PA, land of giants: The fix is always in

Will Bunch has a long memory for Pennsylvania politics, and in his latest post, he points out that the FBI finally had to come in to investigate the finances of a politically-connected cyber schools operator — whose activities were pretty much ignored in an investigation by then-Attorney General Tom Corbett (who’s now our Scott Walker clone of a wingnut governor). He’s also famous for taking three years before the state prosecutors finally brought charges against Jerry Sandusky.

If you’re a political junkie, you’ve probably heard of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. It figured prominently in a scandal that helped end the Senate career of Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum. It was the thriving online learning center — launched in a foundering ex-steel town on the Ohio border called Midland, Pa. — that was taking $38,000 a year from taxpayers in the blue-collar Pittsburgh suburb of Penn Hills for the home-schooling of five of Santorum’s kids, who lived two states away in an affluent Virginia suburb.The arrangement made Santorum look bad (for one thing, he’d been elected to Congress in 1990 by attacking an incumbent… for moving to Virginia) but it also gave some folks pause about the millions of dollars that Pennsylvania was beginning to hurl into cyber-charter schools — schools that are getting the same public dollars as bricks-and-mortar charter schools, even through their cost of educating each child is much lower. But the flow of public cash to the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter empire founded by entreprenuer Nicholas Trombetta surged despite the bad publicity in the Santorum case, and despite news in 2007 that a state grand jury was probing the convoluted financial dealings of Trombetta, a GOP donor.Nothing ever came of that 2007 probe. You may have heard of the state’s attorney general back then, a chap by the name of Tom Corbett.By 2010, the massive flow of money to the Trombetta cyber-empire — which now included a baffling array of for-profit entities — began to draw notice. According to a report in Sunday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the state….…. pays tens of millions of dollars a year to a network of nonprofit and for-profit companies run by former executives of the state’s largest online public school.The relationships between the Beaver County-based school and those businesses were a concern to former Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration, which late in its tenure asked PA Cyber for better accounting of its payments to spin-off entities. Gov. Corbett’s Department of Education, though, opted early on to let the relationships continue without heightened accountability.There’s that Corbett guy again! Anyway, someone has finally stepped in. Not the state of Pennsylvania, of course. The job fell instead to the feds:On Thursday agents from the FBI, the criminal investigations division of the IRS, and the U.S. Department of Education searched the school’s headquarters in Midland, its accountants’ office in Koppel, and properties rented by its spin-offs in Ohio.The investigation appears to be aimed at current or former executives of the school. PA Cyber “as an entity, is not a current target,” U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton’s office said. Regardless of the direction of the investigation, PA Cyber demonstrates a consequence of the state’s charter school revolution: the emergence from schools of profit-seeking spin-offs.This news come as a) evidence mounts that cyber-charters, in spite of — or maybe because of — their ability to generate profits, do a poor job of actually educating children (PDF) and b) the state of Pennsylvania is thus racing to apporve more cyber-charters.

Meanwhile, here’s another example of Corbett’s kid-glove handling of the politically connected, via CasablancaPA:

Here’s how tough and relentless Jonelle Eshbach was in getting to the truth:

“[The] state investigator was a fan: If that was the culture that permeated Penn State, could it have affected the investigation by state attorney general’s office? Jonelle Eshbach, the senior deputy attorney general who interviewed Paterno, several of Sandusky’s victims and Penn State officials when they appeared before the grand jury, has not been shy about her loyalty to the late coach. After Paterno’s divisive firing, her Facebook page showed she took a survey about the board’s decision. Her page says she answered that she would have let Paterno finish the 2011 season, then retire as he planned. Freeh’s team concluded that Paterno’s firing was warranted. Eshbach didn’t return a message at her office. Attorney general spokesman Nils Frederiksen declined to comment on it…When she interviewed Paterno, Eshbach specifically told him to explain what he knew about the McQueary incident, ‘without getting into any graphic detail.’ She also never followed up when Paterno hinted that something about an earlier claim might have been discussed in his presence prior to that. ‘You did mention — I think you said something about a rumor. It may have been discussed in my presence, something else about somebody,’ Paterno said at the grand jury. ‘I don’t know. I don’t remember. I could not honestly say I heard a rumor.’” (Patriot News 7/12/2012)


“While the current Sandusky investigation was in its second year, Corbett spent much of his time focusing on the sweeping public corruption inquiry of Democrats and Republicans in Harrisburg nicknamed “Bonusgate.” He also crisscrossed Pennsylvania campaigning for governor, pledging to cut runaway spending and ‘restore trust in Harrisburg.’ State campaign records show he accepted contributions of nearly $650,000 from current and past board members of Second Mile and their businesses.”


