King Sadim–Never Trust a Con Man

ComeyI’d like to imagine that freshly-fired FBI Director James Comey–being a career prosecutor (including prosecuting the Gambino crime family)–was able to see through President Trump’s shtick when they met shortly after inauguration day. Surely, he saw his eventual ouster coming, and, surely, he prepared for it. When Trump kissed him on the cheek, he must have known it was the kiss of death, and that his still-short tenure as Director of the FBI was borrowed time. Barrels of ink have been poured over the years detailing how President Trump’s word is nearly worthless, how his debts are rarely paid, and how nearly everything he touches and everyone he meets are damaged by the encounter.

Very Little Precedent

That’s what I have to tell myself, at least, because Comey’s unprecedented ouster yesterday afternoon was shocking. FBI Directors, for those who don’t know, get 10-year terms of office on the theory that they are able to operate above the political fray. Granted with exceptional autonomy, the FBI theoretically operates largely independently from the Department of Justice, which in turn theoretically operates largely independently from the White House.

While Comey is not the first Director to be canned by a President–President Clinton had to fire William Sessions due to a ton of abuses within the FBI–he is certainly the first to be discharged while overseeing an investigation into potential collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and the Russian Government.

That Comey was fired during an active investigation obviously leads to comparisons with Richard Nixon, who fired Archibald Cox, the lead investigator on the Watergate scandal.  And that Comey’s firing occurred on the same date in history that impeachment proceedings were opened against Nixon is just a little extra frisson of intrigue.

A Complicated Director

This is not to suggest that Comey’s departure should necessarily be mourned.  Like many attorneys, he has had to espouse positions that he might not necessarily personally agree with. In other words, while he reportedly refused–as acting Attorney General–to certify the legality of certain aspects of the NSA’s domestic spying programs in 2004, he also–as Deputy Attorney General–endorsed a memorandum certifying “enhanced interrogation techniques” including waterboarding in 2005. (He subsequently stated that he personally felt that waterboarding is torture, but that the Geneva Conventions are vague on the issue.)

More recently, and more notoriously, he inserted himself into the 2016 Presidential Campaign by first, in July of 2016, holding a press conference to state that Hillary Clinton would not be prosecuted about, as Bernie Sanders would put it, her damned emails. But, on October 28, 2016, 10 days prior to the election, he sent a letter–which he knew would be leaked to the press–saying that the investigation was reopening. Just a little. That was followed by a letter two days before the election that said, essentially, “whoops, nothing to see here.”

Even more recently, in very strange testimony to Congress on May 3, 2017, Comey tried to explain his rationale for the October 28, 2017 letter. He claimed that investigators had discovered hundreds and thousands of previously unseen emails, and that he, “Lordy,” had a dilemma. He felt that he either needed to “speak” or “conceal”; there were no other options, in his opinion.  (“Conceal,” for what it’s worth, is a terrible word to use by an FBI Director when discussing investigations…)  This testimony, however, was…inaccurate, and the FBI has since submitted a follow-up letter to Congress stating that there might have been 2 to 12 email chains which provoked curiosity.

Comey
Letter about Comey’s testimony from the FBI to Congress, May 9, 2017. Retrieved from ProPublica.org.

Comey’s behavior during the 2016 campaign led both parties to alternately praise and condemn him. Trump, especially, while stoking his crowds with chants of “lock her up,” called Comey a hero when the October 28 letter was sent to Congress.  Despite rumors that Trump might get rid of Comey for failing to recommend prosecution against Clinton, Comey survived the transition.

Canned Comey

Amidst all this, however, was a much larger problem. Russia, according to multiple intelligence agencies, heavily interfered in the 2016 election through troll armies on Twitter and Facebook, generation of fake news, and potentially even more.  A number of Trump administration officials have had to resign or recuse themselves for various contacts and omissions about their contacts with Russia.

The investigation into this activity was occurring at the same time the FBI was investigating Clinton’s emails, and the lack of a public statement from Comey is part of why disheartened Democrats are none too pleased with him. By the same token, though, it appears the investigation has heated up dramatically, and CNN reported last night what less-established sources have been saying for weeks: that grand jury subpoenas have been issued out of the Eastern District of Virginia.

The timing of Comey’s firing, then, looks highly suspect. Not to mention the memorandum prepared by freshly-installed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein focused on Comey’s handling of Clinton’s emails in July and October, and not for anything more recent which would justify the need for an immediate termination. At the very least, one would think that the Department of Justice could have taken Comey to task for providing “inaccurate” testimony to Congress.  After all, it’s a federal crime for a person to make materially false statements to Congress in an investigation (18 U.S.C. § 1001).

