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The Stein Recount Needle and the Damage Done

vote-recountI stated earlier my issues with the Jill Stein fueled “recount” effort. Since that time, there seems to be a hue and cry to the effect of “irrespective of Stein, these will be helpful and are especially needed after Trump’s lie!”.

There are many instances of that thought, but this from Will Bunch at the Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News, a friend whom I admire and like greatly, is indicative:

The stakes are too high to calculate. But there is one other thing about Trump’s big lie about the 2016 election. Ironically, before today, the case for a recount in the three states was a tad shaky. While the threat of Russian (or other) hacking has been a valid concern, little in the way of actual evidence of a stolen election has emerged since November 8. But now that Trump has alleged massive fraud, the integrity of the American system demands that the result be audited and properly certified. So let the re-counting begin.

I disagree rather strongly.

As said, I already stated my objection to Stein’s effort, as initially targeted to Wisconsin. Let’s take a look at the situation in Pennsylvania, where Stein has putatively filed today, the last possible day legally. A quote from Pennsylvania election lawyer Gregory Harvey in local Pennsylvania press is instructive:

The biggest obstacle to this getting anywhere may be deadlines. The recount petitions come on the very last day, and if they’re designed to generate enough evidence to contest the election, that’s going to be a stretch.

Harvey, the election lawyer says the deadline for an election contest, which must spell out the specific conduct that merits overturning the result, is also Monday, Nov. 28. With a compelling case you can always ask the court to make an exception, but they tend to be pretty strict about election law — that thing about not changing the rules after the game is played.

Harvey said Steins’ prospects for success are so remote that “raising money to do something in Pennsylvania must be intended only to publicize the Green Party.”

Again, remember, there is a difference between rote “recounts” and comprehensive “audits”. This is especially germane to WI as noted previously, but also to Pennsylvania, and Michigan, should it come too. Even if the recount found something, and there is no basis to believe it will, the legal timeframe is blown. And, no, courts are not likely to remedy such laches. (So, where has Stein been for weeks since the election and before she so conveniently glommed on to, and misrepresented, Halderman et al’s report?) Ah, late breaking, indeed Wisconsin has already denied the last second recount by hand from Stein and Stein is now suing to try to overcome the administrative ruling:

Unless Stein wins her lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court, officials in each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties would decide on their own whether to do their recounts by hand. That could mean some counties perform recounts by machine and some by hand.

Yes, shocking! And good luck with that. Again, as I have relentlessly stated, once you approach administrative boards and, even more so, courts, you need actual demonstrable bases for your argument of fraud, mistake etc. Which is something Jill Stein and her effort simply have never had. That does not cut it. Ooops!

Stein has until Wednesday to file in Michigan, but there is no reason to think the effort will be any more focused, intelligently drafted, nor timely, than has been displayed to date in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

But there are bigger issues here than Jill Stein’s folly, right? Right! Indeed there are, and Stein’s cynical effort only hurts those larger picture items. But, irrespective of all of the above, it is a wonderful thing that the votes are being recounted, right? Maybe, and quite arguably, maybe not.

If this effort involved intelligent and targeted meaningful “audits” of voting in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, that would truly yield the data we need to answer a variety of questions, I would agree wholeheartedly. But that is not what is afoot here via Stein. These are rote last second “recounts”, likely through the same tabulation mechanisms originally used, and are almost guaranteed to produce the same results, give or take minuscule deviation.

In fact, as close as I can discern from reportage, even in Stein’s first state, Wisconsin, to perform a truly different full hand count analysis requires leave of a court. And it is hard to see leave of court being given without a substantive evidentiary basis being proffered, of which there is, of course, none to date. In Pennslyvania, the outlook is no better, and arguably even more lame and adverse. That is before we ever get to Michigan, which the last second for Stein is Wednesday.

There are a lot of truly intelligent and proper purposes for all Americans, and currently Democrats, to want to test and audit the vote in this country. It is that important, and that germane to our democracy.

By the same token, it is also too important to be driven by a crass vanity project at the last second by a bit player glomming on for self promotion. This is the lifeblood of American plebiscite and democracy, and we deserve better.

But the current action is not just a curiosity that “can’t hurt” or that is suddenly necessary to react to some idiotic tweet by Trump. The stakes are higher than that. Stein’s effort is ill advised, ill counseled legally, ill targeted, ill executed and ill timed by every metric I can see.

And, yes, there can be real harm therefrom. An effort like this that does nothing but confirm the general overall propriety of the 2016 vote does nothing but confirm Trump’s election. But, more importantly, it lends a larger argument that our voting system is fair and accurate, and thus not in need of further reform and updating.

Sure, it may, for the next few weeks, counter the blindered fascination of many as to rebutting Trump’s idiotic tweet on “millions of illegal voters”, but that is transient and short sighted. In the long run, it will just feed the larger GOP effort, and they now hold both houses of Congress and the Presidency, to not reform and improve American voting mechanisms, but indeed to accept that it is all fine technologically and then go about further voter suppression and restriction measures generally.

Greg Sargent discussed this at the Washington Post Plumline this morning:

Trump has now made national news with this tweet, a response to reports that Hillary Clinton’s campaign will join a recount effort in Wisconsin and possibly Michigan and Pennsylvania as well
….
As Glenn Kessler explains, there is zero evidence that this happened. Trump will continue to reach deep into the fever swamps to shape reality for himself and his supporters — only now he’ll do so in the position as most powerful person in the world. Trump also tweeted that there was “serious voter fraud” in three states that the media refuses to report upon.

But all this may also telegraph something concrete that we might see under a Trump presidency: A far more ambitious effort to restrict access to voting than we might have expected.

“My concern is that this might be a signal that we will see an assault on voting rights,” Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told me today. “Claims of nonexistent voter fraud and noncitizen voting are precisely the kinds of baseless justifications that we’ve seen for the wave of laws in the past couple of years restricting voting access.”

Yes, indeed. I think this is exactly what I am, and have been, saying. Well put by Sargent.

Democrats, and yes Greens to the extent they really care, should stop playing the game that is already lost, and 2016 is already lost, and start playing smartly as to the future. You want comprehensive and meaningful actual voting audits, as opposed to rote recounts, of the vote? Excellent! Let’s work on that for the future. Let’s do that for all states, and not just the three that Jill Stein glommed onto to self promote.

There is a fight out there to be won, but the instant “recount” effort is ill advised and not going to do squat to win it.

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.
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The Self Serving Jill Stein Recount Scam

ap_514085205775-021470928390Jill Stein, admittedly, always struck me as a bit of a naive and somewhat unhinged candidate. But, Stein was the “Green Party” candidate and, once Bernie Sanders lost, became the go to darling for ill advised voters and activists that were far too willing to wreck the world with Donald Trump than consider the circumstances and vote for an eminently qualified, albeit terribly flawed, candidate in the form of Hillary Clinton. It is hard to argue with anarchist, blow it all up, demagogues when trying to protect a lame, and status quo, candidate. Even when the ultimate opponent is a raging racist, bigoted, misogynistic, female choice hating and torture loving shill like Donald Trump.

So many otherwise Democratic voters went off and voted for Stein and/or Gary Johnson. Did it make the “final difference”? I have no idea, but there is certainly an argument that could be made.

Was it the Jim Comey FBI factor from the stunningly inappropriate rogue actions by the FBI Director putting his self righteous thumb on the electoral scale in both the start of the critical summer elections season and, then, yet again in the last two weeks before the election? It is easy to make that argument, irrespective of any other factor.

Was it that Hillary did not expend personal and campaign time and dime in Wisconsin and other Rust Belt states when she did a lost, but very much growing, cause venue such as Arizona? Easy case for that argument as well.

The actual data and competent reportage seems to indicate that all of the above were significant factors. It strikes me that is right.

All of the above factors fed into the defeat of Clinton and the election loss by her, if only by the electoral college, at the tiny hands of Trump. So be it. That is what happened under the electoral laws and process (yes, let us not forget the pernicious meddling of Russia and/or Wikileaks, whether they are coupled or not) pertinent to the 2016 US Presidential election. But, like the result or not, that was all pursuant to the Constitution and election laws as are currently extant in the United States. There is not one competent piece of evidence that the actual vote itself was “hacked” or “rigged”. Just none.

