You Can’t Make It Up, Again!

We have this daily segment on the Lisa Wexler show called “the 5-1-1”. Like the “9-1-1”, it’s a call to action, a call to outrageousness, a call to out and oust the white collar bullies that permeate our lives.  Sometimes it’s a politician, sometimes it’s a principal of a school. We started this on January 1st, and I’ve been astonished at how easy it has been to find one, almost every single day. But yesterday’s 5-1-1 was special, even for me.  I’m thinking of changing the name of the show to “You Can’t Make It Up”. Even if you could, no one would believe you.

If the prosecutor is right, the facts are as follows. Please read the word allegedly into all of this to spare me the trouble of inserting it.

NY State Senator John Sampson, by all accounts a pretty influential guy, turned himself into the FBI yesterday because he got the word he was going to be arrested anyway. What the hell, he probably figured, I’ll try one more time to make myself look good. This guy is a master at it.

According to the feds, Sampson stole a whole bunch of money, $440,000, from escrow money he was holding as an attorney. That money, by definition, did not belong to him. In fact a judge named Sampson as trustee in a lawsuit so that, as trustee, Sampson could be trusted with holding the money pending the outcome.  So much for the trust part of trustee.

Why did Sampson need so much money? To run for District Attorney of Brooklyn, of course! Naturally the guy who wants to be the numero uno lawyer in the Borough, the one who gets to decide which bad guys to prosecute and which to leave alone, would steal money to finance his campaign. Naturally.

Thankfully, Sampson lost.

But, having spent money that didn’t belong to him, Sampson got worried. At some point, he knew that judge would come looking for the missing money. What to do? Here’s an idea- find a client and buddy who is already being investigated by the Feds for mortgage fraud and tap him for an easy couple of hundred grand as a “loan”. Sounds like a plan. According to the indictment, Mr. Edul Ahmad was only too happy to oblige. Did I mention that Senator Sampson was also on the State Ethics Committee? Oh, and that he was appointed Leader of the Democratic State Senate Conference in 2009?

It gets better.

According to the indictment, Sampson made a friend in the U.S. attorney’s office. A good friend. This guy is described as a mole, secretly leaking to Sampson the status of the investigation against him.  Naturally, Sampson wanted the names of those witnesses who were prepared to testify against him. Naturally, Sampson told the mole that he intended to “take them out”. Wouldn’t you?

By the way, is “take them out” the same as “rub them out”? I’m a little rusty on my crime slang.

Yesterday, after turning himself in, NY State Senator John Sampson was charged with embezzlement, obstruction of justice and witness tampering.

If the facts weren’t so comically sad, we might take a moment to get angry, or at least righteously indignant. Every corrupt politician truly injures all of us. Every time a bribe is required to do business, it requires the honest guy to back out. The guy who wants to be able to sleep at night can’t do business with the government, which is easily the largest single payer for goods and services in the country. The guy who will pay the bribe is likely to cut corners where it counts, in worker safety, in the quality of our roads, bridges and buildings. Look at China to see how business corruption has killed kids- it tainted their milk, forced them to attend school in substandard buildings that fell during earthquakes, caused roads to collapse.

Why was Sampson was finally caught? Thank you to State Senator, Shirley Huntley, who has apparently been wearing a wire for the feds for months. To save her own skin against charges of bribery and embezzlement, Huntley fingered other pols doing the same thing.  I’m telling you, You Can’t Make This Up.

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A Mother’s Guilt

          The anguished cries of Zubeidat Tsarnaeva penetrate our brains. The mother of the two suspected Boston bombers, Tsarnaeva cries and wails and shouts, and we can’t take our eyes off of her. She accuses the United States of framing her sons, insisting they are innocent despite overwhelming proof to the contrary. Lashing out with fury and blame, she says that America is at fault for what happened here. But listen carefully, and you hear something else. You hear a mother’s guilt.

