Friday, June 18, 2004

Concerned Citizens for Placer County

A group of folks in Placer County, California are gearing up to work on getting big money out of their county elections. Derek and I met with some of these folks last night in Auburn (a town in the county) to talk about how the current system has allowed big money to overwhelm the elections process in Placer County and what these folks can do about it. They are planning a citizens ballot initiative to set low limits on contributions to local candidates. Here are some pictures of the event.

Although it's easy to overlook sometimes, especially given the huge amounts of money and political shenanigans that go on at the federal level, big money can distort the elections process at all levels of government. As citizens of the United States, or South Dakota or Louisiana or Florida or Placer County, CA, we have the right and power to make sure that rich folks can't buy our government by spending huge sums of cash to elect people who agree with them.

One person, one vote. It's American. It's democratic. It restores the power to elect our leaders to the people, the only place that power should ever reside. It's an idea that our friends in Placer County are going to be talking about a lot in the months to come.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Cheney, Enron, and Grandma Millie -- What Did Dick Know and When Did He Know it?
There are so many scandals across the country that deal with Enron that it's hard to keep track of them. But recently released tapes of conversations between Enron traders may help connect the dots.

I have an op-ed here in today's San Francisco Chronicle asking Vice President Cheney to tell the American people if he knew about Enron's ploys to game the California energy market.

UPDATE: It appears that there is a lot of interest in this story and that there will be ongoing developments. Sign up here if you'd like to receive updates about Enron as they break.

Some background on these scandals (see also our fact sheet here for some background on Ken Lay and Enron):

1) It has long been speculated that the rolling blackouts and price spikes that California endured in 2000-2001 were not really a result of a shortage of electricity, but rather the result of intentional power shortages caused by energy companies in order to drive up the price (not unlike OPEC deciding to cut oil production to drive up gas prices.) In 2002, an internal Enron memo dated December 6, 2000 was released that described schemes named "Fat Boy," "Ricochet," "Death Star," "Get Shorty," and others for artificially creating congestion on California's power grid, basically proving these speculations as correct.

But, what's new in the past week is the release of tape transcripts that show just how brazen Enron traders were. They clearly knew they were ripping off consumers big time, talking about how they "stole" from "grandma Millie" in California, rephrasing things like "stealing millions" from California to "arbitraging" the market. It's pretty sick. You can read some excerpts from the transcripts here at the San Francisco Chronicle.

2) We've also known that Enron had groomed George W. Bush as their politician of choice and had used massive amounts of money to ensure that Bush got into positions of power where he could help Enron. The Washington Post reported that Ken Lay had known Bush since at least 1992, and that Lay and other Enron execs gave Bush $146,500 to help him unseat Ann Richards as Governor of Texas in 1994. Enron and their executives went on to become the biggest career patrons of Bush up until March of this year, when MBNA claimed that honor (Enron's contributions have taken a hit due to their bankruptcy you know, so it's tough for them to keep up.) So, its clear that the folks at Enron thought a Bush presidency would be a good thing for them. See my Feb 19 post here detailing the political contributions of Jeff Skilling, and Dec 15 post here about Enron's contributions to Connecticut's scandalous Governor just to give you and idea of how these guys used money to get and keep friends in office.

3) California started experiencing rolling blackouts on Jan 17, 2001. Three days later, George Bush took office. One of his top priorities was energy policy, and he put former energy CEO Dick Cheney in charge. By Feb 22, Cheney had pulled together a task force of other energy CEOs, including Ken Lay of Enron. We know that Cheney and Ken Lay met privately at least six times and that they discussed the California energy crisis. We know that Ken Lay gave Cheney a memo with Enron's suggestions for what would be great energy policy for them and that many of these suggestions wound up in the Bush energy plan.

4) We also know that Vice President Cheney isn't interested in disclosing who he met with in his energy task force and what they talked about. The Congressional General Accounting Office asked him, and he refused to say. So, our own Congress had to sue our own Vice President to find out what he was up to. They lost, and chose not to appeal. But, Judicial Watch (the same group that went after Bill Clinton about Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones and other scandals of his) also sued, and their case was heard by the Supreme Court this April.

