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Fast-Food CEOs Pocket $660 Million in ‘Performance Pay’

April 23, 2014  ·  Posted by Sarah Berlin

Fast food workers have organized strikes and campaigns throughout the past year that have drawn attention to the industry's poor wages and subpar working conditions. Workers are beginning to see some successes, and they now have solid research to back up their complaints. Two studies released this week highlight the extreme disparity between fast-food workers' wages and their CEOs' earnings, indicating the broader economic costs of this inequity.

In an analysis of U.S. companies, the Demos study found that CEOs of fast-food companies earn some of the highest salaries in the whole economy. Fast-food workers, on the other hand, are the least compensated workers. Demos points out two key problems with the industry's income gap:

  • The most unequal sectors are among those providing the greatest numbers of new jobs in the economy, replacing jobs in sectors with lower income inequality.
  • Income inequality is increasing legal, regulatory and operating risks for fast-food firms. Millions of dollars in legal fees, increasing customer wait times and labor unrest are evidence of the systemic problems of income inequality in fast food.

The Institute for Policy Studies(IPS) released a second study, which examines the tax-payer burden of restaurants handing out millions in "performance pay" to their CEOs in order to avoid paying higher taxes. IPS explains:

During the past two years, the CEOs of the 20 largest [National Restaurant Association] members pocketed more than $662 million in fully deductible “performance pay,” lowering their companies’ IRS bills by an estimated $232 million. That would be enough to cover the cost of food stamps for more than 145,000 households for a year. ...

The next four largest beneficiaries of the CEO pay subsidy are fast food corporations. Chipotle, Yum! Brands (owner of Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut), McDonald’s, and Dunkin’ Brands each raked in CEO pay subsidies ranging from $12 million to $68 million over the period.

Both studies point to policy solutions to ensure corporations do not have free reign to underpay employees or avoid paying their share of taxes.

Demos →

Philadelphia Implements Landmark Progressive Immigration Policy

April 21, 2014  ·  Posted by Dan Staggs

Last week, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order that Philadelphia police will no longer hold detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, unless the detainee has committed a violent felony and ICE obtains a judicial warrant. Because detainees accused of committing violent felony offenses are generally sent to state prison rather than city jail, immigration advocates have praised Nutter's move as a de facto end to deportations of Philadelphia's immigrant population. 

At a time when activists around the country are rallying to demand a moratorium on deportation, Philadelphia's policy stands as one of the most progressive in the United States. CBS Philly reports:

Nutter says the new policy does not mean the city will be soft on crime. He says anyone who breaks the law will be prosecuted and, if they are convicted, they will be punished.

“The executive order does not protect criminals from the criminal justice system,” says Nutter, “it simply protects innocent individuals from in effect being punished when doing the right thing and cooperating with us to find and arrest real criminals.”

Immigration advocates claim fear of ICE holds kept many in the immigrant community from reporting crime and cooperating with police. They call the order a win.

“It’s been a long fight,” says Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos. “We need to celebrate and then we need to get focused on how this is implemented.”

CBS Philly →

Taxpayers Ask Walmart Chairman To Make Good on the Tab

April 17, 2014  ·  Posted by Sarah Berlin

According to a report released by Americans for Tax Fairness on Monday, Walmart uses tax loopholes to avoid paying $1 billion of federal taxes a year and receives $6.2 billion a year in taxpayer subsidies. That's in addition to the $70 million the company gets in direct economic development subsidies and the millions the Walton family receives in preferential tax rates on company share dividends. All in all, that's costing taxpayers billions of dollars—every single year.

And on April 15, Walmart employees and taxpayers brought the $7.8 bill to the home of Walmart Chairman Rob Walton.

OUR Walmart, a group that advocates for the fair treatment of Walmart workers, explains in a press release published on Common Dreams that the Waltons keeps getting richer as most Americans continue to struggle:

“Like most Americans, I work hard, pay my taxes and play by the rules. Why can’t America’s richest family do the same?” said Venanzi Luna, a Walmart worker who undersigned the bill. “Our economy is out of balance and workers are struggling because people like the Waltons don’t pay their fair share.”

Walmart made a $16 billion profit in 2013, and the six Walton heirs, who own more than 50 percent of Walmart shares, saw their wealth grow to $148.8 billion—more wealth than 49% of American families combined.

