Executions, Drug Companies, and High Drama in Arkansas

Protesters gather outside the state Capitol building on Friday, April 14, 2017, in Little Rock, Ark., to voice their opposition to Arkansas’ seven upcoming executions. (AP Photo/Kelly P. Kissel)

Little Rock       So, if you ask , what’s happening these days in Arkansas, you think you’re being a wit, because what in the world could be happening in Arkansas, now, really?  These days though there is high drama in Arkansas, none of which is heaping credit on the Wonder State.

For months the state has been getting huge publicity as it prepared to execute eight men over coming weeks before its supply of the drug used for the lethal injection expired.  After no executions in the state for years, this was a hurry up and kill move, rare anywhere in the country.  The first executions were scheduled in days.  Not surprisingly lawyers for the prisoners have predictably gone into court on all manner of grounds, but mainly questioning the drugs on offer.  One execution had been stayed, while others were moving forward.

Then, all heck seems to have broken out, and it came from unexpected directions.

Four pharmaceutical companies challenged the state over their stockpile of various lethal drugs and how the Arkansas Corrections Department had gone about getting its hands on the drugs.  One company, McKesson, the 5th largest company on the Fortune 500 in the US and the country’s largest drug supplier put a sharp point on the whole matter by flatly accusing the State of Arkansas of outright deception in how it had come to have the drugs.  Piecing the story together, Arkansas seemed to have made an order through a state physician on what had seemed to be a routine purchase of potassium chloride.  Two weeks after the sale, the company became suspicious that there was a slight of hand involved and demanded the return of the drug, issued a refund of the purchase amount, and sent a self-addressed shipping seal for return of the drugs.  Arkansas didn’t return them though, which led to McKesson going to court.

Needless to say, this is a unique situation in the history of executions in the USA.  Never before have drug companies tried to step in the way, saying they didn’t want to be party to this kind of thing or have any of their products involved.  In public comments, one company made it abundantly clear.  They saw themselves in the business of life-saving, not life-ending and believed there was reputational damage to any of their products being used in executions.  Given how sensitive corporations are of their images, I have to wonder if this might be a turning point in the long fight to end executions in the this country.  Obviously, the drug companies have decided that they don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, and that’s huge.

Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffin, also host of a popular show on KABF and a member of the radio station’s board, issued a stay of several days based on the drug company’s pleadings.  In late breaking news a federal judge in Little Rock acted to stay all the executions to sort out the issues, likely making the Arkansas government’s plans for a killing spree moot.  Governor Asa Hutchinson and the State Department of Corrections have thus far said nothing on the charges of duplicity in obtaining the drugs.

Never think Arkansas is boring!

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Breitbart’s Bannon, More Proof that What Goes Around, Comes Around?

Bannon with Breitbart Crew

Little Rock   I don’t want to speak too soon, because I don’t want to put my dirty mouth on it, but as depressing as it has been to read the Stephen Bannon fan mail in the media since the election, it has been equally exhilarating to follow his comet’s rapid descent to hard ground. I don’t want to jinx this. He’s still in the West Wing of the White House, and he’s still carrying the title of strategic advisor to the president or some such, but it’s safe to say he’s currently taking a huge beating, including straight up slap downs from President Trump himself. No matter what ends up happening, how sweet it is this minute.

If nothing else all of the big whoops are finally getting some understanding about what it’s like over there at Breitbart and what’s it’s like to be on the receiving end of crazy-ville. When Andrew Breitbart was still alive, you could spend a minute speculating how much he personally believed all of his own site’s garbage spewing. He had been an early player in the Huffington Post startup, so the many cynical bones in my body could wonder if he simply saw an open niche he now had the ability to fill on the right, and went for it for the bucks and theater of it all. The more that comes out on scrutiny of Bannon, there’s no question here whatsoever. He lives in the darkness and embraces the night.

And, there’s some really creeping critters in his night it turns out. A recent story talked about how he is a huge fan of the discredited notion that history runs in 80-year cycles, and we are coming to the downside of one of those cycles. It’s a knocking on the door of the apocalypse notion that fits snugly with his chokehold on the necessity of disruption and chaos as an operating principle. He sees himself as a “Game of Thrones” character and “winter is coming.” Whether the President gets the message or just sees the storm clouds, I wouldn’t say, but clearly the fact that the new team at the National Security Council cashiered him off of the committee is worth at least one sigh of relief from the rest of us.

Bannon is made for the late night, afterhours show, not prime time. No matter what any of us think of Trump, we know for darned sure that he is never someone who likes wiping egg off of his face every day, and Bannon has been hurling them at him. First there was the divisive inaugural rant, roundly condemned everywhere. Then there was the visa fiasco that unraveled the Muslim ban for the president, making millions the face of his abuse.

