News, Straight to the Point

Like several other Alabama sheriffs, Morgan County’s Ana Franklin has been accused of taking advantage of an archaic state law to pocket taxpayer funds set aside to feed inmates.

But the allegations against the county’s top law enforcement officer go much further.

The venture in which Franklin invested the inmate food funds happened to be a used-car lot run by an ex-felon. Franklin has failed to account for the unaudited, tax-exempt money she raised running an annual local rodeo, which earned about $20,000 each year — funds she promised went to charities and law enforcement. Most troublingly, Franklin is accused of enlisting her office to help bring charges against two people who sought to expose her.

A Morgan County Circuit judge ruled last week that Franklin and one of her deputies engaged in “criminal actions” by misleading the court in seeking a warrant to raid the office of a local blogger who has meticulously tracked Franklin’s activities.

Franklin has denied wrongdoing, writing on Facebook on Sunday that her reputation is being unfairly “defamed and torn apart.”

Amid a reported investigation by the FBI, Franklin, who took office in 2011, has announced she won’t run for re-election.

But she has no plans to step down before the end of her term.

“So far as I know, there has been no request to resign and she’s not going to resign,” one of her lawyers, William Gray, told TPM.

Used inmate food funds to invest in sketchy used-car lot

In 2015, Franklin invested $150,000 in Priceville Partners, a used-car dealership owned by an ex-felon, Greg Steenson, who spent time in jail on conspiracy and bank fraud charges.

Though her daughter and father both worked on the premises, Franklin denied knowing about Steenson’s criminal history. The following year, the dealership filed for bankruptcy and Steenson was arrested on new charges of theft and forgery involving the dealership.

During the bankruptcy proceedings, Franklin admitted that the money she invested in the lot did not come from her savings and retirement accounts, as she had originally claimed. Instead, as local blogger Glenda Lockhart documented, it came from the account earmarked to feed inmates in the prison she oversaw.

Lockhart published cashier’s checks and deposit slips on her blog, the Morgan County Whistleblower, that showed that Franklin withdrew $160,000 from the food fund account in June 2015, and that Priceville Partners deposited some $150,000 a few days later.

Franklin violated court order as inmates claimed to go hungry

As it turned out, Franklin’s use of the food funds for personal ends was forbidden. While most sheriffs in Alabama are legally permitted to keep what they deem to be excess food funds, Morgan County’s sheriff, until recently, was not. In 2009, after Franklin’s predecessor pocketed $212,000 while exclusively feeding inmates corn dogs twice a day for three months, a judge imposed a federal consent decree requiring that all of the county’s inmate food funds actually be spent on food.

After the Priceville scandal broke, Franklin said she had received poor legal advice and was unaware she could not keep excess funds. She also claimed the food served in her prison was healthy and plentiful.

That claim conflicts with findings from the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) which battled Franklin in court over her violation of the consent decree last year. Court records filed by the Center describe inmates complaining of receiving inadequate, rotten, or contaminated meals.

“Detainees have complained of finding assorted matter in their food such as rocks and, in one case, a nail,” the SCHR exhibit reads. “Similarly, detainees report that meat is inedible because it is raw, beans are inedible because they have not been cooked, and bread is inedible because it is stale or moldy. Detainees have likewise complained on multiple occasions that the jail serves them food items that are frozen, sometimes with ice still attached.”

Franklin ultimately was required to pay back the $160,000 taken from the inmate food fund. She was also found in contempt of court and hit with an additional $1,000 fine.

Sheriff’s rodeo fundraising proceeds went unaccounted for

Like other Alabama sheriffs, Franklin helped oversee a local sheriff’s rodeo to raise money for charity and local law enforcement. Notably, as The New York Times reported, rodeo money is not audited by the state.

Franklin told the Times that she raised $20,000 a year for charities and law enforcement, but offered conflicting accounts on where the money ended up. After the newspaper told Franklin they could find no organization by the name she first gave them, the Morgan County Sheriff’s Rodeo, she said the funds actually went to the Morgan County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse.

That non-profit happens to fall under an I.R.S. loophole for charities affiliated with government agencies, meaning it isn’t required to make its finances public, as the Times reported.

Aggressive legal action against her detractors

Franklin is accused of improperly targeting several people who have spoken out against her, most notably Lockhart, the Morgan County Whistleblower blogger.

In October 2016, Franklin paid Lockhart’s 19-year-old grandson to install surveillance software on the computer at Lockhart’s construction company to try to determine who was leaking law enforcement information to the blog. Shortly after, Franklin’s deputies obtained a search warrant and raided Lockhart’s office, seizing her computers and electronic devices.

Franklin denied allegations of retaliation, telling local press that Lockhart crossed “the line of criminal activity” in her “hateful” efforts to “tear this office down.” Lockhart promptly filed a federal suit against Franklin for violating her right to free speech, invading her privacy, and slandering her, according to court records. Lockhart has not been charged with a crime.

