Cardillo Murder, de Blasio FOIL Fail

Judicial Watch’s probe into the murder of NYPD Patrolman Phillip Cardillo is heading back to court in New York. Cardillo was murdered more than four decades ago, but the NYPD has advanced the preposterous legal claim that its investigation is still “active and ongoing” to deny Judicial Watch documents in the case. That’s an extreme interpretation of the state’s Freedom on Information Law, but typical of the assault on transparency underway in New York City under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Cardillo was shot down in 1972 in Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam Mosque in Harlem. No one ever served a day in jail for the crime. Controversy surrounded the case from the moment bullets flew. Why were suspects released from police custody? Why was the crime scene erased? Why was the FBI quickly on the scene? Why were investigations stonewalled? Who lured Cardillo to the mosque? Who in the political echelon cut a deal with whom, and why?

A suspect was arrested, indicted, went to trial—hung jury—went to trial again, acquitted. The alleged shooter was free—”not guilty” in the eyes of the law—but the NYPD was confident it arrested the right guy. The collar was righteous, but the prosecutions failed due to tainted and withheld evidence. Case closed.

Then, in 2006, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly re-opened the case. According to a 2006 letter from the NYPD to the FBI obtained by Judicial Watch, the new investigation was launched “to determine if there is evidence of a conspiracy in 1972” to kill Cardillo. Six years later, the case was closed again. An NYPD spokesman told the Daily News that the new probe was finished and that it “didn’t turn up any useful information.”

That’s when Judicial Watch began requesting documents in the case—and hit a stone wall. Year after year, Judicial Watch’s requests for information were met with silence. In 2017, Judicial Watch went to court, arguing that the NYPD should be compelled to turn over the Cardillo case file and a tape-recording of an anonymous caller luring police to the Harlem mosque.

The NYPD responded by submitting a sworn affidavit that the Cardillo murder—45 years later—is “an open investigation and remains actively pursued.” And that tape recording? Sorry, we can’t find it.

A New York judge accepted the NYPD’s argument. Read a legal update here.

Last month, we filed our appeal. We argued that on the facts and the law, the NYPD was wrong. The NYPD had failed to demonstrate that there is a bona fide “ongoing investigation,” that it had not provided a legitimate legal basis for withholding the Cardillo documents, and that it “is making a mockery” of Freedom of Information laws. Read the Judicial Watch appeal here.

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Schock & Awe

Aaron Schock always has been an awesome character. At 23, he won a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives, becoming the youngest member in state history. At 27, he won a race for the Illinois 18th Congressional district, becoming the youngest member of Congress. He was a Republican star, a prodigious fundraiser, raising more than $11 million for his congressional campaigns. An exercise aficionado, he once appeared on the cover of Men’s Health magazine. He got in trouble with the Washington Post for decorating his DC office in the luxurious style of the British period drama, “Downton Abbey.”

That’s when it all came crashing down. Washington had a good laugh over Schock’s cover shoot and interior decorating, but questions about improper spending mounted and in March 2015, he resigned from Congress. And there was nothing funny about the federal indictment that came twenty months later, a few days after the 2016 election. The U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois charged Schock with 24 counts of wire fraud, mail fraud, theft, false statements and filing false documents.

The indictment, reported the Post, “alleged that the former congressman from Peoria, Ill., reimbursed himself for 150,000 miles he never drove, bought a new 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe for his exclusive use with campaign committee funds, and reimbursed himself with congressional funds for camera equipment purchased for himself and his personal photographer. It alleges that Schock used government and campaign money to take a private plane with a group to Chicago for a Bears football game, and remodeled his Illinois apartment and Capitol Hill office — paying those who did the thousands of dollars’ worth of work at least in part from government and campaign funds.”

The total tab for the misdeeds: $100,000

Schock was, well, shocked. “I simply cannot believe it has come to this,” he said in a statement after the indictment. He said his campaign team “might have made errors among a few of the thousands and thousands of financial transactions we conducted, but they were honest mistakes—no one intended to break any laws.”

