Tuesday, May 29, 2007

We Want Solutions! by Howard Kunstler

May 28, 2007

Wherever the environmentally-informed gather these days (i.e., the clusterfuck-aware), a nervous impatience often mounts, and ends up expressing itself as an outcry for "solutions." For example, at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival, where I happened to be this past weekend, along with a couple of hundred other people who spewed airplane exhaust across the stratosphere to get there. This year's twin themes were the Castor-and-Pollux of Clusterfuck Nation, Global Warming and Peak Oil.
Many frightening documentary films and Powerpoint talks were served up in the opening symposium (including ones by Dennis Dimick, the editor of National Geographic, Daniel Nocera of MIT, and yours truly) and, as the morning wore on, the audience grew visibly impatient, until one speaker dropped the word "solutions," and the audience gave out a big whoop of approbation.
It only made me more nervous, because this longing for "solutions," strikes me as a free-floating wish for magical rescue remedies, for techno-fixes that will allow us to make a hassle-free switch from fossil hydrocarbon power to something less likely to destroy the Earth's ecosystems (and human civilization with it). And I think such a wish is, in itself, at the root of our problem -- certainly at the bottom of our incapacity to think clearly about these things.
I said so, of course, which seemed to piss off a substantial number of my fellow festival attendees.
My position on this can be easily misunderstood. I don't want civilization to collapse (I like Mozart and access to root canal). I don't want Homo sapiens to go extinct, or the planet to parboil. I certainly don't believe in doing nothing in the face of this emergency. But I also don't believe we are going to make any hassle-free switch in the way we run things -- or that we should want to. Would the USA be a better place if we could run Wal-Mart and Las Vegas on wind power? I don't think so. Would the public benefit from another hundred years of suburban living -- and an economy based largely on creating ever more of it? All the Prozac in the universe would not avail to offset the diminishing returns of that bullshit.
In my travels, I have noticed a disturbing theme among the educated minority of eco-advocates: they are every bit as dedicated to the status quo (in their own way) as the NASCAR morons and shopping mall developers. The eco-advocates want cars, too, and all the prerogatives (like free parking and country living) that go with them, just like the WalMart shoppers. If this were not so, then why do the eco-advocates cream in their jeans whenever somebody presents a snazzy new vehicle that runs on a fuel other than gasoline? Indeed, why are some of the eco-friendly pouring all their efforts into the invention of such things instead of into walkable communities and the reform of our stupid land-use laws?
I encountered this ethos most strikingly a few years back at Middlebury College in Vermont, where angry biodiesel advocates assailed my lack of enthusiasm for their particular "solution" -- which seemed geared mainly to allow them to continue to drive their dad's old cast-off SUVs to the snowboarding venues of that progressive little state. But the wish to keep running all our cars permeates what little public discussion there is of the global warming / energy crisis issues at all levels. Even the elder statesmen of the eco-movement talk it up incessantly. The first great victory will come when they shut up about it and put their minds to other tasks.
The eco-advocate community is still hooked into the Faustian bargain of technology with little consciousness of its diminishing returns, and to some extent have made themselves unwitting tools of the truly clueless and wicked who run business and politics in our land. With this particular group in Telluride, which was composed heavily of Boomer eco-adventurers (mountain climbers, trekkers, kayakers), the infatuation with ever-cooler adventuring techno-gear extended naturally, it seemed, to their uncritical view of magical techno-fixes aimed at "solving" the climate / oil mess.
And the setting of the festival -- the Rocky Mountain ski resort town of Telluride -- itself induced some eerie moments of reflex nausea as one contemplated the many 10,000 square-foot peeled-log dream palaces built by Hollywood producers, who derive their fortunes by selling violent masturbation fantasies to fourteen-year-olds. One couldn't fail to notice that three-quarters of the storefronts along the little main street were occupied by real estate sales offices.
But I don't want to be doubly or triply misunderstood as appearing to twang on the kind people who invited me there, or to evade the obvious fact that I went (by airplane and shuttle van). I thought it was worth going to carry this one little message: let's stop talking about making better cars and start talking about occupying the landscape differently -- which we're going to have to do anyway.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Neighborhood Swayed by 'Liar's Loans'

By Adam Geller, AP National Writer

AP Impact: Drawn Into Real Estate Frenzy, a Neighborhood Finds Home Loans Too Good to Be True BOSTON (AP) -- Upstairs at Victory Chapel Church -- a cinderblock bunker converted from a long-ago Ford dealership -- the pews are reserved for praising heaven. But downstairs, in a basement rental hall, a pair of women preached of worldly wonders.

