As state lawmakers debate the prospect of legalizing Internet gambling, they’re focusing largely on whether the practice will help boost casino profits and tax revenue. Drawing less attention is the question of what more Internet gambling could mean for millions of gambling addicts like John.
A New Jersey resident, John was working at a financial firm within blocks of the World Trade Center when the planes hit the towers in September 2001, killing thousands of people, including several of his friends. In the weeks after the attack, John would spend hours at a time reading news online, trying to distract himself.
One day, as he was scrolling through headlines, a pop-up window appeared from an online casino called Bodog, offering an escape from anxiety. John had gambled in high school, betting on sports with the help of a friend’s father who was a bookie, but had dropped the habit in college and moved on.
But that day, the enticements from a new, electronic bookie seemed irresistible, and John started placing bets once again. He started small, betting five or ten dollars at a time on sports and blackjack. The stakes grew over the next several years until he was betting $1,000 on each game. Soon, he didn’t have money to fuel his habit, so he borrowed against the house he shares with his wife and three kids in northern New Jersey.
In June 2008, as he was falling deeper into debt, a client called looking for an investment. John told her about a certificate of deposit and asked her to write a check in his name, and rather than deposit it, he used the money to gamble. “I told her the CD was a five year CD, so I didn’t have to worry about this for five years,” he said. “In my twisted mind I thought of it as a loan.”
By the time the company caught him, in February 2010, John had taken nearly $2 million from a handful of clients and $75,000 from his grandparents. He eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of theft and was sentenced to six years in prison, though he was released on parole two years ago (his parole officer requested he keep a low profile, so John asked that his full name not be used).
“I knew it was wrong, but I still couldn’t wait to get that bet in,” he said. “The rush you feel is like any drug addict feels a high.”
The Internet proved to be the perfect forum for his addiction. It offered anonymity, protecting him from any shame he might feel if he were facing a dealer or other gamblers. And it was always there. “My wife used to work nights. She would go to work, the kids would go to bed, and I would gamble from eight at night till four in the morning,” he said. “I fell asleep in the chair a couple of times gambling. It was terrible.”
At the time, no state had legalized online gambling yet, but millions of Americans like John bet through Internet casinos based overseas.
Proponents of legalized gambling point to cases like John’s to say that online gambling is occurring anyway, and that regulating it can help protect addicts. New Jersey’s Internet gambling law, passed last year, requires that casinos operating betting sites contribute $250,000 annually to fund programs for gambling addicts. The law additionally requires these sites include ways for players to set limits for themselves on the amount they can bet or the length of time they can play.
Proponents also point out that billions of dollars in gambling taxes fund popular state programs like property tax relief and other financial assistance programs for seniors.
But some opponents warn that cases like John’s will become increasingly common if more states allow online betting. Last year, the American Psychiatric Association classified problem gambling, as it’s known, as an addictive disorder, and millions of Americans show signs of the disease. What’s more, gambling critics say, a body of research shows that even beyond the problems with addiction, state-sanctioned casino gambling is simply bad public policy.
In the 1990s, for example, Earl Grinols, an economist at the University of Illinois who now teaches at Baylor University, began comparing revenue brought in by casinos with societal costs, such as increased crime and shuttered small businesses, and found that the costs outweighed the benefits 3-to-1. Another troubling figure comes from a handful of studies conducted over the past twenty years in the U.S., Canada and Australia, which estimate that anywhere from a third to more than half of casino revenue comes from gambling addicts.
Relatively little research has focused on whether online betting presents unique problems for addicts, said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, an advocacy group that pushes for responsible gambling policy but does not take a position on whether states should legalize gambling. While some studies suggest that people who gamble online tend to have higher rates of addiction, Whyte said, there’s no way to tell whether that’s caused by some trait unique to betting online, or whether gambling addicts are simply more likely to place wagers on the Internet than other people.
For John, online betting combined two addictive activities — gambling and surfing the Web — each of which offered a convenient escape from his stress. His settlement includes a restitution agreement that has him making monthly payments to his grandmother — his grandfather died last year — and he must reach an agreement with his former employer, which paid back the clients he had stolen from. He works two restaurant jobs, which don’t pay enough for him to settle the claims anytime soon, he said. “I’ll be paying restitution the rest of my life.”
Kazakhstan's nervous regime is becoming more and more repressive. President Nursultan Nazarbayev is on the point of signing draconian amendments to the communications law that were passed by parliament on 2 April.
