Watergate vs. Iran-Contra and what it tells us about American attitudes to malfeasance

When we are faced with the obvious signs of malfeasance by high elected officials in the USA, people often assert that ultimately the malfeasance will be ended and the bad actors punished. The normal approach is some variant of “well, Nixon lost his job over Watergate, so the system corrects itself”.
This is all fine and uplifting, but the reality is somewhat different. For every Watergate, there are multiple scandals where perpetrators not only go unpunished, but they are actually rewarded for their bad behavior.
Like Iran-Contra.
The story is well-known by now. Oliver North, working in the Reagan administration, discovered that on one side of the world were a group of people with missiles but no money. On the other side of the globe were another group of people with money but no missiles. They wanted to buy missiles.
So, in the grand tradition of American entrepreneuralism, North brought the two sides together (totally covertly) and SHAZAM! a deal was done, and both parties were happy.
The fact that North should not even have been dealing with either group, since it was official US policy to not deal with them, was ignored totally. Plus the deal was illegal on multiple different levels.
Oliver North testified (or more correctly, gave limited testimony and then invoked his 5th Amendment right to non-self-incrimination dozens of times) to Congress, under an immunity deal. He was subsequently charged with felonies, tried and found guilty. However, since he had been granted a level of immunity in negotiations with the government over his testimony on the affair, his felony conviction was overturned on appeal.
North then ran for the Senate in 1994 as a GOP candidate for Virginia. Not only did the party eagerly embrace him, he came close to winning the election.
Were it not for the presence of a moderate Republican candidate on the ballot, who won 11% of the vote, North might well have won the election. North was, and still is, seen by many GOP partisans as a hero, penalized by spineless wimps and liberals for Doing What Was Best For America. The fact that, by his own admission, he broke the law and was unrepentant, is seen as a feature, not a bug. Most of the money he raised in his 1994 campaign came from small donors, a powerful illustration that the appeal of authoritarians to the GOP base is a long-standing one, not just a recent affectation.
Now, just in the last couple of days, North has been appointed to be the Chairman of the National Rifle Association. His status as a hero of illegal covert operations has once again catapulted him to a top public role.
Time and time again we see perpetrators of malfeasance suffering either no negative consequences, or at best suffering temporary negative consequences. This is important, since is a significant contributor to a pervasive cynicism about societal and political leaders. This cynicism in turn results in two negative behaviors (1) withdrawal from the political process and voting (2) a willingness to embrace any political candidate who is able to plausibly and superficially pass as an “insurgent” or “outsider” (which, in most cases is on a par with saying “I’m telling the truth, you can trust me”) and who promises to “turn the place upside down”, “drain the swamp” etc. Both of those behaviors, added together, resulted in the election of Donald Trump.


The NFL’s anthem kneeling controversy escalates

In the beginning…Colin Kaepernick knelt when the National Anthem was played.
Then other players joined him, not only on the 49ers, but players from other teams also joined in.
Then the President of the United States had a hissy-fit and made a lot of noise about the protests, and was joined in the condemnation by lots of people with no understanding of the law, the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement, or the Constitution.
Then Colin Kaepernick found himself unable to get a job in the NFL. Eventually he filed a collusion complaint.
Then Eric Reid, who had also kneeled for the anthem, found himself also unable to get a job, and also filed a collusion complaint with the support of the NFLPA.
The blackballing of Reid and Kaepernick (whether this rises to the level of collusion is still to be determined) has pissed off the NFLPA. Remember that 70% of the NFL’s players are African-American.
The NFLPA has now filed two complaints of its own. The complaints are the first time that the NFLPA has become involved in complaints that are broader in scope than one specific player. The players are now beginning to push back collectively in one of the few ways that they can legally do so, via the grievance processes built into the Collective Bargaining Agreement. One thing to realize is that there is an underlying resentment of the current CBA on behalf of the players, who feel that the owners got too large a share of league revenues, and who believe that the Commissioner has abused his powers in the areas of player discipline. (Remember that the owners opted out of the previous CBA, and then took a very tough line in negotiating the current CBA).
The NFL owners, many of whom are used to getting their own way in business, having run privately held businesses for most of their lives, have spent too much time and effort in recent months listening to the President, and not enough time listening to their employees. This may be about to backfire on the NFL.


