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A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Local officials coping with huge FOI request

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., July 28, 29 or 30

Township and municipal officials statewide are trying to comply with Illinois’ law on providing past public records to a Chicagoland Republican with connections to Tea Party groups while coping with a lack of staff or the type of material requested.

In a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, Adam Andrjewski wants to see all expenditure records going back to 2008.

“Two weeks ago we sent 7,000 Freedom of Information Act requests to every unit of government in the state,” Andrjewski said. “We want six years of line-by-line checkbook spending.”

His web site, openthebooks.com, has years of salary and pension details, said Andrjewski. “The cataloging is going to take a while, but my team already has received 4,000 productions, about 200 million lines of information.”

Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides citizens the right to access government documents and records. Its premise is that people have the right to know what government is doing. Public bodies must respond to a FOIA request within five business days after receiving the request, and they must provide at no charge the first 50 pages of black and white, letter or legal-sized photocopies. Additional pages can cost no more than 15 cents a page; for color copies or abnormal-size copies, public bodies can charge requestors their actual costs.

“I do maintain a spreadsheet which lists all of our expenditures, but not in the form they requested,” said Steve Garnett, Supervisor of Jubilee Township in Peoria County. “We do not maintain as much detail as they requested. Some of the requests are clearly with the intent of being burdensome as opposed to having a real need of the information.”

Andrzejewski describes his organization, For the Good of Illinois, as a watchdog group, and an allied outfit, American Transparency, as a non-partisan charity. But in 2010 he was a Republican candidate for governor endorsed by Rush Limbaugh, finishing fifth with 14.4 percent of the vote.

He isn’t seeking political office this year, he’s noted.

Andrzejewski also is an occasional speaker at Chicagoland Tea Party events who reportedly supports the death penalty and “Right to Work” laws prohibiting unions from collecting dues from workers they represent, and opposes environmental regulations, stem-cell research, abortion and gay rights. Since 2010 he’s supported Republicans John Bambenek, Cedra Crenshaw, Brad Halbrook, Dwight Kay, Sam McCann and Kyle McCarter in statewide races, but no Democrats. However, in April he told Hinsdale magazine that the Open the Books project won’t play party favorites.

“Whether they have ‘R’s’ or ‘D’s’ behind their names doesn’t matter to us,” he said. “If you are coddling taxpayer abuse, waste, corruption, we come after you.”

His For the Good of Illinois web site recently has criticized various Democrats and also Hinsdale Republican Congressman Peter Roskam, who was opposed by Tea Party activists in an unsuccessful June bid to be House Whip after the resignation of U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

“The goal is to post online every dime taxed and spent by every unit of government,” Andrzejewski said. “The information could be used by competitive candidates, watchdogs, different units of government to see what others are doing, vendors to see how they might be more competitive – any and all people.”

In Springfield, the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access hotline, which helps public bodies and FOI requestors alike, said they’re aware of the massive request.

“We have received calls,” said a staffer who spoke on the condition no name be used. “People are trying to find a way to deal with it. They’re not required to transmit electronic copies if they don’t have them. It can be unduly burdensome.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Quinn on June 27 vetoed a measure that would’ve limited everyday citizens’ ability to file FOI requests, charging more for filing requests for large documents or for multiple requests in a short period of time.

“House Bill 3796 is a bill that reduces government transparency by limiting the ability of citizens to seek public records,” Quinn said. “The bill as proposed would slow down the process for individuals who lack electronic means to request or obtain information.”

Garnett, in rural Peoria, expressed frustration at meeting demands with inadequate resources.

“We have no choice but to comply even though we have no staff,” he said. “As a result, the burden usually falls on me with the assistance of the attorney. Her time is, of course, an expense. I figure my salary is barely minimum wage even without the FOIA, so massive FOIA requests are a definite burden and a big concern. If it becomes too burdensome I might have to resign.”

