April 01, 2015

Obama pardons 22 convicts in one day, including a man who was sentenced to life for marijuana offenses

 President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 22 individuals on Tuesday, more than doubling the number of commutations he has issued in the six-plus years he's been in office.
The men and women granted the reprieves had been imprisoned under an "outdated sentencing regime," the administration concluded. Eight of the 22 inmates had been sentenced to life imprisonment and would have died behind bars.
Leading up to Tuesday's announcement, the president has tried to revamp his administration's approach to clemency, telling The Huffington Post in a recent interview that he felt recipients should more broadly reflect the entire applicant pool and not lean toward well-connected white-collar criminals. Those granted clemency on Tuesday were all sentenced to jail for intent to distribute an illegal drug, with 14 of those cases involving possession or distribution of cocaine.
"Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement shared in advance with The Huffington Post. "Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years -- in some cases more than a decade -- longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime."
The president sent a letter to each of the commutation recipients encouraging them to take advantage of their post-prison opportunity. An administration official said that this was the first time Obama has sent such letters during his presidency.
"I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around. Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances," the letter reads. "But remember that you have the capacity to make good choices. By doing so, you will affect not only your own life, but those close to you. You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future."
Tuesday's announcement marks the beginning of a more aggressive approach on clemency from the White House, which has faced persistent criticism for being slow to grant pardons and commutations. Until Tuesday, Obama had only commuted the sentences of 21 people and pardoned 64, out of thousands of applications received.
The Justice Department expanded its criteria for clemency applicants last year, prioritizing defendants who would have likely been given a shorter prison term had they been sentenced today and who have served at least 10 years behind bars, have had good conduct in prison, have no significant ties to criminal enterprises and have no history of violence or significant criminal history.
Advocates for greater clemency have argued that Obama should follow through on the underlying principles of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act that he himself signed, which reduced the disparity in federal treatment of crimes involving crack cocaine and cocaine powder. Tuesday's commutations suggest those advocates are being heard.
One of the prisoners whose sentence was commuted, Francis Darrell Hayden, had been sentenced to life in prison for growing marijuana back in 2002. Another, Donel Clark, was sentenced in 1994 and told The Huffington Post he had taken a job as a crack “cook” in his friend’s kitchen to support his family.
Four of the prisoners granted clemency were represented by the Clemency Project 2014, a group of lawyers that works to provide pro-bono legal assistance to prisoners applying to have their sentences reduced. Cynthia Roseberry, the group's manager, declined to disclose their identities. The organization "continues to submit petitions at an increasing pace and looks forward to more regular grants by the President," Roseberry said.

New York Lawmakers Carve Out Sales-Tax Exemption for Struggling Yacht Buyers

A version of New York’s state budget includes a major sales-tax exemption on yacht purchases. That means those who pony up for boats over $230,000 would only pay taxes on the first $230,000, regardless of how much higher the price of the yacht climbs.

As Capital New York notes, the measure echoes one that appeared in the never-introduced and so-called “budget clean-up” bill that was being discussed last year.
Given that the measure might lubricate the yacht economy, reached out to both private and New York City docks and marinas to find out whether there are many vacant docks in the city. An employee who answered the phone at the Parks Department said there’s a “five- or six-year waiting list” for permanent docks at Manhattan’s Riverside Park marina.

In lower Manhattan, a picturesque marina in Battery Park City is privately operated by Brookfield Property Partners, the company that has worked to create a family-friendly indoor mall and food court in the area. Brookfield has partnered with Island Global Yachting to handle activity at the docks. The employee who answered the phone at Island Global was not authorized to speak to the press, but said she would forward’s inquiry. A spokeswoman for Brookfield told Capital New York the measure would not impact Brookfield’s business.

Andrew Farkas, a billionaire who owns both Island Global Yachting and Island Capital Group, happens to have a long history with New York governor Andrew Cuomo. A decade ago, Cuomo was an employee at Island Capital Group, where he made more than $1 million a year advising Farkas, according to The Wall Street Journal. Farkas served as Cuomo’s finance chairman for both of his gubernatorial races, and Farkas and related parties have donated more than $1 million to Cuomo’s political efforts, Crain’s New York reported.

The current yacht sales-tax carve-out wasn’t included in Cuomo’s original budget, but originated in both houses of the state legislature. It landed in the final budget, meaning that, at the least, Cuomo wasn’t too heavily opposed to the measure.

Critics point out the obvious: New Yorkers in a position to purchase a $230,000 yacht probably don’t need government exemptions. “The ironic part is that your average Joe in New York who wants to go out and buy a small 16-foot bass fishing boat for his own personal use will actually pay sales tax, but someone going out and buying a yacht isn’t going to be subject to the same tax,” Ron Deutsch, the executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, told Capital New York.

Texas has the third highest rate of HIV infections in the country, but that didn’t stop lawmakers from passing an amendment that defunds HIV/STD prevention programs Tuesday.

Texas has the third highest rate of HIV infections in the country, but that didn’t stop lawmakers from passing an amendment that defunds HIV/STD prevention programs Tuesday. The amendment to the House budget proposal—offered by Rep. Stuart Spitzer (R-Kaufman)—diverts $3 million over the next biennium to abstinence-only sexual education programs.
House Democrats fought against the amendment in a debate that rapidly devolved into awkward farce, with Rep. Spitzer revealing details of his own sexual history as proof of the effectiveness of abstinence. For those keeping tabs at home, he was a virgin until marrying his wife at age 29, although he declined to answer a question from Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) on whether she was the first person he propositioned. “Decorum,” shouted state Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs).
Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) asked Spitzer just how much money is needed for abstinence education in Texas, which receives more federal funding than any other state. Spitzer responded that additional funds are needed as long as people are still having sex before marriage.  His goal, he said, was for everyone to know that “abstinence is the best way to prevent HIV.”
“My goal is for everyone to be HIV/AIDS free,” Turner said.
Turner said that while he thinks abstinence programs are valid, HIV and STD prevention programs are too.
“Does it make sense if you have two children to take food from one to feed the other?” Turner said. “You’re taking from one valid program in order to go to the other and I think that is wrong.”