The report by Americans for Tax Fairness found that, “…the American public is providing enormous tax breaks and tax subsidies to Walmart and the Walton family, further boosting corporate profits and the family’s already massive wealth at everyone else’s expense.”

Common Dreams →

Minnesota’s Minimum Wage Takes a Leap

April 15, 2014  ·  Posted by Alex Wolff

Minnesota became the latest state to pass legislation raising its minimum wage yesterday, when Governor Mark Dayton signed a bill that will increase pay for the state's lowest earners to $9.50 per hour by 2016.

The new law will amend the state's current minimum wage of $6.15 per hour—one of the lowest in the country—in a series of hourly wage hikes, the first of which will go into effect this August.

For Minnesota's Raise the Wage coalition, the new law is the fruit of 15 months of dedicated organizing, lobbying and media work. Once the State House approved a $9.50 per hour minimum wage last May, the coalition of labor, community and faith organizations pressured the State Senate to adopt a similar position by way of public demonstrations, community outreach initiatives and meetings with state legislators. The Senate finally struck a deal with the House last Thursday.

The Associated Press reports:

Minnesota goes from having one of the nation's lowest minimums to among the highest. With federal wage legislation stuck in Congress, states are rushing to fill the void. California, Connecticut and Maryland have passed laws pushing their respective wages to $10 or more in coming years, and other states are going well above the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. Not all Minnesota workers have qualified for the federal minimum, which is required if someone engages in an interstate transaction such as swiping a credit card at the cash register.

For large Minnesota employers, mandatory hourly pay will climb to $8 in August, $9 a year later and $9.50 in 2016. Smaller employers that have gross sales below $500,000 will also have to pay more, though their rate reaches only $7.75 per hour by 2016. There are also carve-outs for teen workers or those getting trained into new jobs.

The law—which endured widespread GOP disapproval in its passing, ostensibly because such a move would be "out of step" with the minimum wage laws of Minnesota's neighboring states—will relieve some of the financial burden on the state's working poor. Early estimates suggest that as many as 325,000 Minnesotans will experience a rise in pay.

The Associated Press →

France to Workers: Ignore Your Boss Tonight

April 11, 2014  ·  Posted by Alex Kogan

A new law bans about 1 million French workers in the digital and consulting industries from checking work-related emails and phone calls while not at work. CNBC reports:

“About a million French workers in the digital and consulting industries will be required to switch off work phones and avoid email before 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m., barring ‘exceptional circumstances,’ according to a BBC News article. The agreement reached by employers federations and unions also says employers cannot pressure their employees to flout the directive.”

Maintaining work-life balance for citizens has long been a priority in France, which mandated a 35-hour workweek in 1988. Still, that restriction of hours has gradually been undermined by the growing ubiquity of mobile devices. Still, workers are questioning whether the law is actually enforceable.

The law comes after Volkswagen made a similar resolution to restrict its servers from sending employees emails outside of their shift.

CNBC →

Unpaid Interns Gain Support From Labor Department

April 8, 2014  ·  Posted by Sarah Berlin

Last week, the Department of Labor filed a brief with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of former Hearst Corporation interns who are seeking back wages in a lawsuit. The eight former interns claim that they worked long hours for Hearst, on tasks such as coordinating deliveries and completing expense reports, without compensation or adequate supervision. 
 
The Department of Labor uses a six-part test to determine whether a for-profit company needs to pay its interns. The criteria include not displacing regular employees and providing benefit to the intern, rather than an advantage to the company. According the Department of Labor, if a company violates any of these criteria, it must pay interns minimum wage. However, courts often employ a broader asessment. 
 
As Pro Publica explains, the Department of Labor's brief focuses on these conflicting standards:
[M]any courts have adopted a "primary beneficiary" or "totality of circumstances" test, which says that if the unpaid intern benefits from the internship more than the employer, the employer doesn't need to pay, whether or not the internship fulfills the government's six-part test.
 
In its amicus brief, the Labor Department asks the Second Circuit to reject the broader interpretation and adopt the agency's all-or-nothing standard, arguing that it is more objective and better protects interns from exploitation.
 
"Given the rapid expansion of unpaid internships across various sectors of the economy and the varied nature of those internships, it is important for the uniform enforcement of the [Fair Labor Standards Act] to have an objective test to measure interns' employment status," the brief says.
Former unpaid interns have filed more than 20 lawsuits in the past few years, but this is the first time the Department of Labor has intervened in a high-profile case. 