As one of my organizers always says, “you gotta learn.” In Bannon’s case, he seems incapable. Trump only knows one thing well: how to run a family business. He still thinks the White House and the Presidency is just another huge division of his family’s business. Now Bannon has managed to get sideways with son-in-law, Jared, and alienate daughter, Ivanka. A lot of what Bannon believes and has done is just plain crazy, but not knowing that Trump is always going to default to family and getting crosswise with that foundational principle is just stupid.

The clock is ticking on Bannon. He’s probably debating how to save face now. The power in his job seems already gone.

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All Praise the Field Campaign, Few Practice It!

New Orleans   In recent years genuflecting in the direction of the “ground war” in politics has become almost routine. Sadly, much like other religions and church attendance, a whole lot more people praise field operations as critical to winning elections, than actually walk the talk and put the program in practice. As more and more of this activist moment is focused on electoral work, it’s worth reprising lessons learned and ignored.

We’ve talked before about the uphill push that Becky Bond and Zack Exley described in their book, Rules for Revolutionaries, as they tried to get support for their field-and-phone program within the Sanders Campaign. This issue of Social Policy in the mail features a piece by Peter Haberfeld called “The Sanders Campaign: Notes from Inside Out on a Local Campaign.” He also details the tensions between campaign directors and the experienced grassroots folks in the Berkeley and Oakland area that were trying to emphasize the ground game to deliver for Sanders. They often felt the web-attention was gobbling up their strategy. Both sets of campaigns describe having to virtually go rogue in order to get the job done. Bond and Exley saw much of the millions that was spent by the Sanders Campaign the same as pouring money down a rat hole. A close look at the Clinton-Trump contest certainly shows that Trump was all-media-all-the-time, but it was also clear that Clinton could not duplicate the Obama ground game of 2008 and 2012.

All of this came rushing back at me when I opened an email from Judy Duncan, head organizer of ACORN Canada, sending a somewhat dated piece, two-and-a-half years old by David Broockman and Joshua Kalla who were then graduate students in the Department of Political Science at UC Berkeley writing in Vox. I read the piece with fresh eyes, partially because then ACORN was new to Scotland and late to the dance on the independence election, but Broockman and Kalla hit the nail on the head in pulling back the covers on the reality of the field program, where many of our leaders and organizers volunteered, and many other programs pointing out that the “arms” race to record “knocks” was obscuring the importance of non-scripted, quality conversations with voters by the doorknocking canvassers.

They cite the now famous study several decades ago by Alan Gerber and Don Green in 1998.

The professors randomly assigned voters to receive different inducements to vote: some received postcards, some received phone calls, some received a visit from a canvasser, and some received nothing. The experiment found that voters called on the phone or sent postcards were not noticeably more likely to vote than those sent nothing. But canvassing was different. Just one in-person conversation had a profound effect on a voter’s likelihood to go to the polls, boosting turnout by a whopping 20 percent (or around 9 percentage points). The nearly two decades since Gerber and Green’s first experiment have consistently borne out their finding that personal conversations have special political potency. Hundreds of academics and campaigns have tested the impacts of various campaign tactics with randomized field trials. High-quality canvassing operations emerge as consistent vote-winners. On the other hand, impersonal methods have consistently failed to produce cost-effective results, no matter how you slice the data or which populations researchers examine.

Of course this is not as simple as “add water and stir.” Green points that out himself:

But facilitating that breed of genuine personal outreach isn’t what many “field” campaigns actually do. Green has seen this in practice. He has found that many canvassing operations have effects “smaller than what we obtained from our initial study or in our follow-up experiments with seasoned groups such as ACORN.” But, Green went on to say, “When I’d inquire about the details of these sub-par canvassing efforts, I would often discover that the scripts were awkward or that there was limited attention to training and supervision.”

So, yes, as Bond and Exley argue, with the right kind of volunteer base and training, it is physically possible to get past micro-targeting and “hit every door,” if that is the campaign plan, but it will still require people who have been to the rodeo and know how to ride.

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Thinking about Teeth

New Orleans   Maybe it’s personal. Several weeks ago, I had a root canal. It’s shocking how much those bad boys cost, and talking to a friend in the northeast, he had to pop for another $500, so I guess it’s time to stop my whining.

On the doors last week though it wasn’t personal. One of my comrades cracked wise, as we were debriefing, that we needed to keep some kind of teeth-to-tattoo count in order to figure the ratios. I laughed then, but the next day in Akron the first three doors my team hit, the count was zero teeth on the first two (with some tattoos!) and ten or so in the front on the third door with three or four tats.

Why don’t we do better in making sure low and moderate income families have dental care?

