He failed with Arpaio and had to resort to a pardon. And his odds were better in Arizona, where the federal government was the prosecution in a criminal case, than in Texas, where it is a defendant in a civil action.
Beyond Hanen’s courtroom is the extremely conservative Fifth Circuit, never a friendly forum for undocumented residents of the country, and a conservative Supreme Court likely to be hostile to Obama-era executive orders and undocumented residents in general.
Perhaps this ends up a win-win proposition for Trump. He directs his Secretary of Homeland Security to kill the program. Or Paxton and his cohorts kill it in a Texas courtroom. Either way, a campaign promise is fulfilled. And a decision that at the moment appears inevitable forces almost 900,000 Dreamers back to a life in the shadows.
It all began in a courtroom in Texas.
One day before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963, Richard Hofstadter was in London, delivering a lecture that a year later would appear in Harper’s as “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
At 47 years of age, Hofstadter was an American brand. He held an endowed chair at Columbia University—not to mention two Pulitzers. He was considered to be one of the finest historians and public intellectuals of his time.
Right-wing putschists led by Barry Goldwater (and the evidently immortal Phyllis Schlafly) had seized control of the Republican Party, muscling aside Nelson Rockefeller and the moderate wing he represented. Hofstadter was alarmed. “The Paranoid Style” was his red flag.
In the introduction to a 2007 Vintage Books collection of Hofstadter’s political writing, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz describes the 1964 essay as “a study of political cranks and zealots” in which the author described “a chronic, rancid syndrome in our political life.”
Indigenous and deeply rooted in American history, the paranoid politics Hofstadter described began with a panic among Federalists, echoed in New England’s pulpits in 1789, when preachers warned of the Bavarian Illuminati plots to undermine the new republic.
In the 1820s and 1830s the nation was seized with a fear of Masons, who were perceived to be a threat to republican government because Masonry was a secret society with its own system of loyalty and its own jurisdictions. Public hysteria about Masonic plots was followed by an anti-Catholic movement focused on the Society of Jesus, better known as Jesuits. “Anti-Catholicism has always been the pornography of the Puritans,” Hofstadter wrote.
All of this is understandable in a young nation defining itself and defending itself from external and internal threats. It’s when Hofstadter takes what he describes as the long jump to the contemporary right wing that the paranoid style of politics he describes speaks to our current political moment.
It doesn’t take much more of a leap to conclude that the same rancid syndrome, which Hofstadter chronicled as occurring in episodic waves in American political life, is upon us today, and the political cranks and zealots are Republican voters animated by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio.
In the sixties, the country hadn’t entirely moved beyond McCarthyism, and the fear that the highest levels of the federal government had been infiltrated by communists who were selling out U.S. national interests. That particular obsession is largely a relic of the past, perhaps with the exception of religious loons such as Pat Robertson, and Rev. Rafael Cruz (father of Ted), who has referred to Barack Obama as a socialist aligned with Cuba’s Castro brothers.
Read “The Paranoid Style”—eliding the references to the communist menace—and you’ll discover an insightful analysis of the overheated rhetoric and reckless posturing that is the 2016 Republican presidential primary.
Hofstadter quoted Harvard professor Daniel Bell’s description of “the modern right wing” of the 1960s. If Bell’s description weren’t so articulate, it could be passed off as briefing notes for Sarah Palin’s speechwriter.
America has been largely taken away from them and their kind; though they are determined to try and repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; capitalism has been gradually undermined . . . the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen at the very centers of American power.
The “modern right wing” of 2016? You can find it at a Trump rally in a Birmingham stadium or a Cruz caucus in Iowa—even with Palin on the hustings in New Hampshire—promising to take back our country from the intellectual elites who have dispossessed “real Americans.”
Like today’s Republican presidential candidates, Hofstadter’s paranoids opposed the income tax and worked to repeal it. They were anti-intellectual and anti-cosmopolitan. They had a deep-seated aversion to “the democracies of Western Europe.” They harbored a “nativist desire to develop in North America a homogeneous civilization.” They envisioned the enemy eroding our values and undermining our national security: “A perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman, sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury loving.”
Throw in “African-American”—which was beyond even the most febrile delusions of the hysterical conservatives of the 1960s— and you’ve almost got Rev. Raphael Cruz’s description of the sybaritic, foreign-born Muslim pretender to the American presidency.
How close are we to Yogi Berra’s “deÌjaÌ€ vu all over again?”
Hofstadter’s essay quoted a New York Times story about conspiracy theorists who warned of a covert collaboration between the Department of Defense and the United Nations:
A United States Army guerrilla warfare exercise in Georgia, called Water Moccasin III, is actually a United Nations operation preparatory to taking over our country.
At the time, only one inconsequential three-term Congressman from Orange County, California, bought into the alleged plot that had President Kennedy dismantling the U.S. military and replacing it with a U.N. peacekeeping force.
Last summer, when a group of “patriots” in the small Texas town of Bastrop claimed that a routine training operation conducted by the U.S. Army was a covert U.N. mission, and that U.N. vans had been filmed in Walmart parking lots, Governor Greg Abbott deployed the Texas Guard to monitor the operation. As senator, Cruz directed his staff to begin an inquiry at the Pentagon.
Abbott recently travelled to Israel and Switzerland, and he has drafted a revised U.S. Constitution, which he intends to bring before a Constitutional Convention. He’s obviously positioning himself for something larger than elected office in Texas. Cruz, meanwhile, has a reasonable shot at his party’s presidential nomination. And Palin is back, sounding the alarm about the “leftists in Washington destroying our military.”
“Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content,” Hofstadter wrote. “I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric.”
If political rhetoric is any measure of the moment, a short excerpt of the speech Sarah Palin delivered when she endorsed Donald Trump on January 19 illustrates how far around the bend the extremists in the modern Republican Party have gone.
Tell me, is this conservative? GOP majorities handing over a blank check to fund Obamacare and Planned Parenthood and illegal immigration that competes for your jobs, and turning safety nets into hammocks, and all these new Democrat voters that are going to be coming on over border as we keep the borders open, and bequeathing our children millions in new debt, and refusing to fight back for our solvency, and our sovereignty, even though that’s why we elected them and sent them as a majority to D.C. No! If they’re not willing to do that, then how are they to tell us that we’re not conservative enough in order to be able to make these changes in America that we know need to be . . . Now they’re concerned about this ideological purity? Give me a break! Who are they to say that? Oh tell somebody like, Phyllis Schlafly, she is the Republican, conservative movement icon and hero and a Trump supporter. Tell her she’s not conservative. How ’bout the rest of us? Right wingin’, bitter clingin’, proud clingers of our guns, our God, and our religions, and our Constitution. Tell us that we’re not red enough?
Palin might be considered a marginal figure by sensible moderates in both parties. But she’s revered on the far right, and in the 200 words above she addresses most of the paranoid fears of today’s right: a treasonous government selling out our sovereignty, coming after our guns, eroding religious rights, inviting aliens into the country to take our jobs, treating the Constitution with contempt. Palin managed to include in one over-the top speech most of what animates today’s Republican right wing—a constituency of “political cranks and zealots” who have moved far beyond the extremists Hofstadter described in an essay written half a century ago.
They Make Cheney Look Like Chomsky: Cruz, Trump, Rubio and the Frightening Bellicosity of Today's GOP
In 2005 I was doing a regular Tuesday–Friday commute between Austin and Washington. One of the regulars on the flights was Karen Hughes, a longtime advisor to then-President George W. Bush. At the time, she was commuting to her State Department office, where she was the undersecretary for public diplomacy.
On one Tuesday morning flight, my traveling companion, a journalist who wrote about international oil-and-gas interests and the Middle East, took a seat beside the undersecretary and began querying her about her reading on the region.
As it turned out, she had read very little. Her seatmate recommended half a dozen familiar titles, as Hughes politely said she would “put it on my list,” though she wrote down nothing and seemed more than eager to get back to her Austin American-Statesman.
The brief conversation ended with a telling exchange.
My journo friend observed that Islamic societies were once among the most literate in the world. As the United States had a significant presence in two Muslim countries, he asked, was the State Department considering literacy programs, investing in teaching young men and women to read?
“We don’t care if they can read,” Hughes said. “We just want to make sure they don’t bomb us again.”
Her response said a lot about the administration’s policy in the region. No sense of history, no anthropology, no cultural sensitivity.
That sort of ignorance led to women in the U.S. Army humiliating nude Muslim men at the Abu Ghraib Prison; to the defiling of Korans in GuantÃ¡namo; to the use of dogs, considered unclean by Muslims, in interrogations. These were crude and widely publicized affronts that will take generations to repair, if they can be repaired. (Then there was the actual torture.)
O.K., the disastrous Bush-Cheney foreign policy has been sufficiently re-litigated.
Today, Iraq is divided between the terrorists in the so-called Islamic State and a Shia government aligned with, if not controlled by, Iran. The United States has offered some support, such as U.S. Special Forces and tactical air support helping the Iraqi army retake Ramadi. (It was previously conquered by American soldiers, Marines, and Navy SEALS in 2006.) Stability still remains hard to come by, with the region poised to explode yet again in response to Saudi Arabia’s state assassination of Shia Cleric Sheikh Nimr al Nimr. Barack Obama’s foreign policy, at least his rapprochement with Iran, looks downright inspired.
If you don’t consider Obama’s more restrained foreign policy a better alternative than what came before it, I invite you to revisit the essay Col. Lawrence Wilkerson wrote for the Spectator in August 2014. Wilkerson, an Army officer who concluded his career with General Colin Powell at the Defense Department and then the State Department, laments George W. Bush’s decision to squander the decades of costly and bloody realpolitik by which the United States achieved a delicate balance of power in the Middle East.
Wilkerson describes what is required to achieve a fragile balance in the Middle East: the United States supporting Iraq in the bloody war that began with Saddam Hussein’s attempt to conquer Iran; the U.S. reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers and assumption of the role of Coast Guard in the Persian Gulf; an American warship that “absorbed two Iraqi Exocet missiles” and another almost sunk by Iranian mines; the United States taking out Iran’s command and control systems then tragically shooting down a civilian Iranian airliner and killing all 250 on board.
“From 1953 to 2000 we crafted and maintained a balance of power in the Persian Gulf, however ignominiously to the purer hearts of the world,” Wilkerson wrote. “In 2003, we destroyed that balance.” (Wilkerson is back in our January issue, describing what a Marco Rubio foreign policy might look like.)
There is a sense that this gets worse before it gets better, maybe even abysmally worse if Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Donald Trump end up calling the shots.
“We will carpet bomb [ISIS] into oblivion,” Cruz said in Iowa. “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”
“ISIS is making a tremendous amount of money because of the oil that they took away, they have some in Syria, they have some in Iraq,” Trump said. “I would bomb the shit out of them.”
Rubio, meanwhile, promises to be a president “who will destroy terrorists overseas by authorizing whatever tools our commanders need.”
He is more specific regarding what he will do with suspected terrorists captured overseas. Rubio would expand GuantÃ¡namo, warning terrorism suspects that they will get “a one way ticket” to the island gulag Obama is trying to close. Americans suspected of engaging in terrorism or collaborating with terrorists will also be locked up in GuantÃ¡namo.
The more they talk, the more you realize that the top tier Republican candidates are more bellicose than Dick Cheney. It’s almost enough to make you feel warm and fuzzy about a Hillary Clinton presidency.
Donald Trump is constantly bemoaning the “War on Christmas” and ripping Starbucks for its plain red cups.
“I tell my wife don’t go to those stores, I want to see Christmas,” he told attendees at the 2015 Values Voter Summit.
But the Donald is a rhetorical Christian soldier. Real believers take the Fox News “War on Christmas” talking point seriously. Some, such as evangelical brand specialist Chris Stone, are acting on it.
Stone—the founder of Faith Driven Global—launched a Christian retail index earlier this year, which seeks to harness the $30 billion in Christmas buying power of the nation’s “Biblically Orthodox Christians.”
As Stone sees it: “Today’s marketplace is tribalized.”
Stone’s base of evangelical BOCs are already almost as tribal as the Williamsburg Lubavitchers. The BOCs have their own Boy Scouts (Trail Life U.S.A.), Girl Scouts (American Heritage Girls), and their own Liberty University. They even read their own newspapers, like the dreary, tendentious Washington Examiner, where Stone announced his 2015 “ChristmasBuycott”—complete with a hashtag, of course.
A “buycott” is the flip side of a “boycott.” It guides faithful consumers toward Christian-friendly retail outlets, while ranking the places they can avoid by spending their money with merchants who share their biblical worldview. I’m not sure there’s a difference, but Stone argues that a buycott is not as negative as a boycott. Informing these buycott consumers is Stone’s Faith Equality Index—a ranking of “how well brands acknowledge Faith Driven Consumers (FDCs) by welcoming, embracing, and celebrating them.”
