Addie Coleman had some blemishes on her credit history when she went in to buy a car from Beaman Pontiac in Nashville. The dealership faxed her loan application to General Motors Acceptance Corp. GMAC weighed the information and came back with a decision: Coleman qualified for an annual percentage rate of 18.25. But that's not the APR the dealership wrote into the contract it presented to her. Instead, it boosted the already steep rate approved by GMAC by another 2.5 points, to 20.75.
It was, according to Coleman's attorneys, a secret markup that over the life of the loan would cost her an extra $809 in finance charges. And her experience wasn't an isolated one. According to a federal class-action lawsuit, other GMAC customers around Nashville were secretly assessed finance-charge markups of $5,501, $6,018, even $8,600. The lawsuit claimed these borrowers and many thousands like them were victims of a shady, lucrative arrangement between GMAC and dealers that soaks African American and Hispanic borrowers with covert costs that have nothing to do with their creditworthiness.
Profits and Ingenuity
Most people understand that buying a car is an enterprise fraught with perils. But few realize that the all-too-common traps and rip-offs of the car business are no longer simply the folkways of a decentralized assortment of local or fly-by-night operators. The industry's unwholesome habits have become, instead, institutionalized practices fueled by top-down market forces and corporate ingenuity.
GMAC, for example, is one of a plethora of name-brand financiers that have been accused of working with auto dealers to gouge millions of minority car buyers. Others include units of Nissan, Toyota, Ford and Honda. Industry officials deny wrongdoing is pervasive. "We're in a dangerous place when we start using behavior of a few people to implicate an entire industry," Marianne McInerney, president of the American International Automobile Dealers Association, told the Associated Press. She says the vast majority of dealers are reputable and honest and that surveys show consumers are "over 90 percent satisfied" when they buy new vehicles. GMAC has agreed to a settlement of the nationwide class action over its loan-markup policies. But it, too, denies wrongdoing and says it "adheres to a zero-tolerance policy on racial discrimination." Industry denials are undermined, however, by a growing body of evidence that discrimination and fraud are systematic -- and driven by some of America's biggest companies.
A new study by the Consumer Federation of America concludes major banks and automakers' finance units use hidden interest markups to fleece consumers out of as much as $1 billion a year. Virtually all of the nation's top auto lenders engage in this practice, the study says. A study by another national consumer advocacy group, Public Citizen, provides an even wider window on the industry's unsavory deportment: "Customers in California, Florida and at least 37 other states have been defrauded by what the Minnesota Attorney General's Office has called "industry-wide practices ranging from inflating the cost of warranties to contract stuffing and racial discrimination."
The report says little-noticed "extra" charges are tacked on at every stage of the sale, producing little value to the consumer but enriching dealers to the tune "of millions, and even perhaps billions, of additional dollars industry-wide." Given the car industry's predilections, all consumers -- rich or poor, black or white, good credit or bad -- should be wary when they step onto an automobile lot. But the evidence shows the worst abuses are usually targeted at African American, Hispanic, elderly, blue collar, or credit-impaired customers. Many dealers and lenders perceive these consumers as having fewer options, less financial experience, and a diminished sense of marketplace entitlement, thus making them more likely to be desperate or susceptible when it comes time to close the deal.
And the deals that are being closed on most car lots are not pretty ones. Disadvantaged car buyers often pay interest rates between 17 and 25 percent on auto loans, compared to single-digit rates for borrowers with good credit and strong bargaining skills -- a difference that can mean $3,000, $4,000 or more in extra finance charges on a $10,000 used-car loan. These customers are also more likely to be targeted by dealers and lenders for an array of overpriced extras: credit insurance, roadside assistance plans, extended warranties, service contracts.
Big and Bad
In step with the Wall Street-fueled growth of high-cost auto financing has come the dominance of what Ward's Dealer Business magazine calls "megadealer" groups -- vast, often publicly traded chains of dealerships that sway market trends and set the tone for ground-level sales practices. The nation's three largest megachains -- AutoNation, UnitedAuto Group, and Sonic Automotive -- posted $34 billion in sales in 2002, almost one-third of combined sales for the Ward's top 100 dealer list. The big three's growth and profits have been accompanied by lawsuits, government investigations, even criminal prosecutions. AutoNation, UnitedAuto, and Sonic have been flogged by allegations that they use deceptive practices to overcharge customers on financing, insurance, and other items.
Sonic has been the target of a Florida attorney general's probe, a Dateline NBC expose and an onslaught of private litigation. Lawsuits have alleged Sonic executives supervised a scheme to falsify credit applications, sell overpriced warranties, and forge customers signatures. One customer, Mac Williams Jr., told Tampa's WFLA-TV, "On one of the documents they had even misspelled my name, which sort of upset me. If you're gonna forge my name, at least spell it right."
A Florida class action lawsuit involving an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 customers alleges that overcharges and other misdeeds are standard procedures at Sonic -- a pattern of conduct perpetrated by local salespeople and managers but choreographed by high-level corporate officials. The suit claims that Sonic executives controlled lower-level employees with top-down specificity, fostering predatory conduct through a system of bonuses and kickbacks coupled with the threat of firing, demotion, or transfer for managers who didn't comply.
The suit says executives demanded weekly "penetration reports" on sales of insurance add-ons, and set a goal that finance managers pack on $800 of "back-end" products such as anti-theft insurance onto each sale-a benchmark the lawsuit says Sonic executives knew "could only be achieved through fraudulent sales practices."
When Enrique and Virginia Galura purchased a new Toyota Spyder, the suits says, Sonic's Clearwater Toyota charged them $562 for an anti-theft insurance policy whose real price was $30. The $562 was not disclosed on the insurance form, the suit says, but was handwritten in after the couple drove off the lot. Another Sonic customer, Ana Diaz-Albertini of Palm Harbor, Fla., was charged $1,140 for the insurance -- which paid only $1,000 in the event of theft and damage and $2,500 in the event of theft and total loss. Sonic officials said they investigated allegations of misconduct and found just one infraction, which they responded to by firing the employee in question. A company spokesman told the Associated Press that Sonic was committed to "operating our business with the utmost integrity" and taking prompt action whenever "inappropriate conduct" is brought to its attention.