If he goes ahead, the authorities will not only be able to block any website or social network in a matter of hours without a court order, but also to disconnect all means of communication.
“These amendments legalize the most extreme forms of censorship,” said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire. “It is intolerable that the Kazakh authorities are assuming the right to disconnect all networks at the drop of a hat.
“The explicit reference in these amendments to unauthorized demonstrations reveals their purpose, which is to prevent any criticism of the government even if it means dealing a fatal blow to freedom of information.”
The communication law's new article 41-1 says the authorities are empowered to temporarily disconnect any network or means of communication and block access to any online resource in the event of “harm to persons, society or the state” or “dissemination of information contravening the electoral law (...) or containing incitement to take part in extremist or terrorist activities, mass unrest, or mass (public) actions organized in violation of the established regulations.”
The Communications and Information Agency will have one hour to transmit a blocking order from the prosecutor-general's office to the competent operators and services, which will in turn have three hours to block access to the designated websites or social networks. The same procedure is envisaged for the suspension of communication services.
“The criteria serving as grounds for blocking online resources are so broad and vague that they open the way for way for the most repressive interpretation,” Deloire added.
“The political use of these measures is all the more likely because they require nothing more than administrative decisions, without any hearing and without any opportunity for the targeted sites to defend themselves. And since the operators and other technical intermediaries will have just a few hours to comply, they are unlikely to pay much attention to detail.”
The amendments are the latest in a series of tough measures designed to nip any protests in the bud. On 28 January, the government approved a decree subjecting the media to prior censorship in “emergency situations of a social nature.” President Nazarbayev, who has ruled since independence, began accentuating his regime's repressive nature after rioting in Zhanaozen in December 2011.
Aside from uncertainties about the aging leader's succession, some analysts link the latest repressive reforms to fears of an opposition movement inspired by the Ukrainian revolution. Others think they have been prompted by the panic following the devaluation of the national currency, the tenge, in February and the spread of rumours, especially by SMS, about the failure of three Kazakh banks.
The amendments to the communications law come amid a regional trend towards more Internet censorship.
In Russia, websites carrying calls for unauthorized demonstrations can be blocked without reference to the courts under amendments that took effect in February. In Turkey, government officials can block content that is “discriminatory or insulting” or “violates privacy” under a new law whose repressive scope was demonstrated when Twitter was blocked on 20 March and YouTube was blocked on 27 March.
(Photos : AFP Photo / Johan MacDougall, Leon Neal - Pool / Getty Images)
During the month of its five-year anniversary, Longreads was bought by Autommatic, the web development company best known for its ownership of WordPress (also Gravatar and Polldaddy, for the nerdiest types).
Longreads, started by former journalist and longform journalism enthusiast Mark Armstrong in 2009, announced April 9 it was joining forces with Autommatic in order to expand its impact and better equip itself to share the best longform (1,500+ words) work on the web.
“The world cannot live on 140 characters alone,” Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg said to Bloomberg Businessweek. “Longreads embodies a lot of what we really value with Automattic and WordPress.”
This move makes total sense. WordPress.com is the “largest and most influential publishing ecosystem in the world,” as Armstrong wrote, and its content management system powers the work of big news brands like NYPost.com and Quartz, and lesser known yet immensely talented freelance writers. Longreads is constantly looking for great journalism to share, while competing against sites like Byliner, and Automattic’s WordPress offers writers a place where their journalism can live. So, it’s a win-win situation. And, in a SXSW talk last year, Mullenweg said WordPress was looking for a way to delve deeper into — and monetize — longform journalism, as what became known as the longform “renaissance” had really started to take shape.
— Mark Armstrong (@markarms) April 9, 2014
New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.
A provocative question was raised this week at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford: Why aren't more Americans alarmed by the tremendous drop in the numbers of reporters covering the news?
America's total newsroom workforce dropped 17,000, from 55,000 in 2006 to 38,000 in 2012, according to the Pew Research Journalism Project. This plunge is due primarily to the digital disruption of newspapers.