Stone’s Index draws heavily on the Human Rights Campaign’s “hugely successful” Corporate Equality Index, which ranks brands, workplaces, and retail outlets by policies and practices regarding the LGBTQ community—and has even been “largely successful in compelling brands to include transgender transition in health coverage.” The Faith Equality Index site even compares HRC rankings with each product or outlet it ranks—a subtle “buy here or buy queer” message.
The Index includes a leaderboard where a consumer can track the FDC-plus points earned by reaching out to brands and recruiting family and friends. The real-time competition invites FDCs to engage in a mercantile evangelical movement that rewards the faithful and punishes the not-so-faith-friendly retailers.
Starbucks was an early buycott target. Like Trump, Stone came down hard on Starbucks after it replaced its traditional “Christian-themed” cups with a “solid red blank canvas design.”
Stone’s Index directed believers looking for a more Christ-centered cup of coffee to Dunkin’ Donuts, which honors the faith by serving coffee in red cups emblazoned with the word “Joy.” Krispy Kreme donuts is offered up as another option.
Here’s the FEI as pitched in one of its promotional e-mails. (Attend a Faith & Freedom convention, or a Values Voter Summit, and you, too, will be on the mailing list.)
But caveat emptor: the FEI’s preferred retailers are often high-calorie, low-salary outfits—not to mention generous donors to right-wing causes.
A few examples.
Cracker Barrel, a restaurant chain of painfully treacly country-store knockoffs complete with porch rockers, is a nutritionist’s nightmare, serving calorie-laden plates of down-homey “Fancy Fixins.”
But paychecks are lean. Cracker Barrel servers earn an average $3.52 an hour (plus tips), and cashiers get $8.40 an hour. The chain’s management has an affinity for right-wing politicians. In fact, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay almost ended up in prison, partly because of the money the chain’s CEO lavished on him.
The FEI’s top-ranking restaurant, though, is Chick-Fil-A, which pays its cooks from $7.70 to $9.41 an hour and its team leaders $9.81. It is privately held, so executive compensation isn’t published, but co-owners Dan and Ronald Cathy are worth $1.5 billion each, according to the PrivCo research firm. The chain was mired in controversy in 2012 for its openly anti-gay politics; millions of company dollars were funneled through the Cathy family’s WinShape foundation to anti-LGBTQ groups like the Family Research Council.
Sam’s Club tops the Faith Equality Index big-box retail outlet rankings, while Costco is at the bottom. Sam’s Club, of the Sam Walton (Walmart) dynasty, pays cashiers $9.50 an hour; Costco provides cashiers with an hourly wage of $15.18. Sam’s Club’s CEO earns $23.1 million a year and pays his employees an average annual salary of $22,400. Costco’s CEO earns $2.6 million a year and pays his employees an average salary of $45,800.
The Waltons also own the top-ranking grocery chain on the Index, Walmart. With $487.7 billion in annual revenue in 2014, Walmart is the world’s largest company. Yet, it wasn’t until April 2015 that it increased its salaries from minimum wage to $9.00 an hour in response to a protracted and ongoing fair-wage campaign advocating for a living hourly wage of $15.
Plus, when it comes to political donations, you could say the Waltons are the Koch Brothers of big grocery retail.
The Index might be useful to the secular shopper, or the Christian not completely given over to Biblical orthodoxy.
Buy from the FEI’s low-scoring retailers and odds are you’re supporting workplace equity while undermining right-wing philanthropy.
It’s not entirely reliable. (Bank of America is an FEI loser; but that’s no reason to champion that behemoth). But turned on its head, the Faith Equality Index is a decent consumers’ guide that will at least keep the alert secular shopper out of Walmart, Cracker Barrel, and Sam’s Club.
There’s some value in that.
The GOP Is a Neo-Confederate Party Now: The South and the Religious Right Have Devoured the Republicans Whole
When Lester Maddox was governor of Georgia in the late 1960s, he insisted that the problem with the state’s prisons was “the poor quality of its inmates.”
To understand the posturing of the Republican candidates this year, you have to take into account the quality of the inmates––the Southern, conservative, anti-immigrant base that dominates the party Lincoln helped create to confront the nativism and anti-immigration politics of the Democrats and Know Nothings in the 1850s.
The candidates––not their backers and constituency-group leaders––got most of the media attention at last month’s Values Voters Summit in Washington because they are the candidates––and because their pronouncements, which range from deeply disturbing to utterly risible, are newsworthy.
When Ted Cruz implies that if elected, he will kill Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, that’s news. When Mike Huckabee promises to invoke the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to ban abortion with the stroke of a pen, because the unborn are fully fledged citizens of the United States (“None of your daughters and daughters-in-law called you up and said ‘Guess What? I’m going to have a blob of tissue.’”), that’s also news. As is Rick Santorum’s promise to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage “as between a man and a woman.”
As is, I suppose, Donald Trump’s truculent defense of Christmas. “I love Christmas. You go to stores now and you don’t see the word ‘Christmas.’ It says ‘Happy Holidays’ all over. I say ‘where’s Christmas?’ I tell my wife ‘don’t go to those stores!’ I want to see Christmas!”
Where’s the market for political discourse of this caliber? It plays particularly with the constituency groups that make up today’s Republican Party.
The Values Voters Summit is an annual production of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins’s non-profit (and tax-exempt) foundation that for decades has been at the center of anti-abortion, anti-LGBT campaigns. During the presidential election cycle, its national and regional events are a magnet for candidates in pursuit of the Republican evangelical base. This year, roughly 2,500 attended the D.C. event.
“You’ve been amazing! And to have such a fantastic room!” Donald Trump said as he wrapped up his 30-minute “speech.” The Don Rickles, Vegas-style sign-off was pitch-perfect for Trump, even if waving his Bible in the air as he closed seemed contrived, and even if he had no idea of the second bananas who opened and closed for him.
Consider the Benham brothers.
Identical twins Jason and David Benham became Christian-right martyrs when the HGTV cable network cancelled their “Flip it Forward” reality show before it went into production.
The network had been careless in vetting its two stars. The twins’ father, the Rev. Flip Benham, is a virulent and confrontational anti-abortion crusader and anti-LGBT activist. The sons have followed in the father’s footsteps.
HGTV, an apolitical home-and-garden network, had been sold on a program that followed the brothers as they bought, remodeled, and flipped houses. Then network executives discovered some of David’s anti-gay advocacy, which might have made selling ads a challenge.
One example was a passage in an article the rowdier of the two twins wrote for a Christian publication:
In the Leviticus passage above it says that death is the consequence for homosexual sin. This is how detestable this type of sin is to God.
Benham did go on to observe that because “homosexual sin is covered by the blood of Jesus,” it will never again be considered a capital offense. But network execs decided that his anti-gay writing and advocacy was a reasonable justification to abort the reality program.
The “firing” catapulted the twins into a new career, their hugely popular two-man show booked by hundreds of Christian event planners. The brothers are handsome, virile, and charismatic. Their act plays off a gently mocking sibling rivalry, quibbling about who was the better player on their high school basketball team in North Carolina, or who is the harder-bodied Cross-X trainer.
On the Values Voter stage, they added to their routine a group of heroes in “the war on religion”––the Oregon couple who owned Sweet Cakes Bakery and refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple; Iowans Rich and Betty Odgaard, who refused to rent their wedding chapel to a same-sex couple; Baronelle Stutzman, the septuagenarian Washington State florist who refused to provide floral arrangements for the same-sex wedding of one of her longtime clients; Kelvin Cochran, a former Atlanta fire chief relieved of his duties after he had published a book in which he described “homosexuality, lesbianism, pederasty, bestiality,” as related forms of “biblically unclean sexual perversion,” et al.
Secular liberals are targeting only Christians, David said.
“I haven’t seen a Muslim baker gettin’ sued yet,”he said. “And I haven’t seen the imams and the clerics getting pressure to marrying gay couples.”
Redemption and the unredeemable
Martyrdom is one powerful Christian theme, redemption another.
Star Parker is a tall, imposing African-American woman given to stylish long braids. She, too, is in demand at Christian and other conservative political events. She has run for Congress, written books, and is a columnist whose work appears in right- wing news outlets.
Parker often prefaces her speeches (actually strident, high-decibel rants), with a short take on her CV: “I’ve been in and out of criminal activity, drug activity, sexual activity, welfare activity, until Christ reached out into my heart to reconcile me.”
Her focus is usually abortion and her performance is as Grand Guignol as political theatre gets. She tells a large Saturday morning crowd gathered in Northwest Washington’s Omni Shoreham Hotel ballroom that the nation is in a civil war. Committed Christians are the Union Army engaged in a campaign to free the unborn from secular forces that would have them aborted.
“One baby was big enough to walk to the bus stop, and he slashed that little boy’s neck and tossed him in a shoe box,” she says.
There is a description of parts of “47 babies in a freezer that had to be thawed out like a TV dinner.” Then Star moves seamlessly to Planned Parenthood (never in any way associated with Gosnell’s private, for-profit Philadelphia clinic).
“Did Congress pay attention to Gosnell? See if there are any more Gosnells out there? . . . Planned Parenthood is still in business, the taxpayer-subsidized abortion business. And selling baby body parts.”
Owning an enrapt audience, she goes on.
“Homosexuals, now that they are married . . . are going to get their children right out of our foster care system.”
“Any Christian parent who has their child in one of those cesspools we call public schools is going to receive back a liberal.”
“A government that wants to retire our seniors through a taxation scheme called Social Security.”
Until I can’t go on and head out to Calvert Avenue to hail a cab.
But this road goes on forever and this party never ends––at this event, at CPAC, at Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom gatherings, at hundreds of venues and before tens of thousands of activists across the country, where the religious right, the Tea Party right, and the American Conservative Union, et al. convene.
The Benham Twins, Star Parker, Oliver North on patriotism, Gary Bauer’s account of every execution that has occurred in the Middle East since Obama took the oath of office; Congressman Louie Gohmert on the prospects of impeaching Barack Obama.
Until it ends, the neo-Confederate, mostly white, Christian party that Kevin Phillips envisioned in 1968 continues as half of our republic’s two-party system.
At a right-wing luncheon of rubber chicken in a Washington hotel ballroom three months ago, Marco Rubio told the story of his father, an immigrant bartender and waiter who had also worked in hotel ballrooms.
Waiters labored under heavy trays balanced on one hand as they hustled plates to the tables within the eight minutes allowed them.
“My father was a hotel bartender, just like these people you see here,” Rubio said.
Twice in a 20-minute speech, Rubio referred to “these people” as if they were inanimate objects.
No: “Please take a moment to thank them.” No: “MuchÃsimas gracias.”
It was only one missed moment. Yet the son of an immigrant father who spent his life serving food and drinks in places where he couldn’t afford to buy himself a beer missed it.
Bill Clinton would have known all the waiters’ names.
Two months after Senator Rubio spoke at the Washington luncheon, CNBC correspondent John Harwood asked Rubio how his plan to eliminate capital gains taxes would be received by people who live paycheck to paycheck. Rubio returned to the theme of his immigrant father.
“First of all, capital gains and dividends is investment,” Rubio responded. “My father had a job as a bartender at a hotel. And the reason why he had a job as a bartender is because someone with money invested in a hotel. That’s why he had a salary, and that’s why he had tips.”
Harwood suggested that elimination of the capital gains tax (a $1 trillion tax break over 10 years for the top 1 percent) is a losing proposition.
Rubio wasn’t buying it.
“Anything you tax, you’re gonna get less of,” he said. “That’s why we tax cigarettes, because we don’t want people to smoke. We want more investment. Why would we tax it?”
Rubio, like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, assumes he stays in the picture beyond the late fall, early-winter shakeout of third- and fourth-tier candidates because David and Charles Koch have designated him a contender. And Rubio has additional support beyond the Kochs and their network. If this shift of a tax burden is a betrayal of his father’s economic class, it is good tax policy for Rubio’s surrogate father.
In an interview with The New York Times, the senator described Norman Braman, a Miami billionaire who once owned the Philadelphia Eagles and now sells BMWs, Rolls-Royces, Cadillacs, Audis and Bugatis, as “a father figure who had given him advice on everything, from what books to read to how to manage a staff.”
Braman, the Times reported, gave Rubio more than advice.
He contributed $255,000 to an advocacy group Rubio formed to lobby for one of his signature-mark initiatives while he was speaker of the Florida House of Representatives: a dramatic reduction of property taxes and increase in the state sales tax.
When Rubio left state government, he got a job teaching at Florida International University, committing to raise his salary from private donors. Braman contributed $100,000 to the university, earmarked for Rubio’s salary.
Braman donated to Rubio’s U.S. Senate campaign, and hired Rubio as a lawyer for seven months while he campaigned. He hired Rubio’s wife, and her company, to work for his charitable foundation. And he is reported to have committed $10 million to Rubio’s presidential campaign.