The stated rationale, however? Looks, feels, and sounds bogus, especially when Comey joins Sally Yates and Preet Bharara as high-ranking officials who have been terminated. Their common denominator? They were investigating Trump campaign ties to Russia.

King Sadim, the Anti-Midas

I’ve no expectation at all that Trump is concerned in the slightest about how his actions appear. After all, he routinely and repeatedly breaches long-established norms. His behavior can appear erratic, and he blithely ignores (or pretends to ignore) reality. (One of these days, I will compile a rolling list of the crazy stuff his Administration is responsible for.) But surely, Comey had to be aware of the President’s reputation, and planned accordingly. Surely he knew he was on borrowed time, and made sure his investigation was in appropriate hands.

If not, then we are all the worse for it.

Home Technology–Amazon Moves Fast

Amazon’s surprisingly successful (relatively speaking) line of Echo products just added a new member of the family.  As Google pokes along trying to make the Home relevant, and Microsoft won’t enter the market until the Fall with Harmon Kardon’s Invoke, Amazon already has the original Echo, the Echo Dot, the Echo Look (which is a camera that will help you shop for clothes), and the Tap. In addition, certain Fire TVs have Alexa built in, as does the Amazon app on many Smart Phones.

Amazon, in other words, has moved very aggressively to put its voice-recognition in your hands as quickly as possible. And now Amazon has debuted the Echo Show.  The Show is a touch screen-enable version of Alexa, and there’s potentially some interesting functionality. According to Amazon, you can watch some videos, see music lyrics, enable security cameras, use it as a home-intercom device, and even make video calls to other Show devices.

Aesthetically Displeasing

Right off the bat, though, it’s clear this is very much a first-gen product. Where the Echo, Dot, and Tap are aesthetically pleasing cylinders with glowing-blue orbs, the Show is…so very retro. And, in my opinion, not a good way.  Obviously, the cylindrical form factor doesn’t work well for a video-based device, but… surely there was a better design out there than what’s being offered.

Amazon Show
Amazon’s Echo Show

To me, it looks like a Macintosh Classic that’s been squished.

Mac Classic
The Macintosh Classic

Privacy Concerns for Amazon

Of course, any discussion of the Echo–and, really, of any of these always-listening home assistants–needs to include concerns for the privacy of the home user.

Last year, law enforcement officers in Arkansas sought to obtain data from Amazon in the middle of a murder investigation because they believed that the Echo–or Amazon’s servers– might have recorded evidence. With the addition of video capabilities to these devices, consumers need to be confident that their movements in the home aren’t being monitored. (The same concerns go for things like the Kinect, anyone’s laptop, webcams, et cetera.)

Investor Visas for Sale, $500,000 a Pop

Over the weekend, the Kushner family (yes, the family members of Presidential senior adviser Jared Kushner) got caught in China trying to sell investor visas to wealthy Chinese.

Well, let me rephrase that.

The Kushner family presentation in Beijing promoted the opportunity for these wealthy individuals to invest $500,000.00 in a Kushner family real estate development in New Jersey, and by doing so, they would be eligible to qualify for an EB-5 visa.  The fact that the Kushner family mentioned Jared Kushner, and that he currently works for the President (insinuating that some strings could be pulled), is being explained as a regretful oversight. Understandably, a lot of people think this might be problematic.

EB-5 Investor Visas

The EB-5 Program was created, according to USCIS, in 1990 to stimulate growth in the American economy. To qualify for such a investor visas, the applicant must invest a certain amount of capital into a new commercial enterprise and that investment must include a plan to create or preserve 10 full-time jobs for U.S. workers.  Generally, a minimum of $1,000,000.00 is required, unless the investment will be in a rural or a high-unemployment (150% of the national average) area. USCIS’s guidance on the program clearly promotes Chinese investment. For example, there is a prominent link to a Simplified Chinese version of the filing tips, while other languages are hidden.

Investor Visas
EB-5 Filing Tips, promulgated by USCIS.

And that’s all well and good. Investment is generally good for the economy, and people need jobs.

Cash for Access

The unseemly side of the Kushner family’s presentation, though, is the insinuation that the investment in the Kushner family’s development will automatically result in the receipt of EB-5 investor visas.  And that begins to look and feel a lot like bribery.

Bribery is generally criminalized by 18 U.S.C. § 201. There are a lot of ways to commit bribery under this statute, and there are a lot of people covered by it. For example, bribery–in simplified terms–is:

  • directly or indirectly giving anything of value to a public official, with intent to influence any official act.
  • being a public official, and directly or indirectly demanding anything of value in return for any official act.