At 11 a.m. on alternating Saturdays, they set out rows of folding chairs and spread tables with urns of coffee and boxes of Dunkin' Donuts. And they offered testimony to the bounty of real estate, encouraging their growing flock to buy the wood-frame walk-ups and rowhouses surrounding this workaday stretch of Columbia Road, just down from the OJ Car Wash.

The key was trust, they told the faithful, as the voices of the practicing choir rang through the building.

Still, Valerie Hayes was a little skeptical.

"I really was thinking it would be at least a year before I'd get a mortgage," says Hayes, an executive secretary and mother of two. She was wary of borrowing because she was saddled with her own student loans.

But "on Saturday I went to the seminar," she says. By Sunday, she was preapproved to buy.

Soon after, Hayes did buy. The problem, prosecutors say, is that the women put Hayes and others into homes they couldn't possible afford. They did so by filling their loan applications with details of jobs, paychecks and bank accounts that were all so much fiction.

What happened in this church basement was no fluke; it happened elsewhere, too.

Much has been made of the very questionable lending that accompanied the rapid growth of subprime mortgages, a phenomenon that made homeowners of so many people. But less attention has been paid to the gimmickry and manipulation that delivered the loans an industry craved.

Some say this was nothing short of fraud. Those accused reject the charges. The case also raises tough questions of whether borrowers, too, should bear some responsibility.

But the bottom line is beyond dispute. Valerie Hayes can tell you about that. Just don't go looking for her at the home she bought, thanks to the women at Victory Chapel Church.

It's owned by the bank now, and there's a real estate agent's lockbox on the door.

Over the past decade, the mortgage industry has turned itself into a very big tent.

People who might have had trouble borrowing found it much easier to get a loan. Lenders devised new types of loans and eased standards to bring buyers into the market.

As a result, homeownership reached record levels. But as interest rates rise and the market cools, it becomes clear many people were put into punishing loans they couldn't afford.

That is particularly evident in the enormous growth of what the industry politely calls "stated income" loans -- also known as "liar's loans."

Stated loans -- whose borrowers list income and assets without having to prove anything -- were meant for solidly self-employed buyers. Then they "morphed into a huge monster," says Connie Wilson of Interthinx, a maker of mortgage fraud detection software. "Now we have stated income programs for everyone."

The loans have become a huge piece of the subprime market. Last year, nearly half of subprimes required little or no documentation of income, a share that has nearly tripled since the start of 2000, according to First American LoanPerformance.

But in its love of these quickly processed loans, the industry overlooked the pitfalls.

A study by the Mortgage Asset Research Institute Inc. of 100 stated loan applications last year found almost 60 percent exaggerated incomes by at least half. A study by BasePoint Analytics found that 70 percent of mortgage defaults were linked to "a significant misrepresentation on the original loan application."

Mortgage fraud is most visible in the spectacular cases that draw prosecutorial muscle, involving fake buyers, property flipping, vast amounts of money. But that overlooks smaller-scale foul play now costing many subprime borrowers their homes, experts say.

Often it's not considered fraud. It's pushing the envelope. It's a dollop of distortion topped with a measure of creative exaggeration. It's doing whatever it takes.

"There's a huge amount of broker fraud out there," says Kerstin Arusha of the Fair Housing Law Project in San Jose, Cal., which represents low-income homeowners stuck in such loans. "When you look at the applications of many of these borrowers, I see it reported that they make $10,000 or $12,000 a month, sometimes $20,000 a month. They always have $100,000 in personal assets ... You can see that these things are created by the broker."