Imagine that. The President of the United States notices that the welfare regulations are preventing a lot of impoverished people from getting help during this prolonged recession and, using the discretion at his command, approves some administrative changes that would allow a lot more people to be eligible. This is upsetting a lot of asshats, like Orin Hatch and Mickey Kaus.

Now, there’s a reason you don’t read about Mickey Kaus on this blog: No one in the progressive world takes him seriously, not even a little bit. In fact, you can tell that a policy change is the right one in inverse proportion to Mickey Kaus’s hissy fit. And the fact that he thinks it’s political suicide to help desperate people survive is classic Third Way thinking. I would not wish on Mr. Kaus the same fate he so fervently desires for so many others. From Alex Pareene in Salon:

So, lifetime caps and strict work requirements and desperately cash-starved states and a prolonged unemployment crisis have basically all added up to TANF not actually providing any benefits to millions of people who need them. (This, again, is sort of by design!)

And apparently the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services has responded to this by expressing a willingness to grant states waivers for some work requirements, under certain conditions. Which led, of course, to the Heritage Foundation accusing Obama of “gutting welfare reform.” According to their reading of the HHS memo: “The new Obama dictate asserts that because the work requirements, established in section 407, are mentioned as an item that state governments must report about in section 402, all the work requirements can be waived.” But the work requirements were one of the most important parts of the reform law, and they are, supposedly, not supposed to be subject to waivers. Tyranny!

In the past, state bureaucrats have attempted to define activities such as hula dancing, attending Weight Watchers, and bed rest as “work.” These dodges were blocked by the federal work standards. Now that the Obama Administration has abolished those standards, we can expect “work” in the TANF program to mean anything but work.The new welfare dictate issued by the Obama Administration clearly guts the law. The Administration tramples on the actual legislation passed by Congress and seeks to impose its own policy choices — a pattern that has become all too common in this Administration.The result is the end of welfare reform.

(There are obviously no links or citations substantiating any of the claims in the first quoted paragraph.)

So I dunno, I guess the Obama administration is circumventing the law to … make it slightly easier for poor people to receive assistance, which on the whole I think I approve of.

Someone who doesn’t approve of this is Mickey Kaus, the famous Democratic warblogger currently at Tucker Carlson’s “The Daily Caller.” Kaus is one of those Democrats who, from the first paragraph, is on a never-ending crusade for border fences and the elimination of labor unions and so on. He loves welfare reform because it made dumb, lazy, poor people get off their lazy asses and go to work instead of collecting government checks to buy Cadillacs. Obama’s gutting of welfare reform makes him so mad!

He is worried that weakening, or being seen as weakening, the work requirements sends the “wrong signal,” and that the hordes of leeches and parasites that make up the American underclass will hear this signal and flock back on the gravy train. But most important, he can’t figure out why Obama would do this. Welfare reform works super well — the proof is that much fewer people receive welfare now! Why change a program that has worked so perfectly?Especially when there are much better options for helping people, like … doing some different thing.

[…] Finally, in point thirteen, Kaus says, “If this is a political move, I don’t understand it, because as we all know welfare is horribly unpopular, and promising to destroy welfare got both Reagan and Clinton elected.” But maybe — and I’m really just spitballing, here — it’s not a “political move” and it is actually a move designed to address the fact that welfare reform left the program uniquely unsuited to help people in the event of a massive, prolonged unemployment crisis. Or, hell, maybe HHS is correct when it says it’s just trying to let states come up with more effective job prep and placement programs! (Tyranny again!!) Or maybe Obama just did this to piss off the Heritage Foundation and steal the money of hard-working Real Americans to give to shiftless Welfare Queens. Anything is possible! Anything besides poverty-alleviating government programs operating without being vindictively stingy and punitive in the United States, anyway.

