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May 28 2015 11:14 AM

Putin on FIFA Arrests: The U.S. Is Out to Ruin Russia’s World Cup

In international politics, it’s not a great sign when Vladimir Putin is the only guy standing up for you. This is, after all, the man who praised Israeli President Moshe Katsav’s sexual prowess after he was accused of multiple counts of rape, and is also just about the only head of state who still hangs out with Silvio Berlusconi. So I’m not sure embattled FIFA head Sepp Blatter should necessarily be encouraged that Putin is now going to bat for him.

Yesterday, Putin denounced the arrests of top FIFA officials, implying that it was an attempt by the U.S. to take the World Cup away from Russia. “We know about the pressure that he has been put under to cancel the 2018 World Cup in Russia,” Putin said of Blatter in remarks posted on the Kremlin’s website. The Russian president also invoked the cases of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, calling the FIFA indictments “another blatant attempt by the United States to extend its jurisdiction to other states.” Whatever your opinions on those two, comparing the Forbes-listed head of the world’s most popular sport to fugitive whistleblowers is a little rich.

Putin does have reason to worry: After yesterday’s arrests, Swiss officials announced that they are opening an investigation into allegations of corruption in the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. The Russian bid has faced allegations of bribery since the decision was made in 2010, including reports in the British press that that a senior European soccer official was given a Picasso in exchange for his support. A controversial FIFA-commissioned investigation—that was subsequently disowned by its own investigator—cleared Russia along with Qatar of any wrongdoing last year, though it also noted that the Russian bid team had made “only a limited amount of documents available for review.”

There were already calls last year, notably from the Ukrainian government, for Western countries to boycott the 2018 World Cup on political grounds. As with the negative Western media coverage of the Sochi Olympics in 2014, many Russians may see the multiple investigations into the Russian bid and calls to strip the country of its World Cup as another U.S.-led attempt to steal Russia’s moment in the sun. Putin, who’s an expert at this sort of thing, is sure to take full advantage of the sentiment. 

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May 28 2015 9:43 AM

Clinton Foundation Paid Blumenthal $10,000 a Month While He Gave Hillary Libya Advice

On May 18 the New York Times reported that longtime Clinton family associate Sidney Blumenthal was working with individuals who had business interests in Libya at the same time that he sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton what she's described as "unsolicited" intelligence reports about that country. It's also been known that Blumenthal worked for the nonprofit Clinton Foundation at that time. A Politico story now reports more about Blumenthal's role with the Foundation: He was paid $10,000 a month for "full-time" work whose value was apparently questioned by other staffers. From the site:

Blumenthal was added to the payroll of the Clintons’ global philanthropy in 2009 — not long after advising Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign — at the behest of former president Bill Clinton, for whom he had worked in the White House, say the sources.
While Blumenthal’s foundation job focused on highlighting the legacy of Clinton’s presidency, some officials at the charity questioned his value and grumbled that his hiring was a favor from the Clintons, according to people familiar with the foundation. They say that, during a 2013 reform push, Blumenthal was moved to a consulting contract that came with a similar pay rate but without benefits — an arrangement that endured until March.

For the record, a Blumenthal lawyer apparently denied to Politico that Blumenthal had financial interests in his work with the aspiring Libya entrepreneurs whose activities were reported on by the Times on May 18:

His lawyer, former Deputy Attorney General James Cole, told POLITICO on Wednesday that Blumenthal did not have any financial interest in the efforts of the two companies pushing to win contracts in Libya — Osprey Global Solutions and Constellations Group.
“He never got any money from — and has no continuing relationship with — Osprey or Constellations,” said Cole.

That's slightly ambiguous wording on Politico's part, given that not receiving money from a business and not having any potential financial interest in its success are not necessarily the same thing—and that the Times reported that the Libya companies were not successful in their efforts to win contracts. I emailed and called James Cole to clarify that point and will update this post if he responds.

To recap the whole situation: In 2011 and 2012, Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, used an off-books email account to discuss national policy with a private citizen who might have been violating the law by participating in the conversation, who had a related business interest (though not a "financial interest"?) in the subject of his advice that he may or may not have disclosed to the government, and who was simultaneously employed in a questionable "full-time" capacity at significant expense to a nonprofit that has been accused of acting as the bag man for a Clintonian influence-peddling operation.