[PICTURED: Andrzejewski at a FreedomWorks event in Schaumburg in 2012, from http://forthegoodofillinoispac.com]

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Politicians’ illusions add insult to injury

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., July 24, 25 or 26

Progressives and conservatives alike should be outraged at the bipartisan stonewalling and slights that last week culminated in the Illinois Green Party having to file a federal lawsuit about ballot access.

The Greens – whose 29,707 Illinois voter signatures on a petition to be on the November ballot are being challenged – are fighting back. They’re disputing the constitutionality of the whole process of ballot-access petitions being challenged; plus Illinois’ unique law requiring newly qualified political parties to run a full slate in the unit of government where a candidate seeks office (county, state, etc. ), unlike Republicans or Democrats; plus the mandate of petitions being notarized, a burdensome task that discourages or makes difficult the grassroots effort.

Peorian Sheldon Schafer, the Greens’ candidate for Secretary of State who personally collected 3,246 of the party’s signatures – in a prepared statement said, “Rather than fight the Democratic Machine and the State Board of Elections on their own terms, we’ve decided to fight back by attacking the fundamental problem – the election code itself.

“Our fight isn’t just for our party or even our party’s values,” the statement continued, alluding to parties such as the Libertarians that also are affected. “We’re building multi-party democracy in the United States and right here in Illinois.”

The suit comes on the heels of last month’s decision by Cook County Judge Mary Mikva ruling against ballot questions about term limits for elected officials and about a better way to re-district when populations change.

The Yes for Independent Maps re-districting folks essentially surrendered, planning for another try in a future election; the term-limit movement may appeal Mikva’s ruling, a pricey proposition, but it’s backed by millionaire Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner.

“We have been burdened with these unfair requirements for years,” said the Green Party’s Rita Maniotis of Berwyn, who herself collected more than 4,000 signatures, “and are forced to seek relief in the courts from rules meant to exclude third parties.”

Green Party lawyer Chris Kruger of Evanston said, “Our argument is solid and based on substantial federal case law. We shouldn’t have to go to federal court to fight for basic democratic rights, but this is Illinois.”

Indeed, while everyday Illinoisans gathered, signed and presented the petitions of thousands of their neighbors, the legislature and/or Gov. Quinn shamelessly added a few non-binding questions to the ballot. The “advisory” questions are about voter suppression, victims’ rights, a minimum wage increase, access to birth control as part of health insurance and a 3-percent tax on millionaires earmarked for schools.

Ordinary people must present 250,000 signatures and stand up to time-consuming challenges through the State Board of Elections to have citizen initiatives appear on ballots. However, the legislature needs just to pass a resolution in each house of the General Assembly and get the Governor’s signature to ask voters whether they’re against lynch law or support Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, etc.

House Speaker Mike Madigan and the majority Democrats – as well as GOP power brokers who envision a return to power (despite Rauner’s involvement in the term-limit drive) – oppose letting voters decide on re-districting and term limits. As far as the meaningless advisory questions, Democrats seem to seek to entice the Democratic base to turn out AND to attempt to appease disgruntled supporters through virtually meaningless gestures.

All of it shows profound disrespect for voters and devotion to politicians’ power, now and in the future.

Green gubernatorial candidate Scott Summers said, “Voters want to see more than just one or two candidates on their ballots. My campaign and this lawsuit challenge the election laws that choke off choice.”

Instead of elected officials worrying more about their power, prestige and position – instead of going through the “advisory” motions of action – they should do something and worry about their constituents.

Unless they are – and concern about genuine voter involvement is rising to the panic level, requiring illusory gimmicks like non-binding queries.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

TV westerns offer myths, heroes, certainties

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., July 21, 22 or 23

After years of my late mom teasing me about asking – as a four year old – why TV never showed Hopalong Cassidy going to the bathroom, I realized I’d eventually accepted and embraced cowboy fantasies instead of Western facts.

