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This piece, which was originally intended for the Goal Post, has inadvertently confirmed one of the oldest stereotypes about The New Republic. As media critic Brendan Nyhan describes it, TNR has a tendency to elevate “the ‘surprising’ and ‘counter-intuitive’ article above all else.” Well, this was from the actual rejection email I got from a junior editor there: “Talked to the higher ups and I think they’ll pass on this one. I guess not quite as counter-intuitive as they look for.” Disappointing, but also a bit hilarious.

I hope you find it more worthwhile. If so, you can let me know in the comments below.

Imagine for a moment that an executive order made the use of closed caption television in the detection or prosecution of crimes illegal. Police officers could only relying on sleuthing skills and serendipitous timing to catch bank robbers or vandals in the act. With hours of incriminating video and hundreds of unpunished criminals, video of unsolved crimes would quickly go viral, provoking the outrage of citizens at the odd handicap the president had imposed on their protectors. “We can see the video, why can’t the police?” the public would demand to know.

Soccer fans are again asking much the same question of Fifa. Why are referees–the lawmen with the flags and whistles and power to clean up the game–unable to use the video replay technology available to every other fan? As the New York Times reports, replay is not only available to home viewing audiences, Fifa also uses it “to entertain fans in the stadiums here in South Africa. Large screens show replays right after a near miss or a stunning goal (of which there have been fewer here per game than any tournament in history). But while entertainment of fans is an acceptable use of video, it is not used to enlighten them or to help the referees.”
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Adam Wheeler's Mug Shot

After spending more than three years in the English department at Harvard University, Adam Wheeler was found out. He had been expelled from my alma mater, Bowdoin College, in 2005 during his freshman year. Wheeler now, days before graduation, has been arrested for “20 indictments charging him with larceny, identity fraud and falsifying documents,” according to the Boston Herald.

While Wheeler is facing legal trouble, Harvard has its reputation at risk. (more…)

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I started working on this article during my last month at Mother Jones. Although it took longer than I had hoped to get it published–and required a revised lede–I’m happy this bit of reporting finally made it into the top story box. (Unlike, say, my body armor piece.) Clocking in at some 1300 words, this article is the longest piece I’ve had published anywhere. It also opened my eyes to the shadowy world of offshore tax evasion–an interesting beat that I hope to return to in another professional capacity.

UPDATE: My reporting was featured on BuzzFlash and in ProPublica’s daily round up of the top investigations elsewhere; re-posted on Corporate Crackdown, a blog by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington; and linked to an article from FINS, a new financial careers site from Dow Jones. Rational Review, which is apparently “the premier libertarian web journal,” also disapprovingly cited my piece.

When President Barack Obama’s jobs bill passed the House in early March, it contained a little-noticed provision to recover part of its $35 billion price tag by cracking down on offshore tax evasion, which costs the US some $100 billion a year in lost revenue. The provision, which requires foreign financial institutions to report more data to the Internal Revenue Service, was likely prompted by a 2008 Senate investigation that revealed the systematic efforts made by Swiss bank UBS to help moneyed Americans hide massive sums from the IRS.

The insider information that formed the backbone of the investigation—insight that eventually helped the feds recover billions in unpaid taxes—was provided by a former midlevel executive at UBS, American-born Bradley Birkenfeld. Birkenfeld is the only international banker who has ever blown the whistle to the US government on Switzerland’s legendarily secretive banking practices. He is also the only person connected to UBS’ massive tax evasion scheme to have been sent to prison: Birkenfeld is currently serving a four-year sentence for fraud. Whistleblower advocacy groups warn that this punishment could have a “chilling effect,” discouraging other financial whistleblowers from coming forward. Did Obama’s Department of Justice (DOJ) exact retribution that could cost US taxpayers billions?

Click here to read or comment on the rest of this MotherJones.com top story.

Photo credit: monkeyleader (via Flickr)

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A week of heat from the IRS was all it took for this corrupt GOP congressman to decided he wanted to spend more time with his family. And his lawyer, presumably.

Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), who has recently come under fire for his shady charity, won’t seek reelection in the fall. In a statement released this afternoon, the nine-term GOP congressmen attributed the abrupt annoucement “to the recent diagnosis of my wife” with an “‘incurable’ autoimmune disease.” No mention was made of allegations made surrounding the Frontier Foundation, a six-year-old educational nonprofit that has bankrolled golfing trips for the congressman instead of handing out scholarships. The Internal Revenue Service is still determining whether to investigate Frontier and Buyer, its “honorary chairman.”