Of course, most real estate agents and mortgage brokers are honest.

But there have been too many in the last few years "who stretch the truth ... that make deals happen that really shouldn't happen," says Jim Croft, founder of the Mortgage Asset Research Institute.

"And they always have the fallback that they're not dishonest," he says. "They're just helping Jill and Joe Six-pack get into the home -- and realize the American dream."

Frances Darden dreamed of buying a house. And not just any house.

It would be in Boston, because this was home now. But it would look and feel like her grandparents' place in the South Carolina of her childhood, because that's what home meant.

It would have a backyard for barbecues and a front porch for conversation. Its French doors would usher visitors from living room to dining room. It would not be a grand place, mind you, but thinking about it made Darden feel just grand.

Still, it was lot to imagine for a hair stylist on disability, reliant on a subsidized housing voucher and supporting two teenagers. Banks told Darden to scale back her dreams, offering to lend, but not enough to buy in her own neighborhood.

Then, in September 2004, she spotted an ad in the weekly Banner.

"Want to Buy a Home? Credit Less Than Perfect?" beckoned one of what would become a series of ads by Champagne & Associates, a real estate agency in her neighborhood of Dorchester. The slogan above the agency's name made Darden optimistic.

"Let's Make History," it said.

Darden went to Champagne's free seminar with her friend, Annie Neal. It was held in the agent's office, facing a traffic-filled avenue, between a storefront daycare center and Linda's African Braiding & Clothing. Agents had pushed the desks back to the green stucco to make room for an audience. The prospective buyers met two women who vowed to help them.

The first was Champagne's owner, Roberta Robinson, a former mortgage broker who'd started her own real estate shop.

"She had an answer for every question," Darden says.

The second was Rachel Noyes, a bartender-turned-mortgage broker who brought her toddler to some seminars, and promised to unlock the secrets of buying real estate.

"I really felt like I was helping people get into homes," Noyes said in a recent telephone interview. "The one question I always asked, to drill into your mind, is: How much can you afford?"

But those who attended the seminars -- describing the experience in interviews and court papers -- don't remember it that way.

"As long as you're honest with me," Valerie Hayes recalls Noyes saying, "I guarantee you I can you get you into a loan."

At session's end, organizers asked for Social Security numbers to run credit checks.

"We're not going to be approved to buy a home in Boston and I don't want to go out to Lowell," Darden recalls thinking.

But a couple of days later her phone rang. It was Robinson -- with good news.

Darden had been preapproved for a loan. Up to $360,000!

It only took a few weeks for Frances Darden to find her dream house -- a two-family set on a corner of Harvard Street with pale yellow siding, a small front porch and another on the back. But could she afford it?

Darden says Roberta Robinson calmly reassured her.

"I have always been about educating the consumer regarding real estate since I hit the scene," Robinson wrote of herself in an advertising directory. "I feel the first step in homeownership is working with an informed client."

Robinson did not return calls and her attorney declined to comment.

When another bidder pulled out of a deal for the house, Darden says Robinson called with more good news.

"She said, `You have some good credit, girl, because you got approved for two houses,'" Darden recalls.

"How is that possible?" wondered Darden, who says she first told the agents she could afford only $1,500 to $2,000 a month in payments.

Renters, she was told, would help her carry the load of her own home, and the costs would be further offset by a three-family rental property.

Soon, mortgage applications --almost entirely blank -- arrived in the mail. Darden signed and returned them. In November, Darden closed on the first house. In December, she closed on a second.

She'd been preapproved for $360,000. Now she was borrowing $894,000.

It would cost her $7,194 a month.

It wasn't until seven months later, though, after she struggled to find tenants and maintain the buildings, that Darden began to wonder just what had happened. It began to make sense only when she studied the finished paperwork.

When she bought, Darden was receiving $1,800 a month in disability payments -- as she recovered from a collapsed lung -- sometimes supplemented by child support of $150 a week.

But the mortgage application described a woman she did not recognize: an administration manager for a medical supply company, earning $114,000 a year.

