Friday, August 22, 2008

The Reach of Redlining

The Reach of Redlining

Long-held Mistrust of Lenders Fueled Mortgage Crisis in Black Communities

Go To Original

This is the second in a two-part series. Part One, Fraud Worsens Foreclosure Crisis, here.

The foreclosure scams that have found a foothold in Prince George's County, Md., these days have a long history. Despite the wealth here, the county has for years been underbanked for its market, with an inadequate number of traditional financial institutions.

There has always been been an opening for predatory lenders, within and without the community, who count on a long-held mistrust of lenders to seal deals made outside the traditional banking system, said Doyle Niemann, a state legislator who represents Prince George's County and who sponsored the state's recent anti-foreclosure fraud law. That's why people sign loan papers brought to their homes; or rely, as many did here, on an ex-police officer turned foreclosure specialist; or trust in recommendations from a friend alone for a mortgage deal.

The mistrust has a long history. When the Federal Housing Admin. was created in 1930s, loans were specifically prohibited in integrated neighborhoods, and all during the New Deal, blacks were excluded from housing programs. In the 1960s, the civil-rights movement brought the landmark passage of the Fair Housing Act, outlawing discrimination in lending. But banks frequently refused to lend in minority neighborhoods throughout the 1960s and 1970s. This continued even into the 1980s -- when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used federal mortgage data to document continued redlining.

But by the 1990s, access to fair housing and credit seemed on the upswing. The Community Reinvestment Act, created to counter redlining and ensure banks invested in their surrounding communities, was strengthened, and banks couldn't get mergers approved without showing they had complied with it. Other anti-redlining lawsuits and efforts grew, and credit became more widely available to minorities and to people with modest incomes.

In defiance of all that progress, the subprime mortgage crisis brought with it a form of reverse redlining -- in which lenders provided a glut of credit to neighborhoods once underserved by banks. Minorities also preyed on their own communities.

In Prince George's, mortgage brokers in the sizable Latino community routinely falsified incomes on applications without the knowledge of the borrowers, qualifying them for homes they could never afford. One loan listed two house cleaners as doctors for their occupations, said Mosi Harrington, executive director of the Housing Initiative Partnership, a non-profit developer in Prince George's that also counsels homeowners. "It's very sad," she said. "They thought they were doing the right thing, reaching for the American dream."

Now there are the foreclosure scams, a second wave of the reverse redlining. Within the black community, they are conducted on both large and small scales, employing different "levels of badness," as Neimann explains.

The most notorious case is the Metropolitan Money Store scam, a $35-million foreclosure ripoff of homeowners and lenders engineered by a Prince George's County couple, and the largest mortgage fraud case in Maryland history. The couple, charged in the case in June, had earlier thrown themselves an $800,000 wedding using equity stolen from foreclosed homes.

But what struck investigators most about the case was a kind of targeting authorities had never seen before. Usually, mortgage lenders use a whiteboard to keep track of a potential customer's name, address and phone number. In the Money Store case, however, the whiteboard listed the amount of equity to be had in a person's home.

"Predators knew where they were more apt to find their victims," said Rob Strupp, director of research and policy at the Community Law Center in Baltimore, which represents Prince George's County homeowners in mortgage and foreclosure fraud cases. "They knew what their target was."

The next level of fraud involves local people who use their community standing to run their scams, Neimann said. Sometimes it's the ex-policeman or trusted friend. They play on the solidarity of the neighborhood, using the pitch that "you can't trust them, but I can help you," and running deals under the table. On another level, the referrals are simply well-meaning, offered by the local clergy or community leaders who just want to help.

In Accokeek, the construction of new subdivisions beginning in 2005 is cited by many as the cause of the high foreclosure rates. Major lenders, from Countrywide to Washington Mutual, offered what Mosi Harrington described as a step-up style loan to the new homeowners. They sold the loans at an initial low rate and explained that while the rate would increase each year, so would the buyer's salary -- so the loans would remain affordable. But any salary increases couldn't keep up with the escalating costs of the loans.

When their loans go bad, people often come to The Barber's Chair to share their troubles, rather than seek help elsewhere. When the talk turns to foreclosures and where to get help, the conversation quickly yields the name of Frank Purcell, described around the shop as "a friend who helps families facing foreclosure." Give him a call, people say, and he can help you out.

According to Maryland court records, Purcell, a Prince George's County native, has three lawsuits filed against him over foreclosed houses and is currently under investigation by state fraud officials in the case of Laurie Lewis, whose family lost its Laurel, Md., home in a scam.

Lewis, 38, a mother of two, said she and her husband had health problems and ran into trouble keeping up the payments on their home. She turned to a long-time friend, Maria Hairston, who was also a real-estate agent in Accokeek. Hairston said she could help, and showed up at the Lewis home with Purcell. Hairston introduced Purcell as someone who works with people facing foreclosures, Lewis said. She learned much later that Hairston and Purcell are married.

Lewis' suit charges that Purcell promised to buy their home and keep it for a year, taking $32,000 in upfront rent payments and fees. The Lewis' were supposed to work on improving their credit and then buy the house back. Lewis quickly figured something was amiss when she learned Purcell had refinanced the home. He began ignoring her phone calls and asking for more money. She and her husband refused. By the end of the year, they had to move out because the house was being foreclosed on.

They now live in a cramped, two-bedroom apartment. "You never know who is really in one these scams," Lewis said. "You never think a friend would do that to you. I was shocked."

In an interview, Purcell, who once ran a real-estate company called America's Dream, said he still helps people try to save their homes, but he no longer buys them and promises to sell them back, because the new anti-fraud law enacted earlier this year makes it illegal. Instead, he refers to himself now as a "loss-prevention specialist.

If someone has missed a payment or two, he aids them in negotiating with the bank, though later in the interview he clarified that he does not do the actual negotiating. Instead, he helps them figure out how to do it themselves.

"If someone is at foreclosure's door, I can only help them if they are able to afford their house payment," Purcell said, "The question I ask now is, 'Can you show me that you can afford a $1,900 a month payment?' or whatever it might be. Because if you can't show me that, there's nothing I can do about it. The reality is that not everyone can be helped. I do turn people away."

As to the lawsuits and charges, Purcell said they are the result of personal disputes with friends he tried to help. In the Lewis case, he contended the family left with money in their pockets. He doesn't want to point fingers. "If that's how they feel, that's fine," he said. "You live and learn. They didn't really understand what it was."

Purcell said he continues to buy foreclosed houses -- which is allowed under the law. He thinks the new restrictions make it harder for people to keep their homes and instead benefit investors, who profited from bad loans in the first place and will be the ones to scoop up foreclosed homes at low prices. The foreclosure business is marked by "a lot of bad apples," he said, but he does not consider himself one. "Have I made money?" said Purcell, who lives in Accokeek. "Absolutely I have made money. I have no apologies for that."