Caught up in the fracas was former Morgan County jail warden Leon Bradley, who was fired and, in September 2017, arrested. Franklin’s office alleged that Bradley had passed along law enforcement information to Lockhart.

In testimony for Bradley’s case, Franklin’s deputies described surreptitiously recording their conversations with Bradley and installing a GPS tracker on his car. An investigator from another Alabama sheriff’s office testified that Franklin’s office “used us” by providing inaccurate information to secure Bradley’s arrest.

Bradley’s charge was dismissed last week by circuit judge Glenn Thompson, who granted the initial search warrants. In a blistering ruling, Thompson found that Franklin and one of her deputies “deliberately misled” the court to obtain the warrants and “endeavored to hide or cover up their deception to criminal actions under the color of law.”

In a statement, the Morgan County Sheriff’s office denied any “improprieties” in the investigation.

Franklin staying put as multiple agencies probe her use of funds

The FBI is currently probing Franklin’s use of taxpayer funds, according to the the New York Times. Representatives from both the FBI and Alabama Attorney General’s office were in court listening to testimony in Bradley’s case.

But Franklin remains defiant, writing in a lengthy Sunday Facebook post thanking supporters for their “prayers” that she did nothing “criminal or unethical” and believes “the truth will be disclosed.”

Bobby Timmons, the executive director of the Alabama Sheriffs’ Association, told TPM that he personally asked Franklin to resign about three weeks ago — a claim her attorney denies.

Although Timmons said he has seen “no indication” that Franklin violated federal law, he insisted that his association holds accountable any member who “tarnishes the badge.”

“We don’t cover for ‘em at all,” said Timmons. “They know if they violate the law — taking kickbacks, getting payola from bootleggers — if they need to go to the penitentiary they’re gonna go. No sheriff is above the law.”

Read More →

The sheriff says he’s following the law. The inmates say they’re going hungry.

According to a string of reports from AL.com, Sheriff Todd Entrekin of Etowah County, Alabama, has pocketed over three quarters of a million dollars intended for inmates’ meals, buying himself an expensive beach house, among other items, while leaving detainees eating rotten or contaminated food. Not long after acting as a source for AL.com’s reporting, one local man found himself charged with a felony by Entrekin’s office.

Entrekin has been taking advantage of a state law, passed before World War II, that allows sheriffs to keep for themselves any excess taxpayer dollars intended to feed inmates in their jails. He’s one of 49 Alabama sheriffs named in a lawsuit filed in January by human rights groups alleging abuse of the law. The groups say that because Alabama sheriffs have complete discretion over what inmates eat, the law incentivizes sheriffs to cut costs on food.

In response, Entrekin, who is running for reelection this year, has come out swinging, calling the claims “fake news” churned out by the “liberal media.”

Entrekin did not immediately return TPM’s questions seeking comment.

Entrekin bought a $750,000 beach house, spent food funds on lawn mowing

Entrekin has admitted to accumulating extraordinary sums in what he calls his “food provision” fund. In forms filed with the Alabama Ethics Commission and obtained by AL.com, Entrekin reported he made “more than $250,000” per year over the last three years in excess government funds intended to feed inmates.

The sheriff has been cagier about where that money went.

AL.com reported that despite pulling in an annual salary of around $93,000, Entrekin and his wife in September purchased a $740,000 four-bedroom house on the Gulf Coast, and own several other properties as well.

In a March press conference, Entrekin adamantly denied using inmate-feeding funds to buy a beach house, insisting that he and his wife sold a condominium they owned to cover the $592,000 mortgage.

But AL.com surfaced other purchases, including a series of checks Entrekin used in 2015 to pay a local teenager for mowing his lawn. Matthew Qualls, now 20, showed the newspaper copies of one of the checks, which was printed with the words “Sheriff Todd Entrekin Food Provision Account.”

Inmates say they were forced to eat rotten food, went hungry

In a complaint filed in Hale County circuit court, lawyers for the Southern Coalition for Human Rights say they receive frequent letters from inmates throughout Alabama reporting that their food is “inadequate in quantity or nutritional value, spoiled, or contaminated, such as with insect or rodent droppings, or foreign objects.”

Conditions in Entrekin’s Etowah County jail are particularly well-documented, thanks to AL.com’s interviews with former inmates who worked in the kitchen. They routinely served up a meat product whose plastic wrapping was labeled “Not Fit For Human Consumption.”

Expired or contaminated food — processed mystery meat, rotten chicken, cereal past its expiration date — is donated to the prison by local non-profits and corporations and repurposed into meals, the former inmates told AL.com.

Inmates who refused to eat the spoiled food go hungry. That’s led to inmate unrest and, in at least one occasion detailed by the newspaper, a suicide attempt.

Entrekin said in a March press conference that his facility always passed inspections with “flying colors.” Calling the meals served at his jail “nutritious, healthy and balanced,” Entrekin cracked that the inmates can’t expect Domino’s, grandma’s cooking, or “cake on their birthday”

“This is a jail, this is not a bed and breakfast,” he said.