Dozens More Tech Companies Implicated in Wage-Suppression Cartel

March 28, 2014  ·  Posted by Alex Kogan

Documents in a lawsuit filed against seven tech giants, including Google, Pixar and Apple, have revealed that dozens more companies, with a combined workforce of over one million people, also made secret deals as part of a "wage-fixing cartel." The agreements allegedly restricted companies from hiring each other’s employees, thereby unfairly suppressing worker mobility and pay. The scheme was made public during a Department of Justice investigation into the "Techtopus"--the agreement between the original companies--that has since been settled, forcing the original seven to "curb their restricting hiring deals." 

PandoDaily reports:

Confidential internal Google and Apple memos … clearly show that what began as a secret cartel agreement between Apple’s Steve Jobs and Google’s Eric Schmidt to illegally fix the labor market for hi-tech workers, expanded within a few years to include companies ranging from Dell, IBM, eBay and Microsoft, to Comcast, Clear Channel, Dreamworks, and London-based public relations behemoth WPP.

The DOJ investigation that brought to light the damning information about the "Techtopus" deal has led employees to file a class action suit. Proceedings for the suit, which only names the initial seven tech companies as defendants, are set to begin May 27th.

PandoDaily →

Obama Unveils Plan to Reform NSA’s Data Collection Program

March 25, 2014  ·  Posted by Alex Wolff

President Barack Obama announced today that his administration will propose a sweeping set of changes to Congress regarding the National Security Agency's (NSA) current surveillance practices by the end of the week.

Details of the imminent proposal reveal a particular focus on revamping the manner by which the NSA reviews phone records monitoring citizens' calling habits. Bulk data would be taken out of the government's hands and held instead by phone companies, which in turn would not be required to save the records any longer than current laws limit. Moreover, a new court order model would force the NSA to seek permission from a judge before accessing specific records.

The New York Times reports:

The new type of surveillance court orders envisioned by the administration would require phone companies to swiftly provide records in a technologically compatible data format, including making available, on a continuing basis, data about any new calls placed or received after the order is received, the officials said.

They would also allow the government to swiftly seek related records for callers up to two phone calls, or “hops,” removed from the number that has come under suspicion, even if those callers are customers of other companies.

The NSA now retains the phone data for five years. But the administration considered and rejected imposing a mandate on phone companies that they hold on to their customers’ calling records for a period longer than the 18 months that federal regulations already generally require—a burden that the companies had resisted shouldering and that was seen as a major obstacle to keeping the data in their hands. A senior administration official said that intelligence agencies had concluded that the operational impact of that change would be small because older data is less important.

The NSA's reputation was dealt a severe blow last year when whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked documents betraying the agency's Orwellian surveillance program. This proposal could begin to restore some of the trust that privacy advocates lost in the government with those revelations.

The Obama administration has asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to renew the current program—which is set to expire on Friday—for at minimum, one more 90-day cycle. Pending Congress's approval, the proposed reforms could begin to take root during that time.

The New York Times →

Three More Chicago Public Schools To Be “Turned Around”

March 25, 2014  ·  Posted by Andrew Mortazavi

On Friday, the Chicago Public Schools announced its plan to “turn around” three more underperforming schools on the South and West Sides of the city. If the plan goes through, McNair Elementary, Dvorak Technology Academy and Gresham Elementary will be the next schools handed over to the private nonprofit Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), which currently manages 29 Chicago Public Schools attended by 17,000 students. 

The turn-around process will involve firing all staff at the end of the school year. Students will return normally in the fall, albeit under the tutelage of mostly new staff. Under the model, AUSL must hire CTU teachers, and fired teachers are allowed to reapply for their jobs, but historically, most are not rehired.

Proponents of the turnaround model say it can have a profound positive impact on underperforming schools. The Obama administration has endorsed the strategy.

But not everyone is so hot on the turnovers and “not-for-profitization” of public schools. Opponents, such as the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), claim that any improvement in turned-around schools is the result of millions of dollars of grant money pumped into the schools, not staff turnover.

According to WBEZ:

The Chicago Teachers Union immediately called the move “school closings by another name." It comes 10 months after Chicago voted to close 49 grammar schools, the largest single round of school closings in the U.S.

