Saturday, October 07, 2006

Denny Hastert's dodgy real estate deals.

by Norman Ornstein & Scott Lilly

Until last week, the broad image of House Speaker Dennis Hastert was of an affable, even grandfatherly figure. But Hastert's response--or lack thereof--to the Mark Foley scandal has suddenly put him in the hot seat, requiring even President Bush to defend him. The Speaker's reputation has taken a serious hit. Still, the image remains of an amiable guy, whose sins are more of sloth than malevolence.

Speaker Hastert, however, is no passive figure. When it comes to running the House, Hastert has, in fact, been an aggressive partisan. Recall, for instance, that he personally fired the chairman and two Republican members from the House Ethics Committee after they had the effrontery to rebuke Tom DeLay for misconduct. And when it comes to real estate, he has been a downright wheeler-dealer. Virtually overnight, the speaker's net worth went from approximately $300,000 to at least $6.2 million--thanks, in no small part, to an earmark he authored.

Hastert's real estate transactions have been reported extensively in the Chicago press and picked apart in a June report issued by the Sunlight Foundation. But they have been largely ignored in the national media. A careful examination of the facts in the case, however, leads to the conclusion that there are compelling reasons beyond the Foley case to call for the speaker's resignation from the post.

Here are the essential facts: In August, 2002, Hastert bought 196 acres of land in rural Kendall County, Illinois for $2,125,000. According to the Chicago Tribune, Hastert bought the plot in two separate transactions. The first deal gave him a house, barn, swimming pool, and 17 acres of land for $1.2 million. In the second deal, he obtained an additional 179 acres on an adjacent property for a little less than $5,200 per acre. The least valuable portions of the second deal were two fields, separated from the rest of the farm by a stream and inaccessible by road.
That was a big deal for a life-long politician and wrestling coach like Hastert, but harmless enough. Eighteen months later, however, Hastert's purchase took a new direction. The speaker entered into a real estate agreement with Dallas Ingemunson, the chair of the Kendall County Republican Party, and a campaign contributor named Tom Klatt. The three men formed a real estate trust and purchased an additional 69 acres of land adjacent to Hastert's two inaccessible fields. The trust paid $1,033,000 for the land, or about $15,000 per acre--more expensive turf than Hastert's plot in part because of its access to a road.

And here's where the deal first begins to acquire a pungent odor: The trust then added Hastert's two fields to the jointly acquired parcel and credited Hastert with 62 percent ownership apparently on the presumption that Hastert's $5,200 land was equal in value to his partners $15,000 land.

These deals coincided with a protracted battle in Congress sparked by the expiration of the 1998 highway bill. Hastert's purchase of his new home and the additional 179 acres of land took place the same month that the House Transportation Committee prepared for its first hearings on a new highway bill--a bill that would be rife with opportunities for members of congress to bring new roads to their districts in the form of earmarks, changes in infrastructure that could have a major effect on real estate values.

A new highway bill, however, didn't neatly wend its way to the president's desk. Members tacked literally thousands and thousands of earmarks to the legislation, wildly inflating its costs and provoking prolonged opposition from the administration. As the President's Fiscal Year 2003 budget warned: "The proliferation of congressional earmarking comes at a cost, in wasted dollars and in unfairness, as when a grant applicant who played by the rules and earned a place at the front of the funding line gets shoved backwards."

There was no better object lesson in the case against earmarks than the Prairie Parkway Corridor, pushed by none other than Denny Hastert. This new highway, designed to connect the counties west of Chicago to the metropolis itself, had neither the support of the public nor the Illinois Department of Transportation. Their objection: Rigid requirements in the highway bill would force the diversion of state funds that might have been used for the widening and improvement of existing roads--an approach, according to opinion polls, favored by a majority of the area's residents--or for more efficient transportation corridors to Chicago. But the Prairie Parkway did offer one important convenience: It was located just over a mile from the property owned by Hastert's trust.

