Blow, Nocera and Collins

Mr. Blow looks at “Darkness in the Sunshine State” and says few states in the union have done more to restrict and suppress voting than Florida. It must do better because we must have fairness in November.  Here’s hoping that Mr. Holder keeps his eye on the ball.  Of course, voting on non-verifiable touch screens may make everything moot…  Mr. Nocera addresses “The Mortgage Fraud Fraud” and says the banks get off scot-free, while the small fry go to prison. That’s how this Justice Department gets tough on mortgage fraud. It’s shameful.  Ms. Collins ponders “Mr. Edwards and the Shrimp,” and says we’ve been through a lot with John Edwards over the years, haven’t we, people? Here’s the positive side of the story.  First up is Mr. Blow:

Florida ought to know better. And must do better, particularly on the issue of voting and discrimination.

But, then again, we are talking about Florida, the state of Bush v. Gore infamy and the one that will celebrate the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederacy, with a statewide holiday on Sunday.

What am I getting at? This: Few states in the union have done more in recent years to restrict and suppress voting — particularly by groups who lean Democratic, such as young people, the poor and minorities — than Florida.

In May 2011, the state’s Republican-led Legislature passed and the Republican governor, Rick Scott, signed a sweeping election law that cut early voting short and imposed onerous burdens on voter registration groups by requiring them to turn in registration applications within 48 hours of the time they are signed or face fines.

The threat of fines has meant that many groups that traditionally registered voters in the state have abandoned the effort, and it appears to be contributing to fewer new registrations. According to a March analysis of registration data by The Times, “in the months since its new law took effect in May, 81,471 fewer Floridians have registered to vote than during the same period before the 2008 presidential election.”

But there is good news. On Thursday, a federal judge overturned the 48-hour deadline as unconstitutional, writing, in part, that “if the goal is to discourage voter-registration drives and thus also to make it harder for new voters to register, the 48-hour deadline may succeed.”

Recently, the state announced that it would begin another round of voter purging to ensure that no ineligible voters were mistakenly on the voter rolls. Seems noble enough. But the problem is that Florida is notoriously bad at purging.

As the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice pointed out last week: “In 2000, Florida’s efforts to purge persons with criminal convictions from the rolls led to, by conservative estimates, close to 12,000 eligible voters being removed” from the rolls. As most of us remember, George W. Bush beat Al Gore in the state of Florida that year, after the recounts and the Supreme Court stepped in, by 537 votes.

And as The Miami Herald reported on Thursday:

“So far, Florida has flagged 2,700 potential noncitizen voters and sent the list to county elections supervisors, who have found the data and methodology to be flawed and problematic. The list of potential noncitizen voters — many of whom have turned out to be lawful citizens and voters — disproportionately hits minorities, especially Hispanics.”

More good news: In his keynote address at the inaugural Faith Leaders Summit on Voting Rights, a joint effort by the Congressional Black Caucus and the Conference of National Black Churches, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. told the group:

“Congressman John Lewis may have described the reason for these concerns best, in a speech on the House floor last summer, when pointing out that the voting rights he worked throughout his life — and nearly gave his life — to ensure are, ‘under attack … [by] a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, young voters, students, [and] minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process.’ Not only was he referring to the all-too-common deceptive practices we’ve been fighting for years. He was echoing more recent fears and frustrations about some of the state-level voting law changes we’ve seen this legislative season.”

He didn’t mention Florida by name, but, on Thursday, the Department of Justice sent a letter to the Florida secretary of state demanding that they cease the purge.

Florida has more electoral votes than any other swing state, and the battle to win it — or steal it — will be epic because the election is likely to be another nail-biter, both nationally and in the state.

In an NBC-Marist poll of battleground states released last week, President Obama was leading Mitt Romney in the state 48 percent to 44 percent. But as NBC News pointed out, the president’s share was “below the 50 percent threshold usually considered safe haven for an incumbent president,” and Romney has narrowed the races in Florida and other battleground states since earlier in the year.