Meanwhile, the real Frances Darden was quickly falling behind.

In June 2005, Darden says she went to the Champagne office to demand help in refinancing her loans. By now, though, the effort to recruit buyers had outgrown the space on Blue Hill Avenue and moved to the church. Some of the sessions were drawing 40 or 50 people.

Robinson tried to help her sell the second home. But Darden was going through a divorce, tying up the home's ownership. She was and falling farther behind.

Now it had been a year since she'd become a homeowner. Long enough for the lender to lay claim to the investment property and begin foreclosure.

One of the most notable things about Frances Darden's story is how much it echoes the others.

Valerie Hayes says she knew something was very wrong when she went to close on the $440,000 loan for her house, a two-family in East Boston. She'd agreed to $2,300 payments because of expected rental income. But the documents listed payments at $3,300 a month.

"I see the real mortgages and it's apparent to me I got robbed," Hayes says, "but I'm thinking I'm going to make this work."

Why didn't she walk out? Because she'd already given up her old apartment and had a tenant waiting to move in. Within months, though, maintaining the building depleted savings already strained by the mortgage payments. That's when she noticed the reference to a second job -- one she never had -- earning a fictional $1,846 a month working for Champagne.

Late last year, Hayes moved out and the lender began foreclosure.

Others are still trying to hold on.

There's Macdala Louis, a nursing assistant, who bought on Edwin Street. Her loan application said she had a second job working for a company, Hart Professional Cleaning, that does not appear to exist.

And Jennifer Stone, a medical assistant who bought a $489,000 home with her partner, a special police officer.

"They said we had accounts we didn't even have. They said we had $50,000 in the bank," Stone says. "I didn't even have $700 in my 401(k)."

Dorchester, a sprawling mostly black neighborhood where many families get by on tight paychecks, has many homeowners who struggle. So when Darden went to see a foreclosure prevention counselor at ESAC, a nonprofit chartered by a number of Boston churches, it was hardly out of the ordinary.

It looks like you make pretty good money, counselor Steve Bennett told her, studying the mortgage paperwork. No, Darden insisted, that's not me.

Bennett wondered. Then he heard the same story from a second homeowner. And a third.

"This was a huge learning curve," says Robert Pulster, the agency's executive director. "What the hell is going on here and how did this happen?"

In August, Massachusetts' attorney general filed a civil lawsuit in state Superior Court accusing Robinson, Noyes and their companies of using "unfair and deceptive tactics to target and deceive low-income consumers into committing to mortgages they could not qualify for or afford."

The women pocketed thousands of dollars in commissions and fees for putting together deals and loans bound to fail, the suit says.

Prosecutors have obtained court orders restricting the activities of the women and their companies, both of which have closed. While the case awaits trial, however, Robinson has resurrected her real estate business in a nearby Boston neighborhood under a new name -- Opulent Realty Inc.

Noyes, who moved to Florida, recently lost by default after she stopped appearing in court to contest the charges. But damages have not been set and she continues to deny any deception.

It was the real estate agents who "were pushing people into homes they shouldn't have been," Noyes says. Borrowers, too, bear responsibility, she says.

"With stated income loans ... because there's no documentation, you're going by what the buyer is saying," Noyes said. "Who am I to say: 'You're a liar. You don't make that.' Should I have had better judgment? I don't know."

The borrowers reject that argument outright. Darden rushes to her bedroom and returns with a bag full of documents, pulling out a copy of the mortgage application she signed. It is all but blank.

If they deserve blame, she and other buyers say, it's for being too willing to believe and too naive to ask questions.

On a cool spring evening, Hayes walks from the modest but tidy one-bedroom rental she shares with her college-age son and daughter, three blocks up to the home she lost. It takes just a few minutes, but confirms how far she has come.

If she gets another chance at ownership, she'll be wiser, Hayes says, recalling that Saturday morning listening to a pitch in the church basement.

Subprime loans?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

When canary's sing

WASHINGTON (AP) - A former Justice Department official told House investigators Wednesday that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tried to review his version of the prosecutor firings with her at a time when lawmakers were homing in on conflicting accounts. Gonzales has testified he hasn't spoken with witnesses.

