Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

Democrats Beat Back Anti-Labor Riders

There’s nothing business-friendly Republicans won’t try in their effort to dismantle organized labor. The recent budget showdown was no exception. However, rather surprisingly, organized labor avoided a shellacking.

“We’re relieved,” says Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO’s director of government affairs. “There was a whole laundry list of rollbacks on worker rights and to the [Department of Labor], and I have to say, we were expecting we wouldn’t be able to stop all of them. All in all, we dodged a bullet.”

Apart from an expansion of the H2-B worker visa program, which will increase the number of foreign workers employed in the U.S., congressional Democrats were able to use their negotiating leverage to beat back nearly all the provisions aimed at workers and organized labor.

Here’s what went well for labor in the massive new budget deal:

After the National Labor Relations Board passed its landmark joint-employer standard a few months ago, which designated parent companies (like McDonald’s) just as responsible for employee-related issues as their franchisees, Republicans went on a crusade to overturn the ruling. A number of GOP members tried to pass a budget rider to defund the NLRB’s ability to enforce the ruling. (Any provisions attached to the budget require just a simple majority in the Senate rather than the 60-vote threshold that all other legislation must surmount.)

Despite intense lobbying on Capitol Hill from groups like the International Franchise Association, Democrats were able to detach the rider from the final budget deal. With little chance of a freestanding legislative repeal getting through the Senate or sustaining a (near-guaranteed) presidential veto, there now are few options to thwart the new standard.

Democrats also killed a rider that would have defunded the Department of Labor’s enforcement power of the fiduciary rule, a labor-backed consumer protection that protects retirement investments.

Additionally, Republicans failed in their attempts to roll back support for the Department of Labor as a whole—as Politico notes, the department’s funding levels actually increased by a small amount and funding for its enforcement agencies remains the same as in 2015.

Meanwhile, as the labor movement continues to fight the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, also spared from budget slashes were government agencies at both the Commerce and Labor Departments that would be responsible for international trade enforcement and compliance.

“The [Department of Commerce’s] Office of Enforcement and Compliance has investigated a historic number of trade cases in recent years, and it’s time they had the resources to continue this important function,” Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown said in a statement. “This bill gives the OEC a funding boost that will ensure that U.S. industries and manufacturers aren’t left waiting for trade enforcement relief.”

Republicans were able, however, to quadruple the controversial H2-B guest-worker visa program, which labor officials say exploits migrants workers and takes jobs from Americans. Buzzfeed recently ran a huge investigation detailing the exploitive nature of the program and impacts it has on workers.

Labor may have dodged most of the bullets in the budget deal, but don’t expect labor’s agenda to see much future success—like raising the minimum wage or mandating paid sick days and family leave—so long as there’s a Republican-controlled Congress. “It’s going to be pretty difficult to build on this,” Samuels says. 

Will the DOJ's Chicago Police Investigation Lead to Real Reform?

Earlier this month the Chicago Police Department joined a growing list of law enforcement agencies around the nation under investigation by the Department of Justice for possible civil rights violations.

The announcement of the Justice probe came on the heels of the November release of a video showing white Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting and killing 17-year-old LaQuan McDonald on October 21, 2014. The Chicago Police Department spent more than a year trying to cover up the shooting. But with the video’s release, Van Dyke is being charged with murder.

Though activists have cheered the Justice Department’s announcement, such investigations can only go so far. Overhauling the nation’s second largest police department will be no easy feat, civil rights advocates say. “The big challenge is going to be the culture within the department and the culture of silence and lying,” says Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project.

Despite conducting a string of investigations the last two decades, Justice officials have yet to take any concrete action. The Department of Justice began investigating law enforcement agencies accused of violating civil rights after the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 granted the agency the power to do so.

Since then, only a handful of police departments have been investigated, including those in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Los Angeles. Despite thorough investigations, complaints about each of these departments have persisted.