One result: there is likely a lot less investigative journalism being done. Fewer watchdogs could mean this is a really good time to be a crook, suggested Alberto Ibarguen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and a Forum moderator.*
Frontline Producer Raney Aronson-Rath answered the question about the public's lack of alarm saying, "corruption doesn't show its face," it's invisible. Citizens simply don't know about the crucial covered-up information they are missing. Therefore, they don't see the corrosive effects of what has taken place year by year. Frontline is one of only a few investigative broadcast programs still on the air. The Forum got a glimpse of a tough future from Frontline about the government's increasing intrusion on our privacy, a program based on the latest leaked Edward Snowden NSA files.
The Skoll Forum highlighted the growing risks to journalists and especially investigative journalism worldwide. Paul Steiger, the founder of ProPublica, a digital investigative center based in New York, said that for the first time in his long career journalists are dying not by accident or from being caught in a crossfire, but because they are being targeted specifically for assassination. Journalists are considered a threat to governments and powerful interests almost everywhere.
Russian investigative journalist Irina Borogan spoke about how only a handful of Investigative journalists continue to function in Russia. Since Vladimir Putin came to power 14 years ago, at least 19 journalists have been killed, and in only one case have suspects been charged with murder and subsequently prosecuted.
Nigerian investigative publisher Omoyele Sowore has brought down a Nigerian state governor and a government minister by reporting on their lavish lifestyles, which are fueled by corruption. But Omoyele can no longer openly return to Nigeria because of his work. He suggested he still works undercover in Nigeria but has to be smuggled in and out of the country.
Even in the United States, where journalists are normally not targeted for their work, there is a chilling effect due to government investigations of journalist's sources, libel lawsuits and the pressures to find adequate support for independent investigative work that is almost always both risky and time-consuming.
Given all of these difficulties, why were these investigative journalists at the Forum so determined to keep going? "I just don't want to give up," said Borogan. "It is very inspiring to find the truth that other people try to hide."
The 11th Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship concludes on Friday. The theme this year is "ambition." And though the focus of the conference was not just on journalism, the get-together has proved to be one of the best journalism conferences anywhere.
Until next week,
*The Center for Public Integrity has been funded over the years by the Knight Foundation but it is not a current funder.
Just weeks after Japan pledged to return hundreds of pounds of plutonium to the United States for disposal, the Japanese government on April 11 formally endorsed the completion of a factory designed to produce as much as eight tons of the nuclear explosive annually.
The plant is among the key elements of a long-range energy plan approved by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet, reversing the previous government’s efforts to phase out nuclear power in the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima disaster. The move is generally viewed in Japan as unpopular with the public but has been welcomed by Japan’s utilities, which are struggling with massive debts.
The mammoth plant in the village of Rokkasho, scheduled to be completed in October, is meant to extract plutonium from spent commercial reactor fuel so it can be used in fresh fuel to be burned in the country’s reactors. “With safety first in mind always, Japan will promote…the completion of Rokkasho,” the energy plan states.
Publicly, the Obama administration has said little about Rokkasho, located on the Pacific Coast about 1,000 miles north of Tokyo. But privately, U.S. officials and experts say they are worried that Japan’s operation of the $22 billion facility – in the wake of the country’s closure of most of its nuclear power plants -- will add unnecessarily to its existing stockpile of 44 tons of plutonium, some of which is stored in Japan and some in Europe.
U.S. officials have complained to their Japanese counterparts that the plant lacks an adequate security force, making it a potential target for terrorists. They have also urged Japan to subject the plants’ workers to stringent background checks, a move the Japanese see as being at odds with privacy traditions. U.S. experts also have expressed concern that the plant’s operation will encourage other countries, including South Korea, to constructsimilar plutonium factories.
Japan’s stockpile of plutonium today ranks fifth in the world, behind four nuclear-weapons states. The Chinese government in recent weeks has repeatedly expressed concern about Japan’s plans to produce plutonium “far exceeding its normal needs.”
Tokyo’s decision to proceed follows a joint announcement on March 24 by Abe and President Obama and Abe, at the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands, that Japan would return hundreds of pounds of plutonium and weapons-grade uranium it received under the U.S. Atoms for Peace program in the 1960s and 1970s.
The two leaders said the transfer would further “our mutual goal” of keeping global stocks of nuclear explosive materials to a minimum, to keep them out of the hands of terrorists.
But critics say Rokkasho’s operation would violate that goal.
“Getting Japan’s nuclear reactors, especially the most modern ones, back on line makes good sense,” said Robert Einhorn, who served as special advisor on nonproliferation to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The decision to complete Rokkasho and pursue plutonium production, he said, “suggests that old habits, even highly flawed and expensive ones, die hard.”