The No. 1 megadealer, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-headquartered AutoNation, was forced to make similar denials of wrongdoing in the wake of a scandal at its El Monte, Calif., Chevrolet dealership. AutoNation agreed to pay more than $5 million to settle a private class action and a California Department of Motor Vehicles lawsuit accusing the dealership of defrauding more than 1,500 customers through a variety of sharp practices, such as selling used cars as new and charging for security systems that were never installed. Seven employees were convicted of crimes in the case. AutoNation blamed any violations on a handful of unprincipled employees. "You've got human beings who are going to act like human beings act," a spokesman said. "Some guys break the rules and these guys did."
UnitedAuto Group, meanwhile, was the target of a lawsuit in Memphis that accused a UAG Toyota dealership of preying on women and minorities by secretly marking up their finance charges beyond the interest rates quoted by lenders. The state judge who approved class action status for the case wrote that the so-called "dealer-reserve fee" results "in higher interest rates, higher monthly payments and higher total finance charges to the customer and is not disclosed to the customer at any time." Company officials recently told CBS's 60 Minutes that they had reached a tentative settlement of the lawsuit.
The dealer-reserve hustle works this way: The dealer takes the customer's application, submits it to a lender, and the lender comes back with its "buy rate." For someone with a mediocre credit history, the lender's rate might be, for example, 9 percent. But the dealership doesn't tell the customer that. Instead, it quotes a much higher rate -- say 12 percent. The difference is the finance "markup." On a $14,000 used-car loan, hiking the rate from 9 to 12 could cost the consumer more than $1,200. Critics call it a kickback -- the lenders' way of enticing dealers to steer loans in their direction.
Experts hired by the National Consumer Law Center and private consumer attorneys have found hard evidence that minority borrowers often bear the brunt of these charges.
One study looked at 1.5 million GMAC loan transactions and found 53.4 percent of blacks paid markups, compared to just over 28 percent of whites. The disparity couldn't be explained by differences in creditworthiness. On average, African Americans paid more than two times the markup as whites -- with a markup of $656 for blacks and $242 for whites. Similar patterns emerged in a study of 300,000-plus Nissan Motor Acceptance Corporation loans. Black Nissan borrowers paid an average markup of $970, compared to $462 for whites. Nissan called that statistical analysis "junk science." However, the company agreed to pay a $7.6 million settlement covering attorneys fees, contributions to consumer education, and $60,000 divided among 10 main plaintiffs. It also promised to make 675,000 no-markup loans to Latino and African-American car buyers. Michael Terry, a Nashville consumer attorney who has helped lead the legal attack on markups, says discriminatory intent by the dealers and lenders is the only explanation for the disparities. Victims include black lawyers and doctors.
"When they get out of the car with a black face ... they become a target," Terry says. "We've talked to dealers and they tell us it's true. They joke about them having a target on their backs."
Michael Hudson is investigative editor for Southern Exposure.
One novel way news reporters have tried to pinpoint the start of major U.S. military engagements is to monitor pizza deliveries at the Pentagon. It's been called the "Domino's theory:" When the generals and their staffs go into imminent-war mode, they stay at their posts late into the night, and the pizza orders shoot up.
There are more grim indicators that a military operation is nigh. As the war in Afghanistan began in October 2001, for example, "We could literally tell what units were being deployed from where, based on the volume of calls we received from given bases," says Christine Hansen, executive director of the Connecticut-based Miles Foundation, which has assisted more than 10,000 victims of military-related domestic violence since 1997. The calls were from women who were facing threats and physical abuse from their partners -- the same men who were supposedly being deployed on a mission to make America safer. "Then the same thing happened on the other end, when they came back," Hansen adds.
Hansen and other domestic violence workers say that such patterns of abuse are signs of how issues of gender, power and control are magnified in the military, making domestic violence an even more extensive and complicated problem than it is among civilians. And while recent events have sparked an unprecedented amount of official soul-searching about domestic violence in military families, those key issues have rarely entered the discussion.
It took the rapid-fire deaths of four women to turn national attention to this oft-overlooked form of domestic terror. The problem forced its way into the headlines last July, following a spate of murders by soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina. In the space of just five weeks, four women married to soldiers were killed by their spouses, according to the authorities. Marilyn Griffin was stabbed 70 times and her trailer set on fire, Teresa Nieves and Andrea Floyd were shot in the head, and Jennifer Wright was strangled. All four couples had children, several now orphaned as two of the men shot themselves after killing their wives. The murders garnered wide attention because they were clustered over such a short period, and because three of the soldiers had served in special operations units that fought in Afghanistan. (The throat-slitting murder of Shalamar Franceschi a few months before by her husband, a just-released Fort Bragg soldier, might also have been added to the tally, but wasn't.)
The murders have raised a host of questions -- about the effects of war on the people who wage it, the spillover on civilians from training military personnel to kill, the role of military institutional values, and even the possible psychiatric side effects of an anti-malarial drug the Army gives its soldiers. On the epidemic of violence against women throughout the United States and on the role of gender in both military and civilian domestic violence, however, there has been a deafening silence.
Another Kind of Casualty
In the wake of the domestic murders, defense officials have focused on "marital discord" and "family stress," and have fiercely contested the notion that domestic violence is a more severe problem in the military than in civilian populations, although the Pentagon has not invested much in finding out what the comparison would look like. One Army-funded study, however, found in 1998 that reports of "severe aggression" against spouses ran more than three times higher among Army families than among civilian ones.
