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Major Decision Looms for New Orleans' City Council on Prison Facility

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By Seth DiStefano, Special to the NNPA from thefendersonline.com –

It’s not often that building a new prison might represent a watershed moment in criminal justice reform. But in New Orleans, Louisiana, that’s exactly what is happening.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the damage to the Orleans Parish Prison severely curtailed the ability of local authorities to maintain levels of incarceration that, until the storm hit, were the highest per capita in the country. For a city of approximately 465,000, the pre-storm prison capacity of 7,200 enabled one of the most dysfunctional and unfair criminal justice systems in the nation.

Following the destruction of Katrina, however, local governments had to build a correctional facility. What has followed can be called one of the most significant debates on criminal justice reform in the country, on one side are the local grassroots activists, criminal justice experts, and good government advocates, on the other, is the pro-incarceration, politically entrenched Sheriff who seeks to maintain one of the nation’s largest per-capita prisons.

Though the Sheriff’s initial proposal was for a prison with less capacity (5,800 beds as opposed to 7,200) than the original, it’s still far out of proportion when compared to cities of comparable size. New Orleans now has approximately 350,000 residents. Building a prison this out of balance with the population will only further enable the city’s troubling pattern of locking up the poor, people with mental disabilities, and persons of color who cannot afford the bail or fines that got them incarcerated in the first place.

Despite long odds, local activists and community based organizations waged a remarkable campaign to significantly reduce the size of the local prison. A recent Mayor’s report recommended a facility more in line with the area population. The report now awaits action by city council.

What happens next will certainly impact the future of criminal justice reform in New Orleans, a system that has traditionally been one of the most troubled in the nation.

Hundreds of pro-reform activists took out a full page ad in the Times-Picayune newspaper to support building an appropriate size jail.

Seth DiStefano is the Senior Organizer for the Criminal Justice Reform Project of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

Supreme Court Justice Thomas Admits 'Inadvertent' Error

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Special to the NNPA from the AFRO-American Newspapers –

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has acknowledged that he erred in not disclosing his wife’s income on his financial statements in the wake of complaints raised by liberal advocacy group Common Cause.

In filings dated Jan. 21, Thomas sent seven similarly-worded letters to the Federal Committee on Financial Disclosure asking to amend his disclosure forms. In the letters, Thomas said he “inadvertently omitted” the information due to “a misunderstanding of the filing instructions.”

However Common Cause, a watchdog group that monitors government and industry, is still crying foul as officials question his explanation.

“Justice Thomas sits on the highest court of the land, is called upon daily to understand and interpret the most complicated legal issues of our day and makes decisions that affect millions. It is hard to see how he could have misunderstood the simple directions of a federal disclosure form,” said Common Cause President Bob Edgar in a statement. “We find his excuse is implausible.”

Common Cause pointed out to the Judicial Conference of the United States, the regulator for the judicial branch of government, that Virginia Thomas’ earnings while at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative advocacy organization, were not reported from 2003 to 2007. During that period, Common Cause indicates that Thomas earned $686,589, a salary of $120,000 or greater each year.

Common Cause indicates that she left Heritage in 2008; but in 2009 Liberty Central, an organization with strong ties to the Tea Party Movement, which she co-founded, paid Thomas for services, according to its chief operating officer Sarah Field.

Neglecting to disclose this information would violate the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, which requires all federal officials, including Supreme Court justices, to disclose their spouse’s income. Thomas indicated “none” under the latter category on his disclosure forms from 2003 to 2009.

Common Cause on Jan. 20 also requested the Justice Department investigate the “apparent involvement” of both Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia in what it calls “strategy sessions” hosted by Koch Industries in January 2010. Koch Industries, one of the nation’s largest privately-held companies owned by the Koch brothers, conservative magnates, is the umbrella for such companies as Georgia-Pacific.

Koch sent out a description for its next program in Palm Springs, Calif., entitled “Understanding and Addressing Threats to American Free Enterprise and Prosperity” which states:

“This action-oriented program brings together top experts and leaders to discuss –and offer solutions to counter – the most critical threats to our free society. …Past meetings have featured such notable leaders as Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas; Governors Bobby Jindal and Haley Barbour; commentators John Stossel, Charles Krauthammer, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh; Senators Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn; and Representatives Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, and Tom Price.”

Common Cause claimed that sitting justices meeting with the second largest private corporation in the U.S. raises questions about whether the two jurists should back away from upcoming cases involving campaign financing by corporations.

Common Cause is asking the Judicial Conference to probe these matters and, if warranted, refer the issue to the Justice Department for enforcement under the Ethics in Government Act.

If found guilty, Thomas would become only the second justice in modern times to encounter ethics problems. Liberal Associate Justice Abe Fortas resigned in 1969 under pressure concerning financial and ethics issues.