Squabbling over the ballooning cost of the bill might have prevented this highway from ever coming to fruition. But Hastert played an unusually active role in shepherding the legislation, a more aggressive role than he played at any other point in his speakership. His dominance of the process was noted by an Illinois highway official, who remarked, "I think it's truly a recognition of the leadership of Speaker Hastert. Speaker Hastert was able to deliver a bill that made it through Congress that the president could sign, rather than a bill that would make it through Congress that the president would veto." Hastert himself explained at one point in the process that the negotiations had become so intense that he was no longer dealing with White House staff and had begun working directly with the president. When the bill finally passed in the summer of 2005, President Bush also recognized Hastert's efforts by traveling to his district for the bill signing ceremony. Bush also mentioned the Prairie Parkway which he said," is crucial for economic development in Kendall and Kane counties."

It was, we now know, crucial to the speaker's own economic development. In December of 2005, four months after the signing of the new Federal Highway Bill containing the $207 million inserted by Hastert for construction of the nearby Prairie Parkway, the 138 acres held by the trust were sold to a developer as part of planned 1600 home housing development. The trust received $4,989,000 or $36,152 an acre for the parcel of which 62.5 percent or $3,118,000 went to Hastert. Klatt and Ingemunson also did well. Their profit equaled 144 percent of their original investment. Hastert, however, received six times what he had paid for his investment, a profit equal to 500 percent of his original investment.

The Hastert earmark not only provided money for Parkway construction but mandated that the construction take place on the portion of the Parkway nearest his recently purchased property. While the money contained in the highway bill was sufficient to build only about one-third of the entire 36-mile road, the speaker insured that the right third would be selected by also earmarking funds for construction of a interchange in that portion of the proposed thooughfare.
The decision by the developer to build a subdivision in an area proximate to Hastert's farm had financial implications for the speaker that ran well beyond the $2.5 million profit he reaped on the sale. The Tribune has calculated that the remaining 125 acres he still owns is now worth about $4.5 million. Even counting the mortgage on the property, Hastert's net worth, according to the Tribune, appears to be more than $6.2 million. An estimate that Hastert's office does not dispute, probably because it is extremely conservative.

Hastert has responded forcefully to the allegations of venality. "I owned land, and I sold it, like millions of people do every day." The speaker's office has painted a portrait of a guy who just happened to be driving past a house he liked; he bought it and subsequently, in a straightforward transaction, sold some of the land that came with it for a profit.
The speaker hasn't exactly helped his case with his accounts of the transaction. His office has, for instance, described the Prairie Parkway as located over five miles from his property. But U.S. Geological Survey aerial photographs clearly show it to be about four miles closer than that.
We cannot say at this juncture whether the actions taken by the speaker are illegal. We can say that they do not meet the standards we expect--or should expect--from a member of Congress. And they certainly do not meet the standards we expect from the speaker of the House.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back On Track. Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Read full post and comments:
"Denny Hastert's dodgy real estate deals." >>

Negro Leagues icon Buck O’Neil dies at 94

The Kansas City Star

Beloved Negro Leagues icon and Kansas City legend Buck O’Neil died Friday night. O’Neil was 94.

He spent his life playing, coaching and finally promoting baseball. He was a batting champion, a three-time All-Star, and a wildly successful manager for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues before becoming the first black coach in the major leagues with the Cubs in 1962. As a scout, he is credited with discovering and signing Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock, among others.

After his coaching career concluded, O’Neil devoted his life to spreading the stories of the men who played in the Negro Leagues. He captivated audiences of all ages and races with stories of Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and others.

He became something of a national celebrity as the narrator of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, “Baseball,” in 1994. Since then he became the top ambassador for the Negro Leagues, telling his stories on national radio and television, including with David Letterman.

In Kansas City, he gained fame as the leader of the effort to build the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in the 18th and Vine district. Once it was built, O’Neil served as the museum’s chairman and its most effective promoter.