A source who spoke out against Entrekin was arrested

Four days after Matthew Qualls went on the record with AL.com about his lawn-mowing work for Entrekin, he was arrested for the first time on an anonymous tip.

Officers from the Rainbow City Police Department arrested Qualls at an apartment in town after receiving a call that marijuana smoke was emanating from inside. They charged him with second-degree marijuana possession, drug paraphernalia possession, and felony possession of a controlled substance for possessing Adderall pills without a prescription, per the newspaper’s report.

Then the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office got involved.

Qualls was subsequently charged with a second paraphernalia charge, a second felony controlled substance possession charge, and, most significantly, felony drug trafficking, for which some Alabamans have been sentenced to prison for life. Though the total amount of marijuana buds found in the apartment was well under the 2.2-pound state threshold for trafficking charges, Entrekin’s office decided to count the full 2.3 pound weight of a large container of weed butter found on the premises when calculating Quall’s charges, even though there was only about half an ounce of weed in it.

Rainbow City Police told AL.com that they would not have made such a decision. Etowah County’s Drug Enforcement Unit said they interpreted the regulations differently.

Entrekin blames the “liberal media” for the controversy over his actions

As the bad headlines have piled up, Entrekin has become increasingly vented at the “liberal media,” and its “miscellaneous fake news.”

At his March press conference, the sheriff lashed out at reporters who “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” blaming the press for scaring people from running for office by promoting “false attacks” and “half-truths.”

“That’s what’s wrong with politics today,” Entrekin said, describing himself as the victim of a “political smear campaign.”

The sheriff went on a similar tear during an interview this week with the Gadsden Times, describing the frequent tours inspectors make of his facility and accusing AL.com of printing “the very definition of bogus news.”

“This is the same media that argues against the death penalty for murderers, against prison time for drug dealers and against deportation of criminal, illegal immigrants,” Entrekin said.

Other sheriffs have also profited from inmate-feeding funds

Entrekin is only the latest in a long series of sheriffs who have profited from this law.

Ledgers provided to SCHR by Monroe County Sheriff Thomas Tate show that Tate pocketed around $110,000 over a three-year period in “excess” funds. As AL.com reported, that sum rose each year, even though the per diem amounts paid to his office by the state, municipal and federal government remained the same between 2014 and 2016.

In one infamous 2009 incident, Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett was jailed by a U.S. district judge for underfeeding inmates while pocketing tens of thousands of dollars. Bartlett managed this, in part, by shelling out $500 for “half of an 18-wheeler load of insurance-salvaged corn dogs,” which he fed to inmates for two meals a day for weeks, as local station WHNT reported.

Bartlett’s successor as sheriff, Ana Franklin, argued in federal court last year that there was nothing improper about her decision to loan $150,000 from her inmate’s food fund to a now-bankrupt used car dealership. Allegations that inmates were receiving reduced rations, like “a sandwich with half a slice of cheese on it,” were, she said, unrelated to Franklin’s decision to keep what she deemed additional funds.

Franklin settled with the court, returning the funds and paying a $1,000 fine. She remains in office.

Read More →

Outlandish former Texas congressman Steve Stockman resurfaced last spring when he was arrested by federal agents while trying to board an international flight and subsequently slapped with a 28-count felony fraud indictment, which he said was the work of the “deep state.”

Stockman’s trial is currently in its second week in a federal court in Houston. And it’s a doozy.

The far-right Republican firebrand is accused of using hundreds of thousands in charitable donations from two conservative mega-donors for personal expenses in what prosecutors call a “white-collar crime spree.” They say he’s used the money to spy on political rivals with Inspector Gadget-style tools, to pay off his credit card debt, to go on dolphin boat rides, and to buy up copies of pop-up Advent books published by his brother.

Stockman, who served in the U.S. House from 1995 to 1997 and again from 2013 to 2015, earned a reputation as a tea party favorite eager to buck his party’s establishment. He invited Ted Nugent to President Obama’s State of The Union speech, and his campaign once produced a bumper sticker saying: “If babies had guns, they wouldn’t be aborted.”

Stockman is facing multiple counts of mail and wire fraud, conspiracy to make false statements, and money laundering, among other charges. Federal prosecutors have compiled reams of evidence, including texts, emails, and records of bank transactions and wire transfers. Their case has been aided by cooperation from two of Stockman’s former aides, who struck plea deals with the government.

But Stockman is fighting the charges while free on $25,000 bond. An anonymous private benefactor is ponying up the funds for his trio of defense lawyers after he told a judge last year that he had only $17 in his bank account.

Stockman enlisted ‘sting’ operatives to spy on political rivals

Among Stockman’s wildest expenditures: $50,000 he shelled out to hire a conservative “sting” outfit to spy on his political rivals in amateurish, ultimately fruitless ways.

The main target of this campaign was James White, a black member of the Texas House who Stockman feared might primary him in 2014. Stockman fretted in a text to an associate: “Republicans love black conservatives.”