Which brings us to the much ballyhooed action of Jill Stein to crowd fund and conduct audits and or recounts in the key states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The second she started her effort, I opined it was an attention grabbing craven play by Stein, and not a legitimate effort with any eye to any substantive results. On a more private forum I intoned:

But that is the thing: It IS bomb throwing, and stupidly so. There is NO evidentiary basis for fraud or mistake that I have seen. The guy who started it, [J. Alex] Halderman himself, admits as much legally when he says he thinks it is most likely poll inaccuracy, not anything nefarious.

I know all the beaten down, especially Clinton diehards, that cannot fathom how she blew this election, want to grasp for something. But it just isn’t there.

I stand by that completely. What Jill Stein is doing is blatant self promotion, list building, reputational repair where it is undeserved, and slush funding for an incoherent Green Party. It is detestable to the extreme. Stein has glommed onto this recount scam as a way to serve herself, she certainly is not serving anything else.

To quote a significant Democratic election law attorney, and longtime friend of this blog, Adam Bonin:

“If there were something to do here, there are a lot of us who would be jumping on it”

Early on the hashtag #AuditTheVote was attached to this chicanery. Here is the problem with that – two out of three of Stein’s target states already “audit the vote” as a regular matter of law without the need for Stein’s self serving injection into the matter. In fact, Stein’s primary target, Wisconsin, has a reasonably robust random audit provision in Wisconsin Revised Statute 7.08(6), which has been generally deigned to require:

The voting system audit procedures consist of two independent processes: an audit conducted by municipalities of reporting units randomly selected by the State Elections Board and an audit of reporting units conducted by the State Elections Board. Number of Reporting Units to Audit: Per the requirements of section 7.08(6), Wis. Stats., each type of electronic voting system in Wisconsin must be audited after the general election to ensure that each system does not exceed the error rate prescribed in the federal voting system guidelines. The State Elections Board will randomly select fifty (50) reporting units across Wisconsin which will be subject to municipal audit, including a minimum of five (5) reporting units for each voting system used in Wisconsin. If fewer than five (5) reporting units for any voting system are selected through the random selection process, then additional reporting units will be randomly selected by voting system until five reporting units per voting system have been selected. If there are fewer than 5 reporting units using a voting system the State Elections Board staff will audit those reporting units if the reporting units are not selected as part of the random draw. until five reporting units per voting system have been selected. If there are fewer than 5 reporting units using a voting system the State Elections Board staff will audit those reporting units if the reporting units are not selected as part of the random draw.

Well, that is actually pretty robust. And all of which would have been, and will be, performed without the preening self interjection of Jill Stein in her first state of concern, Wisconsin.

Just Wisconsin? Nope. Pennsylvania also has an inherent audit provision, though not quite as robust as Wisconsin. The bottom line is, though, there are already “audit the vote” provisions in two out of three of Jill Stein’s targets, even though she declined to say so in her propaganda seeking funding to stay in the spotlight and reconstruct her reputation. In fairness, Michigan has no such automatic audit provision, so there is that.

Next, you need to consider that there is a substantive difference between “audits” of the vote and flat out recounts. Stein has always been about recounts, despite the bogusly applied #AuditTheVote nomenclature applied by Stein and her glommers on. Recounts are expensive, labor intensive, and time consuming. And they are asinine where there is not a single shred of competent evidence to support fraud or mistake that could, even in the remotest possibility, change the outcome in a given state or states.

And, let us be crystal clear here, there is still NO competent evidence whatsoever of fraud, mistake or other irregularity that could change the result. None. And that is the thing, unless there is fraud, mistake or systematic error, recounts can do nothing to legally support a challenge to the election results. A challenge has to stand up in court. It cannot be thin and based upon rote supposition and suspicion. Even if Stein’s folly turns up a minor discrepancy here and there, that will not suffice.

The vote differential, again in Wisconsin for instance, between Clinton and Trump currently stands at 27,259 votes. Yes, that is less than the total of Stein, so despite the wild claim she threw the election that some Clinton supporters have thrown, I will not. Some Stein voters were never going to vote for Clinton; so while Stein’s vanity run deserves ridicule, it does not, in and of itself, “prove” Clinton would have won but for Stein. Close enough for ridicule given that Trump is the result? Sure. But, again that, too, holds for ridicule of Clinton’s own arrogant and detached campaign and the fatally pernicious effects of the completely rogue arbiter of his own justice, James Comey.

So, where does that leave us? With a Norma Desmond like self promoting grifter, dying to redeem her name and stay in some/any spotlight, in the form of Jill Stein. She was a cancer on the election (hey, her dinner with Putin and Mike Flynn was cool though!) that, at a minimum, helped elect Trump, and she is sticking around to create more hell now that said deed is done.

This is absurd. Jill Stein is a grifter and a fraud. And she is playing this opportunity to, first off, list build for herself and the Greens, secondly, resuscitate her and their name, thirdly, stay in the press, and lastly, create an amorphous slush fund to continue those things. Stein is succeeding beyond wildest expectations if your idea of the normal course of business is Donald Trumpian level grifting.

For a woman who raised only $3.5 million during her entire vanity run for President, Stein has now raised nearly $6 million dollars in far less than a week on this scam. That is NOT because Stein has dedicated Green Party followers wanting to bleed yet more money into their candidate after the election; no, it is because desperate Clintonians are seeking some way, any way, to stop Trump. And playing on that desperation is exactly the fraud of Jill Stein.

A common refrain I see is that, “golly, there is no harm, and much good, that can come from confirming the vote”. But that is just more self serving balderdash from the desperate and/or Stein acolytes. In fact, there is great harm that can come from Stein’s shenanigans. Here is Rick Hasen from the Election Law Blog, quoting the Wisconsin Journal Sentinel:

Wisconsin could be at risk of missing a Dec. 13 deadline to certify its 10 electoral votes if clerks can’t complete an expected recount by then.

Hitting the deadline could be particularly tricky if Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein is able to force the recount to be conducted by hand, Wisconsin’s top election official said.

Stein — who received just 1% of the vote in Wisconsin — has promised to file for a recount by Friday’s 5 p.m. deadline in Wisconsin. She is also planning to ask for recounts in Michigan and Pennsylvania, which have deadlines next week.

A federal “safe harbor” law requires states to complete presidential recounts within 35 days of the election to ensure their electoral votes are counted. This year, that’s Dec. 13.

What is the upshot of this? Easy, Stein’s effort could easily place Wisconsin, in light of the December 13 deadline, of missing the deadline and disenfranchising all voters in Wisconsin. Yes, there are potential repercussions from actions like Stein is taking, especially when there is no known basis or grounds whatsoever evidentiary wise to support them. And that is just Wisconsin. Michigan and Pennsylvania are in even bigger jeopardy thanks to the self serving hubris of Jill Stein, should she actually continue on to file in those states as promised, without any rational basis for challenging the vote therein.

Lastly, while I have been writing the instant post, the attorney for the DNC and Clinton Campaign, Marc E. Elias, has weighed in on Medium with an official take for both himself and, by all appearances, the aforementioned campaign entities. The Reader’s Digest version, by my eyes, is that, while the DNC and Clinton camps are going to join into the Stein effort, they have never seen any basis for it, and are being dragged into a position of noticing their appearance and joinder simply in order to preserve their rights to be involved should Stein’s group go so far off the rails or, in the remotest of all potentialities, find anything. That is not joinder with enthusiasm, it is joinder to protect your legal voice. Trump is now doing the same for similar reasons. I do not blame either Clinton or Trump for doing so, in fact, Stein’s idiocy put both of said parties in that regrettable posture. Don’t cast your eye askew for one second at Elias and the Dems, nor even Trump and the Repubs, ….Stein and her idiotic self serving publicity play made them do it.

In short, this effort by Jill Stein is nothing more than a self promoting vanity play. If you want to donate to that grift, by all means, go ahead. But don’t blather about how it is going to help democracy or promote fair elections. That is absurd. In fact, just exactly as absurd as Jill Stein’s cynical grift on her current donors who are far different than her few and far between Green donors.