May 27 2015 11:10 PM

Pentagon Mistakenly Sends Live Anthrax Samples to Labs Across the Country

The Pentagon announced on Wednesday it had mistakenly sent as many as nine samples of live anthrax to labs across the country, and one internationally. Presumably the announcement was made sheepishly; it’s not a great look for the keeper of America’s nuclear arsenal.

A lab in Maryland is the only confirmed recipient of a batch of live samples that was shipped from a Utah army facility known for biological and chemical weapons defense testing. The samples were meant to be dead, or inactive, and were distributed to the labs as part of a broad effort to come up with a field-based test for biological agents. Samples from that shipment were then sent to labs in eight other states—California, Texas, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York—as well as a U.S. military base in South Korea. The Washington Post reports the samples may have been distributed even further to additional labs. “The samples all came from a batch of anthrax listed as AG-1,” ABC News reports. “The Pentagon has confirmed that one of the shipments contained live samples of AG-1 and suspects that the others do as well.”

Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said the Department of Defense is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and “[t]here is no known risk to the general public, and there are no suspected or confirmed cases of anthrax infection in potentially exposed lab workers."

May 27 2015 8:44 PM

Tracy Morgan Settles With Walmart Over Deadly 2014 Limo Accident

Tracy Morgan settled his lawsuit against Walmart on Wednesday, bringing to a close the legal dispute over a fatal car crash that left the actor seriously injured when a Walmart truck crashed into a limo he was riding in. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed. “Walmart did right by me and my family, and for my associates and their families,” Morgan said in a statement.

While the sum is not known, there are a number of factors in the case that indicate Walmart’s payout could be sizeable. The Walmart tractor-trailer that rear-ended the limo, according to the criminal complaint, was driving over the speed limit and the driver hadn’t slept in more than 24 hours. The impact killed another passenger in the limo, comedian James McNair, almost immediately; Morgan and two others were seriously injured. Morgan has been slow to recover from what his lawyers say was a traumatic brain injury, and the comedian-turned-actor’s return to work is far from certain.  

May 27 2015 6:48 PM

Rick Santorum Announces Second Presidential Bid Joining an Already Crowded Republican Field

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum announced on Wednesday he’s giving running for president another shot, after winning 11 states during the 2012 GOP nomination battle before succumbing to Mitt Romney. The 57-year-old evangelical conservative has found support in the past from the Republican party’s socially conservative base but has never quite been able to move voters—and contributors—beyond that core to threaten for the nomination.

Santorum is hoping he can build upon his 2012 showing, but the former senator is entering an already crowded Republican field with double-digit candidates and a trio of like-minded conservatives in Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who all need to capture the same bloc of voters in order to be competitive.

“Mr. Santorum hopes outreach to lower-income Americans, combined with his base of support among evangelical Christians and the party’s most conservative voters, will propel him ahead of better-funded candidates with establishment backing,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “The strategy builds on his 2012 bid as a lunch-bucket conservative with a populist economic tone and a focus on social issues, an image that appealed to voters who felt eventual nominee Mitt Romney was insufficiently conservative.”

Santorum’s first challenge is going to be entrenching himself in the top 10 in GOP polling. Last week, Fox News, which hosts the first primary-season Republican debate, announced it would cap the number of participants at 10 to avoid potentially having to squeeze 20-odd podiums on stage. Polling earlier this month showed the two-term senator with just a percentage point or two of support, just enough to put him in 10th among likely Republican candidates.

May 27 2015 6:11 PM

Nebraska Legislature Bans Death Penalty Over Governor’s Veto

Nebraska became the first “red state” to abolish the death penalty in more than 40 years on Wednesday, as its conservative-leaning state legislature overrode Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of a ban on on the practice by a 30-19 vote. (Thirty votes is exactly how many were needed for an override.)

Members of Nebraska’s unique unicameral legislature are elected and conduct business on a nonpartisan basis, but the state’s voters lean strongly Republican, and 35 of the legislature’s 49 current members are registered Republicans. Though Omaha.com’s wording on the subject is ambiguous, it appears that 18 of those Republicans voted for the abolishment bill when it passed 32-19 on May 21, while 16 of them voted to override the veto Wednesday. The AP wrote earlier this month that the alliance of legislators voting for the ban includes “conservatives who oppose the death penalty for religious reasons, cast it as a waste of taxpayer money and question whether government can be trusted to manage it.”