Reading a newly published book by Mary Otto called Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America, provided chapter and verse while detailing one horror story after another of death and debilitation in lower income communities. Here are some startling facts from Otto’s book:

· For reasons including poverty, isolation, and the lack of private insurance and providers available to treat the poor, roughly one-third of the people living in America face significant barriers to obtaining dental care
· More than 35 million poor children are entitled by federal law to dental benefits under Medicaid, but more than half go without care. Fewer than half the nation’s roughly one hundred fifty thousand working dentists participate in the program.
· Approximately 49 million Americans live in communities that are federally designated as dental professional shortage areas.
· Private and even public dental benefits can help defray the cost of services. But more than 114 million Americans lack them entirely
· Among U.S adults who struggled with unpaid medical bills, 12 percent reported dental bills made up the largest share of the bills they had problems paying, a 2015 survey found.
· Medicare, the nation’s health care program covering roughly 55 million elderly and disabled Americans, does not cover routine dental services.
· Nationwide, a total of 61,439 hospitalizations were primarily attributed to periapical abscesses during the nine years between 2000 and 2009.
· In 2013, only 35 percent of private practice dentists reported treating any patients on public assistance, down from 44 percent in 1990, a separate ADA survey of dental practices found
· one-third (31 percent) of white toddlers and primary school–aged children (aged two to eight) have decayed teeth, the disease afflicts closer to half of black and Hispanic children (44 percent of black children and 46 percent of Hispanic children). And minority children are twice as likely as white children to go without treatment for the decay.

You get the message. Otto’s book makes it clear that the dentists bear a huge share of the responsibility here. They make more per hour than doctors. They have fought allowing dental hygienists doing more, including in public schools. They recommend costly procedures, rather than sealants. They opposed expansion of dental benefits in the original Medicare legislation. They drug their feet until the 1970s to integrate their state associations and, as you can see, they still do not provide service equitably to non-whites or those on public assistance.

How are they allowed to get away with this?

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Cities Trying to Fight Back Against Home Exploitation Scams

housing inspector in Toledo

New Orleans     Perhaps against their will, some Ohio communities have become ground zero in trying to throw roadblocks in the path of companies exploiting the desperate need of lower income and working families for affordable housing and, just maybe, the hopes of traversing the credit desert to home ownership.

The best local ordinance that seems to have emerged in this effort is in Toledo. Chapter 1765, entitled Conditions for Conveyance of Property by Land Installment Contract, passed in 2015, tries its best to grab this bull by the horns. Toledo does so by first making the issue of responsibility very, very clear. It’s not just the seller or owner of the property that has to follow the ordinance but “any agent” of the owner and any entity defined as the owner.

The critical issue that ACORN’s teams confronted repeatedly in recent visits to Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and Akron was the fact that families were finding themselves in land contracts which met no conceivable standards of habitability. Toledo’s ordinance goes out of its way to do two things that are essential in protecting families from abuse in these contracts. On one hand the city insists that all contracts have to be recorded with the city. Most of these companies are playing whack-a-mole in this regard. Vision Property Management for example listed only five properties in Pittsburgh, though we found more than twenty on a quick search of property ownership records, and suspect that the real number is many times more. Secondly, and even more importantly, Toledo requires a certificate of occupancy before a family can reside in a house under a land installment contract and only after the city has inspected the property and its major systems and found that they are satisfactory.

The language in the ordinance is mandatory and unambiguous:

(a) No vendor shall convey any interest in a residential property through land installment contract unless a Certificate of Property
Code Compliance or Temporary Certificate of Property Code Compliance has been issued, pursuant to this section.
(b) No vendor shall fail to deliver to the vendee a copy of the current Certificate of Property Code Compliance or Temporary
Certificate of Property Code Compliance prior to the execution of the land installment contract.
(c) No vendor shall fail to record, as provided in R.C. 5301.25, the land installment with the county recorder and deliver a copy to
the county auditor within twenty days of the execution of a land installment contract.
(d) In a conveyance of any interest of a residential property through land installment contract sale, no vendor shall knowingly
require a vendee, as a condition of the sale, to sign a “quit claim” deed, deeding the property in question to the vendor in the event of a
default by the vendee.

The penalties are perhaps weaker than they should be, beginning at $250 for the first offense and moving to $1000 for the third within a two-year period, and judging the offenses to be a misdemeanor if recurring, which may not be sufficient to intimidate these fly-by-night outfits. Furthermore, the devil is in the details, when it comes to how aggressive Toledo has been in forcing the hand of these predatory operators, which we have yet to determine.

The City of Lorain in Ohio passed an ordinance in 2014 also requiring certificates of inspection and occupancy clearly also trying to get their arms around this crisis in their community, but sadly a close reading of the requirements pulls them up short. Lorain’s measure tries to impose the burden “at the point of sale.” Part of the entire business model of these companies and the core of this predatory scam is keeping the family from ever getting to the point of sale and forcing them to live in often dangerous structures with limited resources holding on to little more than their hope of ownership.