The military nonetheless maintains that violence against spouses is no more prevalent in the armed forces, arguing that it uses different criteria than civilian authorities for identifying domestic violence, including severe verbal abuse. "People have been throwing some wild figures around," says Lt. Col. James Cassella, a Defense Department spokesman. "My understanding is that it's kind of an apples and oranges comparison." But the military's method may actually underestimate the problem, since it ignores violence against a legion of non-married partners, an especially important omission, considering that one recent study found that single men represent nearly 60 percent of soldiers using a gun or knife in attacks on women. And there is no way to independently corroborate the figures the military releases on domestic violence cases that are handled through military judicial processes, since they are shielded, as civilian police records are not, from public view. The cited studies did attempt to control, however, for the most important demographic differences -- the apples and oranges -- in military and civilian populations.
Mary Beth Loucks-Sorrell, interim director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a state-wide umbrella group based in Durham, is convinced that women partnered with soldiers face disproportionate risks of domestic abuse, a conclusion reached through years of fielding reports from abused women (and occasionally men). Reports from military communities are not only more frequent but the level of violence they describe is more extreme, she says. Some soldiers also terrorize their partners in unique ways, reminding the women of the sniper and bare-handed killing skills they acquire in training. Her anecdotal accounts are backed up by studies that found military men are more likely to use weapons than are civilians, and more likely to strangle their wives until unconscious.
On hearing of the four murders, many people in the general public and media asked whether the soldiers might have suffered from post-combat trauma or simply, as the military suggested, from the stress of deployment and its disruption of family life. Some commentators on the right went so far as to suggest these killings are another kind of war casualty and give us one more reminder of how much soldiers suffer on behalf of the national interest. On the left, the combat stress explanation can draw on the notion of the soldier as a victim of class violence and reluctant imperial tool. In both these views, the soldier's home front violence is the traumatic outcome of "what he saw" in combat, rather than the much more significant trauma of what he did -- and indeed, what he is trained to do.
Stan Goff, a veteran of several of special operations units who today is a militant democracy activist in Raleigh, scoffs at the "TV docudrama version of war" underlying this view. "Go to Afghanistan," he says, "where you are insulated from outside scrutiny and all the taboos you learned as a child are suspended. You take life more and more with impunity, and discover that the universe doesn't collapse when you drop the hammer on a human being, and for some, there is a real sense of power. For others, for all maybe, it's PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] on the installment plan."
A distracting side show to the murder investigations has been a UPI report suggesting the soldiers might have suffered side effects of Lariam, a drug the Army gives prophylactically to all troops going to malarial areas. Prescribed to 22 million people since 1985, Lariam is known to have neuropsychiatric effects in a tiny percentage of cases, found in one large study to be 1 in 13,000. In the wake of Pentagon stonewalling on the health effects of anthrax inoculation and depleted uranium weapons, Defense Department denials that Lariam is a problem might justifiably be taken with a grain of salt, but the epidemiological numbers suggest the Defense Department is probably right in this case. An Army epidemiological team, discussed in greater length below, concluded after an in-depth investigation at Fort Bragg that Lariam had been given to only two of the soldiers, and "was unlikely to be the cause of the tragic clustering of domestic violence incidents."
Some of the more likely causes of military-related home violence have received far less attention. In the Pentagon's approach to the problem and in virtually all media accounts, gender has been left hidden in plain sight. As in the 1990s schoolyard shootings, where a rhetoric of "kids killing kids" disguised the fact that boys were overwhelmingly the killers, here the soldiers are seen simply as an occupational group and the problem, at most, as one of an institutional culture where soldiers have difficulty "asking for help" from family service providers abundantly available on installations like Bragg.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Not only does the military remain by reputation the most "masculine" occupation available, but people in Fayetteville, and in the armed forces generally, consider Special Forces and Delta Force, where three of the four men worked, the Army's toughest units. Special operations units are some of the last in the military to exclude women, and they also specialize in unconventional warfare, which is combat that often follows neither the letter nor the spirit of the rules of war. As a sign in a Special Forces training area says: "Rule #1. There are no rules. Rule #2. Follow Rule #1." Such a macho, above-the-law culture may provide not a small part of the recipe for domestic violence. Combine this with a double standard of sexuality, one in which, as many soldiers and their wives told us, infidelity is to be expected on Special Forces deployments -- where the men operate with unusual autonomy and are often surrounded by desperately poor women--whereas the infidelity of wives, reactive or not, real or imagined, gets punished with violence.
If there was a common thread that tied the murdered women's lives together, it was the one identified by Christina DeNardo, a Fayetteville Observer reporter: All four of them, DeNardo reported, had expressed a desire to leave their marriages, a situation that domestic violence workers have identified as the most dangerous time for women in abusive relationships. That is when the control these men tend to insist on in their relationships appears about to dissolve. Christine Hansen, of the Miles Foundation, says that military personnel are controlled from above at work more than most U.S. workers, and many come home looking to reassert control, often with violence. The anxieties about control, and consequently the violence, flare up most before and after military deployments, Hansen says, as soldiers lose and then try to reinstate control. That's why her foundation got a spike in calls before and after the Afghanistan deployments.
The Pentagon says it is waging a determined campaign to curtail risks to military spouses and non-married partners. In a widely disseminated directive issued in November 2001, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz declared that "domestic violence is an offense against the institutional values of the military." But some analysts have countered that domestic violence, rape, and male supremacism itself are not anomalies or sideshows to war; instead, they lie near the center of how it is prosecuted and narrated. Like gender and control issues, military culture's institutionalized promotion of violence, and its effect on life at home, have gone unaddressed by the military brass.
When the subject of how military service might promote violence against women is raised, it proves to be a touchy one. In 1996, Madeline Morris, a Duke University law professor who specializes in war crimes issues and served as a consultant for Clinton administration Secretary of the Army Togo West, argued in the Duke Law Journal that "the norms currently prevalent within military organizations include a configuration of norms regarding masculinity, sexuality and women that have been found to be conducive to rape." Those norms, she wrote, include "elements of hypermasculinity, adversarial sexual beliefs, promiscuity, rape myth acceptance, hostility toward women, and possibly also acceptance of violence against women." Morris's thesis, which was bolstered by a good deal of military and academic research, was hotly contested by conservative commentators, but it launched little actual dialogue about the potential ties between military values and domestic violence.