          This mother’s guilt is not the shame or sense of responsibility shouldered by Uncle Ruslan Tsarni, who called the men “losers”, jealously hating those who could “settle themselves”.  On the contrary.  Zubeidat doesn’t feel guilty about the innocent victims of the bombing, because she takes no responsibility for that. In fact, she says that her only mistake was in bringing her family here, in believing that America was a good place to live. So what is she so guilty about?

          Every mother knows her children. She knows their good natures, their bad tempers, and their breaking points. This mother left her two sons alone in a country thousands of miles away from her, without any other family to watch over them. She knew Tamerlan was angry; she knew he was strong and dominating. She knew he had been accused of beating his wife. She knew this capable young man was not even earning a living- in fact he was living on welfare, feeling sorry for himself, nursing his grievances. She knew that Tamerlan’s dream of becoming a professional boxer had been thwarted, leaving him angrier than ever. She knew that Tamerlan had turned to the fundamentalist aspects of the Muslim faith, listening to leaders who blamed Americans and western values for their problems in the world.

Despite everything that she knew, Zubeidat left her younger son Dzohar in Tamerlan’s care.  In her heart, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva knows that she is to blame for the fact that her surviving son will likely never see daylight again. She is the reason why her son now lays in a jail infirmary. She is the reason his future options, if convicted, are either solitary confinement or the death penalty. If she had been here she might have had a chance to intercept this plan. She might have been her sons’ confidante, she might have been a helpful influence on their lives. Though she might not have been able to stop Tamerlan from doing his evil, she might have saved her younger son. Instead, her message was- you are on your own. Good luck to you.

I’m a mother too. In the first hours after the bombing suspects were taken, I heard the ravings of Tsarnaeva with sympathy. Grief over the sudden loss of children is horrific; who among us know what we would say to anyone when faced with these facts.  Denial, fury, pain and shock- all of it totally understandable, even normal.  But as the facts filter out, I admit to less pity and more scorn. The shrinks call it transference, when you attach blame to someone else for something that you cannot face about yourself.  Zubeidat Tsarnaeva is choosing to blame America for the fact that she was a really lousy mother. And no one knows that better than Zubeidat herself.

A Financial Solution to Our Gun Problem

In the wake of Newtown, I kept asking myself one question. What would have prevented Nancy Lanza from giving her son Adam a gun? Nancy Lanza was a law abiding citizen. She bought guns legally, shot guns legally, had no criminal record at all.  Even if we make it harder for some people to buy certain guns and ammunition, chances are Nancy Lanza would still have been allowed to buy those guns. She would have taught  Adam to shoot, practiced targets with him, and permitted him access to those guns.  The laws being proposed right now would not make that very behavior illegal. So what changes if we pass them? Nothing.

 

But what if Nancy Lanza had to buy insurance for her firearms?  Let’s imagine that. The insurance company would want to know who else in the household would be permitted to use them.  They would attach a questionnaire about permitted users- asking about their criminal background and mental health history. There it was- my “aha!” moment.

 

No way would Nancy Lanza have broken the law. I didn’t know Nancy, but I don’t believe she would have lied on her application. If Nancy’s insurance company forbade those with a mental health condition access to guns, Nancy Lanza would have kept those guns elsewhere.    

 

An insurance company would want to know where the guns were stored, who had access to them, if the ammunition was kept separately from the weapon. They might ask about permits, gun safety courses and how many guns were on premises.    Perhaps the insurance company would offer a discounted premium for certain safety mechanisms, similar to discounts for burglar alarms in homeowner’s policies.

 

Gun safety is a public health issue, and we are in crisis. By 2015, firearm fatalities are predicted to exceed auto fatalities for the very first time. While shooting deaths in 2015 are estimated to rise to almost 33,000, those related to car accidents will decline to about 32,000, based on the 10 year average trend.

 

Like guns, cars are lethal weapons too, if placed in the wrong hands.  Anyone can own or drive a car, as long as they insure and drive it safely. But we decided long ago that all of us are better protected when we individually carry insurance, take driver’s ed, and equip our cars with seat belts and airbags. Due to our efforts, traffic fatalities in 2011 were the lowest in 63 years. Nor was it a coincidence that the movement to increase the legal drinking age was led by insurance companies. Once they saw how many 18-20 year olds were responsible for fatalities, they lobbied to change the law. Insurance companies are on the front lines of efforts to reduce risk, because the fewer the accidents, the less they have to pay out in damages. I’m betting the same will be true for gun incidents.