The New York Times reporters suggested that Rubio’s involvement with Braman will lead to a more thorough examination of the Florida Senator’s personal finances as the presidential campaign continues.
What inevitably will be reported is that elected service in Florida was always something of a hustle for Rubio.
The young legislator was “virtually broke,” The Tampa Bay Times reported in 2010, when he began his speaker’s race by founding the Floridians for Conservative Leadership PAC in 2006. Leadership PACs usually fund other candidates to cultivate their support. Floridians for Conservative Leadership donated $4,000 to Republican candidates for office. While it listed the Rubios’ modest West Miami home as its address, it declared $85,000 in office and operating costs, and $16,000 in administrative costs. Rubio’s wife was the treasurer.
Another leadership PAC Rubio formed, Floridians for Conservative Leadership in Government, funneled much of the $386,000 it raised to Rubio’s own consultants and strategists, while $14,000 designated as courier expenses went to members of Rubio’s family working on his campaign.
Rubio’s income from practicing law also increased dramatically as he ascended the leadership ladder in the Florida House.
When he began serving in the Legislature in 2000, Rubio’s annual income from his own small firm was $72,000, The Tampa Bay Times reported. By the time he announced he had secured the votes to elect him speaker, he was earning $270,000 a year as an employee of three separate law firms.
By 2005, Rubio was earning $300,000 from Broad and Cassel, a Miami law firm that had earned millions doing legal work for the Florida House, over which Rubio presided as speaker.
Yet in his initial financial filing as a senator in 2009, Rubio listed his net worth as -$37,495, according to OpenSecrets.org, at a time when $13.3 million was the average net worth of his fellow senators. He has remained at the bottom in net worth among his colleagues, so more than most candidates he needs the job because he needs the pay increase—and the housing that comes with the American presidency. (The Rubios currently owe between $350,000 and $750,000 on two home mortgages and a home equity credit line, according to Senator Rubio’s 2015 filing with the U.S. Government Office of Ethics.)
“I was raised paycheck to paycheck,” Rubio told Harwood in August. Apparently he lives paycheck to paycheck, and it’s not always clear who is signing the check.
That line, and Rubio’s tropes about a father who lived on meager wages and tips, is a calculated attempt to illustrate the difference between him and the swinishly rich Hillary Clinton.
The “poor dad, poor son” biography might turn out to be more of a liability than an asset.
He has called President Obama a “socialist” and a “village idiot,” threatened to “unmask” him and suggested he “go back to Kenya.” In a rich and distinctly Cuban accent, he preaches the prosperity Gospel: tithe and accept God’s anointment and wealth will be bestowed upon you.
He is a Dominionist, devoted to a movement that finds in Genesis a mandate that “men of faith” seize control of public institutions and govern by biblical principle. He fluidly quotes long passages of the Bible when he preaches at big-box churches or addresses large Republican audiences.
And the man who is essentially an itinerant preacher appears to have wildly exaggerated his ministerial credentials. Consider the Rev. Rafael B. Cruz’s frequently cited biography, as it appears on the Great American Speakers booking website.
Pastor Rafael Cruz was born in Cuba and immigrated to this country over 55 years ago to flee an oppressive communist regime. He fought in the revolution and was imprisoned and tortured. He fled to Texas penniless and not speaking a word of English.
Today Rafael Cruz is a pastor at a church in Dallas and serves as the Director of Purifying Fire Ministries ministering in the U.S., Mexico, and Central America. He is also a professor Bible [sic] and Theology and the president of Kingdom Translation Services.
Up to the phrase “penniless and not speaking a word of English” the Rev. Cruz’s professional bio appears to be true, unless a literalist were to quibble with “penniless” and “arrived with only $100 sewn into his underwear.” (The latter is often repeated by Senator Ted Cruz when telling his father’s story.)
Beyond that, the story on which the Cuban-American evangelical has been dining out (and collecting speaker’s fees) doesn’t quite wash.
Until it folded in 2014, Purifying Fire was a Costa Mesa, Calif., ministry owned by Suzanne Hinn, the divorced (then remarried) wife of faith healer Benny Hinn. A spokesman for the Cruz presidential campaign said Rev. Cruz has never been associated with the Hinns, but “used the Purifying Fire name for a while then he dropped it.”
“Pastor at a church in Dallas” isn’t exactly right either, although according to the campaign: “You don’t have to have a church to be a pastor.”
Cruz has claimed to have studied theology at Advanced Bible College (or Advance Bible College), neither of which appear to exist. The Cruz campaign says Rev. Cruz “audited courses at Southwestern [Baptist] Theological Seminary and was ordained at Mundo de Fe.” They could provide no details on Mundo de Fe (World of Faith), but it is a non-denominational church in the Dallas suburb of Arlington, run by Stephen and Courtney Holland. Rev. Cruz told National Journal he was ordained by Ralph Holland, another Dallas-based preacher.
The campaign spokesman also said Rev. Cruz is affiliated with no seminary or Bible college but he is a professor.
Kingdom Translation Services Inc. has been registered with the Texas Secretary of State since 2012, with a billing address in an apartment complex in a Dallas suburb. It has no working website or listed phone number. “It is Rev. Cruz’s one-man translation service,” according to the campaign.
News outlets, including The Washington Post (April 2015) and The Detroit News (August 2015) continue to repeat Rev. Cruz’s bona fides (as did this publication in 2014).
For $59.95 on Amazon, you can purchase a 68-CD Audio Biblia read aloud by Rev. Cruz. That much is factual.
American politics is not easy for believers.
“This is a forum where our candidates can share their faith and testimony and not feel ostracized. Except maybe by the press,” Mary Frances Forrester told me. “Here, we can ask questions and candidates can include their faith when they’re talking about important social issues.”
Forrester—a state director of Concerned Women for America and the widow of James Forrester, a North Carolina state senator who led a successful campaign to pass a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage—was one of 1,500-plus Christians (and an inconsequential scattering of Jews) attending Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition national conference in late June. The event was co-sponsored by Concerned Women, a national organization that promotes “Biblical values among all citizens.”
Since the Spectator’s coverage of the first Faith & Freedom Coalition conference nearly five years ago, the annual event has moved from the basement of a smaller hotel in downtown Washington to the Shoreham, one of the larger conference venues in the city.
Reed earned his chops with Jerry Falwell’s Christian Coalition of America in the 1980s; escaped indictment despite billing tribes more than $1 million in the Indian-casino lobbying shakedown that landed Jack Abramoff in a federal penitentiary in 2006; then lost a race for lieutenant governor of Georgia. He is well into his fourth act, as the founding director of an organization that claims more than 700,000 members.
This year, 13 of the Republicans chasing the party’s 2016 presidential nomination pitched their candidacies at his event. The only no-shows were Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump.
Reed has created a forum in which candidates can speak freely about the intersection of religious belief and pubic policy.
To Out-Herod Herod
Yet something is happening here that is larger than that. At events such as this one—and this has become an A-List conference—Republican candidates meet “the base” whose support they must have to win a primary.
The conference is four days of dialogue between candidates and their supporters. Posturing is predictable: Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s three-minute prayer after other speakers had observed only a moment of silence was followed by public testimony that he gave himself over to Christ at six years of age.
But there’s also a dynamic in which each candidate is compelled to out-Herod Herod. To be outflanked on the right is to lose ground.
“Last month, I was in Israel,” Santorum said. “And one of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s advisers told me, ‘Senator, you need to tell the American people that the next president the country elects will have to be a wartime president.’”
Rand Paul promises to defend the “sanctity of life in the womb.”
Rick Perry says he’s the candidate with a record on abortion: “You know, a lot of candidates say—they say the right things about protecting life. But no candidate’s done more to protect unborn life. I helped pass a parental-consent law. I signed a sonogram law so mothers facing an agonizing choice could witness that beating heart within them. I signed a law outlawing abortion at 20 weeks.
Issue by issue, policy position by policy position, the candidates drag their party to the right.
These People Are Afraid
Faith & Freedom congregants are more reserved than the angry political activists who turn out for hard-right ideological gatherings like the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Earnest men and women from their fifties through retirement age, most married couples. In 20 interviews that I did over three days, I spoke to one unattached male.
There’s a small 30-and-younger cohort, many with expenses covered by scholarships. The youngest are home schooled. (I talked to a father of seven with two thoughtful and devout adolescents in tow.) Or they attend private Christian academies.
This event is also overwhelmingly white. During a morning session of speeches by presidential candidates, I counted 12 African Americans in a packed hotel ballroom.
Everyone here seems to feel flown-over and disrespected. Their religious values are under attack by their government and by business forces they cannot control. They are misrepresented by the liberal news media and mocked by the liberal entertainment industry.
The single issue that dominated every interview I did was same-sex marriage, which all described as a threat to their way of life.
Another persistent preoccupation was radical Islam. A close third was threats confronting Israel, a place central to evangelical Christian faith.
These people are, in a word, afraid. And their candidates have mastered the exploitation of their fears.
The IRS Is Coming
Consider one passage in Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s riveting 20-minute speech on the first day of the conference. Cruz is a brilliant and impassioned extemporaneous speaker.
A week and a day before the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its historic Obergefell v. Hodges decision, Cruz was praying that the Court would avoid “an act of naked and lawless judicial activism, tearing down the marriage laws adopted pursuant to the Constitution.”
Any ruling upholding same-sex marriage, he warned, would be the beginning of a broad assault on the Christian faith.
Cruz quoted from the oral argument in Obergefell v. Hodges to warn people of faith what will follow an adverse ruling on marriage:
“Justice [Samuel] Alito asked U.S. Solicitor-General Donald Verrilli: ‘If the Obama administration prevails and you convince this court to strike down the marriage laws of every state, would the next step be that the IRS would start going after Christian schools, Christian charities, and next after that Christian churches? Any institutions that follow a biblical teaching of marriage? Or for that matter, Jewish schools? Mormon schools? Any institution that follows religious teaching?’
“And the answer from the Obama administration was: ‘Yes, that is a very real possibility. That the next step is the IRS coming after schools, universities and charities.’”
It was an effective rhetorical device. Cruz had already described three “religious freedom” cases he had litigated at the Supreme Court before he was elected to the Senate. With his stark warnings about same-sex marriage, he was framing the fight he would undertake as president.
But that question was not asked during the Obergefell v. Hodges oral argument.
Here, from the official transcript, is the exchange the senator “quoted”:
JUSTICE ALITO: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. Should the same apply to a university or college if it opposed same-sex marriage?
GENERAL VERRILLI: You know, I—I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is going to be an issue.
Cruz’s warnings about same-sex marriage (which were echoed by Rand Paul, who followed him), and the broader assault on the Christian faith resonated with one woman I interviewed in the hotel lobby. With her husband, she had traveled from Collegeville, Pennsylvania.
“My husband pastors a church,” she said.
“A lot of these issues involving same-sex marriage are going to affect our church in a huge way. We worry about the repercussions. Are they going to make my husband perform same-sex marriages? When he refuses, is that going to affect our IRS tax-exempt status?”
She had listened to the candidates’ speeches and was impressed by what Cruz had said about religious freedom. While he seems an unlikely nominee, the Texas senator was the overwhelming favorite in my random sampling of those attending the conference. And the extreme positions he articulates are shaping the debate.
No candidate—except Ohio Governor John Kasich, who, in a quiet conversation with an audience of 1,000, explained that his faith requires that he care for those who can’t care for themselves—deviated from a requisite litany of topics: same-sex marriage; abortion; ISIS and Islamic terror in general; Obama’s “abandonment” of Israel and engagement with Iran; and the government’s encroachment on religious freedom.
These 13 candidates, declared and undeclared, competing for the support of evangelical Christians who make up 25 percent of Republican primary voters, are resuming the culture wars that began with Pat Buchanan’s speech at the party’s 1992 national convention in Houston.
“For Moses. For God. For Jesus”
With the Supreme Court poised to hand down its Obergefell decision, one topic dominated interviews and sidebar conversations.
“Do you know that two justices have already performed same-sex marriages,” Forrester asked me, referring to Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
“They have disqualified themselves and can’t vote on the issue.”
Louie Gohmert, the shrill and frequently unhinged Congressman from Texas, described his legal bona fides (attorney, judge, chief justice in state courts), cited the U.S. Code, the law God conveyed to Moses as “restated by Jesus,” and expanded on the meme Forrester was working, though as a former judge he should have known better.
Any decision on same sex-marriage in which Kagan and Ginsberg participated would be, Gohmert said, “an illegal law … and not something we would have to follow.”
“America is going to have to stand up and say you were disqualified. And now you have tried to substitute your opinion for Moses. For God. For Jesus. For most states’ marriage laws.
“And we just may get you impeached.”
Gohmert has said he’s considering joining the pack of 15 Republicans (as of this writing) pursuing the party’s presidential nomination.