Morris is not quite a lone voice in the wilderness. A few rare reporters and commentators have pointed out the obvious social costs of training millions of men to kill. "There's nothing to equal the military as the incubator of violence," Alexander Cockburn argued in a New York Press column after the Fort Bragg murders. He placed the killings in the context of the war against terrorism, in particular a Special Forces search and destroy mission that left dozens of Afghan civilian noncombatants dead, wounded, and roughed up. "The villagers of Hajibirgit paid the price," he wrote. "The four murdered women in Fort Bragg paid another installment, and the payments in terms of rage, drunkenness, drug addiction and antisocial behavior will be exacted month after month for years to come, amid the resolute determination of the press not to connect up the dots."
Downplaying the Violence
"Army accepts role in 4 domestic killings," read a headline in the Raleigh News and Observer on Nov. 8, 2002, when the Pentagon concluded a special investigation that was supposed to connect the dots. In the face of intense questioning about how they would account for the cluster of killings and seek to ward off such tragedies in the future, Defense Department officials dispatched a 19-member epidemiological team to Fort Bragg to get to the bottom of it all. Staffing the team were behavioral specialists from the Army and the Centers for Disease Control.
In addition to finding that the drug Lariam was probably not a determining factor, the team's investigative report concluded that "marital discord," and family problems exacerbated by the stress of deployment, were the main aggravating factors. The report, Hansen says, "diminishes the violence these women suffer" by failing to pay much attention to victims and their search for security. It likewise fails to look at the factors that make military women especially vulnerable to abuse, which include their financial insecurity as individuals, their geographical and social isolation from family and friends, and, most importantly, their living cheek by jowl with men trained in extreme violence and in the idea of their superiority as men and as soldiers.
The special investigation was just the latest in a long line of commissions established over the course of the many gendered military scandals of the last 15 years, from Tailhook to Aberdeen to the dozens of women cadets raped at the Air Force Academy. Such investigations have neither stemmed the problem nor prompted the military to recognize the fundamental role of gender in crimes like the Fort Bragg killings. This would entail seeing the murders as a piece of the larger, epidemic problem of violent abuse by men within the military, including rape of female (and some male) soldiers and civilians, lesbian and gay bashing, and brutal hazing rituals.
And it would also require much greater involvement and investment in protecting military families. A relatively new Army program provides $900 a month plus health care for the few abused women whose husbands are removed from the force for domestic violence. But Fort Bragg has no domestic violence shelter, though for many years the base was donating a paltry $10 a day to a local shelter when military wives fled there. Tellingly, both enforcement of domestic violence laws and information about such proceedings appear to be woefully inadequate. When domestic violence is confirmed by military authorities, case review committees staffed by officers often recommend such meager "punishments" as anger management or stress reduction courses, or treatment for alcohol abuse. Even severe felony assaults often result in non-judicial sanctions such as demotion or extra work assignments. Of the 1,213 reported domestic violence incidents known to military police and judged to merit disciplinary action in 2000, the military could report only 29 where the perpetrator was court-martialed or sent to a civilian court for prosecution. The military claims to have no data on the disciplinary outcome of the much larger number of domestic incidents -- 12,068 -- reported to family services in that year. They also have no record of the outcome of 81 percent of the police cases.
This poor record-keeping and apparent reluctance to prosecute offenders can be explained in part by the military's institutional interests in burying certain potentially controversial aspects of its domestic violence problem. The first is public relations. To recruit and retain a 1.4 million-person force, including women and married men, remains a monumental task that would only be made harder by widespread knowledge of the extent of the violence. Second, there are financial motives. Each soldier costs more than a hundred thousand dollars to recruit and train, money that goes down the drain if a soldier is discharged or imprisoned. Finally, there is the continuing, if waning, power of a belief, still widespread in the pre-volunteer and mostly unmarried force, that "If the army had wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you one." Protecting women from domestic violence in this environment falls even farther down the list of missions to be accomplished than it does in the civilian sector.
In the aftermath of the tragic string of murders, some attitude and policy shifts have buoyed the hopes of battered women in Fayetteville. Some women who have been trying to get help for years noted there were some at least temporary changes made on post in the wake of the killings, including a greater urgency about sending women to court in town to get protective orders. And both before and since the murders, many women have successfully left their abusive husbands. One of them described how, for the ten years of their marriage, her husband had controlled her through constant belittlement, forbidding her to drive or have a job, and ultimately, through rape and other violence. "I have a lot of hope now," she said. "The people at the Care Center [the domestic violence shelter] were a godsend, and the victim's assistant at the sheriff's department. Those are strong women, and I said, 'I want to be like that.' So now I have a job, I go to school, I'm on the Dean's List."
A few women, their identities protected, testified before a special congressional panel that came to Fayetteville in the fall of 2002. They hold out some hope that through some allies in Congress, and with more of the type of media coverage that stirs national attention -- like a special show that Oprah Winfrey recently did on military domestic violence -- civilian laws and policing practices, at least, will be forced to change. This, they hope, can mitigate future violence, particularly since the military, when it does anything, passes most cases on to the civilian courts. In other ways, however, life in Fayetteville goes on as usual in the months since the murders. Women married to abusive soldiers have been calling the Fayetteville newspaper and domestic violence shelters around the country in sharply higher numbers since the Fort Bragg killings were reported. They have spoken out about the frequent failure of commanders to take their calls for help seriously. And they have complained that they were often sent to military chaplains, some of whom advised them that suffering is a woman's lot or that their husbands were just "working off some excess energy" through violence. One counselor employed at Fort Bragg was quoted in the Washington Post describing how she tells women to prepare their partners returning from deployment for changes they have made in his absence, like cutting their hair short: "He might be thinking about running his hands through that long, luxuriant hair," she said. "Don't surprise your husband."