Despite the new law, foreclosure scams continue. People charge for seminars on how to get into the foreclosure business without running afoul of authorities. One purpose behind the regulations was to push people into the marketplace, where the transactions can be regulated. But the law can't address the off-the-record arrangements that continue.

Neimann said the ex-police officer, whose foreclosure scams inspired the legislator to write the law, regularly shows up at legitimate community housing-counseling sessions to offer foreclosure help, peddling a Xerox copy of a booklet on foreclosure and trying to charge $100 for it.

The fallout from the scams and the subprime loans will have long-term effects in Prince George's County. Already, nationwide, homeownership rates among minorities have fallen -- which translates into a drop in overall wealth.

Minority communities, even upper-income neighborhoods, were hit hard because of the "shallow assets" problem, Harrington, the housing counselor, explained. First-generation black homeowners who got in trouble couldn't easily bail themselves out, without having built-up wealth to tap into. In her view, subprime and home-equity loans should come with some warnings about their side effects -- like losing your home -- in the same the way medicines are advertised on television.

She and others, however, weren't particularly surprised that predatory lending and foreclosure fraud continues. The targeting of black neighborhoods for all sorts of financial scams has gone on for years, and this latest wave is yet another unfortunate chapter in the long story of redlining, Squires of George Washington University noted.

The difference now is that many people think enough racial progress has been made that there's a level playing field out there. The foreclosure crisis in places like Prince George's proves that it's not.

As Niemann put it: "People don't recognize this for the scandal that it is."

Still, Niemann thinks the new law banning some foreclosure scams is a sign of progress -- proof that something positive is coming out of this crisis. If lenders step up to the plate to help restructure loans for troubled borrowers, he said, they can make a positive difference and create a new trust among residents.

So far, things aren't going that way. Harrington said that the lenders her organization works with increasingly are limiting the extent of mortgage loan restructurings to five, three or even two years -- instead of converting mortgages to 30-year-fixed loans. "I don't see how we're not going to be right back where we started in a few years," she said.

Until then, foreclosures and mortgages dominate the talk at The Barber's Chair. People in trouble keep coming in, looking for some way out.

Fraud Worsens Foreclosure Crisis

Fraud Worsens Foreclosure Crisis

Go To Original

At The Barber's Chair, in the small, quiet community of Accokeek at the far end of Prince George's County, Md., the talk often turns to the foreclosure crisis -- for good reason. Here, in the nation's most affluent majority black jurisdiction, a remarkable example of the growing wealth of the new black middle class, foreclosures are growing at one of the fastest rates in the country, and foreclosure fraud is increasing right along with it.

With locals constantly in and out, Leo Harrington, the owner, hears it all. How people who bought homes once valued at $800,000 down the the road at upscale subdivisions like The Preserves or at the one- and two-acre homesites of St. James have friends and relatives living in their basements to help pay the mortgage.

How lenders pushed deceptive and high-cost loans on first-generation homeowners, without disclosing the consequences, assuring them that home values only go up. How people bought expensive cars, timeshare vacations and boats -- and put their homes at risk. How lenders continue to target the community and push loans. And how homeowners, with years of mistrust in mainstream lenders, wait too long to get help when they fall behind on their loans, wary of trying for a short sale or a loan workout, and so fall prey to foreclosure scams.

"A lot of people moved out here from the District because they wanted to be in the 'burbs and raise their kids here," said Harrington, 49, who also is an associate minister at a nearby church. "You find you can get a bigger house that's in pretty close, and a yard. But there were all these predatory loans. That's all it was. They didn't realize how the loans worked because when folks are lying to you, you don't know any better. Then, when they find out they are in trouble, they start to panic, and they end up losing their homes."

Harrington's views are one explanation of many for the unexpected rise in foreclosures in Prince George's County and in other Washington-area communities, which had, until recently, been largely immune to the housing crisis. Overall, foreclosures in Prince George's and in the Washington area remain lower than in national hot spots, like Florida or California, but the area experienced a six-fold increase in foreclosures from February 2007 to last spring -- a jump that has local officials worried and perplexed. Why here, and why now?

All told, Prince George's and Prince William counties, in suburban Virginia, outpaced the rest of the area in foreclosures. And in Prince George's, Accokeek, of all places, has been hit the hardest, said John McClain, deputy director of the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis, who wrote a report detailing the foreclosure rise. It has so puzzled the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond that its members and economists drove around Prince George's and Prince William, home to a large immigrant population, to see the crisis for themselves.

They found no easy answers. Foreclosures here are spread across all income levels, from $150,000 houses to $750,000 McMansions, from newly built townhouses to refinancings of long-time residences.

To make it worse, foreclosures aren't even the biggest problem right now. As more people lose their homes, foreclosure fraud scams have spiked, with Prince George's recording the most cases of fraud in Maryland, said state mortgage fraud investigator Stephen Prozeralik.

Most scams involve a "helpful" buyer who promises to save a troubled homeowner's property, by purchasing it from him to stave off foreclosure. The buyer usually collects rent up front and promises to sell the house back to the homeowner eventually, but instead strips any equity and fails to pay the mortgage, victimizing the owner once again. "We were surprised," Prozeralik said. "We figured most of our cases would come from Baltimore. But the majority of the cases were are investigating are in Prince George's County. PG County is at the top of our list."

That Prince George's should wind up at the top for foreclosures, and the resulting scams, is particularly troubling to many. At the start of the housing crisis, subprime loans were seen as a problem largely for low-income and minority communities. But as the crisis continues, there's increasing evidence that for minorities, the higher up the income ladder, the worse it gets -- with racial differences in lending more pronounced as income increases. New research by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found blacks in upper- to middle-income neighborhoods were more than twice as likely than whites in similar neighborhoods to have high-cost subprime mortgages.

In Prince George's, housing counselors began complaining as early as 2005 about a proliferation of subprime loans. Roughly 43 percent of the county's homeowners who refinanced three years ago wound up with a high-cost subprime loan, compared to 24 percent of homeowners nationwide, The Washington Post reported last year -- using an analysis of Federal Reserve data. About 43 percent of new homeowners also took out the higher-cost subprime loans, compared to 20 percent of buyers nationwide. Yet credit scores in Prince George's rank higher than the state and national averages.

While it hasn't received much attention during the housing crisis, places like Prince George's County were targeted aggressively by lenders,. These lenders heavily advertised loans on black radio stations and other minority media outlets and used unconventional methods like selling these loans door-to-door, housing advocates and residents said. This marketing continues unabated, despite the downturn.

Florence Thomas, a single mother from Upper Marlboro, Md., who had to turn in July to the Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America, a housing-advocacy group, for help in saving her home, said she tells lenders she's unemployed and they still want to sell her loans and foreclosure help. "They call three for four times a day, and they leave something in my mailbox almost every day," she said. "Sometimes I end up talking to them, because they say, 'Florence, how are you?' and I answer before I realize who they are. They've called on my cell phone. It just doesn't stop."

