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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Government 101: The Art of Bullying

 Among the many things coming out of the Republican primaries and from the GOP nominee, Donald Trump, was a desire to overturn the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. Tea Party Republicans have been gnashing their teeth and wailing against this law since before the ink was dry on the legislation on the President’s desk.
Now, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but the outcry against ACA puzzles me. Opponents claim that most Americans don’t want it, despite surveys showing that a majority of Americans in fact do support it. They whine about White House overreach, but fail to mention one salient point; the ACA was passed by both houses of congress, and if I remember my civics and government classes from decades ago, it takes a majority to do that.
So, what you have is a vocal minority determined to overturn the decision of the majority, even going so far as shutting down the government in their protest against it. Some call this democracy. I call it an effort by a fringe group to impose their will on the rest of us, at any cost. It doesn’t matter what the majority of the population wants. They only answer to their base, and their own base instincts. They’re a lot like schoolyard bullies who, when they can’t get their way, kick the toys and hide the ball. They’re not above using bullying tactics to get their way, or punishing those who disagree with them, and they have supporters who aid and abet them in this churlish behavior.

Regardless of your party affiliation, think about this when you go to the voting booth in November.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Trump's plan to ban Muslims won't make us safer

When GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump wildly suggested closing America’s borders to all Muslims (later modified somewhat, but still aimed primarily at Muslims), the subject of radical Islamic terrorism has been the subject of numerous media stories. A lot of people seem to buy into this idea, almost as much as the equally idiotic idea of building a wall on our southern border. I’m willing to bet that most of those who most loudly support the proposal of banning entry to the U.S. to a group of people solely because of their religion, have never even met a Muslim, and know nothing about Islam.
To subscribe to the belief that all Muslims are terrorists is about as rational as saying that every white person from the Deep South is a member of the KKK, or is a Klan sympathizer. Anyone familiar with the Civil Rights movement knows this not to be true. Of course, back in the day, it might have been difficult to convince a young black student being attacked by a police dog or pummeled by a fire hose of this, but there were southerners who were not bigoted, rabid racists. Few had the courage to identify themselves publicly or too vocally, but they had to live in a society that was by and large controlled by those who were racist, and who didn’t take too kindly to anyone who didn’t share their views. Remember Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, two white civil rights activists, who were killed along with James Chaney, a black activist in Philadelphia, MS in 1964. Not all that different from what radical groups like the Islamic State (IS) does to Muslims who don’t toe their hard line these days.
I give that little piece of historical background in order to make a point; be careful about painting everyone with the same brush. Get to know the individual before making such a decision.
During a 30-year career as an American diplomat, I spent time in a number of countries with significant Muslim populations. What I saw and experienced contradicts the belief of many Americans that Islam is a religion of violence, and all Muslims are prone to radical violence.
When I worked in Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s, roughly 40% of the population was Muslim. Christians and Muslims lived in the same villages, intermarried, and basically, got along well. The first democratically elected president of Sierra Leone, a retired UN diplomat, was a Muslim married to a Catholic. One of my closest contacts in the military was a Muslim captain married to a Baptist woman. Such unions were common, as was seeing churches and mosques in close proximity to each other in upcountry villages.
In Thailand from 1988 to 1991, I worked in the north. There was a small Muslim population there, which was totally unlike the radical southern Muslim population. Many of the northern Muslims I knew worked with or for the government, and got along quite well with their Buddhist neighbors. I worked closely with a Muslim doctor who had more Buddhist than Muslim patients.
Fast forward to Cambodia in 2002, one year after the 9/11 attacks. That country has a small Muslim population, less than five percent of the population. The ethnic Cham originally came from Vietnam (where a few still reside). Among the most peaceful people in the country, they’re also among the poorest. After 2001, there were efforts by Jemah Islamiyah (JI), a radical Indonesian Muslim group, to radicalize the Cham. The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh had a modest English scholarship program for Cham students—spending less than a tenth of what the Saudi Wahabbi-funded JI was spending. What was the outcome? A French anthropologist doing research among the Cham found that the U.S. popularity rating among Cham was over 80%. The validity and credibility of that survey has to be respected since the anthropologist in question was somewhat anti-American.
What am I trying to say here? Simple; in any population you will find a diversity of opinions and beliefs. Muslims are no exception. I have no doubt that some Cambodian Muslims dislike America; after all, during the 1969 incursion into Cambodia from Vietnam, Cham villages took the brunt of U.S. bombing raids. Actually, I was surprised that only something under 20% viewed us negatively. In Thailand, I had dinner frequently with my Muslim doctor friend; who was not averse to the occasional cocktail. And, in Sierra Leone, roughly half the people I dealt with on a daily basis were Muslim, and never did I get a sense that they were any more violent or anti-West than the Christians. As a matter of fact, the rebel army that was laying waste to much of the countryside during my time there was mainly Christians, but with Christians and Muslims fighting side by side on both sides of the war.
So, let’s stop the labeling, and try to get to know people as individuals. Going after Muslims just for being Muslims will not make us safer. It will blind us to the dangerous people who are non-Muslim (let’s not forget Timothy McVeigh). And, it’s likely to serve as a handy recruiting tool for the radical terrorist groups.

Some people are violent and some are not, and their religion doesn’t really have that much to do with it.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Trump sinks to a new low

On a soap opera set in 2005, unaware that there was a hot mike nearby and that his remarks were being taped, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump bragged that he could ‘kiss and grope’ women because he was a star, and ‘when you’re a star, they let you do anything.’ Immediately, his minions and apologists have jumped to his defense. His former campaign manager, in a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer on October 7, tried to downplay this by saying he’d rather have a president who was ‘gross’ than one who was ‘dishonest,’ conveniently omitting the number of times Trump’s lies have been exposed, often in his own words.
The question that comes to mind for me is, if Trump feels that being a star makes it possible for him to get away with ‘anything,’ what will he think being president would entitle him to? This is a guy that a majority of respondents to a Newsmax poll recently said they’d let babysit their children. What that tells me is that hardcore Trump supporters and hardcore Clinton haters will forgive this guy just about anything, and the country be damned. Maybe Trump was right, he could kill someone on the streets of Manhattan and no one (among those who support him like well-trained house pets) would dislike him.
What’s really frightening is that while I’m sure there are some decent people left in the GOP, I’m still waiting for one of them to step up and condemn him for his remarks, for his behavior. They will no doubt gasp in dismay in private, but in public – silence. In the meantime, those angry people who support him because he is so gross and disgusting will continue to cheer.