University sports coach firing scandals

When I arrived in the USA in 1994, I soon discovered that in Texas, just about every school district sooner or later has a scandal break out. (In the case of the Dallas Independent School District, a scandal has appeared like clockwork every 2 or 3 years. Like this one from 2017).
Browsing on the Internets the other day, I found that this might also be true in college sports coaching. There are literally dozens of Google entries documenting how fired coaches all over the country have been suing colleges for being dismissed.
Some of the lawsuits are whistleblower/retaliation lawsuits, basically alleging that the university or college was guilty of Title XI violations, and retaliated against coaches for identifying the violations. A number of female coaches in sports such as softball and basketball also sued colleges for sexual discrimination and/or harassment.
Needless to say, in the grand tradition of civil lawsuiting, nearly all of the cases were settled out of court, with the colleges in question paying sums of money (in some cases, large sums of money) but admitting to no wrongdoing or malfeasance.
One lawsuit that caught my eye was a settlement announced recently between San Diego State University and Beth Burns, who had been the university’s female basketball coach until she was terminated in 2013. Burns was forced at the time to retire with 4 years and $880k left on her contract. The college claimed she was effectively dismissed because of workplace violence, and was given the option to retire, which she accepted. Burns claimed in turn that she had been forced to retire mainly because she had been vocally complaining about the under-funding of female sports at SDSU compared to male sports.
The final settlement announcement was bizarre, for this line from the university’s statement:

“This is a situation where, although we are very confident of our chances on appeal, we decided to reach a settlement and move on. It’s a compromise. It’s something where clearly coach Burns is ready to put this behind her and we’re ready to move forward as well.”

The use of the word compromise is the side-splitter. Burns originally sued the college to be awarded $880k, the amount still owed under her contract, plus lawyers fees. The university low-balled her, so Burns filed a whistleblower lawsuit which went to a jury trial, where she was awarded $3.2m plus costs and fees in 2016.
The final bill to the university is therefore in excess of $4m. That is a compromise? Somebody at SDSU should have been terminated for incompetence for agreeing to actions and tactics that converted a liability that could have been less than $1m into a final cost of more than $4m.
Just to add insult to injury, the university also had to pay over $150k in damages to the assistant coach who was alleged to be the victim of the incident that led to Burns’ leaving SDSU.
However, this may be part of a pattern. This is at least the third lawsuit settled by SDSU in the last 12 years involving female coaches who sued the university. This article documents 2 previous lawsuits filed by departed coaches, both settled by the university. One starts to wonder if SDSU has a systemic problem in this area.
For sure, problem or no problem, it is costing the university and its insurers a lot of money.


The emotional appeal of past glory – Grimsby, UK

This interesting article in the New York Times does a good job of explaining why and how nostalgia for a past phase of the UK’s achievements came to dominate decision-making by local electors at the expense of an understanding of current reality.
This problem is endemic when extractive and exploitative land and sea-based industries decline due to the exhaustion of resources, or the Tragedy Of the Commons. Local and regional economies built on those industries have trouble dealing with the decline, partly because it is often dramatic and sudden, and it impacts such a high percentage of local employment. The decline in steel manufacturing, followed by coal mining in parts of the UK that began in the 1960s left large areas of the UK in severe economic distress, which in turn fuelled resentment and antagonism towards governments (who were perceived to not give a damn) and experts, whose exhortations about “technology” and “re-training” were unlikely to be received well by workers who left school at 16 precisely because they hated the school system.
The underlying reality is that the image of Grimsby as a fishing port that electors want to restore is totally out of touch with present-day reality. The Golden Age Fallacy won out over reality when it came time for the electors to vote. These kinds of situations never end well. Reality tends to win when it collides with fantasy.
The fantasy of the UK as a present-day Great Imperial Power, the stuff of history textbooks, is still fixed in the minds of many UK residents, as exemplified by this piece of bluster from a Grimsby resident:

“Europe needs the U.K. more than the other way around,” said Ian Thompson, a Grimsby resident and former merchant marine, having a drink under one of those sepia-toned photographs. “We will prevail.”


Enablement of abuse by churches

I know several women who have been the victims of abuse (both mental and physical) in relationships.
My tentative conclusion from conversations with those women, and their friends, is that abuse, once entrenched in the relationship, will continue until the abused party walks a long distance away from the entire relationship, or the abuser suffers a painful epiphany (as in, jail time).
The saddest part of viewing abusive relationships from outside is that, in addition to the abuse, the abused person is often not supported by their extended family. In addition, abusers are enabled in the continuation by the value systems of those they associate with and respect.
One of the most pernicious and long-lived enabling bodies for marital abuse are churches, who are mostly governed by patriarchs whose attitude to women is that they are useful as submissive chattels and child production units.
This church leader exemplifies the problem. Not only is he an enabler, and therefore an asshole, he also seems to think that he has said and done nothing wrong. For him, Denial is definitely the place to be.


