If PayPal Billionaire Thiel Wants to Fund More Lawsuits, Here’s a List

Hulk Hogan with Thiel paid for counsel at trial

Hulk Hogan with Thiel paid for counsel at trial

Little Rock    Paul Thiel, the libertarian billionaire, co-founder of PayPal, board member of Facebook, and venture capitalist, Trump delegate, and Silicon Valley community leader, went public about the fact that he is the money bags behind the Hulk Hogan lawsuit that is trying to put the on-line scandal and news sheet, Gawker, out of business. He says the price tag is in the range of $10 million to the lawyers so far. He swears it is not just for revenge over a now defunct Silicon Valley blog that had outed him in 2007, but more about privacy and setting limits on scurrilous press abuse. He had referred to the Gawker blog previously as the Al Qaeda of journalism or words to that effect. He was not a fan. Observers knew there was an angel behind Hulk and his lawyers when they agreed to let the insurance company for Gawker off the hook. In wrestling, they would call this a “death match.”

With a billion dollar bank account he very accurately described himself as having the resources to defend himself and noted that that was not always the case for many others somewhat slandered in one way or another. He also says that he is financing other litigation as well but didn’t reveal it. He was educated as a lawyer himself, and supposedly asked a team of legal beagles to find some areas where he could make a difference at this interesting juncture of self-described philanthropy, vengeance, and politics.

Dude, where were you when we needed you a couple of years ago when ACORN was fighting for its life over the unconstitutional Congressional “bill of attainder” in 2009? Well, never mind there are always other issues, and I’d encourage brothers and sisters everywhere to make a list and send it over to Thiel so his team can saddle up and defend our liberties and lives as well.

You take the recent report for example by ACORN International and its partners about the lack of democracy and diversity in membership-based, rural electric cooperatives. I’ve talked to one lawyer after another who are convinced this ought to be against the law, and I’ve even tried to track down lawsuits that have recently been filed in Alabama on this issue, but it’s one of those Gordian knots where I can hear my friends on the other side of the phone kind of sighing because they know it’s wrong, they suspect it’s illegal, but who has the time or money to wage such a fight. A colleague send me a picture of the all-white, male, mostly elderly board of the Mississippi land bank supposedly soliciting interest from all the farmers out there who might want loans. A lot of them can look at the board makeup and not bother, but is that legal. I guess I’m sighing now!

Or how about the discrimination against the poor on getting their tax refunds at the same time as everyone else if they happen to qualify for an earned income credit? Going after the taxman, isn’t that a libertarian issue, too?

Or how about all of this voter mischief? A federal judge in Ohio allowed people to register and vote on the same day, declaring the effort to prevent such activity was discriminatory to black voters. There’s a lot of that and rollbacks on voting rights in one state after another. Voting is equal to individual liberty isn’t it? Sounds like someone financing more of these lawsuits would be a good libertarian philanthropy.

Hey, pile on! If this isn’t just a piece of Silicon Valley revenge, there’s a long list of injustices where some cash could help us get some of these issues before a judge and settle some scores for millions.

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Poisoned People and Poisoned Politics

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A coho salmon carcass in a small coastal Oregon river. (Photo: Justin Bailie/Getty Images)

Little Rock    We’re right to have issues with the police, but bad or good, at least we know when we’re hurt or shot or when someone is murdered, there’s someplace to go, there’s a direction to point our fingers, there’s someone, somebody, somewhere that’s supposed to do something. When we’re poisoned by thoughtless, indifferent corporations and practices embedded in business models, the damage is as real and as permanent and the death as devastating when it comes, even if slower, yet the long timelines provide cover for corporations, Congress, and others to hide, obfuscate, dissemble, and downright lie to prevent having to take responsibility in the full knowledge that it is unlikely that they will be held accountable. Let’s not forget, we’re still hurting, our children may have their health and futures robbed, and our communities destroyed.

The problem with being poisoned is that we can’t see or hear the shot being fired, over and over, even though the impact will eventually explode in our bodies the same way, just more gradually. After 40 years Congress is finally, in collusion with the chemical industry, coming up with a new law on handling toxins because the last one they passed in 1976 was so sorry that it has only allowed the EPA to ban five chemicals in the entire period. The law was so damaged that an attempt to ban asbestos, which everyone knows is eventually deadly, from products was overturned by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and 120,000 people still die from such products globally every year.