We’re no longer in an age of dirty politics. Thanks to Donald Trump, we’ve sunk even lower.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

#PoweredByIndie: My Fascinating Journey in Self-Publishing

 Shy and withdrawn as a child, my only solace was found in books, books that I devoured voraciously from the time I was seven or eight years old. The worlds I found between the pages gave me comfort in ways that human contact did not. By my early teens I’d overcome my shyness, but my love affair with the written word endured.
Transitioning from reading to writing was, perhaps, inevitable. I’m not sure when or how it really began, but by the time I was twelve, I was already writing little short stories, creating worlds like the ones I’d encountered in the books I read—but, only for myself.
When I started high school, not long after my twelfth birthday thanks to a special program that put students in grades based on their test scores not their age, I met Paulyne Evans, my home room teacher and the English teacher in my high school, Booker T. Washington elementary and high school in the small East Texas town where I grew up. She helped me get over my shyness, but she also recognized my love of writing, and encouraged it. When I was thirteen, she talked me into entering a national Sunday school magazine short story contest, and to my surprise—but, she insists, not hers—I won first place. The prize was small, about ten dollars, if I recall, but seeing my byline on a piece of writing in a publication that was circulated throughout the U.S. hooked me forever.
After graduating from high school, and without the resources for college, I joined the army. Over a twenty-year career, I often moon lighted as a writer/photographer/artist for local newspapers near the bases where I was stationed, did freelance articles and art for a number of magazines, and wrote poetry. After retiring from the army, I joined the U.S. Foreign Service, and for most of that thirty-year career, I pretty much put my creative writing on hold, except for the occasional opinion piece, book review, or poem. I didn’t return to fiction, or try my hand at a book-length work until about twelve years ago; eight years before I retired from government service.
After four years of rejection slips, I almost gave up on ever being able to get a book published. Then, eight years ago, I got a bite from what at the time seemed like a reputable publisher for two books on leadership. I won’t, for legal reasons, name the ‘publishers,’ just suffice it to say, it was a rip-off. I got hooked into an eight-year contract, and incessant requests that I buy my own books. They haven’t sold well, although the first one did get a few rave reviews, and does still get the occasional sale. My royalties have been miniscule at best. The experience soured me on publishers, and almost killed my desire to write.
Then, I started seeing articles about self-publishing. I researched it, and discovered that many other writers, including some who already had relationships with traditional publishers, were taking that route. This was, unfortunately, just before indie publishing began to be viewed with a little respect, and I was hesitant. But, I finally decided that if others could do it, so could I.
I dusted off a manuscript that I’d been working on for three years, did some rewriting, enrolled in one of the POD self-publishing programs, and after a year, had my book available for online sales in paperback and e-book format.
Surprisingly, it got a few good reviews, and even a few sales, despite being roughly done. I was just learning that self-publishing involved more than merely writing the darned thing; you had to know formatting, editing, and cover design, and . . . yuck . . . marketing. But having a book out there for all to see, and getting even a few sales was energizing. I then dug out my journal in which I’d written down ideas for other books, and started writing seriously.
Over the past eight years, I’ve managed to create a substantial list of published books, fiction, children’s books, and nonfiction, and get modest, but steady, sales in both paper and electronic versions.
More importantly, with each book, I get better—at least in my own opinion—and, I learn something new. I can now format a book’s interior almost as well as a traditional publishing house, I’ve learned to edit my work as if it was written by someone else—which means cutting, changing, or adding  to that first creative outburst with a reader’s eye. I’ve learned to do covers. Oh, none of them will ever win an award, but they’re technically acceptable, and a few of them aren’t half bad. My experience as a photographer, editorial cartoonist and magazine artist helps there.
Am I ready to make the NYT Bestseller’s List? Not hardly. But, I’ve gotten some good reviews, my books continue to sell, and occasionally I get an email from a reader telling me that they found themselves immersed in my book and loving the characters. I get the occasional review that pans a book. I even learn from them. If the criticism is valid, and not just trolling, I make a note of it, and incorporate it into my next book, or as I did in one case, unpublish, rewrite, and republish the book.
Independent publishing has been for me an exciting journey, one that is just beginning. Along the way, I’ve learned some fascinating things, and met some wonderful people. Indie publishing might not be for everyone. It’s a daring thing to do. But, if you want some excitement in your life, and if you want to write, it’s a combination that will change you forever.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Spilled Blood -- a John Jordan short