The Los Angeles Police Department became the first agency to be investigated by the Justice Department after the widely televised 1991 beating of Rodney King by four white police officers, which triggered riots in L.A.

The department had been plagued with complaints of corruption and misconduct for years and the resulting settlement required federal oversight of the department and a database with information on use of force, officer-involved shootings, complaints, arrest reports, and citations.

However, according to the The Guardian US’s project The Counted, which counts the number of people killed by police, LAPD has killed 20 people this year—more than any other police department.

Since its creation in 1835, the Chicago Police Department has been embroiled in dozens of scandals and allegations of abuse. In the wake of the Lynch’s announcement, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel offered a rare apology and promised change, but Chicagoans have been promised reform before, to no avail.

“There’s no doubt that this is an organization that’s resistant to change,” says the University of Chicago Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project’s founder Craig Futterman. But he stresses that community involvement is necessary if the Chicago Police Department is truly going to change. “If folks who are most deeply impacted are excluded from the process, they may not actually get to the core nature of the problem.”

Still, with or without community involvement, spurring reform from a DOJ investigation will be a herculean task. In Cleveland, a department with 1,500 officers took 18 months to complete. Chicago’s force is almost ten times that size with 12,000 officers.

One reason the Department of Justice has investigated so few police departments is a lack of resources. An investigation could be lengthy as well as extremely costly.

Like other urban police departments, the Chicago Police Department has been accused of excessive force, corruption, misconduct, brutality, racial profiling, and more.

A 2014 report by the We Charge Genocide coalition, a Chicago-based grassroots initiative, highlights some of the department’s brutality with cold statistics. Black Chicagoans, for example, are ten times more like to be shot by a police officer than white city residents. The report found that out of 1,509 excessive force complaints, only 2 percent resulted in any kind of penalty.

It’s an open question whether this latest Justice Department action will lead to changes in Chicago policing. In 2004, the Cleveland Police Department agreed to reforms after a DOJ investigation. Eight years later white police officer Michael Brelo fired 137 bullets into a car occupied by two unarmed black people.

The Brelo shooting caused the Department of Justice to launch another investigation into the patterns and practices of the department and release its findings a few weeks after 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by a white police officer while playing in a park with a toy gun. The Cleveland Police Department agreed to another settlement with the Justice Department in May.

The Chicago probes comes at a time of increasing public skepticism of law enforcement officers and more and more Americans are demanding policing reform nationwide.

The Justice Department investigation announcement has drawn ambivalent reactions in the civil rights community. Some voice optimism that the probe will lead to reforms. Others aren’t so sure. “I think between the police union and the rank-and-file officers and management there will be obstruction at every level,” says Siska.

Spending Bill Spares Planned Parenthood

Despite months of Republican threats and political bluster, a recently-unveiled $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill that will fund the government until October 2016 includes no cuts to Planned Parenthood’s federal funding or to abortion access.

The deal follows weeks of hostile negotiations on Capitol Hill. At stake were funds not only for Planned Parenthood, but also for sex education and family planning programs. Conservatives on Capitol Hill had also proposed additional abortion restrictions. (Earlier this month, House Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, of Illinois, had said “all hell will break loose” if Republicans tried to cram anti-abortion language into the final bill.)

While it’s a good bill, women’s reproductive health advocates said, it’s not a perfect bill.

“This fight isn’t over — we still need to work to make sure women’s access to health care is protected,” said Dana Singiser, vice president of public policy for Planned Parent Action Fund, in a statement released today. “The need for family planning and teen pregnancy investments is far greater than the investments in the FY16 spending bill—over 4 million women and men nationwide rely on Title X, the nation’s family planning program, for access to essential care like birth control and cancer screenings; and thanks in part to the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program, teen pregnancy is at historic lows in America.”

Singiser also said the government should increase investments in “good programs that work” rather than allowing “progress [to] flatline.” Specifically, she pointed to a small cut to the United National Population Fund, a UN family planning agency, and argued this will have a harmful impact on women’s health around the world.