The BEST Political Bar Joke of ALL TIME

March 31, 2015

Ohio Girl, 10, Dies in House Fire Hours Before Rape Suspect's Trial Begins

A 10-year-old Ohio girl died in a house fire early Monday just hours before a trial she was set to testify in against her accused rapist was supposed to begin, officials said.
Robert Seman Jr., 46, was scheduled to be tried in Mahoning County on four counts of gross sexual imposition Monday, but the start of the trial was delayed when the Youngstown home of the 10-year-old he is accused of raping caught fire around 3:45 a.m. ET, according to NBC affiliate WKYC. The girl died along with two others.
Seman had been out on bond pending the rape trial, but Mahoning County Commons Pleas Court Judge Maureen Sweeney revoked his bond Monday. She made the decision based on related bribery allegations, and not the fire, Mahoning County prosecutor Paul Gains told NBC News. Seman's lawyer, Thomas Zena, could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
Seman had been electronically monitored on house arrest since last April when he was indicted, Gains said. He was booked Monday in the Mahoning County Jail, according to sheriff's office documents.
One of the other two who died in the fire was identified as the 10-year-old girl's grandfather, William E. Schmidt, 63, the Mahoning County Coroner's Office told WKYC. The third person is unidentified, but believed to be the girl's grandmother.

Indiana Shut Down Its Rural Planned Parenthood Clinics And Got An HIV Outbreak

Scott County, Indiana, the center of an exploding HIV outbreak, has been without an HIV testing center since early 2013, when the sole provider -- a Planned Parenthood clinic -- was forced to close its doors. The clinic did not offer abortion services.
The Scott County clinic and four other Planned Parenthood facilities in the state, all of which provided HIV testing and information, have shuttered since 2011, in large part due to funding cuts to the state's public health infrastructure. Those cuts came amid a national and local political campaign to demonize the health care provider. Now, the state is scrambling to erect pop-up clinics to combat an unprecedented HIV epidemic caused by intravenous drug use.
The fact that Scott County was "without a testing facility until a few weeks ago is a glaring example of the kind of public health crisis that results when prevention and testing are left unfunded," said Patti Stauffer, Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky's vice president for public policy.
Indiana's GOP-led state legislature was one of the first to declare war against Planned Parenthood in 2011, when it passed a bill that defunded the family planning providerbecause some of its clinics offer abortion services. A federal judge later blocked that law from going into effect, but the state has continued to slash various sources of funding to Planned Parenthood at a time when the cost of operating a medical facility continues to rise.
In 2005, Planned Parenthood of Indiana received a total of $3.3 million in funding from government contracts and grants. By 2014, that funding had dropped to $1.9 million. Five of Planned Parenthood’s smaller clinics in the state -- the health centers in Scottsburg, Madison, Richmond, Bedford and Warsaw -- were unable to keep up with the growing technology costs that were necessary to remain competitive as a medical provider. All five clinics that were forced to close had offered HIV testing. None had offered abortions.
Even without five of its clinics, Planned Parenthood's HIV testing in Indiana has been increasing each year. Overall, the provider's 25 remaining clinics in Kentucky and Indiana gave more than 8,000 HIV tests in 2014, about 1,000 more than the previous year. And the numbers would certainly be higher if the five shuttered clinics in Indiana had been able to continue to operate.

Five of the six officers face life sentences for their participation in what authorities say is a corrupt organization whose members dangled a drug dealer from an 18th story balcony to get him to divulge the password to his computer

The trial of six former Philadelphia narcotics officers accused of robbing drug dealers in a 42-page indictment that read like a script for a Hollywood action movie is expected to begin in federal court Monday.
Five of the six officers face life sentences for their participation in what authorities say is a corrupt organization whose members dangled a drug dealer from an 18th story balcony to get him to divulge the password to his computer. Others were beaten with with metal bars, according to court documents, and kicked detainees in the teeth.
The officers, Perry Betts, Thomas Liciardello, Linwood Norman, Brian Reynolds, John Speiser, and Michael Spicer, were taken into custody July. All but Liciardello, the accused ringleader, have been out on bail.
Defense attorneys declined to comment on the case, citing a gag order. But court filings indicate that lawyers plan to challenge the credibility of witnesses, many of whom are criminals with unsavory pasts.
That list includes Officer Jeffrey Walker, a police officer who planted cocaine on a a drug dealer as a ruse to steal the dealer's house keys. He then stole $15,000 from the man's home in a 2013 sting orchestrated by an FBI informant. Walker pleaded guilty last year, but agreed to testify against these officers.
To convict the former officers on the most serious charges under racketeering and corrupt organizations, or RICO statutes, prosecutors have presented a list of more than 100 potential witnesses, along with bank records, credit card statements and casino receipts. They also say they plan to present text messages between Walker and Liciardello made after Walker became a confidential informant, and a recorded conversation between Liciardello, Reynolds and an FBI informant.
Prosecutors have been forced to withdraw a handful of counts against the six police officers, citing difficulties with witnesses. In one instance, prosecutors were forced to dismiss two charges against the police officers after the facts alleged in a lawsuit against the city did not match statements he made before a grand jury.