Einhorn said opening Rokkasho “without realistic prospects of consuming the resulting plutonium in nuclear reactors would be inconsistent with Japan’s pledge to avoid the buildup of separated plutonium,” and “set an unfortunate example” to other countries about how to ensure energy security.
Japan’s new plan does say that the government will listen to the concerns of “local governments and international society” regarding its plutonium production. “And while we promote nuclear fuel reprocessing and the use of MOX, we will be sure to deal flexibly with our policy for a mid-term to long-term period,” the plan states with some ambiguity.
“We aim to opt for an energy supply system which is realistic, pragmatic and well balanced,” Minister of Trade and Industry Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters Friday.
Many communities in Japan are dependent on a stream of payments by the federal government to promote the siting of nuclear power plants, but a few have recently expressed concerns about the burning of plutonium-laced reactor fuels.
In early April, the city of Hakodate sued to halt work on a reactor that would be the first to burn such fuel. Hakodate’s Mayor Toshiki Kudo told reporters in Tokyo Thursday that the government and utility had ignored a plea from the municipality to suspend work on the Ohma plant and made “a unilateral announcement that it would go ahead with construction.”
Kudo called the plant “a terrorist target,” and said it could pose a greater safety risk than reactors fueled in other ways.
Angela Erika Kubo contributed to this article from Tokyo.
What might the oil- and gas-rich Eagle Ford Shale region of South Texas look like in 2018?
A newly released but largely unnoticed study commissioned by the state of Texas makes some striking projections:
- The number of wells drilled in the 20,000-square-mile region could quadruple, from about 8,000 today to 32,000.
- Oil production could leap from 363 million barrels per year to as much as 761 million.
- Airborne releases of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) could increase 281 percent during the peak ozone season compared to 2012 emissions. VOCs, commonly found at oil and gas production sites, can cause respiratory and neurological problems. Some, like benzene, can cause cancer.
- Nitrogen oxides — which react with VOCs in sunlight to create ground-level ozone, the main component of smog — could increase 69 percent during the peak ozone season.
These projections are included in a study prepared by scientists with the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG) in San Antonio and paid for by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The study was designed to determine the extent to which oil and gas development in the Eagle Ford region is contributing to rising ozone levels in the San Antonio metropolitan area, which lies north of much of the drilling. San Antonio’s ozone readings have violated federal air quality standards since August 2012, making the city vulnerable to sanctions under the Clean Air Act.
The study’s findings also have implications beyond San Antonio.
In February, the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel produced a series of reports about air quality in the Eagle Ford and found that the Texas regulatory system does more to protect the gas and oil industry than the public. The TCEQ has installed only five permanent air monitors in the region, which is nearly twice the size of Massachusetts, and all of them are on the fringes of the shale play, far from the heavy drilling areas where emissions are highest.
Peter Bella, AACOG's natural resources director, said in a telephone interview that the San Antonio project has two components: a 260-page emission inventory that was posted without fanfare on the AACOG website April 4, and a photochemical model that uses numbers from the inventory and meteorological data to project how the Eagle Ford’s pollutants will influence ozone in San Antonio.
Findings from the photochemical model were given to the TCEQ more than two months ago and the agency is reviewing AACOG's methodology. Bella said he did not know when the results would be released.
The TCEQ did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
The emission inventory catalogs air pollutants from a range of oil and gas operations using three scenarios: low, moderate and aggressive development. (The numbers cited above assume aggressive development.) It was prepared with technical assistance from, and was reviewed by, the TCEQ.
State Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat, said the growth predictions are bad news for people who live in the Eagle Ford and surrounding cities, especially San Antonio. Burnam has tried unsuccessfully for years to pass legislation that would protect people from pollution associated with oil and gas production.
“The numbers are mind-boggling,” said Burnam, who recently lost a primary election for a 10th term. “Welcome to an increasingly dirty and unhealthy environment in a state wholly unsympathetic to the health and welfare of its people and wholly beholden to the industry.”
Omar Garcia, president of the South Texas Energy & Economic Roundtable, said Friday morning that he did not have the time to talk about the implications of the report. In previous interviews, Garcia has stressed the economics benefits of the Eagle Ford boom. His organization, which represents major operators in the region, says on its website that in 2012, the boom generated $61 billion in spending and more than 116,000 full-time jobs.