Saturday thoughts – Cinco de Mayo

1. Poor decisions made by electorates
I have to listen to and read pissing and moaning by electors on a daily basis about how most politicians are “con-men”, “hucksters”, “snake-oil salesman”, along with other words that my mother would not approve of.
The fact that those politicians were elected (and in many cases, re-elected) by electors somehow never makes it into the conversation. My cynical side says that this is because it requires electors to face up to the reality that they were persuaded to vote for those defective representative, thus the joke is on them, and that would require humility, self-awareness and reflection that they do not possess the capability to engage in.
In the meantime, jerks like this guy get elected even though they engage in arsehole smack talk on social media, and because the political party that this guy belongs to is dominated by power-hungry jerks with no scruples, he has been magically un-suspended by the party so that he can be seated.
So…the electorate has, once again, enabled bad behavior. This is a pretty good illustration of why I have limited patience for whining by electorates about their elected representatives. A lot of the time, they voted for these human dumpster-fires.

2. And…talking about human dumpster-fires…
Ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio is a living monument to the collective inability of an electorate to understand how not to vote for a fascist dickwad. The voters of Maricopa County in Arizona re-elected him for decades, and he has cost the county untold tens of millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements in the last 10 or so years.
Arpaio has be pardoned by Donald Trump for criminal contempt after failing to own up to Bad Stuff done on his watch. However, there is other even worse stuff that he was involved in that he has managed to weasel out of accountability for. Like this horrendous abuse of the judicial process:

Note to electors in Maricopa County; don’t even try to convince me that you had a damn clue what you were doing when you voted for this guy. You didn’t, you didn’t learn despite all of the accumulating evidence, and now Maricopa County appears in Google for a lot of wrong reasons. Your bad.


Whisky Tango Foxtrot – Astroturfing in Louisiana

Today’s eye-opening hair-raising story about how an energy company packed a council meeting with paid supporters pulled from the acting profession, apparently via a Los-Angeles based company with the name Crowds For Hire. Crowds For Hire was clearly a “cut out”, the third party that allowed the energy company to (legally correctly) claim that THEY had not paid anybody to attend the council meeting.
You can’t make this stuff up.


Thoughts – Friday 4th May 2018

1. Facebook
I have de-activated my Facebook profile. This occurred after I responded to a somewhat contentious and pointed posting from a dear friend who, in the posting, seemingly forbade people from commenting on the posting.
I unfollowed the friend on Facebook, not wanting to be placed in a situation where I could read postings, but not be allowed to comment on them. (NOTE to readers – this is not Unfriending. That is something else). That’s not really how an open-exchange platform like Facebook works. I then was challenged by a mutual friend of the friend about my response. In hindsight, I made a mistake by announcing that I was unfollowing somebody and explaining why.
Although I did not name names (I never do that, naming and shaming is not generally a useful interaction approach in life), the discussion that started under my posting started to reach the point where it was possible for people to find out who I had unfollowed. This was not what I intended or wanted.
Additionally, I was informed that I was behaving badly.
So, I am off of Facebook. I spend a lot of time on the platform (maybe too much time). The platform is useful, but it has frustrations in the level of balkanization and poor quality of debate and discussion. But, the bottom line is that, having been socially rejected as an adolescent, I determined a long time ago that I don’t stay anywhere where I am not wanted or appreciated.
I will decide later whether it is worth returning, based on what reactions I get. In the meantime, I will communicate via other processes and forums. I have joined counter.social and I now can be found online there, also on this blog, and on Twitter and Ello.
White Cat Publishing also still exists, and has its own area on Ello.

2. Great Lawyer letter responses
The best response ever is probably Arkell v. Pressdram. However, this one runs it close.

3. Stupid advertising copy of the day

4. Remember Jade Helm? All of the paranoia and fear? Well, it may have been an attempt to seed nonsense
This analysis by JJ MacNabb explains how Jade Helm was actually an attempt to tap into conspiracy theory thinking in the service of undermining trust in government, and the Governor of Texas fell for it hook line and sinker.

5. You Cannot Be Serious! Entry for today
In which blogger Matt Walsh has a mini-sad over the supposed inequitable way in which men are treated in their own homes. Phrases like “cry me a river”, and “here is the world’s smallest violin” do spring to mind when I have to read this kind of “poor widdle me” nonsense.