Clinton will have no trouble getting under Trump's skin

It’s a sad commentary on the state of American politics when the debates between candidates for the highest office in the land, instead of being heated exchanges about issues of importance sound like spats on an elementary school playground. Of course, when one of those candidates is a thin-skinned misogynistic bully who, when he’s losing or feels that he’s been bested, lashes out like a spoiled brat. While I am disappointed that the Clinton campaign has decided that getting under his skin is the way to deal with Trump, given who and what he is, I understand it.
From his actions since the first debate, that tactic seems to be working. Even before going into the debate, he was classic Trump; threatening to bring up Bill Clinton’s marital infidelities in the debate, or inviting a woman who claims to have had an affair with him when he was governor of Arkansas to sit on the front row. He, of course, did neither, and then after the debate, he and his minions portrayed this as a sign of his greatness and compassion. Hah! His dawn-hour Twitter rant, attacking former Miss Universe Alicia Machado—using language that no civilized gentleperson, much less a presidential candidate, should ever use. I won’t repeat h ere any of the things he tweeted; there’s no sense giving this crap any more air time. I will, however, talk about the author of said crap.
Whenever he’s criticized, or suffers a setback, Trump gets personal and combative, and if the source of his discomfort is a woman, he really dives into the gutter, getting into their sexual behavior—either they’re having too much, or too little. I imagine that even a cloistered nun would be attacked if she were ever to disagree with the Donald. Of course, when doing this, he conveniently ignores his own past somewhat sordid sexual history.
This man has no shame. He’s always right—according to him. And, what really makes this an American tragedy is that he has so many people who aid and abet him in his atrocious behavior. The debate fell short on discussion of issues, and his minions and supporters blame it all on Clinton, without mentioning that he offered nothing in the way of rational policy proposals during the debate, and when he wasn’t sniffling and looking uncomfortable, was interrupting Clinton in an effort (I imagine) to throw her off stride—which he was singularly unsuccessful in doing.
All he’s managed to say throughout the campaign is that America is in shambles, and it’ll stay that way unless he’s elected president, because, you see, he’s so smart and so successful, he’s the only one who can get the job done.
So far, his only concrete proposals, some of which he’s backed off on and picked back up again, have been things that’ll cause more harm than good. You’ve no doubt heard them numerous times, so I won’t dignify them by repeating them—in that, I’m stealing a page from the Trump playbook. Trust me.
Trump has been proven a liar on numerous occasions by his own recorded and video-taped words. Does this change the way his hard core supporters feel? No! Even Ted Cruz, whose wife Trump slammed in a most disgusting way during the primaries, is supporting him now. Same goes for Chris Christie, who was humiliated on national TV and in public appearances by Trump. Want to know how Trump’s legions feel? I recently took a poll on Newsmax, a conservative news site, which asked to compare Trump with Clinton on things like honesty, would you let him babysit your kids, would you trust him with your bank account, etc. By a margin of two to one and more in some cases, Trump was categorized as honest and trustworthy. I’m willing to bet that none of the contractors or workers he’s abused over the years took that poll.

So, while I’m not particularly fond of negative campaigning, I’ll hold my nose and wish Clinton well in her efforts to get under Trump’s skin, and say this, once you’re under there, twist it a few times for good measure. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Schemes and scams from an unlikely place

U.S. computer networks, government, commercial, and private, are under almost constant attack, many of these attacks coming from abroad. Computer, mail, and telephone scams abound, many also coming from abroad. The standard villains when we hear of hacking attacks against our computer systems are the Russians, the Chinese, and on occasion the North Koreans. When we hear of computer scams, we usually think of the Nigerian groups who are famous for this activity.
There is, however, another source of both these assaults that seldom gets mentioned in the press; India. India, location of many computer self-help desks for U.S. companies, supplier of many IT techs who keep companies here going, is also the source of a lot of vicious computer hacking attacks, and at least one telephone scam that I’m personally aware of.
My son is a computer engineer for a Virginia-based company that provides hardware and software globally. Many of his colleagues are Indian nationals, who he describes as some of the best in the business. But, every coin has two sides. If some of the best programmers and computer engineers come from India, it’s safe to assume that there are also a fair number of black hat hackers who will try to penetrate networks either for the sheer challenge, or to do harm.
I have personal experience with this. This morning, I woke up to find emails from my email provider, and some of my social network accounts informing me that there’d been an attempt to access these accounts from in IP address in India. Fortunately, my firewalls and notification protocols prevented total compromise of my system and accounts, but I had to spend hours that could have been devoted to other tasks, changing all my passwords—a real pain in the . . . neck.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only victim of this penetration attempt. Another thing that’s come out of India is a phone scam that is really, I mean, really annoying. Your phone rings; caller ID shows a number and the label ‘Wireless Caller.’ If you’re the type to answer calls from unknown numbers, you’ll pick up and hear what gets left on my answering machine; a clearly digital voice of a woman with no discernible accent informs you that the IRS has filed a court case against you and that you must call the number they give you to get the details. I’m not sure what this phishing expedition is looking for, but no way in hell am I calling that number. I’ve reported this to the IRS twice—because I’ve received this call from at least two different area codes and numbers. Not that it’ll help. My son-in-law, who is a postal inspector (the Post Office’s law enforcement arm), informs me that this scam is known to be based in India, but U.S. authorities are unable to track it to a specific address, and even if they did, it’s unlikely the Indian government would cooperate in shutting it down.

So, what am I saying here? The threats to our computer systems are real. Con artists are lurking behind every computer screen or at the end of every phone call, looking for a weakness to exploit. A lot of them come from the places that get the lion’s share of the news, but not all of them.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

How secure are our government computer systems, and does Congress really give a damn?

With all the hyper-partisan noise about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s admittedly unwise use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state, an important issue has not been raised in the media among the flurry of coverage of this issue: just how secure are all those government servers that she—and several of her predecessors, for that matter—declined to use?
The furor over Clinton’s use of a private server is a lot of smoke without a flicker of flame. There’s not a scintilla of evidence indicating that the server she used was ever compromised. There is, however, a lot of evidence that U.S. Government computer systems, including those of the Department of Defense (DOD), Department of State (DOD), and other government agencies, have been repeatedly penetrated by hostile hackers, believed to have originated from Russia and China.
In the mid-1990s, for example, it was estimated that on any given day, 5 to 6 DOD computer systems were controlled by hackers. In 1996, DOD’s Milnet computer system (including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Logistics Agency) were compromised. In 2006, the DOD’s unclassified email was hacked, shutting the system down for several days; the intrusion was believed to have originated abroad. In response to the early intrusions, plans were laid in 1996 to create a Defense Cyber Command to deal with them, and in 2006, the US Air Force Command was created.
These problems were known to the public, but you can search all you want and you’re unlikely to find much media coverage of the issue; certainly not to the degree that HRC’s email server is covered. For instance, in 1998, a group of hackers testified before congress on just how easy it would be to bring down the Internet. That should have provoked a flurry of frantic media coverage—but, it didn’t.
For that matter, nor did the 2008 compromise of DOD’s classified computer system, or again in 2015 when DOD’s unclassified email system was again hacked.
As for the Department of State, in 2014, the DOS email system was hacked and had to be shut down. At the same time, the White House email system was targeted, but as far as we know that attempt was a failure. As far as we know.
There was a momentary upswing of media coverage when the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) system was hacked twice in 2015 (supposedly by hackers in China), compromising over 25 million social security numbers, and exposing current and former government employees to hostile action and exposure of their personal data.
If congress was really interested in the security of government computer systems, one would assume that these incidents would be the subject of dozens of hearings and inquiries. Maybe someone up on the Hill is interested, but search as hard as you wish, you won’t find any evidence of that interest.
Maybe, after the November elections, when the dust is settled, some member of congress who is serious about doing his or her job will take on this issue. I, for one though, will not be holding my breath waiting for that to happen, because it offers no political advantage. Taking the necessary actions to really secure our government computer networks will require a lot of hard work and serious thought. The poor schmucks who have to work with those systems are working hard to get the job done. But, the politicians who should be providing them with the legislation and resources to get the job done have their ey

