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

Friday, September 29, 2006
Posted 10:57 PM by

I want my (HD)TV, or do I?

This fetching Samsung 27-inch standard-definition TV caught my eye, but should I spend $200 more and get the one with the HD tuner built-in? I'm really confused.We interrupt this never ending stream of political punditry and Pennsylvania public purse plundering to ponder a personal problem.

Which TV should I buy?

The 10-year-old RCA XL-100 in my livingroom is on its way out. The tuner in it has been bad for years, giving me messed up viewing on many analog cable channels.

Meanwhile, Comcast is coming tomorrow afternoon to hook me up with digital cable.

Before you go start thinking I'm Mr. Moneybags or something, understand this is the cable company's $100 per month deal I wrote about last month.

Basically, I'll be getting more channels than the "enhanced" basic TV service and cable modem I have now at $96 per month, plus unlimited phone service for only $4 more. Good deal, on paper.

But I digress. The TV where I want to put the digital cable box is basically toast.

I could buy a big honking standard-definition - 30-inches or more - set now for $300-$400. But I fear it will be obsolete or require additional components in three years or so when the new digital standard kicks in.

Or, I could spend $400-$700 on a 19-inch to 27-inch LCD TV with built-in digital and HD tuners.

I started doing online research on what to replace it with and came across the Samsung 27" Slim-fit Standard-Definition Digital TV. It's kind of splitting the difference between the two of them at $370. The reviews for it looked pretty good.

So I walked into Circuit City today, feeling confident I knew what I wanted.

Two hours later, I walked away thoroughly confused and empty-handed.

The picture in the Samsung 27" SDTV looked great, better than some flat-panel high end HDTVs nearby. But it wasn't quite as sharp as the same size make and model which had the HDTV tuner built-in. Of course, that one costs $200 more.

I also really liked the picture on a Polaroid 19" HD-Ready LCD TV for $350. But when I checked it out online (from within the store), complaints far outweighed praise for the model. It's reliability and durability seem questionable at best. I never liked their cameras either.

So I scratched that one off my list, even though I liked the idea that it could also be used as a computer monitor.

I can't believe at this point I'm actually considering buying a model similar to what I already have - for $100 to $150 - and postponing this decision a few more years.

What should I do?


Thursday, September 28, 2006
Posted 8:32 PM by

Gene Stilp strikes back

Former lieutenant governor candidate Gene Stilp has asked the state Supreme Court to reconsider its decision not to force state lawmakers to return their illegal pay raises.Just when Pennsylvania legislators thought there might be a chance the furor over last year's now-repealed pay raise might die down by the Nov. 7 election, activist Gene Stilp strikes again.

Stilp filed a motion with the state Supreme Court on Wednesday asking the justices to reconsider their Sept. 14 decision not to force some state lawmakers to repay thousands of dollars they took illegally as an early pay raise through unvouchered expenses.

"This does not send a positive message to those legislators who were honest enough not to take the raise," Stilp wrote. "It also is unfair to those who took the raise, but returned it."

That's part of the reason why I believe those legislators who do not refund the money should be prosecuted for theft by state Attorney General Tom Corbett.

Stilp also asked the court to reconsider its determination that upheld legislative methods to pass the July 2005 pay-raise law, by gutting an existing unrelated bill that had already been approved twice.

In addition, Stilp wants the court to clarify how state judges' compensation will be linked in the future to federal judges' pay.

The justices' 100-page majority ruling doesn't say specifically that the two must be linked in the future. It merely restored the raises the Legislature repealed in November to about 1,100 judges across the state and said lawmakers only had the power to hike the judiciary's salaries, not lower them.

The November repeal nullified the initial bill, which called for linking the federal and state judge's salaries, and the judge's ruling only restored those raises the Legislature passed.

How can court bureaucrats unilaterally link the pay of state court judges with that of their federal counterparts when it wasn't addressed specifically in the Supreme Court's 100-page ruling?However, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts has interpreted the decision as meaning the link has been forged, entitling all Pennsylvania judges to pay hikes and Cost of Living Adjustments similar to their counterparts on the federal bench.

It should prove damn interesting watching the justices tip toe around that one.


Assistant U.S. Attorney John Pease knows lots of salicious secrets about powerful state Sen. Vince Fumo and he doesn't want to share them.

At a hearing this week, federal prosecutors probing whether Fumo extorted donations for a non-profit group he founded said they've recovered more than 100,000 pages of e-mails from Fumo's state-owned computers.

Two state computer technicians were allegedly ordered by Fumo to permanently delete those e-mails and now face federal obstruction of justice charges.

Just what scandalous information have federal prosecutors gleaned from more than 100,000 pages worth of e-mails recovered from state Sen. Vince Fumo's computers?Prosecutors asked a judge to protect the information from falling into the press' hands because some of it involves "scandalous" and perhaps criminal information about numerous third parties who may never be charged.