Stein is scamming the dispossessed. That is a Trumpian level fraud.

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.
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The Story About Judicial Dysfunction Behind the Comey Whiplash

I’ve been home from Europe for less than a day and already I’m thinking of sporting a neck collar for the whiplash I’ve gotten watching the wildly varying Jim Comey opinions.

I’m speaking, of course, of the response to Jim Comey’s highly unusual announcement to sixteen Chairs and Ranking Members of congressional committees (at least some of which Comey did not testify to) that the investigative team — presumably on the Clinton case — briefed him Thursday that FBI discovered additional emails in an unrelated case — now known to be the investigation into Anthony Weiner allegedly sexting a 15 year old — and he approved their request to take the steps necessary to be able to review those emails.

Effectively, the Weiner investigators, in reviewing the content from devices seized in that investigation, found emails from Huma Abedin, told the Hillary investigative team, and they’re now obtaining a warrant to be able to review those emails.

So of course the Republicans that had been claiming Comey had corruptly fixed the investigation for Hillary immediately started proclaiming his valor and Democrats that had been pointing confidently to his exoneration of Hillary immediately resumed their criticism of his highly unusual statements on this investigation. Make up your minds, people!

For the record, I think his initial, completely inappropriate statements made this inevitable. He excuses Friday’s statement as formally correcting the record of his testimony. The claim is undermined by the fact that not all recipients of the letter had him testify. But I think once you start the process of blabbing about investigations, more blabbing likely follows. I don’t mean to excuse this disclosure, but the real sin comes in the first one, which was totally inappropriate by any measure. I’m also very unsympathetic with the claim —  persistently offered by people who otherwise cheer Comey — that he released his initial statement to help Loretta Lynch out of the jam created by her inappropriate meeting with Bill Clinton; I think those explanations stem from a willful blindness about what a self-righteous moralist Comey is.

Of course I’ve been critical of Comey since long before it was cool (and our late great commenter Mary Perdue was critical years before that).

But I’d like to take a step back and talk about what this says about our judicial system.

Jim Comey doesn’t play by the rules

Jamie Gorelick (who worked with Comey when she was in DOJ) and Larry Thompson (who worked with Comey when Comey was US Attorney and he was Deputy Attorney General, until Comey replaced him) wrote a scathing piece attacking Comey for violating the long-standing prohibition on doing anything in an investigation pertaining to a political candidate in the 60 days leading up to an election. The op-ed insinuates that Comey is a “self-aggrandizing crusader[] on [a] high horse” before it goes on to slam him for making himself the judge on both the case and Hillary’s actions.

James B. Comey, put himself enthusiastically forward as the arbiter of not only whether to prosecute a criminal case — which is not the job of the FBI — but also best practices in the handling of email and other matters. Now, he has chosen personally to restrike the balance between transparency and fairness, departing from the department’s traditions. As former deputy attorney general George Terwilliger aptly put it, “There’s a difference between being independent and flying solo.”

But the real meat is that there’s a rule against statements like the one Comey made, and Comey broke it.

Decades ago, the department decided that in the 60-day period before an election, the balance should be struck against even returning indictments involving individuals running for office, as well as against the disclosure of any investigative steps. The reasoning was that, however important it might be for Justice to do its job, and however important it might be for the public to know what Justice knows, because such allegations could not be adjudicated, such actions or disclosures risked undermining the political process. A memorandum reflecting this choice has been issued every four years by multiple attorneys general for a very long time, including in 2016.

If Comey is willing to break this rule in such a high profile case, then what other rules is he breaking? What other judgements has Comey made himself arbiter of? Particularly given Comey’s persistent discussion of FBI’s work in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys” — as opposed to criminal behavior — that seems a really pertinent question.

As with James Clapper, Loretta Lynch can’t control Comey

Gorelick (who has been suggested among potential Clinton appointees) and Thompson go easier on Lynch, however, noting that she didn’t order him to stand down here, but ultimately blaming Comey for needing to be ordered.

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch — nominally Comey’s boss — has apparently been satisfied with advising Comey but not ordering him to abide by the rules. She, no doubt, did not want to override the FBI director in such a highly political matter, but she should not have needed to. He should have abided by the policy on his own.

But since John Cornyn confronted Lynch in March about who would make decisions in this case — “Everyone in the Department of Justice works for me, including the FBI, sir,” Lynch forcefully reminded Cornyn — it has been clear that there’s a lot more tension than the org chart would suggest there should be.

The NYT provides more details on how much tension there is.

The day before the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, sent a letter to Congress announcing that new evidence had been discovered that might be related to the completed Hillary Clinton email investigation, the Justice Department strongly discouraged the step and told him that he would be breaking with longstanding policy, three law enforcement officials said on Saturday.

Senior Justice Department officials did not move to stop him from sending the letter, officials said, but they did everything short of it, pointing to policies against talking about current criminal investigations or being seen as meddling in elections.

And it’s not just Lynch that has problems managing FBI.

In a response to a question from me in 2014 (after 56:00), Bob Litt explained that FBI’s dual role creates “a whole lot of complications” and went on to admit that the office of Director of National Intelligence — which is supposed to oversee the intelligence community — doesn’t oversee the FBI as directly.

Because FBI is part of the Department of Justice, I don’t have the same visibility into oversight there than I do with respect to the NSA, but the problems are much more complicated because of the dual functions of the FBI.

Litt said something similar to me in May when we discussed why FBI can continue to present bogus numbers in its legally mandated NSL reporting.

Now these are separate issues (though the Clinton investigation is, after all, a national security investigation into whether she or her aides mishandled classified information). But if neither the DNI nor the AG really has control over the FBI Director, it creates a real void of accountability that has repercussions for a whole lot of issues and, more importantly, people who don’t have the visibility or power of Hillary Clinton.

The FBI breaks the rules all the time by leaking like a sieve

Underlying this entire controversy is another rule that DOJ and FBI claim to abide by but don’t, at all: FBI is not supposed to reveal details of ongoing investigations.

Indeed, according to the NYT, Comey pointed to the certainty that this would leak to justify his Friday letter.

But although Mr. Comey told Congress this summer that the Clinton investigation was complete, he believed that if word of the new emails leaked out — and it was sure to leak out, he concluded — he risked being accused of misleading Congress and the public ahead of an election, colleagues said.

Yet the US Attorney’s Manual, starting with this language on prejudicial information and continuing into several more clauses, makes it clear that these kinds of leaks are impermissible.

At no time shall any component or personnel of the Department of Justice furnish any statement or information that he or she knows or reasonably should know will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding.

Comey, the boss of all the FBI Agents investigating this case, had another alternative, one he should have exercised months ago when it was clear those investigating this case were leaking promiscuously: demand that they shut up, conduct investigations of who was leaking, and discipline those who were doing so. Those leaks were already affecting election year concerns, but there has been little commentary about how they, too, break DOJ rules.

But instead of trying to get FBI Agents to follow DOJ guidelines, Comey instead decided to violate them himself.

Again, that’s absolutely toxic when discussing an investigation that might affect the presidential election, but FBI’s habitual blabbing is equally toxic for a bunch of less powerful people whose investigative details get leaked by the FBI all the time.

[Update: Jeffrey Toobin addresses the role of leaks more generally here, though he seems to forget that the Hillary investigation is technically a national security investigation. I think it’s important to remember that, especially given Hillary’s campaign focus on why FBI isn’t leaking about the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia, which would also be a national security investigation.]

Warrantless back door searches do tremendous amounts of damage

Finally, think about the circumstances of the emails behind this latest disclosure.

Reports are currently unclear how much the FBI knows about these emails. The NYT describes that the FBI seized multiple devices in conjunction with the Weiner investigation, including the laptop on which they found these emails.

On Oct. 3, F.B.I. agents seized several electronic devices from Mr. Weiner: a laptop, his iPhone and an iPad that was in large measure used by his 4-year-old son to watch cartoons, a person with knowledge of the matter said. Days later, F.B.I. agents also confiscated a Wi-Fi router that could identify any other devices that had been used, the person said.

