Sustained Outrage

An avalanche of cash in judicial campaigns, Pt. 1

With the election just days away, I thought now might be a good time to revisit the topic of money and judicial campaigns. Right now, with control of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives at stake, most of the media’s focus is on the flood of third-party cash poured into the closest congressional races without the true source of the funding being divulged. (Thank you, U.S. Supreme Court, for Citizens United.)

But as this report, jointly produced by JusticeatStake.org, The Brennan Center for Justice, The National Institute on Money in State Politics and Hofstra Law School, documents how, over the last decade, the amount of money involved in judicial campaigns has exploded. And, as retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor explains in her introductory letter, the glut of campaign cash has a potentially pernicious effect on the judicial system.

We all expect judges to be accountable to the law rather than political supporters or special interests. But elected judges in many states are compelled to solicit money for their election campaigns, sometimes from lawyers and parties appearing before them. Whether or not these contributions actually tilt the scales of justce, three out of every four Americans believe that campaign contributions affect courtroom decisions.

This crisis of confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary is real and growing. Left unaddressed, the perception that justice is for sale will undermine the rule of law that the courts are supposed to uphold.

We all have a stake in ensuring that courts remain fair, imparitial, and independent. If we fail to remember this, partisan infighting and hardball politics will erode the essential function of our judicial system as a safe place where every citizen stands equal before the law.

The report itself concluded that in the past 10 years, $206 million has been spent on state Supreme Court races alone. Here’s what that looks like, in two-year units:

And here’s that $206 million figure broken down by source of funds:

Where does West Virginia figure into all of this? Well, with a total population of 1.8 million, which ranks 37th in the nation, West Virginia ranked 10th in spending over the past ten years, with almost $9.6 million in total spending.

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Toyota’s disclosures: Savings before safety?

Akio_Toyoda_001In the coming weeks, Toyota officials — including President and CEO Akio Toyoda (right), a grandson of the company’s founder — will testify before Congress to answer questions about when the company knew what about various safety issues, including unintended acceleration in some models.

In preparation, Toyota has turned over thousands of pages of company documents. These include, as the New York Times and many others reported, an internal memo that claimed that the company saved $100 million when it “negotiated an equipment recall” with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2007 in response to reports of unintended acceleration in certain Camry and Lexus ES 350 sedans. Consequently, 55,000 floormats were recalled, and the agency did not find a defect. As the Associated Press noted:

The savings are listed under the title, “Wins for Toyota – Safety Group.” The document cites millions of dollars in other savings by delaying safety regulations, avoiding defect investigations and slowing down other industry requirements.

The documents could set off alarms in Congress over whether Toyota put profits ahead of customer safety and pushed regulators to narrow the scope of recalls.

The memo, from July 2009, observed that Toyota faced a challenge from an “activist Administration and Congress.” Policito.com has posted part of the document here.

Under the heading “Key Safety Issues,” the memo lists the following bulletpoints:

  • U.S. DOT/NHTSA under Obama Administration not industry friendly
  • OEMs [origina equipment manufacturers] anticipate a more challenging regulatory and enforcement environment, with a potential for revisiting key regulatory proposals
  • NHTSA’s new, more aggressive management includes more attorneys at the agency, even in the leadership of Rulemaking and Enforcement
  • The new team has less understanding of engineering issues and are primarily focused on legal issues.

And Toyota wasn’t the only one taking notice of issues with unintended acceleration well before the recent recall. Again, from the Associated Press report:

Separately, the government said Sunday it was already investigating reports of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles when the nation’s largest auto insurer shared complaints about the issue.

The Transportation Department released documents showing that in December 2003 it began investigating 39 complaints of sudden acceleration involving 2002-03 Toyota Camry sedans. That was about three months before State Farm shared with NHTSA complaints of sudden acceleration in 2003-04 Lexus ES300s and 2002-04 Camrys.

And today, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, Toyota confirmed that it has received subpoenas from both the Securities and Exchange Commission and a federal grand jury in the Southern District of New York.