This week, west-central Illinois actor and TV host James Wilhelm (from WTVP-TV 47’s “Illinois Adventures”) appears at the Apollo Theater in downtown Peoria in a one-man show, “Wyatt Earp: My Side of The Story” at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 Sunday afternoon.

Also this week, a six-part docudrama series titled “Gunslingers” premiered on the American Heroes Channel (formerly the Military Channel), airing at 9 Sunday nights, repeating at midnight those nights and available in some form online.

Both shows stress the historical truth and “real story” behind the icons we’re familiar with.

Again, I now prefer the myths – just as I’d rather read various adventures about King Arthur and his Round Table, Ulysses or samurai, pirates or Vikings, and “1001 Arabian Nights” or assorted Native American warriors – and even “Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars” and Peorian Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riverworld” stories – to pedestrian tales of primitive bowmen, Dark Ages kings, ruthless barbarians, etc.

Escape? Maybe, although the feeling of sanctuary comes closer to the feeling.

"Gunslingers” tries to immerse viewers in the real backgrounds of historic figures and their conflicts, and is an ambitious, interesting undertaking. Besides Sunday’s episode (“Wyatt Earp: The Tombstone Vendetta”) the series will focus on “Billy the Kid: The Phantom of Lincoln County” (July 27), “Jesse James: The South's Last Rebel” (Aug. 3), “Wild Bill Hickok: Marksman – and Marked Man” (Aug. 10), “John Wesley Hardin: The Dark Heart of Texas” (Aug. 17), and “Tom Horn: Grim Reaper of the Rockies” (Aug. 24).

Similarly, Wilhelm is sure to recount Wyatt Earp’s roots in Monmouth, run-ins with the law in Peoria, and more mundane, if entertaining, experiences in Henry, Beardstown and, yes, the Wild West.

Westerns are one of a handful of genuine American contributions to popular culture, including jazz and rock ’n’ roll, comic books and Hollywood. But when TV expanded in the early 1950s, singing cowboys and dance-hall girls (who rarely danced), rustlers and ranchers, railroad crooks and horse thieves, outlaws and lawmen, gunmen and gamblers, Apache renegades and Sioux braves all filled the country’s living-room screens.

Local stations got in on the act; Quincy TV had afternoon kids-show hosts Sagebrush Sandy and Cactus Jim.

After dime novels, movies first lay the groundwork, of course, from Bronco Billy, William S. Hart and Tom Mix to Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Randolph Scott. Personal cinema favorites: “High Noon,” “The Searchers” and “Shane,” plus director John Ford’s classic “cavalry trilogy”: “Fort Apache,” “Rio Grande” and “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon.”

But television is where westerns really found their audience, young and old, and rode – spurs flashing – into my heart. There they remain, as I retreat to the refuge of stark contrasts of black-and-white TV’s depiction of good and evil. Occasionally, I start to watch “Stagecoach” or “Red River” or hour-long episodes of “Cheyenne,” “Maverick” or “Rawhide,” but I long for faster action, simpler plots, sheriffs and marshals triumphing over corrupt bankers or arrogant wagon masters.

The half-hour programs are the best: “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” and “Bat Masterson,” “Lawman” and “The Rifleman,” “Have Gun, Will Travel” and “Marshall Dillon,” “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” and “The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok,” “The Lone Ranger” and “The Range Rider,” “Buffalo Bill Jr.” and “Broken Arrow,” “Yancy Derringer” and “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” and “Tales of Wells Fargo” and “The Rebel” …

There are contradictions, sure. They’re wholesome yet violent, idealistic but crude, a bit too “male, pale and stale” for contemporary audiences, although somehow universal.

More than anything except family and church, TV westerns provide me a comfort zone, a fantasy with certainty, like Camelot with Galahad and Uruk with Gilgamesh.

Myths of heroes overcoming the odds remain more desirable than ordinary guys with feet of clay and hearts of stone.

A 19th century journalist said it best in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” – “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Happy trails!