The not-so-mighty Mississippi

When you see some of the crazy “issues” being raised in this presidential election instead of leadership on climate change, doesn’t it make you want to scream? Not only are we going to have massive crop failures as a result of this ongoing drought, we aren’t even able to ship the crops we have when shipping channels like the formerly-mighty Mississippi are drying up:

Companies operating along the Mississippi River are seeing a drastic cut in business as severe drought lowers water levels and makes shipping increasingly difficult.The drought, which now covers more than 1,000 counties across the US, has dropped water levels 50 feet below last year’s levels in some places. Last winter’s lack of snow, the absence of any major tropical storms from the Gulf of Mexico, sweltering temperatures, and the lack of rain this spring and summer are to blame for the shallow water.

The Mississippi is a major trade conduit through the central U.S. Barges, which are often cheaper to operate than trains or trucks, carry goods such as grain, corn, soybeans, steel, rubber, coffee, fertilizer, coal, and petroleum products in and out of the interior of the country.

As the water levels fall, barges have run aground near Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the water is already less than 5 feet deep, and shipping companies have been forced to curtail their business. The Wall Street Journal reports:

‘It’s causing headaches all up and down the river system right now,’ said Martin Hettel, senior manager of bulk sales for AEP River Operations, a St. Louis-based barge company.Mark Fletcher, owner of Ceres Barge Line of East St. Louis, Ill., said about 70% of his 220 barges aren’t being used now. First, the drought cut crops, reducing demand for shipping. Now, low water levels are making it more costly to ship.

‘It’s not good if you are in the barge business right now,’ he said. ‘In the last 60 days, you’ve watched a whole lot of money go out the window.’

Some river ports have been forced to close temporarily or shut down parts of their operations because of the low water levels. At the port of Rosedale in the Mississippi Delta, port director Robert Maxwell Jr. said water levels are about 50 feet below what they were last year, when flooding shut down the port. If the water falls any lower, there was a ‘high likelihood’ he would have to close, he said. One of the port’s public loading docks is inoperable, with equipment normally in the water now hanging the air. The Army Corps of Engineers is supposed to come this week to dredge, where heavy equipment is used to dig out sediment from waterways to make them passable for shipping.

Behind the scenes

As Digby points out, everything you see happening right now is about the Grand Bargain.

Someone sent me this today, and it involves the usual Third Way/neocon suspects:

Dear Friends,
Tomorrow at 2:00 PM at the National Press Club we will be launching The Campaign to Fix the Debt.  This unprecedented coalition will mobilize business, civic and thought leaders from both parties, and people across America, in support of a comprehensive debt deal.  The campaign will make clear the consequences of not enacting such a plan, and educate the country about the benefits of dealing with these challenges responsibly and thoughtfully.


The launch of The Campaign to Fix the Debt will include remarks by Co-Founder Erskine Bowles, as well as from our Co-Chairmen, Judd Gregg and Edward Rendell, among several other supporters and allies.  See below for a full list of participants in tomorrow’s event.


We hope you can join us at the event.  If not, we encourage you to go to find out more about the campaign or tune into C-SPAN 3 to watch the launch live at 2:00 PM.


WHO:         Erskine Bowles, Co-Founder, The Campaign to Fix the Debt
Dave Cote, Chairman & CEO, Honeywell
Senator Judd Gregg, Co-Chair, The Campaign to Fix the Debt
Maya MacGuineas, President, The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget
Senator Sam Nunn, Co-Chairman, The Concord Coalition; Co-Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, The Nuclear Threat Initiative
Pete Peterson, Founder and Chairman, The Peter G. Peterson Foundation


Steven Rattner, Chairman, Willett Advisors
Governor Ed Rendell, Co-Chair, The Campaign to Fix the Debt
Alice Rivlin, Former Director, OMB; Founding Director, CBO
Paul Stebbins, Executive Chairman, World Fuel Services
Ambassador Bob Zoellick, former President of the World Bank
WHEN:       Tuesday, July 17th, 2:00 – 3:00 PM ET


WHERE:      Zenger Room, The National Press Club, 529 14th St. NW, 13th
                    Floor, Washington, DC 20045

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