“They’re picking up where Rahm Emanuel left off last year, by destabilizing schools on the South and West Sides,” said vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union Jesse Sharkey. “We don’t think that the schools that are in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city with incredibly dedicated faculty should be punished by having all those staffs fired. “

Sharkey said improvements in turnarounds are due to additional millions of dollars the schools get over their first five years, not the new staff. 

CTU also claims that the turnaround model results in racial inequities. A University of Chicago study confirms that turnarounds, which are predominately imposed on schools in black and poor neighborhoods, “do result in a younger, whiter teaching force,” WBEZ reports.

WBEZ →

Wells Fargo Fabricated Foreclosure Documents

March 25, 2014  ·  Posted by Sarah Berlin

Court papers filed earlier this month allege that Well Fargo regularly created fradulent documents to speed up foreclosure cases. Linda Tirelli, a bankruptcy attorney, filed papers at a New York federal court on March 11, claiming that the mortage-giant used a forclosure manual that includes instructions for falsifying documents in order to prove the bank's ownership of loans.

The New York Post reports:

Attorneys, forensic accountants and consumer advocates have long suspected that banks were systematically creating improper documents to prove ownership of loans. Foreclosure defense lawyers use the term ‘ta-da’ endorsement to describe situations in which they say a document appears, as if by magic, in the bank’s possession as needed in a foreclosure case—even though the proper endorsement was not included in the original foreclosure filing. It might sound like a technicality, but correct proof of ownership lies at the heart of the foreclosure crisis for securitized loans, which were sold by the lender that originally issued the mortgage. To legally transfer a securitized loan, the endorsements and allonges have to be created in a very specific way and within a specific time frame, usually 90 days after a residential mortgage trust closes. For many loans in foreclosure now, which were originated years ago and then sold, it’s way too late to correct incomplete documents, experts said. ...

“It’s an explosive document,” said forensic accountant Jay Patterson. “It creates doubt as to whether an endorsed note was actually done when it was supposed to be done years ago, and they didn’t just order it to prosecute the foreclosure.”

Over the past two years, whistleblowers have called out Wells Fargo offices in North Carolina and Minnesota for fabricating mortage documents. Because this suit points to a company-wide policy, rather than practices at particular branches, it has the potential to expose the larger mechanisms by which Wells Fargo violates the law. 

The New York Post →

Judge Orders Federal Government To Enforce State Voter ID Laws

March 20, 2014  ·  Posted by Andrew Mortazavi

On Wednesday, a federal judge ordered the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to assist Kansas and Arizona in imposing state voter-ID laws. The EAC, a federal organization that handles election administration, had previously refused to add state-specific language requiring voters to provide proof of citizenship to national voter registration forms. 

While some Republican politicians and states’ rights advocates defend the ruling and the new voter requirements as a way to ensure only eligible citizens are allowed to vote, detractors claim that there is no proof that voter fraud is even an issue. According to the New York Times:

There has been little evidence of in-person voter fraud or efforts by noncitizens to vote, but the poor and minorities are likely to be affected. Studies have shown that the poor and minorities often lack passports and access to birth certificates needed to register under the laws in question.

Judge Melgren’s decision holds particular significance this election year, as it could prevent thousands of people from voting just as the governorship and other major offices are on the ballot in both states.

The Supreme Court paved the way for Wednesday’s decision last June by ruling that, while Congress retained full power over federal election rules, the states could require proof of citizenship in state and local elections.

The New York Times →

Maryland Tries Out ‘European-Style’ Healthcare

March 20, 2014  ·  Posted by Danayit Musse

Maryland’s new "all-payer" healthcare system will serve as an experiment on whether or not heavy government regulation can reduce healthcare costs. After more than a year of negotiations, Maryland developed a plan that caps hospital spending and sets hospital prices throughout the state—and hopes to save more than $330 million in federal spending by doing so. Al Jazeera reports: 

For the past 36 years, Maryland has regulated the fees hospitals charge patients. Other states have tried and abandoned regulation for various reasons, but Maryland kept it.

Usually, hospitals negotiate fees with each health insurer individually — including the federal government. The fees are based on the services provided and vary from insurer to insurer. The more procedures, the more fees.