The difficulties women have in leaving their abusers are well known. Military wives have additional disincentives. The unemployment rate for military wives is extremely high -- hovering around 20 percent for those living at Fort Bragg -- and those who do find employment are often stuck in the minimum wage retail jobs that are the main work available in the satellite economy around most large posts. (That economy, it should be noted, is suffering from even higher unemployment rates in the current recession, a problem exacerbated by the deployments for the Bush administration's war with Iraq. And the recession has also sapped the budgets of many domestic violence shelter and service providers throughout the South.) If military wives report abuse, they risk not only retribution from their husbands, as do women in the civilian world, but loss of their total family income, health care and other benefits, and even their housing and neighbors if their husband is discharged.
The local domestic violence shelter continues to take in the refugee women and children who come to its door. One of the first shelters to be established in North Carolina by a group of feminists, prominently including some wives of soldiers, the Care Center struggles to keep its head above water, particularly given the torrent of people sent there for anger management classes by the courts in lieu of jail time. Virtually every weekday night, from two to four dozen people come for the multi-hour sessions, similar versions of which are also run on post.
The legal system, too, slogs through a high enough volume of cases that there are special domestic violence court sessions each week at the Cumberland County Courthouse. While a number of progressive people work there, including Judge Elizabeth Keever, and a victim's assistance worker, Norma Hall, who accompanies some women through the system, they, too, are overwhelmed with numbers. Some judges still remain disturbingly ambivalent about the seriousness of the problem. One woman described the difficult experience of convincing herself to bring her hospital records, photographs, and other documentation of abuse to court, only to be told by the judge that he was not going to hear her or any of the other 50 domestic violence cases that day. Instead, she and the other women were herded into another room to sign a paper indicating the abuser would plead guilty in exchange for the requirement to take anger management classes, and for waiving their right to a hearing before the judge or a trial.
In other quarters around town, there is defiance or denial. One woman whose husband worked at Fort Bragg with one of the killers reported that his unit had great sympathy for him. "They were all convinced that he was the victim," the woman said, "that she [the murdered wife] started it all." And the Fayetteville business community has responded after reeling from the months of intense media scrutiny -- much of it superficially glancing at the city's main drag of strip joints and tattoo parlors and dismissing the vibrant community beyond them. A recently established booster organization, FYI Fayetteville, will have a "rapid response team" to immediately contest and counteract negative publicity about the city by calling media outlets and arguing the community's attributes.
The people in Fayetteville most affected by these recent events are, of course, the hundreds of battered women still living in daily fear of their partners or ex-partners. Surprisingly, their stories often focus less on the violence itself (though some continue to live with scars, neurological damage, and other permanent signs of their abuse) than on the failures of the Army and others in the community to help them when they sought rescue. Other women noted the stark contrast of the severity with which the military judicial system deals with soldiers who attack and injure other soldiers of equal rank. These women's main refrain, repeated over and over again: "He was never held accountable for what he did to me."
"With Us or Against Us"
The celebration of soldiers over the last several decades, grown more fervent since the war on terror began, has hampered attempts to address the problem by further elevating violent masculinity to a place of honor in the culture. In good times, critical views of military practice are not well received; in the intimidating, "with us or against us" atmosphere fostered by the Bush administration since 9/11, they may be considered tantamount to treason. Hansen, who has received death threats since her foundation appeared in news stories about the murders, notes that some civilian judges have been even more reluctant than before to convict soldiers of domestic violence, when doing so would trigger the Lautenberg amendment, a 1996 law that prohibits convicted abusers from owning firearms.
Wartime, it appears, is the hardest time to take stock of the real causes of military-related domestic violence. The idea that the soldier makes an unrecompensable sacrifice creates a halo effect, so that the murderers are painted as victims of the horrors of combat, while scant attention is paid to the women they killed or the failures of the system to protect them. As Stan Goff, the special operations veteran, told us, soldiers living in this climate can turn to their wives and say, "The culture's worshiping me. Why aren't you?" While they may have provided a wake-up call of sorts, the Fort Bragg murders, and the official response to them, have resulted in little that will change the situation of militarism's hidden casualties: The thousands of women who live in fear -- in wartime and peacetime -- and struggle each day, as Hansen says, "trying to provide for the safety of themselves and their children."
Jon Elliston writes about national security issues in the South and lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. Catherine Lutz is a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and author of Homefront: A Military City and the American 20th Century (Beacon).
Judy Brady has little use for the limelight. Yet, as someone with a lot on her mind, she has much to say about what she terms "the marketing of breast cancer." One of the worst examples, she says, is the Dallas-based Susan G. Komen Foundation and its annual fundraiser, the 5K Race for the Cure.
Now held year-round in 110 U.S. cities and abroad, the festivities offend Brady and the group Toxic Links Coalition. The races, they say, merely focus women on finding a medical cure for breast cancer, and away from environmental conditions causing it, the problems of the uninsured, and political influence of corporations over the average patient.
To drive this point home, Brady and the coalition have, since 1994, helped organize a vocal and visible presence most years at Komen's San Francisco race.
Sometimes leafleting, and sometimes holding up hand-painted signs and banners, they always face stiff competition from the typically uplifting and euphoric Race atmosphere. Up to 1 million participants in 2000 alone were greeted as they crossed the finish line with live music, inspirational speakers and acres of colorfully adorned corporate booths. Pink, the chosen color of the international breast cancer movement, is everywhere, on hats, T-shirts and ribbons. A sense of community and camaraderie pervades the celebration by hundreds, sometimes thousands, of breast cancer survivors and friends of survivors.
"What's missing is the truth," wrote Brady in a Spring 2001 newsletter article for the Women's Cancer Resource Center, a support services center located in Berkeley, Calif. "There's no talk about prevention, except, in terms of lifestyle, your diet for instance. No talk about ways to grow food more safely. No talk about how to curb industrial carcinogens. No talk about contaminated water or global warming."