“It’s really hard to express what he meant to everybody in Kansas City and certainly to me, professionally, and even more personally as a dear friend,” said Bob Kendrick, marketing director for the museum. “He will be greatly missed by everybody. It will be a tremendous void in all our lives. But Buck would not want us to be sad, so we’ll try to be a little more upbeat. But obviously that’s hard right now.”

Kendrick said he did not know when services would be. There will be a 2 p.m. news conference today at the museum.

O’Neil was the subject of national attention when he was not among 17 Negro Leaguers elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in a special balloting in February. Several Hall of Famers, including Bob Feller, have since said they will work to correct what they perceive as a major mistake.
Following the disappointing news, O’Neil was less affected than most. At a news conference the day he found out, he told the crowd, “Shed no tears for Buck. No, no. Ol’ God’s been good to me. You can see that, don’t you? If I’m a Hall of Famer for you, that’s all I need. Just keep loving ol’ Buck.”

O’Neil still agreed to give the keynote address — and predictably stole the show — at July’s induction ceremonies in Cooperstown. The speech was just part of a whirlwind summer that included two at-bats at a T-Bones game, and appearances and autographs in New York City and Kauffman Stadium and points in between.

The activity apparently took a toll on O’Neil, as he was admitted to a hospital soon after to treat exhaustion. At a news conference following his release, he spoke briefly but was obviously still recovering.

Nearly all of his scheduled appearances this fall were canceled so that he could rest. He was readmitted to the hospital about three weeks ago, and his condition never improved.

Those who saw O’Neil play remember him as a good, if not stellar, ballplayer who was always highly respected by his teammates. He will be remembered most for the charisma and openness that drew in a large audience, which he entertained with stories about everything from the ills of segregation growing up in the South to why baseball legend Satchel Paige called him Nancy.
He was born John Jordan O’Neil, on Nov. 13, 1911, in Carrabelle, Fla., the son of a ballplayer. He was nicknamed “Buck” after the co-owner of the Miami Giants, Buck O’Neal. He was denied the chance to attend college in Florida and to play in the major leagues because of segregation, but decided at a young age that the best way to fight hatred and ignorance was through love.

As a ballplayer, he had a career batting average of .288, including four seasons above .300. He hit .353 and won the 1946 Negro Leagues batting crown, his first season back after two years with the Navy. The next year, he hit a career-high .358. He also toured with Paige at the height of Negro Leagues barnstorming in the 1930s and 1940s.

Read full post and comments:
"Negro Leagues icon Buck O’Neil dies at 94" >>

Friday, October 06, 2006

Man tries to drive 310 miles in reverse

Associated Press

SYDNEY, Australia - A 22-year-old man attempted to drive 310 miles in reverse on a remote Outback highway after his transmission failed, blocking his forward gears, police said Friday. The man was stopped by Western Australia state police on Thursday afternoon after they spotted his car roaring in reverse down the highway at about 40 mph, according to a statement.

He was en route to the state capital, Perth, when his transmission failed outside a restaurant in the Outback town of Kalgoorlie, about 300 miles away, according to media reports.

Rather than call a mechanic, the man opted to continue driving, in reverse.

Police said they stopped the man, whose identity was not immediately released, outside the nearby town of Coolgardie, about 12 miles from where his backward journey began.

A breath test for alcohol proved negative, but the man was charged with reckless driving and other traffic offenses, police said. He was ordered to appear before the Coolgardie Magistrates Court on Monday.

Read full post and comments:
"Man tries to drive 310 miles in reverse" >>

Monday, October 02, 2006

Records Show Tenet Briefed Rice on Al Qaeda Threat

Published: October 2, 2006
The New York Times

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 2 — A review of White House records has determined that George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, did brief Condoleezza Rice and other top officials on July 10, 2001, about the looming threat from Al Qaeda, a State Department spokesman said Monday.