Yet as the primary begins in earnest, there’s not, as George Wallace used to say, “a dime’s worth of difference” between this member of the U.S. House who has turned himself into a cable-news curiosity and all but two or three “moderates” in the Republican class of 2016.
Sometimes prison time actually does rehabilitate. Or perhaps it was Alan Gross’ December 2014 rescue from a Cuban prison by the patient, quiet diplomacy of the Obama administration.
Gross, a small player in the failed U.S. policy to overthrow Fidel (then Raul) Castro, was a USAID contractor who spent five years in a Cuban prison for engaging in illegal covert activity on the island. (Illegal there and probably illegal in the United States)
The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Gross is working for a Miami-based PAC that will fund candidates who support President Obama’s move to normalize relations with Cuba:
A political-action committee backing candidates in favor of a U.S.-Cuba policy shift will launch its campaign effort Monday with the help of a notable guest: Alan Gross, the U.S. citizen who spent five years in Cuban prisons.
The committee, called New Cuba PAC, will back candidates who favor reorienting U.S.-Cuba policy, particularly with more trade and travel between the two countries. President Barack Obama took steps to lift financial and travel regulations in December as part of a normalization push, but it will take congressional action to fully lift an embargo and allow for full travel to the island.
As we reported at the time of his release, Gross was both a victim of George W. Bush’s Cuba regime-change policy and a perpetrator of several crimes in Cuba.
Gross, who spoke no Spanish and had no background in Cuban politics or policy, was arrested at the JosÃ© MartÃ Airport on his fifth smuggling trip. On the U.S. taxpayer’s tab, he had been installing internet hubs in an attempt to break the Castro brothers’ electronic blockade of foreign websites and internet communication.
Among the items Cuban investigators found in Gross’s contraband were sophisticated encryption systems normally available to only the U.S. Army or the CIA.
An American Jew who belongs to a reform congregation in Maryland, Gross used the Cuba’s Jewish community for cover, working with rabbis and the leaders of several synagogues on the island, who were unaware that he was a U.S. agent. He also used unwitting American Jews engaged in humanitarian work for U.S.-based Jewish charities as “mules” to smuggle electronic devices in their luggage when visiting Cuba.
Gross’ arrest panicked USAID officials, who were aware of what he was doing and of the program’s use of mulas to smuggle contraband. One email the Spectator obtained at the time read:
If you knew that the risks associated with sending travelers to the island were high, would your travelers still want to go? Why or why not?
Please complete the attached table and return it to me by COB Thursday 21 January. You will note that we are not asking you for the travelers’ names. We are also not asking for information about mulas. We’re interested in programmatic travelers who spent time on the island.
The American Jewish USAID operative working in a Cold War program flush with new funding demanded by President George W. Bush was sprung from prison by a Barack Obama diplomatic initiative that had enlisted the support of Pope Francis.
The president’s “home for Hanukkah” delivery of Gross completely unhinged anti-Castro Republicans, most notably presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
It’s going to take more than a couple of chilled Cuba Libres to calm their nerves now that their Cold Warrior has come in from the cold to work on behalf of Obama’s Cuba policy.
The collapse of InnoVida Holdings LLC in 2011 didn’t get much traction in the media. Except in South Florida where a small group of investors lost more than $40 million on a scheme to market hurricane- and earthquake-resistant homes assembled from prefabricated plastic panels. The company CEO had promised a highly publicized roll-out in Haiti followed by expansion into more lucrative markets. Neither ever occurred.
Even in South Florida, the story had receded into endless litigation (with more than 1,000 pleadings filed in bankruptcy and civil proceedings). It resurfaced in The New York Times in April, because it involved former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who is emerging as the preferred 2016 presidential candidate among establishment Republicans who consider New Jersey Governor Chris Christie unelectable.
Bush was both a director on the corporate board and a marketing consultant for InnoVida Holdings LLC while it was the subject of a criminal investigation that sent its two top executives to jail.
The Times surveyed business dealings Bush pursued after leaving office in 2007. He had returned to the private sector with a modest net worth of $1.3 million, lagging behind his brothers. George W., for example, made $14 million on the sale of his partial ownership of the Texas Rangers while he was governor of Texas. Jeb, the Times reported, scrambled to make up for time lost while governor and had earned $3.2 million since leaving office.
There is much more to Jeb Bush’s role in the InnoVida scam, which wiped out every dime of shareholder wealth, than the Times reported. Bankruptcy documents, a lawsuit filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and filings in criminal and civil cases suggest an ethical blind spot that led Bush to ignore the fact that the book value and returns reported by InnoVida executives were impossible under any reasonable set of financial assumptions.
Corporate board directors have a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders whose interest they represent. Bush endorsed a company that defrauded its shareholders and the government while failing to deliver its product to market.
“Corporate Ponzi scheme”
Before the indictment and bankruptcy, InnoVida was a quintessential South Florida story unfolding on the business and lifestyle pages of the Miami Herald. An extravagant and strikingly handsome South American CEO, arts patron, and political donor hosting A-List parties in a $12 million waterfront mansion on Star Island, a gated community on a man-made island in Biscayne Bay. The Venezuelan-born Gatsby had a $75,000 speedboat at the end of the dock. And a Maserati in the garage. He was also a major Democratic Party donor.
Claudio Osorio is now Inmate #01273-104 at the Miami Federal Detention Center. A bankruptcy trustee sold the property rights to his resilient plastic panels to a Brazilian company. Forensic accountants continue to search for funds in offshore banks. And investors are asking what became of $40-$50 million they staked on a company that promised turnkey prefabricated residential units assembled in one day.
Osorio, it turns out, was damaged goods long before Bush signed on. An unnamed Bush aide told the Times that he had done a background search on Osorio and found one bankruptcy but “nothing to suggest wrongdoing.”
Before the bankruptcy that the aide referred to, Osorio’s CHS Electronics was in federal court in Miami, defending itself against class-action suits by shareholders who claimed the company had engaged in securities fraud. Several of the shareholders’ suits were consolidated in 1999, and in 2001 a bankruptcy judge in Miami used proceeds from insurance policies that had been purchased by the company’s board of directors and officers to pay shareholders $11,750,000, according to court records.
Those records were available to anyone doing a background research and should have been a red flag regarding any Claudio Osorio business venture.
An attorney who would later sue Osorio told me that, “This is a small world down here,” and that it would almost require “willful ignorance” to miss the paper trail of litigation that led to Osorio’s corporate suite.
Offshore Alert’s financial database later published a report linking Osorio to potential criminal activities in Switzerland:
“Claudio Osorio Rodriguez et al. Application for the appointment to collect evidence for a criminal investigation in Switzerland into Claudio Eleazar Osorio Rodriguez, Marc Schurtz, John Metzger, William Ferrero and Andre Tinguely into alleged fraud and forgery regarding the bankruptcy of CHS Financial Suisse SA in May 2000.”
Seven years before he invited Bush to join InnoVida’s corporate board, Osorio was pursuing a $200-million loan in Switzerland with what was alleged to be a fraudulent application.
But the more critical story played out in federal courts in the Southern District of Florida, where plaintiffs claimed that Osorio submitted false financials based on forged documents and fake orders. And that CHS Electronics had reported near-impossible increases in profits—from $1.34 million to $4.7 billion in a four-year period. After attorneys for shareholders discovered widespread accounting irregularities, stock value evaporated and the company’s remaining assets were parceled out to creditors in bankruptcy court.
What happened at CHS foreshadowed what would happen at InnoVida. The same patterns and practices that resulted in the loss of all shareholder value at CHS would be repeated seven years later.
David Nunez, a Florida lawyer who represented several shareholders who together lost more than $5 million when InnoVida collapsed, said there was a lack of corporate due diligence.
“There’s nothing wrong with filing bankruptcy,” Nunez told me. “But if you had done your research, you would have learned that this guy [Osorio] took a multi-national company into bankruptcy after he took out a $200-million loan with forged papers. The Swiss government asked the U.S. Attorney’s office here in South Florida to assist in their probe, because they felt the loan was made under fraudulent terms. To me, that would be an indication that I should look deeper.”
Why didn’t Bush or someone on his staff look deeper? The former governor wasn’t a novice. He had been involved in commercial real estate in South Florida, was the director of a business-consulting firm and he was sitting on five other corporate boards. How did he end up on the board of directors of a corporate Ponzi scheme—or so InnoVida is described in the 21-count federal indictment of Osorio and his Chief Financial Officer Craig Toll.
According to the indictment, “newly collected investor money was being used to pay annual returns on interest payments promised to investors and to repay investors’ principal in order to create the false and fraudulent impression that InnoVida was successful and profitable.”
“An air of legitimacy”
Bush is not mentioned in the indictment that sent Osorio to prison for 12-and-a-half years. Nor is there any suggestion that he was culpable of criminal wrongdoing.
But a Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit filed against InnoVida and Osorio in 2013 alleges that Bush was brought on “to add an air of legitimacy to InnoVida,” which “helped Osorio raise approximately $16.8 million from at least five investors.” More than half that money, according to the complaint, was used by Osorio to pay for private homes in Florida, Colorado and Switzerland.
The fraudulent financial statements detailed in the SEC complaint should have set off alarms for Jeb Bush and the other board members.
Osorio and his CFO created one financial statement showing that InnoVida had more than $35 million in cash and more than $100 million in equity, both of which were not true.
Osorio informed one prospective investor that InnoVida was valued at $50 million and another that it was valued at $250 million. Neither statement was true.
In March 2009, one financial statement listed “more than $35 million in cash and cash equivalents” while there was only $185,000 in company accounts.
InnoVida executives used fraudulent statements to lure investors who were solicited at board meetings. After one meeting, “an investor subsequently increased his investment and a potential investor made his initial investment based on the fraudulent financial statements.”
Cash value and equity, according to the SEC complaint, were adjusted as needed on paper to lure investors. During a September 2009 board meeting, for example, prospective investors were told the company was valued at $250 million, although InnoVida’s most recent evaluation in December 2008 was for $20 million.
“I saw their books,” Nunez said in a phone interview. “And I’ll put ‘books’ in quotes. Their books were forged. I took an accountant to look at them. When we saw their numbers, we knew that they were a crock of you-know-what.
“Now I can’t imagine someone who has been in government, in the public sector, then in the private sector, having performed any kind of due diligence and concluded that this company was legitimate.”
Nunez wouldn’t disclose the names of his clients. According to bankruptcy filings, two of his clients were NBA power forward Carlos Boozer and his former wife, Cindy, listed as unsecured creditors in bankruptcy proceedings while suing InnoVida for $6 million.
“My clients did not rely per se on board members having done their due diligence,” Nunez said. “Having said that, I can’t imagine anyone looking at the company and saying Governor Bush is on the board, General Wesley Clark is on the board and thinking this is anything but a seal of approval. This was an all-star cast of board members.”
Miami attorney Abbey Kaplan represented a client who invested $6.3 million in the company, then loaned Osorio $1.7 million, according to court records.
In 2011, Kaplan told the Miami Herald that Osorio used his board members to attract his client. “Osorio used his apparent wealth, connections and success story to lure him in. A who’s-who was listed as his board of directors: Wesley Clark, Jeb Bush [Miami condo developer] Jorge Perez.”
In a telephone interview, Kaplan told me his client’s claim was stayed when InnoVida went into bankruptcy. “Unsecured creditors are the last to get paid,” Kaplan said.
(Among the list of unsecured clients in the Chapter 11 filings was the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a federally-backed agency that lost $3 million, the first installment of a $10-million loan to InnoVida.)
Bush repaid $270,000 of $468,901 he had earned as a consultant between 2007 and 2010. He stipulated in court documents that he was voluntarily surrendering the funds to the court and had not been compelled to repay them.
The discovery process in shareholders’ suits filed against Osorio and InnoVida ended when bankruptcy proceedings began, so Bush’s compensation as a board member was never revealed to shareholders or other creditors. Nor do documents explain why Bush repaid less than half the money he received from InnoVida.
As the company was never profitable and constantly solicited new investors, all of its money was investors’ money.
A front-row seat
A spokesperson for Bush did not respond by deadline to emails or phone calls regarding InnoVida. But as Bush begins to eclipse Chris Christie as the moderate Republican alternative in the 2016 race, questions will persist.
Was the former governor of Florida in the room when Claudio Osorio wildly overstated the value of the company to secure millions from an investor who lost everything? Did it occur to Bush to inquire about a multimillion-dollar investor from a Middle East sovereign-wealth fund who never existed? Did Bush ask how company value increased from $20 million to $250 million in nine months in 2009?
Perhaps his staff bungled what should have been a simple background check on Claudio Osorio, thus missing his first shakedown of investors. But according to documents on file in state and federal courtrooms in Florida, what happened the second time around, in InnoVida’s corporate board room, put two men in jail and destroyed tens of millions of dollars in shareholder wealth.
And Jeb Bush either had a front-row seat to a corporate scam or he ignored his duty to the shareholders he represented on a corporate board.