Heritage Action for America, the advocacy arm of the influential conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, has been calling upon Republicans to oppose any spending bill that does not include a rider to defund Planned Parenthood. The group is now lobbying lawmakers to vote “no” on the overall bill, which both the House and the Senate are expected to pass by the end of the week. Republicans may have been responding to public polls showing broad support for reproductive health, even amid recent GOP attacks on Planned Parenthood and its allies.

A new national poll released this month found  nearly 60 percent of Americans oppose cutting off federal funds for Planned Parenthood.

Koch Campaign Strains Criminal Justice Coalition

Until recently, progressives have largely embraced the involvement of the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch in the push for criminal justice reform, including changes in mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Before conservative activists embraced the issue, the crisis of mass incarceration had largely languished on the back burner. But the involvement of the Kochs and an unusual left-right coalition of conservative and liberal activists helped push sentencing reforms to the front burner on Capitol Hill.

But now progressives are looking at the Kochs’ involvement with a more skeptical eye. A House bill introduced last month by Representative James Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, includes a provision that critics say would undermine corporate criminal prosecutions by requiring proof that a defendant knew his or her actions were illegal in order to be found guilty.

Known as “mens rea” in legal parlance, the provision would make it harder for prosecutors to prove corporate wrongdoing. Conservatives say the provision could prevent “morally blameless individuals and entities” from being burdened with criminal convictions for life. But critics on the left say it just raises the bar for prosecuting white-collar crimes—like the ones such corporate titans as the Kochs might be accused of.

Last month the House introduced a measure that addressed criminal justice reforms. Sensenbrenner’s Criminal Code Improvement Act of 2015 includes a provision that some say undermines corporate criminal prosecution by requiring prosecutors to prove that the defendant knows the law, or that a reasonable person would, and that the crime was committed knowingly.

“They absolutely do want that corporate crime provision,” says Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen. “According to them, it’s good policy.” Public Citizen put out a statement last month criticizing the provision saying that it, “aims to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, in a vehicle where it doesn’t belong.”

The controversy has been threatening to unravel the left-right coalition that has rallied behind criminal justice reform, which includes such players as the ACLU and the Open Society Foundation on the left, and Right on Crime and Heritage Foundation on the right. But in a confidential meeting last week, the >Washington Post has disclosed, Koch Industries representatives agreed that the provision should be dropped if it jeopardizes the criminal justice overhaul. They have said that they support the Senate version of the criminal justice legislation, which does not include the mens rea provision.

Whatever the outcome, the mens rea fight also raises an important question: Are the Koch brothers motivated by self-interest or compassion when it comes to criminal justice reform?

The Kochs and their conservative allies say the issue is one of fiscal responsibility and personal freedom. They argue that it costs too much to imprison so many people and the government shouldn’t be punishing citizens for low-level and victimless crimes.

But the Kochs have personal reasons for getting involved, too. Charles and David Kochs’ fight for criminal justice reform began in the 1990s, when the Justice Department filed a criminal case against Koch Industries claiming that the company covered up the release of hazardous air pollution at oil refinery in Texas, in violation of the Clean Air Act.

Koch Industries pleaded guilty and paid a $20 million penalty. According to Koch Industries’ general counsel and senior vice president, Mark Holden, the Koch brothers had no criminal intent—but the Justice Department still pursued the case anyway. The Department of Justice denied that the case against Koch Industries was groundless. The provision at issue in Sensenbrenner’s bill, known as the Criminal Code Improvement Act, directly addresses these kinds of cases.

Nevertheless, Holden has said that Koch Industries would still support the bill even if the corporate criminal provision were excluded.

And organizers at the Charles Koch Institute, the leading Koch-linked entity working on the criminal justice issue, say they are committed to reforming the justice system. “No matter which bill or bills are considered,” says Vikrant P. Reddy, who is a senior research fellow at the institute, “it is essential that our country grapple with the deep, systemic flaws in the criminal justice system.”

