by Lindsay Beyerstein
How our blog got its name
Sidney Hillman was a powerful national figure during the Great Depression, a key supporter of the New Deal, and a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
When the rumor spread that President Roosevelt ordered his party leaders to “clear it with Sidney” before announcing Harry S. Truman as his 1944 running mate, conservative critics turned on the phrase, trumpeting it as proof that the president was under the thumb of “Big Labor.”
Over the years, the phrase lost its sting and became a testament to Hillman's influence.
It's hard to imagine a labor leader wielding that kind clout today, but we like the idea—and we hope Sidney would give thumbs up to our blog.
Clear It With Sidney
Jack Abramoff's Bible-thumping, Indian tribe-bilking crony Ralph Reed is back on the national political scene, fresh from a voter mobilization triumph in Wisconsin's recall election, Adele Stan reports for AlterNet. Reed's next target? Defeating president Obama in November.
[Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons.]
The July Sidney goes to Monica Potts of the American Prospect!
Potts spent two-and-a-half months reporting in Owsley County, Kentucky. Her story, "Pressing on the Upward Way," chronicles the trials and triumphs of the Christian family as they struggle to get ahead financially through education, opening a small business, and playing live music. The story was the centerpiece of the Prospect's special issue on poverty.
Read my interview with Monica at The Backstory. We talk about how she reported the piece, what Sue Christian's can teach us about the role of women in overcoming poverty, and much more.
Black lung, that historical scourge of coal miners, is a horrifying disease that gradually suffocates the victim from the inside out. The good news is the disease is completely preventable. If coal dust levels in mines were kept in check, black lung would disappear. Congress ordered mining companies to make that happen in 1969, but they never followed through. Now, black lung is making a comeback. An joint investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity found that the incidence of black lung has doubled in the past decade.
Ken Ward, Jr. writes about an 83-year-old retired miner with black lung who is watching his middle-aged sons succumb to the disease:
Marcum doesn't have to look far to see that hasn't happened. There's his middle son, Donald, who, at 51, has had eight pieces of his lungs removed. He sometimes has trouble making it through a prayer when he's filling in as a preacher at Solid Rock Baptist Church.
There's James, the youngest. At 50, his breathing is becoming more labored, and his doctor has already discussed hooking him up to an oxygen tank part-time.
Both began working in the late 1970s - years after dust rules took effect - and both began displaying symptoms in their 30s. Donald now has the most severe, fastest-progressing form of the disease, known as complicated coal workers' pneumoconiosis. James and the oldest Marcum son, Thomas, 59, have a simpler form, but James has reached the worst stage and is deteriorating. [Charelston Gazette]
In a companion piece, Ward explains how federal black lung control programs have faltered under pressure from industry and labor.
Erik Loomis of Lawyers Guns and Money isn't convinced that labor deserves an equal share of blame for the lack of progress on black lung:
Ward also makes a big deal about labor rejection of black lung testing from Democratic administrations for being too weak, but I don’t see this as a big deal. Given how little Democrats listen to labor on every other issue, I don’t see much evidence that labor anger over lax testing systems would cause Democrats to abandon them. While Ward is usually quite good, his piece has a Both Sides Do It theme that is unwarranted here. The problem with black lung codes is not that the union cares about its members too much.
Regardless of who's at fault, a black lung resurgence is a national disgrace.
[Photo credit: At the Atlas Coal Mine, by miss604, Creative Commons.]
Highlights from the week's news:
- Paul Kiel of ProPublica on restitution for illegal foreclosures
- Tony Ortega of the Village Voice on the death of the son of a high-ranking Scientologist
- Robin Marty of RH RealityCheck on unlicensed "crisis pregnancy centers" in Virginia
- Rhonda Cook of the Atlanta Journal Constitution on a woman who spend 53 days in jail in a case of mistaken identity
Send us your favorite stories. Tweet @sidneyhillman, hashtag: #Sidney
[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]
Ann Romney's "blind trust" invested $10 million in Tagg Romney's fledgling hedge fund, Nicholas Shaxson reports in Vanity Fair:
All the assets on Mitt’s financial disclosures are in blind trusts or retirement accounts held by him and Ann. Blind trusts are designed to avoid conflicts of interest for those in public office by having politicians’ assets managed by independent trustees. The Romneys’ blind trust was created when Mitt was elected governor of Massachusetts. Curiously, the Romneys appointed Bradford Malt as their trustee. It’s certainly true that under Malt the trusts don’t appear to be as blind as they might be: for instance, in 2010 the Romneys invested $10 million in the start-up of the Solamere Founders Fund, co-founded by their eldest son, Tagg, and Spencer Zwick, Romney’s onetime top campaign fund-raiser; Solamere is now in the Ann Romney blind trust. Malt has said he invested in Solamere without consulting Mitt or Ann and explained he liked Solamere because of its diversified approach and because he knew the founders and had confidence in them.