As of Wednesday, 19 states and Washington D.C. have banned the death penalty.

May 27 2015 5:23 PM

Switzerland Enabled FIFA’s Corruption for Years. Why It Stopped Now.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter does not like being called a dictator. But, in his 27 years as the most powerful man in the world’s most popular sport, one thing he has had in common with the Muammar Qaddafis and Hosni Mubaraks of the world is that he’s enjoyed the immunity and secrecy provided by Swiss law. Until now.

Wednesday morning, Swiss police arrested some of FIFA’s highest-ranking officials—not including Blatter—at a hotel in Zurich where they had gathered for the group’s annual meeting. The police were acting on indictments from the U.S. Department of Justice for charges including money laundering and racketeering.

On the same day, Swiss authorities announced they had opened their own investigation into the controversial decisions to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and 2022 World Cup to Qatar and had seized documents at FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich. This marks a turning point in what has long been a cozy relationship between FIFA and the country that has been its home since 1932.

Switzerland is home to 65 international sports associations, including FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, and the global bodies governing basketball, hockey, gymnastics, cycling, and volleyball. Sports associations including FIFA bring in more than a billion dollars a year in revenue to the country and employ about 2,000 people. There are good and legitimate reasons for sports organizations to have their headquarters in Switzerland: it’s located in the center of Europe, has a highly educated workforce and advantageous tax laws, the IOC is there, and it’s generally a pleasant place to live. But for a group as breathtakingly corrupt as Blatter’s FIFA, his home country’s hands-off regulatory climate and opaque legal system has historically offered its own advantages.

As nonprofit associations, sports bodies based in Switzerland aren’t required to provide financial data and are exempt from many of the nation’s anti-corruption laws. One Swiss lawmaker calling for reform has noted contemptuously that that a multibillion-dollar global organization like FIFA “still has the same status as a Swiss mountain village yodeling association.”

One of the best-known examples of the Swiss approach was a 2010 court ruling in which FIFA officials, including former President Joao Havelange, were found guilty of taking millions of dollars in bribes from a marketing company but then allowed to walk free after agreeing to return the money under a deal that protected their anonymity.* The details of the deal only became public knowledge when five media outlets successfully sued to have the gag order lifted two years later.

Calls for reform began to gain traction after December 2010, when FIFA’s executive committee, meeting in Zurich, made the decision to award World Cups to Russia and Qatar, sparking immediate accusations of corruption in the voting process. That’s when Swiss Federal President Micheline Calmy-Rey, who was due to open the organization’s annual congress several months later, began to take the problem more seriously. “[He] realized there was a reputation issue for Switzerland,” said Jean-Loup Chappelet, a professor of public management focusing on athletics at the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration. “[Athletics] is small in terms of money and employment, compared to the banks, but the reputation issue is big because sport and [soccer] is so big.”

This was around the same time Switzerland was also taking steps to improve the international reputation of its financial sector, including an agreement to relax its notoriously strict banking secrecy laws in the wake of the global financial crisis and a move to freeze assets held by toppled dictators including Mubarak and Qaddafi.

In 2012, Switzerland’s Federal Sports Office released a report calling for “more robust action” by Swiss authorities to combat corruption. This was at a time when Switzerland was preparing a (since abandoned) bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Last year the Swiss parliament passed a law designating heads of sporting federations like Blatter and Bach as “politically exposed persons,” a designation—usually used for politicians—that allows for more scrutiny of movements of money between bank accounts held in Switzerland.

Eric Martin, chairman of Transparency International's Swiss chapter, says that law, nicknamed “Lex FIFA,” was more symbolic than anything else. The real test for whether Switzerland is finally tackling sports corruption is a bill under consideration that would make private corruption a criminal offense.

Swiss law considers private corruption, including bribes not involving public officials, under a legal category called “unfair competition.” In practice, this means that under the current laws, prosecutors can open a case only if there’s a complaint, which is rare in corruption cases.