Conservative activist Ben Wetmore carried out the three-month surveillance campaign against White on Stockman’s behalf, according to the Houston Chronicle. Wetmore installed Shaughn Adeleye as a plant in White’s office, where he served as an intern, kitting him out with a watch and pen equipped with audio equipment.

Adeleye and another amateur sleuth testified that they were tasked with tracking White’s movements, trying to “catch him cursing” and uncover damning evidence like whether his car was messy, per the Chronicle.

Adeleye and Wetmore are onetime allies of another conservative operative who fancies himself a skilled practitioner of the dark arts: James O’Keefe. Wetmore worked with O’Keefe on several hidden camera projects in the late 2000s, while Adeleye was involved with O’Keefe’s infamous sting against NPR.

Wetmore declined a request for comment, citing TPM’s coverage of his past undercover work.

“I’ve had bad experiences in the past with TPM’s attribution of my quotes and dishonesty with what I’ve said, so I won’t be accepting your kind offer,” Wetmore wrote in a Facebook message. “I hope you know it’s not about you, but once you see substantive dishonesty from an outlet, you don’t go back for more.”

“I hope you do research and report honestly about Stockman, he deserves a lot better reporting than he’s currently receiving,” Wetmore added.

Stockman went to Egypt to try to get money from a cement company

Stockman sought funds far and wide, even soliciting assistance from top officials from the Egyptian defense ministry.

In a bizarre twist detailed by the Chronicle, Stockman used some of his donors’ funds to pay for a trip to Egypt to try to coax officials there into helping him secure a $30 million donation from international cement company CEMEX.

The Texas Republican reportedly told Egyptian officials that the money would go either towards “educating Americans about the historic importance of Egypt” or “toward shipping medical supplies to Egypt and Africa.”

The pitch failed.

Other expenses related to this gambit included paying Tera Dahl, a former Breitbart News writer who served as deputy chief of staff on the National Security Council, to arrange the meetings with Egyptian leaders. Dahl, who left the NSC shortly before her ally Steve Bannon was fired from the White House, testified that she believed Stockman did “care about the cause” of improving Egypt-U.S. relations, per the Chronicle.

“Freedom House” to train interns never materialized

Stockman pledged to use the huge donations he secured to create a nerve center of sorts for conservative interns working on Capitol Hill. He described plans to renovate a large home where interns would live and be instilled with “the ideas of liberty.”

This vision for the so-called “Freedom House” never quite panned out.

Instead, as Stockman’s short-lived fundraising director Sean McMahon testified, interns worked out of a lobbying firm making up to 2,000 fundraising calls a day.

McMahon, who the Chronicle reported quit after just four days, testified that working conditions were “horrific” and that interns had to scramble to find their own housing.

Some $82,000 of the money Stockman received for the training center evaporated within a week, going towards storage fees, credit card debt, and campaign costs, as the Chronicle reported. The funds were also diverted to expenses including $11,000 for a friend’s 30-day rehab treatment and $24,000 for 500 copies of pop-up Advent books published by Stockman’s brother.

Stockman lawyers say donor was fine with the spending

Stockman’s mysterious donor, left anonymous in the indictment, turns out to be billionaire Illinois shipping magnate Dick Uihlein, one of the largest benefactors of the political far right.

Uihlein testified that he gave Stockman one $350,000 check to refurbish the “Freedom House” and another for $450,000 to cover costs for a tabloid newspaper intended to boost Stockman’s unsuccessful 2014 primary campaign against Texas Sen. John Cornyn. The bulk of that $800,000 went towards other purposes, prosecutors say.

Stockman’s defense hinges on the claim that Uihlein didn’t object to the way the funds were used.

“Our position is the donor didn’t care what the money was used for,” Sean Buckley, one of Stockman’s three lawyers, has argued, per the Chronicle.

But Uihlein’s testimony didn’t seem to support that. “I felt they were trustworthy,” he said in court. “And I trusted that they would spend the money the way they said.”

The low-profile billionaire is certainly not short on funds. Politico reported that Uihlein and his wife are the biggest GOP donors of the 2018 midterm elections so far, having shelled out $21 million to federal candidates and super PACs and an unknown amount toward state candidates.

Another donor’s money went to dolphin tours, airline tickets

Stockman’s other major backer was revealed to be Stanford Rothschild, Jr., a Baltimore money manager and art collector who gave $450,000 to Stockman’s various pursuits between 2010 to 2012, according to the Chronicle.

That money went towards a slew of personal expenses including tanning salon visits, dolphin boat rides, airline tickets to Sudan, and a new dishwasher, per the newspaper.

Rothschild passed away shortly before Stockman’s indictment came down in early 2017, so he can’t testify as to whether that was how he preferred his charitable donations to be spent.

Read More →

Congress must pass a sprawling $1.3 trillion omnibus budget by Friday evening to avoid yet another government shutdown, and many key policy disputes have not yet been resolved. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has announced his intention to pass the bill out of the lower chamber on Thursday, giving the Senate just a single day to pass the bill, and allowing any disgruntled senator to filibuster and threaten a shutdown.