Maybe that's what Mitt had in mind when he told college students to borrow money from their parents to start a business.
[Photo credit: Grand Velas Riviera Maya, Creative Commons.]
In "Alex White: Professional Snitch," Ted Conver tells the story of a small time drug dealer and confidential informant from Atlanta who was forced to make a life-altering choice after the police killed a 92-year-old woman in a botched no-knock raid, and planted drugs on her bullet-riddled body to hide their mistake.
After the killing, the police called their snitch, Alex White, and asked him to say that he'd bought crack at 933 Neal Street. He saw on the news that an woman had been killed at that address and realized the police were pressuring him to cover for them.
White used his wits and his contacts in federal law enforcement to save himself, but at a terrible personal cost.
It's a sad story, but not one devoid of humor:
White exited the restaurant through a different door, recrossed the street and did what any frightened citizen might do: he dialed 911. The police recording captures a panicked White telling a dispatcher that he is outside a gas station being pursued by cops “on the dirty side.” She responds, “So you’re calling the police, and the police are chasing you.” [NYT Mag]
Conover's story sheds light on the use of confidential informants to do the dirty work of police in the drug war. It makes you wonder how many other people are locked up because the police orded CIs to lie.
[Photo credit: The Golden Snitch, by TinyApartmentCrafts, Creative Commons.]
Sidney's Picks: The Best of the Week's News
- Jeff Tietz of Rolling Stone on the decline of the American middle class.
- Irin Carmon of Salon.com on Kenyan women jailed for being unable to pay their maternity hospital bills.
- Atul Gawande of the New Yorker on health care reform.
- Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones on the GOP's goofy marriage counseling program.
- Tom Hamburger of the Washington Post on Mitt Romney and outsourcing.
Tweet your favorite stories to @SidneyHillman
[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]
A six-month investigation by Fortune magazine cuts to the heart of the so-called "Fast and Furious" scandal. Fast and Furious was an ATF operation to staunch the flow of illegal guns from the U.S. to Mexico. American straw buyers working for the drug cartels buy guns in Phoenix and run them over the border.
By early 2010, the ATF agents had 20 Fast and Furious suspects in their crosshairs, but the suspects and their arsenal got away. Some of those guns resurfaced at crime scenes in Mexico. Another gun linked to a Fast and Furious suspect was linked to the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol Agent. The question is: Did the ATF let those guns slip through on purpose, in order to see where they would go? Republicans like Daryl Issa (R-CA) insist that it was a deliberate tactic, citing allegations by some ATF agents involved in the operation.
However, five ATF agents told Fortune that they did everything they could to seize those guns, but federal prospecutors in Arizona refused to allow ATF to arrest the 20 suspects, who had forked over some $350,000 in cash for 650 weapons:
Indeed, a six-month Fortune investigation reveals that the public case alleging that Voth and his colleagues walked guns is replete with distortions, errors, partial truths, and even some outright lies. Fortune reviewed more than 2,000 pages of confidential ATF documents and interviewed 39 people, including seven law-enforcement agents with direct knowledge of the case. Several, including [ATF supervisor Dave] Voth, are speaking out for the first time.
The federal prosecutors said the ATF had no proof that the guns, which had been legally--if suspiciously--purchased in the U.S., were destined for Mexico. Arizona prosecutors were equally unhelpful:
Prosecutors repeatedly rebuffed Voth's requests. After examining one suspect's garbage, agents learned he was on food stamps yet had plunked down more than $300,000 for 476 firearms in six months. Voth asked if the ATF could arrest him for fraudulently accepting public assistance when he was spending such huge sums. Prosecutor Hurley said no. In another instance, a young jobless suspect paid more than $10,000 for a 50-caliber tripod-mounted sniper rifle. According to Voth, Hurley told the agents they lacked proof that he hadn't bought the gun for himself.
Prosecutors told the ATF they couldn't seize the guns of suspected straw purchasers. The mere fact that a poor suspect was buying huge numbers of guns with cash and handing them off quickly wasn't probable cause that he was a straw buyer. Maybe he was just an upstanding citizen exercising his Second Amendment rights.
So, the ATF changed course. Instead of seizing guns from straw purchases, piecemeal, they would gather wiretap evidence to prove that they were all part of a larger conspiracy. If they could get the buyers on the phone taking orders from Mexico, they would have probable cause.