Similarly, Youngstown, Ohio, path breaking ordinance creating a “foreclosure bond,” forces refundable payments after foreclosures, forcing responsible upkeep of the property by corporate and individual owners, and has worked spectacularly in managing the overall condition of communities from what we could see, but doesn’t cover evictions, at least not yet, or specifically rent-to-own or land purchase contracts, and of course is better at locking the barn door after the fact, rather than on the front end like Toledo.

Regardless, Ohio cities confronted with this grassroots crisis are responding, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist or looking the other way like most communities, oblivious to the way that low to moderate income families are being exploited by these schemes and forced to live in abominable conditions.

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Wisconsin Worker Whistleblowers Expose Vision Rent-to-Own Scams

wearegreenbay.com

Pittsburgh   Vision Property Management, headquartered in South Carolina, seemed like a bad penny that kept turning up in every neighborhood we door knocked in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The ACORN teams spent a lot of time before and after these visits trying to understand as clearly as possible the business model for the company. It was hard to ever figure out how they lost money on any of these almost universally rundown and dilapidated properties, but their model wasn’t so much rip-and-run, as it was lie-steal-and-scam.

We were mystified how this predatory outfit could get away with this plain and simple fraud and grand larceny? One of our team found a video from Green Bay, Wisconsin of all places done by Channel 5 television and its reporter, Nate Stewart. The piece had the vibe of an ISIS hostage video with the speakers disguised so that Vision would not recognize them. Perhaps they were concerned that now that they were confessing their shameful acts, that Vision might do the unspeakable to them? Since Vision does virtually all of its dirty work via the internet and telephone with virtually no on-the-ground staff, they were probably right to realize that the company could follow the dots back to them.

We had heard plenty horror stories from victims, and reading the Green Bay report, these were confessions right from the horse’s mouths! Read, listen, and weep:

· “We knew we were putting people into situations that they couldn’t handle.”
· “My big problem with the culture there was that we knowingly manipulated people’s bad situations for our own gain.”

Ok, you may not have been with us on the doors, but if there was any doubt about their corrupt business model, here’s what another Vision worker has to say:

“When the customer ended up signing the contract and there were liens or the pipes were missing, we could say ‘well we had a recorded phone call with you, I instructed you to go find that out.’ But by nature, we weren’t dealing with the most sophisticated real-estate consumer. So I can say ‘go to the clerk of court, go look up public records’ all day long, but if you don’t know how to do that or if you don’t even know what I’m talking about and you just want to get off the phone with me so you can get into this house, just say yeah all day long.”

“If they’re already in a financial situation that puts them in a position to be working with a company like this, they probably can’t afford to throw down several hundred dollars to have an inspector come in and look at all this stuff. Often times when they do, the inspectors are appalled like, ‘no, no don’t buy this!'”

We met a number of people who were on SSI or Veterans payments, where Vision was taking between one-third and one-half of the wannabe buyer’s check for their scheme, and according to their workers in Green Bay, this was no coincidence, but their deliberate strategy. Here’s what one said to Channel 5:

“We sold a considerable amount of houses to people who were making a $721 month social security check – and with $228 monthly payments, they had no business living in the house. They obviously didn’t have the means to repair it themselves or pay somebody to repair it.”

The Vision crowd, according to its employees, were equal opportunity thieves. Their business model was exploiting lower income families desperate for housing, but they didn’t mind stiffing local governments and anyone else they owed a buck. Here’s what one woman told Channel 5:

“I would sometimes record two or three deeds at a time for one actual sale or one actual purchase, and no tax would be paid because Michigan, Pennsylvania and Maryland have higher taxes. They yelled at me and told me they refused to pay that tax and I would need to find a loophole. There were some that were legit, but the majority of them we just didn’t send them in. We were told that ‘we’ll just pay it if we get caught, but if we don’t, we’re not paying the government a dime,’ and so that’s what I did.” She added that many times she was told to get the deeds to the county overnight so Vision could get it processed in the tenants name before they found out – even if the house had many repairs needed or was up for demolition.

These are just stone cold crooks. You’re wondering why the FBI isn’t investigating for wire fraud, well so am I. You’re wondering why the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau isn’t all over these bad boys, well so am I.

In November, Channel 5 touted the fact that Vision’s operation in Green Bay was being investigated by the Attorney General in Wisconsin. Writing this, I found another Channel 5 piece in mid-February but there’s still no sign almost six months later that the AG in Wisconsin has done much to stop Vision. In fact the February piece was mainly about the fact that reporters from the New York Times, the City of Green Bay, and Channel 5 were all being stonewalled by Vision. No mention of any activity by the Wisconsin AG or any progress there.

Stealing from poor and working families isn’t big news, it’s just standard operating procedure for Vision and a pile of other operations. It seems pretty clear that Vision will operate with impunity until we organize enough of the victims to stop them.

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