While searching the laptop, the agents discovered the existence of tens of thousands of emails, some of them sent between Ms. Abedin and other Clinton aides, according to senior law enforcement officials. It is not clear if Ms. Abedin downloaded the emails to the laptop or if they were automatically backed up there. The emails dated back years, the officials said. Ms. Abedin has testified that she did not routinely delete her emails.

Presumably, the warrant to seize those devices permits the FBI agents to go find any evidence of Weiner sexting women (or perhaps just the young woman in question).

And admittedly, the details NYT’s sources describe involve just metadata: addressing information and dates.

But then, Comey told Congress these emails were “pertinent” to the Clinton investigation, and other details in reports, such as they might be duplicates of emails already reviewed by the FBI, suggest the Weiner investigators may have seen enough to believe they might pertain to the inquiry into whether Clinton and her aides (including Huma) mishandled classified information. Moreover, the FBI at least thinks they will be able to prove there is probable cause to believe these emails may show the mishandling of classified information.

Similarly, there are conflicting stories about whether the Hillary investigation was ever closed, which may arise from the fact that if it were (as Comey had suggested in his first blabby statements), seeking these emails would require further approval to continue the investigation.

The point, though, is that FBI would have had no idea these emails existed were it not for FBI investigators who were aware of the other investigation alerting their colleagues to these emails. This has been an issue of intense litigation in recent years, and I’d love for Huma, after the election, to submit a serious legal challenge if any warrant is issued.

But then, in this case, Huma is being provided far more protection than people swept up in FISA searches, where any content with a target can be searched years into the future without any probable cause or even evidence of wrong-doing. Here, Huma’s emails won’t be accessible for investigative purpose without a warrant (in part because of recent prior litigation in the 2nd Circuit), whereas in the case of emails acquired via FISA, FBI can access the information — pulling it up not just by metadata but by content — with no warrant at all.

[Update: Orin Kerr shares my concerns on this point — with the added benefit that he discusses all the recent legal precedents that may prohibit accessing these emails.]

This is a good example of the cost of such investigations. Because the FBI can and does sweep so widely in searches of electronic communications, evidence from one set of data collection can be used to taint others unrelated to the crime under investigation.

All the people writing scathing emails about Comey’s behavior in this particular matter would like you to believe that this issue doesn’t reflect on larger issues at DOJ. They would like you to believe that DOJ was all pure and good and FBI was well-controlled except for this particular investigation. But that’s simply not the case, and some of these issues go well beyond Comey.

Update: Minor changes were made to this post after it was initially posted.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

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Is Trump’s $915 Million Tax Loss Connected to an Exotic Tax Shelter?

293015Guest Post by Robert J. Lord

The news is out about Donald Trump’s $915 million of tax losses.

The real question is whether those losses were real economic losses, or just a tax artifice created by a clever planner.

Real estate developers like Trump benefit tax-wise from provisions that allow them to claim losses attributable to borrowed money. But those provisions are not a complete giveaway if the borrowing ultimately is repaid.

If the borrowing is not repaid, as we know to be the case of Trump’s casino debt, the tax law generally requires the person whose debt is forgiven to recognize income, which typically erases the tax benefit of those earlier losses. Even in those situations where debt forgiveness does not result in income, the borrower’s tax attributes are reduced by the amount of debt forgiven, and unused losses are at the top of the list of those tax attributes to be trimmed.

Could Trump have figured out how to have his cake and eat it too – that is, keep his losses for tax purposes, even while being excused from having to repay the borrowed money on which those losses were based? Yes, it is possible!

One possibility is that Trump’s lenders agreed not to expressly forgive Trump’s debt, but instead to sell their rights as lender for pennies on the dollar to an individual or entity close to Trump, such that it would never be enforced. This strategy is referred to as “parking” the debt. Some tax professionals like John Hempton at Bronte Capital and commentators like Josh Marshall at TPM have speculated this is the artifice Trump and his advisors engineered to preserve Trump’s huge losses and thus shelter close to a billion of future income from tax.

Does the tax law permit the parking of debt that effectively has been forgiven? Certainly not by design. If Trump parked the debt with a close relative, the tax code would have treated it as if the debt was forgiven.

Trump could have parked the debt with someone not so closely related or with a friend, but not if had an agreement that said person would not enforce the debt. Which means he’d be at severe risk, as the person could turn on him and enforce the debt. That would have been almost a billion dollar risk. It is hard to imagine Trump, his accountants and attorneys permitting that.

Could Trump have parked the debt with a corporation, trust or partnership he controlled? In a word, yes. Congress tried to prevent debtors from circumventing the law this way as well, but they inadvertently created a small crack in the law, which Trump just may have been able to squeeze through.

The tax code expressly identifies corporations, partnerships and trusts deemed too close to a debtor to purchase his debt without causing the debt to be deemed forgiven for tax purposes. Those rules were well written. After they were written, however, and not long before Trump faced his financial difficulties, Congress created a new type of entity for tax purposes only, the “real estate mortgage investment conduit,” or REMIC. Those rules state, in no uncertain terms, that certain partnerships, corporations and trusts become something else for tax purposes. They are expressly NOT to be treated as partnerships, corporations or trusts. Thus, unwittingly, Congress created a gaping yet little noticed hole in the rules that prevent parking debt with a controlled corporation, trust or partnership.

And Trump may have seized on Congress’ mistake.

The REMIC rules were enacted in 1986 to facilitate investment in mortgage-backed securities (yes, those securities that crashed the economy in 2008). A REMIC is a partnership, corporation or trust under the law of the state in which it is formed (usually, Delaware) that holds almost exclusively interests in mortgage debt, and satisfies a few additional statutory requirements related to the type of ownership interests (for example, corporate stock, partnership interests, or beneficial interests in a trust) it issues.

Congress anticipated that REMICs would hold entire pools of mortgage interests, but never specified a minimum number, which means a REMIC might hold only one mortgage – for example, the mortgage on a Trump casino – and still qualify. Or it could be multiple similar obligations.

A few clever tax lawyers realized that by qualifying a partnership, corporation or trust as a bastardized form of REMIC, they could circumvent the rules that prevent the parking of debt with a controlled entity to avoid debt forgiveness income.

Trump’s situation quite clearly lent itself to this exotic strategy. If he used a REMIC he controlled to purchase the mortgage debt on one or more of his casinos (and/or other properties) at a deep discount, the rules that prevent debt parking would not have applied to him.

The bottom line: Trump indeed could have used a debt parking strategy to preserve close to a billion dollars in losses for tax purposes even though he avoided the economic loss on which those tax losses were based.

Did Trump employ this strategy? Nobody knows yet, but it would explain why those losses still showed up on his tax return in 1995 and how he gamed the system for an enormous tax windfall.

The secretive and shady nature of whatever avoidance scheme Trump has used, which would clearly be on the edge of legality, even if putatively legal as Trump claims, would also very easily explain why Trump steadfastly refuses to make public any more of his tax return information.

It is also exactly why the public is entitled to see his convoluted machinations and judge for themselves his honesty. And, remember, all statutes of limitation, both criminal and civil, have long ago expired as to the 1995 and surrounding years tax returns. There is no legitimate reason whatsoever Trump cannot release them. Other than fear that what he is hiding is exposed.

Robert J. Lord, a tax lawyer and former Congressional candidate, is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Bob previously served as an adjunct faculty member at the Arizona State University School of Law. Bob’s work focuses on the relationship of tax law to inequality. He contributes to both the Inequality.org website and to OtherWords, the Institute’s national syndicated editorial service. Bob also is a staff member at Blog For Arizona, the leading political blog in Arizona.

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.
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Trump Charity A Continuing Fraud On The People Of New York

scammer419One of the items of breaking news (no, really!) over the last 24 hours is the cease and desist order issued by the New York Attorney General’s Office to Donald Trump’s vaunted “charity”. The full text of the official letter can be found here.

The New York Times described it thusly:

The office of New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has issued a “notice of violation” to Donald J. Trump’s foundation, ordering it to immediately stop soliciting charitable donations in New York.