It does happen sometimes. After an internal investigation, FIFA asked authorities to investigate the 2018 and 2022 World Cup decisions, but the association is awkwardly being treated as the aggrieved party in this case—as well as the body being investigated—leading to reasonable suspicions that senior officials will again be let off the hook. If private corruption were made a criminal matter, prosecutors would be given much wider latitude to look into the many allegations of high-level bribery within soccer’s governing body. 

“It’s very important that the Swiss parliament will now approve this new legislation,” Transparency International’s Martin says. “Private corruption is as damaging as the corruption of public officials and it has to be prosecuted in the same manner.” Martin is optimistic that the media attention surrounding this week’s arrests will increase the bill’s chances of passage.

No matter what happens, FIFA is unlikely to pick up and leave—most countries already have similar corruption laws, and a Swiss base has other advantages—but after decades of turning a blind eye, Switzerland may finally be making life difficult for one of its most powerful citizens.

*Correction, May 27, 2015: This post originally misspelled former FIFA President Joao Havelange’s last name.

May 27 2015 5:22 PM

1-Ton World War II Bomb Accidentally Uncovered in Germany, 20,000 Evacuated

Some 20,000 residents in Cologne, Germany, were briefly evacuated Wednesday from a 1-kilometer radius around a 1-ton unexploded World War II-era bomb that was discovered 5 meters underground by construction workers. The bomb is thought to be of American design, the BBC reports, and it was safely defused. This is the sixth year running that an unexploded bomb has been unearthed in Germany; in 2010 and 2015, the bombs exploded and caused fatal injuries.

Cologne was the site of heavy Allied bombing during the war. Atlas Obscura points to a 1992 International Herald Tribune article noting that the city was targeted by a staggering 1,046 British bombers on a single night in 1942, in the first raid conducted by more than 1,000 bombers. In October 1944 a United States Air Force mission against Cologne involved 1,338 bombers and 811 fighters.

May 27 2015 4:12 PM

You Don’t Need to Think Bernie Can Win to Take Him Seriously

Bernie Sanders formally kicked off his campaign for president Tuesday by calling for a “political revolution.” Later, while talking with reporters, the self-styled socialist’s rhetoric soared a good deal closer to Earth. “I fully concede that I get into this race as a major underdog," Sanders said, before adding: “We’re going to do better than people think. And I think we’ve got a shot to win this thing.”

Sanders is already proving correct on the first count. His nascent campaign has gained more steam in its first month than many expected it would in its first year. As the Washington Post points out, the Vermont senator’s presidential campaign now has more support than those of Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich combined. Sanders is polling at 7.4 percent in the RealClearPolitics rolling average of national Democratic surveys, a figure that is sure to climb as pollsters’ continue their slow acceptance of a 2016 world without Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden—a development that will leave the declared support of roughly a quarter of Democratic voters up for grabs.

Still, Sanders’ single-digit polling is often used to dismiss him as the longest of long shots, relegating him to something between a Phish Food-flavored afterthought and a Doc Brown-haired sideshow, as Steve Hendricks documented at length last week in the Columbia Journalism Review:

The [New York] Times, for example, buried [Sanders’ official April] announcement on page A21, even though every other candidate who had declared before then had been put on the front page above the fold. Sanders’s straight-news story didn’t even crack 700 words, compared to the 1,100 to 1,500 that Marco RubioRand PaulTed Cruz, and Hillary Clinton got. As for the content, the Times’ reporters declared high in Sanders’s piece that he was a long shot for the Democratic nomination and that Clinton was all but a lock. None of the Republican entrants got the long-shot treatment, even though Paul, Rubio, and Cruz were generally polling fifth, seventh, and eighth among Republicans before they announced. …
Other major news organizations ignored Sanders as nearly as they could a sitting U.S. senator who entered the presidential race. ABC’s World News Tonight gave his announcement all of 18 seconds, five of which were allotted to Clinton’s tweet welcoming him to the race. CBS Evening News fitted the announcement into a single sentence at the end of a two-minute report about Clinton.

One thing you wouldn’t know from the ongoing coverage: Sanders’ polling is actually in the neighborhood of the GOP’s current second tier of Rand Paul (9.2 percent), Mike Huckabee (8.6 percent), Ted Cruz (8.6 percent,) Ben Carson (7.4), and Chris Christie (5.4 percent). Yet those guys have had no trouble securing their fair share of media coverage. With the possible exception of Carson, they are all taken seriously by the press.