Todd Cox, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress who focuses on criminal justice reform, remains hopeful and says he expects the bill to move forward—without the mens rea provision. To Cox, criminal justice reform is about tackling our mass incarceration problem. “You don’t need that provision in order to reform criminal justice,” he says.

For all the strains the mens rea fight has introduced, Weissman, for one, is prepared to give the Kochs the benefit of the doubt. He says he doesn’t believe that the Koch brothers are disingenuous in their crusade against mass incarceration.

“There’s no reason to believe they don’t,” he says. “They just also believe in helping corporate criminals get off the hook."

This story has been updated.

Report: Nation's Wealth Gap Wider Than Believed

Over the past few months, Bernie Sanders has repeatedly declared that the top one-tenth of 1 percent of U.S. earners own nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That claim has drawn the skeptical scrutiny of PolitiFact, which attributed it to a study by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman late last year. PolitiFact’s verdict: Mostly True.

But a new study released Wednesday by the Institute for Policy Studies shows that Sanders is spot on—and that he may even be underestimating the nation’s yawning wealth gap. Not only do the top one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans own more than most Americans put together, but the nation’s top 20 richest people own as much wealth as the entire bottom half of U.S. earners. That’s a sliver about 15,000 times smaller than the already superrich one-tenth of 1 percent.

Put another way, the 20 individuals who possess more wealth between them than 152 million Americans can fit together comfortably inside one Gulfstream G650 luxury jet. And just who are these 20? Not surprisingly, the list includes the likes of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates; billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch; casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett.

Konstantin von Wedelstaedt/Public Domain

A Gulfstream G650 about to land. 

“It’s a stunner,” says the study’s coauthor Chuck Collins, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank. “I think people haven’t fully connected the dots until now.”

While previous studies, like the Saez-Zucman paper that bolsters Sanders’ claims, have used Federal Reserve data on household wealth to explore stratification, Wednesday’s report for the first time compares those figures with a much smaller group, namely the Fortune 400 annual list of the wealthiest Americans. That group has a combined net worth of $2.34 trillion, the study found, more than a full 62 percent of Americans—more also than the nation’s entire black population.

But staggering as they are, these figures still don’t paint the full picture, says Collins. That’s because they only represent taxable wealth that is not held in offshore accounts or siphoned through complex tax loopholes. According to a separate study published earlier this year by the Boston Consulting Group, offshore tax havens represent as much as $10 trillion globally, with as much as one quarter of that held by individual Americans. That pool of secret wealth accounts for $200 billion in lost tax revenue every year, while another $100 billion is lost through such complex loopholes as the Grantor Retained Annuity Trust, a financial instrument that allows wealthy families to avoid gift taxes on large estates.

“It may be that we’re only seeing half the wealth,” says Collins. Moreover, he adds, publicly disclosed wealth is shrinking while undisclosed offshore assets expand: “Going forward, more of this wealth is going to vanish into these tax havens and trusts beyond the reach of any kind of reporting.”

Part of the study’s purpose, says Collins, is to put the debate over wealth inequality into a larger context. While such issues as the minimum wage and student debt tend to dominate the debate, other more arcane forces that concentrate wealth, such as  tax avoidance and antitrust policies, draw less notice.

“It’s harder for the media to talk about those issues,” says Collins. “Part of our motivation for this study is to say we can raise the floor but we have to tackle these concentrations of wealth or they will continue to distort the democratic process.”