 

There are 88.1 guns for every 100 Americans in civilian hands. The vast majority use guns safely.  The vast majority of drivers aren’t reckless either, but they still cannot drive without a license or insurance. We don’t forbid all people from driving because some people get drunk and get behind the wheel. Nor should we forbid all people from owning guns because a few are criminals.  Insurance companies will do what the government can neither afford nor accomplish- they will reduce the risk of harm to the rest of us by forcing individual gun owners to act responsibly. 

 

As far as the Constitution is concerned, nothing I am suggesting takes away anyone’s right to bear arms. The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that this right, like our others, is subject to reasonable limitations.

 

Massachusetts has recently proposed requiring firearms insurance. The NRA advertises firearms insurance on its website.  Pro- gun guests on my radio show have been disarmed (you should excuse the expression) by this idea, agreeing that a private, capitalist solution is an intelligent way to approach a public health crisis.   

 

Connecticut is in a unique position to lead.  We are both the insurance capital of the world and the former home to Remington and Smith & Wesson. We are even home to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, based in Newtown, CT, an irony too rich to be a coincidence. Requiring firearms insurance may receive some resistance from those who want no changes at all. But in a showdown between the insurance industry and the NRA, my money is on the insurance companies. We lost a terrible battle in Newtown. Let’s win the war in Hartford.

Romney Pulls a Gore

With pollsters and pundits calling the election too close to call, I’ll go out on a limb here and made a prediction. Mitt Romney is going to get more votes than Barack Obama. Nevertheless, Mitt Romney will not be our next President, due to a loss in the electoral college. Republicans will go berserk, crying foul, fraud and dirty tricks. Democrats will privately gloat, the memory of the 2000 election debacle seared into their beings. The value of stability will rise above all, and President Obama will be sworn into a second term. But this country will be left bitter, scarred and more polarized than ever. What to do? After 2 elections in the last 20 years in which the popular choice got defeated, this country must rise up as one voice to rid ourselves of the electoral college once and for all.

As a daily talk radio host, I’ve got a pretty good feel for what the public is thinking. Even here in metropolitan New York, President Obama is not popular. Today, the Democratic New York Daily News endorsed Romney. Voters who support Obama are largely keeping their opinions to themselves. On the other hand, Romney voters are loud and belligerent, angry at Obama and convinced this country is on a dire path to destruction unless Romney is elected. In Texas, much of the South and the Midwest, Romney can count on landslide majorities of the popular vote. Hurricane Sandy will depress the turnout significantly in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, three states that Obama is counting on for big leads. When you add up all the votes, Romney will score higher. But Obama will win in Ohio, and that will give him the edge in the electoral college. He will win the White House again.

The stakes of staying with the electoral college have gotten way too high. What if Al Gore had taken his rightful place in 2000? No war in Iraq, that’s for sure. All those lives saved; all that money saved too. Think where we might be now if we had not denied climate change for the last 12 years. Perhaps Sandy would not be such an unmitigated catastrophe. In 2012, are the stakes any less crucial?

Despite my own support of President Obama, I’m not happy to be predict that he will win on a technicality, on the constitutional anachronism of the electoral college. I happen to believe in the will of the people. A democratically elected leader is the best person to lead a nation, even if I didn’t vote for the guy. I know all the traditional, historical reasons why people still think the electoral college should stand. But they pale in comparison to the essential democratic value of one person/ one vote. If Mitt Romney wins the popular vote, he should be President.

Back in 2000, the pathetic ineptitude of Florida’s hanging chads should have been a sideshow to the real result: Al Gore won by 500,000 votes. Case closed. But Al Gore was too good a sport- he conceded to the status quo. Since then, a small movement has arisen to require states to vote all their electoral college votes to the winner of the national popular vote, as a way of circumventing the electoral college. But Americans know that is the wrong approach. A change to the Constitution needs to happen straight, not sideways.

