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Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
Last week's indictment of 44 people, including several New Jersey
officials and two state legislators, underscores that "pay-to-play" is
alive and well in the Garden State, especially within its Department of
Environmental Protection , according Public Employees for Environmental
Responsibility (PEER). Today PEER proposed new rules to end the closed
door dealings within DEP that fuel corrupt practices and put its
professional staff in an untenable position.
To facilitate development projects, state legislators
pressure DEP to improperly approve permits, sign-off on incomplete
clean-ups and shelve enforcement actions. Typically, legislators
deliver their messages to the DEP Commissioner or the Assistant
Commissioners, who in turn direct staff. As one of the indicted
lawmakers, state Rep. Daniel Van Pelt, who sits on the committee
overseeing DEP, bragged to the FBI confidential informant, he knows the
"right guys" who "work" the "channels".
"The back channels into DEP need to be shut down," stated PEER
Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "As long as DEP does its business behind
closed doors, corruption will continue to blossom."
Today PEER is proposing transparency rules for DEP that are
virtually identical to ones which the agency rejected when PEER first
proposed them in 2007. These rules would provide:
"A big problem in New Jersey DEP is that the professional staff has
little recourse when confronting management orders to less than
faithfully execute the law," Ruch added, noting that the state's
whistleblower law does not protect employee disclosures about threats
to public health, manipulation of science, mismanagement or ethics
violations. "Sunlight is the best hope for deterring sleazy deals."
Political influence over DEP is now so deep that it is an accepted
fact of life. For example, in a July 14, 2009 letter, DEP Acting
Assistant Commissioner Scott Brubaker explained why he was setting
aside water anti-pollution rules because legislators had introduce a
bill to bully DEP to bend over for a favored project:
"The Department is also under pressure from the development
community, which fears that the Department will unilaterally remove
sewer service areas. Recently, legislation has been introduced that
would extend the submission deadline...Together these added burdens would
preclude the Department from adopting any new or updated wastewater
management plan for the foreseeable future. Any Department effort to
withdraw sewer service areas would encourage this legislation."
"So long as DEP succumbs to political pressure, it invites that pressure," Ruch concluded.
Examine the DEP role in latest bribery scandal
View the DEP letter acknowledging political bullying
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.
"The American people expect their elected representatives to hold their colleagues to a higher ethical standard and punish those who violate the public's trust," said Stand Up America's Brett Edkins.
"House Republicans have once again demonstrated their moral bankruptcy by shielding a deceitful and indicted fraudster in their ranks," declared Stand Up America managing director of policy and political affairs Brett Edkins.
"George Santos' seemingly endless lies and criminal behavior have disgraced the GOP and left voters in New York's 3rd Congressional District without real representation," he argued. "Still, today, House Republicans voted to put political expediency over common decency."
Edkins added that "the American people expect their elected representatives to hold their colleagues to a higher ethical standard and punish those who violate the public's trust. It's time for House Republicans to grow a backbone and fulfill their obligation to their constituents."
Rather than immediately ousting Santos—who faces charges including wire fraud, money laundering, and theft of public funds—Republicans referred the expulsion resolution led by Democratic Reps. Robert Garcia (Calif.), Becca Balint (Vt.), and Eric Sorenson (Ill.) to the House Committee on Ethics.
Introduced Tuesday, the trio's privileged resolution cites a clause in the U.S. Constitution that states the House and Senate can determine how their members are disciplined, including by expulsion with a two-thirds majority.
Wednesday's 221-204 vote was along party lines, though the ethics panel's five Democrats—Susan Wild (Pa.), Glenn Ivey (Md.), Veronica Escobar (Texas), Deborah Ross (N.C.), and Mark DeSaulnier (Calif.)—plus Democratic Reps. Chrissy Houlahan (Pa.) and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (Wash.) abstained.