Monday, September 19, 2016

When Laws and Regulations are not enough

When the Korean War began in June 1950, the United States Army, after five years of occupation duty in Japan, was ill-prepared for combat in the rugged terrain of the Korean Peninsula. It was less prepared, however, for dealing with an enemy that ignored the Geneva Convention and subjected Prisoners of War (POW) to brutal and inhumane treatment. At the end of the war, the American government was shocked when 21 American POWs refused repatriation and took up residence in China, or to learn that one in three American POWs had not only collaborated with the enemy, but had mistreated fellow prisoners.
Despite provisions in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) that made collaboration with the enemy or abuse of comrades criminal acts, it still occurred because American military personnel were not prepared to resist the physical torture and brainwashing employed by their captors. Determined to do something about it, the Department of Defense developed the Military Code of Conduct, a simple six-article code to guide American forces in combat or captivity in the future. With only a couple of changes since promulgated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10631 in 1955, the Code of Conduct has since been the legal, moral, and ethical basis for military conduct, nor replacing, but supplementing the existing laws and regulations.
Why do we need Codes of Conduct?
With the many laws and regulations we have that regulate the conduct of government employees, one might legitimately ask why separate codes of conduct are even necessary. As the Defense Department learned during and after the Korean War, having laws prohibiting conduct is often not enough to enable individuals to make appropriate decisions in situations of uncertainty.
In the last several decades more and more organizations, government and private, have come to the realization that laws and regulations alone are not enough to equip people to do the right thing.
Doctors, nurses, firemen, lawyers, police officers, therapists, and accountants are among the many professions that have a formal code of ethical conduct in addition to the man laws and regulations they must abide by. The diplomatic and government officials of the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Nepal, among others, have codes of ethical behavior to complement the laws and regulations that guide their conduct. Sadly, one very important profession is missing from the list of those having formal codes of conduct—the U.S. Foreign Service.
The rationale for codes of conduct is that they enable individuals to make difficult decisions, especially when those decisions edge into the gray areas of ethics and morality. They help protect employees who would otherwise be tempted to compromise their integrity under the influence of unscrupulous individuals. Codes also improve an organization’s external reputation by publicizing the goals and the behaviors that are in line with those goals, establishing clear expectations, and holding members of the organization accountable for their actions.
Following are the commonly accepted traits of a profession:
1.      Performs specialized activities based on possession of advanced specialized knowledge, and the activities are primarily intellectual in nature rather than physical or manual.
2.      Confidential relationship between practitioners and their clients or employers.
3.      A substantial degree of public obligation by virtue of the specialized knowledge practitioners possess and employ in their work.
4.      Practitioners share a common heritage of knowledge, skill, and status.
5.      Work is performed in the general public interest.
6.      Practitioners are bound by a distinctive ethical code in interactions with clients, colleagues, and the public.
Number 6, codes of ethical conduct, is perhaps one of the most important traits of a profession, because it is the organization’s institutional ethics that underpin the other five traits, and it is through a formal, broadly understood code of ethics that organizations earn public trust and support. A commonly understood and accepted code is also critical in building esprit within an organization. Just as the Military Code of Conduct reassures members of the armed services that those serving beside them adhere to a code of honorable behavior, in an organization, having a code of ethical conduct helps members know that their colleagues ‘have their backs.’
Laws and regulations, while necessary are not sufficient
As previously mentioned, the U.S. Foreign Service does not have a formal code of ethical conduct for its members. It stands out among the other Western democracies, and even a few non-western countries in that regard.
Coming as I did from a military background, I noted this lack early in my 30 years in the Foreign Service, but didn’t find it particularly troubling until about midway through my career. During one of my assignments I observed two incidents and their disparate handling that highlighted the problem of relying on laws and regulations alone to control behavior. In the first incident, an American embassy staffer became romantically involved with a local. When an effort to end the relationship resulted in the local staging a rather noisy demonstration in front of the chancery, the American employee was immediately sent home by the ambassador, using the ‘loss of confidence’ authority that all chiefs of mission have. Some months later, foreign mercenaries were present in the country, and the ambassador published a written policy stating that only three officials in the embassy were to have any contact with them. An American staffer (not one of the three the ambassador authorized) began a romantic relationship with one of the mercenaries, going so far as to allow him to spend the night in embassy-controlled quarters, during which stays an armed member of the local military would station himself outside the compound gate. In this case, the ambassador, fearing the employee might sue the State Department or the ambassador for intruding on her ‘private’ life, took no action and ordered the DCM to take no action—to allow the employee, who was transferring in three months, to leave quietly.
Why, one might wonder, would two similar actions be dealt with in such a disparate manner? In neither case was a law or formal regulation—in the State Department, the formal regulations are in the Foreign Affairs Manuals (FAM)—was broken. In the second case, one might term the ambassador’s policy a ‘regulation,’ but for the sake of argument, let’s say it didn’t quite rise to that level. What was violated, in both cases, was local policy and common sense. But, one employee was punished by being ejected from the country, while the other was allowed to leave quietly. Why? It was a judgement call, of course. In the first case, the employee took the punishment quietly, while in the second, it was judged that the employee might rock the boat and file a grievance. While I can understand the decision-making process at work here, it struck me at the time, and still does, that this wasn’t a fair and equitable way to deal with these situations. The regulations were interpreted differently for two nearly identical violations.
This was brought home even more forcefully for me recently when I read about the case of the State Department employee who was punished for refusing to obey an order to violate the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR). I’m not directly familiar with this case, but what appeared in media accounts left me fuming.
According to numerous reports, State Department employee Timothy Rainey was instructed by his supervisor to pressure a contractor to rehire a fired subcontractor, an action that would have violated the FAR. When Rainey refused to comply, he was given a negative performance evaluation and relieved of his contracting duties. Rainey filed a complaint with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MPSB), claiming that the Department punished him inappropriately for his refusal to obey instructions that violated federal rules. The MPSB disagreed, finding that the ‘right to disobey’ provision of the Whistelblower Protection Act, which protects federal employees from retaliation for refusing to obey an order that would require the employee to violate a federal law, didn’t apply in this situation because he hadn’t been ordered to specifically  violate federal law. The U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with the MPSB decision, finding that rules and regulations are not laws. The irony in this case is that the MPSB, in coming to its conclusion, cited a Supreme Court decision in favor of a TSA employee who’d been fired for leaking that TSA had cut air marshals on long-distance flights to save money. In this case, the court found that the employee was entitled to whistleblower protection because he’d violated a regulation, not a law.
The foregoing highlights the weakness inherent in a system to enforce ethical conduct that relies on legal interpretations alone. What it illustrates is that actions can be ‘legal’ according to the law, but ‘wrong’ in so many other ways.
Let’s take another look at the military’s experience in the Korean War. The UCMJ is quite explicit in its prohibition of certain behaviors. The seven main articles in the UCMJ that govern conduct in combat or captivity are:
            Article 90: Willfully disobeying a superior commissioned officer
            Article 92: Failure to obey an order or regulation
            Article 93: Cruelty and maltreatment
            Article 99: Misbehavior before the enemy
            Article 100: Subordinate compelling surrender
            Article 105: Misconduct as a prisoner
            Article 104: Aiding the enemy
Yet, despite all these statutes, one in three American prisoners of war collaborated with the enemy; many PWs physically abused their fellow prisoners. What explanation is there for this? The finding of the committee that was established by the Secretary of Defense after the war was that the regulations and laws were insufficient to encourage the desired behavior; that what was needed was some over-arching code that inspired service members to act in ways that complied with the laws and regulations without necessarily being related to a specific law or regulation. The Code of Conduct was designed to encourage not just ‘legal’ behavior, but ‘right’ and ‘honorable’ behavior.