“I would love to engage,” Garcia told a reporter, explaining that he couldn’t spare even a few minutes. “We’ll get you on the next one.”
Drilling for decades to come
Documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News under the Texas Public Information Act show that the AACOG study has generated intense scrutiny. In an email last May, for example, Bella told TCEQ scientists he had "recently been fielding questions on a weekly basis" about it from the media, local officials and academic researchers.
The results of the report, plus a separate inventory of non-Eagle Ford pollution sources, would help the fast-growing San Antonio metropolitan area prepare for future development, Bella wrote.
"We can't afford to work through this critical juncture in San Antonio's air quality history without comprehensive, accurate ozone data…including a comprehensive, accurate ozone precursor" emission inventory for the Eagle Ford, he wrote.
A final draft of the inventory was submitted to the TCEQ for review in December and released publicly a week ago, at the same time the agency was compelled to provide documents related to the report to the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News under the Public Information Act.
The report relies heavily on industry publications and input from Eagle Ford operators with on-the-ground expertise. The document paints a picture of massive production growth over the next four years in a largely rural area already impacted by air pollution and other problems associated with five years of drilling.
Between 2008 and 2012, for example, 835 oil and gas wells were drilled in La Salle County — about one well for every nine residents. In neighboring McMullen County — population 730 — the ratio is one well per five residents.
Parts of the Eagle Ford could see active drilling through 2035, the report says, and wells could be more tightly packed. That could lead to more concentrated air emissions. Most of the growth is expected to occur in four counties — Webb, Dimmit, Karnes and La Salle. These counties were responsible for more than half of the Eagle Ford’s VOC and nitrogen oxide emissions in 2012.
Devine, Texas, lawyer Tomas Ramirez represents two Karnes County families in lawsuits against oil companies that claim emissions are sickening his clients. He called the AACOG projections “staggering.”
“It’s already dangerous if you live in close proximity to these sources of emissions,” Ramirez said. “So what does the future hold when you see such a huge increase? I think that the quality of life will substantially deteriorate for the people.”
Ramirez said he recognizes the vital role oil and gas plays in the Texas economy and that energy is a critical element in the overall stability of the country.
But the industry has to be more responsible, he said. Pollution controls “cost money and the oil companies don’t want to spend it. There is a way it can be done but the oil companies are not going to want to spend the money to do it.”
Extent of future emissions debated
Midstream operations — gas processing plants, compressor stations, storage tanks — will far surpass drilling rigs and well hydraulic engines as sources of ozone-forming pollutants, the AACOG scientists forecast. If the area develops as fast as some predict, midstream facilities could be producing 64 tons of VOCs and 49 tons of nitrogen oxides per ozone season day by 2018. That's more than twice what was emitted in 2012. (In San Antonio, the ozone season runs from April through October).
Email exchanges between AACOG and TCEQ scientists show cordial discussions of the methods used to calculate pollution levels in the Eagle Ford. The emails also reveal the unique challenge of estimating emissions from a fast-developing industry where technologies are constantly evolving.
In an email on Feb. 24, 2014, for example, the TCEQ's Michael Ege noted that AACOG's numbers for emissions from pump engines were higher than estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while AACOG's emission calculations from oil and condensate tanks were lower than those used by the TCEQ.
The scientists met two days later to discuss the numbers, and AACOG’s Steven Smeltzer sent Ege an email on Feb. 27 to explain the discrepancies. Smeltzer said the EPA's numbers were outdated, and that AACOG had used data from local industry sources and environmental consultants. AACOG also got its storage tank information from local operators.
Such disagreements aside, it’s clear the Eagle Ford is headed for explosive growth. The report notes that David Porter, a member of the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates drilling, said it will take nearly three decades to “fully develop” the Eagle Ford.
Tom Smith, director of the Texas chapter of Public Citizen, a nonprofit public-interest advocacy organization, said that kind of growth would exhaust the resources of the region’s counties and cities in terms of maintaining roads and providing services.
“The economic devastation to the communities will be extraordinary,” he said. “The demands for infrastructure will increase proportionally to the increase in activity. The tax base will struggle to pay the debt and clean up the mess made for decades.”
Amber Lyssy, who lives with her husband and three children on an organic farm in Wilson County, said their land is already surrounded by drilling rigs, flares, storage tanks and waste pits.