\u201cJust now 100% of House republicans voted to block expelling con artist and indicted fraudster george santos and then cowardly buried the matter in committee to keep him in Congress.\u201d— Bill Pascrell, Jr. \ud83c\uddfa\ud83c\uddf8\ud83c\uddfa\ud83c\udde6 (@Bill Pascrell, Jr. \ud83c\uddfa\ud83c\uddf8\ud83c\uddfa\ud83c\udde6) 1684359610
After the vote, Garcia—who has called for Santos' expulsion for months—took aim at House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who had said Tuesday that the House Ethics Committee should investigate the embattled freshman Republican.
"George Santos is a fraud, and Kevin McCarthy's efforts to protect him with this vote will fail. We will continue to hold him and those who protect him accountable for his fraud and lies," Garcia tweeted Wednesday, adding that "the House Republicans are now officially the SAVE SANTOS CAUCUS."
According toThe Washington Post:
Santos said that if the Ethics Committee finds a reason to remove him, "that is the process."
In March, the Ethics Committee voted to create a bipartisan subcommittee to investigate claims about Santos.
In its March statement, the ethics panel said it is working to determine whether Santos, 34, may have "engaged in unlawful activity with respect to his 2022 congressional campaign; failed to properly disclose required information on statements filed with the House; violated federal conflict of interest laws in connection with his role in a firm providing fiduciary services; and/or engaged in sexual misconduct towards an individual seeking employment in his congressional office."
released on $500,000 bond last week after being charged on Long Island. He has pleaded not guilty and told reporters outside the courthouse that he plans to fight "the witch hunt" against him.
Prosecutors allege Santos convinced supporters of his congressional campaign to donate to a company but then used the money for exorbitant personal expenses. They have also accused him of lying on federal disclosure forms and receiving unemployment benefits when he was employed at an investment firm.
Balint warned Tuesday that if the Republicans continue to accept Santos' alleged criminal activity, it will be "a sign of the deteriorating health of our government."
"Democracies don't die overnight; they erode slowly as we degrade our ethical standards and turn away from our values," she said. "Americans want to have faith in our democracy, but with trust in government at an all-time low it's critical we take action to restore that trust."
Separately from the criminal charges, Santos has admitted to lying about his educational and professional background and his connection to survivors of the Holocaust. A New York Times investigation found that he also lied about his employees having been killed in the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.
"Children in a democracy must not be taught that books are dangerous," asserted PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel. "The freedom to read is guaranteed by the Constitution."
The free expression group PEN America on Wednesday joined Penguin Random House—the largest U.S. book publisher—and a group of authors and parents in a lawsuit challenging a Florida county school district's banning of titles about race and LGBTQ+ topics, a policy stemming from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' self-described "war on woke."
"Today, Escambia County seeks to bar books critics view as too 'woke,'" states the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida and seeks to return proscribed titles to school libraries.
"In the 1970s, schools sought to bar Slaughterhouse-Five and books edited by Langston Hughes," the suit notes. "Tomorrow, it could be books about Christianity, the country's founders, or war heroes. All of these removals run afoul of the First Amendment."
\u201c\ud83e\uddf5PEN America Files Lawsuit against Florida School District over Unconstitutional Book Bans\n\nLawsuit joined by @penguinrandom, parents, and authors asserts that Escambia County School Board unlawfully removes or restricts access to books about race, racism, and LGBTQ identities.\u201d— PEN America (@PEN America) 1684332075
According toThe New York Times:
In Escambia County, the restrictions the lawsuit is concerned with began when Vicki Baggett, a language arts teacher at the district's Northview High School, challenged more than 100 titles beginning last year. Among them were picture books, young adult novels, and works of nonfiction. The complaint described her objections as "nakedly ideological," saying that she had argued that the books "should be evaluated based on explicit sexual content, graphic language, themes, vulgarity, and political pushes."
Among the books was And Tango Makes Three, about a penguin family with two fathers, which she objected to for "serving an LGBTQ agenda using penguins."
The school board—which is a defendant in the case, along with the district—has so far "voted to remove 10 books, some entirely and others from certain grade levels," the Times reported. "In each instance, the board did so despite a recommendation from a district-level committee of educators, media specialists, community members, and parents that the books remain in place."