Internal emails show that Phonenix Group VII was deeply divided about something during this period. Issa alleges that the group was split over gun walking, with ATF supervisor Dave Voth wanting to let the guns go, and Issa's whistleblowers opposing gun walking. But there's no smoking gun, as it were, just a paper trail of office bickering about an unspecified tactic. The agents could have been fighting about anything. Voth says they were arguing about who would get weekend wiretap duty.
Republican investigators have proof that an ATF agent in Phoenix Group VII, John Dodson, let three guns walk in a separate case. The straw buyer in question was also a Fast and Furious suspect. Voth says Dodson walked the three guns without his permission. Dodson went over Voth's head and got permission from Voth's supervisor to walk the guns, which were never recovered. The fact that Dodson got caught gun walking casts doubt on Issa's theory the spat within Group VII was over gun walking with Voth in favor and Dodson and his allies against.
So, an ATF official approved gun-walking in at least one instance, but not for Operation Fast and Furious.
In summary, Fast and Furious agents wanted to arrest the suspects in Arizona and take their guns away before they could hand them off to drug lords, but prosecutors said no, that would be against the law. So, ATF gave up trying to arrest low-level purchasers and refocused their efforts on gathering wiretap evidence to bring down the entire network. In the meantime, the suspected straw purchasers--whom prosecutors had deemed untouchable--moved the guns over the border and into the hands of murderous drug lords, just like ATF predicted.
There is no evidence that ATF let the Fast and Furious guns walk to see where they ended up. If this was a grand experiement, where's the paper trail that shows how they planned to track the guns in Mexico?
ATF "let" suspected straw purchasers hand their weapons off to the drug lords because prosecutors told them they didn't have the power to stop them. If there's a scandal here, it's that the law on straw purchasers is utterly toothless.
[Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/lynnfriedman/6957385306/sizes/n/in/photostream/">Lynn Friedman</a>, Creative Commons.]
David Heath and Jill Rosenbaum continue the iWatch investigation of greedy corporate dental chains that cater to the uninsured and exploit vulnerable patients. An Aspen Dental outlet in Colorado charged an 87-year-old woman over $2500 for a cleaning at two fillings and tried to sign her up for thousands of dollars of additional work, all paid for with special credit card the dentist encouraged her to apply for. The office even billed her $129 per rinse for four swishes of antibacterial mouthwash.
Former employees at Aspen Dental, which is owned by a private equity firm, told iWatch that they are schooled in high pressure sales tactics and pressured to sign patients up for elaborate and expensive treatment plans for dental care they might need in the future:
“People would come into the office maybe with a toothache and come out with a treatment plan that maybe the dentist said we need to extract all your teeth,” said Jenny Hayes, the former office manager in Illinois. “They were made to stop in the manager’s office and sit down for an intense consultative selling process that they really didn’t bargain for when they walked in the door. I had people literally breaking down and crying in my office. And it happened quite regularly.”
Most states barely regulate dental chains, per se. Regulators like Lili Reitz of the Ohio State Dental Board can crack down on individual dentists, but not the chains that systematically push unnecessary care. Reitz says a quarter of all the complaints she investigated last year came from corporate chains.
[Photo credit: Luccawithcheese, Creative Commons.]
A federal judge has unsealed thousands of pages of damning internal documents showing how Pfizer scientists twisted scientific evidence to sell the painkiller Celebrex, Katie Thomas reports for the New York Times:
A research director for Pfizer was positively buoyant after reading that an important medical conference had just featured a study claiming that the new arthritis drug Celebrex was safer on the stomach than more established drugs.
“They swallowed our story, hook, line and sinker,” he wrote in an e-mail to a colleague.
The truth was that Celebrex was no better at protecting the stomach from serious complications than other drugs. It appeared that way only because Pfizer and its partner, Pharmacia, presented the results from the first six months of a yearlong study rather than the whole thing.
The companies had a lot riding on the outcome of the study, given that Celebrex’s effect on the stomach was its principal selling point. Earlier studies had shown it was no better at relieving pain than common drugs — like ibuprofen — already on the market. [NYT]
"The documents suggest that officials made a strategic decision during the early trial to be less than forthcoming about the drug’s safety," Thomas writes.
The documents, which date to the early 2000s, were released persuant to a lawsuit by pension funds against Pfizer. The funds contend that, by promoting Celebrex based on incomplete data, Pfizer misled investors, thereby incurring responsibility for the drop in stock value when the truth came out.
It wasn't just investors who paid for Pfizer's deviousness. Based on misleading promotions, insurers shelled out billions of dollars for a drug with no proven benefit over cheaper alternatives. Taxpayers were fleeced when publicly-funded insurance programs bought into the Celebrex marketing craze. The biggest losers of all were Celebrex patients, who were exposed to unjustified risks because their doctors were sucked in by Pfizer's blandishments.
[Photo credit: Kimberly Brown-Azzarello, Creative Commons.]