[PICTURED: Quincy TV's afternoon kids show host Cactus Jim, played by Dick Moore.]

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Due process targeted along with teachers

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., July 17, 18 or 19

A lot of attention is understandably being paid to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent “Harris v. Quinn” ruling, which eliminated agency-fee arrangements for Illinois’ home health care workers who benefit from union representation but don’t want to contribute to collective bargaining.

However, an earlier court decision that hurts labor – especially teachers – shouldn’t be overlooked.

“Vergara v. State of California” undermines the fundamental principle of the presumption of innocence.

True, “presumption of innocence” isn’t exactly in the U.S. Constitution.

In fact, guarantees spelled out there don’t even exist in workplaces – unless a union contract establishes rights such as due process.

But now, after a stunning June 10 court ruling in California, the presumption of innocence and due process may not be allowed even in collective bargaining agreements.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down teacher tenure, layoff rules, seniority and other employment-related provisions as unconstitutional, opening up the possibility of retaliation against educators and a move to privatize public education. The decision is being appealed.

The case was brought by corporate special interests that seek to blame teachers, not inequitable funding or other factors that affect children's ability to learn, according to teachers unions.

Treu claimed that he believes that due process is essential, but he ruled California’s protections for teachers unconstitutional because he believes two years is not long enough for probation.

“This lawsuit was never about helping students,” the NEA said, “but is yet another attempt by millionaires and corporate special interests to undermine the teaching profession and push their own ideological agenda on public schools and students while working to privatize public education. Research shows experience enhances teacher effectiveness and increases student productivity at all grade levels.”

In the private sector, probation is usually weeks, often 60 days. In academia, from public schools to universities, tenure isn’t earned for years, and even then it’s followed by annual retention evaluations.

Like any employees, teachers can be discharged for misconduct, incompetence, etc. But like any workplace, job security is vital. In education, it’s called tenure, a protection against unfair acts by management that can include discipline or discharge. Built around due process established in union contracts by grievance and arbitration language set up to maintain operations while disputes are settled, the presumption of innocence is akin to the criminal justice system’s protection against incarceration, execution or “lynch law” based solely on suspicion or malice.

In U.S. jurisprudence, the presumption of innocence derives from English common law and the Magna Carta. It’s accepted to be implicitly part of the 5th and 6th Amendments in the Bill of Rights (prohibiting citizens from being deprived of life, liberty or property without due process, among other things, and a speedy trial by an impartial jury, respectively). Also, the 14th Amendment, passed in 1868, extends such protections to the states.

Employment, of course, is livelihood, not life; a real stake, if not precisely property. But the parallels are there.

“Our opponents have spent months – and millions of dollars – vilifying California teachers to push a political agenda,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. “If we want every child to have a chance to thrive, we must retain and support a stable teaching force – especially in high-poverty schools. By attacking the rules that protect and support teachers, the ‘Vergara’ decision destabilizes public education.”

Indeed, the ruling “may do little to systemically raise student achievement,” wrote Dana Goldstein, author of the forthcoming book “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession” in The Atlantic.

“For high-poverty schools, hiring is at least as big of a challenge as firing,” Goldstein said, “and the ‘Vergara’ decision does nothing to make it easier for the most struggling schools to attract or retain the best teacher candidates.”

Focusing on who should be laid off in times of budget crises, Treu omits the bigger problem of adequate funding of schools so kids have access to the classes and opportunities they need.

“While the court used its bully pulpit to criticize teacher protections,” Weingarten said, “there was no mention of funding inequities, school segregation, high poverty or any other out-of-school or in-school factors that have been proven to affect student achievement and our children.

“The judge argues that no one should tolerate bad teachers in the classroom,” she continued. “We agree. But in focusing on teachers who make up a fraction of the workforce, he strips the hundreds of thousands of good teachers of any right to a voice.”

[PICTURED: AFT union president Randi Weingarten at a rally in Detroit, from ei-ie.org.]