The letter, which was sent on Friday and released on Monday morning by Mr. Schneiderman’s office, said its charities bureau had determined that the Donald J. Trump Foundation had been fund-raising in New York this year when it was not registered to do so under state law.

“The Trump Foundation must immediately cease soliciting contributions or engaging in any other fund-raising activities in New York,” wrote James Sheehan, the chief of the charities bureau.

I want to focus on one particular clause in the letter however. The part identifying the “fraud”. To wit:

“The failure immediately to discontinue solicitation and to file information and reports required under Article 7-A with the Charities Bureau shall be deemed to be a continuing fraud upon the people of the State of New York.”

Now, in fairness, that is likely boilerplate/template language for such a cease and desist letter in New York, but that makes it no less true. What has occurred is that the Donald J. Trump Foundation, by not properly registering and being accountable for its activities, has been perpetrating a fraud on the People of the State of New York.

A state government is entitled to regulate, oversee and audit such activity occurring within its borders. As appears to be a pattern with Mr. Trump, he and his organization seemed to think they were simply above such common regulation. The willful non-compliance itself is a fraud, the size of the fraud perpetrated can only further be determined via full registration and full accounting for the multiple years of non-compliant activity the “charity” has engaged in.

There has been a fraud under the statutory and regulatory framework of the State of New York, we are only yet to ascertain the relative scope of it yet. And given the dogged reportage of David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, which depicts rampant self serving and dealing by Trump as to personal debts via his charity, there is every reason to believe there are very serious issues to be dealt with.

But the ability of the NY Attorney General’s Office to actually deal with these questions depends on the prompt registration and disclosure by Trump of his offending and illegal charity.

Trump and his ill begotten “charity” have 15 days to comply with registration and disclosure. What do you think the odds are he will actually comply in good faith instead of hiding behind some bogus baloney, or submitting patently non-responsive filings, until after the election is over? I’d rate the odds at 100%.

The same odds that exist for Trump turning over his tax returns. Even the one from 1995, that has been beyond the statute of any limitation, whether criminal or civil, for over 15 years.

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.
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The Trees Have Fallen and The State of NFL Labor

As you may recall, this blog has covered the critical labor aspect of #Deflategate from the beginning, from Marcy to me substantively as the 2015 season began:

If you have an iota of concern for fundamental fairness and due process, you ought be offended – even if this is only a civil labor law mess involving millionaires against billionaires. It all matters, and the labor law principles in play here are beyond critical to all union workers and collective bargaining agreements, not just those of rich athletes. So, yeah, don’t kid yourself, this matters. A lot. If Tom Freaking Brady cannot get fundamental fairness and due process on a collectively bargained agreement, how the hell do you think a UAW, Teamster, teacher, or any other union member will? If you haven’t noticed, labor in this country is under direct attack. Don’t be the guy (or girl!) that aids that attack just because this iteration of the conflict involves Tom Brady and/or rich athletes. This matters, both in general as to all workers under labor agreements, and to your hometown sports teams and players too.

The labor law significance of #Deflategate was true then, and it is now. So many people were oh so quick and easy to let their personal pro football prejudices, or their prejudices against pro football, control their framing and thought on #Deflategate, and their opinion as to the usefulness of the protracted litigation. It’s good! It’s bad! Brady is a hero! Brady is a criminal! But that was false framing and thought. Simply as an avatar of fundamental, and critical, labor law, #Deflategate was important and necessary. While it may be over, the ramifications will affect many, if not all, labor unions in the future, and almost certainly for the worse.

Although it will sooner or later seep into all unions and collective bargaining agreements and interpretation, the first one is likely the NFL, where an all powerful and belligerent corporate league treats its employees like meat on a rack to be bought, sold, owned and treated as a perishable commodity. The NFL is a business, and a particularly ruthless one. And there IS a deplorable imbalance between management and players (the labor).

The final takeaway from the #Deflategate litigation is that, in a CBA, management has nearly unfettered discretion to interpret and implement the provisions of a CBA (Collectively Bargained Agreement) and ALL deference and presumption will be given their decisions, whether fair, proper or not. That is very much not a good thing. So, how will that affect labor going forward? The avatar may well, once again, be the NFL, and former executive and agent Andrew Brandt has some very salient thoughts in a two part series at Sports Illustrated. Part One is here. Please give it a read, it is instructive to both NFL fans and others too.

But Part Two of Brandt’s excellent series is where I want to pick up today:

After discussing many important issues in Part I of this midterm look at the 10-year collective bargaining agreement that governs NFL owners and players, this section deals with the all-important issue: where is the money going? With billions of dollars coming into the game, there is always dispute about how much each side should claim as “their share.” The owners, to be sure, achieved their primary goal in this negotiation: to take more of it.

From the beginning of these CBA negotiations, the NFLPA was playing defense against an aggressive push by NFL owners who were intent on reversing the (literal) fortunes from the 2006 CBA extension, a deal that owners voted unanimously to opt out of before the ink was even dry. Having no success in bargaining and facing a lockout imposed by the league, the NFLPA strategy shifted from negotiation to litigation, as the union was dissolved to bring an antitrust lawsuit, Brady v. NFL (the lockout one, not the Deflategate one). Ultimately, after a negative result in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, the NFLPA made a deal to get players into training camp on time.

The league’s top priority was simple: become more profitable by lowering their largest expense, player costs.

And follow the money Brandt does. One thing that really hit home with me is the truth Brandt tells about guaranteed player contracts. Major League Baseball has them. The NBA has them. The only major professional sporting league that does not is the most deadly sport, the National Football League. The league with the most necessity to protect its labor (players) does absolutely the least to do so. More from Brandt:

Although there was much reaction this summer to eye-popping NBA free-agent contracts, many forget that we have similar gawking at NFL free-agent contracts every March (this year’s batch of golden ticket winners included Olivier Vernon, Malik Jackson, Janoris Jenkins and a few others). The difference, of course, is that while NBA contracts are fully guaranteed, NFL guarantees disappear after the early part of the contract (when teams have the lowest risk). NFL management smiles when agents deceive media and fans with reports of illusory guarantees and inclusion of no-risk first-year earnings into total guarantee.

We hear a lot of reasons why the NFL does not guarantee contracts—even from union leadership—that make perfect sense…for management. The primary reason is the high injury risk for NFL players, which, from a player point of view, is exactly the reason for guaranteed contracts. NFL contracts and the allocation of risk they provide have provided incredible value for teams, especially compared to other leagues. It is unfortunate that player contracts are so tenuous in the sport with the 1) most revenue, 2) highest franchise values, 3) greatest injury risk and 4) shortest career lengths.

So, where does that leave the labor in the NFL versus their profit whoring management? It is a complicated answer, and I truly hope you read both parts of Andrew’s series on this subject. The simple answer is with five more years under the current CBA. The better question is really what will happen leading up to, and at, the point of negotiating the next CBA? That is yet to be seen, but, if nothing else, #Deflategate proved, yet again, the incredible inequality that exists in a nation where owners are lionizes and workers are trivialized. Labor, and unions, matter. Their demise over the last few decades is significant in the demise and eradication of the middle class. Don’t let the fact that #Deflategate involved relatively rich players compared to your and my existence, but realize it is a cutout for a much larger problem.

Okay, on to the games! I was out much of yesterday and last night. Which left insufficient time to trash Rosalind and her Stanford Trees. Who proved twigs in a Husky hurricane last night. Ouch. It wasn’t just the leaves that were falling last night, as Van Morrison once described, it was the whole Tree! Today, Wisconsin at the Big House in Ann Arbor looks to be fantastic. But, honestly, I am more excited to see Louisville at Clemson in a battle between the hot ticket QB’s in the country, the Cardinals’ Lamar Jackson and the Tigers’ Deshaun Watson. Now THAT will be a fun game.

Also the deceptively 4-0 (no, they are NOT that good) ASU Sun Devils hope to bring some burning inferno to the Coliseum in LA against the USC Trojans. From my perspective (hey, I’m a lifer AND an alumni) ASU coach Todd Graham sucks. His defense is based on reckless blitzing and is ultra porous. He runs sloppy and undisciplined special teams. And his offense is spread cookie cutter crap. But USC alumni are on the warpath against Clay Helton too. I wonder which fan base prays harder for another tarmac firing?

