"What's black and white and read all over?"

Saturday, April 22, 2006
Posted 9:57 PM by

Fired CIA agent did the right thing

Mary McCarthy deserved to be fired from the CIA for revealing government secrets in violation of her secrecy oath. But she also deserves our country's thanks for taking the moral high ground.The Central Intelligence Agency fired senior analyst Mary McCarthy after she admitted leaking classified information that led to a Pulitzer Prize-winning story about a network of secret CIA prisons, government officials say.

She deserves our nation's thanks in addition to her pink slip.

Agents or private contractors working on the behest of our country kidnapped suspects in President Bush's War on Terror and flew them to the so-called black sites in countries where torture was legal.

McCarthy did the right thing in exposing this Stalin-esque practice. Although violating her secrecy oath in telling the Washington Post cost her her pension, she took the "moral high ground." Her motives were even more pure than those of W. Mark Felt a.k.a. Deep Throat.

It's about time somebody showed the courage of their convictions. It's a shame that McCarthy had no where else to turn to but the blind-eyed mainstream media that let this happen in the first place. She was already working in the spy agency's Office of Inspector General. If the watchers of the spies can't whistleblow, how broke is the system?

These are dark days indeed for the spooks. Bush ignored important intelligence prior to 9/11, cherrypicked contradicting intelligence to launch his invasion of Iraq, felt nothing about outing former spy Valerie Plame, and spent more time investigating McCarthy's leak than his administration spent weighing the moral and political consequences of torture.

It's about time: Convicted Philly councilman calls it quits

Councilman Rick Mariano called the WPEN-AM radio show of fellow Councilman Frank Rizzo Jr. on Saturday afternoon and said he was drafting a letter of resignation to City Council President Anna Verna.

Philadelphia city council Rick Mariano should have stepped down as soon as he was convicted of bribery on March 17, not on May 1, so his replacement could be picked by voters and not his party. In Mariano's defense, he says he went a little nuts after his conviction on 18 counts of corruption.It's about time. Mariano was convicted of 18 bribery and corruption counts on March 17 in federal court. State law let him keep his council seat - and his $102,000-per-year salary - until his sentencing on June 1.

Is Mariano resigning then so his party can appoint his replacement rather than have a special election in the primary - just like Gov. James McGreevey did in New Jersey?

Not according to Mariano.

"I wanted to do it (resign) right away, but going to the federal detention center really threw me out of kilter for about 11 days," Mariano said. "It's taken me a couple of weeks to get my doctors appointments."

I believe him, considering after his indictment he climbed to the top of City Hall in an O.J. Simpson-like standoff and some thought he might jump.

Since getting free on bail, he's been too busy proffering evidence to the FBI in a last-ditch attempt to cut his jail time.

Payola - I'm shocked! Not

Two Northeastern Pennsylvania radio stations have been caught up in the Federal Communications Commission's probe into payola.

All I can say is it's about time.

The federal government went after illegal Internet downloaders at the RIAA's request, but did little about radio payola until New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer started an investigation.As I wrote in my Pave the grass column "Stop or I'll sue" three years ago, the Internet has largely supplanted radio as the primary means to listen to new music in no small part due to the recording industry's continued manipulation of station playlists with an estimated $100 million in annual payola.

The government shouldn't have cracked down on "illegal" Internet downloading at the behest of the Recording Industry Association of America until the RIAA cracked the whip on its members for continuing the clearly illegal practice of paying for radio play.

The government did the opposite, of course.

That is until New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer launched an investigation in 2004 into alleged wrongdoing by music and radio companies. Earlier this year, Spitzer sued Entercom Communications Corp., accusing its executives of running scams to trade cash for airplay of songs.


Friday, April 21, 2006
Posted 9:37 PM by

Top 10 ways to improve Pa. today

Forget term limits, or caps on lobbying and campaign contributions, or other pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams.

This is Pennsylvania, a place that's been corrupt and purposely inept since William Penn's sons first conned Indian tribes out of more land than their father owned by abusing the Walking Purchase.

With that in mind, I offer these bipartisan suggestions that with a little off-the-shelf technology and a pen might help level the playing field between the voting public and the privileged elite that are our elected and appointed public officials.

I've even e-mailed a copy to Gov. Ed Rendell. Let's see if he replies.

10. Immediately add the words "and lobbyists expenses" to Act 71 of 2004, the state law legalizing slot machines, under the provision that prohibits campaign contributions from all potential slot machine parlor licensees and slot machine manufacturers.