``It made me a little uncomfortable,'' Monica Goodling, Gonzales' former White House liaison, said of her conversation with the attorney general just before she took a leave of absence in March. ``I just did not know if it was appropriate for us to both be discussing our recollections of what had happened.''

In a daylong appearance before the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee, Goodling, 33, also acknowledged crossing a legal line herself by considering the party affiliations of candidates for career prosecutor jobs - a violation of law.

And she said that Gonzales' No. 2, Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, knew more than he let on when he did not disclose to Congress the extent of White House involvement in deciding which prosecutors to fire. McNulty strongly denied that he withheld information, saying Goodling did not fully brief him about the White House's involvement.

Goodling's dramatic story about her final conversation with Gonzales brought questions from panel members about whether he had tried to align her story with his and whether he was truthful in his own congressional testimony.

Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that he didn't know the answers to some questions about the firings because he was steering clear of aides - such as Goodling - who were likely to be questioned.

``I haven't talked to witnesses because of the fact that I haven't wanted to interfere with this investigation and department investigations,'' Gonzales told the panel.

Goodling said for the first time Wednesday that Gonzales did review the story of the firings with her at an impromptu meeting she requested in his office a few days before she took a leave of absence.

``I was somewhat paralyzed. I was distraught, and I felt like I wanted to make a transfer,'' Goodling recalled during a packed hearing of the House Judiciary Committee.

Gonzales, she said, indicated he would think about Goodling's request.

``He then proceeded to say, 'Let me tell you what I can remember,' and he laid out for me his general recollection ... of some of the process'' of the firings, Goodling added. When Gonzales finished, ``he asked me if I had any reaction to his iteration.''

Goodling said the conversation made her uncomfortable because she was aware that she, Gonzales and others would be called by Congress to testify.

``Was the attorney general trying to shake your recollection?'' asked Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala.

Goodling paused.

``I just did not know if it was a conversation we should be having and so I just didn't say anything,'' she replied. She added that she thought Gonzales was trying to be kind.

Democrats pounced.

``It certainly has the flavor of trying to get their stories straight,'' said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the committee.

The Justice Department denied that Gonzales did anything at that meeting other than try to help Goodling.

``The attorney general has never attempted to influence or shape the testimony or public statements of any witness in this matter, including Ms. Goodling,'' said spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. ``The statements made by the attorney general during this meeting were intended only to comfort her in a very difficult period of her life.''

Gonzales' resignation is being demanded by Democrats and some Republicans in part over the firings. Bush is standing by his longtime friend, but Democrats have pressed ahead with their probe, contending the firings may have been an attempt to exploit a loophole in the Patriot Act to install GOP loyalists as prosecutors without Senate confirmation.

Gonzales has denied that. But the furor has been costly nonetheless - Goodling and Sampson have resigned over it. McNulty, too, is leaving later this year. And many lawmakers who have not directly demanded Gonzales' resignation say he has lost their confidence.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Air Force Combat Troops?!

for those of us who were in the army, how ridiculous is this?

The Air Force has long billed itself as the most glamorous of the service branches.

Nowadays, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the shortage in infantry manpower, the Air Force is marching to a different beat.

At Fort Dix in New Jersey, members of the Air Force are training to fight on the ground. In one combat-training exercise, Airman Travis Neeley's sergeant is down, bleeding to death and straining to stay alive. The convoy they were riding in has been hit and, though he's only 20 years old with just two stripes on his sleeve, Airman Neely is suddenly the squad leader.

And his squad is under heavy enemy fire.

Travis Neely signed up for the Air Force fresh out of high school in his hometown of Greenback, Tenn. He's an air transporter by training, which means he moves cargo and passengers, and rigs air drops.

Or as he whimsically describes it, "I tie knots and string all day long and make parachutes."

But within 10 days, Neeley and 200 other airmen at the Air Force Expeditionary Center at Fort Dix will become expert marksmen on the M-4 rifle. In short, they'll become urban warriors.