This kind of marketing goes far beyond the selling of loans and foreclosure assistance in upscale white neighborhoods, said Gregory Squires, a George Washington University sociology professor who has studied redlining. "This is clearly disproportionately a minority problem," he said. "And it's striking that despite all the news about this problem, we still see people going out and using these high-pressure and predatory tactics."

A sign on the side of the road saying "I pay cash for houses" might be the extent of the foreclosure advertising in a white community. In Prince George's, by contrast, at the same moment housing counselors at a recent meeting were warning worried homeowners of the dangers of foreclosure scams, the people perpetuating the fraud plastered the windshields of cars in the parking lot outside with fliers for their services. A counselor taking a break for fresh air noticed the fliers and rushed to remove them before the meeting ended. "We do have our share of foreclosure fraud in white neighborhoods, but it doesn't seem to be the same frenzy we have in Prince George's County," said Prozeralik, the state fraud investigator.

US food prices to post biggest rise since '90:USDA

US food prices to post biggest rise since '90:USDA

By Christopher Doering

Go To Original

U.S. consumers should brace for the biggest increase in food prices in nearly 20 years in 2008 and even more pain next year due to surging meat and produce prices, the Agriculture Department said on Wednesday.

Food prices are forecast to rise by 5 percent to 6 percent this year, making it the largest annual increase since 1990. Just last month, USDA forecast food prices would climb between 4.5 and 5.5 percent in 2008.

"It's a little bit of a surprise how strong some of the numbers were in July," USDA economist Ephraim Leibtag, who prepared the forecast, said in an interview.

"We've been waiting for some moderation, but especially with some of the meat prices and how much has come through relatively recently (at the retail level) leads me to believe the overall number may be a little bit higher for the year," he added.

Leibtag said he expected food prices to moderate, but the timing depends on what happens to volatile energy and food ingredient costs.

Prices are expected to rise by 4 percent to 5 percent in 2009, lead by red meat and poultry. The forecast, if correct, would be the third straight year where food prices have surged at least 4 percent.

In its latest food prices report, USDA said the increase for 2008 was due partly to higher costs for meat, poultry and fish, which make up about 12 percent of total food spending. Overall, costs for these items are forecast to rise 3 percent compared to 2.5 percent estimated last month.

Prices for fruits and vegetables, which account for more than 8 percent of food spending, will also rise 5.5 percent versus 5 percent predicted in July.

USDA also forecast increases this year of 9.5 percent for cereals and bakery products, a 14 percent surge for eggs and a 13.5 percent hike for fats and oils.

A broad range of commodities posted record highs this year, including corn and soybeans. Prices have since backed off as concerns over smaller crops due to a wet spring in the U.S. Midwest have largely dissipated.

In its first estimate of the fall harvest, USDA last week forecast a corn crop of 12.29 billion bushels, the second largest on record.

Despite the near-record crops, farm-gate prices for this year's corn, wheat and soybean crops, while lower than earlier forecasts, will still set records.

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said last week he did not see any relief for food prices during the remainder of the year.

The cost of energy -- used to transport, package and process foods -- is still boosting food prices, even though energy prices have dropped. Oil has slumped from a record high above $147 a barrel on July 11 to $115.

"We haven't seen those prices reflected in the finished products yet," Schafer said.

Americans spend more than $1 trillion a year on groceries, snacks, carry-out food and meals in restaurants. Farmers get 20 cents of the food dollar and the rest goes to processing, labor, transportation and distribution.

This Time, the World Is Not Buying It

This Time, the World Is Not Buying It

by Paul Craig Roberts

Go To Original

The success of the Bush Regime's propaganda, lies, and deception with gullible and inattentive Americans since 9/11 has made it difficult for intelligent, aware people to be optimistic about the future of the United States. For almost 8 years the US media has served as Ministry of Propaganda for a war criminal regime. Americans incapable of thinking for themselves, reading between the lines, or accessing foreign media on the Internet have been brainwashed.

As the Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, said, it is easy to deceive a people. You just tell them they have been attacked and wave the flag.

It certainly worked with Americans.

The gullibility and unconcern of the American people has had many victims. There are 1.25 million dead Iraqis. There are 4 million displaced Iraqis. No one knows how many are maimed and orphaned.

Iraq is in ruins, its infrastructure destroyed by American bombs, missiles, and helicopter gunships.

We do not know the death toll in Afghanistan, but even the American puppet regime protests the repeated killings of women and children by US and NATO troops.

We don't know what the death toll would be in Iran if Darth Cheney and the neocons succeed in their plot with Israel to bomb Iran, perhaps with nuclear weapons.

What we do know is that all this murder and destruction has no justification and is evil. It is the work of evil men who have no qualms about lying and deceiving in order to kill innocent people to achieve their undeclared agenda.

That such evil people have control over the United States government and media damns the American public for eternity.

America will never recover from the shame and dishonor heaped upon her by the neoconned Bush Regime.

The success of the neocon propaganda has been so great that the opposition party has not lifted a finger to rein in the Bush Regime's criminal actions. Even Obama, who promises "change" is too intimidated by the neocon's success in brainwashing the American population to do what his supporters hoped he would do and lead us out of the shame in which the neoconned Bush Regime has imprisoned us.

This about sums up the pessimistic state in which I existed prior to the go-ahead given by the Bush Regime to its puppet in Georgia to ethnically cleanse South Ossetia of Russians in order to defuse the separatist movement. The American media, aka, the Ministry of Lies and Deceit, again accommodated the criminal Bush Regime and proclaimed "Russian invasion" to cover up the ethnic cleansing of Russians in South Ossetia by the Georgian military assault.

Only this time, the rest of the world didn't buy it. The many years of lies – 9/11, Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, al Qaeda connections, yellowcake, anthrax attack, Iranian nukes, "the United States doesn't torture," the bombings of weddings, funerals, and children's soccer games, Abu Ghraib, renditions, Guantanamo, various fabricated "terrorist plots," the determined assault on civil liberties – have taken their toll on American credibility. No one outside America any longer believes the US media or the US government.

The rest of the world reported the facts – an assault on Russian civilians by American- and Israeli-trained and -equipped Georgian troops.

The Bush Regime, overcome by hubris, expected Russia to accept this act of American hegemony. But the Russians did not, and the Georgian military was sent fleeing for its life.

The neoconned Republican response to the Russian failure to follow the script and to be intimidated by the "unipower" was so imbecilic that it shattered the brainwashing to which Americans had succumbed.

McCain declared: "In the 21st century nations don't invade other nations." Imagine the laughs Jon Stewart will get out of this on the Daily Show. In the early years of the 21st century the United States has already invaded two countries and has been beating the drums for attacking a third. President Bush, the chief invader of the 21st century, echoed McCain's claim that nations don't invade other nations.

This dissonant claim shocked even brainwashed Americans, as readers' emails reveal. If in the 21st century countries don't invade other countries, what is Bush doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what are the naval armadas and propaganda arrayed against Iran about?