My day at jury service (or not)

I was invited to Jury Service in Dallas County in Mid-March. This being in the middle of System Integration Test for Release 2 of the solution our Testing team is supporting, I applied for a postponement.
So I was told to come back on 1st May. This was not convenient either, but best to get it out of the way before things became even busier on Release 3…
So in due course i got up way too early, and drove into Dallas in the morning rush hour, suffering the usual accordion-slinky speed increases and sudden decreases, as the incompetent and insufficiently-coffeenated were driving like doofi up I-35. By dint of getting stuck in a traffic jam on Riverfront Boulevard, I arrived 5 minutes late at the court building. The usual security line, turn out your pockets etc.etc.
Then I found myself staring at a set of wall monitors, looking for my name on the display.
No “Graham Shevlin”.
No “Shevlin Graham”, “Graham Chevlin” or any other distortion of my name.
Hmmmm. So was there some mistake?
I wandered over to a court official and asked why my name was not on the video panel display.
His reply was wry. “You probably don’t want to see your name on that display” he said. “That lists all the defendants for the day”. He took my Jury summons from me, removed the juror id tear-off, and pointed round the corner.
Thus it was that I found myself marching into the main jury assembly room at the Court building, to be greeted by the sight of 200+ other jurors, all sitting in neat rows like a high school assembly. Most of them had facial expressions indicating tiredness, resignation or boredom. Some were texting on phones. The power guys were walking up and down talking into phone earpieces as they fixed Important Stuff At Work.
Since The Powers That Be decreed no standing (fire codes), some of us were shuffled off to an overflow room. This was good since it had comfy chairs, and more space. No sitting in rows like confused penguins.
We then got to listen to several speeches from court officials, and then we all stood to recite the rather wordy juror’s oath (of which more later).
Then, they announced that jurors 1 though 142 were to go to District Criminal Court 1. (I was #88). Up to the 6th floor to the ante-room for the court, where they handed out…The Juror Questionnaire. Strangely, they called people’s names off a list one at a time to do this, instead of just handing out forms and pens.
Aha! I said inwardly. Time for me to fashion a cunning response that would signal my total lack of suitability for anything as serious and weighty (and potentially time-consuming) as being on a jury. However, after examining the questions, the cynic in me concluded that simply answering each question honestly would probably disqualify me anyway (“WHAT? We’re not having HIM on OUR jury!”).
So, using the court-supplied blue pen, I set to work, scratching my head over some of the questions.
The one that really made me laugh out loud was the one that asked me to rate where I was on a scale of Liberal vs. Conservative. Clearly no room in this universe for people of the libertarian persuasion then.
I was able to inform the court that I considered the criminal justice system to be defective, with some good aspects and some bad aspects, and that i considered The War On (Some) Drugs to be a waste of resources. That would surely work if it was a drug trial… I was trying to convey my fairly strong skepticism of a system that is not only defective, with far too many innocent people being railroaded or convicted, but a system that is pathologically unwilling to admit to any error, and which denies victims of miscarriages of justice fair compensation and accountability within the system for mistakes.
After a while they started to call out names of people being selected to form the panel from which the twelve good people would be selected. Again they named people, this time in a completely different sequence. I marched up, handed over my questionnaire, and marched into the court room, listening for (and failing to hear) any laughter from the court official as he began to read the questionnaire.
They packed 62 of us into every available chair, including temporary chairs.
Judge Robert Burns was already at his podium, so we had none of the usual “all rise for the Judge” hoopla.
So there we were, all looking around and at each other. We were all doing the usual sizing up of others, looking at them thinking stuff like “I wonder what he does for a living” etc. etc.
The case was listed on the courtroom monitors. State of Texas vs. Somebody. The defendant was an African-American man, who looked sullen and not at all at ease (well duh, I think if I was a defendant in a criminal trial, I would not exactly be jumping up and down and saying things like “Oh goody, this is going to be a shitload of fun”).
The defendant’s lawyer looked like a public defender; a smiling, amiable-looking guy in his late 50s or early 60s with tousled gray hair and a very conservative off-the-peg suit.
The prosecution team comprised two young female Assistant DAs. They were dressed sharply but not flamboyantly. No doubt they were eager to ensure that the defendant would ultimately get to feel the firm and compelling Hand of Justice.
After some preliminary whispering to his stenographer, Judge Robert Burns began to speak, and I was impressed by his demeanor. He even cracked a joke against the legal profession; when asking if anybody in the court had not yet taken the jurors oath, he remarked “you can tell it was written by a lawyer, because it is rather long”. He seemed un-stuffy, not a stiff, pompous, authoritarian gavel-banger.
We sat through the usual injunctions – defendant innocent until proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt etc. Then we were reminded that juries in Dallas County get to decide not only guilt, but also sentencing. The judge also told us that they expected the trial to commence on Wednesday and last no more than 2 days, so everybody would be finished by Thursday pm. This disposed of some questions from jury candidates who had appointments on friday.