"I really don't think environmental causes of cancer are acknowledged enough," said Dr. C.W. Jameson of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. "It warrants attention so people can make better, more informed choices, as to where they live or what professions they work in," said Jameson, the director of a biennial report on cancer-causing agents published by the Institute of Environmental Sciences.
Measuring these carcinogenic agents remains difficult despite recent gains. "Measuring levels of contaminants in the environment is getting better," says Dr. Michael McGeehin, director of the CDC National Center for Environmental Health. But proving the correlation between toxins and cancer can take decades from the time of exposure to the time a tumor might develop, he said.
Brady and the coalition are persistent in their message, yet the circle it travels in remains small, especially when compared with that of the Komen Foundation and its founder, Nancy G. Brinker. Now the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, Brinker is the E.F. Hutton of the breast cancer world -- when she speaks anyone who's anyone listens.
Brinker relies on the blockbuster PR value of the 5K Race for the Cure. The year-round calendar of cancer walks that draw grief-stricken yet hopeful patients and their loved ones, along with a fawning media, preserve Brinker and her group's image as being on the side of the average American woman tragically afflicted with breast cancer.
So most people would be shocked to find that the Komen Foundation helped block a meaningful Patients Bill of Rights for the women it has purported to serve since the group began in 1982.
Despite proclaiming herself before a 2001 Congressional panel as a "patient advocate for the past 20 years," demanding access to the best possible medical care for all breast cancer patients, Federal Election Commission records show the Komen Foundation and its allies lobbied against the consumer-friendly version of the Patients Bill of Rights in 1999, 2000 and 2001. Brinker then trumpeted old friend George W. Bush in August 2001 for backing a "strong" Patients' Bill of Rights, while most patient advocates felt betrayed.
Brinker's support of Bush should come as no surprise, since Bush nominated Nancy Brinker for a U.S. Ambassador post just less than one business quarter earlier, at the end of May 2001. The President also no doubt helped toast Brinker's Congressional approval for the Hungary position on Aug. 3, 2001, less than 24 hours after the House version of the Patients' Bill of Rights, dubbed "the HMO bill of rights" by critics, passed on Aug. 2, 2001.
The Left And Right of the Patients Bill of Rights
Spiraling health care costs during the 1980s pushed the issue of patients' rights front and center during the 1992 presidential election. President Clinton tried unsuccessfully to increase coverage for the uninsured and to pass patient-protection legislation. "Since then, managed care reform has been resuscitated time and again on Capitol Hill without much success," according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In 1999, 2000 and 2001, dramatically different versions of the Patients' Bill of Rights were introduced. Critics say that both versions do little to provide universal coverage for the tens of millions of uninsured. "They do not change the perverse incentives that pit economic interests of managed care companies and employers against the health needs of patients, and they do not reduce the huge overhead expenses, many of which are directed toward limiting services," wrote the former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, Marcia Angell, in a New York Times Op-ed piece.
Patient protections proposed in the 2001 Democrat-dominated Senate bill (S. 1052), and the Republican-dominated House bill (H.R. 2563) are nearly identical, but the means of enforcing those rights are a sore spot for both parties. Backers of the Democrat version said a patient's right to appeal an HMO decision was weakened under the House bill because the HMOs control who does the review. Republicans also insist that patients, after exhausting all appeals, head to federal court instead of state court where damage awards tend to be higher. The GOP-backed bill caps damages at $1.5 million, compared to a $5 million cap on the Democrat side. The legislation also blocks class action lawsuits.
It's no accident the Komen side favors the Republicans. A July 12, 2001 agreement between the President and five companies to run a Medicare prescription discount card program for Medicare patients, included a company called Caremark Rx where Nancy Brinker was on the board of directors, according to financial records. Another vendor, Merck-Medco, is one of the many drug companies found in the Komen investment portfolio. (Nancy Brinker resigned all board seats, including Komen, when she was appointed). If approved, the discount cards would provide up to a 10 percent discount on brand-name drugs.
Meanwhile, Democrats called the whole discount card idea "laughable, utterly superficial," according to press reports, since the cards are already widely available and do little to resolve soaring prescription costs, and even costlier medical treatments.
The Komen group relies on longtime Washington lobbyist, Rae F. Evans, a self-described "corporate strategist" with little experience or interest in grassroots advocacy, who also doubles as lobbyist for Nancy Brinker's husband, restaurant magnate and polo champion Norman Brinker, of Brinker International. Norman Brinker made his fortune off restaurants such as Steak & Ale, Chili's, and Bennigan's, and has sat on the Haggar Corporation's board of directors -- along with Rae Evans -- since 1994.
Also on board for Komen's Patient Bill of Rights efforts is Akin-Gump, the fourth largest lobbying firm in the country, whose roster reads like a who's who of anti-health care reformers. Akin-Gump has direct links to the Health Benefits Coalition, industry's leading PAC in the fight to stop a Patients Bill of Rights that would boost patients' rights over their health plans.
This 30-member coalition of insurers, automakers, restaurants and other powerful trade groups presented a united front before Congress, spending millions on lobbying and advertising.
Akin & Gump clients during 1998, 1999 and 2000 included HBC members Cigna Corporation and New York Life Insurance along with Brinker-backed National Restaurant Association, according to FEC records. A&G also boasts a number of insurers, automakers and pharmaceutical firms as clients.
For his part, Norman Brinker, a longtime Komen board member, was a bitter foe of a meaningful Patients' Bill of Rights, through the efforts of both Evans' and the National Restaurant Association. This "other" NRA continually topped anti-PBR lobbying rosters, according to FEC records.
Patient Advocates or "Bush Pioneers?"
Through the years, the Brinkers helped deliver the state of Texas to George W. Bush, for the governor's seat and then the Presidency. Their phenomenal fund-raising skills earned them the moniker of "Bush Pioneers," followed up with committee positions for the Bush Inaugural Ball, which requires a minimum $25,000 donation. On her own steam, Nancy Brinker lists nearly $256,000 in Bush and Republican Party donations, from Bush gubernatorial races, GOP hard and soft money, and federal PAC hard money, according to FEC records.