Those who filed briefs in defense of Obama’s legislation are recognizable: the American Cancer Society, the American Academy of Pediatrics, et al. There is a different anthropology among those who filed briefs supporting the plaintiffs who are challenging tax subsidies for low-income buyers of health-care insurance policies.
Texas’s Black Americans for Life considers abortion and contraception “a tool by some who wish to target the African-American community.”
Colorado’s Mountain State Legal Foundation is “dedicated to bringing before the courts those issues vital to the defense and preservation of individual liberties, the right to own and use property, and the free enterprise system.”
The American Civil Rights Union is “dedicated to defending all of our constitutional rights, not just those that might be politically correct.”
Senator John Cornyn of Texas is named on the amicus brief filed by 16 Congressional Republicans, an unlikely choice to lead any health-care pleading.
At 26.8 percent (24.81 percent after ACA enrollment), Texas leads the nation in the percentage of residents lacking health-care coverage. It also leads the nation in the number of eligible residents, 1,046,430, who are shut out of Medicaid. Texas, like 25 other Republican-led states, has rejected the Medicaid expansion provided through the ACA.
A Fight over Five Words
The ACA creates insurance-market exchanges through which anyone can purchase private health-insurance policies. In an attempt to subvert the law, most states governed by Republicans refused to establish exchanges. But the law also created a federal exchange, where residents who are denied access to state exchanges can purchase insurance. Currently, state and federal exchanges provide subsidies for low-income purchasers of insurance.
According to the plaintiffs, one phrase in a section of the statute describing the subsidies—“Exchanges set up by the State”—restricts the subsidy program to state insurance exchanges, although other language indicates that Congress intended to extend subsidies to all insurance buyers who meet the law’s income qualification.
This lawsuit isn’t what it claims to be.
Contradictions and hypocrisy underlie the intent of the plaintiffs and the politicians supporting them.
Consider the plaintiffs.
David King and three other residents of Virginia, which has no exchange, qualify for subsidies provided through the federal exchange. They are asking the Court to overturn the subsidies, because, on ideological grounds, they object to the ACA’s mandate requiring individual health-care coverage.
Consider the elected officials.
John Cornyn, for example. Or Florida’s Marco Rubio, or Utah’s Jake Garn, or Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn. All signed the anti-subsidy amicus brief filed with the Court, and all represent states whose Republican governments refused to create exchanges. They are petitioning the Supreme Court to hand down a decision that will strip subsidies from low-income residents in the states they represent.
It requires at least four justices to decide to hear a case. The activist and Republican majority on the Roberts Court has decided to hear the appeal of a lawsuit filed and financed by ideologues determined to destroy the Affordable Care Act.
To decide on behalf of the plaintiffs, the justices will have to ignore principles by which they have decided cases requiring them to interpret the meaning of statutes. Yale Law School Professor Abbe Gluck explains in an article published by Scotusblog.
Republican justices, he writes, in particular Antonin Scalia, are “textualists” who have “repeatedly emphasized that textual interpretation is to be sophisticated, ‘holistic’ and ‘contextual,’ not ‘wooden’ or ‘literal,’ to use Justice Scalia’s words.”
Gluck quotes Scalia’s explaining textualism in an opinion handed down in June 2014, in which the justice describes “the fundamental canon of statutory construction that the words of a statute must be read in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.”
Gluck also quotes four of the five Republican justices who published a joint dissent in the 2012 case that upheld critical provisions of the ACA. They address the very subsidies that are now before the Court: “Congress provided a backup scheme; if a State declines to participate in the operation of an exchange, the Federal Government will step in and operate an exchange in that State. That system collapses if the federal subsidies are invalidated.”
The preceding sentence is critically important. The Republican justices know “the system collapses if the federal subsidies are invalidated.”
The following story first appeared in the Washington Spectator.
Mr. Gross is innocent, and his continued detention is unjust,” read a memo the United States Agency for International Development sent to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 2010.
At the time, the committee was chaired by Senator John Kerry. Congressman Howard Berman was chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Relations. The two Democrats had been pressing USAID to justify its programs in Cuba, where, flush with funding from the George W. Bush administration, the agency appeared to be running amok.
USAID had a lot to explain.
Alan Gross, who received almost $600,000 in USAID funds, had been arrested in Havana’s JosÃ© MartÃ Airport in December 2009, at the end of his fifth trip to Cuba. He was caught smuggling banned electronic communication devices into Cuba, which he installed in synagogues. He was charged with “criminal acts against the independence of the Cuban nation” and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Gross was freed by Cuban President RaÃºl Castro in December 2014, a precondition to President Barack Obama’s agreement to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba. Gross’s release from prison on the second day of Hanukkah was immediately followed by the president’s announcement of a new U.S.-Cuba policy.
Gross is a small but important part of a larger story.
In 2010, two years into Obama’s first term, USAID bureaucrats were invested in Bush administration policy in Cuba, where tens of millions of dollars flowed to programs funded through a provision in the Helms-Burton Act. Passed in 1996, Helms-Burton wrote the Cuban embargo into law and required that Fidel and RaÃºl Castro be removed from power before the U.S. would consider Cuba “in transition to democracy.”
John Kerry and Howard Berman, along with other Democrats in Congress, considered the hard-right Cuba policy a waste of money and a strategic failure.
“Since the Helms-Burton Act became law, we have spent more than $150 million on political initiatives in Cuba with nothing to show for it. Our Interests Section in Havana itself, for example, said that there is little evidence these programs have helped the dissidents gain significant support inside Cuba,” Kerry and Berman wrote in a joint letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and USAID Director Rajiv Shah in December 2010. (Shah announced his February resignationjust before Alan Gross was released.)
“Fifty years of evidence shows that a pressure-cooker approach aimed at driving rapid, if explosive and violent, change in Cuba—ignoring the Cuban people’s desire for peaceful change—will fail.”
There, in two paragraphs, is the germ of what would become Obama’s policy of apertura with Cuba—even if it took him a while to get there. But before the president could get there, he had to resolve the Alan Gross problem—a vestige of a George W. Bush policy based on further isolating Castro’s Cuba while pouring money into programs to destabilize the regime from within.
Congress had actually authorized $205 million in Cuba-program funding since it passed the Helms-Burton Act, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
Funding for the sort of USAID program that Gross was running in Cuba increased from $3.5 million to $45 million during Bush’s eight years in office. Under Obama, the then-Democratic Congress cut funding in half, but the Bush dollars were still in the pipeline.
Because the USAID Cuba operations are cloaked in secrecy, members of Congress had no idea what they were getting for their money. That is, until the Cuban government convicted Gross, whose clandestine program to set up internet sites designed to evade monitoring by the Cuban government reads like a script from the old spy spoof “Get Smart.”
Insult to Debacle
The work of Alan Gross and his collaborators in Cuba involved secret meetings with rabbis and leaders of Masonic temples.
Gross used unwitting members of American Jewish humanitarian delegations as mules to smuggle electronics—illegal in Cuba—in their luggage.
He put the leaders of Jewish congregations in Cuba at risk by luring them into collaboration under the pretext that he was a humanitarian worker interested in improving internet access for Cuba’s Jews.
Cuban intelligence services were onto Gross as early as 2004, when for a meager $400, Gross carried a package of electronics equipment and money to Cuba for Marc Wachtenheim, another USAID subcontractor. Both men were unaware that the man to whom Gross handed the package was a veteran Cuban undercover intelligence operative known as Agente Gerardo.
When Gross was ultimately detained in December 2009, on his fifth trip to the island, he was in possession of not only his computer but of several flash drives that included detailed descriptions of USAID programs and protocols in Cuba.
Among items Gross smuggled into Cuba were BGAN satellite links, which would allow WI-FI hotspots Gross was setting up to circumvent government servers. A more problematic contraband item was a mobile-phone chip that experts say is often used by the Pentagon and the CIA to make satellite signals virtually impossible to track, according to the Associated Press.
For these services, Gross’s firm was paid $585,000, which does not include costs incurred by Development Alternatives Incorporated, the large contractor that took Gross on as a subcontractor. DAI, with offices in Bethesda, Maryland, and London, continues to be a recipient of lucrative USAID contracts ($300 million in 2012).
To add insult to diplomatic debacle, before Gross went on trial, the Cuban government was broadcasting a series of videos (available on Vimeo) entitled “Las Razones de Cuba,” featuring JosÃ© Manuel Collera Vento, (a.k.a. “Agente Gerardo”) and another Cuban agent with whom Gross and Wachtenheim had worked but were unaware that their presumed collaborators were stringing them along.
Not the Perfect Agent
Alan Gross was hardly the perfect undercover operative. He didn’t speak Spanish and wasn’t a Cuba expert. According to a “Bring Alan Home” website, he had previously worked on development projects is Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, and the West Bank.
During the Bush administration, Gross decided to take his talents to Cuba and he began looking for a buyer for what he was selling. On one of the flash drives Cuban authorities confiscated when they arrested Gross was a proposal to set up internet sites in Cuban synagogues, which Gross had pitched to Wachtenheim in 2005.
Wachtenheim, a right-wing operative and occasional academic who directed another USAID contractor, the Pan American Development Fund, wasn’t interested. Gross made the same pitch to DAI, according to Cuban authorities who found both of Gross’s proposals on his flash drive.
Cuban intelligence services, however, didn’t need to read Gross’s flash drive to know what he was up to. Agents had penetrated Wachtenheim’s, and subsequently Gross’s, hustle before the two men began their work in Cuba. In 2001, Wachtenheim brought Collera to Washington to meet with Otto Reich at his State Department office.
Reich is a Cuban-born American involved in Latin American skullduggery since the 1980s when, according to a House-Senate Committee deposition, he was a State Department operative planting propaganda stories in the Latin American press during what turned into the Iran-Contra Scandal. Twenty years later, George W. Bush used a recess appointment to name Reich assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere. Wachtenheim recognized Reich as a kindred spirit when Wachtenheim approached him with a never-realized plan to use Masonic lodges as secret internet sites on the island. Agente Gerardo had been the Grand Master of the Grand Masonic Lodge in Cuba.
The two anti-Castro zealots were unaware that Collera had been an undercover Cuban intelligence agent for more than 25 years. Their 2001 meeting is documented in Cuban court filings, and Collera describes it in an extended TV interview he did with a Cuban news outlet. (Reich and Wachtenheim did not return phone calls.)
Foreign service officers at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana knew that Collera was a double agent taking orders “from the Castro regime”—according to a State Department cable posted on WikiLeaks. But USAID contractors, as it turned out, didn’t communicate with the Interests Section.
American Jewish Mules
Gross, a reform Jew, reached out to American Jewish organizations sponsoring humanitarian missions to find “mules” to carry contraband into Cuba. Susan Andisman, of the Jewish Federation of Broward County (Florida), was named in the Cuban government’s sentencia (an indictment and finding of fact). As was Richard Klein, a New Yorker and executive at the Jewish Federation of North America. Both carried electronics equipment through the same Havana airport where Gross was arrested. Gross was aware of the danger associated with carrying contraband, describing his enterprise, in documents obtained by the Associated Press, as “risky business.”
On one occasion in January 2010, after Gross was detained, a USAID official was evidently anxious about the agency’s use of “mules,” sending the following message to agency’s Cuba program staff (in an email obtained by The Washington Spectator):
If you knew that the risks associated with sending travelers to the island were high, would your travelers still want to go? Why or why not?
Please complete the attached table and return it to me by COB Thursday 21 January. You will note that we are not asking you for the travelers’ names. We are also not asking for information about mulas. We’re interested in programmatic travellers who spent time on the island.
Gross’s “mulas” had no idea they were carrying illegal contraband in their luggage.
Cuban intelligence did.
Beyond putting his American “mulas” at risk, Gross risked upsetting the delicate equilibrium between the Castro regime and Cuba’s Jews, who enjoy freedoms many other Cubans do not.
“We have achieved a modus vivendi with the Cuban government,” Arturo Lopez-Levy, former secretary of Cuba’s B’nai B’rith Maimonides Lodge, told The Jewish Daily Forward. “We have freedom of religion, birthright trips. Why do we have to risk our status for this?”
“Cuban Jews had access to the internet for years before Gross started working with them,” a congressional aide who asked that his name not be used told me. “He used the Jewish community for cover. I would also say he was in over his head and [USAID] was operating outside the mandate of its mission.”
The 18-page sentencia released by a Cuban court on March 11, 2011, describes one incident in which Gross failed to tell Jewish community leaders in Havana that he was installing wireless equipment in their synagogues, even though collaborating with an agent of the U.S. government could have landed them in jail.
Leaders from synagogues in Havana, Santiago and CamagÃ¼ey were witnesses for the state in the Cuban government’s prosecution of Gross.