Penn National Gaming Inc. spent nearly $1 million last year just to lobby the state Senate - a full year after the slots law was passed. Wonder what they wanted? If that money had been spent in campaign contributions somebody would be heading to jail.

9. Pass lobbyist disclosure legislation that actually makes sense.

Our legislators should, in the words of Godfather Don Corleone, 'refuse to be fools, to be puppets dancing on a string pulled by other men.'I'd be willing to let state Rep. John Perzel's lackluster bill for the House become a law, even if it was cooked up behind closed doors, since it merely matches what little information the state Senate already requires of lobbyists.

But I'd also pass another law which puts the onus on all lawmakers and executive branch employees.

If they have to keep track of their campaign contributions to get elected, why shouldn't they be required to keep track of the money lobbyists spend on them after they get into office?

I'd make the minimum reporting dollar value match the $50.01 threshold already established for campaign contributions. It should also force legislators and employees to spell out the specific bill for which they were being lobbied.

The public can then compare both filings and draw their own conclusions.

8. Have one database on the Web for all lobbyists expenses for both the legislative and executive branch. The public shouldn't have to jump from site to site to site and do the math. That's what computers and databases are for.

7. Update and unify the state Department of State's two online databases for candidate campaign finances and political contributions.

Would it be too much trouble to allow the public to search across multiple years, instead of one calendar year at a time? Searching one database once would save time and make it a much more valuable tool.

6. The state Ethics Commission's eLibrary for commission rulings and annual conflicts of interest statements is a joke and should be replaced by a database.

Simply collecting pdf files in once place and throwing a terrible search engine on top of them does not mean that these public records are accessible by the public.

I'm skilled as a reporter and online editor, but even I'm stumped trying to find Gov. Ed Rendell's annual conflict of interest statement.

5. A copy of ALL conflict of interest statements - from every elected office in Pennsylvania and every state employee - should be available to the public in one database at the Ethics Commission's Web site.

Every public employee - elected, appointed or hired - is required by law to fill one out annually. But not all of them can be found at the commission's Web site.

For instance, public officials and public employees of local governments including but not limited to school districts, townships, municipalities, authorities, etc. are filed only with the respective local governments.

Anyone "interested in viewing a Statement of Financial Interest for these officials/employees should contact the respective local governing body," the commission's Web site says.

Meanwhile, similar records for employees of state agencies are filed with their employers, NOT the Ethics Commission. "Parties interested in viewing these Statements of Financial Interest should contact the respective agency human resources office of the employee."

There's a new invention called a copying machine and an old one called carbon paper. Take your pick. The public should not have to play detective to find these records or answer potentially embarrassing questions just to read them.

4. Change the reporting deadlines for campaign finance reports. They should be filed monthly, not quarterly - and certainly not 30 days after an election has already passed. There should also be stiffer penalties for failure to disclose financing.

Establish a bipartisan statewide commission to investigate ALL complaints alleging improperly filed campaign finance reports, not just statewide races.

Under the current toothless law, which dates back to the post-Watergate era, partisan county election boards and the courts have jurisdiction for other races and no one is successfully prosecuted for violating the law.

It's now perfectly legal to shove a check into a drawer and then cash it a few days before the election, not report it until 30 days after that or amend an old report once the election is past - all without facing penalties.

Even the appearance of a conflict of interest between state lawmakers and the state's highest court should be avoided.3. Take a hint from the federal lawsuit filed by good government group Common Cause and stop the alleged collusion with the state Supreme Court. Even the appearance of a conflict of interest between those who write and uphold the law is wrong and should be avoided at all costs. That's why the state Constitution calls for a separation of powers between the branches.

2. Close the legal loopholes that let both the state slots law and the now-repealed pay raise bypass the Constitutionally-mandated public process and be voted into law.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times and I'm a frickin' idiot.

1. Strike this line from the definition of a public agency in the state's Sunshine Law: "The term does not include a caucus or a meeting of an ethics committee created under rules of the Senate or House of Representatives."

That one line makes the Legislature the only entity in Pennsylvania government exempt from the law that's supposed to make public meetings public. Most of the actual haggling and debate on bills is now being done in secret caucuses rather than in front of the public.

Lawmakers should hold themselves to the same standard as other officials - or even a higher one, not a lower one.


Thursday, April 20, 2006
Posted 9:29 PM by

Who will the feds snare?

