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The Alabama Governor’s “Inappropriate Relationship” Wasn’t the Whole Scandal

Mother Jones

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican whose relationship with a former aide earned him the nickname “Love Gov,” is expected to resign this week under threat of impeachment. But Bentley’s departure won’t resolve every scandal plaguing his administration.

On Friday, the special counsel leading the impeachment investigation released a 130-page report, which found that Bentley had improperly used law enforcement officials to cover up his “inappropriate relationship” with the former aide, Rebekah Mason. “Bentley directed law enforcement to advance his personal interests and, in a process characterized by increasing obsession and paranoia, subjected career law enforcement officers to tasks intended to protect his reputation,” the report says. The findings come days after the Alabama Ethics Commission found probable cause to believe Bentley committed multiple felony violations of state ethics and campaign finance laws.

Apart from Bentley’s fate, the report shed some light on an episode that brought national scorn and a federal civil rights investigation to Alabama—an episode that also involves the state’s junior US senator, Luther Strange (R).

In 2015, the Bentley administration announced it would shutter 31 driver’s license offices. The closures—which were portrayed as a cost-saving measure—hit rural, minority counties the hardest, leaving 8 of the state’s 11 majority-African American counties without an office that issues driver’s licenses. The move was especially problematic given that Alabama requires voters to present photo identification to cast a ballot.

The closures drew widespread condemnation from civil rights activists. The NAACP filed a lawsuit, which led to an investigation by the US Department of Transportation. The department found that the closures violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In December 2016, the state of Alabama agreed to expand hours of operations for some offices—a partial reversal of the 2015 closures.

According to Friday’s report, former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Director Spencer Collier told investigators that it was Mason who asked him to shutter driver’s license offices. Collier alleged that at a budget meeting in 2015, Mason proposed closing offices and asked his agency to come up with a plan for doing so. Collier also said he contacted that state attorney general’s office because he thought the proposal might violate federal law; Strange was the attorney general at the time.

“It was Collier’s understanding that Mason intended the plan to be rolled out in a way that had limited impact on Governor Bentley’s political allies,” the report states. “Collier claims he reported this to the Attorney General’s office because he was concerned about a Voting Rights Act violation.”

Ultimately, Collier came up with a plan to close offices with the smallest workloads—which hit rural and minority communities the hardest. Bentley approved the plan but, according the report, took an office in the district of a Republican state senator off the closure list.

In an email, Bobby Segall, an attorney for Mason, declined to address Mason’s involvement in the closures but added, “I will say generally there is a good bit in the report with which we do not agree.”

In February, Bentley appointed Strange to the US Senate seat vacated when Jeff Sessions (R) became US attorney general.

Beyond Bentley’s strange saga, the report raises the question of whether Strange’s office green-lighted a plan that the federal government found discriminatory. Collier first noted in the fall of 2015—amid a public backlash over the closures—that he had discussed the plan with Strange’s office. Spokespeople for Strange and the Alabama attorney general’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

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The Alabama Governor’s “Inappropriate Relationship” Wasn’t the Whole Scandal

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In One Executive Order, Trump Revoked Years of Workplace Protections for Women

Mother Jones

In 2014, President Barack Obama signed the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces executive order. It required companies with federal contracts to heed 14 different labor and civil rights laws, including ones aimed at protecting parental leave, weeding out discrimination against women and minorities, and ensuring equal pay for women and fair processes surrounding workplace sexual harassment allegations.

Last week, Trump revoked this order, leaving workers at thousands of companies much more vulnerable to a host of abuses from their employers—and undoing protections meant to create more equitable workplaces for women.

“We have an executive order that essentially forces women to pay to keep companies in business that discriminate against them—with their own tax dollars,” Noreen Farrell, the director of Equal Rights Advocates, told NBC. “It’s an outrage.”

One provision of the now-revoked order required paycheck transparency by companies holding federal contracts, in which they had to provide all employees with detailed statements of their hours and compensation—a measure that’s particularly important for protecting workers against wage theft. A second provision that was jettisoned banned the use of forced arbitration clauses by federal contractors in handling sexual harassment or discrimination claims in their workplaces. These types of clauses—which require allegations to be settled privately outside of court in usually secret proceedings—are a way for companies to preemptively keep sexual harassment allegations out of the public eye.

Trump’s order also revokes the requirement that companies seeking federal contracts disclose three year’s worth of violations of the Equal Employment Opportunity executive order, first signed in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson and since amended to include protections surrounding gender. The order now states that companies with federal contracts “will not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or national origin.”