Because lawmakers expect that the omnibus will be the last major bill passed out of Congress ahead of the 2018 midterms, many are scrambling to hitch their own bills to the wagon—trying and so far failing to include policies tackling Capitol Hill sexual harassment, implementing an online sales tax, and addressing the status of 700,00-plus immigrant “Dreamers” living in legal limbo.

Many policy battles, however, remain. Here are five of the biggest sticking points still tying up the omnibus negotiations:

Read More →

On Friday, the House Republican memo heralded by some as the death knell for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was finally released.

As definitive proof of anti-Trump bias among FBI and DOJ leadership, it’s kind of a bust.

The four-page document is missing key background information about what prompted the ongoing federal investigation into Russia’s ties to the Trump campaign. It misstates details like the date of an article about the former British spy who helped compile the so-called “Trump-Russia dossier.” And a good amount of the information included actually undercuts the Republican authors’ own conclusions.

The memo was supposed to reveal that the DOJ and FBI omitted key information in obtaining a surveillance warrant against former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. But without the reams of underlying evidence supporting the warrant’s approval, all it does is tell a pre-judged, partisan story.

Below are TPM’s key takeaways on how the memo doesn’t add up.

It tip-toes around how much the Page warrant relied on Steele dossier

If the Page warrant relied solely on the Steele dossier, it would make Republicans’ allegations of misconduct a little more believable. But read closely and the memo doesn’t say that definitively. And there are other indications that the Justice Department had, and was working with, other information on Page.

The memo describes the dossier as an “essential” part of the warrant, pointing to testimony from former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe — who this week pushed up his retirement day under pressure from conservatives —  that said, in the memo’s words, “no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the [The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] without the Steele dossier information.”

House Intel Democrats are already accusing Republicans of mischaracterizing his testimony, which Dems now want to release. Even without those allegations, that phrasing is vague enough to lend itself to interpretations other than the warrant relying solely on the dossier.

There are other indications that that was the case.

First is the initial April 2017 report that broke the news that the FBI obtained the warrant, in which U.S. officials said it was based in part on 2013 communications Page had with Russians. Those contacts were detailed in a 2015 court case that revealed that two Russians had been intercepted discussing efforts to recruit Page.  The New York Times reported that Page’s July 2016 trip to Moscow also caught the FBI’s attention.

Secondly, the claims about Page make up only a small portion of what’s alleged in the dossier about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. And FISA experts told TPM earlier this week that they would be shocked if the dossier claims alone were enough to convince a judge to approve the warrant. Indeed, NBC News reported that four separate judges ultimately approved of the initial warrant and three applications to renew it.

To renew the warrant, the Justice Department would have likely needed to provide new evidence that the continued surveillance was warranted.

It undercuts the GOP narrative that the dossier prompted Russia probe

Republicans and their media allies have claimed that the federal Russia probe was suspect because Democrats funded Steele’s work on the dossier. Some conservatives have gone so far to suggest that Democrats and the Obama administration were actually the ones colluding with Russian.

That theory took a serious blow late last year when the New York Times reported that Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos’ bragging was what first caught federal investigators’ attention. (Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty last year as part of Mueller’s probe, reportedly told an Australian diplomat about his Russian contacts during a night of heavy drinking, a conversation the Australian later relayed to U.S. officials.)

Nunes’ memo backed up that understanding of the series of events by noting that the “Papadopoulos information triggered” the FBI’s counter-intel probe.

Most of Trump’s top FBI and DOJ targets just so happen to crop up in it

As the conservative press have hinted for weeks, the memo names names. Those names just so happen to belong to individuals who Trump has accused of unfairly investigating his campaign or failing to adequately protect him from the investigation.

The memo notes that McCabe and fired FBI director James Comey each signed off on some of the FISA orders approving Page’s surveillance. On the DOJ side, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and fired deputy attorney general Sally Yates approved some of the applications.

Trump has most recently focused his ire on Rosenstein, the last of those officials standing, even reportedly telling allies that the memo could be used as a pretext to fire him. Given his oversight of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, Rosenstein also happens to be the only person with the authority to sign off on any charges recommended by the special counsel’s team. That means his ouster would gravely undermine the Mueller probe.

Strzok and Page are not the anti-Trump partisans they’ve been made out to be

The memo attributes the initiation of the Russia probe to two FBI officials who’ve become bogeymen to the right: FBI counterintelligence official Peter Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page.

It names Strzok as the person who opened the July 2016 counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign and says unequivocally that the pair “demonstrated a clear bias against Trump and in favor of Clinton.”

The actual story is much more complicated. That Strzok personally initiated the counterintelligence probe has not been reported previously, and the memo’s source for that claim is not clear. The pair did exchange many texts disparaging Trump, which has led conservatives to portray them as part of an anti-Trump cabal at the FBI. But as multiple outlets have documented, they also criticized Obama DOJ officials and expressed doubts about the merits of the entire Russia investigation.

The Wall Street Journal, which dug through approximately 7,000 of their messages, said they found “no evidence of a conspiracy against Mr. Trump.”