“Now, to think it’s going to get worse is scary,” she said
This story is part of a project by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel. Jim Morris is a senior reporter with the Center for Public Integrity. Lisa Song and David Hasemyer report for InsideClimate News.
Federal Election Commission Chairman Lee Goodman and two of his fellow Republican colleagues skewered Vice Chairwoman Ann Ravel — a Democrat — on Thursday because she didn’t vote to defend the agency last month against litigation from campaign finance reform-minded organizations.
“Not only does this effort derail longstanding Commission practice, but more troublingly, it contravenes well-established legal precedents and evinces a flippant disregard for judicial review,” wrote Goodman, along with FEC commissioners Caroline Hunter and Matthew Petersen.
"Commissioner Ravel has gone to extraordinary and unprecedented lengths to try to censor presentation of the agency’s rationale for its prosecutorial decision in the Crossroads GPS matter," they continued.
The blistering four-page statement came less than four months after Goodman and Ravel vowed to work together to improve the nation’s campaign finance watchdog and to overcome the bitter ideological divide that has for years plagued the agency.
Whether abstaining from the vote draws “furor or not, I’m here to do what’s best for the public and to fulfill the purposes of the FEC,” Ravel told the Center for Public Integrity. “It’s about disclosure.”
The criticism from her peers also follows a commentary by Ravel — published last week in the New York Times — in which she argued the FEC was “failing to enforce the nation’s campaign finance laws” and called out her three Republican colleagues for regularly voting against investigative actions.
The latest controversy over the FEC litigation stems from a vote in December, when the commission deadlocked on whether to approve effectively allowing the agency to investigate Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a conservative 501(c)(4) nonprofit co-founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove.
As a “social welfare” nonprofit, Crossroads GPS is not required to publicly disclose its donors. But some have questioned whether it should have registered as a political committee in 2010, after spending millions of dollars on advertisements calling for the election or defeat of candidates.
The change in status would have meant revealing its donors.
The commission's two Democrats and one independent supported investigating Crossroads GPS, as recommended by the agency’s Office of the General Counsel. They said the group appeared to meet the criteria for a traditional political committee.
“Providing public disclosure is a central part of the mission that Congress entrusted to the Commission,” they wrote later about the vote.
In January, a coalition of campaign finance reform groups, including Public Citizen and ProtectOurElections.org, sued the FEC over the Crossroads GPS matter, accusing it of failing to enforce federal election laws that require certain groups to register as political committees and disclose their donors.
Last month, the commission voted to defend itself against the suit. But Ravel and fellow Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub abstained, sparking criticism this week from their peers.
It’s not the first time a commissioner has abstained or voted against allowing the agency to fight litigation, Weintraub told the Center for Public Integrity. FEC spokeswoman Judy Ingram said votes on litigation are made behind closed doors and typically not made public.
Ravel defended her position, saying it “was a principled stance not to defend the statements by the commissioners who did not want to investigate.”
“We thought this was a case that was clearly one where it met the standard for reason to believe to investigate. It’s a very low standard to look into the matter further,” she said, adding that she originally voted against the move on a paper ballot passed around and “out of a concern for collegiality, I changed my vote to abstention.”
Ravel, former chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, told the Center for Public Integrity last year that fighting for expanded disclosure at the federal level was an “essential purpose of the FEC.”
For their part, the Republican members of the FEC have tried, unsuccessfully, to secure four votes to release the Office of General Counsel's 76-page draft recommendation on the Crossroads GPS matter, which, for now, has been fully redacted by the agency, as first reported by the National Journal.
Ravel said the general counsel realized the report, discussed at a closed-door executive session meeting, wasn't sufficient, and that the commission allowed him to withdraw and redo it, making the document subject to attorney-client and "deliberative process" privileges.
"The reports from General Counsel's office are only made public after the Commission has made a decision on the underlying matter — which never happened in that case," Ravel said, adding that as a former county counsel in California, she knows that releasing drafts or withdrawn documents can chill open discussions, especially in highly political environments.
Goodman, Hunter and Petersen did not respond to requests for comment made through the FEC's press office. But in a letter to the editor in response to Ravel’s New York Times commentary, they said she “would rather grandstand than follow the law and judicial precedent.”
“We enforce the law as written by Congress and construed by the courts, not as our colleague and her ‘reformer’ allies wish it were,” they wrote.
Rove and others associated with Crossroads GPS have maintained their activities comply with the law and that the group’s primary purpose isn’t campaign activity.