Nor will companies bidding on federal contracts be required to reveal their last three year’s worth of violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires that many companies provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave to new parents.

The day before President Trump signed this order, it was reported that his daughter Ivanka—who has regularly spoken about her father’s plans to improve protections for working moms, and who is currently pushing a child care tax credit as part of the administration’s upcoming tax reform initiative—would represent the United States at an upcoming women’s empowerment summit in Berlin. Here is her tweet:

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In One Executive Order, Trump Revoked Years of Workplace Protections for Women

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Watch the Top Democrat on the Senate Intel Committee Explain the Trump-Russia Scandal

Mother Jones

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The US Senate intelligence committee on Thursday convened its first hearing in its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. In stark contrast to the House intelligence committee’s investigation—which has been brought to a halt by the partisan brinksmanship of the panel’s chair, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.)—the leaders of the Senate investigation say they are trying to keep things as bipartisan and transparent as possible. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the committee’s vice chairman, used his opening statement to sum up Russia’s election interference—and the ways that Trump associates may have been connected to this Kremlin operation. “We are seeking to determine if there is an actual fire, but there’s clearly a lot of smoke,” Warner said. Read his full statement below:

Today’s hearing is important to help understand the role Russia played in the 2016 presidential elections.

As the U.S. intelligence community unanimously assessed in January of this year, Russia sought to hijack our democratic process, and that most important part of our democratic process, our Presidential elections. As we’ll learn today, Russia’s strategy and tactics are not new, but their brazenness certainly was.

This hearing is also important because it is open, as the chairman mentioned—which is unusual for this Committee. Due to the classified nature of our work, we typically operate behind closed doors.

But today’s public hearing will help, I hope, the American public writ large understand how the Kremlin made effective use of its hacking skills to steal and weaponize information and engage in a coordinated effort to damage a particular candidate and to undermine public confidence in our democratic process.

Our witnesses today will help us to understand how Russia deployed this deluge of disinformation in a broader attempt to undermine America’s strength and leadership throughout the world.

We simply must – and we will – get this right. The Chairman and I agree it is vitally important that we do this as a credible, bipartisan, and transparent a manner as possible. As was said yesterday at our press conference, Chairman Burr and I trust each other, and equally important, we trust our colleagues on this committee that we are going to move together and we are going to get to the bottom of it and get it right.

As this hearing begins, let’s take a minute to review what we know: Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a deliberate campaign carefully constructed to undermine our election.

First, Russia struck at our political institutions by electronically breaking into the headquarters of one of our political parties and stealing vast amounts of information. Russian operatives also hacked emails to steal personal messages and other information from individuals ranging from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta to former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

This stolen information was then “weaponized.” We know that Russian intelligence used the “Guccifer 2.0” persona and others like WikiLeaks and seemingly choreographed times that would cause maximum damage to one candidate. They did this with an unprecedented level of sophistication about American presidential politics that should be a line of inquiry for us on this committee and candidly, while it helped one candidate this time, they are not favoring one party over another, and consequently should be a concern for all of us.

Second, Russia continually sought to diminish and undermine our trust in the American media by blurring our faith in what is true and what is not. Russian propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik successfully produced and peddled disinformation to American audiences in pursuit of Moscow’s preferred outcome.

This Russian “propaganda on steroids” was designed to poison the national conversation in America. The Russians employed thousands of paid Internet trolls and bot-nets to push-out disinformation and fake news at high volume, focusing this material onto your Twitter and Facebook feeds and flooding our social media with misinformation.

This fake news and disinformation was then hyped by the American media echo chamber and our own social media networks to reach – and potentially influence – millions of Americans.

This is not innuendo or false allegations. This is not fake news. This is actually what happened to us, and understanding all aspects of this attack is important.

Russia continues these sorts of actions as we speak. Some of our close allies in Europe are experiencing exactly the same kind of interference in their political processes. Germany has said that its Parliament has been hacked. French presidential candidates right now have been the subjects of Russian propaganda and disinformation. In the Netherlands, their recent elections, the Dutch hand-counted their ballots because they feared Russian interference in their electoral process.

Perhaps, most critically for us, there is nothing to stop them from doing this all over again in 2018, for those of you who are up, or in 2020, as Americans again go back to the polls.

In addition to what we already know, any full accounting must also find out what, if any, contacts, communications or connections occurred between Russia and those associated with the campaigns themselves.

