Saturday, September 27, 2003

Wendell's woes

Nevada's most embarrassing political year in recent memory just gets more seamy. No local indictments have been issued in the Operation G-Sting, the strip club scandal that has roiled the political establishment in San Diego -- three members of the city council have been indicted, and former Clark County Commissioner Lance Malone, now a strip club lobbyist, has dragged Las Vegas on stage, as it were. Not yet, anyway. But if Knappster is right, a host of prominent Vegsa business and political leaders may soon have reservations at Club Fed.

Then we have Wendell Williams. The nine-term assemblyman from North Las Vegas has constantly been at odds with the Review-Journal's editorial board on philosophical grounds; Williams is cut from the cloth of the Jesse Jackson/Al Sharpton civil rights establishment, promulgating racial preferences and other policies that expand the welfare state -- an agenda which rejects educational choice, genuine neighborhood-level decision-making, and true individual empowerment. Unlike Jackson and Sharpton, however, Williams has actual power. He's chairman of the Assembly's education committee, which controls funding of K-12 schools and the college system AND has the authority to micromanage the operations of school districts statewide. In addition, he's speaker pro tem of that body, so he can influence the legislative agenda.

In recent years, he has not only been an impediment to any reforms which would help his own constituents escape government dependency; he has begun to use his position as an elected official and a public employee (stay tuned) as a way to abuse power for his own personal gain.

Statements and documents establish that Williams:
• Drove with a suspended license during the past two years.
• Faced an arrest warrant for failing to appear in a Reno court in connection with a traffic citation.
• Failed to make this month's payment on a $15,000 fine he incurred for failing to submit required campaign contribution and expenditure reports during the 2000 election.
• Made an undetermined number of personal calls on the cellular phone issued by his employer, the city of Las Vegas. On Wednesday, the city put him on a payment plan to repay $1,844 for those calls.

And there's more. The married Williams personally intervened with college officials on several occasions to ensure a part-time job for his 28-year-old girlfriend, Topazia "Briget" Jones, who was then elevated to the position of lobbyist for the college system so that she could visit Williams at the Legislature at taxpayer expense. The details here:

• Jones made unauthorized trips to the recent legislative session in Carson City and was on the Assembly floor with Williams, wearing an embroidered jacket identifying her as a special assistant to Williams.
• Jones was picked up at the Reno airport by legislative police on those trips, then driven to Carson City.
• Williams and Jones tried to induce university system Chancellor Jane Nichols to lease West Las Vegas property for use by Nevada State College. In exchange for her work on the lease, Jones was expected to receive an administrative job with Nevada State College.

Williams and Jones both lied to college officials about her academic credentials and her previous salaries -- offenses which would, according to university policy, get anyone else fired.

And there's more. Williams continued to receive pay from his $86,000-a-year "job" with the Neighborhood Services Department of the City of Las Vegas while the Legislature was in session in Carson City, 400 miles from Sin City.

And there's even more. This week, Williams lost his job as chairman of the "interim" education commitee -- the lawmakers who formulate policy when the Legislature is not in session. But he has paid no other penalty for any of these transgressions, other than being allowed to make installment payments of $70 per paycheck for 15 months to cover $1,800 in personal cell phone usage (even though he ran up more than $5,000 in charges over the past year). City officials haven't asked him to return his salary. Nor do they expect him to take unpaid leave when he attends to future legislative business, as is typical of public-employee lawmakers who work for other agencies. (If there's any good news here, Mayor Oscar Goodman believes city employees should not also serve in the Legislature; if he's serious, I can't see why the council couldn't pass an ordinance prohibiting the practice prospectively.) Nope, Wendell's bulletproof because -- let's not mince words here -- he's black, and the Democrats in this state would let him get away with just about anything short of murder rather than express any sort of public disapproval. For now, anyway. (It's also shameful that, to this point, there have been no public expressions of outrage by other leaders in the local African-American community about Williams.)

You can't make this stuff up.

While Williams is appears to be a particularly gross offender, he may eventually face some consequences because he got caught and he left a paper trail. The sad news is, I hear anecdotally that, at a more petty level, this sort of abuse by lawmakers and other public officials goes on all the time -- from minor traffic offenses and other violations of the law being overlooked by the cops to sweetheart deals and off-the-books "gifts" being offered by campaign contributors, lobbyists, contractors and other vendors. It's Tammany Hall for the 21st century, baby, and it's rampant in this state. Want to move to Nevada?

Friday, September 26, 2003

Post-debate obesevations

If I'm George Bush, I'm breathing a lot easier today. The Democrats have failed to exorcise the spirit of FDR, let alone Fritz Mondale. Wealth is evil, "rich" people don't work, Social Security is sacrosanct (Gen Xers, bend over), and central planning is the answer to all our national ills.