Does the U.S. Foreign Service need a code of ethical conduct?
The Department of State and the other agencies employing members of the Foreign Service, have a number of regulations regarding ethical behavior. The State Department, for example, has the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), in particular, 11 FAM: Legal and Political Affairs, which sets out prohibited conduct and financial disclosure rules for all State Department employees. In addition, State has published ethical guidelines on a number of occasions, and a number of bureaus, such as Consular Affairs and Diplomatic Security have established ethical guidelines for personnel assigned to their areas of responsibility.
All of these are laudable and necessary, but, in my view, not sufficient. The FAM regulations, despite the court ruling, are legally-based and define prohibited behavior. Moreover, the standards of conduct, or prohibited behavior, are contained in a thick document that is not that easy for employees to access and that is virtually inaccessible to the public. The various bureau codes are fine, insofar as they pertain to performance of duties in those specific areas, but Foreign Service personnel serve across all bureaus of State, in the other foreign affairs agencies, and on assignment to other federal, state, local and international organizations. This calls for a code of conduct that applies to all Foreign Service personnel, in all situations.
I’d like to say that the aforementioned Rainey case is an isolated incident, but my observations over thirty years tell me otherwise. Despite the volumes of legislation and regulations, there continue to be situations that are in ethical gray areas; cases of inequitable treatment and inappropriate behavior that not only threaten to undermine the morale of the service, but in some cases erode the public’s faith in the Foreign Service as an institution.
A well-designed diplomatic code of ethical conduct, on the other hand, could provide clear ethical standards for diplomatic practitioners, and a reference point that those outside the diplomatic profession could use to assess the performance and behavior of American diplomats. It allows the individual to know what’s expected as acceptable behavior, and provides a guide to making decisions that’s in line with the goals of the organization. By setting clear expectations, it protects the individual practitioner from exploitation by unscrupulous people, and establishes core aspirational values to guide individuals at all levels of the institution. The external reputation of the institution is enhanced when everyone is held accountable by a commonly shared code of ethics.
Who should develop the Foreign Service code?
In my conversations with Foreign Service colleagues on this subject, it has been pointed out on several occasions that the Department of State has published codes of ethical behavior a number of times over the past decade, and moreover, several bureaus within State (Consular Affairs and Diplomatic Security, for instance) have codes of conduct, so the Foreign Service as an institution has no need of one.
With all due respect, I believe they are wrong. While the various ethical codes promulgated by the Department of State are valuable, and laudable, the Foreign Service is an institution established by law, and while the vast majority of Foreign Service personnel do work at State, the Foreign Service is separate from State. Foreign Service personnel also work at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Commerce, Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). Like lawyers, doctors, and other professionals, all personnel have to abide by the rules and regulations of the agency or organization for which they work, but other professions also have a unifying professional code of professional conduct. In the military, the activities of army, navy, and air force personnel are quite different, but the Military Code of Conduct is an ethical code that binds them all, regardless of rank or service.
The most effective codes are those that members of the profession feel ownership of. It would seem logical, therefore, that a code of ethical conduct for the Foreign Service should originate from within the Foreign Service itself, and the most logical home for such an effort is the body that represents the entire Service, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA).
The groundwork for such an effort has already been laid. In 2012, AFSA established the Professionalism and Ethics Committee (PEC), subsequently renamed the Committee on the Foreign Service Profession and Ethics. This ad hoc committee was made up of volunteers dedicated to enhancing the Foreign Service as a profession and promoting the ethical conduct of the nation’s foreign affairs. Having just retired after 30 years in the service, I was honored to be named the first chair of this committee. With the assistance of the Institute of Government Ethics (IGE), we undertook a number of initiatives. One of the first was a survey of AFSA members in 2013, asking them, among other things, to identify the core values they feel are associated with the Foreign Service as a profession.
While a number of traits were mentioned in survey responses, the four that were overwhelmingly chosen as reflecting the highest standards of public service were:
Honesty – Being truthful, transparent and balanced.
Respect  - Giving full consideration to competing perspectives, exercising service discipline, respecting laws, customs, and practices of the United States and the host country, and engaging in a civil and courteous with all persons with whom we interact.
Responsibility – Putting the U.S. Constitution, U.S. interests, and policy objectives before self-interest, and utilizing all resources in the public’s best interest.
Fairness – Acting solely according to the merits of the case at handing and impartially serving, to the best of my ability, the elected administration.
These four traits represent the views of the AFSA membership as reflected in responses to the 2013 survey. While these are the core values as members of the Foreign Service see them, they in no way contradict the values, regulations, or laws of the organizations we serve. On the contrary, they reinforce them, and signal our aspiration to hold ourselves to an even higher standard. Like the physician who abides by the rules of the employing hospital, but at the same time honors the Hippocratic creed to ‘do no harm,’ the Foreign Service should aspire to be the epitome of a front-line force protecting the nation, its people, and its values.