Rae Evans likewise donated $500 to the Bush for President Campaign in 1999. The result is that lobbyists from Evans & Black and Akin & Gump go in the doors of elected officials as important campaign contributors, not as mere constituents.
Not surprisingly, the Komen Foundation has owned $162,843 in Brinker International stock during 2000, the only year for which records are available. The Foundation also owns stock in several pharmaceutical companies and in General Electric, one of the largest makers of mammogram machines in the world.
At 1998 Food and Drug Administration hearings the Komen Foundation was the only national breast cancer group to endorse the cancer treatment drug tamoxifen as a prevention device for healthy but high-risk women, despite vehement opposition by most other breast cancer groups. Its maker, AstraZeneca, has long been a Komen booster, making educational grants to Komen and having a visible presence at the Race For the Cure. And in 2000, the parent company Zeneca Inc., employed Multinational Business Services, the lobbyist for the anti-PBR group Health Benefits Coalition.
Tamoxifen is one of the most widely used and successful breast cancer treatments today, but groups such as the National Women's Health Network, Breast Cancer Action, Medical Consumers Union and San Francisco activist Marilyn McGregor all issued critical statements at the hearing against approving it to prevent breast cancer. They testified about the drug's troubling links to uterine cancer and the FDA's questionable criteria used to define a woman as high-risk.
Only slightly less surprising is the half-million dollars' worth of stock Nancy Brinker owns in U.S. Oncology, a chain of for-profit treatment centers (on whose board she sat at least from 1999 through 2001, according to company records). U.S. Oncology's lobbying firm of Rose & Hefling is a lobbyist for the Philip Morris tobacco company, according to FEC records. Another lobbyist for U.S. Oncology in 2000, Alison McSlarrow of McSlarrow Consulting, is former Deputy Chief of Staff to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) -- a chief architect of the pro-HMO version of the Patients Bill of Rights.
View from the Trenches
The Komen group's stock portfolios and cozy relationships with Republican leadership set them apart from most breast cancer patient groups. Even the Beltway insiders at the National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC), who played a major role in creating the national research and early screening agenda that sprung up nearly overnight beginning in the early 1990s, are austere in comparison. So when the Patients Bill of Rights compromise bill was announced, the NBCC, among many others, was appalled.
"Late at night, and behind closed doors," read the Coalition's August 2001 press release, "members of Congress rewrote what would have been a strong and enforceable Patients' Bill of Rights, turning it into a sham for patients while continuing to protect HMOs."
According to the same Coalition statement, "The 'compromise' that members of Congress agreed to is worse than current law -- it stacks the deck against patients and inappropriately turns external review into judge and jury. Finally, this sham of a Patients' Bill of Rights makes a cause of action in state court tougher for patients, but easier for HMO's."
"Any corporate ties to a cancer-related industry raises huge credibility issues for a group that is trying to influence public policy," says Sharon Batt, author of a seminal book on the movement, "Patient No More: The Politics of Breast Cancer," and current Chair of Women's Health and the Environment at Canada's Dalhousie University.
"Sitting on corporate boards and organizations that have vested interests in cancer policies is an even higher level of conflict than taking funds: a board member is expected to promote the interests of that corporation," said Batt, who also spoke against tamoxifen at the 1998 FDA hearing.
"Even the NBCC takes money from the pharmaceutical industry, but I doubt (its leaders) sit on corporate boards," a fact confirmed by an NBCC spokeswoman in a recent interview.
San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Action goes one step farther, refusing all donations from corporations that make money off breast cancer such as pharmaceutical companies, tobacco and pesticide manufacturers, and cancer treatment facilities. BCA also launched a campaign to expose similar sponsorship ties inherent in the Avon cosmetic company's fund raising run.
Explained BCA's executive director Barbara Brenner, "With the growing effort by corporations to look like 'good guys' by supporting cancer organizations, it is difficult, if not impossible, to know whether an advocacy organization's positions are based on well thought out policies or on who's paying the bills."
Batt finds Brinker "eerily reminiscent" of an earlier so-called cancer activist, Mary Lasker. "Her husband, the advertising executive Albert Lasker, created the famous cigarette ad, 'Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet.' In the 1940s through the 1960s, Lasker used her business and social connections to transform the American Cancer Society from a small, local charity into the world's richest, most powerful health charity. The ACS became a voice for policies that have made cancer research and early detection into lucrative business ventures with little connection to the welfare of patients or to breast cancer prevention. The Komen Foundation is a reincarnation of the ACS, but specific to breast cancer."
Batt said that one of the dangers of Komen's success is that only messages that don't threaten or embarrass corporations or the Republican Party, get through to the media and Congress.
During the 1990s for example, she said, the NBCC and smaller organizations may have convinced the National Cancer Institute and other government policy makers to begin addressing the health concerns of a more diverse group of women: ethnic minorities, lesbians and the poor. But the power brokers in government and the corporate world still listen most readily to the messages publicized by the high-profile Race for the Cure or, another corporate and Komen darling, the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month each October.
"The problem with those (awareness) programs," said Batt, "is that, unless you also fund treatment for those same women, you don't help them by detecting their cancers earlier; and you perpetuate the emphasis on mammography screening, rather than prevention, better treatment and equitable care."
But it's an uphill battle, she said. "For one thing, the Komen Foundation has had more money. For another they carry friendly, reassuring messages through the media and their own programs, a phenomenon I like to term the 'Rosy Filter,' meaning the public is spoon-fed through a rose-colored lens stories of women waging a heroic battle against the disease, or the newest 'magic bullet.' Yet little light is shed on insurance costs, the environment or conflicts of interest."
Nancy Brinker has reached large audiences by billing herself as an objective patient advocate, and signing as a "medical speaker" for Barber & Associates, a booking agency that handles broadcasters and television experts such as ABC's Dr. Nancy Snyderman, Dr. Bernie Siegel, Dr. Joyce Brothers, and Jane Brody of the New York Times.