"If these interviews and grand jury transcripts fall in the hands of someone who wants to write a (news) story, it's going to cause extreme embarrassment," Pease argued.

Should that really be the federal prosecutor's chief concern at this point?

State taxpayers paid for those e-mails and if there really is unrelated criminal information in them, it should be made available to state and local prosecutors and eventually released to the public.


Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Posted 11:35 PM by

Pa. gambling a reality, slots of questions remain

Regulators handed out Pennsylvania's first five slots parlor licenses today - and the first fines for illegal political contributions - while efforts to reform the slots law finally passed the state Senate, but not the House.

Pennsylvania leaders put the cart full of slot machine quarters before the horse today by issuing five slots parlor licenses before the law legalizing them could be reformed.Pennsylvania handed out the first five slot machine parlor licenses to race tracks across the state Wednesday, even before legislators had a chance to fix the flawed law that legalized them in the first place.

"We really do believe this is an historic day for Pennsylvania," Gaming Control Board chairman Tad Decker said during a meeting across the street from the Capitol.

The seven-member board unanimously awarded licenses to Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, just outside Wilkes-Barre; Philadelphia Park in Bensalem; Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack; Penn National Race Course near Harrisburg; and The Meadows in suburban Pittsburgh.

But before Penn National was approved for its license, officials announced the company had reached an agreement to pay a $50,000 fine because two of its directors made political campaign contributions in 2004 and 2005.

The 2004 law legalizing slot machines was supposed to bar such contributions. But it didn't stop Penn National directors Harold Cramer and Robert P. Levy from giving money.

I'd love to tell you who they gave money to, but Cramer and Levy's names are mysteriously missing from the state's crappy campaign contributions online database.

In fact, the only donation I could find was for $250 Harold Cramer of York, Pa., donated to the Brad Moss for Judge campaign on March 16, 2005.

However, an Associated Press article, which does not name the beneficiaries of the donations, says Cramer and Levy agreed to pay fines doubling their political contributions for a total of $2,500 and $3,306 respectively.

Penn National spokesman Eric Schippers called the matter a minor issue.

It isn't.

Penn National Gaming Inc. got a slots parlor license but was fined $50,000 because two of its directors made political contributions in 2004 and 2005. Meanwhile, company officials are continuting to contribute money to Penn National's PAC.A further check of the campaign contributions database found hundreds of contributions from Penn National employees, including many officers, mostly to the company's own Political Action Committee. I don't have time to tally the totals tonight, but you can see the 2004 contributions here and the 2005 contributions here. And here is where Penn National's PAC money has been going.

While the slots law barred officers of potential slots license holders from making political contributions, it did not bar them from contributing to a PAC or lobbyists, which can then make political contributions for them.

It's one of those pesky little things the Legislature didn't have time to address before leaders backdoored the slots law into existence in the middle of the night right before adjourning for a July 4 holiday recess two years ago.

They did make sure, though, to add a provision to let legislators bypass the state Ethics Law and own up to 1 percent of a slots parlor.

Both loopholes were supposed to be stripped out of the law by reform bills before any licenses were handed out, but they weren't. There was talk of calling a special session this summer to address the issues and a bill was even written calling for a moratorium on licenses until after the changes were made and the public had time to analyze them.

Nothing happened.

Predictably, the effort got bogged down in the Legislature this week, which was busy with anti-crime legislation, and Senate Bill 862 was not passed by the state Senate until this afternoon.

"This reform legislation will guard against influence peddling and corruption, toughen enforcement, and ensure accountability and integrity in the casino licensing process," Sen. Jane Orie, a slots opponent, said in a press release.

What barred the Legislature from fixing Pennsylvania's lemon of a slots law before the first licenses were handed out today?That was news to House Republican leader Sam Smith. A spokesman for Smith told the Associated Press that his chamber's leaders do not know what is in the legislation and did not participate in the Senate's closed-door negotiations in which it was drafted.

Meanwhile, Gov. Ed Rendell hailed the slots licenses, saying, "The approval of these conditional licenses is a clear sign to all homeowners that property tax relief is on the way."

Yep, all $200 of it. Thanks, Ed.

One of the many questions I'm left with now is if the bill passes the House tomorrow and Rendell signs it, will the five licensed slots parlors have to adhere to the revised law or are they now grandfathered because Pennsylvania once again put the slots cart filled with quarters before the horse?


Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Posted 11:25 PM by

Who is the hypocrite?

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell points to where he stands on the legislative pay raise, campaign finance reform, lobbying reform, ethics reform....Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell called Republican challenger Lynn Swann a "hypocrite" Monday for politically backing legislators who supported last year's pay raise.