Now, it really would take a miracle for Sanders to overcome Hillary Clinton—by some metrics the most dominant nonincumbent in history—to win the nomination, and that’s information that reporters have both the right and the responsibility to share with readers. The problem isn’t that the media isn’t treating Sanders like a legitimate presidential contender; the problem is that they’re failing to treat him like a legitimate candidate.

That’s a distinction worth making, particularly given all the digital ink spilled on the GOP hopefuls that also fall short of full-fledged contender status. Like Sanders, Paul, Cruz, and even Huckabee have no credible path to their nomination, let alone the White House. But unlike Sanders, all three are taken largely seriously by the national political press, and for good reason: They have significant bases. Paul gives a voice to libertarian-leaning conservatives, Huckabee to many evangelicals, and Cruz to some combination of the two. They don’t need to win their nomination to be worth covering seriously.

The same should be true for Sanders. There is a clear thirst for his progressive message on the left. As my colleague Jamelle Bouie points out, Sanders’ economic agenda has an unquestionable appeal for many Democrats. Seventy-one percent want high taxes to fund programs for the poor, and more than a third blame the nation’s tax and economic policies for the gulf between the rich and the rest of us. Sanders’ calls for campaign finance reform coupled with his small-dollar campaign, meanwhile, are squarely in line with voters who back a constitutional amendment to counteract Citizens United by a 2-to-1 margin. And at a time when the country is arguing over the semantics about just what type of mistake the 2003 Iraq war was, Sanders stands out among his rivals for casting a vote against authorizing the invasion.

Sanders doesn’t have the super PAC money, campaign infrastructure, or the political allies he’d need to win the nomination, but he’s clearly offering a worldview shared by a sizeable chunk of America. We don’t need to pretend he has a chance to knock off Clinton to acknowledge that.

May 27 2015 4:09 PM

St. Louis County Police Chief Eloquently Criticizes St. Louis County Police System

During the chaos that followed Michael Brown's August 2014 death in Ferguson, Missouri, St. Louis County police officers engaged in a number of controversial tactics—confronting groups of nonviolent protesters with military equipment, failing to wear identifying name tags in violation of commonly accepted police standards, harrassing journalists, and more. (St. Louis County's law enforcement groups include municipal forces like the Ferguson Police Department as well as the wider county force.) State Gov. Jay Nixon's Aug. 14 decision to bring in Missouri Highway Patrol officers to help manage protests was credited by some with de-escalating tensions that had been created in part by the aggression of the St. Louis County police, who were led by Chief Jon Belmar.

In the months since, something of a consensus has emerged in Missouri that many black Ferguson-area residents have legitimate grievances against St. Louis County's judicial and law enforcement systems, in which authorities raise money for their small municipalities (and for their own compensation) by issuing huge numbers of fines for minor or officer-fabricated infractions. On May 8 the Missouri Legislature passed a bipartisan fine reform bill that Nixon is expected to sign. The consensus about the necessity of reform, it now appears, is so wide that it includes none other than St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar! From the Huffington Post:

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar called the reform effort a “positive that came out of a tragedy.” While noting that roughly half of the dozens upon dozens of police departments in St. Louis County were “legitimate” in his view, Belmar said that there were many that didn’t exist for the right reasons. The county has so many police departments that it's impossible for him to even know the name of every police chief, Belmar said ...
Belmar acknowledged that the protests in Ferguson have given a voice to populations that had been overlooked in the past.
“If you went to a very affluent area in St. Louis County, how long do you think a program would last where speed cameras were put up on arterial roads coming into subdivisions, and people were given letters saying they were going to be arrested? It would last about five hours,” Belmar said. “You know that and I know that, and that’s part of the problem. Yet in areas that are not as affluent, and where folks really are struggling with issues of poverty and education and crime and everything else that goes along with it -- unemployment -- they don’t have the ability really to voice that opinion. They can’t leverage change. So that’s a good thing that’s come out of all this.”

Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly, who wrote the story quoted above, was actually one of the journalists infamously arrested in Ferguson in August (by a group of officers that reportedly included St. Louis County personnel) for the dubious offense of working at a McDonald's near the area of protests. The world turns.

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