I will not prejudge the outcome of our investigation. We are seeking to determine if there is an actual fire, but there’s clearly a lot of smoke. For instance:

• An individual associated with the Trump campaign accurately predicted the release of hacked emails weeks before it happened. This same individual also admits to being in contact with Guccifer 2.0, the Russian intelligence persona responsible for these cyber operations.
• The platform of one of our two major political parties was mysteriously watered-down in a way which promoted the interests of President Putin — and no one seems to be able to identify who directed that change in the platform.
• A campaign manager of one campaign, who played such a critical role in electing the President, was forced to step down over his alleged ties to Russia and its associates.
• Since the election, we have seen the President’s national security advisor resign — and his Attorney General recuse — himself over previously undisclosed contacts with the Russian government.
• And, of course, in the other body, on March 20th, the Director of the FBI publicly acknowledged that the Bureau is “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russian efforts.”

I want to be clear, at least for me: This investigation is not about whether you have a “D” or an “R” next to your name. It is not about re-litigating last fall’s election. It is about clearly understanding and responding to this very real threat.

It’s also, I believe, about holding Russia accountable for this unprecedented attack against our democracy. And it is about arming ourselves so we can identify and stop it when it happens again. And trust me: it will happen again if we don’t take action.

I would hope that the President is as anxious as we are to get to the bottom of what happened. But I have to say editorially, that the President’s recent conduct — with his wild and uncorroborated accusations about wiretapping, and his inappropriate and unjustified attacks on America’s hard-working intelligence professionals — does give me grave concern.

This Committee has a heavy weight of responsibility to prove that we can continue to put our political labels aside and get to the truth. I believe we can get there. I have seen firsthand, and I say this to our audience, how seriously members on both sides of this dais have worked so far on this sensitive and critical issue.

As the Chairman and I have said repeatedly, this investigation will follow the facts where they lead us .If at any time I believe we’re not going to be able to get those facts, and we’re working together very cooperatively to make sure we get the facts we need from the intelligence community, we will get that done.

Mr. Chairman, I thank you for your commitment to this serious work and your commitment to keeping this bipartisan cooperation, at least, if not all across the hill, alive in this committee. Thank you very much.

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Watch the Top Democrat on the Senate Intel Committee Explain the Trump-Russia Scandal

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Holocaust Survivor Slams Top Immigration Official: "History Is Not on Your Side"

Mother Jones

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On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a surprise appearance at a White House press briefing to announce that the Justice Department would begin cracking down on so-called sanctuary cities that fail to comply with federal immigration laws. If local governments refuse to cooperate with federal efforts to detain undocumented immigrants, Sessions said, as much as $4 billion in grants across the country could be withheld.

Despite the stark warning this week, many residents opposing Trump’s anti-immigration policies don’t appear to be deterred. In the case of Sacramento County, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director Thomas Homan was invited to speak at a town-hall style meeting Tuesday, hundreds of people turned out to blast the ongoing sweeps targeting undocumented immigrants in the state. The most powerful moment arrived when an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor named Bernard Marks took to the mic to warn Homan and Sheriff Scott Jones that “history was not on their side.”

The remarks, as noted by CBS Sacramento, below:

When I was a little boy in Poland, for no other reason but for being Jewish, I was hauled off by the Nazis. And for no other reason I was picked up and separated from my family, who was exterminated in Auschwitz. And I am a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau.

I spent five and a half years in concentration camps, for one reason and one reason only—because we picked on people, and you as the sheriff, who we elected as sheriff of this county—we did not elect you for sheriff of Washington, DC. It’s about time you side with the people here. And when this gentleman stands up there and says he doesn’t go after people, he should read today’s Bee. Because in today’s Bee, the Supreme Court Justice of California objected to ICE coming in and taking people away from the courts. Don’t tell me that this is a lie.

You stand up here Mr. Jones. Don’t forget—history is not on your side.

The remarks were met with loud cheers from the audience. Homan responded to the speech by saying his agency will continue to arrest undocumented immigrants inside courthouses.

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Holocaust Survivor Slams Top Immigration Official: "History Is Not on Your Side"

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Farmers Are Cheering Trump’s Repeal of an Environmental Rule That Doesn’t Affect Them

Mother Jones

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President Donald Trump rose to power amid solid support from the agricultural heartland—he gained endorsements from dozens of farm-state pols and agribiz execs and polled well among farmers. Since the inauguration, however, things have been rocky. Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-refugee machinations amount to an attack on Big Ag’s labor pool, and his moves to kill trade pacts endanger much-needed export markets. But with the stroke of a pen on Tuesday, the new president delivered a gift that delighted his ag supporters.

But did Trump serve a real policy triumph, or an empty gesture?