Loaded quotes, like Strzok’s comparison of the Trump-Russia investigation to an “insurance policy,” are taken out of context. The Journal has reported that the message was supposed to convey that the FBI couldn’t slow-roll the probe simply because they expected Clinton would win the election.

Strzok was removed from the Mueller investigation in the summer of 2017 as soon as the texts were discovered.

Some omissions of context are obvious

Some key, publicly known facts that would put Republicans’ allegations in context are conspicuously missing, while other details of GOP claims seem to contradict themselves.

For instance, the memo does not mention that Page left the Trump campaign before the FBI sought the FISA warrant to surveil him. Nor does it mention that the research project that prompted Steele’s digging was first financed by Republicans opposed to Trump.

As USA Today’s Steve Reilly pointed out, the memo misleadingly suggests that Steele leaked the revelation of Page’s Moscow trip to the media, when in fact his speech at a conference there was publicly posted and widely reported.

Redstate (ahem, Redstate!) noticed that the memo also very obviously mischaracterizes Comey’s public testimony about the Steele memo, bringing the rest of its claims into question.

Its allegations against DOJ official Bruce Ohr, a target of the right, are confusing: On one hand the memo bashes the Justice Department for highlighting in its FISA applications the anti-Trump bias Ohr recognized in Steele; on the other hand, the memo says Ohr was interviewed about his Steele interactions after the election and thus after the first warrant application. Ohr’s candor about Steele’s Trump sentiments would also seemingly exonerate the DOJ official in the GOP smear campaign against him.

It’s not clear if these sorts of discrepancies are the result of sloppy work by the GOP staff that wrote the memo. But they fit the pattern of inaccuracies and false narrative that Democrats and the FBI had previously warned the memo contained.

Read More →

The Trump administration released guidelines Thursday morning for states seeking to impose work requirements on their Medicaid population—a move expected to reduce Medicaid enrollment by hundreds of thousands of people.

Under the new policy, states can require able-bodied adults to either work, volunteer, attend job training or prove they’re actively searching for a job to qualify for Medicaid. People with a disability, the elderly, children and pregnant women are exempt.

Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), told reporters on a conference call Thursday morning that 10 states have already applied: Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin. Some of these states had previously sought permission from the Obama administration to purge non-working adults from their Medicaid rolls, and were denied.

Though very few people are likely to be impacted, congressional Democrats and health care advocates say the work requirement violates the original purpose of Medicaid and traps people in a Catch 22—too sick to work, but unable to get care unless they are working.

Here are five things to know as the state waiver approvals start rolling out:

Read More →

The family of Michael Flynn this week reignited an ongoing national conversation about the power of presidential pardons, by urging President Donald Trump to clear the former national security adviser’s name.

“About time you pardon General Flynn who has taken the biggest fall given the illegitimacy of his confessed crime in the wake of all this corruption,” the retired lieutenant general’s brother, Joseph, said on Twitter.

The White House offered no official response to the social media exhortation, but Trump has confidently asserted his authority in this arena, tweeting in July that “all agree the U.S. President has the complete power to pardon.”

Presidential pardon power is indeed extensive, but any move Trump took to absolve associates under investigation for aiding Russia’s interference in the 2016 election could come at a steep political—and even legal—cost for the embattled President.

TPM surveyed legal experts about the limits of this power, and how Special Counsel Robert Mueller can work around it.

Presidential pardon power “fairly absolute”

Legal scholars agree that the U.S. president has “fairly absolute” authority to pardon any other U.S. citizen for any federal crime, Fordham University law professor Jed Shugerman said in a phone interview.

“Obviously what he can’t do is take office and say, ‘I pardon everyone in advance for this crime I’m about to run from out of the Oval Office,’” Duke University law professor Lisa Griffin said. “So you can pardon anyone from the time that the offense has been committed. There do not have to be charges pending; there certainly does not have to be a conviction.”

One frequently cited historical precedent is Gerald Ford’s full 1974 pardon of his predecessor Richard Nixon for any crimes committed during his time as president.

There are important exceptions and unsettled areas of the law that come into play with the Russia probe, however.

According to Griffin, extant Justice Department memoranda from previous administrations have bolstered a key conclusion of most legal scholars and commentators: the President cannot preemptively pardon himself before leaving office.

Then there is the problematic exercise of executive clemency to impede an investigation, a “corrupt intent” which Shugerman said could make the President “liable for obstruction of justice charges.”

Griffin noted that if Trump suddenly pardoned an associate like Flynn, who has acknowledged that he is cooperating with the special counsel, “he runs the risk of appearing to try to influence, intimidate or curry favor—or any of the above—with a witness, and that might constitute impeding, interference or obstruction.”

Mueller has assigned career government attorney Michael Dreeben to research the limits of executive clemency, according to Bloomberg.

POTUS has no influence over state charges

The most significant workaround for law enforcement is the President’s inability to pardon individuals found guilty of state crimes.