DuPont pushing for weaker limits on PFOA

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Updated, 1:24 p.m. Tuesday: 

Inside EPA has added this link which allows non-subscribers to read the story.

Interesting news out today from Inside EPA (subscription required), which is reporting that DuPont Co.  is leading a new push by industry to weaken a water pollution limit on the toxic chemical PFOA and other perfluorinated chemicals.

Officials from DuPont, 3M and other PFC companies met behind closed doors last month with  the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to make their pitch. According to the story, by reporter Maria Hegstad, the industry proposal could weaken drinking water limits on PFOA — taking them from the 0.4 parts per billion contained in an EPA health advisory to 1.3 parts per billion in a formal drinking water standard.

The story says:

Industry scientists are urging EPA’s water office to alter its method for assessing the risks posed by perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) when the office sets drinking water cleanup standards for widespread persistent pollutants — a move that would result in weaker limits than provisional EPA standards and even stricter New Jersey standards set when EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was the state’s environmental commissioner.

PFOA is another name for ammonium perfluorooctanoate, also known as C8. DuPont Co. has used the chemical since the 1950s at its Washington Works plant south of Parkersburg. C8 is a processing agent used to make Teflon and other nonstick products, oil-resistant paper packaging and stain-resistant textiles.

Around the world, researchers are finding that people have PFOA and other PFCs, in their blood at low levels. Evidence is mounting about the chemical’s dangerous effects, but regulators have yet to set a binding federal limit for emissions or human exposure.

In September, the Obama administration EPA listed PFOA and another PFC, PFOS, among the chemicals it might set new water quality limits on.  And that same month, PFCs were among the chemicals EPA said it would “Existing Chemical Action Plans” for under a project to reform regulation of toxic chemicals in the U.S.

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Cheating Chesapeake shareholders?

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We had a mention in Gazette Business Editor Eric Eyre’s story on the loss of 215 Chesapeake Energy jobs in Charleston of a class-action lawsuit against the company,CEO Aubrey McClendon (above), its officers and directors on behalf of Chesapeake’s shareholders.

Over at the West Virginia Business Litigation blog, Jeffrey V. Mehalic has posted a copy of the lawsuit, which Mehalic reports “alleges various securities laws violations that have caused Chesapeake’s stock to drop 80% from its offering price in July 2008.”

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Chesapeake profits as it loses

mcclendon-299x400.jpgChesapeake Energy Corp. and its executives haven’t been making many friends lately in West Virginia after announcing last week their plan to turn their Eastern Division regional headquarters in Charleston into a field office and eliminate 215 of 255 jobs here.

And don’t forget CEO Aubrey McClendon’s parting shot at the state judicial system. McClendon blasted the state Supreme Court for failing overturn a $405 million Roane County court award to royalty owners, rather than blame his company’s calculated business decision to take on that risk when it bought Columbia Natural Resources four years ago.

McClendon said the job cuts were inevitable once the company decided not to build a $40 million headquarters near Yeager Airport.

Last year was not particularly kind to Chesapeake, or to energy companies in general, as natural gas prices plummeted. Chesapeake’s stock price fell from a high of $74 last summer to its current level of around $14 — a drop of more than 80 percent.

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Wrongway McClendon?

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Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon is blaming his company’s elimination of 215 Charleston jobs on the big oil and gas leasing rip-off verdict against his company.

Two years ago, when the Roane County, W.Va., jury came out with its verdict, McClendon was quick to attack the state’s legal system. He fumed about it in a Jan. 28, 2007, email to Gov. Joe Manchin, which the Gazette obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act.

But it looks like McClendon needed a geography lesson:

Governor Manchin: please read these attached press releases and let me know if you are able to visit with me tomorrow about this ridiculous outcome … 

It took a jury in Sloane County all of 3 hours on a Saturday afternoon to render what I am told is now West Virginia’s largest punitive verdict ever.

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