Corruption Overwhelming America

August 20, 2019

This commentary was drafted in anger when I learned that pig farmers are refusing to allow inspections to look for the microbes that are killing people. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed the filth of the meat-packing industry in 1906 and led directly to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the creation of the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration. Now they want to undo a century of relatively clean food by claiming regulation is bad – yes, particularly bad for filth in the food industry.

This country’s reputation for honesty and responsibility long gave us a huge market edge. American institutions check on errors and misbehavior. That drove our legal and corporate culture. Now we’re inviting the world to ditch its confidence in us, and inviting each other to be cynical about business and political claims, threatening our economic power and democratic system.

Everyone has a reason why you can’t check on them. China is more honest about their meat than our pig farmers. Police refuse to allow information to be made public about their behavior because the people might realize who is trustworthy and who isn’t. The President denies Congress’ authority to get information from him. Even George Washington turned papers over. Trump is the first President since Richard Nixon to refuse Congress his tax information, lest the American people get an honest look at his economic behavior, bankruptcies and unreliability.

Republicans lump everything under the title of regulation and, making no distinction, claim all regulation is bad. Regulation is a problem because they might have to take responsibility for the poisons they want to emit, the toxins and dangerous bugs in the food they want to sell us, and the financial shenanigans they use to fleece us of our money. No one has the right to poison or injure anyone else. That’s irresponsible at best, legally tortious and probably criminal.

The so-called Supreme Court authorizes corporations to force us into arbitration with arbitrators the corporations choose so that the arbitrators are only beholden to the corporations, and anyway, they have no power to cure corporate misbehavior. Heaven forbid corporations should have to own up for their sins. Why should they – no one else does.

We have fussed about the bribery rampant in other countries because it prevents law from working to produce decent and proper behavior that justifies reliance. Preventing investigations is almost as bad. We’re now allowing corporate and political America to behave like the Mafia where there is only accountability for hurting each other – the purpose of the organization is to fleece the public, impose protection rackets, and, where people object, kill. In this complex world it is increasingly difficult to protect yourself from dishonest business.

But the President does it – shouldn’t we follow his example? He failed to fire Mueller but he fires everyone else who might insist on honesty and accountability. Now he’s now moving federal agencies halfway across the country to encourage the staff to quit rather than relocate. What a step forward.

There’s a stench in the White House but who’s left to complain? Too many corporate officers can no longer be watched because Trump destroyed the civil service. Who’s to complain about what they do?

 


The Special Prosecutor Did Not Exonerate the President

July 30, 2019

In the hearings on the Mueller Report, some of the President’s supporters tried to describe “innocent until proven guilty” as meaning that the president is innocent of any crime and that the special prosecutor made that finding.

“Innocent until proven guilty” is a slogan with important purposes – we must not punish people who haven’t been found guilty. The presumption of innocence bars any form of punishment before a guilty verdict. We have to make sure that we don’t catch and punish the wrong people. But there is no negative implication here. “Innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t mean that someone who hasn’t been proven guilty is therefore actually and certifiably innocent. Even people who are held not guilty after criminal trials are sometimes found responsible in civil cases, where the penalty is money, not time in jail. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a presumption, not a conclusion about a person’s actual behavior.

In some cases, prosecutors do conclude that a defendant was innocent, but their judgment is not binding on anyone if something else turns up and changes the impact of the evidence.

In other cases, prosecutors conclude that they can’t convince a jury that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, sometimes called a moral certainty. If not, they can put the case aside, hoping or trying to get more evidence. They may still believe the defendant probably committed a crime, even though they understand there is still a reasonable doubt. They have evidence that points toward guilt, but it isn’t strong enough to convince a jury to imprison someone.

Or, and this seems to have been the case with Trump, they believe they might have sufficient information to convict, but they don’t have the authority to prosecute. The rule in the Justice Department against indicting a sitting president barred Mueller from proceeding.

But none of those possibilities imply a finding of innocence as a fact.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller tried to make it clear. There is no finding of innocence in the Report. Instead, the Report described evidence that points toward obstruction of justice, and concluded:

“[I]f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

It’s not clear who first said, “I must follow them; I am their leader.” That is clearly Nancy Pelosi’s position. To get too far out ahead of the public is dangerous. It could close minds rather than open them, increasing the danger for our country. Lawyers like myself, need to be very conscious of whether and when a jury will be receptive to a charge even though we have evidence. My own view is that Mr. Trump has committed impeachable offenses. But I also agree that the moment to pursue impeachment has not arrived because too much of the public and too many of their Senators are not yet ready to hear the charges, much less follow where the evidence leads. I’m hopeful that the ongoing hearings will help to prepare the public and the Senate. But it isn’t patriotic to go ahead blindly.


Problems Proving Obstruction and Conspiracy

April 2, 2019

Two statutes add to the many issues that complicate the status of Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

One defines obstruction of justice as “imped[ing] the due administration of justice.”[1] It has been treated as necessary that one have specifically intended to obstruct a proceeding. One can prove that someone like Trump intended to impede justice either by statements of intent or actions that make it obvious. Obstruction is about such things as Trump’s dismissal of Comey and urging an end to the investigation. It would have been cleaner if Trump had recused himself from the investigation. But he didn’t dismiss Rosenstein or Mueller or order either Comey or Sessions to end the investigation, only encourage them to. Was that enough? It probably would be if you told a police officer to get lost. But, even though Congress is not limited by the same rules of evidence, Supreme Court decisions about evidence of intent will complicate things. Let me come back to that in a moment.