Among the candidates, only John Kerry appeared to be sufficiently serious and thoughtful to pose any threat to a second Bush term. Edwards, Sharpton, and Moseley-Braun were nonentities, Kucinich was frightening, Graham was just silly, waving his "economic plan." Clark was presentable but boring, and offered nothing of substance; he had to be cornered before he would offer a simple yes-or-no answer to the question about letting individuals invest some of their payroll taxes in the capital markets (he's agin' it). Dean and Gephardt should have scared the bejeezus out of the investor class, and anyone whose livelihood depends on trade and open markets (including, Mr. Gephardt, the members of the United Auto Workers union, whose employers buy and sell components from dozens of countries ... for the time being).

Joe Lieberman was an enigma. While he said some of the right things about the importance of trade, whenever backed in the corner, he started pandering. When asked if some sort of new WPA would get the economy moving, he said that would be "a good start." When asked what unpopular decision he'd make on Day One in office, he said he'd jump-start the war on terror. (John Ashcroft, you're a piker.) The only rationale I can see for Lieberman to stay in the race is to capture the pissed-off Gore supporters who can't stomach Dean.

Kerry appeared to be the adult on stage. He articulated the only message that was not overtly hostile to free-market capitalism, the creation of wealth, the dynamism of open exchange. He refused to pit "workers" against "the wealthy." He could mount a credible challenge to a president who seems to be teetering. But he'll probably never get a chance, because Kerry's reasonable message just about guarantees he'll never be nominated by Democratic activists, who remain pathologically enamored of the Great Society, notwithstanding its failures.

Of course, the Bush administration has boxed Democrats into a corner. They can't pledge to reduce the deficit and offer new spending programs, because this White House has spent so recklessly, as John O'Sullivan said on CNBC, as to make drunken sailors appear to be models of sobriety. This may be brilliant politics on Bush's part, but when the tab comes due ...

More debate

Hats off to CNBC for devising a format that worked, despite the unwieldy number of participants. Keep that in mind the next time the League of Women Voters, or whoever, bars legitimate minor party candidates from a presidential debate because it would be unmanageable to have "so many people" (4 or 5?) on stage at once.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Old journalism and "censoring" blogs

A little perspective on the controversy raging over the SacBee's concession that it is editing (or censoring, depending on your perspective) the blog it sponsors featuring great stuff from political columnist Dan Weintraub: The Bee has taken legitimate shots from Mickey Kaus, Glenn Reynolds, Hugh Hewitt and others, because (in part) of the paper's weak-kneed concessions to political correctness. The Bee's ombudsman has admitted that Weintraub's submissions were subject to review after receiving complaints from the Latino caucus of the state Legislature about this post:

If [the California Lt. Governor's] name had been Charles Bustmont rather than Cruz Bustamante, he would have finished his legislative career as an anonymous back-bencher. Thus there is reason to wonder how he would handle ethnic issues as governor.

And while people can debate forever whether MEChA and its more virulent cousins do or do not advocate ethnic separatism, it's indisputably true that the Legislature's Latino Caucus advocates policies that are destructive to their own people and to greater California, in the name of ethnic unity.

The Bee deserves a good roasting for its cowardice. But it's astounding that the paper had not forced Weintraub to vet his postings from the inception of the blog. I think much of the furor over the "editing" of Weintraub's posts has resulted from confusion over who's publishing the blog, and who's ultimately responsible in a legal sense for what appears in it. From my meager understanding of libel law, as a formal extension of the Bee, anything Weintraub writes on the blog -- though it's his own opinion -- potentially subjects the Bee to the same exposure for libel than would any column or news story that appears under his byline in the print edition of the paper. A statement of opinion is given a wide berth by the courts, but not absolute protection.

Just as every staff-written article or sanctioned op-ed that appears in a major newspaper is subject to "lawyering" (meaning editing) to reduce the likelihood the publication would face a libel suit, any piece that appears on a paper's Web site, or a blog owned and sanctioned by it, such as The California Insider, is also likely to undergo scrutiny to make sure nothing maliciously false appears there ... if the paper's owners are smart, of course.

Now, if Weintraub published a blog on his own time and on his own dime (say, like this one), he might be freer to speak his mind. But then he would face a different set of responsibilities. For instance, the Review-Journal has absolutely nothing to do with this blog. I'm free to say what I will. But because the blog is not the official voice of the paper, if a post related to something that's in the newspaper led someone to sue me for libel, the paper would not be obligated to offer me any legal assistance. There's a complete church/state separation in play here, to such an extent that not only must I post in my spare time, but I also cannot use the facilities of the Review-Journal to work on my blog or post from any of the paper's computers.

It's a bizarre confluence of the blogosphere, "old journalism," and the law ... and it will, I'm guessing, lead to an interesting and perhaps unpredictable evolution in the boundaries of legally permissible opinion.

BTW, if my reading of First Amendment law is way off base here, I'd appreciate feedback from those who know much more than me.