The Colorado Shooting and the Recent Rise in Anti-Abortion Violence

On Friday, November 27th Robert Lewis Dear, a 57-year-old white man, entered a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs and opened fire. It took more than five hours for Dear to surrender to the police, and when he did, the police found nine injured, and three killed, including one police officer. The following night, The Washington Post reported that when discussing his motives for the shooting, Dear said, “no more baby parts”—a reference to the highly-edited videos released this summer by an anti-abortion group. The videos purported to show Planned Parenthood selling “baby parts” illegally. Though they were discredited, the videos energized the pro-life movement nonetheless.

Abortion providers have always been subject to threats and harassment, but observers agree there’s been an uptick in such provocation over the past several months. In September, the FBI released an Intelligence Assessment that reported an increase in the number of cyber attacks and incidents of arson on abortion clinics. The FBI predicted, “it is likely criminal or suspicious incidents will continue to be directed against reproductive health care providers, their staff and facilities.” More serious attacks have indeed continued in the wake of the FBI report.

“The escalation has been alarming and frightening, to the extent of nothing I have seen in 20 years,” Vicki Saporta, the president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, told The Nation. Some critics have alleged that these incidents are mere anomalies, and do not represent any kind of systemic pattern within or inspired by the anti-abortion movement. In response, feminist activist Michelle Kinsey Bruns began tweeting a list of 100 violent attacks on abortion clinics over the past 40 years, with the hashtag #is100enough.

NARAL Pro-Choice America has been pushing the Obama administration to launch an investigation into these clinic attacks, and will be delivering a petition with more than 60,000 signatures this week to the Department of Justice.

The Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic reopened the day after the attack. Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, sent an email out that day declaring, “We will never, ever back away from providing safe, reliable care to the millions of patients who are counting on us to be there. These doors stay open, no matter what.” While she acknowledged concerns that anti-abortion extremists are “creating a poisonous environment that feeds domestic terrorism” she made clear that Planned Parenthood’s commitment to providing care has not wavered.

When reports first emerged that there might be an attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, some conservatives tried to argue that the shooter was actually targeting a bank, and pro-choice activists were just being conspiratorial. As ThinkProgress reported, “Initially, when police officers were involved in a stand-off with Dear and information about the event was murky, early reports from Fox News quoted a witness who suggested that the first shots were fired from a bank. The anti-abortion website LifeNews picked up that story, spurring the bank robbery narrative.”

Anti-abortion groups have since moved to publicly distance themselves from the Colorado shootings, insisting that Deal’s attacks do not represent the values of their movement. But many pro-choice activists have argued that such rhetoric rings hollow, given the pro-life movement’s support for Planned Parenthood harassment.

It took Republican presidential candidates several days to condemn the attacks. However Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, and Donald Trump still doubled down on Sunday with rhetoric that Planned Parenthood sells “baby parts.”

This week, Senate Republicans are expected to vote on a bill that includes a measure to defund Planned Parenthood. The bill is "fast-tracked"—meaning Republicans only need 51 votes, as opposed to the 60-vote hurdle Senate Democrats could have normally imposed. Democrats are expected to tie the upcoming vote to the recent Planned Parenthood shooting, and President Obama will surely veto the bill if it passes.

Pro-choice activists are mobilizing to fight back. Tonight, Reproaction, a reproductive rights group, will be holding a vigil outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., to honor the victims and to call “for an end to anti-abortion terrorism and harassment.”

Report: Gender Wage Gap Shrinks Because Men Earn Less

The wage gap between men and women is finally starting to close—but only because male wages are falling, according to a new briefing paper released Tuesday by the Economic Policy Institute.

“No one in this country should work full-time and live in poverty,” said Massachsetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren at a Capitol Hill press conference to release the report, which sets forth a policy agenda for both closing the gender wage gap and boosting bargaining power for low- and moderate-income workers. Also on hand were House Democrat Rosa DeLauro, of Connecticut, and labor organizers with the AFL-CIO and the SEIU.