The fees are not the same for all 46 hospitals in the state; a hip replacement at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore does not cost the same as one at the Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury on the Eastern Shore or at Sacred Heart in Cumberland in the mountain west. And fees vary even within each hospital. …

Under the new plan, all the state’s hospitals would get an annual budget, based on what they charged the previous year, and would have to limit its total fees to that amount. All patients at each hospital would pay the same for each service.

“It is moving to a more global budget,” said Stuart Guterman, vice president for Medicare and cost control at the Commonwealth Fund.

Maryland’s system mirrors European countries like Germany and Switzerland, where the government heavily regulates healthcare prices. Massachusetts and Vermont are the only other U.S. states with similarly innovative plans.

Al Jazeera →

The UAW’s Surprising New Supporter

March 20, 2014  ·  Posted by Alex Wolff

Common—the Chicago-born rapper and actor—is putting on a free concert for Jackson, Miss. residents this Friday night as a gesture of his support for the United Auto Workers' (UAW) effort to unionize at the nearby Nissan plant in Canton.

He's the latest famous face to come out in support of workers' rights in the area. Actor Danny Glover has also made multiple visits to connect with the region's pro-union constituents and is expected to attend the performance.

The UAW is hoping to bounce back from February's devastating defeat in Chattanooga, Tenn., in which Volkswagen workers narrowly voted against unionization (though the organization is appealing that result on grounds that outside groups unfairly influenced the election).

The Clarion-Ledger reports:

Pro-union Nissan workers and their colleagues contend Nissan Canton relies too heavily on temporary workers that don’t receive the same pay and benefits as full-time workers. They also say the automaker holds on-site meetings in which they intimate the plant will close if it’s organized.

Nissan has repeatedly denied the claims and says it has an open-door policy with the plant’s 5,600 employees that doesn’t require the presence of the UAW. There has never been a union vote at the 11-year-old plant, which builds eight Nissan brands, including its best-seller, the Altima sedan. A union vote at a Madison County Nissan supplier failed in 2008.

The UAW hopes Common's endorsement will help to educate and inform a large, younger audience.

The Clarion-Ledger →

McDonald’s Franchise Owner Will Pay Employees $500,000 in Owed Wages

March 19, 2014  ·  Posted by Ana Martinez

Following a national day of protest by McDonald's employees, the state of New York has reached an agreement with the owner of seven McDonald's franchises. According to Eric T. Schneiderman, state Attorney General, owner Richard Cisneros, will pay out almost $500,000 to the more than 1,600 former and current  who accused his restaurants of wage theft. The Huffington Post reports:

"Like every other business in New York State, fast food employers must follow our labor laws,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “Our lowest wage workers deserve the same protections of the law as everyone else. It’s critical, for them and for their families as well as for our economy, that we remain vigilant so that no New Yorkers are cheated out of their hard won earnings."

In an email through a spokesman, Cisneros said his restaurants were now in compliance with all regulations. "I value my employees –-and it is important to me that they be paid correctly," Cisneros said. "So I am pleased to have reached a settlement with the New York State Attorney General to correct mistakes my organization made in this area. We have also agreed with the Attorney General to use the services of a third party administrator, who will help us ensure that current and former employees who are due money receive that money."

None of the restaurants were operated directly by McDonald's, which franchises the majority of its locations.

This settlement comes amid New York’s increasing efforts to tackle wage theft claims. Recently, Schneiderman’s office announced a $3.9 million settlement with a number of car wash chains in New York accused of labor abuses. He has also asked McDonald’s workers in the state to complete a “fast-food worker complaint form” describing their pay and scheduling practices.  

Huffington Post →

Toyota’s DOJ Fine Largest in Automative History

March 19, 2014  ·  Posted by Danayit Musse

A four-year federal criminal investigation ended in a $1.2 billion fine for automotive manufacturer Toyota Motor Corporation—the largest penalty ever levied against an automaker by the Department of Justice. Toyota admitted to misleading the public about safety issues concerning their vehicles' sudden-acceleration problem, a defect that has plagued the company since 2009 and that cost them $1 billion in a class-action settlement two years ago. The LA Times reports:

The case focused on reports of floor mats jamming gas pedals and sticking gas pedals.

“Toyota put sales over safety and profit over principle,” said George Venizelos, assistant director of the FBI.  “The disregard Toyota had for the safety of the public was outrageous. Not only did Toyota fail to recall cars with problem parts, they continued to manufacture new cars with the same parts they knew were deadly.”