While Buyer’s decision can be read as a victory for government accountability groups, it is less clear what effect it will have on voters in Indiana. A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson crowed to The Hill, “Instead of drinking Eric Cantor and the NRCC’s Kool-Aid, House Republicans continue to show a lack of confidence in their ability to take back the House as Republican retirements are mounting and their own members refuse to invest in the [National Republican Congressional Committee].” Questions about the foundation did little to damage Buyer’s lead in the opinion polls—Republicans maintain a 14-point edge in his district. With a less ethically challenged candidate, it now seems even more likely that the GOP will hold Buyer’s seat in the 2010 midterm elections.

Click here to see the MoJo post or to make a comment.

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I’m working on a larger piece on the UBS whistleblower, Bradley Birkenfeld, so I’ve been following news of the bank rather closely. One exchange from the Congressional hearings on AIG regarding UBS caught my eye so I decided to put the piles of research I’ve done on it to good use. My editor liked the blog post and promoted it to the Top Stories slider. (I led the site for about an hour—the bureau chief’s Twitter-heavy review of the Obama and GOP question session knocked me into the second slot.)

UPDATE: Like my previous post on waterboarding, this piece was the top story on a conspiracy theory website, New World Order Report–this time in the Economics section. Any traffic is good traffic?

UPDATE 2: My reporting was featured in a Media Consortium post about the implications of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which has allowed unlimited corporate cash in US elections. Their post was republished on the Huffington Post, AlterNet, FireDogLake, Daily Kos, Open Salon, MyDirectDemocracy, and the Canadian site Rabble.

At this week’s congressional hearings on the AIG bailout, Swiss bank UBS received some undeserved praise.

UBS was one of eight large investment banks that benefited from the now-infamous backdoor bailout of AIG—resulting in government cash infusions totaling $182.5 billion—in the dark days of September 2008. At the hearing, the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, Neil Barofsky, revealed to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that UBS was the only bank willing to settle its soured credit default swaps (CDS) contracts for less than their face value. Why did UBS play ball when all the other banks didn’t? As the Washington Independent reported, “Barofsky speculated that the firm probably simply recognized that the American taxpayers ‘had taken the global economy on its back.'”

The financial crisis has proved time and again, big banks don’t account for taxpayers—except when they need their help. And that’s the more likely explanation for UBS’ good behavior during the AIG rescue. Like the rest of the global financial industry, UBS was hurting from the subprime mortgage meltdown. (The bank’s colossally bad bet on the US housing market—it had already written down $38 billion in bad loans as of April 2008—earned UBS the nickname Used to Be Smart.) But unlike its intransigent peers on Wall Street, the Swiss banking giant also faced the mounting threat of a US federal investigation. It was in no position to play hardball.

Click here to read the rest of this MoJo Top Story and to make a comment.

Photo credit: Allie_Caulfield (via Flickr)

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This MoJo blog post was assigned by the bureau chief. It’s both amazing and depressing that the full story hasn’t been more widely told.

UPDATE: The story got out: Kevin Drum, the most popular blogger on MotherJones.com, also featured the news on his blog after seeing it on Time magazine’s Swampland blog.

UPDATE 2: My post got picked up by the amusing conspiracy theory site Question Everything.

A prominent backer of waterboarding has quietly walked back his endorsement of the torture technique. In December 2007, recently retired CIA operative John Kiriakou told ABC News that 30 to 35 seconds of simulated drowning was all it took to make senior al Qaeda commander Abu Zubaydah sing like a bird. “From that day on, he answered every question,” Kiriakou said. “The threat information he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks.”

Kiriakou’s stunning account—made in an exclusive interview with ABC’s Brian Ross—was seized upon by torture proponents as proof that they’d been right all along. But the New York Times discovered last April that Kiriakou “was not actually in the secret prison in Thailand where Mr. Zubaydah had been interrogated but in the CIA headquarters in Northern Virginia.” Now, Jeff Stein of Foreign Policy magazine has discovered Kiriakou himself retracting the waterboarding claims in his recently released memoir, The Reluctant Spy:

“What I told Brian Ross in late 2007 was wrong on a couple counts,” he writes. “I suggested that Abu Zubaydah had lasted only thirty or thirty-five seconds during his waterboarding before he begged his interrogators to stop; after that, I said he opened up and gave the agency actionable intelligence.”

But never mind, he says now.