But any weight the incumbent Democrat's political punch might have carried was blunted even before he threw it. That's because hours earlier Rendell told reporters at a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon in Harrisburg, "I believe it was a mistake to sign it."

It was quite a different tune from the one Fast Eddie's been singing about the pay raise for the last year.

In April, Rendell told a group of Bucks County businessmen, "If I didn't sign it, I might have been governor for the next five years but I would have gotten nothing done, literally, because I need the cooperation of the Legislature. I've had remarkable success in getting seven major initiatives enacted into law. ... So you have to kiss a little butt."

And on the day he signed the pay raise into law, July 8, 2005, Rendell called it "good legislation" and said public concerns were "outweighed by the positive and long-range benefits" of the raises, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

"I also want to respond to the criticism that our legislators do not work hard enough to justify this or any other increase," Rendell said, noting laws passed since he took office have "required a great deal of research, negotiations and just plain hard work to achieve. The General Assembly has been an equal partner in that effort."

Oh what a difference a year makes, right?

But you don't even need that much time to see Rendell's hypocrisy knows few limits.

On Dec. 29, Rendell made headlines by saying he will propose limits on contributions to state-level political campaigns, capping what a person or group can give to a single candidate as well as the cumulative amount during a campaign cycle.

He offered no specifics on the limits and no legislation to that effect has seen the light of day.

But as a candidate for governor in 2002, Rendell said he would propose limits of about $5,000 in donations by individuals and groups to a candidate and $25,000 total in a gubernatorial election year. Then, Rendell smashed state campaign finance records during that gubernatorial campaign, raising and spending more than $42 million.

So far this year, Rendell has raised $26.3 million, the Associated Press reported today. That includes $6.6 million raised June 6 to Sept. 18. Most of those contributions - $5.08 million - were for more than $250 each.

Rendell's biggest contribution came from the state's largest teachers' union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, whose political-action committee contributed $265,000.

The second-largest contribution came from the Democratic Governors Association, which gave $200,000. Much of that money may have come from gambling interests despite a state ban against direct contributions Rendell signed into law as part of legalizing slot machines.

One of six $100,000 contributions came from Thomas W. Wolf, a sitting member of the state Department of Revenue's Business Tax Reform Commission and CEO of the The Wolf Organization of York, a building materials distributor and lumber yard.

Wolf also gave $100,000 to Rendell in 2005, $10,000 in 2003 and $52,500 in 2002, state records show.

Nothing says thank you for letting me rewrite the tax code like healthy political contributions.

Does this sound like a governor pushing for campaign finance reform?

Finally, in March, Rendell grabbed headlines again by chastizing the state House of Representatives for failing to pass any meaningful lobbying disclosure legislation and for imposing one on his administration.

However, his order carried no penalties for violations, nor did it require the lobbyists to list how much was given to individual public servants - just the total cost for gifts, entertainment, meals, transportation, lodging and receptions.

Also, lobbyists only had to register if they spent more than $2,500 per quarter in the previous two years.

Why didn't Rendell require cabinet officials being lobbied to report their gifts?

A press release from Rendell said the Governor's Code of Conduct already requires many state officials and employees of the Executive Branch to file statements of financial interest, where they have to list their personal economic interests, business interests and gifts in excess of $100.

However, when Rendell filed his own statement of financial interests this year, he claimed not to receive any gifts even though he accepted $3,420 worth of VIP passes to minor league baseball games and three football jerseys worth $720 among many other presents.

"He does not consider it gifts to him," Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for the governor, told me in June. "They were given to the governor's office and are available for use by a large number of people."

Please remember in reading this that I'm not a Republican, I'm a Democrat, nor am I supporter of Swann. As far as I'm concerned, neither man should be elected governor.


Monday, September 25, 2006
Posted 10:04 PM by

Pa. Green Party candidate thrown off ballot

Carl Romanelli, the Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, was thrown off the ballot after the company he hired to gather signatures for his nominating petitions faked more than one-third of them.I should be upset that a state judge today threw a third party candidate off Pennsylvania's statewide Nov. 7 ballot for U.S. Senate.

I should be angry that Pennsylvanians will only get to choose which of two anti-abortion candidates we should send to Congress.

I should even be outraged that Green Party candidate Carl Romanelli lost his chance to be a serious contender - and to offer his ideas in public debates - because of complaints from Democratic lawyers.

But I'm not.

This race lost any potential ideological significance the day Romanelli accepted help from incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and the financial backing of prominent GOP members.

They weren't supporting Romanelli because they believed in either him or what he stands for.

They wanted a third wheel, preferably one with a pro-choice stance, to siphon votes away from Democratic candidate Bob Casey Jr.

They didn't get it.

Romanelli used his Republican money to hire a questionable Florida firm to gather nominating petition signatures for him. But of the 94,000 signatures the company gathered, more than one-third were disallowed because they were fake names, unregistered voters or illegible signatures.