The Expeditionary Center is now retraining about 5,000 airmen per year, preparing them to fight on the ground in Iraq.

"There's no doubt that we've been asked to come in and help out," says Maj. Gen. Scott Gray, commander of the Expeditionary Center.

Like most high-ranking airmen, Gray is a pilot by training, but he's now overseeing the largest Air Force retraining center in the United States. The Iraq war has strained the Army and the Marine Corps. The Air Force is increasingly helping fill the gaps.

"The Army has felt some pressure, there's no doubt about it," Gray says. "So the fact that we can aid the Army and Marines — I see that personally as a good thing."

Since 2003, more than 30,000 airmen and sailors have been retrained to do things they normally wouldn't be called on to do, like run vehicle convoys, take part in street patrols, and get used to the sound of an AK-47 — the weapon of choice for insurgents in Iraq.

During the two-week course at the Expeditionary Center, the airmen will hear thousands of rounds of AK-47 blanks. They'll also receive hand-to-hand combat training and will be shot at by semunitions, or rubber bullets.

"These rounds travel at 300 feet per second, which is about a third of a speed of a real bullet," says Staff Sgt. Daniel Williamson. "They won't pierce you … but they will tear your skin off."

Williamson trains his fellow airmen on how to clear a village. They haven't been trained in infantry tactics like their counterparts in the Army and Marines, so Williamson makes sure that each airman gets hit by a rubber bullet at some point.

"We believe pain is an excellent teacher, so if they make a bad tactical mistake — they're not behind cover or if they tuck their elbows out or flag their weapon or maybe they don't take cover — they're actually gonna get hit and they're gonna remember it because it actually stings a little bit," Williamson says.

The Iraq war has been, by and large, the Army's burden. About two-thirds of all casualties have been soldiers. And the administration's decision to increase the size of ground forces means that the Army and the Marines won't be able to fight it alone.

The Air Force has more than 350,000 active-duty airmen, and though many aren't yet trained in ground combat, it's manpower the Pentagon is after now.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Ashcroft and the Night Visitors

By Dana MilbankWednesday, May 16, 2007;