A Quinnipiac University Poll also released last week had Romney leading Obama by 6 points in Florida, although there has been some debate about the methodology of that poll.

We can’t predict a winner, but we must insist on a fair fight. Voter suppression can’t be allowed to overshadow democracy in the Sunshine State.

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

I got an e-mail the other day from Richard Engle telling me that his son Charlie would be getting out of prison this month. I was happy to hear it.

Charlie’s ordeal isn’t over yet, of course. When he leaves prison on June 20, Charlie, 49, will move temporarily to a halfway house, after which he will be on probation for another five years. And unless he can get the verdict overturned, he will have to spend the rest of his life with a felony on his record.

Perhaps you remember Charlie Engle. I wrote about him not long after he entered a minimum-security facility in Beaver, W.Va., 16 months ago. He’s the poor guy who went to jail for lying on a liar loan during the housing bubble.

There were two things about Charlie’s prosecution that really bothered me. First, he’d clearly been targeted by an agent of the Internal Revenue Service who seemed offended that Charlie was an ultramarathoner without a steady day job. The I.R.S. conducted “Dumpster dives” into his garbage and put a wire on a female undercover agent hoping to find some dirt on him. Unable to unearth any wrongdoing on his tax returns, the I.R.S. discovered he had taken out several subprime mortgages that didn’t require income verification. His income on one of them was wildly inflated. They don’t call them liar loans for nothing.

Charlie has always insisted that he never filled out the loan document — his mortgage broker did it, and he was actually a victim of mortgage fraud. (The broker later pleaded guilty to another mortgage fraud.) Indeed, according to a recent court filing by Charlie’s lawyer, the government failed to turn over exculpatory evidence that could have helped Charlie prove his innocence. For whatever inexplicable reason, prosecutors really wanted to nail Charlie Engle. And they did.

Second, though, it seemed incredible to me that with all the fraud that took place during the housing bubble, the Justice Department was focusing not on the banks that had issued the fraudulent loans, but rather on those who had taken out the loans, which invariably went sour when housing prices fell.

As I would later learn, Charlie Engle was no aberration. The current meme — argued most recently by Charles Ferguson, in his new book “Predator Nation” — is that not a single top executive at any of the firms that nearly brought down the financial system has spent so much as a day in jail. And that is true enough.

But what is also true, and which is every bit as corrosive to our belief in the rule of law, is that the Justice Department has instead taken after the smallest of small fry — and then trumpeted those prosecutions as proof of how tough it is on mortgage fraud. It is a shameful way for the government to act.

“These people thought they were pursuing the American dream,” says Mark Pennington, a lawyer in Des Moines who regularly defends home buyers being prosecuted by the local United States attorney. “Right here in Des Moines,” he said, “there was a big subprime outfit, Wells Fargo Financial. No one there has been prosecuted. They are only going after people who lost their homes after the bubble burst. It’s a scandal.”

The Justice Department has had a tough run recently. Last week, Eric Schneiderman, the New York attorney general — who was recently given a role by President Obama to investigate the mortgage-backed securities issued during the bubble — complained publicly that he wasn’t getting the resources he needed from the Justice Department. And, of course, on Thursday, a federal judge declared a mistrial on five charges of campaign finance fraud and conspiracy in the trial of the former presidential candidate John Edwards.

In the Edwards case, the Justice Department spent tens of millions of dollars, and trotted out novel legal theories, to prosecute a man who was essentially trying to keep people from discovering that he had had a mistress and an out-of-wedlock child. Salacious though it was, the case has zero public import. Yet this same Justice Department isn’t willing to use similar resources — and perhaps even trot out some novel legal theories — to go after the pervasive corporate wrongdoing that gave us the financial crisis and the Great Recession. (I should note that the Justice Department claims that it “will not hesitate” to prosecute any “institution where there is evidence of a crime.”)

Think back to the last time the federal government went after corporate crooks. It was after the Internet bubble. Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay of Enron were prosecuted and found guilty. Bernard Ebbers, the former chief executive of WorldCom, went to jail. Dennis Kozlowski of Tyco was prosecuted and given a lengthy prison sentence. Now recall which Justice Department prosecuted those men.