It’s not as if the Cubans cracked a sophisticated spy ring when they busted Alan Gross. He was low-hanging fruit for an intelligence agency essential to a repressive regime that was justifiably paranoid about its powerful neighbor 90 miles to the north and obsessed with suppressing dissent at home.
USAID operatives on the island were no match for the Castro brothers’ sophisticated intelligence service. Included in one Cuban propaganda program is a surveillance video clip of Wachtenheim speaking to Collera several days before Gross was arrested: photographic documentation of a U.S. operative burning his way through USAID grant money and unaware that his Cuban collaborator is Agente Gerardo.
So there are no heroes in this story. Only villains and a cabal of duped ideologues.
And losers: U.S. taxpayers picking up the tab for USAID contractors on the make.
And the Cuban people, for whom the American counterrevolution has been counterproductive.
Yet bungling secret agent Alan Gross might end up a change agent.
His (deftly negotiated) release by RaÃºl Castro created the political space for President Obama to announce a U.S.-Cuba policy that is a radical departure from what has been in place since Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
The policy will now be tested in Congress, where Florida Republicans Marco Rubio in the Senate and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in the House lead a Republican Cuba Libre caucus resolved to keep the heat on the regime until both Castro brothers are dead or in exile.
Within an hour of President Barack Obama’s announcing normalization of relations with Cuba, and the release of Alan Gross, an American imprisoned on the island for five years, Florida Senator Marco Rubio was making the rounds of cable news outlets.
On CNN, Rubio, whose father fled Cuba, repeated the claim he has made in the past. Alan Gross was “taken hostage” in Cuba while he was trying to help the island’s small Jewish community. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer bought right into it.
“He was providing electronics equipment for the small Jewish community in Cuba,” he said.
Both are incorrect.
Gross was arrested for conducting a covert operation on the island, violating Cuban law. He was using the Jewish community as cover to set up a communications network, not helping it.
Rubio is a rabid anti-Castro ideologue, whose father’s story is essential to the senator’s presidential campaign narrative. Blitzer should know better.
One of the ironies of the event that triggered the apertura in United States-Cuba relations is that it began with a bungled covert operation outside the legal mandate of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in a program whose funding was ramped up by the George W. Bush administration until Obama scaled it back.
The budget for funneling communications technology into Cuba jumped from $3.5 million to $45 million during Bush’s two terms, according to Associated Press reporter Desmond Butler, who reported the story from Havana and Washington.
From those earmarked funds, Gross was paid more than $500,000 as a USAID subcontractor.
The details revealed about Gross’s mission illustrate why USAID should not conduct covert operations.
Gross spoke very little Spanish and was trying to teach himself the language with the aid of a Rosetta Stone computer program.
He is Jewish and presented himself as a member of a Jewish humanitarian group working to provide internet service to Cuban Jews.
Jews in Cuba didn’t need internet access, because they are one of a few privileged groups on the island who already had it. Two years before Gross began working in Cuba, World ORT, a Jewish educational organization, funded internet projects that linked six Jewish communities in Cuba.
Gross never told leaders of the Jewish community in Cuba that he was a U.S. government subcontractor, although their cooperation with him put them at considerable risk.
The 18-page sentencia released by a Cuban court on March 11, 2011, describes one incident in which Gross failed to tell Jewish community leaders in Havana that he was installing wireless equipment in their synagogue, even though collaborating with an agent of the U.S. government could have landed them in jail.
In this instance, it made little difference. At least not to the Cuban government. Gross has been under surveillance since his first trip to Cuba when one of his initial contacts turned out to be a double agent.
Gross also took risks with members of Jewish humanitarian groups traveling to Cuba, deceiving them into carrying in their luggage electronic items illegal to import into Cuba.
Three of his “mules” are named in the Cuban court’s sentencia, which might be compared to a finding of facts. They were from Jewish synagogues and humanitarian groups in New York and South Florida, and never had a clue they were smuggling contraband.
Among the items smuggled were BGAN satellite links, which would allow the wi-fi hotspots that Gross was setting up to circumvent government servers.
Cuban authorities produced an inventory of every illegal electronic device that Gross and the unwitting “mules” working with him had smuggled onto the island.
On one occasion in January 2010, after Gross was detained, a USAID official got anxious about the agency’s use of “mules,” sending the following message (in an email I obtained).
If you knew that the risks associated with sending travelers to the island were high, would your travelers still want to go? Why or why not?
Please complete the attached table and return it to me by COB Thursday 21 January. You will note that we are not asking you for the travelers’ names. We are also not asking for information about mulas. We’re interested in programmatic travellers who spent time on the island.
Beyond putting these American Jewish “mulas” at risk, Gross risked upsetting the delicate equilibrium established between the Castro regime and Cuba’s Jews, who enjoy freedoms many other Cubans do not.
“We have achieved a modus vivendi with the Cuban government,” Arturo Lopez-Levy, former secretary of Cuba’s B’nai B’rith Maimonides Lodge, told The Forward. “We have freedom of religion, Birthright trips. Why do we have to risk our status for this?” (Lopez-Levy was living in the United States when he was interviewed.)
If this operation doesn’t seem to make sense, it didn’t.
Penetrated by Cuban intelligence from the onset, and tracked by Cuban authorities until it’s conclusion, it achieved nothing.
When Gross was arrested—not “taken hostage”—in December 2009, on his fifth trip to Havana, he was carrying with him, according to Butler’s AP report,” a mobile phone chip that experts say is often used by the Pentagon and the CIA to make satellite signals virtually impossible to track.”
If the Cuban government wasn’t then in possession of that technology, it is now.
Of course, Gross’s Cuban initiative did achieve something other than what its architects in the Bush administration intended.
What might turn out to be one of Barack Obama’s most “historic” (as Blitzer described it) achievements was midwifed by a failed USAID covert mission, of which the president was unaware until it unraveled.
Obama’s willingness to seize the initiative was, of course, the big factor.
It all concluded on the first day of Hanukkah with a jubilant Gross ending a Washington press conference, saying:
“I support the president.”
It might turn out that the president has made Rubio hostage to a narrative that no longer has much currency.
Race and party affiliation are inextricable in this state,” said Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams in a telephone interview. Abrams, an African-American attorney elected to the General Assembly in 2007, said that more than 90 percent of blacks in Georgia are Democratic voters.
In a state where African Americans make up 31 percent of the population, Democratic candidates, particularly those running for statewide office, are not competitive without the black vote. In any close election, African-American turnout determines which candidate prevails.
The same is true across the South, where the black population has increased 18 percent between 2000 and 2010 (compared to white growth of four percent). Those numbers threaten a Republican hegemony that began when political strategist Kevin Phillips added Richard Nixon’s 43.89 percent to George Wallace’s 13.5 percent of the popular vote in 1968 to devise a “Southern Strategy” that used what Phillips called “the Negro Problem” to create a perennial Republican majority in the states of the former Confederacy.
That majority is slipping away and each successive statewide race becomes more of a challenge because, as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham observed in 2012, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”
In Georgia, the long term has arrived.
Republicans saw it coming six years ago. The 2008 election unsettled the leadership of the Georgia Republican Party, Democratic state Senator Vincent Fort told me in an interview in his Capitol office in Atlanta. Fort, an African-American professor of history before he was elected to an Atlanta Senate seat in 1996, is the Democratic Whip.
Republican legislators had passed the nation’s second voter-identification bill in 2005, then modified the legislation in 2006 to stay ahead of a lawsuit filed in federal court. Their intent, Fort said, was to suppress the African-American vote.
It didn’t exactly work out as planned.
“In 2008, Barack Obama got 47 percent of the vote in Georgia,” Fort said. “That wasn’t supposed to happen. But civil-rights activists, voting-rights activists, they used the state’s 45-day early-voting period to really turn out black voters.”
In response, GOP legislators upped the ante, passing two more bills that make voting more challenging—including one that cut the early-voting period in half.
“They have no choice,” Fort said. “They know if they don’t get ahead of the demographics, they lose.” Georgia’s combined non-white population increased from 37 to 45 percent from 2000 to 2010.
Fort said the voter-ID bill demonstrated how serious Republicans are about restricting access to the polls. “But coming back and passing a bill that cut early-voting in half, that showed me that Republicans are playing hard ball,” Fort said. “Real hard.”
First real test
In November, Georgia’s restrictive ballot-access laws will get their first real test. Michelle Nunn, the daughter of former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, is the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Saxby Chambliss. Nunn is in a close race with former Dollar Store CEO David Perdue. The African-American vote will likely determine the winner.
Georgia’s ballot-access laws could also shape the outcome of the competitive race between incumbent Republican Governor Nathan Deal and Democratic challenger Jason Carter, the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.
A Carter win would be a game-changer in Georgia, unless Republicans pick up the one House seat that would provide them a supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly and allow them to govern by veto-proof legislation.
Michelle Nunn, however, is one of very few firewalls against a Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate. What remains of President Obama’s agenda might hang on election results posted in Atlanta in November.
“The voter-ID bill is big,” Atlanta Democratic Senator Nan Orrock told me. “But it is one part of a much larger whole.”
Orrock, a white liberal who found her way into politics through the civil-rights movement in the 1960s, has represented predominately black Atlanta districts in the Georgia House, and later the Senate, for 28 years.
According to Orrock, the Voter ID Act is best understood as one piece of a broader Republican legislative agenda. That agenda extends beyond voting laws that specifically target minority voters: voter ID, cutting the early-voting period from 45 to 21 days, and a citizenship-verification law that matches databases and scrubs voting rolls.
After Republicans won control of both houses of the General Assembly in 2004, they resorted to race as the primary criterion in drawing the congressional, legislative and even county commissioners’ districts, frequently “pairing” Democratic incumbents to force them to run against each other. They packed blacks into racially homogeneous districts and subdivided, where they could, those communities where whites and African Americans had built biracial coalitions of voters.
Atlanta under siege
“Fulton County, this is critical to understand,” Orrock told me. “The Republican Party has stripped the power from the African-American community in Fulton County.”
Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, is 44.4 percent African American, 7.7 percent Latino and 40.7 percent white. Today, in a coalition with white progressives and Latinos, its African-American majority dominates local government; five of Fulton County’s seven county commissioners are black Democrats, but that’s likely to change.
For years, Republican legislators criticized the Board of Commissioners for being profligate and inefficient, yet because of Atlanta’s demographics, electing a majority has been beyond the Republicans’ grasp. They managed to undermine the county’s finances by freezing property evaluation for two years and requiring a five-vote majority on the commission to pass a property tax increase. But to “win” a majority of seats on the Fulton County Commission, Republicans embarked on a two-step process that began in the Legislature.
Each county delegation in Georgia’s General Assembly controls legislation related to the county it represents. For 20 years, Democrats dominated Fulton County’s legislative delegations in the House and Senate. Before Republicans could increase their two-member foothold on the Fulton County Commission, they had to redraw the legislative districts to their advantage.
They did so during redistricting in 2011, extending Fulton County’s legislative district boundaries out into whiter, more Republican counties. Until the 2013 elections that followed redistricting, Fulton County was represented by a 14-8 Democratic majority in the Georgia House and a 4-3 majority in the Senate.
Republicans now hold a 13-12 edge in Fulton County’s House delegation and 7-4 majority in its Senate delegation.
Once Republicans controlled Fulton County’s legislative delegation, they could change the complexion of the county Board of Commissioners.
In the 2013 legislative session, Fulton County’s Republican legislative delegations redrew commission district lines to ensure that one of the five incumbent Democrat commissioners will be automatically eliminated (by forcing two veteran African-American Democrats to run in the same district). They also turned an at-large seat currently held by an African-American Democrat into a new district situated in (majority white) north Fulton County.
While the at-large seat in a majority African-American county was winnable for a Democrat, the new district in the north of the county favors a Republican. If they prevail at the polls in November, Republicans will, by legislative fiat, have taken control of Georgia’s largest majority-minority county.
They are just beginning.
For years, Republicans in the General Assembly have been working to turn north Fulton County’s suburban municipalities into a separate “Milton County.” This act of local secession would leave Atlanta as the seat of a smaller, poorer and much blacker Fulton County. (The city of Milton is 76 percent white and 9 percent African American.)
Proponents of the creation of Milton County couldn’t get past the Democratic House Caucus, and House Republicans are one vote short of the two-thirds supermajority required to create a new county.
None of this is a state secret.
Republican House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones promised white suburbanites in north Fulton County that she will “reduce the thumbprint of Fulton County on your lives and pocketbooks such that in a very few years, Atlanta and south Fulton will not fight us” on the creation of Milton County.
There is more to this than re-segregation.
Fort said that for Republicans, creating a blacker Fulton County is as important as creating their own majority-white Milton County.
It is part of a strategy of “packing” African Americans into their own “black legislative and congressional districts,” Fort said, which will lead whites to conclude they have no place in the state’s Democratic Party.
“Their model is the Mississippi model, the Alabama model, where the Democratic Party is the black party,” Fort said.