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Baseball’s been very, very good … to some

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., July 14, 15 or 16

Major League Baseball’s annual All-Star Game is this week at Minneapolis’ Target Field, but the contest between owners and their employees who aren’t players is in extra innings.

Most people know that ballplayers are paid well – as movie stars, recording artists and other entertainers are. Fewer know that that resulted not from benevolent owners, but players who organized.

For decades, baseball players had few rights beyond whatever their owners decided to grant them – low pay that required off-season jobs, weak pensions, no real compensation for the wear-and-tear on their bodies, and no freedom to determine for what team they played. Players were “owned” by teams through the “reserve clause” through their careers; they couldn't play for another team unless it was OK’d by the owner who either first drafted and signed him, or traded with another owner.

That bondage was changed starting in 1968, when former steel-union attorney Marvin Miller led the Major League Baseball Players Association to the first collectively bargained contract in sports history.

The next year, the St. Louis Cardinals’ star outfielder Curt Flood unsuccessfully challenged the reserve clause in federal court when the Redbirds tried to trade him to the Phillies, but his case established that the reserve clause was a legitimate subject for collective bargaining.

In 1972, baseball players engaged in the first major work stoppage in professional sports history, and the players association helped overturn the reserve clause in 1975. Players became free – free agents.

Of course, while organized labor made gains for its athlete workers, owners made baseball and their franchises even more profitable, as labor reporter John Buell has noted.

“They manipulate their franchises in the same way manufacturing CEOs treat their factories,” he wrote. “They relocate wherever they can get the most lucrative subsidies.”

Yes, sometimes, baseball owners’ greed mimics their corporate brethren who violate labor law.

And players’ fellow workers – off-the-field employees of Major League Baseball teams – are saying, “Play ball!”

The federal Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division recently fined the San Francisco Giants $764,000 in two cases for violating wage and hour and overtime pay laws. The division also fined the Miami Marlins and is investigating pay schemes at the Oakland A’s and the Baltimore Orioles.

Further, the Labor Department has warned the rest of baseball – major and minor leagues – about pay practices. Four years ago, when the Memphis Redbirds, a St. Louis farm team, was under different management, the government caught them breaking the law, too.

The baseball investigations are more incidents of a common phenomenon: wage theft. Employers steal hundreds of millions of dollars from workers by misclassifying them as “independent contractors” ineligible for overtime pay, or paying them below the minimum wage, or denying overtime pay.

A Wage and Hour settlement, announced in May, found the Giants – in one of the most pro-union, pro-worker cities in the country – broke the law for a second time by paying 78 workers, most of them interns, stipends, and not the minimum wage and overtime. DOL said the interns worked in baseball operations, group sales and elsewhere, and were due back pay totaling $220,000 for the group.

In the first settlement, announced last year, the Giants paid $544,000 in back wages and damages to 74 employees. DOL said some were clubhouse workers who earned $55 daily but worked so many hours that their wages fell below the federal hourly minimum of $7.25 and California’s then-minimum, $8. They also got no overtime. DOL ruled then that the Giants improperly classified some workers as exempt from overtime pay. In a separate action, a lawsuit, the Giants last season reached a $500,000 settlement with security guards who’d claimed back pay for overtime and for working through breaks and meals.

In Miami, the Marlins will pay $288,000 in back pay and damages to 39 clubhouse and office workers, said Wage and Hour spokesman Jason Surbey. Clubhouse workers clean and prepare the locker room for games but were paid $50 a day. But they worked up to 11 hours on game days, so the Marlins also broke the minimum wage and overtime law.

The Labor Department concluded from the first Giants investigation that such pay practices “are endemic to our industry,” according to an MLB memo last Fall.

Wage and Hour Administrator David Weil said, “Whether in America’s factories, fields or ball parks, a fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay. Unfortunately, in our recent investigations of Major League Baseball teams, we found employees not being paid the minimum wage and overtime to which they are legally entitled. That’s unacceptable and I am pleased we have been able to secure back wages for those workers.”