On the Pro front, can the Patriots go 4-0 without Tom Brady? The bet here is, at Foxborough, yes. Seahawks at Jets may be interesting. Squawks have looked off this year, Wilson is at least slightly hurt, and the Jets not as truly terrible as they looked last week. Could be interesting! The two best games, pretty easily, are Chefs at Steelers Sunday night and Giants at Vikings Monday night. Steelers displayed some serious crake last week against the Eagles. The Chefs are well coached and solid on both sides of the ball. Could be a heck of a game. Giants are better, and more consistent this year. Still some major holes though. I’ll take the Vikes at their new, shiny and VERY loud home.

That is it for this week. Music by the inestimable Van Morrison.

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.
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The Questions That Should Be Being Asked About Trump’s Tax Returns

watch-trumps-tax-evasion[Editor’s Note – this is a guest post by a friend of ours here at the Emptywheel Blog, Bob Lord. Bob is a longtime tax attorney with some very salient thoughts on Trump’s taxes, and lack of production thereof]

By Robert J. Lord

A lot has been said about Trump’s refusal to make his tax returns public. But despite the volume of commentary, it’s not clear the right questions even are being asked.

Trump claims he can’t release his returns because he’s under audit. At some level, that’s a legitimate concern. It would hardly be fair if thousands of tax professionals who oppose Trump politically helped the IRS by publishing their own analyses of the returns. Ultimately, however, it’s a phony excuse.

But rather than challenge the logic behind Trump’s refusal to release returns, a series of questions should be asked:

First, what tax years are under audit? Does it go back beyond 2012? If not, can the 2011 return be released? After all, the statute of limitations on the audit of that year has passed, so there’s no exposure to Trump by releasing that return. If not 2011, how about 2010?

Second, why haven’t the audit notices been released? An audit notice is a short, generic letter from the IRS stating that a taxpayer’s return has been selected for examination. There’s nothing so sensitive in such a generic notice that it could not be made public. At this point, Trump has not even offered up this most basic evidence that he is really even under audit. Why hasn’t proof been demanded?

Third, for the tax returns that are under audit, why can’t the first two pages be released? After all, those first two pages simultaneously contain the information most relevant to the public about a presidential candidate and contain no information that reveals the issues under audit. Although an audit ultimately impacts the numbers that appear on the first two pages of the return, it’s the schedules and other information that the IRS analyzes in an audit. For example, the first page of Trump’s return states the income or loss he received from partnerships and real estate investments, but it’s a schedule attached to the return, and the returns of the partnerships in which Trump is a partner, that contain the information the IRS would scrutinize in an audit.

Fourth, if for whatever reason the first two pages of the returns can’t be released, could Trump at least release five numbers from each of his returns: his gross income, his adjusted gross income, his taxable income, his self-employment tax liability, and his income tax liability? If not, then why not?

Fifth, is the sensitivity of Trump’s IRS audit the only reason behind his refusal to release the returns? Is Trump also under audit by any other tax agency, such as New York State’s Department of Revenue?

These questions would force Trump to take one of two approaches: Either continue to evade or allow the exposure of an uncomfortable (and intuitively obvious) reality – that the sensitivity of his audit is not the real reason for his refusal to release his returns. In all likelihood, he’d take the first approach, probably claiming that his tax advisors have told him not to release any information publicly. But, again, that cannot explain his refusal to release returns up to 2011, for which the statute of limitations have all expired.

What is the real reason Trump does not want to release the returns, even the first two pages? It could be that there’s some embarrassing piece of information in there somewhere and Trump learned from Romney’s refusal to go beyond a limited release of his returns that eventually people forget about a candidate’s refusal to come clean. More likely, however, the problem he’s facing is his own lack of credibility. The tax return of a real estate magnate like Trump paints a very distorted picture. Income will vary wildly from one year to the next. Important items might be buried in the return of a partnership or corporation that can’t be released because of minority partners or shareholders. Taxpayers in Trump’s position tend to bunch their charitable contributions, making them in the years they provide the most tax benefit. Unfortunately for Trump, that practice could make him appear incredibly tight-fisted if his returns over too short a period are seen in isolation.

And that’s where Trump could be trapped by his own lack of credibility. It may well be that there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for whatever Trump would prefer not to be out there for public comment. Trump’s problem is that if the explanation comes from him, nobody will believe it. And he knows it.

At a minimum, however, the above critical questions must be asked. Even if Trump has to explain a few items on his returns, that is no greater fear or burden than every other previous Presidential candidate has faced. Certainly Trump may have varied financial interests, including charitable trusts. But so have other candidates before, including Hillary Clinton this election, and all have engaged in public transparency but for Trump.

Hopefully the press, including the debate moderators, will force Mr. Trump to answer these basic questions.

Robert J. Lord, a tax lawyer and former Congressional candidate, is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Bob previously served as an adjunct faculty member at the Arizona State University School of Law. Bob’s work focuses on the relationship of tax law to inequality. He contributes to both the Inequality.org website and to OtherWords, the Institute’s national syndicated editorial service. Bob also is a staff member at Blog For Arizona, the leading political blog in Arizona.

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.

Blame It On The Bossa Nova: Lochte and Brazilian Police

The travails of the Ryan Lochte gang of American Swimmers has been playing out for a full week now. The result has been almost universal scorn, if not hatred, for Lochte et. al, and almost complete credulous acceptance of the somewhat dubious, if extremely strident, pushback and claims of the Brazilian Police.

Frankly, neither side’s story ever sat quite right with me. But Lochte’s story, among other exaggeration/fabrication, always, from the start, indicated that the swimmers were pulled from a taxi at gun point, by people in uniform with badges, who pointed guns at them, and took money from them.

And then came the dog and pony show press conference staged by the Brazilian Police for a worldwide audience during mid-day on Thursday August 18. It was a bizarre and rambling presser, that was nearly comical in its staging during its opening portion. It did, however, make clear that there was a lot more to the full story than Lochte had told, and that some of his story was flat wrong. But, if you listened carefully, as I am wont to do with cops making self serving statements, it, along with previous statements made by the police, also pretty much confirmed the swimmers were pulled from a taxi at gun point, by people in uniform with badges, who pointed guns at them, and took money from them.

So, then the question was what “crimes” and/or “vandalism” had Lochte and the swimmers really caused? There was an early news crew, I think NBC, that went to the site and did not really find all that much damage. As the statements by both Lochte and the other swimmers, notably Gunnar Bentz, came out, it was clear that there was a real question as to what, if any, real damage was done. And a question of who engaged in exactly what criminal behavior at that gas station in the early morning of August 15.

Well, now it is starting to come out. And, as expected, the Brazilians have ginned up every bit as much “over-exaggeration” as Ryan Lochte. From today’s USA Today Investigative Team of Taylor Barnes and David Meeks, which confirms some of the work previously seen from (again, I believe) NBC. It is a pretty thorough and convincing report:

But a narrative of the night’s events – constructed by USA TODAY Sports from witness statements, official investigations, surveillance videos and media reports – supports Lochte’s later account in which he said that he thought the swimmers were being robbed when they were approached at a gas station by armed men who flashed badges, pointed guns at them and demanded money.

A Brazilian judge says police might have been hasty in determining that the security guards who drew guns on the swimmers and demanded money did not commit a robbery. A lawyer who has practiced in Brazil for 25 years says she does not think the actions of Lochte and teammate Jimmy Feigen constitute the filing of a false police report as defined under Brazilian law.

An extensive review of surveillance footage by a USA TODAY Sports videographer who also visited the gas station supports swimmer Gunnar Bentz’s claim that he did not see anyone vandalize the restroom, an allegation that in particular heightened media portrayals of the four as obnoxious Americans behaving recklessly in a foreign country. Meanwhile, Rio authorities have declined to identify the guards or offer any details beyond confirming they are members of law enforcement who were working a private security detail.