While eight other Southern states have passed restrictive voter-ID laws since Georgia led the way in 2005, Georgia has the distinction of having passed two voter-ID laws in two successive legislative sessions. (The second law, passed in 2006, was a makeover intended to satisfy a federal judge.)
If there were ever any doubt about the intent of the legislation, it was dispelled by a Department of Justice memo leaked to The Washington Post, which included unguarded comments by the bill’s author, Sue Burmeister.
“Rep. Burmeister said that if there were fewer black voters because of this bill, it will only be because there is less opportunity for fraud,” the memo read. “She said that when black voters in her district are not paid to vote, they do not go to the polls.”
In 2005, Burmeister was a GOP state representative from Augusta. She’s probably better described as a “sponsor” than the author of the bill.
“The bill was actually written by ALEC,” Emmet Bondurant told me. Bondurant is the name partner in a prominent Atlanta law firm and a veteran civil-rights litigator. He represented plaintiffs who sued to block implementation of the 2005 Voter ID Act.
ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council. While it appears to be an association of state legislators, it has been revealed to be a corporate-funded bill mill that produces model legislation used by conservative legislators across the country.
“I wish I had known it was an ALEC bill when we filed our lawsuit,” Bondurant told me. “The appearance was that it was a grassroots movement to deal with voter fraud.”
In 2005, Indiana and Georgia were the first states to pass voter-ID laws, both using ALEC templates. Representatives of ALEC denied any connection until the Washington-based Center for American Progress obtained a copy of the bill and posted it online.
The damning DOJ memo was leaked to The Washington Post by career employees whose reservations regarding the Georgia law were overridden by Bush administration appointees and ultimately by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
The career staff had recommended the DOJ not “preclear” Georgia’s Voter ID Act, as required at the time by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The preclearance provision required states with a history of ballot-box discrimination to “preclear” any changes to voting laws with the Justice Department. This essential feature of the Voting Rights Act was overturned by the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision in July 2013 (see The Spectator, February 1, 2013).
When the DOJ memo came to light, Burmeister said her remarks sounded “pretty harsh.” But she stood by her allegations, which were anecdotal and based on an interaction she said she had with a former Augusta mayor who had died the previous year and had been convicted of extortion in 1984.
The memo was straightforward and critical. But some of what it described bordered on the comedic. The Republican sponsor of Georgia’s Voter ID Act had used a personal anecdote that had nothing to do with individuals impersonating voters and could not be corroborated, because her source was dead. She also managed to perpetrate a stereotype of blacks who only vote when they can earn a few dollars doing so. All to justify legislation that would make it more difficult for blacks to vote.
The state submitted no empirical evidence of voting fraud. In fact, the secretary of state, who supervise Georgia’s elections, had testified that during the eight years prior to the introduction of the voter-ID bill, there had not been a single documented incident of ballot-box fraud in Georgia.
A Republican House staffer quoted in the memo admitted that “the Legislature did not conduct any statistical analysis of the effect of the photo ID requirement on minority voters.”
And the state failed to establish that the new law would not result in a return to the ballot-box discrimination that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
“The state has failed to meet its burden of demonstrating that the change is not retrogressive,” the authors of the memo wrote.
Revamping the poll tax
In a scramble to enact an ALEC bill in the first General Assembly in which they held a majority since Reconstruction, the Republican majority failed to do its homework, submitting documents to the DOJ that were described as “riddled with errors and of a quality far below what we are accustomed to using in the Voting Section.”
With Bondurant acting as lead counsel, Common Cause, the NAACP, the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, the League of Women Voters and other plaintiffs sued the state of Georgia in an attempt to block the law. The Legislature responded by introducing a slightly modified voter-ID bill on the first day of the 2006 session, passing the bill in three weeks.
Until the 2005 bill was signed by then-Governor Sonny Perdue, qualified voters in Georgia could use 17 different kinds of identification, ranging from social security cards to utility bills.
The new law authorized five acceptable photo IDs.
Eligible voters lacking approved identification would have to pay from $20 to $35 to obtain a state ID; those lacking birth certificates, an additional $20 for a certified birth certificate.
Identification cards could be obtained at 59 offices across the state. (Georgia has 159 counties.) The same law notably eased restrictions on absentee voting, which whites in Georgia use with twice the frequency as blacks.
In a harshly critical opinion, U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy issued a temporary restraining order that blocked enforcement of the 2005 law, observing:
[T]he photo ID requirement makes the exercise of the fundamental right to vote extremely difficult for voters currently without acceptable forms of photo ID for whom obtaining a photo ID would be a hardship. Unfortunately, the photo ID requirement is most likely to prevent Georgia’s elderly, poor and African-American voters from voting. For those citizens, the character and magnitude of their injury—the loss of their right to vote—is undeniably demoralizing and extreme.
The revised 2006 Voter ID Act provided for photo IDs at no cost, mandated voter-ID offices in all of Georgia’s 159 counties and created a voter education program. Seven months after the second bill was signed into law, Judge Murphy, who was appointed to the bench by Jimmy Carter in 1977, dismissed the lawsuit and lifted his restraining order.
The elimination of what he had described as a “poll tax” apparently satisfied Judge Murphy. He also devoted 23 of his 81-page opinion to recognizing the education and outreach effort that the new law required.
The second opinion reads perversely like Judge Murphy’s rebuttal of his initial opinion.
Laughlin McDonald, who is based in Atlanta and serves as the director emeritus of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, told me he was caught entirely off guard.
“This second ruling went a long way in the other direction,” McDonald said.
Bondurant said it read “as if it had been written by another judge on another planet.” He inferred that Judge Murphy was influenced by the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Indiana voter-ID law while he was deciding Georgia’s case.
The challenge to the Indiana law was a much weaker case going up on appeal, Bondurant said, lacking the demographic information Georgia plaintiffs provided the district court in Atlanta. The report the Georgia plaintiffs submitted to Judge Murphy included:
• Department of Transportation data indicating that 874,420 Georgia citizens of driving age did not have driver’s licenses in 2003
• Census findings that 390,414 Georgians of voting age, and 242,929 Georgia households, have no access to a car
• Census data indicating that the median income of white households ($36,150) is almost twice that of black households; and that 28 percent of blacks and 21 percent of Hispanics live in poverty, compared to 10 percent of whites
• Census data which reflect that 149,000 black households have no access to a car, as compared to 89,000 white households
• An AARP and League of Women Voters study finding that 152,000 Georgians who voted in the 2004 election were over 60 and did not have driver’s licenses
“When you make driver’s licenses the ticket to the polls, you automatically are benefiting the haves at the expense of the have-nots,” Bondurant said. “And the have-nots in this country, especially in the South, are more likely to be black than white.”
It has cost the state of Georgia $2 million to implement its voter-ID program: $1 million for software (which does not include cost of training in 159 counties) and, based on statements by successive secretaries of state, roughly $1 million for public outreach.
Bondurant insists the outreach and education campaign directed by the Republican secretary of state discouraged voters who lacked proper identification. A mix of radio copy and direct-mail pieces I obtained place considerably more emphasis on the hard-and-fast voter-ID requirement than on how and where to apply for voter-ID cards.
Perhaps the best measure of the success of the outreach program—and conversely the chilling effect of the law—is found in one metric the Georgia secretary of state’s office made available. After six years and an estimated $1 million in outreach, 33,248 Georgians have received an official voter ID card.
That barely makes a dent in potential eligible voters in the pool of 874,420 driving-age Georgians whom the U.S. Department of Transportation reported lacked driver licenses they could use at polling places. And it is less than 12 percent of the low-ball 300,000 figure that then-Governor Sonny Perdue claimed when he defended the law in 2005.
These numbers are critical. The average margin of victory in the last three gubernatorial races was 260,704 votes, according to a Center for American Progress study. And in the 2010 election, Republican Governor Nathan Deal defeated his Democratic challenger by 258,821 votes.
That is the gap that has to be closed by a voter-registration drive funded by the national Democratic Party, and other registration and get-out-the-vote drives run by nonprofits, who are targeting 700,000 unregistered black Georgians.
Senator Orrock said media coverage of the voter-ID fight has its own chilling effect. “People see the coverage and come to believe they’re going to be messed with when they show up to vote. There are new standards. You are walking there and you’re going to be challenged, disrespected,” Orrock said.
“But there’s another response. Some people say, ‘I resolve that I’m not going to have my vote stripped from me.’
“When Republicans were defending this crap from the well [of the Senate floor], one Senator said, ‘If you don’t have a driver’s license, you can always use your passport.’
“A lot of the folks I represent don’t have passports, because they don’t have the means to travel. That’s who they went after with this bill. That’s who needs to get to the polls in November.”
Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie are all considering a run for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination, or are keeping speculation alive to sell books or remain in the public eye, and all answered Ralph Reed’s call to address the annual Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in the nation’s capital. (Jeb Bush had a scheduling conflict.)
By their calculation, they had to attend.
The Pew Research Center has found that evangelical Protestants represent 26.3 of Americans. They account for more than 50 percent of voters in GOP primaries, according to a poll commissioned by CBS after the 2012 elections. In recent presidential elections, evangelicals have dominated the always influential Republican Precinct Caucuses in Iowa.
So in mid-June, six marquee-name Republicans shared a hotel ballroom stage with talk-radio curiosities Gary Bauer, Allen West, retired General Jerry Boykin, Dominionist Christian preacher Rafael Cruz and others.
Despite the insularity, mind-numbing sameness, repetitiveness, substitution of apocrypha for fact, and dissembling, these gatherings of Christian conservatives play a role in our national politics. They also play a role in moving the Republican Party further to the right.
Reed appeared to be finished in 2004 when email exchanges with lobbyist Jack Abramoff revealed he was directly involved in the theft of $44 million from American Indian tribes that sent Abramoff to prison. Reed is resilient: today, he claims more than 800,000 supporters of the nonprofit organization he launched in 2009.
Even if he is inflating his numbers, for five years running Reed has persuaded 1,000 evangelicals to pay a $250-plus registration fee and travel to Washington to attend these events.
Pissing on the President
This year’s conference quickly registered with social media when a photo of an Obama figurine in a conference-hall urinal went viral after it appeared on the Huffington Post. The crude figurines were removed from urinals and merchandise tables soon after the photo was posted. To be fair, the figurines didn’t represent the Faith and Freedom crowd.
Over three days, I sat down and talked to 30 Faith and Freedom pilgrims, all white, almost all from Southern states. Most were evangelicals, one couple belonged to a mainline Protestant denomination, one woman was Roman Catholic. I saw a few Jews wearing kippot, but this is a white, Christian, Southern crowd, and there is an undeniable decency about these people.
If the collective sentiment at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference is in-your-face anger, this gathering is characterized by sincerity.
And by fear.
Sixty years ago, in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter described a sense of dispossession in American conservatives who believe that:
“America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power.”
For three days at Washington’s Omni Shoreham Hotel, the same traveling troop of candidates, consultants, speakers and authors of polemical political books who appear at the CPAC, Values Voter and Tea Party conferences preached the gospel of fear to 1,000 middle-American churchgoers.
Obama was their central narrative.
Conservative extremists, Hofstadter presciently wrote, live in fear of the liberal leader who is “a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving.”
Rafael Cruz was not listed in the Faith and Freedom program, but his 20-minute sermon was not surprising. The 75-year-old charismatic evangelical preacher was a marginal figure even on the Christian right until his son campaigned for the U.S. Senate. Since Ted Cruz was elected, his father has been traveling the country speaking to right-wing groups.
The Rev. Cruz lists himself as the director of the Purifying Fire Ministry in North Texas. He’s also a Christian Dominionist, an American theological movement which holds that “anointed” leaders should impose biblical values on government.
In a distinctly Cuban accent—Cruz fled Havana in 1957 and enrolled in the University of Texas—he tells the Faith and Freedom audience that all anyone needs to know about creating a government and about governing can be found in Jethro’s counsel to Moses in Exodus 18. Americans have turned away from these biblical principles, Cruz warns, allowing the country to be governed by the “wicked.” He concludes by urging Christians to turn their congregations into agents of political action, demanding their pastors provide in every sanctuary voter-registration tables and political pamphlets that identify biblically sound candidates.
Gary Bauer, even more shrill, extreme and angry than he was during his short-lived 2000 presidential campaign, outdoes Cruz in his more pointed critique of the president.
“Fewer things make Barack Obama more passionate than abortion-on-demand …” Bauer told the crowd. “If Obama succeeds in making us a secular-humanist nation, ripping out our Judeo-Christian roots, this country will be destroyed.”
No one worked this theme better than Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Like his father, Cruz speaks without notes or teleprompter, walking back and forth on the stage. He listed the religious-freedom cases he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court while solicitor general in Texas; the defense of a Ten Commandments monument on the state Capitol grounds; the defense of “One Nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance; and a case he argued as a private attorney defending the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial Cross.