Look at lead, which we also know is deadly and a crippler of children particularly. Even with the calamity in Flint, Michigan, which has now also been found in Newark, Detroit, and other cities and their schools, has there been a rush to test? Heck, now! There’s been a rush to posture. Local 100 has tried to get the Houston and Dallas school districts to test for lead, and even found authorization in federal funds that would pay for them to do so, but, ridiculously, we’re gathering soil samples ourselves and depending on a national expert at Xavier University in New Orleans to test them with the help of board members of the Lead Safe America Foundation. One water district after another has sent out letters to their customers assuring them the water has been tested and it’s all good, without telling them about the plethora of lead pipes between the drain and the street. There are city-based ordinances forbidding dry sanding of paint because of the lead and other particulate matter disbursed into the soil, neighbors’ yards, and air, but please let me know of a city that actually enforces this at all.

Now Congress has come to a bipartisan compromise, so whenever we hear that we’re waiting for another shoe to fall, because it’s not like that are coming to any true religion of putting people and their health ahead of companies and their lobbyists. Sure enough, they are partially doing something here in order to preempt some states, like California, that have stiffer laws and enforcement mechanisms, to have to abide by the federal protocols on chemicals that will be developed through this bill. There are waivers on anything done before passage and waivers available after passage which give hope that a failure to receive a tough waiver might be exposed. On the other hand many of us, millions of us, live in “red” states or places like Louisiana and it’s chemical plants that have earned the nickname of “cancer alley” along the Mississippi River, so in such states where we have had little or no hope of effective regulation and enforcement on the state level, finally putting some teeth in EPA’s mouth might give us hope for the future.

Of course on the same day we read the news with a little hope here on this front, we also read about Monsanto being sued for putting PCBs in Oregon rivers for 40 years when they were the sole manufacturer of that deadly concoction. We also read about the NFL giving millions to supposedly fund research into the connection between hard hitting and brain damage to the players, but really only doing so in order to cover up the damage. We also read about the struggle to get ExxonMobil to own up to its impact and knowledge of climate change and the destruction of life as we know it.

It takes a very active imagination to feel secure in the news that we’ve learned our lesson about corporate practice, chemical poisoning, and the need for government accountability.

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Gentrification Assault, Oakland Housing Market Out of Control

DARWIN BONDGRAHAM - Martin and activists outside of Community Realty's offices in April after delivering a letter requesting a meeting with Marr.

DARWIN BONDGRAHAM – Mr. Martin and activists outside of Community Realty’s offices in April after delivering a letter requesting a meeting with Marr.

Vicksburg, Mississippi   It was hard to believe a friend’s claim that Oakland, California has now become one of the three most expensive cities in the country in no small part because the housing market has gone berserk. He said that Oakland now only followed New York City and San Francisco, and had bypassed Seattle, San Jose, and other famously, exorbitant cities. What happened here? Oakland used to be where people moved for affordable housing who couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco, famous for its port, industry, and blue collar grit, and Jack London. The city where Gertrude Stein famously stated, “there’s no there, there.”

But, now they are all coming there. Suddenly, it is also one of the most diverse cities in the country with the population almost evenly split between Latino, African-Americans, whites, and Asian-Americans, so much so that one controversy, when I recently visited, had to do with racial profiling of neighbors in the Nextdoor.com application that is used by one-third of this highly connected city, exposing the well-known, little discussed racism that stalks almost all of these sites with their constant alerts of anyone with a hoody and a tan.

Not without a fight though. Visiting the weekly paper, the East Bay Express, I picked up a recent issue featuring a cover story on one of Oakland’s biggest landlords, Michael Marr, who had specialized in vulture investing of foreclosed properties after the 2008 real estate crash, ending up with 333 houses and apartment buildings in the city with 1300 rental units under management. Now he’s in federal court though for what the FBI characterized as a conspiracy to “rig foreclosure auctions” along with eleven other East Bay real-estate investors who “made a pact not to compete with one another at foreclosure auctions.”

Marr is letting his lawyers handle that mess and meanwhile is trying to jack rents in some cases by more than $1000 per month. Rent controls in Oakland only cap increases for homes built before 1983, as the impact of such increase would cause massive displacement of many long term residents. It was good to see that standing in the way and organizing the tenants was the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, known as ACCE, and formerly California ACORN. The tenants and the organization have demanded a rent freeze while the court case is pending, a sale of Marr’s ill-gotten properties to the Oakland Land Trust, and action on lingering issues with mold, bedbugs and other problems. ACCE is not only fighting these issues in Oakland either. Fighting a foreclosure with a late night rally at a vulture investor’s house in Los Angeles has found them defending their free speech and association rights in Los Angeles as well.