I call upon AFSA, therefore, to step up and do what a professional association is designed to do; take the necessary actions to enhance the status of the Foreign Service as a profession and of AFSA members as practitioners of diplomacy. Establishing a code of conduct is but one of the things needed to achieve that goal, but it would be a useful first step

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Why doesn't the media swarm all over the Trump Foundation?

The editorial drumbeat continues, with calls for closing the Clinton Foundation even from those media outlets that support Clinton—because even though no wrongdoing has been proven, the ‘optics’ are bad. Okay, enough! Let’s call a timeout on this story and do a comparable bit of editorializing and handwringing about the Trump Foundation. What’s the Trump Foundation, you ask? You weren’t aware of it? I’m not surprised, given the paucity of coverage it’s gotten from the mainstream media. Well, let me fill you in on this little-known aspect of Donald Trump that American media, for the most part, finds less interesting than his crude, arrogant behavior.
The Donald J. Trump Foundation, founded in 1987, ostensibly to funnel Trump’s charitable giving to veterans groups and other needy organizations, was headquartered in New York. Good luck in finding them on the Internet. There’s lots about Eric Trump’s foundation (Eric is the Donald’s son), and tons of stories about the Foundation’s claims, and some of its problems, but no direct link to the Foundation itself. Strange for a charitable organization that got the bulk of its donations from individuals.
Here, though, is what you can learn if you type ‘Trump Foundation’ into a search engine:
-         As of December 31, 2014, the Foundation had assets of $1.3 million dollars, received gifts of $497,400, and gave $591,450 in donations. No details on the nature of those donations (was in cash, or as has been reported, free golf and other perks?).
-         When the Florida Attorney General’s office was considering a fraud suit against Trump University, Florida AG Pam Bondi solicited a campaign donation from Trump (he denies having spoken to her). She subsequently received $25,000 from the Trump Foundation, a violation of the law, as charitable foundations are not allowed to make political contributions. When this was outed, Trump reimbursed the Foundation from his personal funds, and the Foundation paid the IRS a $2,500 fine. Bondi got to keep the money rather than, as the law requires, giving it back to the Foundation. Oh, and shortly after receiving the ‘donation,’ she decided that there was no case against Trump University.
-         Trump has received millions of dollars from Saudis renting his expensive properties in New York, being used for the Saudi delegation to the UN.
-         Since he has yet to release his tax returns, there are still unanswered questions about the nature of his business relationships with Russia.
These are just a few of the background questions about Trump that the mainstream media has failed to deploy battalions of reporters to dig into, as they do each time something about Clinton comes up.

I, for one, would love to read that reporting.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Why won't the mainstream media dig into Trump's history?

 Ever since it became clear that Hillary Clinton was the front-runner, and eventually the nominee of the Democratic Party for this year’s presidential election, we’ve been treated to a steady diet of her shortcomings, thankfully, only a few Whitewater references, but a never ending string of articles and editorials about her emails, Benghazi, and the Clinton Foundation. What I look for every day, but have yet to see; is the same degree of media scrutiny of her opponent’s checkered past. Except for the occasional article, the mainstream media seems uninterested in examining the skeletons in Donald Trump’s closets—at least not to the same degree they do Clinton.
He’s just a crude, ego-driven trust fund kid, you say, with no regard for the finer social graces, you say? With Clinton, the things in her background go to the issue of trustworthiness. Aw, come on, I reply. Let’s look at some of the bones buried deep in the Trump closet, and you tell me they don’t have anything to do with whether or not he can be trusted.
First, there are his business interests. If the Clinton Foundation is a conflict of interest problem, how can Trump’s far flung business interests, some of them with faint connections to organized crime, not be a potential conflict of interest? If taking money from donors to a charitable foundation exposes you to possible manipulation, what does profiting from the actions and influence of mob do?
From his connection with Roy Cohn, the lawyer who worked with Senator Joe McCarthy during his Red Scare witch hunt, and who himself had reputed associations with organized crime figures to reported mob involvement in the construction of his Atlantic City casino, Trump has long been on the periphery of activities that the mob had a hand in. Trump was even a character witness for Cohn during hearings that led to his disbarment in 1986, shortly before he died. Except for a September 2, 2016 article in The Wall Street Journal, I’ve seen no mainstream media coverage of this.
While the media covered Trump’s meeting with African Americans in Detroit on September 3, there hasn’t been the constant drumbeat of coverage of the actions of him and his father, Fred Trump, to deny rentals to blacks in their New York the 1970s, or the Justice Department discrimination lawsuit, which was settled out of court. The amount of settlement is unknown as the deal was sealed. Still, there should be enough publicly available information to make this an interesting story, especially with his recent efforts to ‘reach out’ to the black community.
There was, for a time, a lot of coverage of the lawsuit against Trump in regards to Trump University, an organization which many former students claim bilked them out of their cash and offered nothing in return. Most of this coverage, though, was generated by Trump himself, when he went after the judge on the case, claiming that he couldn’t be objective because he’s ethnically Mexican-American. That got front-page coverage for a few days, and then disappeared except for the occasional reference buried deep in other articles.
I’m not saying that the media shouldn’t cover Clinton’s problems. If they can find facts to support their claims—and, not just cherry-picked information that supports a preconceived belief—more power to them. I am saying that the equal time rule should apply here. The lack of coverage (or maybe a more accurate thing to say is, the paucity of coverage) of Donald Trump’s skeletons could lead the unaware to think that he was somehow less untrustworthy than his opponent; that his skirts are ‘cleaner.’ You have to dig to find that this is not the case.