A “public official” is, inter alia, an officer or employee or person acting for on behalf of the United States or any branch of United States government.

And there are a couple of ways this Kushner family scheme smells.

In the barest of senses, if the investors were paying Jared Kushner directly, expecting him to pull the right strings to get them their investor visas, that would, at the very least, constitute bribery by the Chinese investors. Likewise, if Jared Kushner were demanding the investors pay him the $500,000.00 to get him to pull the strings, that would also constitute bribery.

Investor Visa
Textbook Bribery

Is One Step Removed Enough?

Taking the Kushners at their word, that Jared Kushner divested himself from the real estate project completely (a suspect proposition, but let’s run with it), there would be one additional layer that could theoretically pull this deal out of the realm of bribery. That’s because Jared Kushner would not be part of the transaction.  He’d be in the background, a conveniently name-dropped individual, but nothing more.

Investor Visas
Is this bribery or not?

These examples are obviously simplified, because Jared Kushner, as adviser to the President, is not the person in charge of issuing investor visas.  Nonetheless, it creates an unseemly situation, that is compounded all the time by the Presidents words and actions, and by the President’s family’s words and actions.  The erosion of heretofore traditional rules and norms that prevented such appearances of impropriety–“erosion” isn’t even a strong enough word because it connotes degradation over a long period of time, and the disregard of appearances has been stunningly swift–threatens to overwhelm the public’s ability to prevent such destruction.

At the end of the day, it’s a tempest in a teapot.  Like most things of questionable ethics and legality the Administration has done since taking office, it is unlikely anything will come of this investor visa scandal other than some blog posts and news articles. Time will tell, however.

There Are No Small Roles

It has become axiomatic that the Democrats–despite winning the popular vote for President in every general election since 1992 (except 2004)–are faring poorly in State and local elections.  Statistics tend to bear this out, with most governorships and state legislatures across the country being controlled by Republicans.

Texas is Red

Texas, for example, is considered a deeply red State.  Our Senators are the lamentable Ted Cruz and John Cornyn. Queries to either either Senator for progressive causes are responded to with what amounts to an “aw, isn’t that cute” hair tousle and a “now, run along, bless your heart.”  Our Congressional Districts are gerrymandered to unacceptable degrees to ensure protection for, primarily, Republican candidates.

(It’s true–they’re unacceptable. Just ask the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals about Districts 23, 27, and 35. And look at the map below.  Do those look like rational districts?)

Gerrymandering
Texas Congressional Districts, sourced from GovTrack.us.

Texas Has Opportunity

That does not mean, however, that Democrats must be resigned to constantly being in the minority in even deep-red States.  Over this past weekend, three progressive candidates in Pearland municipal elections either won outright or forced runoffs.

Mike Floyd, who is the 18 year-old son of John T. Floyd, won his election outright for a position on the Pearland School Board, beating Rusty Deborde. Quentin Wiltz, running for Mayor, and Dalia Kasseb, running for City Council, forced run-offs in their races.  Both stand excellent chances to win the runoffs in June.

No Small Roles

These victories, which garnered national attention, may seem small when writ against the backdrop of the vast amount of work which must still be done to even the playing field. However, they show what doing the hard work of knocking on doors, waving signs on the highway, and having a clear progressive message can do.

Fake Underreported Terrorism Attacks

The quick response to the hastily published list of 78 “terrorism” incidents which the Administration feels haven’t garnered enough media attention has been to point out that many entries are misspelled (“ATTAKERS” and “SAN BERNADINO”, for example). That’s a cheap and easy criticism. First, who hasn’t had an employer ask you to drop everything you’re doing and bang out a report immediately, due 30 minutes before being tasked with the assignment? Second, for whatever reason, Word doesn’t automatically spell-check words that are in all-caps, so, there won’t necessarily be red squiggles to catch your attention. (Then again, unless all the names on the list have been added to Word’s spell-check dictionary, the document was probably a sea of red squiggles, anyway, so…💁‍♂️)

No, there are more problematic aspects of the list, more so even than the incidents which absolutely *did* receive wall-to-wall coverage (Nice, for example, and San Bernardino–which led to a huge fight between the FBI and Apple regarding unlocking a phone, and which led to Trump calling for a boycott of the latter).