The judge asked if any prospective jurors had any personal conflicts. He listened patiently as several jurors tried variants of the “I am needed at work” line, then pointed out that no employer is allowed to penalize an employee for participating in jury service. He even said “if you have a problem, I will call your employer and remind them of what the law says”.
One juror whose mother had end stage Alzheimers was immediately excused.
Then the judge revealed some of the details. The defendant had been indicted for Aggravated Assault on another man. The judge explained that he had been indicted via a Grand Jury hearing, which (interestingly) did not require the disclosure of any of the evidence that the prosecution was going to present at trial. (this I found odd. How do you persuade a Grand Jury panel to issue an indictment without revealing any evidence?).
At this point, a lady in the room revealed that she had been a victim of an assault that weekend. Asked if she had any injuries, she showed bruises all over her hands and forearms, as in significant bruising. The judge immediately excused her.
Then, it began to get interesting. The judge informed us that the sentencing range for the offense was anything from 2 years of jail time up to…life. Yes, life imprisonment. A very large range (more later).
In response to a question from a prospective juror about why probation was not an option, Judge Burns had an interesting response. Under Texas law, probation is only a sentencing option for Aggravated Assault if the defendant has no prior convictions. Since the defendant had a prior conviction, probation was off the table, not an option. The judge went on to say that he was not allowed to tell us what the prior conviction was for.
At this point, the Prosecution lawyer took over and began to walk us through the definition in law of Aggravated Assault. This is where it started to get really interesting…
The main fact that soon became a topic of feedback and discussion was that under Texas law, Aggravated Assault does not require that the victim actually suffer physical or mental harm. Merely being and feeling plausibly threatened is enough if you are a victim.
At this point a lady piped up and told the prosecution attorney “I cannot be on a jury for a case where the victim is not even harmed”. This triggered a discussion about what feeling threatened might comprise, with the judge opining that if a defendant (for example) was to point a gun at somebody and threaten to shoot them, that would meet the definition of Aggravated Assault.
After some amusing back and forth over the evidence that would be required to show that the victim felt threatened, the judge reminded us that, you know, finding the defendant Not Guilty is very much an option…
The discussion then moved on to the credibility of witnesses, particularly prosecution law enforcement personnel. At this point, several prospective jurors began to signal that they did not trust law enforcement to tell the truth in court. One African-American woman explained how her son had been charged with an offense and two police officers had lied on the stand, so she had no confidence in the veracity of law enforcement tendency.
As she was explaining this, a woman next to me snorted “well she would say that wouldn’t she”. Hmmm, I thought to myself, if you’re going to be a racist, you might not be so casual about it.
As he had been doing throughout, the judge was writing down juror reservations and issues on a pad. From his careful process of making sure that he got the right names, it seemed clear to me that he was probably red-lining certain people before the prosecution and defense even got to make any objections.
However, we now reached the discussion of the sentencing guidelines. And this is where a whole slew of us began to state our discontent with the sentencing guidelines. The judge asked for a show of hands about whether we felt that the maximum sentence of life was not something we could consider. Over half the hands in the room were raised, including mine. A similar request for feedback on the lower level of the sentencing guidelines resulted in many of the same hands (including mine, for the second time) being raised.
A background to my objections. In the UK, where i grew up, this defendant would likely not have been charged with Aggravated Assault. Threatening somebody in the UK will most likely result in a charge of Threatening Behavior, which usually results in a fine and probation for guilty defendants. Then the next level is Assault. Then Assault with Intent to cause Grevious Bodily Harm. Then murder/manslaughter.
From the hints being dropped in court, it seemed likely that the defendant had not been physically harmed in the encounter. In the light of this possibility, the idea that one should consider a life sentence was, I think, bonkers to most of us. Also the inability to consider probation was another troubling aspect.
After the completion of the questions about sentencing guidelines, I said to the lady next to me, “At this rate,they will not have enough people left for a jury”.
Less than a minute after I said that, Judge Burns called the lawyers up to his podium and talked to them for a minute. Then he turned on his mike and announced “ladies and gentlemen, we cannot empanel a jury today. You are all free to go”.
So we all trooped out and checked out of the building, not to return this time around.
I drove home, and was back on the day job by 2.00pm.
My conclusion is that the judge, after reading the show of hands responses on the sentencing guidelines, concluded that indeed there were insufficient juror candidates left to even move to the next phase. We had effectively rebelled as a group against sentencing guidelines that most of us felt were way past proportionate to the alleged crime.
So, no more jury service for me for a while Now back to getting a Testing project to the finish line…

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