Dubbed “Closing the Pay Gap and Beyond,” the EPI white paper and manifesto found that despite a shrinking gender wage gap, wage gains have remained stagnant over the last decade. In 1979, median hourly earnings for women were 62.7 percent of men’s hourly wages. That gap narrowed in the two decades that followed, but since 2000 it has hovered in the 80 percent rage. In 2014, women’s median hourly earnings were 82.9 percent of men’s.

The wage gap is more severe for women of color, the report found. On average, white female workers make 81.8 percent of a man’s hourly wage, compared to 65.1 percent for black women and 58.9 percent for Hispanic women.

“The problem we have is not just in one little area or one specific group,” said Warren. “This is across education levels, this is across occupations, this is across income levels [where] women are persistently paid less than men.”

The EPI paper spells out out a dozen policies aimed at closing the gender wage gap by promoting broad-based wage growth across the board. These include increasing the minimum wage, restoring collective-bargaining rights, and expanding access to paid family and sick leave.

Raising the minimum wage is of particular importance to women, the report argues, because women make up the majority of the largest low-wage professions, which include child-care work, cashiers, bartenders, and food preparers.

Participants, who included AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler and SEIU Executive Vice President Rocio Saenz, also spelled out a political strategy to achieve their goals. Tuesday’s event came just a week after a string of nationwide strikes by Fight for $15, the minimum wage campaign organized and partly underwritten by the SEIU. The campaign has been credited with local victories in Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco and state-level proposals and executive orders in California, New York, and Oregon.    

“The commitment to continue building this movement will stay all the way to 2016, from the streets to the ballot box,” declared Saez.

The report also found that productivity and wages, which grew in tandem from the middle of the last century until the mid-1970s, are no longer linked. Between 1979 and 2014, productivity grew 62.7 percent, while hourly compensation only grew 8 percent.

Interestingly, though, the only earnings gains in that time period were for women. While white women saw a 30.2 percent increase in hourly median wages, between 1979 and 2014, white men saw their wages shrink by 3.1 percent, according to the report. And while black women saw a more modest increase of 12.8 percent, black men saw an alarming 9.8 percent wage decrease.

“The truth is that the policy agenda we’ve outlined is good for women and men,” said Valerie Wilson, Director of EPI’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy.

The report estimates that 40 percent of the progress made in closing the wage gap since 1979 was due to men’s falling wages.

“It didn’t have to be this way and it doesn’t have to be that way moving forward,” said Elise Gould, an EPI senior economist who coauthored the paper. “It’s clear that gender wage parity does not improve women’s economic prospects to the greatest possible extent if wages for men and women remain equal, but stagnant into the future.”

It remains to be seen whether calls for a minimum wage increase, for one, will translate into policy action. Though Saenz stressed the importance of a higher minimum wage, the SEIU recently announced its support for Hillary Clinton, who has demurred from supporting a federal minimum wage of $15, instead advocating for $12. This move and other Clinton endorsements by large unions have caused some consternation among rank-and-file members. 

Republicans Call Bernie Sanders Absurd for Agreeing with the Pentagon

During last Saturday’s Democratic debate on CBS, the moderator asked Bernie Sanders if he still believed that climate change is the greatest threat to national security—and he said yes. Republican senators scoffed at his claim that climate change could lead to destabilization and more terrorism, calling it “unrelated,” “disingenuous,” and even “absurd.” But what the GOP fails to realize is that even the Pentagon has acknowledged the very real threat climate change poses to our security.

The 2014 Department of Defense Climate Change Adaptation Road Map report details all the ways our changing climate will impact international conflict and military operations. Sea level rise and more extreme weather events will exacerbate ongoing global conflicts. The effects of climate change will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic diseases, as well as disputes over refugees and dwindling resources.

The Pentagon report does not just allude to terrorism—it mentions it by name:

“We refer to climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today—from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.”

The report goes on to explain how climate change could topple fragile governments by creating an environment that fosters extreme ideologies and terrorism.