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Sunshine Week, Stormy Weather

It’s Sunshine Week—the annual celebration of freedom of information brought to you by the American Society of News Editors—but unfortunately the forecast is for stormy weather ahead. Everywhere, it seems, public access to information is under fire. Journalism is besieged by charges of “fake news.” Newspapers are closing at record rates. Government secrecy is on the upswing. Freedom of information requests—a critical tool in the fight for transparency and accountability in public life—are increasingly delayed, denied and disparaged.

The Great Recession and the creative destruction brought by technological change has resulted in the closure of almost 1,800 newspapers in the last fifteen years. But digital media will fill the information gap from all those vanishing publications, right?

Wrong. Not even close. In the decade ending in 2017, notes former Sacramento Bee executive editor Joyce Terhaar, citing a study by the Pew Research Center,  “roughly 32,000 newspaper journalist jobs evaporated and only 6,000 were created by digital news startups.” The Pew report is grim tidings for the newspaper industry. Read it here.

Federal and state freedom of information laws are at the heart of the fight for transparency in government. But here, too, the news is bad. “The United States government is bigger than ever and the most secretive in recent memory,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton told Congress in 2017.

We should know. Judicial Watch is the nation’s top filer of Freedom of Information requests in the Nonprofit/Advocacy Group category, according to the FOIA Project of Syracuse University. By the way, we also outstrip every news organization in filing lawsuits to obtain government records.

We’ve learned from long experience that lawsuits are the key to sunshine success. Freedom of information requests are dragged out for months and years, or simply ignored. That’s much more difficult to do when a judge gets involved.

The investigative website ProPublica published a litany of FOIA horror stories that gets to the heart of how governments game the transparency crisis to their advantage.

“Local, state and federal agencies alike routinely blow through deadlines laid out in law or bend them to ludicrous degrees, stretching out even the simplest requests for years,” ProPublica reported. “And they bank on the media’s depleted resources and ability to legally challenge most denials. Many government agencies have gutted or understaffed the offices that respond to public records requests. Even when agencies aren’t trying to stymie requests, waits for records now routinely last longer than most journalists can wait — or so long that the information requested is no longer useful. This, in turn, allows public agencies to control scrutiny of their operations.”

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De Blasio Failure to Thrive

The national economy is humming along, but in America’s greatest city it feels like the canaries in the coal mine are starting to drop dead. A “progressive” mob so terrified the Amazon behemoth that it abandoned plans to build a giant technology hub in New York and fled, costing the city 25,000 jobs. Murders and domestic assaults, while still low by historical measures, have jumped. Ditto hate crimes. So-called “quality of life” offenses like subway turnstile jumping, public urination, public drinking and littering have been decriminalized as part of the social experiment. Mayor Bill de Blasio recently abandoned his highly touted education “Renewal” program, an attempt to improve struggling schools, after throwing $773 million at it. And reports now indicate that the mayor’s wife, Chirlane McCray, has blown $850 million in a poorly managed mental health initiative.

Ms. McCray, a former freelance writer and public-affairs specialist, leads “ThriveNYC,” a sprawling and ambitious effort to improve the city’s mental health practices. It’s a smorgasbord of social programs reaching into more than a dozen city agencies.

“In January 2015, I had the honor of announcing an unprecedented commitment by the City of New York to create a mental health system that works for all New Yorkers,” Ms. McCray wrote in a Thrive report. Everything, it seemed, was on the table: suicide, anxiety, depression, discrimination, substance abuse, maternal and fetal health, hospitals, homelessness, housing, jails, veteran affairs, youth issues, LGBT issues, parenting issues, senior citizens, schooling, public awareness, citizen education, physician training, public and private sector partnerships. The system would operate “in part through 54 targeted initiatives— representing an investment of $850 million over four years—that together comprise an entirely new and more holistic approach to mental health in New York City,” the report noted.

Four years later, no one can figure out where the money went.

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Highway of Tears (The Murders in Indian Country)

In January, Judicial Watch published a short report, “The Murders in Indian Country,” outlining the shocking rate of murders and assaults inflicted on Native American and Alaska Native women. While accurate information is scarce, surveys suggest that the women are murdered at a rate ten times the national average. The response to the Judicial Watch report was tremendous. The story bounced around social media for weeks and prompted a stream of emails.