Freshman Florida Rep. West Stirs Controversy over Anti-Islamic Comments

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Special to the NNPA from the AFRO-American Newspapers –

Newly-seated Rep. Allen West (R-Fl) is facing a controversy following abrasive comments about the Islamic religion.

The Tea Party-backed conservative, in an interview on “The Shalom Show,” a public affairs program airing on the JLTV cable channel, told producer Richard Peritz that Islam was the “antithesis” of America’s founding principles.

At the outset of the 11-minute interview, Peritz asked West how he was going to deal with members of Congress he disagreed with, especially Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) who is Muslim.

“Well I think it’s most important that I stand upon the principles [of the] people that elected me to go to Washington, D.C., and represent them on Capitol Hill,” West responded. “So that when you run into someone that is counter, or someone that really does represent the antithesis of the principles upon which this country was established, you’ve got to be able to defeat them intellectually in debate and discourse, and you just have to be able to challenge each and every one of their assertions very wisely and very forthright.”

West’s comments came at a time when public and political focus on America’s Muslims is intensifying following the announcement of a mosque being constructed near New York’s Ground Zero monument.

The Future of the Global Muslim Population, a new demographic study by the Pew Research Center and the John Templeton Foundation, estimate that there are 2.6 million Muslim Americans. The Pew Research Center projects this number will more than double by the year 2030.

According to various media reports, Ellison in a statement said he was surprised by the comments, as West had never expressed those views to him directly. Ellison disagreed with West's assertion that his religion precluded him from representing the principles of America.

“Contrary to the views expressed by Congressman West, I work to represent the highest ideals of our great nation – ideals like freedom of worship and respect for all faiths, equal protection under the law as well as a civil and open public discourse,” Ellison said.

“Americans across the country want their public servants to reject the toxic and corrosive chatter that yields more heat than light,” he added. “I hope to have a productive and respectful dialogue with all of my colleagues, including Allen West.”

West’s latest comments are in stark contrast to those he made when he was sworn in to the Congressional Black Caucus. At that time, he acknowledged there would be differences between him and other members of the caucus, but he said that all members just wanted what was best for America.

“You bring a different perspective, but I think we're all working toward the same end, which is what is best for our country and within the African-American community,” West told The Washington Post shortly after being sworn in.

But his anti-Islamic comments are likely to offend members of that community. A 2009 Gallup study reveals, “Muslim Americans are the most racially diverse religious group surveyed in the United States, with African Americans making up the largest contingent within the population, at 35%”. This percentage is up from an earlier 2007 report by the Pew Research Center, which put the African American Muslim segment at 24 percent.

This, however, wasn’t the first time West made comments about religion. Last March, West criticized the popular “Coexist” bumper stickers, which display symbols of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other religions and philosophies.

“And the reason why I get upset, and every time I see one of those bumper stickers, I look at the person inside that is driving,” West said, according to the blog ThinkProgress, operated by the progressive policy group Center for American Progress. “Because that person represents something that would give away our country. Would give away who we are, our rights and freedoms and liberties because they are afraid to stand up and confront that which is the antithesis, anathema of who we are. The liberties that we want to enjoy.”

West added that Islam was a “very vile and very vicious enemy that we have allowed to come in this country because we ride around with bumper stickers that say ‘Coexist.’”

American Islamic groups strongly denounced West’s comments, saying they are disappointed that an elected official would harbor such views.

“Congressman West’s statements against Islam are profoundly troubling,” said Corey Saylor, Government Affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “I don’t think it reflects well on the office of a member of Congress.”

Ronald Reagan: A Better Friend of Blacks than Obama?

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By George E. Curry, Special to the NNPA from thedefendersonline.com –


There they go again. First, conservatives ranging from anti-affirmative action foe Ward Connerly, to combative talk show host Glenn Beck, claimed to be acting in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as they sought to dismantle everything he fought for. Now, one of Reagan’s sons has made the outlandish assertion that Reagan was a better friend of African-Americans than the nation’s first Black president.

These people have no shame.

In an article that appeared on FoxNews.com the day we observe Dr. King’s birthday as a federal holiday, Michael Reagan wrote, “…The past two years have made one thing clear: Ronald Reagan was a far better friend to black Americans than Barack Obama has been.”

And he didn’t stop there.

Instead of Bill Clinton being known as the first Black president, the younger Reagan wrote, “Well, I could make an even stronger case for my father, Ronald Reagan, as ‘our first black president.’” He said he could make such a case, but in deference to Obama, he decided he wouldn’t.

Well, as his father would say, let’s examine the Reagan record.

■While campaigning for governor of California, Reagan opposed that state’s Fair Housing Act, saying, “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, he has a right to do so.”

■Reagan opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

■Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., which at the time was known for only one thing: the Ku Klux Klan murder of three civil rights workers. Reagan, using the code words of the day, said, “I believe in states rights.”