As if Attorney General Alberto Gonzales didn't have enough trouble, now comes word that, before coming to the Justice Department, Gonzales preyed on the infirm.
In hair-raising testimony before a Senate committee yesterday, Jim Comey, the former No. 2 official at the Justice Department, described what might be called the Wednesday Night Massacre of March 10, 2004. Gonzales, then the White House counsel, and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card staged a bedside ambush of Attorney General John Ashcroft while he lay in intensive care. Comey, serving as acting attorney general during Ashcroft's incapacitation, testified about how, on a tip from Ashcroft's wife, he intercepted the pair in Ashcroft's hospital room.
"The door opened and in walked Mr. Gonzales, carrying an envelope, and Mr. Card," Comey told the spellbound senators. "They came over and stood by the bed." They wanted Ashcroft to sign off on an eavesdropping plan that Comey and others at the Justice Department had already called legally indefensible.
Ashcroft "lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter" -- that Comey was right. "And as he laid back down, he said, 'But that doesn't matter, because I'm not the attorney general. There is the attorney general.' And he pointed to me."
Gonzales and Card "did not acknowledge me," Comey testified. "They turned and walked from the room."
The Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee stared. The lone Republican in attendance, Arlen Specter (Pa.), looked down. The 6-foot-8 Comey, slightly hunched in the witness chair, swallowed frequently and kept his hands in his lap as he spun a narrative worthy of Dashiell Hammett.
"I thought I just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man," Comey told the quiet chamber. His voice grew thick and he cleared his throat as he explained how he prepared to resign. "I couldn't stay, if the administration was going to engage in conduct that the Department of Justice had said had no legal basis."
Comey had come before the committee to discuss Gonzales's botched firing of U.S. attorneys. Instead, under questioning from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), he gave his account of Gonzales's dark-of-night attempt to emasculate the department he would soon lead. The testimony had all the more impact because it came the morning after Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty became the fourth senior official to resign in the prosecutor mess.
If Comey's testimony had the grip of mystery yesterday, Gonzales's defense had the feel of farce, as he heaped blame on McNulty for the mishandled firings. "The deputy attorney general is the direct supervisor of the United States attorneys," Gonzales volunteered at a National Press Club breakfast. He added: "I went back to the deputy attorney general and I asked Paul, 'Do you still stand by the recommendations?' And he said, 'Yes.' "
At the hearing, Specter offered a different view of McNulty's departure. "It's embarrassing for a professional to work for the Department of Justice today," he said, calling the resignation "evidence that the department really cannot function with the continued leadership or lack of leadership of Attorney General Gonzales."
Despite public pleas from a "lonely" Specter, the other Republicans on the committee didn't risk an appearance. Even the White House declined to counter Comey, who has a reputation for honesty. "You've got somebody who has splashy testimony on Capitol Hill -- good for him," presidential press secretary Tony Snow dodged.
In truth, nothing Snow could have said would have matched Comey's testimony. Comey recounted how, while driving home at 8 p.m. on that day in 2004, he got word that Mrs. Ashcroft had received a call -- possibly from President Bush himself -- to say Gonzales and Card were coming.
"I told my security detail that I needed to get to George Washington Hospital immediately. They turned on the emergency equipment and drove very quickly," Comey testified. "I got out of the car and ran up -- literally ran up the stairs with my security detail. . . . I raced to the hospital room, entered." The room was dark, and Ashcroft was "pretty bad off."
In Comey's account, he got FBI Director Robert Mueller to tell his agents guarding Ashcroft not to let Card and Gonzales evict Comey from the room. A few minutes after the bedside confrontation, Card called the hospital. He "demanded that I come to the White House immediately," Comey testified. "I responded that, after the conduct I had just witnessed, I would not meet with him without a witness present."
"He replied, 'What conduct? We were just there to wish him well.' " After Card demanded to know if Comey was "refusing to come to the White House," Comey, with the solicitor general, finally arrived at the West Wing at 11 p.m. His narrative covered the next two days, ending when Bush intervened and avoided a spate of resignations.
The senators had some trouble finding words for what they had heard. "This story makes me gulp," Schumer said.
Specter invoked the firing of the Watergate prosecutor. "It has some characteristics of the Saturday Night Massacre," he said. And the senator left little doubt about whom he blamed.
"Can you give us an example of an exercise of good judgment by Alberto Gonzales?" he asked.
This time, Comey had no narrative. "Let the record show a very long pause," Specter said.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Senate blocks bid to allow prescription drug imports, a victory for drug companies

By Andrew Bridges
3:59 p.m. May 7, 2007
WASHINGTON – Prescription drug prices in the United States probably will remain among the highest in the world.

Overseas, brand-name prescription drugs can cost two-thirds less than they do in the United States. In many industrialized countries, prices are lower because they are either controlled or partially controlled by government regulation.

Lawmakers have pushed for years to allow drug imports, saying they would drive down prices in the U.S. Experts disagree by just how much, however.

Consumers won't have a chance to find out. The Senate on Monday killed a bid to allow competition from lower-priced imports.

In a triumph for the pharmaceutical industry, the Senate, on a 49-40 vote, neutralized the latest push to allow drug imports. The measure required the administration to certify the safety and effectiveness of imported drugs before they can be brought into the country. That's something officials have said they cannot do.

“Well, once again the big drug companies have proved that they are the most powerful and best financed lobby in Washington,” said Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican.

The vote nullified a second amendment, later passed on a voice vote, that would legalize the importation of prescription drugs manufactured in Canada, Australia, Europe, Japan and New Zealand.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called the certification amendment, introduced by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., a “poison pill” for the drug-imports legislation. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., acknowledged it nullified his bid to allow the purchase of drugs abroad.

“This is a setback for us. But the drug industry is one of the strongest industries in this town,” Dorgan said.

Sen. Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, said the requirement for a safety certification was essential to protect the public.

“Under both Democratic and Republican administrations, secretaries of Health and Human Services have declined to certify that foreign drugs – like those allowed under the Dorgan Foreign Drug Act – are safe for American consumers. They realized, as I do, that close enough isn't good enough,” Enzi said.