If journalistic integrity means anything, both candidates should be covered with a certain amount of equity. Don’t throw mud in just one direction. If the only thing that matters is readership, then Trump’s history will guarantee that too. Or, is his history of suing anyone who offends him with what they write scaring them off?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Judicial Watch: Who is watching the watchdog?

Who is watching the watchdog?
 Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group that bills itself as a nonpartisan, educational organization devoted to holding officials accountable because ‘no one is above the law,’ was founded in 1994. Although it claims to be funded by thousands of individual donations, its biggest donor is the conservative Scaife Foundation, founded by the late conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. Its first director was Larry Klayman, a right-wing activist and former Justice Department lawyer, is most noted for the endless filing of lawsuits designed to harass targeted officials and the dozens of lawsuits against the Clinton Administration in the 1990s. He even filed a lawsuit against his own mother.
In the early 2000s, Klayman broke with Judicial Watch and went into private practice, continuing his crusade of law suits and conspiracy theories.
Judicial Watch, however, continues under new management, and although it has taken on the occasional Republican, such as efforts to get Vice President Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force meeting minutes, most of the organization’s efforts are still aimed at leftist and liberal organizations, causes, and individuals, including the Obama Administration and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. It has been key to the continued flow of ‘news’ about the Clinton Foundation’s influence on the State Department during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to access documents, and then providing those documents; or often manipulated versions of them; to the media, which then runs with the story, with no evidence that any attempt is made to verify them or check their veracity. As an example, recent newspaper articles and editorials discussing emails between a Clinton aide and a senior Clinton Foundation official, seemed to indicate that a visa was issued to a UK soccer player based on pressure from the foundation official on behalf of a major donor to the foundation. Left out of some of the news reporting was the fact that the Clinton aide was reluctant to even pursue the issue, and the visa was not issued. One article did mention it, but it was buried deep in the article, and was probably missed by most readers. Judicial Watch is often briefly mentioned in media coverage, but not identified as the major source of the information.
Judicial Watch has also been the driving force behind many of the disclosures regarding the 2013 Benghazi attack and Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server when she was secretary of state.
While it calls itself nonpartisan, a look at its web page would seem to tell a different story. The vast majority of its court filings and press releases are anti-Obama, anti-liberal, anti-immigration, and most telling, anti-Clinton. In June, 2016, Charity Navigator, a web site that rates non-profits, gives Judicial Watch an overall rating of 75.28 out of 100, or two stars, and a rating of 74.00 for accountability and transparency. As bad as this is, it’s a significant increase from the 48.50 (no star) rating it got in December 2002.
Given all this, one has to wonder why the media continues to recycle Judicial Watch information with no more fact-checking than it does. The only answer I can come up with is that these are ‘hot’ news items that are guaranteed to attract readers. As long as the good dirt keeps flowing, the stories will continue to run.

If the media is not holding the organization accountable for its actions—who is?

Friday, August 26, 2016

EpiPen price gouging: Big Pharma strikes again!

Big Pharma's like a spider, luring consumers into its web.
 If you watch any TV, you’ve probably seen this ad: two kids talk about their allergies, one from a bee sting, another from peanuts or seafood (I hate to admit it, but I often don’t pay that much attention), a woman talking about ‘never being without her EpiPen, and what is probably a school nurse extolling the virtues of EpiPen for people who suffer from life-threatening allergic reactions. The ad then goes on to tell you how important this life-saving device is, with a few small print warnings about possible adverse reactions that you see (if you look quickly, and that’s usually what I look for) in all pharmaceutical ads.
This ad, though, is more notable for what it doesn’t tell you. For one thing, you need to change the thing annually because after that time it’s not effective, and for another, each refill of a package of two EpiPens costs you $608.68, a more than 400% increase since Mylan acquired the rights to EpiPen in 2007 from Merck-KGaA. Mylan has raised the price of EpiPen several times since the acquisition, but this latest price increase prompted an immediate outcry from politicians and doctors. In response, Mylan has offered to help more patients to cover out-of-pocket costs, but declined to lower the price. Without reading the details of Mylan’s offer, I can bet the fine print will be so detailed that few consumers will qualify, and since Mylan dominates the $1 billion plus market in this type of device, and also excels in lobbying, people who depend on EpiPen will be forced to cough up the money for it. Mylan needs that income, folks. It recently raised its CEO’s base salary to a hefty $1.3 million annually to add to her total compensation of $38.9 million. In order to maintain her lifestyle, they’ll have to sell a lot of the devices, and will probably raise the price yet again when the furor dies down.
Opponents of government involvement in healthcare and health insurance coverage argue that such things should be left to the private sector. Well, if Mylan is any example, we all know what the private sector is focused on, and it’s not the welfare of consumers.

Yet again, Big Pharma is sticking it to all of us. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Clinton Scandals: Parsing Political Punditry