A Pennsylvania lobbyist who embezzled to feed his gambling habit may have cut a deal to wear a wire for federal prosecutors.I didn't miss the Associated Press article that ran yesterday about well-connected lobbyist John J. O'Connell pleading guilty to mail fraud after allegedly stealing money from Pennsylvania Law Watch, the medical malpractice tort-reform group he headed.

But the article didn't say why a guy who admitted embezzling "thousands of dollars" - reportedly $160,000 - to pay off his illegal sports gambling debts didn't get charged with theft.

I was intrigued, but set it aside for further investigation, preferring instead to focus on state Rep. John Perzel's laughable attempt at a lobbyist disclosure bill. Now I'm almost sorry I did.

This morning's Philadelphia Inquirer offered a more complete story that explained O'Connell's plea deal was in exchange for his willingness to serve as an informant for the feds.

O'Connell agreed in January to act in an "undercover capacity" and allow federal authorities to monitor and record conversations he had with people "believed to be engaged in criminal conduct," the Inquirer said.

On Monday, four months later, federal prosecutors filed the single felony count of mail fraud against him in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg. O'Connell is expected to enter his plea April 27 before Judge William W. Caldwell, according to the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

You can do the math. That's at least three months of O'Connell roaming the Capitol's halls - where he still lobbies for Motorola, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), Rent-A-Center, eBay and more - while wearing a wire.

Or as Inqy columnist/blogger Tom Ferrick put it, O'Connell could become "the Jack Abramoff of Harrisburg."

Kim Daniel, an assistant U.S. attorney, refused to discuss details of the case but said that language was a standard part of many such plea agreements.

I guess we'll know when the first indictments get handed down from a federal grand jury. Kind of puts Common Cause's federal lawsuit in a whole new light, doesn't it?

O'Connell spent more than $480,000 last year lobbying the state Senate on behalf of 21 clients, including nearly $87,800 for Penn National Gaming Inc., according to a registry of Senate lobbyists.

Penn National spent nearly $1 million lobbying the state Senate last year through 19 lobbyists, records show.

Pennsylvania's slot machine law prohibited potential parlor licensees and machine manufacturers from making campaign contributions after it was passed in 2004. However, it did not bar or even limit how much they could spend on lobbying.

A similar lobbyist registry for the executive branch does not list lobbying expenses, merely O'Connell's current 14 client's names. A complete list for the Legislature said O'Connell had as many as 37 clients last year.

O'Connell was very well connected. He worked as a member of the House Republican staff in 1993, served as a legislative liaison for the state Department of Transportation under former Gov. Tom Ridge in 1996, was a staffer for Supreme Court Justice Thomas Saylor in 1997, and worked in Ridge's re-election campaign in 1998.

He also is a friend and former aide to Perzel, Pennsylvania's speaker of the House.

Perzel didn't sound too worried about it, telling the Inqy, "He's been my friend and is still my friend. And I hope to support him later in life when this is all over."

Given how Perzel has watered down his proposed lobbyist disclosure bill, I think I know how he will support O'Connell.

Two other thoughts.

Doesn't it strike you as kind of funny that O'Connell had a problem with gambling at a time when 14 slot machine parlors are about to open up across the state thanks in large part to lobbyists like him.

Finally, how addicted do you have to be to bet on 13 baseball games in one day - the point at which O'Connell said he realized he had a problem? Football, I'd understand. But baseball? The only guy I've ever heard of doing that was Pete Rose.


  • Pennsylvania Senate lobbyists
  • Executive branch lobbyists (in accordance with Gov. Rendell's executive order.)
  • There is currently no registry of lobbyists for the House of Representatives.


Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Posted 8:55 PM by

Perzel's 'reform' effort a gift to lobbyists

Lobbyists will only have to disclose the total amount of money they spend and name their client. They won't have to say which bill they were lobbying for or against, or list who got what.

State Rep. John Perzel, Pennsylvania's Speaker of the House, is trying to foist a sham of a lobbyist reform law upon the public but wants it bullet-proof in court.I once told my editor I'd gladly forgo a pay raise if he could give me legal permission to slap anybody who said or did something stupid around me.

If my editor had agreed, my right hand would now be cocked and ready to smack across state Rep. John Perzel's face for foisting yet another election-year sham upon us.

After stymieing lobbying reform legislation for years, the Pennsylvania Speaker of the House claimed in February he could do it better, but only if he could do it behind closed doors.