To answer that question, you’ll need a bit of background. What the president did was sign an executive order commanding the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider the Waters of the United States Rule, a policy put into place by the Obama administration. WOTUS, as it is known, is a kind of addendum to the Clean Water Act of 1972, designed to define the kinds of waterways that are under EPA regulation. It was triggered by a split 2006 Supreme Court decision called Rapanos v. United States over whether a developer could fill in a wetland to build a shopping center.

WOTUS has emerged as a major bête noire in some ag circles. Agribiz lobbyist Larry Combest, a former US rep from Texas, declared it “one of the biggest land grabs in American history.” The American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents the interests of Big Ag, has vilified WOTUS since its inception, charging that it gives the EPA massive power to regulate farms.

At his signing ceremony, Trump gave voice to these complaints. Deeming WOTUS “one the worst examples of federal regulation,” Trump insisted that “it has truly run amok” and is “prohibiting farmers from being allowed to do what they’re supposed to be doing.” Echoing the Farm Bureau, he said WOTUS meant that the EPA can regulate “nearly every puddle and every ditch on a farmer’s land,” and vowed that his executive order would “pave the way for the elimination of this very destructive and horrible rule.”

Just one problem with that rhetoric: WOTUS has very little to do with farming. The original Clean Water Act exempted agriculture, and WOTUS maintains that status, notes Scott Faber, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group. “What’s so bizarre about the fight over WOTUS is that the only sector of commerce that’s clearly exempt from the rule has kicked up the most dirt about it,” Faber said. Granted, defining what constitutes a waterway worthy of regulation is a complex process, and even WOTUS’s supplementary introduction is 299 pages. But concerns about ag are dispensed with on page 8:

This rule not only maintains current statutory exemptions, it expands regulatory exclusions from the definition of “waters of the United States” to make it clear that this rule does not add any additional permitting requirements on agriculture.

In a January 2017 report, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service analyzed the WOTUS and came to the same conclusion as the EPA: The final rule “makes no change to and does not affect existing statutory and regulatory exclusions: exemptions for normal farming, ranching, and silviculture activities such as plowing, seeding, and cultivation.” The report notes that the Obama administration at one point proposed an interpretive rule that triggered confusion in the ag world about whether farm ditches might fall under regulation. But the EPA withdrew that particular proposal way back in January 2015, the CRS report states.

What’s more, says Faber, replacing WOTUS will be a long slog, requiring a lengthy rulemaking process. And once that process is done, he adds, the new rule will itself be subject to lawsuits from environmental groups that it’s deemed too weak.

So why did Big Ag fight so hard to kill WOTUS, and cheer so much when Trump moved against it? Faber declined to speculate.

I put the question to William Rodger, a spokesman for the Farm Bureau. He declined to talk but pointed me to brief the group filed in 2016 urging a federal court to overturn the rule. The document lists examples of farmers who, it insists, would run afoul of WOTUS.

One, in Oklahoma, had planned to clear a 50-acre plot next to his property for cattle grazing and farming. “But because the property contains a small creek bed—which is usually about 5-6 inches deep but ‘will often go dry’—the creek is likely to be deemed a ‘tributary’ under the Rule,” the doc states. As a result of the rule, the farmer “has therefore been forced to halt all plans for improving his property because the new regulation, if allowed to go into effect, will require him to obtain a costly jurisdictional determination from the Army Corps of Engineers and, depending on the outcome, a permit from EPA.” But an EPA fact sheet on WOTUS makes clear that such intermittent streams aren’t in fact regulated.

The Farm Bureau document also notes a farmer whose land has drainage ditches “that would also likely count as ‘tributaries’ under the Rule if it were allowed to come into effect.” But the EPA fact sheet states that “farmers, ranchers and foresters continue to receive exemptions from Clean Water Act Section…when they construct and maintain irrigation ditches and maintain drainage ditches.”

Even so, at an event after Trump signed the executive order, the Farm Bureau treated EPA Director Scott Pruitt to a “hero’s welcome” for his role in Trump’s WOTUS move, Bloomberg reports. In a statement, the group’s executive director, Zippy Duvall, insisted that the “flawed WOTUS rule has proven to be nothing more than a federal land grab, aimed at telling farmers and ranchers how to run their businesses,” and praised Trump for delivering a “welcome relief to farmers and ranchers across the country.”

Seems to me that by celebrating Trump’s attempt to dismantle a rule that so little affects agriculture, Big Ag is being a pretty cheap date—especially given what’s going on with trade and immigration.

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Farmers Are Cheering Trump’s Repeal of an Environmental Rule That Doesn’t Affect Them

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