“I wasn’t there when the interrogation took place; instead, I relied on what I’d heard and read inside the agency at the time.”

In a word, it was hearsay, water-cooler talk.

“Now we know,” Kiriakou goes on, “that Zubaydah was waterboarded eighty-three times in a single month, raising questions about how much useful information he actually supplied.”

Indeed. But after his one-paragraph confession, Kiriakou adds that he didn’t have any first hand knowledge of anything relating to CIA torture routines, and still doesn’t. And he claims that the disinformation he helped spread was a CIA dirty trick: “In retrospect, it was a valuable lesson in how the CIA uses the fine arts of deception even among its own.”

Two years after Kiriakou went public with his ill-considered support for waterboarding, public opinion has turned in favor of the formerly controversial tactic. In the wake of the attempted Christmas Day airplane bombing, Rassmussen polling found “58% of US voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information” from the underwear bomber—who spoke readily to authorities without the threat of torture.

Stein goes on to get a priceless response from the CIA and lays into ABC’s shoddy investigative reporting. (In the transcript of the interview, Ross fails to ask Kiriakou if he actually witnessed the questioning of Zubaydah.) The whole piece is worth a read.

Photo credit: jarnocan (via Flickr)

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I wrote this quick MoJo blog post while I was waiting to hear back from sources for another story. My editor liked it and immediately promoted it to the Must Read section. While I appreciate the praise, she did chop out both a fun golf reference–that’s about par for the course for the golf-loving congressman’s shady charity–and a section culled from my interview of the CREW executive director that I’ve pasted below the jump. (The asterisk* in the text denotes where it would have gone.)

UPDATE: This post was picked up by Bear Market News.

Indiana Republican Rep. Steve Buyer formed the Frontier Foundation in 2003 to provide scholarships to students in his state—and since then his charity has raised an impressive $880,000 in corporate donations. Unfortunately, none of that money has found its way to needy undergrads. It has, however, paid for a lot of Buyer’s swanky golf junkets. Speaking recently with CBS Evening News about his foundation, the eight-term congressman—a graduate of the Citadel with a degree in business administration and Frontier’s “honorary chairman”—suggested that he “was so focused on making sure that we were legal, that I probably didn’t pay as close attention as I should have on, quote, appearances.”

And the appearances aren’t pretty. After a thorough review of Frontier’s tax filings, the government accountability organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has recommended that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) investigate Buyer and what they refer to as his “so-called charity.” CREW alleges Buyer has used Frontier “to foot golf fundraisers at exclusive resorts where he hobnobs with corporate donors—who also contribute to his campaign committee and leadership [political action committee].” In 2008, the most recent year for which tax returns were available, the foundation wrote off over $25,000 in expenses for “meals” and “travel for fund-raising.” These fundraising outings got the golf-loving Republican onto the links at Disney World, the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, and the Phoenix-area Boulders resort.

Most of the $10,500 in donations that the foundation has made in its seven-year history went not to college scholarships but to the National Rifle Association and “a charity run by a pharmaceutical company lobbyist.” And Buyer’s family benefited too: both his son and daughter were paid to serve as directors at the charity, which until recently shared its headquarters with the congressman’s campaign office. “It is hard to imagine something more callous than playing golf on the backs of poor students—at least one of whom surely could have gone to college on the money Frontier spent on Rep. Buyer’s golf trips,” CREW’s director, Melanie Sloan, said in a statement.

And who were the lobbyists that Buyer was courting? According to analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, the pharmaceutical industry—which is regulated by the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, of which Buyer is a member—has been the congressman’s second largest campaign contributor. Only health professionals like doctors have contributed more over the course of Buyer’s political career. Buyer’s son was also hired directly out of college to lobby for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturing Association.

Details of the foundation’s activities were unearthed by Indiana’s Lafayette Journal and Constitution in October 2009—too late for Buyer to merit inclusion on CREW’s annual list of the most corrupt lawmakers.* Sloan told me that she is confident that IRS will take CREW’s allegations seriously. But she has less faith that Buyer’s colleagues on the OCE will hold him accountable. “I don’t think Ethics will examine in depth if Buyer misused his seat on Energy and Commerce,” she said.

Nor does there seem to be much in the way of public pressure on Buyer to step down. The day before CREW filed its complaints—and nearly three months since the congressman’s phony foundation scandal first broke in Indiana—the Swing State Project published its latest 2010 election forecast for the fourth district of Indiana, which Buyer represents. Prediction: safe GOP hold.

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