Now, we can’t compare that with everything the Brazilian police have, because they have been hiding a lot of their material and, apparently, misrepresenting substantial portions of it from the start. But everything within the USA Today piece corresponds with the various videos obtained by the various media outlets, whether Brazilian, American or international, and corresponds with Gunnar Bentz’s statement, which nobody, even, quite notably the Brazilians, including police, seems to contest in the least.

In short, the overall picture of the incident seems to be bigger and more complex, with some outrageous conduct by not just the American swimmers, but also, and substantially, the Brazilians. Oh, and about that “bathroom trashing damage”? That appears to be vapor too:

At a news conference Thursday, Rio police chief Fernando Veloso characterized the athletes’ actions at the gas station as vandalism. He said they also had broken a soap dispenser and mirror inside the restroom. Reports quickly grew that the Americans had trashed the restroom.

A USA TODAY Sports videographer who visited the bathroom Thursday found no damage to soap dispensers and mirrors and said none of those items appeared to be new. Some media accounts suggested the men had broken down a door, which USA TODAY Sports also did not observe.

Bentz said in his statement that he believes there are surveillance videos shot from different angles that have not been released. He also said he did not see anyone damage the bathroom or even enter it.

Oh, and that much ballyhooed “sign” supposedly damaged? Reports are that it was a minor crack in a cheap plastic cover and that the swimmers were made to pay out somewhere between $100 to $400 to cover what appears to be mostly ginned up nonsense. Additionally, irrespective of what the “security guards” extracted from the swimmers at gunpoint, swimmer James Feigan was made to pay the amount of $11,000 as a “donation” simply in order to leave the country and return home. That is not a “donation”, that is a flat out outrageous extortion demand and payment extracted by Brazilian authorities.

I wonder what bloviating sports columnists so full of righteous outrage and apologia will say now? Brazil is to be commended for putting on a great Olympics, and doing so under difficult constraints and conditions. But for the green pools (that affected nothing in the long run), they really pulled off a fantastic, admirable and beautiful show. Even the rain did not phase or slow down the glorious closing ceremonies Sunday night.

But one point on which Brazilian authorities “over-exaggerated”, overreacted, and failed to acquit themselves well on was in relation to the randy American swimmers. According to the USA Today report, even judges in Rio are wondering if they were hoodwinked in the rush of outrage by the authorities.

The distress of the Brazilian authorities over the emerging story from the swimmers is perfectly understandable given the dynamics. But, if an international scandal was created by this incident, it appears as if it is every bit as much the fault of the Brazilan police and authorities as it is the American swimmers.

It took two for this little tango.

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.

Tom Brady Taps Out of Deflategate and Other Trash Talk

Just posted a few minutes ago on Tom Brady’s Facebook page:

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Frankly, I am stunned. From the jump, Brady seemed to be a guy that would fight to the bitter end because he truly believed he was innocent and that the conduct of Roger Goodell and the NFL was dishonest and oppressive. And, frankly, every bit of research and evaluation of the case indicates that is exactly the case. My early analysis, which I still believe holds up nearly 100% is here. I touched significantly on why the Deflategate litigation was critical not just to Tom Brady, but to all organized labor operating ind a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). That is quite so, and the NFLPA has already indicated they may – may – continue on as a union to litigate this issue. We shall see, though they will be weakened without Brady being involved.

Having said that I am completely stunned Brady has tapped out, there are cognizable reasons for it. His best shot of success was with his petition for wn banc review in the 2nd Circuit, but that was denied Wednesday morning. To go further, Brady would have to file a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court and seek to obtain a stay of his suspension while the cert petition was processed. That would have been a tall order. The first stop would have beed the 2nd Circuit itself, which just dumped him, and then with Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the assigned Circuit Justice for the 2nd Circuit, and lastly to the full SCOTUS (which is not even in session currently).

I have a couple of sports law attorney friends I have found along the Deflategate way that thought Brady had a shot at a stay, maybe even odds as good as 50%. I thought that was probably entirely too optimistic, and not we will never know as the NFLPA does not have any need for a stay without Brady’s suspension hanging in the mix.

Just spitballing here, but I am going to guess that Bill Belichick, Bob Kraft and the interests of the team were the deciding factor for Brady, and not the thin odds. You see, even if Brady had been granted a stay, unless the Supremes granted cert, there is a real chance that the four game suspension rears its ugly head again at the end of the season and/or even the playoffs. If the Patriots are going to lose Tom Brady, it is far better that it be in the first four games, most of which they may have a decent shot at winning even without Brady, than have it be at the end of the year or playoffs. Nathaniel Grow at Sports Law Blog has a good discussion of the timing issue it Brady had actually obtained a a stay. So, dollar to donuts, this was not just the deciding factor, but the only real factor. Money was never an issue.

Just so you know, the Pats open here in Arizona against the Cardinals on Sunday Night Football on NBC, and then are at home in Foxborough against the the Dolphins, Texans and Bills. They can win some, if not most, of those games with Jimmy G at QB.

So, there you go, Deflategate comes to an ignominious end, at least as to Tom Brady. But there are other sports issues in the air, not to mention a boatload of politics and other matters. So feel free to use this thread as an open forum.

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.

On The Passing of David Margolis, the DOJ Institution

david-margolis-250David Margolis was a living legend and giant at the Department of Justice. Now he has passed. Just posted is the following from DOJ:

Statements From Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates on the Passing of Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates released the following statements today on the passing of Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, senior-most career employee at the Department of Justice.

Statement by Attorney General Lynch:

“David Margolis was a dedicated law enforcement officer and a consummate public servant who served the Department of Justice – and the American people – with unmatched devotion, remarkable skill and evident pride for more than half a century. From his earliest days as a hard-charging young prosecutor with a singular sense of style to his long tenure as one of the department’s senior leaders, David took on our nation’s most pressing issues and navigated our government’s most complex challenges. To generations of Justice Department employees, he was a respected colleague, a trusted advisor and most importantly, a beloved friend. We are heartbroken at his loss and he will be deeply missed. My thoughts and prayers are with David’s family, his friends and all who loved him.”

Statement by Deputy Attorney General Yates:

“David Margolis was the personification of all that is good about the Department of Justice. His dedication to our mission knew no bounds, and his judgment, wisdom and tenacity made him the “go-to” guy for department leaders for over 50 years. David was a good and loyal friend to all of us, and his loss leaves a gaping hole in the department and in our hearts.”

I am sure Mr. Margolis was a kind, personable and decent chap to those who knew and worked with him. I can be sure because there have been many voices I know who have related exactly that. He was undoubtedly a good family man and pillar of his community. None of that is hard to believe, indeed, it is easy to believe.

Sally Yates is spot on when she says Margolis’ “dedication to our [DOJ] mission knew no bounds”. That is not necessarily in a good way though, and Margolis was far from the the “personification of all that is good about the Department of Justice”. Mr. Margolis may have been such internally at the Department, but it is far less than clear he is really all that to the public and citizenry the Department is designed to serve. Indeed there is a pretty long record Mr. Margolis consistently not only frustrated accountability for DOJ malfeasance, but was the hand which guided and ingrained the craven protection of any and all DOJ attorneys for accountability, no matter how deeply they defiled the arc of justice.

This is no small matter. When DOJ Inspectors General go to Congress to decry the fact that there is an internal protection racket within the Department of Justice shielding even the worst wrongs by Department attorneys, as IG Glen Fine did:

Second, the current limitation on the DOJ OIG’s jurisdiction prevents the OIG – which by statute operates independent of the agency – from investigating an entire class of misconduct allegations involving DOJ attorneys’ actions, and instead assigns this responsibility to OPR, which is not statutorily independent and reports directly to the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General. In effect, the limitation on the OIG’s jurisdiction creates a conflict of interest and contravenes the rationale for establishing independent Inspectors General throughout the government. It also permits an Attorney General to assign an investigation raising questions about his conduct or the conduct of his senior staff to OPR, an entity reporting to and supervised by the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General and lacking the insulation and independence guaranteed by the IG Act.