“That’s the linchpin of all of this,” Shugerman told TPM. “[Mueller’s strategy] seems to be to make sure the indictments he brings and the guilty pleas he obtains preserve for state prosecutors the backup plan against pardons.”

Information gleaned from proffer agreements or possible grand jury testimonies provided by cooperating witnesses like Flynn or former campaign aide George Papadopolous won’t be affected by executive pardons, noted Mark Osler, a a former federal prosecutor who now serves as a clemency expert at the University of St. Thomas Law School.

Parallel local probes are already underway in New York, where Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance are investigating indicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s financial and real estate dealings.

Analogue charges for federal crimes such as money laundering exist on the local level in every jurisdiction, Griffin noted. New York would be the likeliest legal battleground if Trump preemptively pardoned individuals like his son-in-law Jared Kushner or son Donald Trump Jr., since his campaign was run out of the Trump Organization’s Manhattan offices.

White House insists it’s not focused on pardons

According to Trump administration officials, pardons are the last thing on their mind.

After Trump in mid-December offered a vague “let’s see” to reporters asking if he planned to pardon Flynn, White House special counsel Ty Cobb played cleanup, saying “there is no consideration being given” to that matter.

“I think before we start discussing pardons for individuals we should see what happens in specific cases, too,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a recent press briefing.

This delay is strategic, Griffin argued, adding that she believes the President will eventually make “very aggressive use” of his pardon power.

“I think it’s likely to come in the later stages of the Mueller investigation so as to preserve as many options as possible along the way,” she said.

Trump has already circumvented regular DOJ processes

There is plenty of precedent for President Trump acting unilaterally in a way that leaves his Justice Department scrambling. Previous administrations have carefully conferred with the Department of Justice’s Pardon Attorney, but in this as in so much else, Trump prefers to act alone and let the rest of the government mop up later.

Consider Trump’s harsh criticism of his own Attorney General Jeff Sessions a few months into his presidency, or the way he handled the pardon of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose flagrant misconduct was the butt of dark jokes for years before his conviction.

At first, Trump reportedly asked Sessions to abandon the case against Arpaio, which Sessions declined to do. The President then declared that Arpaio’s conviction, for disregarding a court order to stop patrols he’d ordered to track down undocumented immigrants, must be completely erased, even though Arpaio had bragged about disregarding the order. A legal wrangle has ensued.

If Trump cares enough about Flynn—or what Flynn might say—to force the Mueller probe to drop the case against him, the move might be unprecedented, but would not be out of line with the chaotic first year of his presidency. As far as Trump is concerned, the main risk of an unprecedented pardon would be to his popularity—his already-low approval ratings remain a festering sore spot.

Osler, the clemency expert, told TPM that the kind of “jump-the-line stuff” that occurred with Arpaio’s case “is highly unusual” and unfair to those who pursue standard petitions for executive clemency.

But Osler noted that Ford’s pardon of Nixon and Bill Clinton’s pardon of fugitive financier Mark Rich “happened at great cost to those presidents” and became a “negative part of their lasting legacy.”

Smears of DOJ and FBI help clear path for future pardons

Meanwhile, the administration and its GOP allies continue to seek weak spots in the DOJ investigation itself, sometimes with help from allies within the Justice Department, where deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe is said to be planning on an abrupt retirement as soon as he qualifies

Consider the Republican emphasis on the role of Peter Strzok, who was removed from the investigation for using his company phone to send uncensored text messages discussing his distaste for then-candidate Trump. Months after his removal, news of the texts broke through a private DOJ briefing to reporters, which the department said was not authorized by its press office.

Trump taunted McCabe on Twitter with hints of a firing before he qualifies for his full pension:

Then there is the emphasis from team Trump on the Steele Dossier (“the Dodgy Dossier,” as Carter Page and others insist on calling it), a raw intelligence report that is unlikely to prove more than incidental to any serious legal proceedings against the president or his allies. The dossier contains lots of quid but no quo; it was also commissioned by the Clinton campaign (which picked up the initial anti-Trump research contract at Steele’s employer, Fusion GPS, from right-wing billionaire Paul Singer’s mouthpiece, The Washington Free Beacon), a fact which remained a secret until late this year. As always, Trump and his allies both in office and in the conservative media world leapt at the opportunity to criticize Trump’s onetime electoral opponent, despite the conservative media world hiring Fusion in the first place.

If the Trump camp can discredit the probe, the president could make the act of firing people who could potentially prosecute him seem more reasonable.

This post has been updated.

Read More →

Those looking to discredit the special counsel’s Russia investigation got an assist this weekend from one of President Donald Trump’s attorneys, who alleged Saturday that Robert Mueller’s team inappropriately obtained a trove of presidential transition team documents.

“It’s not looking good,” Trump, who denied that he has any intention of firing Mueller, told reporters. “It’s quite sad to see that. My people were very upset.”

But the General Services Administration (GSA), which turned over thousands of emails exchanged during the transition, the special counsel’s office, and legal experts pushed back on transition lawyer Kory Langhofer’s claims, insisting that nothing about the process was unusual.