Have two of the worst warmongers of modern times – Bush and McCain – called off the US/Israeli attack on Iran? If McCain is elected president, is he going to pull US troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan as "nations don't invade other nations," or is President Bush going to beat him to it?

We all know the answer.

The two stooges are astonished that the Americans have taught hegemony to Russians, who were previously operating, naively perhaps, on the basis of good will.

Suddenly the Western Europeans have realized that being allied with the United States is like holding a tiger by the tail. No European country wants to be hurled into war with Russia. Germany, France, and Italy must be thanking God they blocked Georgia's membership in NATO.

The Ukraine, where a sick nationalism has taken hold funded by the neocon National Endowment for Democracy, will be the next conflict between American pretensions and Russia. Russia is being taught by the neocons that freeing the constituent parts of its empire has not resulted in their independence but in their absorption into the American Empire.

Unless enough Americans can overcome their brainwashed state and the rigged Diebold voting machines, turn out the imbecilic Republicans and hold the neoconservatives accountable for their crimes against humanity, a crazed neocon US government will provoke nuclear war with Russia.

The neoconservatives represent the greatest danger ever faced by the United States and the world. Humanity has no greater enemy.

How the American “free press” toed the government line on Georgia

How the American “free press” toed the government line on Georgia

By Tom Eley
Go To Original

During the first several days of the war between Georgia and Russia, the US media’s readers and viewers could find in the nation’s newspapers and on its airwaves a degree of ambiguity and even rare moments of objectivity. Though vaguely anti-Russian, a good share of the initial coverage tended not to lay the blame for the war fully at the feet of Moscow and provided some insight into the Georgian military’s devastation of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

Then, between August 11 and 12, a sharp change occurred in the way the US media presented the war. The initial response to the war gave way to what can only be described as a tidal wave of anti-Russian propaganda. Now there was only one side to the story. What had happened?

The change in the media line corresponded to a sharpening of the anti-Russian posture of the Bush administration. For the first few days of the conflict, when no clear line had been laid down by the government, the mainstream media was somewhat at sea. But once the official line had been clearly established, the corporate-controlled media snapped to attention and marshaled all of its considerable resources to perform its customary service of vetting the “news” and manipulating public opinion to suit the aims and requirements of the state.

The media presentation of the Georgia crisis is a textbook example of the way in which the “free press” in America functions as little more than a semi-official propaganda agency of the government.

The first response of US media on August the 9 was to shrink before a complex story. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, a reliable mouthpiece for the most right-wing sections of the political establishment, published an editorial noting that it was “unclear at this stage which side is more at fault for the current fighting,” adding “that the two countries have seemed to want [war] for some time.”

The Chicago Tribune headlined its article on the developments, “Georgian Conflict Puts US in Middle.” The Los Angeles Times’s lead article was entitled “US Pushes Truce in Caucasus Fighting,” and its subtitle noted that the war “Put Washington in a Tough Spot.”

The New York Times’s first article on the war was headlined “Russia and Georgia Clash Over Separatist Region.” The Times also published an article entitled “Taunting the Bear.” It was a lengthy analysis of the interaction of ethnic and regional tensions in relation to Georgia’s breakaway provinces, Tblisi, and Moscow. The article was fairly even-handed in its treatment of Russia, although, true to form, the Times elided the provocative role the US has played in the Caucasus with its long-term strategy of encircling Russia and securing US access to Caspian Basin oil via pipelines that bypass Russian territory. On August 10, the Times published two further articles that maintained a semblance of balance, bearing the headlines “In Georgia Clash, a Lesson on US Need for Russia,” and “In Georgia and Russia, a Perfect Brew for a Blowup.”

On the other hand, the Washington Post responded to the war with its own rapid mobilization against Russia. On August 9, it produced an editorial entitled “Stopping Russia,” pinning the blame on Russia’s pursuit of “hegemony in the Caucasus” (which, the article left unstated, runs headlong into the US pursuit of worldwide hegemony). Ready from the first for brinksmanship, the Post ominously demanded that the “United States and its NATO allies impose a price on Russia.”

In those first few days of confusion, the media happily had two diversions at their disposal. Even as the situation in Georgia was erupting, the media continued to lavish its attention on the extra-marital affair of former senator John Edwards and the opening days of the Beijing Olympics. The outbreak of a war that threatened to draw into its wake two powers armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons fell to third place after the private sexual peccadillo of a politician and the hoopla surrounding the Olympics opening ceremonies.

The media’s initial bewilderment reflected the response of the White House, and, in particular, President Bush, who reacted to word of the fighting with a degree of ambiguity and indecisiveness not typical of a politician who characteristically lets pass no chance to engage in military bluster.

It is inconceivable that Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia—timed to coincide with the opening of the Olympics—was undertaken without US approval. Georgia is a vassal state of the US. Its military is funded, trained and technically supported by the American military. Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president, maintains close relations with Bush. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been in Tbilisi only a month earlier endorsing Saakashvili’s application for membership in NATO and his avowed aim of recapturing South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Nor is it conceivable that the United States was unaware that Russia would be compelled to respond to such a provocation. Nonetheless, it seems that the swiftness and force of Russia’s response took the Bush administration aback.

Bush’s first response on August 8, through spokeswoman Dana Perino, was to call for “the territorial integrity” of Georgia. But the US president, who was in Beijing attending the Olympics opening ceremonies, also struck a public pose of mediator, calling for restraint on all sides. “We urge all parties, Georgians, South Ossetians and Russians, to de-escalate the tension and avoid conflict,” he declared through his spokeswoman.

At that point, however, it was not yet clear how quickly and decisively the Russian force would rout the much smaller Georgian military.

Rice took a stronger position, calling on Russia “to respect Georgia’s territorial integrity and withdraw its ground combat forces from Georgian soil”—in other words, to accede to the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia.

The aspirants for the White House weighed in on August 8. Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s first response to the invasion was virtually identical to that of Bush, calling for the territorial integrity of Georgia, but appealing to “all sides” in the conflict and calling for international mediation. McCain much more clearly anticipated the foreign policy consensus that would emerge, quickly adopting a belligerent anti-Russian posture and demanding that Russia “immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory.”

On August the 9, Bush largely reiterated his position toward Russia. His statement remained very similar to the position of Obama, calling for international mediation and a “stand-down by all troops.”

On August 10, while still in Beijing, Bush assured NBC Sports that he had a “good relationship” with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. However, his position became somewhat more focused, as the scale of the Georgia’s military debacle became evident and Georgian forces withdrew from South Ossetia. He now called for a return to the “status quo ante,” meaning a withdrawal of Russian forces that had occupied both South Ossetia and Abkahzia, as well as military bases outside of the breakaway provinces.

The White House indicated that it held the same position on the conflict as France, and the Bush administration farmed out the diplomatic work of reaching a cease-fire to French President Nicholas Sarkozy and the European Union.

The hand-raisers and talking heads of the US media stood ready at their posts, but they had yet to receive clear instructions.