I've said it before - No good comes from discussing the public's business in secret. But because the Legislature is the only government entity exempt from the state's Sunshine Law, lawmakers get away with it.

It's only taken Perzel two months to prove my point.

First off, the bill isn't being written by Perzel's hand-picked cabal of lawyers, politicos, and former judges and lawmakers who have been meeting via closed teleconference once a month because several of them now live in Florida.

Minutes, and it's a stretch to call them that, from the advisory group's first meeting on March 23 say the bill is actually being drafted by "the research staff" without specifying their names.

So much for public disclosure, which was supposed to be the entire point of this exercise.

The advisory group's mission is merely to make sure the bill can pass Constitutional muster and stand up to a challenge in the courts. Way to set the bar low, folks.

The reason for bullet-proofing the bill becomes obvious the more you read.

The bill, which has yet to be made public, won't force lobbyists to list every meal, theater or sports event ticket, or even trip they buy for lawmakers, according to the minutes.

Lobbyists wouldn't have to disclose much under a proposed bill being prepared in secret by state Rep. John Perzel's research staff.Instead, lobbyists will merely have to report the total amount of money spent in the effort if it's above $2,500 a quarter, who the client was, and then check a box as to the purpose of the lobbying - "legislative action or an administration action," minutes from the April 14 teleconference say.

What a joke.

The whole thing is just a facade so Pennsylvania lawmakers can soon say they're no longer the only state in the nation without a lobbyist disclosure law.

But if it's not going to spell out which lawmakers accepted gifts to pass or pigeonhole a specific bill, then there is no public disclosure.

In order to get elected to any public office in Pennsylvania state law says a candidate must disclose any contribution above $50, who gave the money and for whom they work.

The rules for disclosure shouldn't get more lenient once somebody is elected and has influence on how millions of tax dollars are spent. They should get tougher.


Tuesday, April 18, 2006
Posted 10:29 PM by

Unintelligent design

Mandatory training and testing of Pennsylvania school directors is an idea whose time has come.

This is what school board members around the state have been telling taxpayers for years.I've said it before and I'll say it again. What's the use of passing any property tax reform in Pennsylvania if spending by the 501 school districts isn't limited and untrained school board members continue to negotiate and approve huge teachers' contracts?

It just never made any sense to me. Any layman or high school dropout in this state can get elected to a local school board or as a district justice. All it takes is the votes on election day.

But after winning a seat or a gavel, these two new public servants take very different paths.

Before taking office, a district justice MUST take a state-required course in the intricacies of the law and pass a test. They can fail it repeatedly - I've seen it happen - but still must eventually pass it.

That's BEFORE the magistrate can don a black robe and sit in judgment on their fellow residents in minor civil court cases, or decide whether police have enough evidence in a criminal case to bind it over for a county court trial before a real judge.

After that, district justices are required to take at least 32 hours of additional training every year.

Newly-elected school board members are encouraged to take some VOLUNTARY training by their state-wide association. But it's on them.

Two months after the election, they become one of nine people making decisions affecting millions of tax dollars and thousands of lives - regardless of whether they understand what they're voting on.

I've had newly elected school board members - and at least one school solicitor - argue that it was perfectly legal for the directors to pick their new board president by secret ballot. It isn't.

I've had board members admit to me they didn't know how much of the budget they had just approved was set aside to cover the teachers' contract they were still negotiating.

What good is property tax reform if school directors continue to spend without any limits or a clue?I have friends who are teachers, and even a local union president, who tell me some school directors don't have a friggin' clue how to handle even the most basic district issues, like when to buy textbooks, let alone contract talks.

And we all remember how most of the Dover School Board thought it was perfectly legal to foist the theory of Intelligent Design upon that district's science students. Thankfully, a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional and voters intelligently threw those school directors out of office.

All of this has lead to a system where school superintendents are now viewed and paid as if they're CEOs of corporations.

But even the guys who looted Enron and Tyco didn't just get a blank check from their dim-witted boards at taxpayer expense.

Meanwhile, the politically powerful state-wide teachers' union has largely had its way for decades at the negotiating table.

I'm not saying teachers don't deserve to be paid well. They do. Their job carries more and more responsibility every year.

I'm saying our school board members are poor negotiators and even worse stewards of the systems they're supposed to be leading. It shouldn't be a learn-as-you-go job, even if it's an unpaid one. And I'm not the only one to think that way.