Michael Beckel and Dave Levinthal contributed to this report.
In Vermont, the Senate has just passed a bill potentially empowering the Green Mountain State to ban chemicals it deems harmful to consumers. Some 3,000 miles away, in Washington State, environmental reformers weren’t as successful: A bill to ban six toxic flame retardants died in the Senate, beaten back by industry opposition and politicians’ cries of state overreaching.
In state capitols from Maine to Oregon, environmental advocates are filing bills to identify and ban noxious chemicals and industry groups are fighting back with pointed rebukes and high-pitched lobbying. Toxic reform legislation is either breathing with new life or being extinguished altogether.
The toxics tug-of-war in state houses is direct fallout from the muddled environmental politicking of Washington, D.C.
In 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, a federal framework intended to safeguard the public from dangerous chemicals. Yet in the nearly four decades since, TSCA, as it is known, has done little more than gather dust. Among tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce, the Environmental Protection Agency has “only been able to require testing on a little more than 200 existing chemicals,” and banned five, the EPA told The Center for Public Integrity.
Yet three years to the month since the late New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg proposed sweeping change through the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, the TSCA overhaul remains in the works, with proposals, counter-proposals and criticisms about the working draft’s fine print.
Fed up with logjams in D.C., state legislators are filing hundreds of measures in their own states to do what the federal government hasn’t — take action against destructive chemicals, by singling out the most dangerous toxins and seeking to remove them from shelves.
While the political smoke continues in Washington, the chemical reform fire is playing out in statehouses from Montpelier to Olympia.
At least 442 bills involving toxics and chemicals have been filed in 2014, or refiled from previous sessions, covering 39 states, according to an environmental health legislation database maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures. A year earlier, 399 such bills were filed and the year before that, the database shows, more than 500.
“There’s only so much you will say, ‘We can wait and see. It will be great if the feds do something.’ I think people are losing patience,” said Justin Johnson, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency for Natural Resources.
As the Center for Public Integrity reported last year, the American Chemistry Council and other industry groups fight nearly every state measure, contending that a patchwork of state laws would do more harm than good, and that true change should come through TSCA. The industry’s statehouse pushback, fueled by a chemical advocacy group that spends tens of millions of lobbying dollars along with making political campaign donations, has helped beat back hundreds of state bills in recent years.
Vermont’s Johnson is among the state officials who understand the argument that having multitudes of differing state laws “is not the way to go.” Yet in his state, as in others, the argument of waiting for Congress to act has grown stale.
“I’ve been personally to the statehouse here in Vermont for five years in a row. ‘Let’s wait and see what the feds do,’” said Johnson, who serves on the Environmental Council of the States, a nonpartisan association of state leaders. “It’s getting pretty old.”
Bills filed, and fought, from Vermont to Washington State
Last week in Vermont, the Senate approved Senate Bill 239, which would allow the state Department of Health to “identify and publish a list of chemicals of high concern,” following the lead of states such as Washington and Maine. The bill would require manufacturers of products using such chemicals to notify the state, “and to replace the chemical with a safer alternative.”
“Given where we are with the toxics reform at the federal level; given that we haven’t seen movement there; and given that we have over 60,000 chemicals that haven’t been adequately tested for their effect on public health, this is the way to begin,” the bill sponsor, Sen. Virginia “Ginny” Lyons, told a Vermont news website.
The bill must clear the House before becoming law.
As in other states, the toxics legislation faces opposition from industry, with lobbyists describing it as another piece in a patchwork of state laws across the U.S.
The Toy Industry Association, a trade group composed of 700 members, has gone on record opposing the bill, citing what it views as a “flawed scientific approach” as the basis for the measure, and the “immense cost to businesses” and the state.
“TIA commends the bill sponsors for their keen interest in the safety of children. We share that interest, and our industry is founded on the mission of bringing fun and joy to children’s lives,” the association wrote Vermont legislators.
“However, we have serious concerns regarding Senate Bill 239 as it does not consider the existing robust safety system for toys sold in this country — including federal regulation and international standards — and will create unnecessary burden on companies doing business in Vermont with arguably no measurable increase in safety.”
In Washington State, industry opposition helped quash the Toxic-Free Kids & Families Act. The measure would have banned six flame retardants on the state’s list of “Chemicals of High Concern for Children” — and put the onus on manufacturers to replace them with safer chemicals.