On August 10 and 11, the marching orders arrived. On Sunday the 10th, while Bush was still in China, Vice President Dick Cheney intervened to press for a more aggressive anti-Russian policy. In a telephone conversation with Saakashvili, he denounced Russian “aggression” and told the Georgian president that Russia’s actions ““must not go unanswered.”

The next day, Bush returned from Beijing and issued a highly provocative statement from the White House Rose Garden that signaled a sharp escalation of the confrontation between the US and Russia. Denouncing Russia’s “dramatic and brutal” military escalation and charging that Russia was seeking to overthrow Saakashvili, he demanded that Moscow agree to an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of its troops from Georgia. All pretense of even-handedness and mediation had been dropped.

On August 11, neoconservative Robert Kagan wrote a hysterical opinion piece in the Washington Post equating Russia’s limited invasion of Georgia with the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Kagan assured his readers that “the details of who did what to precipitate Russia’s war against Georgia are not very important”—a mere trifle, really. On the same day, another neoconservative, William Kristol, published a similar piece in the New York Times.

Within hours of Bush’s shift, Obama and the rest of the political establishment were on board with the new line. Obama, then on vacation in Hawaii, altered his position, issuing a statement that placed full blame on Russian “aggression.”

The media was close behind.

The New York Times and Washington Post each produced articles on the 12th attributing the war to a Russian desire to overcome national humiliations endured since the breakup of the Soviet Union. On the same day, the Times published another article meant to cover the US role in preparing the initial Georgian attack (“After Mixed US Messages, a War Erupted in Georgia”) and an anti-Russia guest op-ed piece (“Russia Blames the Victim”). The Los Angeles Times featured a column entitled “Stand up to Russia.” On August 13, the Wall Street Journal wrote an editorial condemning Bush’s “lethargy” in responding to Russia (“Bush and Georgia”).

The media propaganda campaign deployed several buzzwords aimed at poisoning public opinion. For example, the word “blitz”—meant to conjure up images of the German Wehrmacht’s “blitzkrieg” invasions of Europe in World War Two—suddenly made its way into the airwaves and print. A Google News search reveals that the word had not appeared in a major news source prior to August 10.

Now, Russia’s air campaign, which, in fact, resulted in few civilian deaths, was regularly referred to as a “bombing blitz” or “air blitz.” Needless to say, the media uses entirely different words to describe the much larger and more deadly US aerial bombardments of Iraq, Yugoslavia, and other countries—words like “precision,” “surgical” and “smart bomb.”

Other buzzwords that rapidly made their way into the daily lexicon of the US media beginning on August 10: various forms of the word “aggression” in defining Russia; the words “massive” and “disproportionate” to describe Russia’s incursion (less than 15,000 soldiers, or about one tenth the number of US troops who continue to occupy Iraq); the words “assault” and “attack,” used earlier to describe Georgia’s operations against South Ossetia, were now routinely applied to Russia’s retaliation; “democracy” and “democratic” began to appear with much greater frequency in describing Georgia.

The major cable news networks—Fox, CNN and MSNBC—are particularly adept at this sort of word game. They are also skilled at manipulating visual images to support their chosen slant. A Russian cameraman has accused CNN of using film footage of destroyed buildings that he took in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali and presenting it to an American audience as evidence of Russian atrocities in the Georgian city of Gori.

In its day-to-day operations, the US media displays a combination of disdain and ignorance of history, particularly when that history reveals uncomfortable truths about the origins of current events. However, when the chance to confuse and terrify readers and viewers presents itself, the mainstream media is quite ready to invoke some bogus history lesson against whatever country has run afoul of US imperialism.

A favorite historical theme trotted out again and again is “appeasement,” which is meant to conjure up images of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain crumbling before Hitler at Munich in 1938, and thus preparing the way for World War Two. Such a presentation of the historical episode itself is grossly oversimplified. But more to the point, it is used to swing public opinion behind the idea that the US and the world must adopt the most belligerent and violent stance toward whatever nation Washington has defined, at any given time, as a “rogue state,” “axis of evil” member, or “aggressor.” Hence, the US media currently bristles with warnings against “appeasing” the Russian Bear.

Some lessons of history the US media prefers not to address. The media does not square Washington’s condemnation of the “illegal” Russian invasion of Georgia with the infinitely more destructive US invasion and occupation of Iraq. As predatory as Russia’s aims may be, it certainly can lay claim with more credibility to a “security” interest in a neighboring country, formerly part of the Soviet Union, that is openly hostile to it.

All the threadbare rationales for the US invasion of Iraq, on the other hand, have long since been exposed. The media makes no effort, moreover, to square Washington’s support for the “territorial integrity” of Georgia with its own war only 10 years ago against Serbia in support of Kosovan separatists, in which the infrastructure of Serbia was destroyed and its capital bombed. One could draw up an endless list of such examples of rank hypocrisy.

Bush administration steps up war of words with Russia

Bush administration steps up war of words with Russia

By Patrick Martin
Go To Original

US officials escalated their attacks on Russian actions in Georgia, despite mounting evidence that Russian military forces have begun pulling back from the positions seized in the wake of the Georgian onslaught on South Ossetia, one of two autonomous regions that have enjoyed de facto independence from Georgia for more than a dozen years.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe, in a press briefing Thursday morning, cited reports that Russian troops were digging in—largely circulated by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his supporters in the American media—and declared, “the withdrawal is not happening very quickly, if it, in fact, has begun. The withdrawal needs to take place, and needs to take place now.”

In response to a direct question, Johndroe said that, in Bush’s view, “Russia is in violation of the commitments they have made” in the ceasefire pact negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who visited Moscow and the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, as the representative of the European Union. The White House spokesman continued, “I can’t imagine a circumstance right now that we would engage in military cooperation with the Russians until the situation in Georgia is resolved.”

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice contributed to the war of words in the course of her visit to Warsaw to sign a US-Polish agreement to base American anti-missile batteries in Poland and supply the Polish military with advanced anti-aircraft weaponry. The agreement has provoked angry bluster from Russian military spokesmen, including the deputy chief of staff, who warned that Poland was risking attack.

Rice said the threats from Moscow “border on the bizarre,” adding, “When you threaten Poland, you perhaps forget that it is not 1988. It’s 2008 and the United States has a ... firm treaty guarantee to defend Poland’s territory as if it was the territory of the United States. So it’s probably not wise to throw these threats around.”

While Rice defended the US-Polish agreement with the claim that it is directed against a potential threat from Iran, not against Russia, there was no mistaking the implications of her words: a Georgia-style clash in Poland could touch off direct military conflict between the United States and Russia, the two states which between control enough nuclear weapons to incinerate the planet many times over.

The most inflammatory comments came from Bush himself, in a speech Wednesday afternoon to a convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars—the same group where Vice President Cheney first unveiled in 2002 the administration’s campaign for war against Iraq.

Bush focused his remarks on a full-throated defense of the program of military aggression and domestic repression which his administration has unleashed, using the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as a pretext. “We’re at war against determined enemies,” he declared, “and we must not rest until that war is won.”