State Sen. James J. Rhoades, R-Berks, has introduced a measure that would require school directors to get at least 40 hours of mandatory training by the state Department of Education and then pass a test.

Rhoades, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, knows of what he speaks. He holds a Masters degree in Education from Lehigh University, worked as a teacher and coach at Pottsville and Mahanoy City High Schools and served as principal of Mahanoy Area Junior High School.

State Sen. James Rhoades, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, wants mandatory training and testing of school directors.If his bill (SB 298) passes, school directors would go to class for "school budgeting procedures, the administration of school finances, collective bargaining, the academic standards required by 22 Pa. Code Ch. 4 (relating to academic standards and assessment), the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (Public Law 107-110, 115 Stat. 1425), methods of assessment and accountability and other subjects the Department of Education may require."

If the directors fail to complete the training and pass a test on what they've learned within nine months of taking office, they would be forced to resign.

Students must now take federally-mandated tests for them to advance. Educators are required by state law to continuously take more training and classes towards their Masters and doctorates. We should expect more of our school board members too.

I don't think we will ever get to the point of New Jersey, where taxpayers actually get to vote directly on their school budgets. So, here's hoping Rhoades' bill is made a mandatory portion of any tax reform package the Legislature eventually approves.


Monday, April 17, 2006
Posted 11:46 AM by

Yet another reason why Knight Ridder sucked

Former Times Leader editor Allison Walzer, my ex-boss, is now suing that paper in federal court, arguing she was fired because she's a Jewish female, not because she forced other people to quit under orders from the publisher.Sorry I haven't written sooner folks. I didn't intend to take the holiday off. Blogger's database conked out on Saturday and I just got it back now.

Any rumors of my early demise at the hands of a Northeastern Pennsylvania hitman are not true.

I am tired, not dirt nap sleepy though, so I'll keep this one short and sweet. It's all about bean-counting corporate journalism at its finest.

My ex-boss at the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, former editor Allison Walzer, is now suing that paper in U.S. District Court for more than $150,000 for wrongful dismissal, back pay, damages and reinstatement. She's arguing she was fired because she's a woman and Jewish.

Publisher Pat McHugh fired Walzer on January 12, 2005, citing as the reason that the paper's photography team leader, Clark Van Orden, had taken personal photographs of her kids, the lawsuit says.

In December 2004, Walzer asked McHugh to promote her from Senior Vice President to Executive Vice President, according to the suit. McHugh denied the request saying Knight Ridder told him The Times Leader was too heavy on titles. However, when he replaced Walzer, "McHugh gave the new editor - a Catholic male, like McHugh - the title Executive Vice President."

Now, here's the fun part:

The suit also says that in the six years she and McHugh worked together, he told her "how he managed the 'creative discharge' of several female employees. He explained that 'creative discharge' involved offering women jobs that he knew they did not want or would be unqualified to perform which forced them to resign as a result. Ms. Walzer knows of at least three such 'discharges.' In one case, Mr. McHugh ordered Ms. Walzer to take one of these women into the newsroom and 'get her to quit.' "

Nothing like a little scorched Earth policy.

My editor before Walzer, the great Jim Sachetti at the Press-Enterprise in Bloomsburg, once taught me that any manager can be sued if they say something negative about a person they fired.

Instead, whenever he got a call for a recommendation about a dismissed former employee he'd just put the phone down for a minute, pick it up and say, "You got all that."

I'm with Jim on this. So my opinion won't be posted here.

But I will say this. When I left the paper after being its county political reporter and online editor, Allison had a little party in the newsroom and got me a cake. As she handed me the knife to cut it, she said, "Wouldn't you like to plunge this in my back?"

Here's wishing Allison luck. Of course, the deep Knight Ridder pockets are long gone, as the TL has been sold off along with the Philly Inquirer and Daily News.

Walzer knows a thing or two about deep pockets.

According to her lawsuit, she made $234,622 in 2003 at a time when newsroom budgets were being slashed and newspaper circulation fell. Perhaps that's why her pay dropped the next year to $142,244 plus a $50,000 bonus.

Walzer also has an ample supply of Knight Ridder stock too, thanks to threatening the company previously with a lawsuit when she was passed over for promotion to publisher 11 years ago.


I grabbed a copy of Walzer's lawsuit in pdf format from The Times Leader's Web site just in case it lapses off their server soon. To read it, click here.


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