The automaker was formally charged with one count of wire fraud, but if it abides by the settlement terms, the Justice Department will defer prosecution for three years and then seek to dismiss the charge.

“Rather than promptly disclosing and correcting safety issues about which they were aware, Toyota made misleading public statements to consumers and gave inaccurate facts to members of Congress,” [Attorney General Eric] Holder said.

Car owners “have a right to expect that their vehicle is safe” and manufacturers must be forthright about safety issues and fix them quickly, he said.

The settlement is being embraced as a victory by safety groups and advocates nationwide. The “possibility of criminal penalties is now front and center with automakers and that will change their behavior far more than a civil penalty will,” Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, told the LA Times.

LA Times →

ACLU Attacks Idaho’s New ‘Ag-Gag’ Law

March 18, 2014  ·  Posted by Andrew Mortazavi

The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho filed a suit in federal court Monday to strike down Idaho’s new “ag-gag” law. The law, passed last month by the state's Republican-dominated legislature and signed into law by Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter (R), outlaws the capture of photos or videos at farms and slaughterhouses without managers' express permission.

The law also makes it illegal to document the destruction wrought by grazing livestock on federally managed and public lands, taking the law above and beyond similar “ag-gag” laws enacted in six other states. 

The ACLU alleges that such laws intentionally violate constitutional free speech rights, while supporters claim that the law is necessary to protect agricultural operators from being “set up” by activists.

According to Reuters:

The Idaho measure came after ABC News' Nightline last year aired footage secretly shot by an animal activist of beatings and other abuses of cows at an Idaho dairy.

Lawmakers who support the law say it is necessary to protect the agricultural industry, which adds billions of dollars to the Idaho economy, from unfair and biased investigations.

But the ACLU, animal rights group PETA, the Center for Food Safety and other environmental and political groups argued in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Boise on Monday that the law violates free speech rights enshrined in the U.S. constitution.

Undercover investigations in the past decade at U.S. animal production facilities have documented such abuses as workers using steel rods to sexually assault pigs and smashing their heads into concrete floors and stomping and throwing chickens and turkeys like footballs, the groups argued in legal documents.

The Idaho law comes with stiff penalties for activists and reporters, who could face up to a year in prison, a $5,000 fine and restitution equal to twice the value of any losses claimed by the operator if convicted.

Reuters →

Hidden Camera Catches Coal Company’s Alleged Illegal Activity

March 18, 2014  ·  Posted by Danayit Musse

More than a year ago, environmental activists from The Sierra Club and EarthJustice attached a hidden camera to a tree near Louisville Gas & Electric's Mill Creek Generating Station. Over the course of twelve months, representatives say, they obtained photographs of the Kentucky plant continuously dumping allegedly dangerous waste into the Ohio River. On Monday, both groups filed a joint Notice of Attempt to Sue against the company: 

 “We deserve clean water,” Thomas Pearce, regional organizer for the Sierra Club in western Kentucky, told Al Jazeera. “We’re calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to put forward more stringent guidelines for coal ash because states aren’t policing it. Look at North Carolina and the Duke spill.”

The allegations against Louisville Gas & Electric (LG&E) are the latest in a series of controversies over coal-ash dumping. Last month, Duke Energy, the country’s largest electricity provider, spilled 35 million gallons of toxic coal-ash slurry into the Dan River. Coal ash contains high levels of arsenic, lead, selenium and other heavy metals that the EPA says can cause cancer, birth defects and respiratory problems.

The Sierra Club and EarthJustice say their soon-to-be-filed lawsuit against LG&E is based on time-lapse photography from a camera they strapped to a tree. The camera captured a year’s worth of images showing “dangerous” coal ash wastewater being dumped continuously into the Ohio River.

The groups are asserting that the "steady stream coming out of the coal ash containment pond ... every day, all day, all night" is a violation of the "occasional" dumping of waste allowed by the 1972 Clean Water Actand LG&E's permit. The Sierra Club also points out that the Mill Creek coal plant is only "500 feet from a large residental development and 1,000 feet from a middle school."

Al Jazeera →

Sexual Assault Charges Dropped Against U.S. Army General

March 17, 2014  ·  Posted by Ana Martinez

In a deal with the U.S. Army, Brigadier General Jeffrey A. Sinclair has agreed to plead guilty to adultery and "maltreating" a junior officer, according to his legal defense team. In exchange, he will have sexual assault and sodomy charges against him dropped—meaning he can avoid having to register as a sex offender and walk away from what would likely have resulted in prison time. 