This concern is not merely hypothetical. Recently, the Attorney General directed OPR to investigate aspects of the removal of U.S. Attorneys. In essence, the Attorney General assigned OPR – an entity that does not have statutory independence and reports directly to the Deputy Attorney General and Attorney General – to investigate a matter involving the Attorney General’s and the Deputy Attorney General’s conduct. The IG Act created OIGs to avoid this type of conflict of interest. It created statutorily independent offices to investigate allegations of misconduct throughout the entire agency, including actions of agency leaders. All other federal agencies operate this way, and the DOJ should also.

Third, while the OIG operates transparently, OPR does not. The OIG publicly releases its reports on matters of public interest, with the facts and analysis underlying our conclusions available for review. In contrast, OPR operates in secret. Its reports, even when they examine matters of significant public interest, are not publicly released.

Said fact and heinous lack of accountability for Justice Department attorneys, not just in Washington, but across the country and territories, is largely because of, and jealously ingrained by, David Margolis. What Glen Fine was testifying about is the fact there is no independent regulation and accountability for DOJ attorneys.

They are generally excluded from the Department IG purview of authority, and it is rare, if ever, courts or state bar authorities will formally review DOJ attorneys without going throughout the filter of the OPR – the Office of Professional Responsibility – within the Department. A protection racket designed and jealously guarded for decades by David Margolis. Even when cases were found egregious enough to be referred out of OPR, they went to…..David Margolis.

In fact, attuned people literally called the OPR the “Roach Motel”:

“I used to call it the Roach Motel of the Justice Department,” says Fordham University law professor Bruce A. Green, a former federal prosecutor and ethics committee co-chair for the ABA Criminal Justice Section. “Cases check in, but they don’t check out.”

If you want a solid history of OPR, and the malfeasance it and Margolis have cravenly protected going back well over a decade, please go read “The Roach Motel”, a 2009 article in no less an authority than the American Bar Association Journal. It is a stunning and damning report. It is hard to describe just how much this one man, David Margolis, has frustrated public transparency and accountability into the Justice Department that supposedly works for the citizens of the United States. It is astounding really.

As I wrote back in 2010:

But just as there is an inherent conflict in the DOJ’s use of the fiction of the OPR to police itself, so too does David Margolis have issues giving the distinct appearance of impropriety. Who and what is David Margolis? A definitive look at the man was made by the National Law Journal (subscription required):

“Taking him on is a losing battle,” says the source. “The guy is Yoda. Nobody fucks with the guy.”
….
Margolis cut his teeth as an organized-crime prosecutor, and he often uses mob analogies in talking about his career at the Justice Department. When asked by an incoming attorney general what his job duties entailed, Margolis responded: “I’m the department’s cleaner. I clean up messes.”

The analogy calls to mind the character of Winston Wolfe, played by Harvey Keitel in the 1994 film “Pulp Fiction.” In the movie, Wolfe is called in by mob honchos to dispose of the evidence after two foot soldiers accidentally kill a murder witness in the back of their car.

“The Cleaner” Mr. Margolis considered himself, while fastidiously sanitizing gross malfeasance and misconduct by DOJ attorneys, all the while denying the American public the disinfectant of sunshine and transparency they deserve from their public servants (good discussion by Marcy, also from 2010).

Perhaps no single incident epitomized Margolis’ determination to be the “cleaner” for the Department of Justice and keep their dirt from public scrutiny and accountability than the case of John Yoo (and to similar extent, now lifetime federal judge Jay Bybee). Yoo as you may recall was the enlightened American who formally opinedcrushing innocent children’s testicles would be acceptable conduct for the United States to engage in. Yoo and Bybee, by their gross adoption of torture, literally personally soiled the reputation of the United States as detrimentally as any men in history.

So, what did David Margolis do in response to the heinous legal banality of evil John Yoo and Jay Bybee engendered in our name? Margolis cleaned it up. He sanitized it. Rationalized it. Ratified it. Hid it. To such an extent architects of such heinous war crimes are now lifetime appointed federal judges and tenured professors. Because that is what “The Cleaner” David Margolis did. “Protecting” the DOJ from accountability, at all costs, even from crimes against humanity, was simply the life goal of David Margolis, and he was depressingly successful at it.

So, less than 24 hours in to the passing of The Cleaner, is it too early to engage in this criticism? Clearly other career officials at the DOJ think discussing the pernicious effects of Margolis on accountability and transparency are out of bounds.

I wonder what the late Senator Ted Stevens would say in response to the “too soon” mandate of Steven Bressler? Because thanks to the efforts of The Cleaner Margolis, Stevens died without the public knowing what an unethical and craven, if not downright criminal, witch hunt attorneys in the Department of Justice ran on him. Even after Stevens was long gone from office and dead, there was Margolis “cleaning” it all up to protect his precious Justice Department when even the internal OPR found gross misconduct:

Following the Justice Department’s agreement in 2009 to vacate the convictions it obtained of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, it conducted an internal probe into the conduct of its senior lawyers and—surprise!—exonerated them and itself. It then refused to make the report public. However, at the time the conviction was voided, the presiding judge in Stevens’s case, Emmet Sullivan, appropriately wary of the department’s ethics office, appointed a special prosecutor, Henry F. Schuelke, III, an eminent Washington attorney and former prosecutor, to probe the DOJ’s conduct. Late last week, Schuelke’s 525-page report was released, over the loud objections of DOJ lawyers. The report revealed gross misconduct by the prosecutorial team, stretching over the entire course of the case and reaching into the upper echelons of the department. It concluded there had been “systematic concealment of significant exculpatory evidence which would have independently corroborated [Stevens’s] defense.”

Having laid out the above bill of particulars as to David Margolis, I’d like to return to where we started. As I said in the intro, “I am sure Mr. Margolis was a kind, personable and decent chap”. That was not cheap rhetoric, from all I can discern, both from reading accounts and talking to people who knew Mr. Margolis well, he was exactly that. Ellen Nakashima did a fantastic review of Margolis in the Washington Post last year. And, let’s be honest, the man she described is a guy you would love to know, work with and be around. I know I would. David Margolis was a man dedicated. And an incredibly significant man, even if few in the public understood it.

Say what you will, but Mr. Margolis was truly a giant. While I have no issue delineating what appear to be quite pernicious effects of David Margolis’ gargantuan footprint on the lack of accountability of the Department of Justice to the American citizenry, I have some real abiding respect for what, and who, he was as a man. Seriously, read the Nakashima article and tell me David Margolis is not a man you would love to kill some serious beers with by a peaceful lake somewhere.

But David Margolis, both the good and the bad, is gone now. Where will his legacy live? One of our very longtime friends here at Emptywheel, Avattoir, eruditely said just yesterday:

Focus instead on the institution, not the players. The players are just data points, hopefully leading to greater understanding of the institutional realities.

Those words were literally the first I thought of yesterday when I received the phone call David Margolis had passed. They are true and important words that I, and all, need to take heed of more frequently.

David Margolis, it turns out from all appearances and reports, was a complex man. Clearly great, and clearly detrimental, edges to him. So what will his legacy be at the Department of Justice? Will the closing of the Margolis era, and it was truly that, finally bring the institution of the Department into a modern and appropriate light of transparency, accountability and sunshine?

Or will the dirty deeds of David Margolis’ historical ratification and concealment of pervasive and gross misconduct by Department of Justice attorneys become permanently enshrined as a living legacy to the man?

We shall see.

Bmaz is a rather large saguaro cactus in the Southwestern Sonoran desert. A lover of the Constitution, law, family, sports, food and spirits. As you might imagine, a bit prickly occasionally. Bmaz has attended all three state universities in Arizona, with both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Arizona State University, and with significant post-graduate work (in physics and organic chemistry, go figure) at both the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Arizona. Married, with both a lovely child and a giant Sasquatch dog. Bmaz has been a participant on the internet since the early 2000’s, including active participation in the precursor to Emptywheel, The Next Hurrah. Formally joined the Emptywheel blog as an original contributing member at its founding in 2007. Bmaz grew up around politics, education, sports and, most significantly, cars; notably around Formula One racing and Concours de Elegance automobile restoration and showing. Currently lives in the Cactus Patch with his lovely wife and beast of a dog, and practices both criminal and civil trial law.