[PICTURED: Graphics from fairwarning.org]

Sunday, July 13, 2014

‘Business’ model hurting college access, sparking colossal debt

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., July 10, 11 or 12

College costs and student loans aren’t being discussed enough, but maybe last week’s increase of student-loan interest rates will start something. Last summer’s Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act tied the interest rate to 10-year Treasury note rates, which this spring increased 8/10ths of a percent.

That meant on July 1, Stafford loans went from 3.86 percent to 4.66; graduate Stafford loans from 5.41 to 6.21; and Direct PLUS loans from 6.41 to 7.21 percent.

(Last week, incidentally, banks’ prime rate was 3.25 percent, the Federal discount rate 0.75 and the Fed Funds rate 0.25; somebody’s making a lot of money off students and their families.)

Student loans and the enormous debt they create are a problem, and they’re connected to costs that too much of higher education ignores. Tuition hikes add to many graduates’ debt, at best; at worst, they limit access to higher education, adversely affect enrollments, and hurt the U.S. economy. Borrowers starting out cannot buy durable goods, cars or homes.

In private and public institutions, enrollments are falling, legislatures are cutting funds to public-supported schools, and families are burdened or excluded; college employees increasingly face more belt-tightening (although few administrators talk about pay cuts, furloughs or layoffs for themselves).

Too many college teachers are now badly paid part-timers – just 30 percent of today’s professors are on “tenure-track” (meaning with job security), compared to twice that number 40 years ago.

Thomas Frank – author of "What's The Matter with Kansas?” – reports that U.S. college costs are up more than 1,000 percent since the 1980s. About 40 million Americans owe more than $1.2 trillion from going to college, and new grads seeking jobs owe an average of $33,000 in loans, the Wall Street Journal says.

President Obama recently ordered the Education Department to make lower annual student-loan payments available to those who borrowed money before October 2007, plus renegotiate with companies that service federal student loans. His Executive Order helps 5 million Americans unable to participate in the federal Pay As You Earn program, which caps monthly payments at 10 percent of borrowers’ income.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten endorsed the order and also attempted legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

“No student should have to face the triple threat of skyrocketing higher education cost, high interest rates and crushing student loan payments,” Weingarten said.

Senate Republicans disagreed, as the GOP (except for Maine’s Susan Collins, Tennessee’s Bob Corker and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski) last month blocked Warren’s Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act. The measure would have let students refinance loans with interest rates of up to 7 percent to rates as low as 3.68 percent. It wouldn’t have erased debts, but made them more manageable – as consumers do in refinancing.

The act would have paid for itself by closing tax loopholes for people who make more than $1 million a year. The vote was 56-38, but 60 votes were needed to break a filibuster and debate it.

This would have let millions of Americans – including thousands in their 60s who still collectively owe $43 billion, she said – save money and stimulate the economy.

Obama asked how anyone can justify letting “tax loopholes for the very, very fortunate survive while students are having trouble just getting started.”

Over the last few decades, there’s been a trend to operate colleges according to a management approach that’s business-oriented (a model that arguably resulted in an economy enriching an elite and causing everyone else to struggle). Even rising administrator pay is justified as being “very competitive,” echoing the excuse for excessive CEO pay at corporations.

Colleges blame utility costs, new buildings, regulations such as Title IX and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements and, of course, faculty. Some administrators even point to falling enrollment, which blames the victims. Others claim higher prices will be justified by future financial returns, a gross oversimplification.

A recent Federal Reserve Bank of New York study added perspective. With unemployment for 20- to 24-year-old college grads so high – 10.6 percent – it’s not unreasonable for students and their families to question the value of a degree and the whether it’s worth going in to such much debt to earn one, say co-authors Jaison R. Abel, Richard Deitz and Yaqin Su.