The maneuvering occurred on broader legislation to renew the FDA's ability to collect fees from the drug industry to defray the cost of reviewing new drugs. Lawmakers have seized on the bill to overhaul the agency, including its handling of drug-safety issues highlighted in the wake of the withdrawal of the painkiller Vioxx.

Advocates of drug importation have argued for years that an existing ban is more a protection for the drug industry than a safety issue.

Dorgan held out Lipitor, saying 90 doses of the cholesterol drug cost $321 in the U.S. – about twice the cost in Canada.

The idea of allowing prescription drug imports enjoys broad popular support. However, lower prices overseas would not automatically translate into large savings for domestic consumers, according to a 2004 study by the Congressional Budget Office.

The study found that allowing drug imports from a broad set of countries would cut U.S. drug spending by $40 billion over 10 years, about a 1 percent savings. It said foreign governments could limit drug exports to protect their own domestic supplies, and that U.S. drug companies could respond to an importation bill by increasing prices abroad.

The pharmaceutical industry vehemently opposes allowing drug imports, arguing that they could leave the nation vulnerable to dangerous counterfeits.

Similar drug-import legislation is pending in the House.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Corzine Fined, at His Request, for Not Wearing a Seat Belt

May 2, 2007

TRENTON, May 1 — Gov. Jon S. Corzine voluntarily paid a $46 fine on Tuesday for failing to wear a seat belt, as required by law, on the day when his state vehicle crashed on the Garden State Parkway last month, state officials said.

Mr. Corzine, 60, a Democrat in his first term, was seriously hurt in the accident, losing half his blood and breaking more than a dozen bones. But his failure to wear a seat belt — and the question of whether he would be fined — became an obsessive water-cooler topic, as some people in even the staunchest Democratic neighborhoods criticized his behavior.

So on Tuesday, when Mr. Corzine met with Col. Joseph R. Fuentes, the state police superintendent; Attorney General Stuart Rabner; and two other officials investigating the April 12 accident, he asked for a summons. Colonel Fuentes wrote a ticket on the spot; Mr. Corzine, a multimillionaire and former co-chairman of the investment bank Goldman Sachs, paid by personal check, covering the $20 fine and related court costs.

“It’s been a good amount of time since the superintendent issued a summons,” said Capt. Al Della Fave, a spokesman for the state police.

Mr. Corzine’s decision came hours after a New Jersey resident dropped a complaint demanding that the governor be ticketed and not receive preferential treatment.

Larry Angel, a lifeguard from Egg Harbor Township who is known for his long speeches at public meetings, had originally filed a complaint in Municipal Court in Galloway Township, where the accident took place. But he told reporters on Tuesday that he had dropped the complaint because Mr. Corzine’s apology on Monday on his release from the hospital seemed sincere.

Mr. Corzine, who was discharged on Monday, is expected to spend the next few weeks, if not months, recovering from his injuries at Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Princeton, and not the Hoboken apartment where he previously spent most of his time. As of Tuesday evening, officials said, he had not yet left the private second-floor residence of the mansion, since a hospital bed and assorted equipment related to his rehabilitation and physical therapy are all there.

He has spent most of the last two days with his family, closest aides and medical personnel, aides said. But when he met with law enforcement officials on Tuesday to talk about the accident, he told them that “he remembered some details, but not all of them,” said Anthony Coley, his communications director.

For now, two separate panels are investigating the accident. One, organized by Mr. Rabner and including such dignitaries as former Gov. Christie Whitman, will focus on reviewing the Executive Protection Unit, the elite cadre of state troopers assigned to drive the governor and provide security for him. The panel is scheduled to meet for the first time on Friday in Trenton.

The other panel consists of an internal state police review, to determine whether the accident could have been prevented. If so, disciplinary action may be meted out against the state trooper, Robert J. Rasinski, who was driving Mr. Corzine at 91 miles per hour when the crash occurred.

State officials expect both panels to produce findings within the next two months.