Bush seemed determined to include in the “war on terror” not only the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also the current confrontation with Russia over Georgia, thus effectively lining up Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Georgia has “sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq to help others realize the blessings of liberty,” he claimed. “Georgia has stood for freedom around the world—now the world must stand for freedom in Georgia.”

This implications of such a perspective are staggering, since Bush has proclaimed the “war on terror” to be a conflict of indefinite length, perhaps generations-long, in which, as he famously declared in 2001, the entire world must decide either to be on the side of the United States or risk being targeted by the United States as an ally or potential supporter of “terrorism.”

Bush concluded by emphasizing, as he has on several occasions over the past week, that the US government would brook no compromise over the autonomous territories whose people are hostile to the reestablishment of Georgian rule. “South Ossetia and Abkhazia are part of Georgia,” he said flatly, “and the United States will work with our allies to ensure Georgia’s independence and territorial integrity.”

The major European powers have taken a far more muted position on the status of the two territories, in part because the Abkhazians and Ossetians are minority ethnic groups long resentful of Georgian rule and, in the case of South Ossetia, likely to seek ties to North Ossetia, an autonomous region in Russia which shares their language.

There is also far more readiness in Europe to condemn the reckless adventurism of Georgian President Saakashvili, who ordered the Georgian military attack on South Ossetia, an action the British magazine the Economist characterized as “foolish and possibly criminal.”

The legal status of the two territories could well become the major flash point of the conflict. The Russian parliament is to discuss next weeks appeals to recognize the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which could well be followed by petitions from both regions to be incorporated into the Russian Federation.

Despite the US government and media propaganda campaign, the military standoff in Georgia appears to be easing. Reuters News Agency reported that one of its correspondents had witnessed a column of T-72 main battle tanks crossing the border from Georgia back into Russia, a major indication that a Russian pullback is occurring, albeit more slowly than demanded by the US and NATO, and with more troops remaining in advanced positions to protect South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgian attack. The withdrawal column, at the Roki tunnel, included artillery launchers, armored personnel carriers and heavy truck, as well as the 21 tanks.

The commander of Russian ground forces, Vladimir Boldyrev, said all the troops sent to reinforce Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia would be back in Russia by the end of August. He made the statement in a conference call to the press from Sochi, the summer residence of much of the Russian ruling elite, located on the Black Sea coast not far from Abkhazia.

A group of Washington Post reporters, who accompanied the first humanitarian aid convoy to reach the Russian-held portion of Georgia adjacent to South Ossetia, said they found considerable destruction, but also evidence that “undermined some of the most incendiary allegations advanced by Georgian officials.” They visited the village of Mereti, “where government officials had recently said three local women were raped and murdered. At least eight residents said Tuesday that no such attacks had occurred.”

The reporters operated without official Russian minders. All the more significant is their finding that Russian troops—depicted as a barbarous horde in the most incendiary accounts in the Georgian and Western media—were in fact playing the role of peacekeepers. They wrote: “Georgians living in several of the villages said the Russians occupying their land had treated them well, done nothing to encourage them to leave and offered the only protection available from the South Ossetian militias they feared most.”

No JROTC Left Behind

No JROTC Left Behind

Are military schools recruitment pools?

Go To Original

Matthew Hartman had every intention of enlisting in the Army directly after his graduation in two years. But it was Col. Sterling Stokes and his military staff who convinced Hartman that college, not the battlefield, was a better option. At least for now.

“They persuaded me that there is always time to serve my country and that maybe I would be able to serve even better if I went to college first,” Hartman, 16, says.

The Richmond, Va., native is a junior at the Franklin Military Academy in Richmond, where Stokes is principal. He earned the highest score on the 2008 National Chemistry Olympiad in his school, and is the type of student college admissions counselors would like to see among their applicants.

But for Cadet Hartman, the military seemed like a natural progression.

Academies like Franklin Military are part of the country’s rapidly expanding Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program. The academies are exclusively JROTC and the Department of Defense helps fund them — part of a growing trend to introduce military schools into the public school system in primarily poor urban areas where many school systems are struggling, if not failing.

These academies aren’t boot camps for delinquents. There is no compulsory military service upon graduation. And they’re not the realization of the Bush administration’s machinations. In fact, administrators insist the academies are college prep schools.

But for many, the evidence isn’t so clear. Critics like Darlene Graminga, of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker pacifist organization, suggest that cases like Hartman’s are few and far between, and that the military academies are a veiled attempt to recruit American youth.

Graminga, program director of the group’s Truth in Recruiting Program, says, “I hardly doubt that it’s a coincidence that these schools are prospering at a time of war.”

Despite such concerns, public military academies are wildly popular among many parents and students.

Chicago — with more academies than any other city — can’t build them fast enough. Chicago’s sixth academy will open this fall. In all, the city has one-third of the country’s academies.

Each year, the Chicago Public Schools accepts only about 10 percent of academy applicants. For the 2007-2008 school year, approximately 7,500 students applied for 700 openings in the freshman class.

Extending JROTC

Military academies are part of the JROTC program that began in 1916. Former Secretary of State and retired Gen. Colin Powell is credited with advancing JROTC in its current form, in part by influencing then-President George H.W. Bush in 1992 to more than double the size of the program, from 1,500 JROTC programs to 3,500.

In his book My American Journey, Powell wrote: “Inner-city kids, many from broken homes, found stability and role models in Junior ROTC. They got a taste of discipline, the work ethic, and they experienced pride of membership in something healthier than a gang. … Junior ROTC is a social bargain.”

In Virginia, the Richmond School Board and its Superintendent Richard Hunter conceptualized Franklin Military Academy — the country’s first secondary military academy — on the heels of the Vietnam War in the late ’70s. It opened its doors to 130 freshmen in the fall of 1980.

The following year, academies opened in St. Louis and Sandy Hook, N.J. After a 16-year gap, the Kenosha Military Academy in Wisconsin was built in 1998. Since then, the academies have grown at a rate of one to two a year.

“Students have to make the choice on their own to be here,” says Stokes, Franklin’s principal.

Once a student makes that first step, the application process is rigorous, including an interview and a written commitment from the parents, as well as the student.

Motivated

“We’re aiming at kids who aren’t in trouble but who aren’t fully realizing their potential, either,” says Ozzie Wright, principal of the Philadelphia Military Academy. “We often see kids who have all the makings of being good students, but have very unstable home lives because of economics and family structures. We can make a difference in these students’ lives.”

Elaine Macon-Johnson, who is in her fourth year at Franklin, teaches technology and business. She had arrived at the academy unwillingly, as part of a job reassignment, doubting whether public military academies should even exist. After a few years at Franklin, she says she became a convert.

“All I have to do is teach now,” Macon-Johnson says. “Before, I would have to spend so much time as disciplinarian.” These days, she says, “I don’t have behavior problems. And on the rare occasion that something does happen, it’s somebody else’s job to take care of, not mine.”