Remember, Al Gore would have won the presidency if he had taken his home state of Tennessee. What are the chances Mitt Romney will win Massachusetts?

Mitt Romney is the kind of good sport Al Gore was. I can see him conceding to the system, because he is the kind of guy who plays by the rules. But you can be sure the Republicans will not take this lying down. They aren’t wimps like the Democrats. Here is my other prediction- if Mitt Romney wins but loses, the electoral college will be dismembered once and for all. And good riddance.

It’s the Planet, Stupid

I’m a sucker for coincidences.  Basically, I don’t believe in them. I’m one of those people who likes to see the Big Picture, the Plan with a capital P. You can’t tell me that this enormous storm aimed straight at Washington DC, and including those pivotal swing states of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, is not a Sign, coming as it is just days before Election Day.  As the great P.G. Wodehouse would have phrased it,  I am reminded of the following tale:

Pious Joe is stranded in the middle of the ocean in a leaking boat. A passerby throws him an oar to grab onto for safety.  Pious Joe says, “No, thank you. I believe in God. I have faith that God will save me. Thank you anyway, but I’ll be just fine.” The boat continues to lose water.  Eventually, a large ship comes nearby and throws Pious Joe a life preserver.  But Pious Joe refuses to grab onto it. He shouts:  “No need to worry about me, I’ll be fine. My God will save me.” The boat is now half full with water by the time a helicopter arrives.  The copter throws down a tow rope to rescue Pious Joe. For the third time, Pious Joe refuses the help, exclaiming, “Thanks but no thanks. I know I will be fine.  God will save me.”  Eventually, the boat sinks. Pious Joe drowns. When he reaches heaven, Pious Joe says to God ,”God, I believed in you.  I put my trust in you. Why didn’t you save me?”. And God says, “What do you mean, why didn’t I save you? I sent you an oar, I sent you a life preserver and I sent you a helicopter rope! What more do you expect me to do?”

Oh Yes, Frankenstorm is most definitely a Sign. God or the Universe (take your pick) is trying to tell us something. Hurricane Irene didn’t seem to do it. Record droughts in Texas and the midwest have not grabbed our attention. Heat waves, catastrophic flooding, crop losses, livestock deaths- the list of environmental disasters to afflict our country this year alone is biblical in scope, reminiscent of the Ten Plagues.

Mitt Romney sent chills up my spine when he joked about oceans rising and offered to give away public lands to oil companies.  President Obama and the Democrats have been so cowed by rich Republican intimidators that they have abandoned the fight, joining in a chorus of “Let’s Frack” and fighting over who can exploit pristine habitats first.

In just over a week, we will elect the next leader of the free world. Once in four years, millions of people wake up and pay attention. Conventional wisdom, perpetrated by the media ad nauseum, tells us that the only thing we really care about is our pocketbook.  Forget the planet, clean air, clean water, rising sea levels, dying crops, migration changes, bee devastation, species extinctions, severe droughts and the increase of freakishly damaging storms. The Republicans have done something really special- they have relegated the most common value we share- the health of our planet- to environmental wacko status.  And the Democrats have let them get away with it. Not once did the issue of Climate Change come up in this year’s debates- not even once! No wonder God is pissed off.

If you were God or Mother Nature, and you were fed up with being ignored, wouldn’t you choose this week to remind your people that money isn’t everything?  If we don’t start adapting to Climate Change, which is likely irreversible at this point, all the other platitudes and plans won’t mean a thing. Climate Change is the single biggest challenge of our time, calling on our intellectual prowess, scientific knowhow and political will. Yet each candidate has conveniently ignored dealing with it, sidestepping the big picture to focus on energy independence, as if that would actually bring down oil prices. (it wouldn’t, at least not by all that much). Twenty years from now, the next generation will be stunned at our negligence, our callous indifference to this most obvious public health crisis. They will look back in anger at our unwillingness to collaborate for the common good, our petty infighting over so many small things while ignoring the obvious big one.