Liberals dismiss Cruz as an angry ideologue, which he is. But he is recognized in the legal profession as a brilliant scholar and litigator. He’s also a compelling public speaker.
Once he got through his CV, Cruz turned to Obama’s supposed assault on religious freedom at home. He described the “astonishing and heartbreaking” intrusion into religious liberty in the Hobby Lobby case, and a similar lawsuit filed against the federal government by the Little Sisters of the Poor, who refuse to allow a second-party insurer to cover contraceptive services for lay employees in the hospices and nursing homes the order operates.
But it was with dramatic accounts of American Christians abandoned by Obama in prisons in Islamic countries that Cruz moved this audience. While the president negotiates with the government of Iran, Cruz said, Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born naturalized U.S. citizen, is imprisoned in Tehran for the “crime of sharing the Christian faith.”
Cruz frames these stories much as televangelist Pat Robertson does, with anecdotal grace notes impossible to prove or disprove. In prison, Cruz says, Abedini has converted prisoners and prison guards to Christianity.
Meriam Ibrahim, a persistent preoccupation of the Christian right, was another meme worked by Cruz. He claimed Obama has made no effort to free the Sudanese-born American citizen from a prison in Khartoum, where the government of Sudan “has sentenced Meriam to 100 lashes, then to hang by the neck until dead.”
Ibrahim was told, Cruz said, that she would be spared “if only you will renounce Christ.”
The facts on the ground in Tehran and Khartoum are more complicated. Abedini had entered Iran on several occasions and was building an orphanage when he was sentenced to eight years in prison for undermining the Iranian government and endangering national security by establishing home churches. As an Iranian-born Christian preacher, he was aware of the risks his work entailed in a country governed by Islamic extremists.
And Abedini wasn’t “abandoned.” He and another American imprisoned in Tehran were the only topic, other than Iran’s nuclear program, that Obama discussed when he spoke with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in September 2013. Abedini has also been on the State Department’s agenda in every discussion the government has had with Iran since then.
Ibrahim became a victim of Sudan’s crude criminal-justice system when she married an American citizen and converted. Under Sudan’s penal code, Muslim women are forbidden to marry Christian men. While in prison, and in shackles, Ibrahim gave birth to her second child.
Ibrahim says she was brought up Christian. However, members of her family tipped off Sudanese authorities, saying she had converted from Islam, according to the Guardian, using her “apostasy” to take over her hair salon, farm and mini-market.
While Cruz accused Obama of abandoning a Christian woman in a Muslim prison, the State Department was working on her release.
Five days after Cruz spoke, Ibrahim arrived at the Khartoum airport in a bullet-proof car with an escort from the U.S. embassy. After she was detained at the airport and released for a second time, Ibrahim and her family were provided sanctuary in the U.S. embassy. (She has since arrived in New Hampshire to begin a new life.)
Faith and Freedom was a political event, so lack of nuance and the elision of facts were not unexpected.
The narrative here is fear of government, not making it work. More specifically, fear of a president whose questionable Judeo-Christian bona fides were the subtext of the entire conference. Exploiting that fear is effective in an audience already predisposed to it.
Predisposed to Fear
Relentlessly on-message, Reed, Rubio, Paul, Cruz, Cruz, Huckabee, Santorum, et al., described a president restricting the religious freedoms of Christians while expanding protections for Muslims, promoting same-sex marriage and what they call "abortion-on-demand" while coddling Islamic terrorists. Only New Jersey Governor Chris Christie departed from the script and was politely tolerated when he made the case for governing by compromise with the Democratic Party, as he must in New Jersey, and for reasonable and compassionate sentencing standards for non-violent drug abusers.
But he was not for this crowd.
An earnest sophomore at Liberty University tells me she is certain Obama will make a big push on abortion in his final two years in office.
A middle-aged woman from North Carolina tells me Obama’s Department of Education plans to use the national Common Core curriculum “to control our children, to brainwash them.”
“It’s not really about education,” she says. “It’s a system of data collection. When they have the data, they will control the population. They will take away our individuality, our individual rights.”
A Roman Catholic woman in her 60s, who rode an overnight charter bus from Atlanta, sees the president’s support for same-sex marriage as part of a broader assault on Christian values: “Gay marriage is part of his agenda to restrict our freedom to worship.”
A woman who drove in from Maryland and appears to be in her late 60s recites a litany of concerns: same-sex marriage, abortion, Obamacare, the decline of traditional values, excessive regulation of small businesses. Then, her voice quavering, she turns to the central theme of this gathering. The president “terrifies” her, she says. “This administration is taking away our freedoms. It’s Obama. He scares me. I worry about my grandchildren. Obama is going to take all our freedoms away.”
This article first appeared in the Washington Spectator.
Four months after he took the oath of office in 2001, President George W. Bush was the attraction, and the White House the venue, for a fundraiser organized by the alleged perpetrator of the largest billing fraud in the history of corporate lobbying. In May 2001, Jack Abramoff's lobbying client book was worth $4.1 million in annual billing for the Greenberg Traurig law firm. He was a friend of Bush advisor Karl Rove. He was a Bush "Pioneer," delivering at least $100,000 in bundled contributions to the 2000 campaign.
He had just concluded his work on the Bush Transition Team as an advisor to the Department of the Interior. He had sent his personal assistant Susan Ralston to the White House to work as Rove's personal assistant. He was a close friend, advisor, and high-dollar fundraiser for the most powerful man in Congress, Tom DeLay. Abramoff was so closely tied to the Bush Administration that he could, and did, charge two of his clients $25,000 for a White House lunch date and a meeting with the President. From the same two clients he took to the White House in May 2001, Abramoff also obtained $2.5 million in contributions for a non-profit foundation he and his wife operated.
Abramoff's White House guests were the chiefs of two of the six casino-rich Indian tribes he and his partner Mike Scanlon ultimately billed $82 million for services tribal leaders now claim were never performed or were improperly performed. Together the six tribes would make $10 million in political contributions, at Abramoff's direction, almost all of it to Republican campaigns of his choosing. On May 9, 2001, when he ushered the two tribal chiefs into the White House to meet the President, The Washington Post story that would end his lobbying career and begin two Senate Committee investigations was three years away. (When the Post story broke in February 2004, however, Abramoff and Scanlon, a former Tom DeLay press aide, were already targets of a U.S. Attorney's investigation in Washington.)
Abramoff brought the Coushatta and Choctaw chiefs to Washington at the request of Grover Norquist. Norquist is founder and director of Americans for Tax Reform, the advocacy group committed to slashing taxes until the federal government is so small you "can drown it in the bathtub." Norquist started ATR in 1985. His power increased exponentially in 1994, when Republicans took control of the House of Representatives and he collaborated with then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay to launch the "K Street Project"--a coordinated campaign to compel lobbyists to contribute only to Republican candidates and ultimately to hire only Republicans. Like Abramoff and Rove, Norquist considered George Bush's victory over Al Gore the culmination of a project the three Washington insiders started 30 years ago as national leaders of the College Republicans.
Since the Post's Susan Schmidt broke the Jack Abramoff story, the media has focused on the stunning $82 million Abramoff and Scanlon billed six tribes for lobbying and public relations work. Far less attention has been paid to the political contributions, by Abramoff's account $10 million, made by the six tribes. That piece of the story involves the K Street Project, which moves the money of corporate lobbyists and their clients into the accounts of Republican candidates, PACs, and issue advocacy groups.
Republican Campaign Accounts
Abramoff advised tribal leaders that the contributions were the cost of doing business in Washington, where he could protect them from other tribes trying to open casinos to compete with those that already had them. He sent orders for the checks to be cut, designating each recipient. On March 6, 2002, for example, Coushatta Tribal Council Chair Lovelin Poncho followed Abramoff's orders and disbursed $336,300 in tribal funds, according to tribal accounting ledgers obtained by the Observer.
The Coushattas, a southwest Louisiana tribe of 837 members, operate a casino that does an estimated $300 million in annual business. The $32 million they paid Abramoff and Scanlon makes the tribe the largest victim of the fraud their lawyers now allege in a lawsuit filed by Texas plaintiff's firm Provost Umphrey. The tribe also contributed what tribal council member David Sickey said was probably "many millions" of dollars to political causes and charities designated by Abramoff.
Since we first reported the White House ATR fundraiser and the $1 million contribution to the Capital Athletic Foundation, the Coushattas, speaking through Austin attorneys at Hance, Scarborough, Wright, Ginsburg & Brusilow, and through Louisiana political consultant Roy Fletcher, have vociferously denied that tribal Chairman Poncho visited the White House after contributing $25,000 to ATR. They also denied the $1 million contribution to Abramoff's foundation.
Recently the story has changed. Or at least the version told by the majority that controls the council has begun to change. Two minority members of the five-seat council have pointed to the pay-to-play meeting with President Bush and the $1 million contribution to Abramoff as examples of the council's financial mismanagement. One of the two members of the minority faction, David Sickey, has regularly made himself available to the press. Normally, press inquiries to the council majority are answered by Hance Scarborough, by Roy Fletcher, or occasionally by sources close to the council majority.
According to a source close to the tribal majority, Chairman Poncho recently "revisited that issue" of his visit to the White House. He had previously denied it because he thought he was responding to press inquiries that implied he had a one-on-one meeting with Bush. He now recalls that he in fact did go to the White House on May 9, 2001. Tribal attorney Kathryn Fowler Van Hoof went with him, although she did not get into the meeting with the President. That meeting lasted for about 15 minutes and was not a one-on-one meeting. At the meeting, Bush made some general comments about Indian policy but did not discuss Indian gaming. Abramoff was at the meeting--for which he charged the Coushatta Tribe $25,000. The change in Poncho's position is odd in light of the fact that he and his spokespersons have maintained for more than a year that he did not meet with President Bush in May 2001.
Norquist has not responded to inquiries about using the White House as a fundraiser. It is, however, a regular ATR practice to invite state legislators and tribal leaders who have supported ATR anti-tax initiatives to the White House for a personal thank-you from the President. A source at ATR said no money is ever accepted from participants in these events. The $25,000 check from the Coushattas suggests that, at least in this instance, Norquist's organization made an exception.
The $75,000 collected from the Mississippi Choctaws and two corporate sponsors mentioned in Abramoff's e-mail suggests there were other exceptions. Norquist recently wrote to the tribes who paid to attend White House meetings. His story regarding that event is also evolving. The contributions, he told tribal leaders in letters that went out in May, were in no way related to any White House event. That doesn't square with the paper trail Abramoff and Norquist left behind, which makes it evident that they were selling access to the President.
The Coushatta Tribal Council majority has also revised its response to questions about the $1 million contribution, which critics in the tribe have insisted was made to Abramoff's Capital Athletic Foundation in 2001. The foundation funded Abramoff's Jewish prep school in Bethesda, MD, which closed soon after his lobbying scheme unraveled. When the Observer inquired in November 2004 about the $1 million contribution, we had obtained a copy of the Capital Athletic Foundation's tax filing, but the contributor's name was redacted.
Following the lead of Lake Charles, Lousiana, American Press reporter Shawn Martin, the Observer last week obtained an un-redacted copy. The $1 million contribution, roughly 95 percent of what the foundation raised in 2001, was attributed to the Coushatta Tribe. A source working with the Coushatta Tribal Council majority said it now appears that the contribution was made in response to a bill sent by Mike Scanlon.
Accountants working under the direction of Hance Scarborough found a $1 million Greenberg Traurig invoice that Scanlon sent the tribe. Scanlon routinely sent un-itemized bills for larger sums, which the tribe routinely paid. But as he was not a Greenberg Traurig employee, he billed on his own Capitol Campaign Strategies invoices. On the $1 million Greenberg Traurig invoice Scanlon sent the tribe in 2001, the company name was misspelled.
There will need to be more accounting, probably by different accountants. And perhaps by different legal representation, or at least under a different understanding between the tribe and its lawyers. In the May 28 tribal election on the Elton, LA reservation, a reform slate won a majority on the five-member council. Sickey, who five days before the election maintained that the $1 million contribution was made and that tribal chair Poncho indeed went to the White House in 2001, predicted the new majority will hire forensic accountants to determine where all the money went. (A week before the election he was looking for a tribal newsletter in which, he said, Poncho described his 2001 White House visit.)
The shift on the council does not bode well for its Austin law firm. Hance Scarborough had gone to tribal court and successfully blocked a recall election that would have forced the council majority to stand for election a year ago, and David Sickey was a proponent of the recall. "Kent Hance doesn't represent me or [the other minority dissident] Harold John," said Sickey. "He represents Lovelin Poncho."
The White House press office has not responded to our questions about other visits Jack Abramoff might have made to the White House or about Norquist using the official residence of the President to raise funds for Americans for Tax Reform. None of the political contributions Abramoff insisted the tribes make as yet have been returned.