The account by Sean McCormack came hours after Ms. Rice, the secretary of state, told reporters aboard her airplane that she did not recall the specific meeting on July 10, 2001, noting that she had met repeatedly with Mr. Tenet that summer about terrorist threats. Ms. Rice, the national security adviser at the time, said it was “incomprehensible” she ignored dire terrorist threats two months before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mr. McCormack also said records show that the Sept. 11 commission was informed about the meeting, a fact that former intelligence officials and members of the commission confirmed on Monday.

When details of the meeting emerged last week in a new book by Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, Bush administration officials questioned Mr. Woodward’s reporting.
Now, after several days, both current and former Bush administration officials have confirmed parts of Mr. Woodward’s account.

Officials now agree that on July 10, 2001, Mr. Tenet and his counterterrorism deputy, J. Cofer Black, were so alarmed about an impending Al Qaeda attack that they demanded an emergency meeting at the White House with Ms. Rice and her National Security Council staff.
According to two former intelligence officials, Mr. Tenet told those assembled at the White House about the growing body of intelligence the Central Intelligence Agency had collected pointing to an impending Al Qaeda attack. But both current and former officials took issue with Mr. Woodward’s account that Mr. Tenet and his aides left the meeting in frustration, feeling as if Ms. Rice had ignored them.

Mr. Tenet told members of the Sept. 11 commission about the July 10 meeting when they interviewed him in early 2004, but committee members said the former C.I.A. director never indicated he had left the White House with the impression that he had been ignored.
“Tenet never told us that he was brushed off,” said Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic member of the commission. “We certainly would have followed that up.”

Mr. McCormack said the records showed that, far from ignoring Mr. Tenet’s warnings, Ms. Rice acted on the intelligence and requested that Mr. Tenet make the same presentation to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Atttorney General John Ashcroft. But Mr. Ashcroft said by telephone on Monday evening that he never received a briefing that summer from Mr. Tenet. “Frankly, I’m disappointed that I didn’t get that kind of briefing,” he said. “I’m surprised he didn’t think it was important enough to come by and tell me.”

The dispute that has played out in recent days gives further evidence of an escalating battle between the White House and Mr. Tenet over who should take the blame for such mistakes as the failure to stop the Sept. 11 attacks and assertions by Bush administration officials that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling chemical and biological weapons and cultivating ties to Al Qaeda.

Mr. Tenet resigned as director of central intelligence in the summer of 2004 and was honored that December with a Presidential Medal of Freedom during a White House ceremony. Since leaving the C.I.A., Mr. Tenet has stayed out of the public eye, largely declining to defend his record at the C.I.A. even after several government investigations have assailed the faulty intelligence that helped build the case for the Iraq war.

Mr. Tenet is now completing work on a memoir that is scheduled to be published early next year.

It is unclear how muchMr. Tenet will use the book to settle old scores, although recent books have portrayed Mr. Tenet both as dubious about the need for the Iraq war and angry that the White House has made the C.I.A. the primary scapegoat for the war.

In his book “The One Percent Doctrine,” the journalist and author Ron Suskind quotes Mr. Tenet’s former deputy at the C.I.A., John McLaughlin, saying that Mr. Tenet “wishes he could give that damn medal back.”

In his own book, Mr. Woodward wrote that over time Mr. Tenet developed a particular dislike for Ms. Rice, and that the former C.I.A. director was furious when she publicly blamed the agency for allowing President Bush to make the false claim in the 2003 State of the Union Address that Saddam Hussein was pursuing nuclear materials in Niger.

“If the C.I.A., the Director of National Intelligence, had said ‘take this out of the speech,’ it would have been gone, without question,” Ms. Rice told reporters in July 2003.
In fact, the C.I.A. had told the White House months before that the Niger intelligence was bogus and had managed to keep the claim out of an October 2002 speech that President Bush gave in Cincinnati.