ACORN has recently won rent controls in Edinburgh and throughout Scotland with the Living Rent Campaign, and more landlord accountability in Toronto and Bristol, but there is little in any of our arsenals to prevent sweeping gentrification without a public and governmental commitment to diversity and affordability in a city. Oakland could become the battleground where we have a chance.

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Overtime Rule is One Thing, Enforcement is Another

iStock_000015098858MediumSan Jose   It’s official now. Starting December 1st, a bit more than six months from now, salaried employees making less than about $47,000 per year or $913 a week will be eligible for overtime pay at time-and-one-half of their effective hourly rate. The last adjustment in 2004 was a bit over $23,000 or $455 per week. Importantly, embedded in the rule is a regular adjustment every three years, so in 2020 the Department of Labor estimates that overtime eligibility will be $51,000. Earlier estimates targeted the impact as potentially effecting more than 5 million workers. Restaurant and other trade associations have indicated continued opposition, but no matter the sound and fury, the impact of this new rule will be huge one way or another.

At the least the new rule mandates a much closer accounting of hours for workers that have been salaried in the range of an effective rate of between $12 per hour and $23 per hour, which will require an obvious adjustment for many employers. The reckoning will not just come in the area of the standard workweek. Any regular meetings, conventions, seminars, and other work-related events that had been automatic for salaried workers in that range will now potentially trigger overtime. And, if not, overtime adjustments in workers’ schedules or exclusion from such events. Travel time has always been a contentious issue for hourly workers, and we can expect a deluge of transitional controversies for such workers now.

Increases before 2004 were more minimal, allowing employers to potentially meet the overtime requirements by raising minimum salaries above the threshold, giving workers a nice raise and avoiding the problems. We can expect that a doubling of the rate will not be met by most employers with an across the board raise of ten or fifteen thousand a year, but some who are close might bump workers over.

Opponents insist that this will mean reduced hours for many salaried workers, and that sounds right, but that’s also fair. Reduced hours for salaried workers does not mean less income than they are receiving now, but at least it means less work for the same amount of money. Workers given fewer hours will either have more leisure or more opportunity to do other work rather than being tied to more hours at the same pay with their primary employer.

My bet though is that this transition will be hard and that the Department of Labor will be swamped with both questions from workers, newly eligible for overtime, and with complaints from many workers whose employers are hoping they can wink-and-nod rather than tightening hours or paying overtime. In city after city where minimum wage increases have been won, we have all found that often the key to whether or not workers actually benefit from the changes is whether or not there is real provision for enforcement. Enforcement means rules with teeth and personnel. There’s no indication that Congress has suddenly beefed up the Wage and Hours Division of the Department of Labor, and they are already lagging in enforcing the existing minimum wage and overtime rules.

For workers to get the benefits claimed by this new rule and actually see increases in real income, it will take a change in employer mindset and enforcement to make sure that employer hearts and minds are forced to change. That change will be harder to realize than the process of simply establishing a new rule. Until then the jury is out on whether or not real wages will increase for salaried workers at the level projected.

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Is Squatting Back? No, It Never Stopped!

HomeSweetHome2New Orleans   There was a breathless article in the New York Times with a Las Vegas dateline purporting to have found something new under the sun, at least the desert sun, and the discovery was squatters. The sources attesting to the fact that the sky was falling and the horror of it all were, unsurprisingly, the police and neighbors.

The Vegas police began counting statistics several years ago of complaints being filed with the department alleging that there were squatters in the neighborhood. According to the report, “… there were more than 4,000 complaints last year, up 43 percent from 2014 and more than twice as many as in 2012.” Numerous neighbors were interviewed, particularly in high-end neighborhoods where squatters had taken over houses pushing the million dollar mark complete with swimming pools. Oh, my!

The one side of the story missing was of course any discussion from any of the actual so-called squatters. The police couched their side of the story in lurid tales of drug dens, counterfeiters, burglars, and the like. One story felt to be especially poignant was a confrontation with children of one family where a child produced a copy of a lease and the police wove a tale from the family of paying someone in cash monthly at a casino. The whine here was that it takes the police time to investigate whether the lease is valid and so forth and so on.