“It has become more difficult over the past decade for recent college graduates to find jobs that utilize their degrees,” they write.

Administrators should stop thinking of college strictly in commercial terms and revive the idea that education is a social investment that helps create and maintain a public good.

Meanwhile, as Congress considers reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, it must seek ways to lower college costs and help borrowers.

[PICTURED: dshort.com data chart from http://boulderisstoopid.com/]

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Benghazi? Been there…

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., July 7, 8 or 9

Six years ago this week, when George W. Bush was still President, terrorists attacked the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, killing six.

Ten years ago on July 30, also during the Bush administration, terrorists attacked the U.S. embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, killing two.

From 2002 to 2008, there were at least eight other attacks on U.S. diplomatic sites (not counting Baghdad), yet not one Republican – nor any Democrat – exploited the tragedies to complain about lax security, inadequate response, or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s competency.

The hype and hypocrisy about Benghazi is as exaggerated and duplicitous as Hollywood’s worst.

On the night of Sept. 11, 2012, a mob attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound and a nearby CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others. Since then, many Republican officials have been unrelenting in their criticism of President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the incident.

Within days of House Speaker John Boehner creating the “House Select Committee on Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi,” I happened to watch an old movie I’d recorded from TCM: “Bengazi” (with an old spelling). It’s difficult to determine which is worse: a low-budget imitation of “Casablanca” or a high-profile witch hunt engineered by Right-Wing extremists.

The 1955 RKO movie starred three personal favorite “Richards” (Conte, Erdman and Carlson) plus the always-entertaining Victor McLaglen and the able Mala Powers. But the plot – an American with a shady background teams up with a corrupt Irishman to go after gold previously hidden by Arabs in a deserted mosque during World War II battles in North Africa – lacks almost as much credibility as Fox News and talk radio.

As of this month, there already have been at least 10 Benghazi inquiries, including a 16-month probe by a bipartisan panel, and investigators have found that an amateur video that some Muslims found insulting did play a role in the protest, that security was inadequate (and underfunded by Congress), that there was no proof that some official intentionally sparked the attack, and that no cover-up took place.

Nevertheless, Republicans’ Right Wing has pressed for another look, this one led by Tea Party Congressman Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who seems to see conspiracies everywhere, notably in his judgment about the Internal Revenue Service’s scrutiny of groups applying for tax-exempt “charity” status (examination required by law and targeting conservative and progressive groups alike).

Two House members from Illinois, U.S. Reps. Peter Roskam (R-Wheaton) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Hoffman Estates), are on the 12-member Select Committee, but insiders say it may be September before public hearings occur.

Gowdy in May complained, “No one has been arrested, prosecuted or punished for the murders of our fellow Americans,” but the FBI and U.S. troops on June 17 captured Ahmed Abu Khattala, the suspected ringleader of the Benghazi attacks who’s pleaded not guilty but said that he and the others there initially were demonstrating because of the controversial video. Some Republicans in Washington conceded that was good news.

As with almost everything since Americans elected Obama in 2008, much of the GOP on Capitol Hill are exaggerating and politicizing something rather than addressing real problems, and this election year promises to see more of that do-nothing mindset.

If the committee is NOT just political posturing, it could ask about atrocities allegedly committed by anti-Moammar Gadhafi rebels in Libya, about why NATO aircraft bombed a Libya TV station (killing three), about the continuing and escalating violence there, and about investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s stories that the whole Libyan mission was a cover for the CIA to smuggle arms to anti-Assad rebels in Syria – some of whom are now attacking Iraq, in a twisted lesson for foreign-policy mistakes and U.S. involvement in places Americans don’t want our troops and treasures to be risked.

“Bengazi” is better as an old movie than a new excuse to condemn Obama, raise campaign contributions and avoid the hard work of shared governance.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Where is corporate America’s patriotism?

