Our Common Good

The University at Buffalo issued a statement on Monday afternoon announcing the closure of the Shale Resources and Society Institute (SRSI) due to the controversy surrounding a academic study on the environment effects of hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’. The statement, made by UB President Satish K. Tripathi, acknowledged that the “historical financial interests” of the authors of “Environmental Impacts during Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling: Causes, Impacts, and Remedies” drove suspicions that the report’s conclusions were biased. Tripathi also said that a review of the Institute by himself and UB’s deans indicated that it failed to include faculty presence in fields associated with energy production from shale for the institute to meet its stated mission” and that “research of such considerable societal importance and impact cannot be effectively conducted with a cloud of uncertainty over its work.”

U.S. Rep. John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, received nearly twice as much financial support from donors tied to the energy sector than did the next-closest recipient, a report from the National Wildlife Federation finds. The 20-page report highlights the role it says oil companies play in U.S. politics, stating energy companies are working behind the scenes on Capitol Hill to influence legislation in favour of oil, natural gas and coal policies. The NWF report finds that the current 112th U.S. Congress has voted one out of every five times against legislation drafted in favour of environmental issues

Malcolm Gladwell’s decades-long history of shilling for the health insurance industry provides a perfect example of the mix of undisclosed conflicts of interest, lucrative speaking fees and journalistic fraud and corruption that has become such a defining characteristic of Gladwell’s career. It’s worth examining this in detail and putting it into its proper historical context, especially because Malcolm Gladwell has recently refashioned himself into a supporter of healthcare reform.

The two justices have been attending Federalist Society events for years. And it’s nothing that runs afoul of ethics rules. In fact, justices are exempt from the Code of Conduct that governs the actions of lower federal justices.

If they were, they arguably fell under code’s Canon 4C, which states, “A judge may attend fund-raising events of law-related and other organizations although the judge may not be a speaker, a guest of honor, or featured on the program of such an event.“

Nevertheless, the sheer proximity of Scalia and Thomas to two of the law firms in the case, as well as to a company with a massive financial interest, was enough to alarm ethics-in-government activists.

Most wealthy members of Congress push their financial activities to the side, with many even placing them in blind trusts to avoid appearances of conflicts of interest. But Mr. Issa (pronounced EYE-suh), one of Washington’s richest lawmakers, may be alone in the hands-on role he has played in overseeing a remarkable array of outside business interests since his election in 2000.

Even as he has built a reputation as a forceful Congressional advocate for business, Mr. Issa has bought up office buildings, split a holding company into separate multibillion-dollar businesses, started an insurance company, traded hundreds of millions of dollars in securities, invested in overseas funds, retained an interest in his auto-alarm company and built up a family foundation.

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As the influential chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Mr. Issa has proven both a reliable friend to business and a constant annoyance to an Obama administration that he sees as anti-business. Even before formally taking over the committee in December, he made headlines by asking 150 businesses and trade groups to identify regulations that they considered overly burdensome, and he has issued numerous subpoenas on his own authority in investigating programs he believes are harmful.

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Mr. Issa, who grew up in a hardscrabble neighborhood near Cleveland and now owns homes north of San Diego and in Washington, has assets totaling as much as $725 million, outstripping by some measures even Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Kerry. (Because lawmakers must disclose their assets only within broad dollar ranges, public reports do not allow for precise figures.)

According to his filings, Mr. Issa’s minimum wealth doubled in the last year, and he appears flush with cash: he bought dozens of mutual funds in 2010 worth as much as $80 million, managed by Wall Street powerhouses, without selling off any securities.

[…]

Standards for determining a financial conflict are murky. House members are generally restricted from using their positions “for personal gain” or on matters in which they have a direct financial interest. But a 2009 ethics committee ruling added to the ambiguity, finding there is no prohibition on the mere “appearance” of a conflict.

[…]

The hard-hit San Diego area has also benefited from federal money Mr. Issa brought through earmarks, which allow lawmakers to award money for their own pet projects. Indeed, more than two dozen of Mr. Issa’s properties are within five miles of projects he has personally earmarked for road work, sanitation and other improvements, an analysis by The Times shows.

His medical complex, for instance, sits directly along West Vista Way, a busy corridor scheduled for widening with $815,000 in funds Mr. Issa earmarked. The congressman bought the complex in 2008, soon after securing the first of two earmarks for the two-mile project and unsuccessfully seeking millions more. The assessor’s office now values the complex at $16 million, a 60 percent appreciation.

Mr. Issa owns a number of commercial properties near the planned $171 million expansion of State Route 76. The project, intended to ease traffic for tens of thousands of commuters, was helped by $245,000 in his earmarks.

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As his private wealth and public power have grown, so too has the overlap between his private and business lives, with at least some of the congressman’s government actions helping to make a rich man even richer and raising the potential for conflicts.

Way too many other relationships - Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs to name two - to reblog here.  Just go to the NYT and read it all.  They did a bang up job on this.  Now, is there anyway to get this guy out of office?

In Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms, No. 09-475, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case which could have an enormous effect on the future of the American food industry. This is Monsanto’s third appeal of the case, and if they win a favorable ruling from the high court, a deregulated Monsanto may find itself in position to corner the markets of numerous U.S. crops, and to litigate conventional farmers into oblivion.

Here’s where it gets a bit dicier. Two Supreme Court justices have what appear to be direct conflicts of interest.

Stephen Breyer 
Charles Breyer, the judge who ruled in the original decision of 2007 which is being appealed, is Stephen Breyer’s brother, who apparently views this as a conflict of interest and has recused himself.

Clarence Thomas 
From the years 1976 - 1979, Thomas worked as an attorney for Monsanto. Thomas apparently does not see this as a conflict of interest and has not recused himself.

U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson, who ruled Monday that the health care reform law is unconstitutional, holds financial investments in health and medicine worth as much as $75,000.

Common Cause, a nonpartisan, nonprofit citizens’ lobby and advocacy organization, is requesting the Department of Justice initiate an investigation into a conflict of interest involving two justices who supported the majority decision, Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia. The request asserts that both justices engaged in political strategy sessions with corporate leaders while Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was pending, and who benefited from the Court’s decision. The request goes on to state that Justice Thomas had a further conflict of interest: his wife. As CEO of Liberty Central, a conservative political activist group, Virginia Thomas stood to benefit from the decision and was actively involved in the 2010 elections.