Where in the world are people imagining that families whose homes were foreclosed by the tens of thousands and even millions went? Is there a fairy tale somewhere that they all just got a U-Haul and moved happily ever after to affordable housing on the other side of town? Poppycock! The reporter also added in the story that squatting was also a common problem in places like Florida and Detroit. Who are we kidding? People have been squatting in houses in Detroit for decades for goodness sake.

They have also been squatting in the foreclosure “zone” of America in high numbers ever since the financial crisis and the housing meltdown. Five or six years ago in Phoenix, I stood with a couple in front of the house they thought they were renting and preparing to buy as they surveyed the block in a neighborhood of low-slung brick houses in the city. They pointed from house to house the ones that were vacant, the ones where families were living after the house had already been foreclosed, the ones where families were living waiting for foreclosure, the ones that new families were trying to occupy to buy, and the minority that tended to be older families that were stable. In their case they were later evicted after it turned out that the money they were paying to secure the house in lieu of a deposit was being collected by someone who was not in complete possession of the house. Where they squatters or just suckers desperate to believe a story perhaps too good to be true? Well, yes, in the eyes of the police maybe, but what were they really other than victims of a triple scam of sorts at the end of the line of multiple foreclosures.

What’s the beef here? Would these homes in Florida, Arizona, and Nevada and similar foreclosure zones be better off boarded, vacant, and deteriorating and duplicating too many abandoned areas in Detroit, Buffalo, Philly, and elsewhere? Or would they be better off with families trying to make them homes again? Are the cities of the South and Southwest going to learn a different lesson than the cities of the Midwest and Northeast? Vacant houses in sufficient number will be vandalized. There’s a guarantee that comes with those homes.

There’s nothing new about squatting and scams, but there would be something new with public policy that matched houses that need people with people that need houses. Learning that lesson would be big news everywhere!

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Is Their Hope for Obamacare?

77639392New Orleans     A federal court somewhere gave new hope to the haters that the subsidies the Affordable Care Act to lower income families might be blocked.  The Administration says they will win on appeal.  But, this is only one cloud of many in the building thunderstorm.

            Insurance companies and those that follow them are almost universally saying that there will be significant price hikes in 2017.  Others are dropping by the wayside, largely because of their own bad pricing and marketing decisions, but nothing keeps them from finger pointing as they leave.  In many ways this was predictable.  As the signature legacy of President Obama, they are smart enough to wait until his long goodbye transitions into whatever and both he and Congress are lame ducks caught in a quacking stalemate, and roll up heavy on Clinton or Trump with the fait accompli

            Clinton has flirted towards the left with a vague proposal to potentially allow people 50 or 55 years of age to “buy into” Medicare, which would expand the coverage to millions more, if they have the money.  What it would still not do is solve any of the problems that continue to weigh heavily on Obamacare.

            Drug prices have continued to rise for example.  In fact, drug profiteering still seems a winning business plan despite the problems with Valeant and profiteers. 

            Charity requirements for nonprofits are still largely more pretense than policy.  Modern Healthcare reported 7 of the 10 most profitable hospitals of the top one-hundred in the country, according to a researcher at John Hopkins, were tax exempt nonprofits.  The three most profitable for profits were all part of the HCA chain and all three were in states like Texas and Florida that have not extended coverage under Obamacare.  Nonprofits were very well represented in the top 100, including Herman Memorial which has been the target of campaigns by Local 100 United Labor Unions and community allies in Houston and Ochsner, headquartered in New Orleans, which has also been called out for its miserly charity record.

            Emergency room doctors are reporting that half or more of the patients they are seeing are coming in late and with insurance, but had delayed seeking care because of the astronomical level of their deductibles, equivalent to having no insurance at all.   Employers of lower waged workers continue to develop such minimal coverage programs with impunity.  The coming year will see an even higher level of penalties appropriated against lower income workers who are running from the cost, deductibles, and copays, but will be caught by the mandated penalties.

            The bottom line is that, like any major piece of new potentially groundbreaking, safety net legislation there are problems.  There are pieces that beg to be fixed.  Meanwhile the deadlock in Congress simply lets the sores fester and pain endure without stepping up and fixing what is broken.  Health care continues to be a political football, as politicians maintain the fiction that this is all part of the game, rather than coming to terms with the fact that for many low and moderate income families, it’s life and death.

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