Langhofer’s laments about the violation of privacy and privileged attorney-client communications were rendered moot, experts and officials said, by the fact that the transition emails were housed on government servers and sent by people who were then private citizens. Communications exchanged by these individuals between Election Day 2016 and Inauguration Day 2017 are pertinent to Mueller’s probe into Russia’s interference in the presidential election and any coordination that may have occurred between the Kremlin and Trump campaign.

According to a letter Langhofer sent to congressional committee leaders, the “emails, laptops, cell phones, and other materials” for nine transition team members working on “national security and policy matters” as well as four other “senior” transition team members are now in Mueller’s team’s possession. They’ve been “extensively used” in interviews with witnesses, Langhofer alleged.

Here’s why this latest pseudo-scandal matters.

Trump team alleges violation of law, Constitution

In a seven-page letter to the heads of the Senate Homeland Security and House Oversight Committees, Langhofer alleged that GSA’s production of transition materials violated both the Fourth Amendment and a Presidential Transition Act requirement that “computers or communications services” used by transition staffers be “secure.”

Mueller’s team requested the documents in a pair of late August letters and received a flash drive containing them from the GSA on Sept. 1, according to the Associated Press. Langhofer blamed “career GSA staff” working with GSA Deputy Counsel Lenny Loewentritt for carrying out this process “without notifying TFA [Trump for America] or filtering or redacting privileged material.” He said the transition team did not learn of these “unauthorized disclosures” until Dec. 12.

GSA, Special Counsel say there’s nothing weird here

Both the GSA and special counsel said they carried out the process as required by law.

In a Saturday interview with BuzzFeed, Loewentritt, a career GSA employee, explained that all transition staff using GSA devices had to sign agreements asserting that “no expectation of privacy can be assumed.” They were explicitly warned, Loewentritt said, that information “would not be held back in any law enforcement” investigation.

Loewentritt also denied Langhofer’s claim that former GSA general counsel Richard Beckler, who died in September, promised the Trump transition’s legal team that they would be told of any requests made to the agency for document production.

Special counsel spokesman Peter Carr said in a statement that Mueller did not require a subpoena or warrant to obtain the documents.

“When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process,” Carr said.

Legal experts swat down claims of impropriety

Legal experts and former government attorneys bolstered claims that nothing improper or illegal transpired in obtaining the emails.

Former federal prosecutor Randall Eliason told the Washington Post that it “would be almost prosecutorial misconduct” for Mueller’s team not to sort through the transition messages, and that Langhofer’s decision to go to Congress rather than the judge overseeing the federal grand jury was suspect.

“You go to the judge and complain,” Eliason told the Post. “You don’t issue a press release or go to Congress. It appears from the outside that this is part of a pattern of trying to undermine Mueller’s investigation.”

John Bies, a Justice Department lawyer during the Obama administration, told Politico that presidential privilege did not apply to messages sent before Trump was sworn-in because “there is only one president at a time.”

Congress doesn’t seem interested in taking up the issue

In an interview with Business Insider, Langhofer said he took the issue to Congress rather than Mueller and the GSA because lawmakers “need to make sure this never happens again.”

Lawmakers don’t seem particularly eager to get in the middle of this fight, however.

“These are issues to be briefed by the parties (or others with cognizable legal claims and standing) and decided by the court — not Congress,” a spokesperson for House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) told Politico in a statement.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the top Democrat on the committee, said in a statement that the Presidential Transition Act “simply does not support withholding transition team emails from criminal investigators.”

Why the emails could be so important

White House attorney Ty Cobb announced last week that Mueller’s team has completed all interviews with White House staff requested to date, meaning senior Trump advisers have already given investigators their accounts of communications with or about foreign officials.

Those interviews occurred before the transition team knew that Mueller had access to physical copies of their transition emails, and, as Langhofer pointed out, Mueller’s prosecutors have “extensively used the materials” obtained from GSA in his interviews with witnesses.

“Mueller is using the emails to confirm things, and get new leads,” a transition source told Axios.

Mueller’s team can now cross-check the comments of any interviewee to ensure that they did not lie to federal agents—a crime to which both former national security adviser Mike Flynn and former campaign aide George Papadopoulos already pleaded guilty.

Read More →

Republicans in the House and Senate are racing to pass a massive tax bill before leaving D.C. for the holidays, and after a week of closed-door meetings and backroom horse trading, they unveiled their final draft at the age-old hour of Washington news dumps: 5:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon.

The latest iteration of the sweeping tax overhaul looks significantly different than the versions that came out of the House and Senate earlier this month. Many of the most controversial pieces of the bill have been removed. Some tweaks have been made to further benefit the wealthy and certain members of Congress. And while the vast majority of GOP lawmakers are lining up behind the bill and promising to send it to President Trump’s desk before Christmas, a few absences due to illness and a few last wavering Republicans in the Senate are making leaders sweat.

Here are the five points you need to know before the House and Senate vote on the final bill next week:

Read More →

LiveWire