■The Reagan Justice Department, unlike previous Republican and Democratic administrations, decided to stop negotiating specific goals and timetables in settling illegal discrimination cases.

■Under Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights William Bradford Reynolds, the U.S. Department of Justice went to court to challenge voluntary affirmative action programs that had been agreed to by different parties.

■Over the objection of Reagan, the Supreme Court upheld an Internal Revenue Service rule denying tax exemption to Bob Jones University, an institution that prohibited interracial dating and marriage.

■Reagan vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act passed by Congress to overturn a Supreme Court ruling (Grove City v. Bell) that limited the remedies available to the federal government when going after private organizations that receive federal subsidies. Congress overrode Reagan’s veto.

■The Reagan administration went to court to invalidate voluntary school desegregation programs, such as the one in Seattle.

■Throughout his presidency, Reagan refused to take a stand against South Africa’s racist regime. When Congress voted for sanctions against the minority-ruled country, Reagan vetoed the measure. But, Congress again overrode his veto. After one pro-apartheid speech, the normally mild-mannered Bishop Desmond Tutu said: “I found it quite nauseating. I think the West can go to hell…Your president is the pits as far as blacks are concerned. He sits there like the great, big white chief of old.”

■Reagan slashed domestic programs for the poor, especially housing subsidies. According to Peter Dreier, a housing expert: “Reagan’s most dramatic cut was for low-income housing subsidies…Between 1980 and 1989, HUD’s budget authority was cut from $74 billion to $19 billion in constant dollars.”

■Reagan didn’t recognize his lone Black cabinet member responsible for carrying out the drastic housing reductions. At a reception for mayors, he approached HUD Secretary Sam Pierce and greeted him, “Hello, Mr. Mayor.”

■He depicted poor women as “welfare queens” driving around in pink Cadillacs.

■In his article, Michael Reagan noted that his father signed into law a bill making Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday. However, he neglected to say that Reagan signed the measure grudgingly, noting he did so because “Congress seemed bent on making it a national holiday.”

■Reagan attempted to fire three members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights – Mary Frances Berry, Blandina Cardenas and Rabbi Murray Saltzman – because the members of the then-independent body were critical of his civil rights record.

■Reagan’s most lasting legacy is the number of far-right judges he appointed to the federal bench. One – Robert Bork – was so extreme that the Senate rejected his nomination.

As proof that he wasn’t a racist, President Reagan often recalled the story of when two Black members of his college football team were not allowed to stay in a hotel with their White teammates, he offered his parents’ Illinois home to the African-Americans.

Michael Reagan recounts that story yet again in his defense of his father. However, his quote reveals his father’s interest was not limited to the welfare of the two Black teammates. The future president said that after the coach said all of the players would sleep on the bus if the Black kids were not allowed to register at the hotel, Reagan then came up with his offer.

The son said, “Dad spoke up and offered an alternative: why not send Burgie and Jim to the Reagan home in Dixon, just 15 miles away? Dad’s parents, Jack and Nellie Reagan, would welcome his teammates – and the whole team would get a good night’s rest.”

Despite his devastating policies, President Reagan saw himself as a friend of African-Americans. In a 1989 interview with CBS News about his relationship with Blacks, Reagan said, “One of the great things that I have suffered is this feeling that somehow I’m on the other side.”

It was more than a feeling; it was reality. And there’s nothing that Michael Reagan and other revisionists can say to alter the truth.

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.


$20 Million Bribe for One Signature, Revealed in U.S. Cables in Nigeria

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Special to the NNPA from the Global Information Network –

In newly-released U.S. embassy cables from Nigeria, a Shell Oil executive was said to have shared with the Ambassador examples of corruption in the Nigerian government that nearly defied belief.

Record requests for bribes in the multi-millions were being sought by government officials and their family members, the executive, Ann Pickard, reportedly informed the U.S. official.

According to the cables, released by WikiLeaks, the $20 million bribe for one signature on one document was made by the Nigerian Attorney General – who asked for $2 million up front and $18 million the following day.

Former president Olusegun Obasanjo reportedly received more than $10 billion for National Power Projects to improve the generation, transmission and supply of electricity but none were completed by the end of his tenure.

Pickard expressed optimism that “the nationalism card was cooling.” Mohammad Sanusi Barkindo, the new state oil head, was a graduate of U.S. universities, she said, and although he used terms like “nationalism” and “Chavez” (referring to Venezuela Pres. Hugo Chavez), she thought he could be steered in the right direction.

Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth International and Amnesty International filed an official complaint charging Shell with using discredited and misleading information to blame the majority of oil pollution on saboteurs in its Niger Delta operations. The complaint was filed with United Kingdom and Netherlands government contact points for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

“Several studies place the bulk of the blame for oil spills in the Niger Delta on the doorsteps of the oil companies; particularly Shell,” said Friends director Nnimmo Bassey, adding: “They should take responsibility and clean up the mess they made in our country.”

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