But Republicans on Tuesday (the same day the Senate voted to undo President Obama’s power-plant regulations) treated Sanders as if he had made a ludicrous claim. “There is a ballot initiative in Arizona concerning the substance that he must have been consuming,” Senator John McCain said, referring to a measure that would legalize marijuana.

The people at the Defense Department must have had a great time writing that report.

The Koch Brothers' Political Surveillance

Just how influential are the Koch brothers? It’s common knowledge that the billionaire industrialists have funneled hundreds of millions into American elections via a broad network of conservative tax-exempt groups. The Koch network’s estimated $889 million budget for the 2016 election rivals what will be spent by the national political party committees. 

But the true scope and aggressiveness of the Koch political operation is only now coming to light, thanks to a series of investigations by Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel. Most recently, Vogel has pulled the curtain back on a vast conservative surveillance network that uses “competitive intelligence” to target liberal groups. In the context of the questions bubbling up over stepped-up government surveillance in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, the news that the Kochs are running what amounts to a a sophisticated private sector intelligence agency  is sure to raise eyebrows. 

As Vogel reports:

The competitive intelligence team has a staff of 25, including one former CIA analyst, and operates from one of the non-descript Koch network offices clustered near the Courthouse metro stop in suburban Arlington, Va. It has provided network officials with documents detailing confidential voter-mobilization plans by major Democrat-aligned groups. It also sends regular “intelligence briefing” emails tracking the canvassing, phone-banking and voter-registration efforts of labor unions, environmental groups and their allies, according to documents reviewed by POLITICO and interviews with a half-dozen sources with knowledge of the group.

The story comes on the heels of two prior reports that paint the most detailed picture yet of the Kochs’ shadowy, free-market movement. On Tuesday, Politico provided fresh details about the Kochs’ political influence in 2014. That piece casts the Kochs as a political ATM of sorts for such conservative groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Club for Growth, and the National Rifle Association, reportedly doling out $88 million in grants to these and other right-leaning groups. Much of that money boosted conservative primary candidates running against opponents who were backed by the Republican Party establishment.

As the Kochs and their allies gear up to spend record sums in 2016, both Democrats and Republicans will be watching. Charles Koch recently announced that he will not back a Republican in the GOP primary. But the Koch network’s general election spending is set to break records. The latest Koch disclosures send a signal to Democratic donors that they had better be ready. They also suggest that liberal activists had better be on their guard. 

Casino Capitalism, Part II

In olden times, when you read about the Nevada Gaming Commission looking into the ownership of Las Vegas casinos, the story was always about the commissioners sniffing around for evidence of organized crime’s hidden interests. As anyone who’s watched Martin Scorsese’s Casino (which sticks fairly close to Vegas’s actual history) can attest, the Mafia families that owned the hotel-casinos on the Vegas Strip had to find fronts—obliging attorneys, developers and the like—to serve as the ostensible owners and executives for the Sands, the Flamingo, the Stardust, the Tropicana, and so on. The agreed-upon fiction was that by enforcing a rule that convicted felons could have no role in owning or running the gaming tables, the Commission would keep Vegas clean.

Today, the Mafia is more a memory than a going concern, and its control of Vegas has long since ended. Recently, however, the Commission has been asked to look into the ownership of some Vegas casinos by a new shady character: the global financial behemoth Deutsche Bank. The Vegas local of UNITE HERE, the hotel workers union—a local I profiled for the Prospect back in 2004—has asked the Commission to determine whether Germany’s largest bank is a suitable owner for the city’s Station Casinos, a company that has thwarted its employees’ attempts to unionize, and in which DB has a 25 percent ownership share. As the union’s complaint correctly notes, DB paid a $2.5 billion fine this spring for its role in illegally manipulating the LIBOR interest rate on inter-bank loans to its own advantage and to the detriment of virtually everyone else. Its co-CEOs were compelled to resign as a result of the scandal. 

Out goes the Mafia, in come the banks. Won’t Vegas ever clean up its act?

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