The winds are howling. Outside my 30th story window, I see the lights of New York City, still twinkling as the full force of Frankenstorm has yet to descend. Many of us will be in darkness before this storm ends, disconnected from each other and forced to exist without the convenience of electricity, heat or even working toilets. Pious Joe relied on faith alone to save him, but he drowned anyway.  How many more signs do we need before we figure out that we are all in the same lifeboat together, before all of us drown?


________________________
Lisa K. Wexler
Gracie Award Winner 
lisawexler.com ; 4-6 PM Weekdays 
Radio 1230AM WFAS
Twitter: @lisawexler

 203-454-9960 

Behavioral Votonomics

Based on purely anecdotal evidence, I conclude that not only do people completely ignore the “issues” when they vote, but furthermore, many actually vote AGAINST their material self-interest much of the time. I hereby dub this hypothesis the Theory of Behavioral Votonomics, as it derives from the Theory of Behavioral Economics. The Behavioral Economics Theory won several Nobel Prizes. Think mine has a shot?

My best friend Cindy lives on food stamps and Medicaid. Without the social security disability payments she received when her husband died 8 years ago, she would not have been able to feed and house herself and her two young children. Cindy has been unable to work because of chronic illness. If she does not get approved for disability payments from Uncle Sam, she will be homeless and destitute. You would think Cindy would be an easy vote for President Obama, standard bearer of the Democratic Party, proud sponsor and supporter of all of these entitlement programs. The Republicans haven’t put a roof over her head. They fight tooth and nail against any expansion of spending, particularly in her home state of Arizona. But if you assumed Cindy would be voting for President Obama, you’d be dead wrong. Cindy is voting for Mitt Romney. Why? Because they agree on abortion.

Voting is like shopping.  For years, economists assumed that we spend money rationally, allocating our dollars based on self-evident self-interest.  Would we buy ourselves a big, expensive flat screen TV if we couldn’t pay the rent?  Theoretically, no.  But we do.  Housing projects are full of them. Hence the birth of the Nobel prize winning theory of Behavioral Economics, which discovered that when real people spend their money, they spend it on impulse, emotion and immediate self-gratification. Occasionally long-term self-interest is in there too, but not always.  Is there any difference in how we vote?  I say no. I call this Behavioral Votonomics.

Cousin Barbara is avowedly pro-choice. Were it not for the sizable pension she receives from the New York City teacher’s union, she would not be able to stay in the house she has lived in for forty years. She also has a severe chemical sensitivity, making it impossible for her to travel to most hotels, due to the use of harsh cleaning products.  Based on her own rational self-interest, economically, socially and environmentally, Cousin Barbara’s vote should be a no-brainer, an easy lay-up for Obama.  Not true. Cousin Barbara is also voting for Mitt Romney. Why?  Because she likes him better. She doesn’t trust President Obama as a person.

In Behavioral Votonomics, people vote based on a candidate’s appearance, personal life, tone of voice and general likability. Also whether they like their spouse.  The issues serve as a convenient topic of conversation, but they are not really important.  Far more important are hair color, singing ability, teeth and the acceptability of the all-encompassing “body language”. Sound familiar? Look at every poll after every debate. People don’t talk about how much they agree with a candidate, they talk about how much they like a candidate.  They talk about how much they trust a candidate as a person, not whether or not they have told the whole truth, or how relevant their past is to how they will vote in the future.  While this may have always been true to some extent, in today’s world of ever- present cameras the effect is exacerbated.

My father never took a dime from the government in his life, until he finally accepted Medicare and social security. He worked his way through law school at night without a handout or subsidy. Dad’s entire life was spent creating businesses, all kinds of enterprises, some of whom employed hundreds of people. Some years were good, others were simply awful. The only thing that kept him and my mother going was their faith that good times would return if they only worked hard enough.  Sound like a Republican philosophy to you? It does to me.  But my father is voting for Obama.  Why? Because he thinks Mitt Romney stands only for the rich. He has seen that greed, way up close, and he thinks it isn’t good for America. He also disapproves of Mitt Romney’s investments overseas- he thinks they are unpatriotic.