A second statute makes “[A]ny conspiracy for the purpose of impairing, obstructing or defeating the lawful function of any department of government . . .” a violation of federal law.[2] Participants must agree, intend, and do something to further the conspiracy. Once again, intent might be proven by explicit statements, or by actions that make it obvious.

The Supreme Court, however, is not a friend of the obvious. It ratcheted back the law of conspiracy in an antitrust case saying that it is not enough to show that two people or companies acted as if they were acting in concert. The Court wants something closer to an explicit statement or admission.[3]

The Court doesn’t like to infer intent from behavior, except for infering intent to favor African-American efforts to equalize their opportunities with those of whites. The Court decided that many electoral district lines were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders in favor of African-Americans based on the shapes of the lines, even where the more obvious purpose was political gerrymandering which, to this day, they refuse to condemn.[4] But the Court resists finding that white officials disadvantaging minorities did so intentionally.[5] In one case they would not even get to the evidence, writing that such discrimination by high public officials was “implausible.”[6]

Intelligent attorneys would stop short of explicit statements or admissions. Politicians and criminal conspirators often make agreements based on unstated understandings. Trump came much closer to the brink than an intelligent lawyer would have. But notice the absence of any explicit quid pro quo. There’s no “release the recordings, Mr. Putin, and we’ll deliver the EU.” There’s no “let us help you violate our laws to get information on the Democratic National Committee or candidate Clinton.” It wasn’t even in the form of requests that they do some illegal things in the U.S. Instead the evidence we know about was all encouragement – saying that would be great, we hope Putin does it, or we predict he will. Trump’s statements are not explicit. Lawyers recognize that circumstantial evidence is often the most reliable but this Court thinks big shots and major corporations should be protected from it. Here, the evidence we know about is ambiguous – does it indicate a joint endeavor or simply knowledge of Putin’s actions?

The strength of the evidence will depend in part on whether Congress is willing to ignore the Court. In other words, the U.S. Supreme Court had its favorites and its scapegoats even before Trump’s appointments made it worse. None of that makes Trump blameless but it does mean that there will be battles over the evidence if there is any attempt to impeach.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 2, 2019.

[1] 18 U.S.C. § 1503, 1505 and https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/obstruction_of_justice.

[2] Hass v. Henkel, 216 U.S. 462, 479-480 (1910).

[3] Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007).

[4] See, e.g., Bush v. Vera, 517 U.S. 952 (1996); Shaw v. Hunt, 517 U.S. 899 (1996).

[5] See Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, 490 U.S. 642 (1989); and see also League of United Latin American Citizens [LULAC] v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399, 517 (2006) (Scalia, J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part).

[6] Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).


Trump’s Disloyalty

July 30, 2018

I’ve been chomping at the bit to get back to the studio to record but the surgeon said “Sit down, sit down, sit down, you’re splitting my stitches.” Well, I’m here at last.

Trump and a number of Washington Republicans think the FBI investigation of the connection between Russia and the Trump Administration was biased against Trump because FBI agent Peter Strzok believed that the American people should have rejected Donald Trump for president. Since a large share of FBI agents are Republican, one could have credited Strzok as keeping them honest with regard to Trump. But the problem with the Trumpians’ automatic conclusion of bias goes much deeper.

As Rehnquist and Scalia have written, it is almost impossible for otherwise qualified and intelligent people not to have opinions about important public matters. Certainly, if agents are automatically disqualied from investigations of those they oppose politically, there’d be few other than Trump supporters qualified to investigate. But the same logic would make them biased in his favor. Hence no one could be fair to Trump and America.

Trump carries that a step further by suggesting that Russian President Putin, the principal suspect for interfering with the American presidential election, should have a look at the details of the investigation and have his investigators help out. Wow. By Trumpian logic the objects of investigations should control what people discover about their behavior. It’s fine for Russians to control the FBI’s investigation of Russian activities in the U.S. but long time FBI agents should not have anything to do with the investigation if they have ever expressed an opinion.

This Trumpian view of human nature casts light on their own motives. People imagine motives in others that are familiar to them. Trump has turned his presidency into a series of infomercials for his properties. Many members of his family and Administration have similarly been using their offices for personal gain. Most recently, Scott Pruitt was forced out of office because he couldn’t take his hands off opportunities to use his position for personal gain. So I can understand why they’d see everything through the lens of self-interest and conclude that everyone is biased – to which we must add, including themselves.

The Founders understood that the devil lurks in the hearts of human beings without respect to wealth, class, heritage or learning. People, they understood, are subject to temptation. They anticipated that the highest offices of the land could, from time to time, be occupied by the most despicable people. Understanding that, they inserted the emoluments clauses in the Constitution to try to block foreign powers from offering rewards for selling out our country. And they inserted the impeachment clauses to provide a way to depose traitors and crooks from office.

We now have a person in the White House with private assets that reflect the patronage of foreign governments. He conducts foreign policy as a set of infomercials, making sure to play at his various resorts for all to see. His political fortunes may hinge on a single foreign power which used cyber warfare in an effort to install him in the White House. And he’s loyal to foreign powers.

The Republican Party is often called the G.O.P. The G.O.P. stood for the Grand Old Party that won the Civil War under Lincoln’s leadership. They fought for the Union and for principle. Too many current Republicans are loyal to Trump, but not to America. They have neither patriotism nor spine. They prefer to sell their souls rather than protect their country. There is nothing grand or even old about this party.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 24, 2018.

 


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