More recently, Mr. Tenet has told friends that he was particularly angry when, appearing recently on Sunday talk shows, both Ms. Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney cited Mr. Tenet by name as the reason that Bush administration officials asserted that Mr. Hussein had stockpiles of banned weapons in Iraq and ties to Al Qaeda.

Mr. Cheney recalled during an appearance on “Meet the Press” on Sept. 10 of this year: “George Tenet sat in the Oval Office and the president of the United States asked him directly, he said, ‘George, how good is the case against Saddam on weapons of mass destruction?’ the director of the C.I.A. said, ‘It’s a slam dunk, Mr. President, it’s a slam dunk.’ ”

Philip Shenon reported from Jidda, Saudi Arabia, and Mark Mazzetti from Washington.

Back Story: Philip Shenon on Rice’s Mideast Trip (mp3)

Read full post and comments:
"Records Show Tenet Briefed Rice on Al Qaeda Threat" >>

Election Outcome Will Determine Fate of Iraq

by Tom McClanahan

Last week, President Bush declassified key portions of an intelligence analysis to counter leaked versions reported by the press. But as Washington flaps go, this one didn’t amount to much.
For all the headlines, the public version of the document offered little more than any consumer of news with access to the Internet didn’t discern already.

The declassified National Intelligence Estimate said al-Qaida has been seriously damaged, but the threat is becoming more diffuse. The analysts who wrote the document said jihadists were growing in number, but they couldn’t measure the increase with any precision.

More: Iraq, said the analysts, has become a “cause celebre” for jihadists, and the war is “cultivating supporters” of global terrorism.

Naturally, published reports seized on the cause celebre remark, but you’d think this would be obvious. Anywhere the United States invests that much blood and treasure would become a cause celebre for terrorists.

The intelligence estimate also explained why success in Iraq is critical: “Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed … fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight.” Somehow, that assertion failed to make the headlines.

The document may have been unsurprising, but its overall gloomy tone was appropriate. Since Sept. 11, the challenge has only deepened.

During the summer, the eminent Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis gave a lecture with a title posing our strategic challenge in stark terms: “Bring Them Freedom, Or They Destroy Us.”
Jihadists led by Osama bin Laden see the current struggle as the continuation of a 1,300-year conflict between Islam and Christianity.

In the most recent phase of the conflict, the world of the infidels was divided between the United States and Soviet Union. From the Muslim point of view, the United States didn’t defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Rather, the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan by jihadists waging holy war.

Lewis says the jihadists were initially disheartened by the strong American response to Sept. 11 and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Now they see Americans as deeply divided. With little understanding of how democracies work, they read debate as a sign of weakness.

“Thus,” says Lewis, “they prepare for the final victory, the final triumph and the final jihad.”
With an election looming in November, that’s an appropriate context for viewing the growing anti-war fervor among congressional Democrats.

If Democrats gain control of Congress, the risk is real that they would fatally undermine the Iraq effort by choking off the money — just as they did in the later years of the Vietnam War.

Congressional Democrats remain deeply divided on the war. Some favor immediate withdrawal, some favor timetables and some — a few — continue to back the administration.

But many have adopted a self-fulfilling policy of defeat. They have concluded that success in Iraq is impossible, therefore funding should be cut to ensure that success is impossible. The congressional Out of Iraq Caucus already has 73 members.

Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California, told The Hill newspaper that she “wouldn’t spend another dime” on Iraq.

New York Rep. Charles Rangel, a war opponent, would become chairman of the Ways and Means Committee if Democrats take control of the House. He’s a bit more subtle than Woolsey, but his point is the same: “You’ve got to be able to pay for the war, don’t you?” he told The Hill.
For all the mistakes, waste and lost opportunities, voters should understand that at this moment in history, giving Democrats control of Congress could be the same as voting for defeat in Iraq.

Read full post and comments:
"Election Outcome Will Determine Fate of Iraq" >>