Many academy teachers, most of whom don’t have military backgrounds, say they feel the same way. Walking down the hallway in between classes, military instructor Sgt. Gary McCray says, “Look at this. When you were in school, did you ever see it so calm?” referring to the students quietly moving from one class to another, conversing. “Everybody is so relaxed,” McCray says.

Roberto Rodriguez, a first-year Marine Military Academy cadet, says, “I like that we could become leaders and we know every student. No bullies, none of that, so it’s real cool.”

Students attending the military academies are required to take one four-year military-related course. The JROTC curriculum includes military history, military protocol, civics and physical fitness. Students often participate in drill team, color guard and extracurricular activities, such as rock climbing and traveling. Some schools arrange an international trip each year for a limited number of students, and nearly all the academies send a large number of students to the Army-Navy football game each year. For the many students who have never been out of state — even out of their city — this is an appealing perk.

Recruitment factories?

As part of the 1916 National Defense Act, JROTC was created to prepare American youth to fight in World War I, if needed. And JROTC falls under the recruitment section of the Pentagon’s budget.

Principals are quick to say that they are not asked to boost the numbers of graduating students who enlist. Stokes says, “It’s not like we have been given [an enlistment] quota here.”

But in February 2000, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen told the House Armed Services Committee that JROTC is “one of the best recruiting devices we could have.” And Powell wrote in My American Journey, “Liberal school administrators and teachers claimed that we were trying to ‘militarize’ education. Yes, I’ll admit, the armed forces might get a youngster more inclined to enlist as a result of Junior ROTC. But society got a far greater payoff.”

In a difficult period for military recruiters, the Pentagon is expected to spend $20.5 billion in 2009 on recruiting, some of which will be distributed to JROTC. Pauline Lipman, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told PBS in December 2007, “It would be really naive to think that the military would, in fact, be expanding these schools and these programs and pouring millions of dollars into the schools at a time when they actually are having a recruitment crisis, if the schools were not about recruiting students.”

The Army has tried to accommodate its recruitment woes by reducing its annual recruitment goal, raising the maximum enlistment age from 35 to 42, lowering mental aptitude standards, and welcoming in the overweight, the physically injured and formerly convicted.

Military statistics over the last two decades indicate that 30 percent to 55 percent of JROTC students eventually enlist. The military academies, however, maintain that their enlistment rates after graduation ranges between 4 percent and 10 percent.

“If the Defense Department is looking to us for recruitment, then they are making a bad investment,” says Wright, the principal at Philadelphia Military Academy.

But the numbers are inconclusive, if not misleading. The academies collect their data through exit interviews with graduating students. If a student goes directly into the military upon graduation — and the student has made that decision at the time of filling out the questionnaire — he or she would be part of that 4 percent-to-10 percent pool. However, if he or she doesn’t directly enlist and instead, for example, goes to college on a ROTC scholarship, then the academies, like other public high schools, don’t have the mechanisms in place to track the student after graduation.

Ambiguities

Hugh Price, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, once advocated using the military’s discipline to help at-risk youth. As vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation from 1988 until 1994, he helped conceive and launch the quasi-military program for school dropouts that came to be known as the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program.

Price says he now thinks that schools have better options than a military presence. He wants to demilitarize public education and wonders whether the government can “find a way to make the attributes of the military model generic? Can it be done without the military? We need to find a way to help the struggling youth of America without funding from the military.”

Under the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act, any school that receives federal funding must allow access to military recruiters. One of the military instructors at Franklin boasts that the school had a good relationship with the area recruiters. “Oh yeah,” he says, “We see them all the time.”

The academies often bill themselves as college prep schools. And looking at the schools and the learning environments, it appears they are making a difference in the students’ lives. Arne Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools system, boasts that the city’s military academies have a 94 percent graduation rate versus the district average of 84 percent.

But Oskar Castro, national coordinator of the AFSC’s Youth & Militarism program, isn’t convinced.

“Where is the evidence?” he asks. “So many of these schools are so new, and they claim that it’s too early to tell [whether a school is successful], so why are we still building them if we don’t know?”

And the AFSC’s Graminga argues that the academies don’t produce better results than other schools that are part of the small charter school programs, currently en vogue among public school leaders in large, urban environments.

“We have seen small schools projects be successful and the successes that are related to the military academies are in line with that,” she says. “But there doesn’t seem to be anything inherent to the military academies that leads us to say, ‘Now, they’ve got the answer!’ ”

If Graminga is right, that might explain the success at Franklin Military, which has less than 500 students and an exceptionally low 15 to 1, student-teacher ratio.

Opportunity knocks

Powell and others argue that the military has historically given opportunities to those who have limited options. But making that argument also acknowledges that the military uses the academies as a recruiting tool. And given the academies’ demographics and the destruction of the GI Bill, which once provided funding for a college education, one can reasonably ask whether the Department of Defense is truly concerned with sending poor black and Latino kids to college.

In Richmond, Franklin Military consistently accommodates a 95 percent African-American student body in a city that, according to the 2006 census, has a population of which 20 percent exist below the poverty line and 54 percent are African-American.

Academy administrators maintain that these are the realities of urban America. Philadelphia Military’s Wright says, “The wealthier families in cities have the advantage of sending their children to private schools and a certain portion will go to the better public schools. But in cities, we know we are facing a particular demographic.”

The military, he adds, has a “history of providing opportunities” to underprivileged sectors of society.

If interest by school districts in military-sponsored education is any indication, we can expect to see a tremendous growth in the number of academies. What is less clear is whether the military academies would be considered successful if the public school systems in these urban areas were doing an adequate job.

“If the military branches are formally involved as sponsors, operators and funders,” says Price, “it is naive to expect them to resist the temptation to [use] these programs as a recruitment pipeline. If anything, given global conditions, the pressure on them to do so probably will intensify instead of subside.”

[Editor’s note: Research support for this story was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.]

Ohio Voting Machines Contained Programming Error That Dropped Votes

Ohio Voting Machines Contained Programming Error That Dropped Votes

By Mary Pat Flaherty

Go To Original

A voting system used in 34 states contains a critical programming error that can cause votes to be dropped while being electronically transferred from memory cards to a central tallying point, the manufacturer acknowledges.

The problem was identified after complaints from Ohio elections officials following the March primary there, but the logic error that is the root of the problem has been part of the software for 10 years, said Chris Riggall, a spokesman for Premier Election Solutions, formerly known as Diebold.

The flawed software is on both touch screen and optical scan voting machines made by Premier and the problem with vote counts is most likely to affect larger jurisdictions that feed many memory cards to a central counting database rapidly.

Riggall said he was "confident" that elections officials through the years would have realized votes had been dropped when they crosschecked their tallies to certify final elections results and would have reloaded cards so as not to lose votes. Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner has said no Ohio votes were lost because the nine Ohio counties that found the problem caught it before primary results were finalized.