We noted that Congress had dropped the ball last year, allowing “Savanna’s Act” to die in the House of Representatives. The bill had strong bipartisan support and would have forged new ties between law-enforcement agencies and improved data collection related to crimes against Native Americans and Alaska Natives. The bill was named for 22-year-old Savanna LaFontaine-Graywind, brutally murdered in North Dakota in 2017.

Now, Savanna’s Act is back, reintroduced in the Senate by Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. There is an “epidemic of murdered and missing Native women and girls,” the senators said in a joint press release.

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A Rising Tide of Global Corruption

ATransparency International is out with its annual global corruption index and the news is not good. Around the world, according to the group’s sophisticated scoring system, democratic institutions are embattled by a rising tide of corruption.

TI’s “Corruption Perceptions Index” is the gold standard in assessing corruption worldwide. The index is drawn from comprehensive data sets of more than a dozen international organizations, including the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, Freedom House, and the Economist’s Country Risk Service. Descriptions of sources, statistics and methodology can be found here, below “Resources and Downloads.”

Because corruption operates in the shadows, hard data is elusive. TI’s index measures expert and in-country perceptions, focusing on public corruption, bribery, diversion of public funds, malfeasance and crime by public officials, transparency and accountability.

The failure to curb corruption is “contributing to a worldwide crisis of democracy,” TI says. The 2018 research shows “a disturbing link between corruption and the health of democracies, where countries with higher rates of corruption also have weaker democratic institutions and political rights.”

According to the new data, “on a scale of zero (a highly corrupt public sector) to 100 (a very clean public sector), two-thirds out of the 180 countries surveyed have scored below 50 in 2018’s CPI—meaning that the majority pass as corrupt.”

Since 2006, democratic practices have declined in 113 countries. “Corruption chips away at democracy to produce a vicious cycle, where corruption undermines democratic institutions and, in turn, weak institutions are less able to control corruption,” says TI Managing Director Patricia Moreira.

The most corrupt country? Somalia, scoring a meager 10 out of 100 on the index.

The other top ten most corrupt countries, from the bottom up, are Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, North Korea, Sudan, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the lowest scoring region, the report notes. It struggles with “stark political and socio-economic contrasts” and rampant, longstanding corruption.

In the Middle East, another low scoring region, the situation “remains grim.” Civil liberties “continue to be under repressive state control” and “corruption remains stubbornly high.”

The least corrupt country is (drumroll please….) Denmark, with a score of 88.

Coming in one point below Denmark is New Zealand, at 87.

The rest of the top ten least corrupt countries, from the top down, are Finland, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Netherlands, Canada, and Luxembourg.

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Suddenly Strategic Guyana

The government has fallen. The Russians are coming. The Chinese are coming. There’s chaos at the border and corruption in the capital. And a vast treasure tempts all takers. That’s the situation in small, suddenly strategic Guyana. Is anybody in Washington paying attention?

The current crisis began in December when a single member of the Guyanese ruling coalition switched to the opposition in no-confidence vote that brought down the government. MP Charrandass Persaud earlier had been spotted around the capital looking to buy $1 million in gold, selling his SUV, and handing over the keys to his law office. Immediately after the vote, he hopped a plane for Canada.

Allegations flew on social media that Persaud had been bribed to switch his vote. Persaud denied the charge. That $1 million in gold he was looking to buy? Well, yes, true, Persaud said, but that was on behalf of a client.

The motive for bringing down the government?

New elections.

The powerful opposition People’s Progressive Party desperately wants a seat at the table carving up Guyana’s sudden new wealth. ExxonMobil has discovered vast oil reserves off the Guyana coast, a discovery set to transform one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Millions of dollars have started to flow into Guyana. Soon it will be billions.