Amazing, isn’t it? George W. Bush has turned out to be tougher on corporate crooks than Barack Obama.

Disgusting.  Here’s Ms. Collins:

John Edwards: Sort of not guilty. The Justice Department must now decide whether to retry him in another lengthy case during which we could relive his degrading affair, his awful marriage, his wife’s fatal illness and watch his daughter and elderly parents loyally and miserably accompany him to court.

Finally, the American public has found something it would rather do less than have another Congressional debt-ceiling debate.

Edwards thanked the jurors for acquitting him of one count of campaign finance violations and failing to come to a decision on the other five. “I don’t think God’s through with me,” he added. That seemed to suggest a new career, although Edwards was appropriately vague about what he thought God had in mind. He did say he hoped to do something to help children “in the poorest parts of this country.”

I believe I speak for many Americans when I say that this cannot be allowed to mean discussing childhood poverty on a cable TV talk show. Think of it as the Eliot Spitzer rule.

It would be nice if he started a low-profile legal foundation to represent young people in, say, an extremely remote area of rural Appalachia. We would really think well of Edwards if he did that, although, of course, we would never actually know, since part of the deal would be that he would never once appear in the media to discuss the good work he is doing.

We’ve been through a lot with John Edwards since he ran as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004. Remember when everybody was so worried that John Kerry would pick Richard Gephardt instead? When Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post jumped the gun and had the big “Kerry’s Choice” headline with the picture of …


O.K., just trust me. Edwards was once the Democratic nominee for vice president. And then he ran for president in 2008. You have to recall that. In one of the debates, he made fun of Hillary Clinton’s outfit.

There was a time when many of the great minds in the Democratic Party thought John Edwards would be the perfect presidential nominee. He was cute and from the South, and the son of a millworker, and he talked about poor people and had lots of position papers.

Unfortunately, he was about as deep as a melted ice cube.

I was in a car with him once, driving to the airport from a campaign event in which he had expressed his support for South Carolina shrimpers who wanted to ban the import of Vietnamese shrimp. I asked him whether voters of the Red Lobster persuasion would be willing to pay the far higher price of home-caught shrimp. And when he waved the point away, I asked him about the trade implications, and what it would mean to the Vietnamese shrimp farmers. Edwards stared out the window and finally drawled: “You really care a whole lot about shrimp, don’t you?”

For somebody with “big, bold positions,” Edwards really had very little to say that wasn’t slick and evasive. You have to look out for candidates who keep using the word “bold.” Mitt Romney does it all the time, and he is so not.

I’ve listened to in-depth policy discussions with a lot of presidential hopefuls. I once rode in a car with Bill Clinton, during which he gave a nonstop disquisition on highway funding that I found a little disjointed until I looked over and noticed that he had actually nodded off and was talking in his sleep. There was one with John Kerry in which the candidate was fully engaged, but the room of listeners seemed to be dozing. There was one with George W. Bush in which Bush tossed off a remark about something obscure — possibly disaggregation in student test scores — and smiled happily and said: “Didn’t think I knew that, did you?”

Anyhow, some major presidential candidates are more enthralling when they talk about what they believe than others, but they can generally at least show you how they came to be at the table. John Edwards, not so much. Yet it was hard to put your finger on what was lacking, aside from his dismissiveness of the shrimp situation. He had an excellent stump speech and was really good at not saying anything that sounded stupid in a quotable way.

But, somehow, the public realized that this guy who looked so good and sounded so glib was really a fraud. Even without knowing about the secret love child or the sleazy right-hand man, or the impressive ability to stare right into a TV camera and lie like a rug, they got his number and picked other people to run for president. Voters’ gut instincts are generally pretty good. They certainly were with John Edwards. Which is, in a way, a happy ending to an awful story.

He turned out to be a sleazy fraud, but despite that he was the ONLY serious candidate to ever mention poverty in America.


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