 Benghazi, the emails, and the Clinton Foundation are not the first manufactured scandals the right wing has attempted to hang on Bill and Hillary Clinton. These two have been in the cross-hairs of the right since Clinton was governor of Arkansas, and even then, Hillary was a primary target, even being criticized by some on the right and in the media during the Lewinsky scandal if you can believe that.
There are probably few readers old enough to instantly recognize the term, Whitewater, so a little background is necessary. In March 1992, the New York Times reported that Bill Clinton, then Arkansas governor, and Hillary, a lawyer with a Little Rock law firm, had invested and lost money in Whitewater Development Corporation, an outfit created by their friends James and Susan McDougal, who at the time were under investigation regarding the failure of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, which they owned. L. Jean Lewis, a low-level investigator for Resolution Trust Corporation, who was one of the investigators on the Madison Guaranty case, saw the article and began her own investigation, eventually submitting a criminal referral to the FBI naming Bill and Hillary Clinton as witnesses in the case. The U.S. Attorney in Arkansas and the FBI found no merit in the referral and killed it, but Lewis wouldn’t let go, and the Whitewater scandal took off, with congressional hearings, appointment of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, and the expenditure of around $75 million in taxpayers money, and nothing was found to substantiate Lewis’s belief (or that of the right wing lynch mobs) that the Clintons had knowledge of, or participated in any illegal activity. They had merely done what thousands had done during that period; invested in a real estate deal that tanked. From reading the articles in the Washington Post and New York Times during this expensive debacle, though, you wouldn’t know that.
Fast forward to the present moment, and it’s like déjà vu all over again. First, there was the unfortunate September 11, 2013 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility (often incorrectly identified in news report as an embassy or consulate) in Benghazi, Libya, in which ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. The right saw an amazing opportunity to attack President Obama, and Republican representative Daryl Issa took the bit in his teeth and was off and running on a witch hunt that would have almost made Joe McCarthy proud. He was soon replaced by South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, who started off on an even keel, but quickly showed his wingnut leanings by shifting the attack to secretary of state Hillary Clinton. After months of an expensive public farce, ably abetted by Fox News as well as much of the mainstream media; with accusations flying like confetti at a Mardi Gras parade, it finally sputtered out. First, the first House hearing found that there was no evidence of a cover up, the White House didn’t order military forces to stand down, Clinton did not personally deny security enhancements for the facility at Benghazi, etc., etc., it sort of died an unheralded death.
Not to be undone, GOP teabaggers quickly seized upon Clinton’s use of a private email server, salivating at the prospect of criminal charges. Boy, were they disappointed when FBI director James Comey, while calling the use of the private server unwise and careless, said that there was nothing that would support an indictment. Another juicy scandal bites the dust.
Now, GOP legislators, along with the erstwhile leader of their party, have latched onto the Clinton Foundation, calling it a pay-for-play scheme, with Hillary Clinton selling access to her when she was secretary of state through donations to the foundation founded by Bill Clinton after he ended his second term as president.
This one will only heat up as Election Day approaches, and to understand it—I mean, truly understand it—you’ll need to read everything that appears in the media carefully. You’ll have to parse the political punditry with as much care as you’d scan a contract before signing, because the details are often in the fine print, slightly modified to fit a political agenda, or just plain omitted. I’ll give just one example, so you know what I’m talking about.
My examples come from the August 23, 2016 issue of The Wall Street Journal, a right-leaning newspaper that is unsure of its support for Donald Trump, but definitely doesn’t like Hillary Clinton. On the front page (jumped to A-4) is an article by Rebecca Ballhaus, ‘Emails Seek Clinton Access.’ On page A-9 is an opinion piece by William McGurn (who I assume is employed by WSJ because of his email), entitled, ‘Hillary and Bill Clinton, Inc.’. Both pieces are about the same subject, and reference some of the same events, but in decidedly different ways.
In Ms. Ballhaus’ article there’s the following sentence:  “The new emails show that while Mr. Band sought to pass along the wishes of donors, Ms. Abedin deferred to official channels.” Mr. Band is Doug Band of the Clinton Foundation, and Ms. Abedin is Huma Abedin, an advisor to Hillary Clinton. The donor being referred to is the Crown Prince of Bahrain, Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, who has donated a significant sum to the Clinton Foundation to fund education programs in Bahrain.  In McGurn’s editorial he has this to say, “Ms. Abedin responded that the prince had sought a meeting through ‘normal’ channels but had been shot down. Less than 48 hours after Mr. Band had asked her, Ms. Abedin responded that “we have reached out through official channels.” The meeting was on. I’m not going to go on record saying that Mr. McGurn played fast and loose with the truth, but here’s what the front page article had to say about that, ‘the crown prince had sought a meeting with Mrs. Clinton the previous week ‘thru normal channels” and that the secretary of state had said she ‘doesn’t want to commit to anything for Thurs or Fri until she knows how she will feel.” Read these carefully, and you’ll see that they convey completely different meanings. But, it gets even better.
Here’s another excerpt from McGurn’s editorial. It isn’t the only favor Mr. Band requested. A month earlier he had emailed Ms. Abedin to ask for her help in getting an English soccer player a visa to the U.S. The player was supposed to come to Las Vegas for a team celebration, but he needed a special interview with the visa section of the American Embassy in London due to a ‘criminal charge’ against him. Because of this, the office of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif) had refused to intervene. Mr. Band’s email made clear the request was on behalf of Casey Wasserman, a sports and entertainment exec who had contributed between $5 million and $10 million to the Clinton Foundation via the Wasserman Foundation. McGurn ends this anecdote here, and goes on in his editorial to slam the Clintons for what he calls a pay-for-play operation that’s far worse than anything Donald Trump has ever done (yes, he managed to sneak Trump’s name in). Here, though, is what the Ballhaus article had to say about this same issue: In a separate email exchange, Mr. Band sought Ms. Abedin’s help in obtaining a visa for a member of a U.K. soccer league at the request of Case Wasserman, president of the Wasserman Foundation, which donated between $5 million and $10 million to the Clinton Foundation. “I doubt we can do anything, but maybe we can help with an interview,” Ms. Abedin wrote. “I’ll ask.” She wrote again: “I got this now, makes me nervous to get involved but I’ll ask.” Mr. Band responded: “Then don’t.” A spokesman for Mr. Wasserman said the forwarded email request never resulted in a visa.
See my point? Cherry-picked facts, omitted details, make all the difference in how you interpret an article or editorial, and how many people are as nerdy as me that they’ll compare an editorial with an article on the same subject to spot these kinds of discrepancies? But, if you don’t, you’ll be as misinformed as regular Fox News viewers. This, folks, is how scandals are created.

On a closing note, I’d like to go back to Whitewater. A minor figure in that ‘scandal’, L. Jean Lewis was about as anti-Clinton as could be. She ran an illegal T-shirt business out of her office, selling items that were vulgarly critical of Hillary, and she engaged in on-the-job activity that had her suspended and under internal investigation. But, she was the darling of the rabid right at the time, so special prosecutor Kenneth Starr (who had his own conflict of interest issues) protected her. What became of her, you ask? Shortly after George W. Bush was elected president, L. Jean Lewis, an individual with no previous supervisory experience, was appointed chief of staff for the DOD Inspector General’s Office, overseeing a staff of more than 1,000 people and a multi-million dollar budget. How’s that for pay-for-play?