Two years ago, a female captain accused the general of threatening to kill her family and forcing her to perform sexual acts. The accuser, who was part of the general’s staff in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the two had been having an affair for three years. 

Sinclair’s sentence has not been finalized yet, but Sinclair's defense claims his plea deal has been approved by Major General Clarence Chinn, the commander at Fort Bragg, NC. The Washington Post reports:

If the plea offer holds, it would represent the end of an exceptionally rare court-martial of an Army general—there have been only three such cases in the past 60 years—and an even rarer prosecution of a one-star commander on sexual-misconduct charges.

Since the investigation began two years ago, the Sinclair case has riveted the Army’s rank and file, and it has also caused endless legal and public-relations headaches for the Army’s leadership.

The military has been grappling with an onslaught of sexual-assault cases that have angered Congress and the White House and inflamed public opinion. Given that climate, Army leaders knew that how they handled the investigation of a general would be scrutinized closely.

At a minimum, the Post estimates, Sinclair will still likely "be reduced in rank, fined and kicked out of the Army."

Washington Post →

Guantánamo Detainee First To Challenge U.S. Government in Court

March 17, 2014  ·  Posted by Sarah Berlin

A detainee at the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba has filed a legal challenge to the United States government in U.S. District Court. Already notorious for torture allegations and the ongoing detention of prisoners without due process, the prison has come under fire recently for forcing-feeding prisoners who have been on a hunger-strike for almost a decade. 

Emad Abdullah Hassan is a prisoner from Yemen who has been detained at Guantanamo, without a charge, since 2002. Hassan began his hunger strike in 2007 and claims that since then, guards have force-fed him thousands of times through a brutally painful procedure that has caused internal injuries.

Hassan tells Truthout that he has a right to live free from such pain and injustice:

"All I want is what President Obama promised - my liberty, and fair treatment for others. I have been cleared for five years, and I have been force-fed for seven years. This is not a life worth living; it is a life of constant pain and suffering. While I do not want to die, it is surely my right to protest peacefully without being degraded and abused every day," Hassan said in a statement released by the British human rights organization Reprieve, which filed for a preliminary injunction Tuesday to halt the abusive procedures, with attorneys Eric Lewis and Jon B. Eisenberg ...

Hassan's legal team said force-feeding practices at Guantánamo amount to torture designed to cause gratuitous pain in an effort to silence the prisoners. The lawyers say the speed at which liquid is forced into prisoners' stomachs is a form of water torture that is similar to waterboarding, and that prison officers forcefully remove nasal feeding tubes after each feeding, inflicting significant pain.

Hassan is the first Guantánamo detainee to take on the United States since a judge ruled last fall that courts of appeal can hear cases regarding conditions of confinement. Prior to the ruling, detainees had no way to legally challenge the abuse they say they've endured. 

Truthout →

NYC Mayor Won’t Attend Anti-Gay St. Patrick’s Day Parade

March 17, 2014  ·  Posted by Alex Wolff

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has decided to skip Monday's St. Patrick's Day parade—making him the city's first mayor to do so in decades—amid concerns that the city's LGBT population won't be allowed to make itself known at the festivities.

Gay-friendly signs have been banned from the event, which typically draws 200,000 marchers and is viewed by close to 1 million spectators. Participants are also not allowed to "identify themselves as LGBT."

Several popular beer manufacturing companies—including Dublin-based Guinness—have withdrawn sponsorship from the parade, in an effort to distance themselves from the controversy.

The impasse between parade organizers and would-be marchers has forced the latter to find other ways to get involved. The Guardian reports:

Some LGBT groups were to protest the parade along the parade route on Fifth Avenue on Monday. Others had planned to dump Guinness beer from the shelves of the Stonewall Inn, the birthplace of the gay rights movement, in protest of the brewer’s plan to sponsor the parade, but that demonstration was canceled late Sunday after Guinness said in a statement that it had dropped its sponsorship.

Boston's parade, which took place on Sunday, March 16, was mired in similar controversy. Mayor Martin Walsh—the city's first Irish-American leader in 20 years—sat out proceedings as organizers weren't able to iron out an agreement permitting a gay veterans group to march.

The Guardian →
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