Read more “Fake Underreported Terrorism Attacks”

End of the Obama Era

Official portrait of Barack Obama
Official portrait of Barack Obama, by Pete Souza, The Obama-Biden Transition Project [CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons”
At 11:47a Eastern, Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States.  As that happened, Barack Obama joined the ex-President’s club, leaving behind a legacy that will probably take a little time to truly comprehend.  Just as Bill Clinton benefited from slow-developing policies enacted by George H.W. Bush, it can take years before a President’s actions are truly understood.

I’m not ashamed–why would I be?–to admit that I voted for Obama in 2008 based on his promises to clean up the messes left behind by George W. Bush. And there were certainly messes, not the least of which–but probably the most obvious–was the near-collapse of the economy.  The problems in America, however, were so much deeper.  George W. Bush had presided over an administration which had flouted international human rights norms through its policies of extraordinary renditions, operation of so-called Black Sites and Gitmo, torture, and specious spying on Americans.  Obama ran on a platform that promised to end these abuses, promised to provide greater transparency, and promised to curtail the abuses of the Bush Administration.

So, how’d Obama do?

Read more “End of the Obama Era”

Why Police Killings Are a Thing

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A lot has been said in the past year or so about law enforcement officers killing people, with hardly a day going by without some news story on the matter.  For example, an unarmed black man was killed by officers in San Diego just yesterday.

A lot of the controversy surrounding police killings involves separation of governmental powers.  Going through a primer on the three branches of government seems unnecessary to me, but simply put: once the legislature passes laws, and the executive signs the law into effect, someone has to make sure that the laws are executed.  Criminal laws are essentially prohibitions with consequences (i.e., “thou shalt not kill” and if you do, you will go to jail for a long time, or even lose your own life).  That means that the execution of the laws requires some entity to make sure that the prohibited act either never happens in the first place, or–if the prohibited act occurs–the violator is rendered up for judgment.

Read more “Why Police Killings Are a Thing”

LOT-Lenovo Ideapad Miix 700 — One Month Later

Just about exactly one month ago, I purchased an open-box Lenovo Ideapad Miix 700 from Microcenter here in Houston, Texas.  I discussed my initial impressions about the device, which were quite favorable, here.  A month later, how has the device stacked up?  Has it improved my workflow? Have there been any glaring problems? Do I regret the purchase?  Well, let’s dig in.

The Miix 700 is a Good Size

Moving up from the 8-inch Dell Venue 8 Pro to the nearly 13-inch Lenovo Ideapad Miix 700 was a revelation. Five inches is a lot when you’re talking about tablet screens. In fact, the Miix 700 is almost exactly as wide as the V8P is tall.

The Venue 8 Pro is just a smidge taller than the Miix 700 is wide.

The screen is beautifully crisp, colorful, and sharp.  Having a full-HD screen in a relatively small display makes for an incredibly pleasing experience.  While the V8P was serviceable at browsing the web and reading books on the Kindle client, the extra screen real estate means that reading Word documents and PDFs is pleasant, rather than a laborious chore. The small screen of the V8P meant that I was constantly zooming and panning to read documents, which was far from ideal.  That doesn’t happen with the Miix 700.  I can read documents in full-screen mode, and it’s essentially equivalent to reading on a standard sheet of paper.

Read more “LOT-Lenovo Ideapad Miix 700 — One Month Later”

No Big Surprise: FanDuel and DraftKings Ordered to Stop

"American Cash" by Revised by Reworked - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.
American Cash” by Revised by ReworkedOwn work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

It really comes as no surprise that New York’s Attorney General has ordered FanDuel and DraftKings to stop taking money from New York residents.  This is because the New York AG has determined that the operations are illegal gambling enterprises, even though the companies insist that they rely on skill rather than chance. Those of us who remember the explosion and subsequent clamp-down on online poker saw this coming, and I’m betting (sorry) that it won’t stop with New York.

Internet-based gaming first caught Congress’s attention in the mid-00s with the proliferation of websites devoted to playing poker online. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (the acronym for which, UIGEA, is strangely unwitty) is codified at 31 U.S.C. §§ 5361-5367, and was passed in 2006 after the National Gambling Impact Study Commission recommended the passage of legislation to prohibit the electronic transfer of funds to gambling sites or the banks which supported them.  In 2011, indictments were brought against PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker, alleging the federal crimes of conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and illegal gambling. At least one individual associated with the case pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time served.

Fantasy sports have always stayed just inside the legal side of the line, and we’ll see if the ongoing FBI and DOJ investigations change that.

In Texas-related developments, Governor Abbott has ordered the Texas Lottery Commission to cease activities related to gathering information about incorporating internet gaming to the State’s sanctioned gambling framework.