The government has struggled to create the institutions and laws to manage the money. (Judicial Watch reported on the situation in August.) Opposition politicians complain that the current government was taken to the cleaners by ExxonMobil. “They sold our patrimony,” said PPP leader Bharrat Jagdeo. Despite attempts at reform and reconciliation, Guyana politics is largely dominated—and at times bitterly divided—between the Indo-Guyanese PPP and the Afro-Guyanese People’s National Congress. The PNC dominated the most recent government—until December.

Neighboring Venezuela was quick to declare its interest in the Guyanese political developments. A day after the no-confidence vote, the Venezuelan Navy intercepted an ExxonMobil research ship in Guyanese waters.

Consider it a warning. Venezuela and Guyana have been disputing territory for decades, but this is different. Venezuela is falling apart, Guyana is oil rich, and the Maduro regime in Caracas may be looking to divert attention from its domestic troubles. “Is Venezuela willing to start a Caribbean war?” asked geopolitical risk analyst Scott MacDonald.

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New York’s War on Religious Education

New York State has opened the door to a war on religious education. New guidelines from the state’s Department of Education are framed as applying to all “religious and independent schools” in New York, but no one is fooled. The changes are aimed right at New York City’s freewheeling Orthodox Jewish seminaries, known as yeshivas. More than 100,000 students attend yeshivas in New York City.

The new guidelines revisit the “substantial equivalency” statute that has kept the peace in New York schools since 1897. Non-public schools can educate their students as they see fit, provided the education is “substantially equivalent” to public schools. The new guidelines change the equation. Math must be taught every day. English, science, and social studies must be taught. Schools must provide samples of teaching schedules, textbooks, and lesson plans. Non-compliant schools risk withdrawal of funding for things like textbooks and transportation, and students ultimately could be forced to go to another school. Students that resist transfer risk being declared “truant” and legal steps to challenge parental competency could follow. The new mandates will be enforced by inspections from local school district officials.

The guidelines, wrote two Orthodox educators in the Wall Street Journal, are a shocking power grab by secular forces. They “empower local school boards to evaluate private schools and to vote on our right to continue educating our students.” The new curriculum requirements demand “so much time that it crowds out Torah study, our sacred mission.”

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FOIA Goes to the Supreme Court

 

 

 

The Freedom of Information Act is headed to the Supreme Court. FOIA is a critical tool in the fight to make government more transparent and accountable. In 2017, the federal government fielded more than 800,000 FOIA requests. Many were shot down immediately as falling under one or more of the nine categories that Congress exempted from disclosure under FOIA, including broad swathes of information related to national security, law enforcement, personal privacy, privileged communications, and confidential commercial or financial information. A good overview of FOIA exemptions can be found here.

The new case on the Supreme Court docket, Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media, is focused on FOIA’s Exemption 4, trade secrets and commercial information. The exemption protects “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person and that is privileged or confidential.”

Want to know how a federal contractor is making use of your tax dollars? Interested in the activities of a federally regulated financial entity? You’re in Exemption 4 territory.

Our FOIA friends at MuckRock note that the upcoming case could “either cement the public’s right to know or severely restrict the ability to track the flow of tax dollars into private companies.”

The case began in 2011 when the Sioux Falls Argus Leader decided to take a look at where food stamp money is spent. The newspaper filed a FOIA request with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, these days referred to as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The Argus Leader asked the USDA for the name, address, store type and annual SNAP sales figures for every participating store from 2005 to 2010.

The public has “a right to know how much taxpayer money grocers, gas stations, big box retailers and others get by participating in the federal food stamp program,” the newspaper has written.

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The Murders in Indian Country

 

On August 19, 2017, 22-year-old Savanna LaFontaine-Graywind disappeared in Fargo, North Dakota. The upstairs neighbor immediately was a suspect: she had been acting strangely and texted LaFontaine-Graywind earlier that day. Savanna was eight months pregnant, with swollen feet. Her car was in the parking lot, her wallet was at home: wherever she went, she wasn’t planning to go far.

Eight days later, her body was found in the Red River. Her baby had been cut from her womb.

Two months earlier, Ashley HeavyRunner Loring vanished from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. A witness later reported seeing Ashley running from a vehicle on Highway 89.

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