\u201c\ud83e\uddf5Here\u2019s the woman responsible for the chaos in our school district. Meet Vicki Baggett, an English teacher and a member of the daughter\u2019s of the confederacy. She challenged 150 books in our district because they made white children feel bad\n #Florida #BookBan #escambia\u201d— Change The System (@Change The System) 1684340246
PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement that "children in a democracy must not be taught that books are dangerous. The freedom to read is guaranteed by the Constitution."
"In Escambia County, state censors are spiriting books off shelves in a deliberate attempt to suppress diverse voices," Nossel added. "In a nation built on free speech, this cannot stand. The law demands that the Escambia County School District put removed or restricted books back on library shelves where they belong."
Penguin Random House CEO Nihar Malaviya said that "books have the capacity to change lives for the better, and students in particular deserve equitable access to a wide range of perspectives."
"Censorship, in the form of book bans like those enacted by Escambia County, [is] a direct threat to democracy and our constitutional rights," Malaviya added. "We stand by our authors, their books, and the teachers, librarians, and parents who champion free expression."
Lindsay Durtschi, an Escambia County parent and plaintiff in the suit, argued that "without diverse representation in literature in school libraries and inclusive dialogue in the classroom, we are doing irreparable harm to the voices and safety of students in Florida."
"Our children need the adults in their lives to stand up for the promise of inclusion and equity," Durtschi added.
\u201cThe lawsuit says Escambia County School District and School Board violated the #FirstAmendment rights of the students, authors, and publishers by removing books \u201cbased on ideological objections to their contents or disagreement with their messages or themes.\u201d #IStandWithTheBanned\u201d— PEN America (@PEN America) 1684339173
The new lawsuit comes amid a relentless attack by DeSantis—a likely 2024 Republican presidential candidate—on educational freedom from kindergarten through the university level.
On Wednesday, DeSantis signed a bill extending the so-called "Don't Say Gay or Trans" law—which prohibits classroom discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity—to include all grades K-12.
The governor has also replaced key state education officials with right-wing allies who toe his "anti-woke" line, while stoking a climate of fear in which educators have removed books from classroom libraries to avoid running afoul of bans on titles dealing with race or LGBTQ+ issues.
Common Dreamsreported last month that laws passed in Republican-controlled states have led to nearly 1,500 book bans nationwide during just the first half of the 2022-23 school year. This followed a record number of book bans last year, according to the American Library Association.
Frustrated with fruitless negotiations, others are demanding action now—including the head of Groundwork Collaborative, who said that "it's time for President Biden to step away from this slow-moving train wreck."
As negotiations with congressional Republicans over raising the debt ceiling drag on, at least five U.S. senators are circulating a letter that urges President Joe Biden to prepare to invoke the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, The Washington Postrevealed Wednesday.
"Republicans have made it clear that they are prepared to hold our entire economy hostage unless you accede to their demands to reduce the deficit on the backs of working families. That is simply unacceptable," states the letter obtained by the Post.
"We write to urgently request that you prepare to exercise your authority under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution," the document adds. "Using this authority would allow the United States to continue to pay its bills on time, without delay, preventing a global economic catastrophe."
The letter is endorsed by Democratic Sens. Tina Smith (Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Ed Markey (Mass.), and Jeff Merkley (Ore.), along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). "Those lawmakers met in the Capitol Tuesday to discuss their plans," the newspaper noted, and more are expected to sign on before it is released. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), for example, cited the 14th Amendment in a series of tweets Wednesday.
\u201cScoop: 5 Senate Ds circulating letter urging Biden to prep 14th Amendment, bypass GOP on debt limit, per copy we got\n\nSignals strong anger w/ direction of talks, work requirements floated by WH \n\n\u201cSeemingly impossible\u201d to reach bipartisan deal right now\n\nhttps://t.co/ukQOQ1uYbv\u201d— Jeff Stein (@Jeff Stein) 1684343663
The 14th Amendment says in part that the validity of the public debt "shall not be questioned," and various legal scholars and members of Congress have recently made the case for invoking that language as the U.S. increasingly faces the possibility of a catastrophic default—with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and other experts projecting that the government could run out of money as early as June 1.