Sen. Sharon Nelson, a Democrat who has pushed toxics legislation for several years in Washington State, is among the legislators weary of waiting for the federal government to act. “We haven’t seen the changes at the federal level,” she said. “Ultimately the science will prevail, but it’s hard.”
As they had in previous sessions, the Association of Washington Business and the American Chemistry Council pushed back against the flame retardants bill, officially filing opposition to the proposal.
The bill died in the state Senate.
“I’ve seen every time we go into this across the nation, the chemistry council comes in behind the scenes and does a good job about casting questions: Should we be doing this at the state level? They’ve done a good job of just constantly either trying to water down the bills or kill them,” Senator Nelson said. “They’ve been effective. They are well-heeled lobbyists.”
Republican State Sen. Doug Ericksen, chair of the Washington legislature’s Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee, said the bill as proposed was problematic, putting too much power in the hands of a state agency to potentially ban chemicals.
Ericksen said he proposed a compromise measure but Democrats didn’t go along. Sen. Nelson said that measure was watered down to ban chemicals already being phased out.
In a broader sense, Sen. Ericksen echoes the industry’s biggest complaint with state bills. “The issue you get into is creating an island in Washington State,” Ericksen said. “I would say it doesn’t help for Washington State to have a go it alone mentality.”
Brandon Housekeeper, an Association of Washington Business government affairs official, used the same phrasing as Ericksen in describing his group’s opposition, asking “Whether Washington should act alone as an island and ban chemicals used in commerce.”
Housekeeper said the AWB, which describes itself as the state’s “premiere advocate for the business community” representing 8,000 members, helped Ericksen create the alternate bill. “Just an out and out ban in these things in their use didn’t seem appropriate, so we proposed a different path to get to that result,” Housekeeper said.
How effective was the industry effort? “I think the opponents of the legislation obviously had some voice and hand in how legislators reacted to the legislation. Because I think we asked valid questions,” Housekeeper said.
The AWB’s slogan: “We mean business.” Ericksen said he listens to industry and “all different points of view.”
“The industry groups are not necessarily opposed to eliminating these harmful chemicals from these product lines,” he said. “They just find it difficult when they are mandated to be included in one state and mandated to be prohibited in another state.”
More state battles: Oregon, Connecticut, Maine
Legislators in other states have also filed bills this session to identify and remove unsafe chemicals. In state after state, the legislation encounters strong industry pushback, with critics working capitol hallways to douse reform proposals.
“Even if these bills don’t pass, it’s raising awareness,” said Oregon Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, who for several years has proposed a bill that would, like Washington State’s, create a state list of high priority chemicals for children’s health.
Again this year, the bill was shot down. “The industry fought it very hard,” the Oregon legislator said.
Creating lists of dangerous chemicals can make a difference, Keny-Guyer believes. “If companies see they are showing up in these things, there’s much more incentive for them to find safer chemicals,” she said.
In many states, getting from proposal to approved bill is a steep climb.
In Connecticut, advocates are again trying to win approval for a bill allowing the state to compile and maintain a list of harmful chemicals. Supporters crafted the bill so it would not cost the state government a penny.
That same measure was pitched in 2013 but failed when the proposal was talked to death by a committee and never came to a vote.
“We really feel like we’re doing everything we can to kind of build momentum, but we’re not resting on anything at this point. I know that the industry is continuing to fight the bill on a daily basis,” said Anne Hulick, coordinator for the nonprofit Coalition for a Safe & Healthy Connecticut. “I’m worried the opposition is building and we don’t see it.”
The lack of an updated TSCA is a “really big factor,” she said, in why states like Connecticut need their own laws to target hazardous chemicals.
In Maine, advocates are pushing legislation in a state where the Republican governor last year vetoed a bill intended to protect pregnant women and children from harmful chemicals, and where the head of the Department of Environmental Protection is a former lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council. A spokeswoman for the Maine DEP’s director, Patricia Aho, said any potential conflicts had been “thoroughly vetted” before she took office in 2011. The governor’s office said he vetoed bills that were “not good policy.”
This year’s toxic reform push is a direct offshoot of the languishing pace of TSCA overhaul in D.C.
“It’s huge,” said Beth Ahearn, political director for the Maine Conservation Voters. “It creates all the reason we’ve decided to go ahead on our own, because we cannot wait for TSCA reform.”