As recently as May, Premier said the problem was not of its making but stemmed from anti-virus software that Ohio had installed on its machines. It also briefly said the mistakes could have come from human mistakes. Further testing by Ohio elections officials and then high volume tests by Premier uncovered the programming error.

"We are indeed distressed that our previous analysis of this issue was in error," Premier President Dave Byrd wrote Tuesday in a letter that was hand-delivered to Brunner. Premier and Brunner are in an ongoing court battle over the voting machines and whether Premier violated its contract with the state and warranties. Half of the Ohio's 88 counties use the GEMS system. Brunner has been a vocal critic of electronic voting machines,

Both Brunner and Premier said that remedies to the problem will be in place for the November presidential election. A nationwide customer alert with recommended actions was issued Tuesday by Premier. Approximately 1,750 jurisdictions use the flawed system, Riggall said. Both Maryland and Virginia use it, he said, although Virginia does not relay its votes to a central counting point, which is where the problem surfaces, Riggall said. Maryland does use a central count, he said. The District of Columbia does not use the GEMS system.

The problem is most likely to affect larger jurisdictions that upload multiple memory cards during counts, Riggall said. The GEMS system is supposed to save information from one card at a time to be counted in order as the cards are read by a database that Riggall described as the "mother ship." But a logic error in the program can cause incoming votes to essentially shove aside other votes that are waiting in the electronic line before they are counted. The mistake occurs in milliseconds, Premier's customer notice says.

The mistake is not immediately apparent, Riggall said, and would have to be caught when elections officials went to match how many memory cards they fed into a central database against how many show as being read by that database. Each card carries a unique marker.

Officials in Butler County, Ohio -- north of Cincinnati -- were the first to raise the issue when 150 votes from a card dropped in March. Brunner's office originally said that 11 counties had the same problem but has since revised that to nine. Her office was not able to say how many dropped votes were discovered in those jurisdictions.

"I can't provide odds on whether dropped votes were not recognized" during the decade GEMS has been used, Rigall said, "but based on what we know about how our customers run their elections and reconcile counts we believe any results not uploaded on election night would have been caught when elections were being certified."

In his letter to Ohio's Brunner, Premier's president said, "Voters in jurisdictions Premier serves, both in Ohio and throughout the country, can be assured that election officials employing standard canvass and crosscheck procedures will count their votes completely and accurately."

Unlike other software, the problem acknowledged by Premier cannot be fixed by sending out a coding fix to its customers because of federal rules for certifying election systems, Rigall said. Changes to systems must go through the Election Assistance Commission, he said, and take two years on average for certification and approval -- and that is apart from whatever approvals and reviews would be needed by each elections board throughout the country.

Brunner said she appreciated "the forthrightness" of Byrd in his letter to her and commended Butler County officials "who went above and beyond the call of duty" to pursue the problem.

"As far as I know, we have not seen that problem," with dropped votes, said Ross Goldstein, deputy administrator for Maryland's State Board of Elections. Maryland counties do upload results to a central system -- which is what generates county vote totals on election night -- but state procedures call for counties to reload every memory card the day after the election to doublecheck results, Goldstein said.

The safeguards that Premier calls for its in customer alert, he said, already are in place in Maryland.

Cheney, Bush and Habbush

Cheney, Bush and Habbush

One Protest, 52 Arrests and a $2 Million Payout

One Protest, 52 Arrests and a $2 Million Payout

Go To Original

The city has agreed to pay $2,007,000 to end a lawsuit brought by 52 people who were swept up in a mass arrest along a Midtown sidewalk during a protest against the invasion of Iraq.

They were charged with blocking pedestrians, but videotapes show that at their most annoying, they might have slowed a few people carrying coffee into work. Public order did not seem to be in unusual danger that morning — certainly nothing that called for rounding up 52 people, or spending millions of dollars.

Only two people were tried; they were acquitted, and charges against the other 50 were dismissed.

The arrests were made on April 7, 2003, during the opening days of the invasion of Iraq and right after the city persuaded the Republican Party to hold its 2004 convention in New York. The people arrested said their rights to free speech had been abused, and sued the city and the police.

Now, five years later, the $2 million settlement is only part of the bonfire of legal expenses. And only some of the costs from this episode involve money.

Of the $2 million paid to the people who were arrested, $1,057,000 is for legal fees and expenses owed to their lawyers. The Law Department could not provide an estimate on Tuesday of how much it spent on the defense, said Laura Postiglione, a spokesman for Michael A. Cardozo, the city’s chief lawyer.

Just about every Tuesday and Thursday for over a year, witnesses were deposed under oath, part of the pretrial process in civil cases, according to Sarah Netburn, a lawyer with the firm Emery Celli Brinkerhoff Abady, which, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights, represented many of the people arrested that morning. The deposition transcripts cost over $100,000, said Matthew Brinkerhoff, another lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Among those deposed were 55 police officers and their supervisors. Between preparation and testimony, many would have lost two days of regular police work.

The city had five lawyers handling the case over the last four years, along with a special appellate team. A conservative estimate is that the city spent $1 million on the defense, including the salaries and benefits of police officers and lawyers, before running up the white flag.

“Although defendants believe that they would ultimately have prevailed at a trial, the costs of going forward weighed in favor of a settlement at this time,” said Susan Halatyn, a city lawyer.

But why were the arrests made in the first place?

That morning, two groups gathered on West 56th Street, outside the offices of an affiliate of the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm that has holdings in defense industries and employs many world figures, including the first President Bush.

One group of about 10 people planned to commit civil disobedience by sitting in front of the building, on the south side of 56th Street. The other group, of about 100 people, stood on the north side of the street, chanting.

Sarah Kunstler, 31, a lawyer, a filmmaker and the daughter of the renowned lawyer, said she had gone to see if there were possibilities of making a film about war protests. “I found out I could get arrested for absolutely no reason,” Ms. Kunstler said.

A film editor, Ahmad Shirazi, 70, said he was in the group on the north side of the street and had just finished speaking with reporters for the BBC when he saw officers beginning to mass.

“All of a sudden, from the Fifth Avenue side, a huge number of police officers entered 56th Street,” Mr. Shirazi said. “The protest was on the south side of the street. We were standing on the north side of the street. They came directly to us, they were in riot gear, and they surrounded us. They made a semicircle around us, shoulder to shoulder, with their batons.”

“Then they started arresting us, one by one. At that point, I got emotional — I could not believe in my country, in my city, I could get arrested for doing absolutely nothing and standing on the sidewalk,” Mr. Shirazi added.

Are there any lessons from the day? The Law Department said the $2 million payout did not mean the police had done anything wrong. “This settlement was reached without any admission of liability on behalf of the city and the individual defendants,” said Ms. Halatyn, the city lawyer.

The Police Department did not respond to a request for comment on the settlement.

Mr. Shirazi said that as he was being handcuffed for the first time in his life, he told the officer that the plastic cuffs were squeezing him. “He said, ‘You should have thought about that before you came out this morning.’ It was like a dagger in my heart, that a police officer of my city would come up with anything like that.”