The Post pointed out that "the administration's concerns about unilaterally invoking the 14th Amendment have been well-understood internally for months," with aides anticipating a Republican legal challenge as well as the risk of "a sharp increase in federal borrowing costs, alongside elevated rates for other loans, which could trigger the same financial market panic as a default would."
After meeting with congressional leaders at the White House last week, Biden told reporters that he has been "considering" the 14th Amendment but also signaled that any related action would be "months down the road," rather than to resolve the current fight with House Republicans, who are demanding severe spending cuts targeting the working class in exchange for lifting the debt limit.
Progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups have warned against compromising with the House GOP. Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of the watchdog Public Citizen, stressed Wednesday that "the consequences of failing to pay our bills would be catastrophic for the American economy, erasing millions of jobs, triggering recession, devastating retirement accounts, and more."
"We also must not strike a bad deal," she said. "The consequences of a cap to federal spending that goes longer than the debt ceiling is raised are disastrous. Caps are cuts. They slash funding dramatically, weakening our ability to provide essential public services, make needed investments in our communities, and prepare for and react to emergencies—pandemics, climate change-induced disasters, etc.—as a nation. Any cap included in the deal must not extend for longer than the debt limit extension."
\u201cThe negotiations are a distraction. A sideshow. Theater. \u201cHouse Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who previously characterized the discharge petition as a last-ditch effort, endorsed it on Wednesday in a letter to Democratic colleagues\u201d https://t.co/oRrHutvfz1\u201d— Dan Froomkin/PressWatchers.org (@Dan Froomkin/PressWatchers.org) 1684346989
House Democrats on Wednesday officially launched a longshot effort to force a vote on a clean debt limit hike without the support of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), but they would have to convince all members of their own caucus plus five Republicans to back the move. Given the stakes and limited options to avert a default, support is growing for the 14th Amendment path.
"We are in a situation where these extreme Republicans in the House are demanding completely untenable policies in exchange for not driving the country's economy off a cliff," Smith told the Post. "I think it's important we understand there is another option."
"I deeply admire the work of the Biden administration and their negotiators to try and find some common ground," she added. "But looking at it from my perspective, the extremists from the House better take note that this kind of hostage-taking cannot work."
In response to the reporting, Dean Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic & Policy Research, tweeted that it is "good to see I'm not the only one pushing for the 14th Amendment," referencing his Tuesday blog post on the topic.
As Baker wrote:
So, is Biden also thinking of invoking the 14th Amendment and saying that the government is not constrained by Republican efforts to default on the debt? I can't say. I also can't say what the Republican Supreme Court will do.
But many of us have underestimated Biden before. He managed to get an amazing amount of important legislation through a 50-50 Senate, and with only a narrow Democratic majority in the House. It doesn't seem likely that he would walk into negotiations with a Republican speaker indebted to the party's biggest loons without a backup plan.
I guess we will know the answer on this one soon enough.
Biden on Tuesday held another White House meeting about the debt limit with top Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Ahead of his departure for the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Hiroshima, Japan, the president said Wednesday that "the nation has never defaulted on its debt, and it never will."
"And we're going to continue these discussions with congressional leaders in the coming days until we reach an agreement. And I'll have more to say about that on Sunday," he explained. "As it stands now, the intention is to go to the G7, be back here on Sunday, hold a press conference."
The fruitlessness of the negotiations so far has led some to go beyond the senators' letter, which urges Biden to merely prepare to use the 14th Amendment. Lindsay Owens, executive director of Groundwork Collaborative, argued Wednesday that he shouldn't wait any longer to act.
"It's time for President Biden to step away from this slow-moving train wreck and use the authority he has under the 14th Amendment to avert default," Owens declared.
"McCarthy's demands will only grow as the default deadline approaches," she said. "Swallowing additional spending cuts is tactically foolish and will only exacerbate the extraordinary harms McCarthy's policies will inflict on families and our economy."