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., June 30, July 1 or 2

As flags unfurl, fireworks explode, and independence celebrated this week, patriotism seems absent from many corporate boardrooms, and an effort to encourage America-first business with roots in downstate Illinois lies dormant since being introduced eight years ago.

In early June, business lobbyists were pressuring Congress for a “tax holiday” to let them “repatriate” billions of dollars of profits earned overseas and untaxed. The move would let U.S. companies “return” the money to this country at a tax rate of about 5 percent instead of the 35 percent “marginal” rate (before deductions).

U.S. corporations have offshore profits of more than $2 trillion, according to the research firm Audit Analytics. Tax havens permit them to escape their share of the nation’s tax obligations. Leading the group of corporations with money off-shored in foreign accounts are Apple (with $54.4 billion), General Electric ($110 billion) and Microsoft ($76.4 billion).

Recently, U.S.-based Medtronic announced its intention to buy the Ireland-based Covidien for $43 billion and move its “principal offices” to Dublin to avoid U.S. taxes.

“These transactions are about tax avoidance,” said U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). “Corporations [are] shifting their tax burden onto their competitors and average Americans.”

A previous, one-time tax holiday passed by signed by President Bush in 2004 didn’t work, opponents say. Drug companies benefited while many corporations repurchased their own stock. A second “one-time” effort was defeated in the Senate in 2009.

U.S.-chartered corporations enjoy incentives and bailouts, publicly-financed research and other privileges, and still resist contributing to society’s expenses, from the infrastructure that companies use to the subsidies they demand.

Some policymakers say rather than rewarding tax avoidance, outsourcing, etc., government should reward responsible business practices that recognize corporations’ responsibilities to employees, customers and, yes, the country, as much as shareholders.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston) and 12 co-sponsors introduced the Patriot Corporations of America Act in 2006, when on the same day it was referred to committee and died. Based on research by Monmouth College political science lecturer Robin Johnson and former State Rep. Bill Edley, the bill would have given preferential treatment in government contracts and a 5-percent tax cut to corporations that produce at least 90 percent of their goods and services in the United States; comply with federal regulations on labor relations, consumer protection, and the environment; contribute a minimum of 5 percent to a portable pension plan; remain neutral in worker organizing drives; and refrain from price-gouging customers.

Such incentives would have been paid for by closing corporate off-shoring loopholes and trimming some tax breaks for millionaires.

“The bottom line is, we’re saying that we’re going to target the tax incentives for corporations to companies that care as much about the American worker as they do about the American market,” Edley said “It’s fine if they want to move to Mexico. But why are we providing the tax incentives for them to do it?”

That’s a reference to Maytag, which in 2004 moved 1,600 Galesburg jobs to Reynosa, Mexico, to make its profitable operation even more profitable, despite the cost to everyday Americans – who buy about 90 percent of the corporation’s products.

Schakowky said, “Our government continues to provide carrots – and no sticks – to companies harming our economy. We must stop rewarding outsourcers and tax dodgers, and start rewarding companies that care about America and American workers.”

Indeed, the Center for Study of Responsive Law has surveyed corporate executives about whether they pledge allegiance to the flag and its reference to “liberty and justice for all,” but few responded.

Where is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in promoting business loyalty to the nation?

Where is the American Legion, which claims to advocate for Americanism?

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader has written about corporations and American ideals.

“It is our country that chartered them into existence and helped ensure their success and survival,” Nader said. “And these corporations now wield immense power in our elections, in our economy, over our military and foreign policies, and even in how we spend time with our friends and families.

“The 4th of July is an ideal time to call out these runaway corporate giants who exploit the patriotic sensibilities of Americans for profit,” he continued, “but decline to be held to any patriotic expectations or standards of their own.”

Schakowsky added, “Patriot Corporations are an expression of the American spirit of our forefathers and -mothers when they took that brave step of declaring our independence and creating the United States of America.”

[PICTURED: "Corporate States of America" flag graphic from teamsters355.com]