In Behavioral Votonomics, traditional ways of projecting votes do not work. You can’t count on the women’s vote just because you are strong on women’s issues. Rather, you need to persuade women of your kindness and empathy. You can’t count on the black vote if you have one of the strongest records in the country on civil rights, as Hilary Clinton did. Barack Obama was black- that trumped any voting history. Sometimes the result will be coincident with predictable voting blocks- other times, not so much.  Behavioral Votonomics is a theory of the real world, where Herman Cain is as likely to run for office as Barack Obama, where voter turnout depends not so much upon passion as it does upon the weather.  Behavioral Votonomics explains the unreliability of polls. Politicians cling to them for guidance, but polls can only be as accurate as we let them be, and we voters are a notoriously fickle bunch.

However, there is one big difference between behavioral economics and votonomics.  If you personally make the right choices about spending and saving, you will end up with a better standard of living in the long run, even if your former neighbor is still stuck in the projects with that big screen TV. But if you vote on the issues, while nobody else does, you get stuck with the wrong guy.  Often we all do.

So here is my plea to the last moderator of the last debate, as we skid into these last few weeks before Election Day. We are not going to change our reasons for selecting a candidate, so let’s stop pretending. Forget about asking questions on the issues, and go straight to the important stuff. Ask them when was the last time they were caught in a lie- did they fess up or keep going? Ask them how they handled the first time they knew their kid did drugs, or at least smoked a cigarette.   Ask them how they felt when they lost an election, and what they will do if they lose this one.  However the politicians answer, at least we voters won’t fall asleep out of boredom. We’ll be paying attention to their characters for a change, as well as the pattern on their ties.  And that can’t hurt.

Radditz Should Recuse

A recent survey of this country showed that the biggest problem we face as a nation is our political polarization. Not rascism, nor division by religion, ethnicity or creed. We are angriest towards others on the political side of the aisle. How stupid,then, to defend the choice of Martha Raddatz as the sole moderator of the sole vice-presidential debate, now that facts have surfaced that raise legitimate questions on the appearance of bias.
The Daily Caller has exposed that Martha Raddatz, the sole moderator of the sole vice-presidential debate, hosted President Obama as her wedding guest back in 1991. Apparently, President Obama was a good friend and law school classmate of Ms. Raddatz’s groom, Julius Genochowski. Nonetheless, ABC News and the Commission on President Debates insist there is no bias, especially because Ms. Raddatz divorced Mr. Genochowski back in 1997 and each has since married other people.

Wait a second. Hold on just a minute. Ms. Raddatz may be an extremely effective journalist, known for posing tough questions to everyone in power. But it doesn’t change the fact that there is an appearance of favoritism here, and that appearances count. In this overheated campaign season, do we really need aspersions cast on the motivation of the questioner? Ms. Raddatz is the sole moderator- she gets to decide which questions to pose, in which order, and how to volley back a response. Get tough on abortion, she favors Obama/Biden, because the majority of women in this country are pro-choice. Skip it altogether, as did Jim Lehrer, and focus on budget, she could be said to favor Romney/Ryan, notably knowledgable on this issue.

Moreover, Raddatz may have divorced her first husband, but they could still be good friends. My law partner’s ex was her closest confidante for the next 30 years, until he passed away, despite the fact that each went on to marry other people. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that Ms. Raddatz would harbor personal affection for a guest at her wedding who went on to become the President of the United States. I know I would.

The fact is most often we cannot see our own biases; others need to point them out. Washington insiders are so blase, so totally used to the revolving door of public office, lobbyists, and journalists that they are uniformly refusing to see what we outside the Beltway can see so clearly. The reason this story is getting such wide circulation is that the ordinary person sees it for what it is- media bias having the potential of affecting the outcome of an election.

As a lawyer, I was ingrained with the professional training that judges should always recuse themselves from cases whenever there is even an “appearance of impropriety”. Justified or not, it is always more important that the public be satisfied in the impartiality of a ruling, rather than satisfy a particular judge’s ego to preside at a case. For the sake of the integrity of the debate process, Martha Raddatz should step aside.