What we didn't know until recently is why Cheney was fighting so hard to keep from telling us what he and Ken Lay discussed. Investigative reporter Jason Leopold writes here and here that the tape transcripts clearly indicate that Enron Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, Richard Shapiro, was told by Tim Belden, head of Enron's Western Trading division about their efforts to game the California market. So, the question of the day is, "If Shapiro knew, did Ken Lay?" And the question of tomorrow is "if Ken Lay knew, did Dick Cheney know too?"

There are some reasons to believe that Lay would have known, he was the Chairman and CEO of the company after all. Leopold concludes that he did. Belden says on tape that his West Coast trading division was responsible for 80% of Enron's profits in 2000-2001, so it's likely that Ken Lay paid close attention. Leopold reports that Ken Lay flew to Portland to take Belden out to dinner and congratulate him on his work on March 9, 2001. If Lay didn't already know, seems like he would have asked Belden how he was doing it, doesn't it?

There are also reasons to believe that Cheney might have realized what was going on. I mean, if you were the Vice President and:

A) responsible for formulating our national energy policy, and

B) an expert on energy issues from all your years in government, and

C) a former energy services CEO yourself,

wouldn't you ask some questions about the biggest energy crisis in the country when talking to the head of one of the most important energy companies around? Cheney's task force report to the President mentions the California energy crisis some 110 times, so clearly it was on his mind. We know now that Enron and other companies were the real cause. The question is, did Cheney know this at the time? And if not, why didn't he press harder to figure this out?

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Senator D!

Wake up New Hampshire voters, Granny D may be coming to an election near you. According to an article by John Nichols in The Nation, the erstwhile campaign finance reformer is contemplating a run against incumbent Judd Gregg for U.S. Senate from New Hampshire.

Coming from a woman who walked over 3,000 miles across America in support of campaign finance reform, it is not surprising to hear that some of the issues she will focus on in the campaign and as Senator are the public financing of federal campaigns, child hunger in America, and serving the public interest, not that of big campaign contributors.

It is refreshing to see a regular person running for office instead of the normal run-of-the-mill professional politician. We could use more of this across America.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Colorado Tries to Reform Electoral College (Or: How to knock a guy off his horse)

As Susan Greene reports in the Denver Post, a nonprofit group called The People’s Choice for President is running a signature-gathering campaign to get an amendment to Colorado’s constitution on this November’s ballot. The amendment would award the state's Electoral College votes proportionally as a percentage of the statewide popular vote, instead of the current system of awarding all its votes to the winner of the popular election.

As is, the Electoral College needs some work. It doesn't make much sense for Candidate A to get all a states' electoral votes just because he wins 51% of the popular vote. The Colorado plan makes some progress towards a more accurate reflection of the choice for president made by the citizens of Colorado. If more, or even all the states were to adopt a similar model (distribution of its electoral votes is the prerogative of a state), the United States would move closer to fulfilling the promise of its democracy.

But wait! We're not a democracy and never have been, at least according to Mike Rosen in The Rocky Mountain News. He argues that we are a republic, a system of checks and balances designed to avoid the tyranny of the majority that accompanies "an unrestrained democracy."

But Mike, doesn't Colorado's (and for that matter, all states except for Maine and Nebraska) current system of granting all its electoral votes to the majority winner of the popular vote constitute a tyranny of the majority at the state level?

Americans are informed more by democracy than some stuffy I-know-better-than-you republican elitism. I'll take the word of a well-informed populace over patrician snobbishness any day of the week.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Democracy Crumbles in New York

As reported by Yancey Roy in Rochester's Democrat and Chronicle, New York companies are giving way more to candidates than the law allows, sometimes up to four times over the legal limit. The Board of Elections' response? It writes the companies a letter advising them to seek their contribution back.

Of course, that doesn't happen until the election's in the can, and a company's candidate has been sworn in in Albany.

Elections make (or don't make) the democracy. Each citizen of these United States has an equal share in deciding the laws by which we all shall be governed. Until the state legislature and Board of Elections in New York get serious about enforcing the law and limit the influence of companies' powerful concentrations of wealth in their democratic processes, New Yorkers will have to make do with less than that which is theirs by rights - the freedom to choose their leaders.

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