In the end, Romanelli fell 8,931 signatures shy of the 67,070 he needed under state law to qualify as a minor-party candidate.

Gee, I didn't know voter fraud was part of the Green Party platform?

The Pennsylvania Green Party should change its name to the Greenmail Party if it's willing to accept money from Republicans who don't believe in its platform just so their third party candidates can be spoilers.The party's state Web site claims, "The Democratic and Republican Parties have increasingly become parties driven by big money, not by the grassroots. The values that once inspired these parties are long gone, and the parties offer little in terms of networking and issue leadership to their local elected officials."

But by making a deal with the devil and taking a shortcuts to traditional grassroots fundraising and politics, Romanelli has succeeded only in embarrassing himself and his party while setting back the cause of election reform.


I won't be surprised if Republican Lynn Swann starts to make some headway against Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.

First off, Swann has nowhere to go but up in the polls. Second, he's finally getting decent advice and attacking Rendell where he's weakest - on defending his signing of last year's now-repealed legislative pay raise.

Republican Lynn Swann is deservedly making hay against Gov. Ed Rendell for signing last year's now-repealed legislative pay increase. Of course, Swann's numbers have nowhere to go but up.The two sparred in their first debate tonight, with Swann hammering the incumbent for signing the sneakily passed pay hike by saying, "This governor signed it as quickly as it came in."

Rendell countered by calling Swann "a hypocrite" for politically supporting some of the same lawmakers who were architects of the pay raise.

The governor referred to Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer and Senate Majority Leader David Brightbill, who were among 17 legislators ousted in the May primary election because of voter anger over the pay raises.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Unless Fast Eddie puts a giant foot in his mouth or does something really stupid, he's virtually a shoe-in to win reelection.

Rendell is kind of like a dollar store frying pan, whose thin teflon coating comes off after a single washing. His feet deserve to be put to the flame over both the pay raise and the state law legalizing slot machines.

But Swann has said advocating the repeal of the slots law would be "a waste of my time and energy."

For his lack of vision, and Rendell's blind eye to Harrisburg shennanigans, I'm supporting neither candidate for governor.


Sunday, September 24, 2006
Posted 5:18 PM by

Intelligence gap

The attorneys in charge of gathering intelligence to fight the U.S. War on Drugs are being sent to Iraq to fight the War on Terror. Was it something they or Johnstown's Congressman said?

Why are the attorneys in charge of U.S. drug intelligence gathering heading to Iraq instead of Afghanistan, which is producing more heroin than ever?I don't think death by paper cuts is outlawed by the Geneva Convention, especially when the subject of the inquisition is a questionable domestic program President George Bush has targeted for termination with extreme prejudice.

Michael Walther, director of the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, Pa.. since August 2005, will leave his post Oct. 15 for six weeks of training at Fort Hood, Texas, before heading overseas. Also being shipped to Iraq is Kevin Walker, NDIC's chief counsel.

Both are attorneys with their Army Reserve unit, the 151st Legal Support Organization out of Alexandria, Va.

Ostensibly, attorneys are needed in Iraq for everything from criminal matters to offering legal assistance to soldiers and helping determine the rules of engagement and treatment of detainees, Walther told the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat this week.

But after the torture at Abu Ghraib prison and other scandals, one wonders if sending two more lawyers to that war-torn country will really make much of a difference?

It's also ironic that the two lawyers aren't being deployed to Afghanistan, where their expertise might actually prove useful.

After all, the NDIC's annual National Drug Threat Assessment this year said, "Worldwide white heroin production reportedly decreased in nearly every source country since 2000 except Afghanistan, where production has increased sharply."

Meanwhile, Walter said he has "no doubts at all" about the center's future. Irene Hernandez, his deputy at NDIC and a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, will take over as acting director in his absence.

The only question is for how long.

Walther's predecessor at the NDIC, Michael Horn, was fired in July 2005 after employees raised allegations of gender bias, wasteful spending and excessive travel by supervisors, and generally low morale.

Bush has twice tried to cut funding for the NDIC and has eliminated the money altogether from his budget request for next year.

In an uncharacteristic break with the president, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) issued a press release on Sept. 6, arguing, "I firmly believe that the NDIC is an important component in providing for our nation's security."

Ditto for U.S. Rep. John Murtha (D-Johnstown), an outspoken critic of Bush and the war in Iraq, whose bill started the NDIC in 1993.

This year, Bush earmarked $17 million to shutter NDIC but Murtha secured $39 million to keep the center running.

Before winning that funding, Murtha said NDIC is, "one of the most important agencies we have working against drugs and terrorism. It's outrageous that an agency with that kind of impact would be notified by fax that there was a proposal in the budget to close it down."


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