The Environmental Disconnect
One topic you'll never catch either of the Brinkers mentioning is the need for a cleaner environment. That might be because the international petrochemical giant Occidental Corp., big Komen boosters and the same folks who brought us Love Canal, donates 4,000 square feet of "glass and marble offices" to Komen on the premises of Occidental's Dallas headquarters.
The petrochemical industry, including Occidental, successfully lobbied in 2000 and 2001 for looser EPA air, water and chemical regulations at the same time government researchers reported auto and industrial emissions caused cancer. In March 2002 alone, the EPA approved a two-year delay of the Clean Air Act rules that would cut toxic emissions from 80,000 industrial sources.
Officially, the Komen group is pro-environment, and joined with a national coalition of cancer and women's groups in late 1999 to demand research on the links between breast cancer and environmental toxins. However, a subsequent Congressional bill, the Breast Cancer and Environmental Research Act, went nowhere fast when it was introduced in May 2001. Komen's lobbyists made little or no effort to fight for the bill or the concepts behind it, according to mid-year 2001 lobbying records filed by Evans & Black and Akin & Gump. Black, along with many Occidental officals, sat in with Brinker, on the Bush Inaugural Committee.
Coincidentally, Occidental lobbyists also spent time in 2001 on the House version of the Patients Bill of Rights. Charles Black, one of Occidental's lobbyists, spouse of Evans & Black's Judy Black, and a leading Republican strategist, is also a consistent lobbyist for Brinker International. Charles Black is a board member of the American Conservative Union, a group that defines pharmaceutical price controls as "a bitter pill for American consumers," and "beating up on the pharmaceutical industry." And Black, along with many Occidental officials, sat in with Nancy Brinker on the Bush inaugural committee.
The American Way?
Komen's political biases and conflicts of interest evade public scrutiny primarily because lobbyists and nonprofits like Komen are required to tell us only a few details of their work. As a Washington consumer group official quipped, "Politicians don't even want to admit talking to lobbyists much less saying which ones they spoke with, or why."
In 2001, for example, Evans & Black listed both Democrat and Republican versions of the Patients Bill of Rights in its disclosure reports; its 1999 and 2000 reports were right out front by listing the Republican version. Likewise, Akin & Gump's 2001 reports show it lobbied "pertaining to" the Senate's more liberal version. As a result it's impossible to prove which version it was lobbying for. But it's also a foregone conclusion, given the Komen's characterization of the GOP-ruled version as "strong," the close and longstanding ties with President Bush and the Republican party, and its vested interests with industry.
Komen lobbyist Rae F. Evans said that she refused to talk about which legislators were approached about the Patients' Bill of Rights and their position on it because it would be "unethical." Moreover, she said, "It's only a problem for journalists."
Komen's freewheeling lobbying is possible because of a little-known exemption written into the U.S. tax code a quarter century ago. In 1976, the nation's nonprofit organizations were granted the right to hire, or go toe-to-toe with, professional lobbyists on Capitol Hill, while maintaining tax-exempt status.
Nonprofits can spend 20 percent of the first $500,000 of annual expenditures on lobbying, 15 percent of the next half-million, and so forth, up to $1 million per year, according to an IRS fact sheet. Spent this way, the entire amount is deductible, allowing the Komen Foundation to emphatically state -- as it has whenever asked -- that it spends "zero dollars" on lobbying.
Can stock ownership, directors' seats, campaign contributions and longstanding business relationships result in any tangible effects on a nonprofit's mission? At best, it's tricky to prove any material conflict of interest, and even a cancer patient-advocacy organization is allowed by law to be right-wing, well-connected and pro-industry. According to Bennett Weiner, Chief Operating Officer of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance, a national charity rating organization, "As long as they fulfill what's described in their mission statement."
In Komen's case, that mission would be to "stop cancer as a life-threatening disease through research, detection and education," according to Komen's statements.
But, Weiner continued, it's wrong for Komen's literature, Web site, and public statements to feature a central figure like Nancy Brinker -- or Norman Brinker for that matter -- while omitting relevant parts of their lives such as seats on boards of private cancer treatment corporations, stock interests, lobbying ties or their political activism as GOP darlings. Weiner said, "If a charity is making recommendations to the public regarding health care among other things, and if they have ties to the industry, then the public needs to be able to objectively use that information."
As it stands now, even the watered-down Patients' Bill of Rights is on life support, after President Bush refused to sign it over lingering liability limitations, unknown at press time, according to a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass), co-sponsor of the Senate's Bipartisan Patient Protection Act. Quiet negotiations with the President still continue. In late June 2002, U.S. Sen. John Edwards (D-North Carolina), released a statement saying, "(I) remain optimistic that negotiations with the White House will produce agreement on meaningful patient protection that Congress could pass this year."
The Foundation denies that it spends money to lobby, and denies that it is solely aligned with the Republican health care and environmental agendas. In a September 2001 letter in response to questions for this article, a Komen spokeswoman defends Norman Brinker as a devoted "volunteer." The Foundation even seemed to distance itself from Nancy Brinker by citing her new post overseas.
Full disclosure could be slow in coming, given the vast tangle of political, business and personal alliances involved. Even a spokesperson in Sen. Edwards office, a staunch defender of a liberal Patients' Bill of Rights, recalls the Komen Foundation as one of his biggest clients at Fleishman-Hillard, the sixth largest PR firm in the world.
As Judy Brady points out, the Komen Foundation, and the Brinkers in particular, represent the systemic corruption of business as usual in a corporate-dominated society. "It would be a mistake to demonize the Komen Foundation," Brady says. "They have the best of intentions and I truly believe that they think they are doing good -- with a capital G.
"What they don't see is that 'business as usual' is why we have cancer."
Mary Ann Swissler is a writer based in New Jersey. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was made possible through financial support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism in Washington, D.C.