Maduro favored as Venezuelans vote amid crisis
By SCOTT SMITH and JOSHUA GOODMAN
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is expected to win a second six-year term in Sunday’s election, despite a deepening crisis that’s made food scarce and inflation soar as oil production in the once wealthy nation plummets.
More than 1 million Venezuelans have abandoned their country for a better life abroad in recent years, while those staying behind wait in line for hours to buy subsidized food and withdraw cash that’s almost impossible to find.
While polls show Venezuelans overwhelmingly blame Maduro for their mounting troubles, he’s still heavily favored to win thanks to a boycott of the election by his main rivals amid huge distrust of the nation’s electoral council, which is controlled by government loyalists.
Maduro, setting an example for government supporters who he called on to vote early, cast his ballot in Caracas shortly after fireworks and loud speakers blasting a military hymn roused Venezuelans from sleep around 5 a.m. local time.
He said Venezuelans would provide an example of democracy to the world and brushed back suggestions he was taking the country down an authoritarian path.
“It’s offensive when they say the Venezuelan people are falling under dictatorship,” he said after voting, adding that if he were to win the election he would seek an understanding with his opponents on a way forward for the crisis-wracked country. “I’m going to stubbornly and obsessively insist in dialogue for peace.”
On Friday, the Trump administration added Diosdado Cabello, a key Maduro ally, to a growing list of top officials targeted by financial sanctions, accusing the socialist party boss of drug trafficking and embezzlement.
Maduro’s main rival, independent candidate Henri Falcon, has faced the dual challenge of running against a powerful incumbent while trying to convince skeptical Venezuelans to defy the boycott called by the main opposition coalition.
Blasting Maduro as the “candidate of hunger,” he has campaigned on a promise to dollarize wages pulverized by five-digit inflation, accept humanitarian aid and seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund — all proposals Maduro has rejected as tantamount to surrendering to the U.S. “empire.”
“I swear that I will liberate Venezuela from this dictatorship,” Falcon shouted to supporters at his final campaign rally Thursday in his home city of Barquisimeto. “I swear it in the name of God.”
Also on the ballot is television evangelist Javier Bertucci, who has cut into Falcon’s support by providing free soup at rallies.
On Sunday, festive revolutionary music played as a few dozen voters stood in a long line to flash their so-called “fatherland cards” to socialist party volunteers.
A woman wearing the red, yellow and blue colors of Venezuela’s flag scanned each card with her phone —a form of verifying that cardholders had done their patriotic duty of voting, presumably for President Nicolas Maduro.
The existence of so-called “Red Points,” many just a few steps from voting centers, is an integral part of the government’s get out the vote machinery.
“If the opposition wants to do the same, they are free to do so,” said Rigoberto Barazarte, the owner of a small car wash business who wants to see a re-elected Maduro toughen his stance against elites he says are trying to sabotage Venezuela’s economy.
But in the opposition stronghold of eastern Caracas, the leafy streets were largely empty.
Around 80 percent of Venezuelans believe Maduro has done a bad job, yet turnout is expected to be the lowest since Chavez was elected in 1998, with only 34 percent saying they are certain they will vote, according to recent polling by Datanalisis.
The election has drawn broad criticism since some of Maduro’s most-popular rivals were barred from running, and several more were forced into exile. Echoing the views of Venezuela’s tattered opposition movement, the United States, European Union and many Latin American countries have already said they won’t recognize the results.
In addition, pressure tactics honed in past campaigns have kicked into overdrive, further tilting the playing field in Maduro’s favor.
Almost 75 percent of households said they received government-issued food boxes in the past three months, according to Datanalisis, and Maduro on the stump has promised that the 16.5 million holders of the fledgling “fatherland card” will be rewarded for their vote. Just to be sure, so-called “red points” will be set up outside voting centers checking peoples’ cards, which are needed to access social programs.
“This is neither a competitive or democratic election, and the result may not reflect the preference and decision of the voters,” said Luis Vicente Leon, president of Datanalisis.
Still, some question the wisdom of not competing in an election, even if it is widely seen as rigged.
A 2010 study by the Brookings Institution covering 171 electoral boycotts around the world — from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe — found that such maneuvers rarely succeed in rendering elections illegitimate in the eyes of the world. Instead, the boycotting party usually emerges weaker and the incumbent empowered.
Javier Corrales, a Venezuela expert at Amherst College, said the opposition’s sit-out strategy could be as disastrous as its boycott of congressional elections in 2005, which led the ruling party to sweep all seats and pass legislation removing presidential term limits that further strengthened Chavez.
“The irony is that this is the least democratic election of all but it’s also the best chance the opposition has ever had,” said Corrales. “If Maduro wins by a large margin, he’ll take it is as a green light to continue radicalizing and moving in the direction of completely destroying the private sector.”
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15 federal investigations into Scott Pruitt’s corruption, and counting…
Friends of the Earth U.S. defends the environment and champions a healthy and just world. www.foe.org
by Ariel E. Moger, campaign research associate
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is the most corrupt administrator in the history of the EPA. Since taking office in 2017, he has spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on luxury travel, absurd security measures and countless expensive perks for himself and his friends.
There are currently 15 federal investigations reviewing his conduct in office, including one where the Government Accountability Office decisively concluded that his actions violated two U.S. laws.
Here is a list of all 15 federal investigations into Scott Pruitt:
1. EPA inspector general audit of Pruitt’s travel expenses
In his first year alone, Scott Pruitt spent nearly $200,000 on travel. American taxpayers funded Pruitt’s stays in pricey hotels, his first-class airfares and his trips on military aircraft and charter flights, domestically and abroad. In response to this alarming spending, the Office of Inspector General agreed to audit the “frequency, cost and extent of the Administrator’s travel” to determine possible fraud, waste and abuse.
Friends of the Earth hired a plane to call out Pruitt’s use of taxpayer money on luxurious travel, October 2017.
2. House Oversight & Government Reform Committee probe
In a sign that congressional Republicans are also losing patience with Pruitt, House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy sent numerous letters requesting information to see if Pruitt followed federal regulations. This became “the first Republican-led investigation of a Trump administration cabinet member.” The inquiry initially focused on Pruitt’s official travel expenses, but was later expanded to include other ethics and legal concerns. Pruitt did not help his own case when the EPA failed to produce all the requested documents in time.
3. EPA inspector general review of Pruitt’s security expenditures
According to agency sources and documents, Pruitt’s “swollen security detail blew through overtime budgets and at times diverted officers away from investigating environmental crimes.” The OIG is reviewing whether appropriated funds were allowed to be used for Pruitt’s security expenditures and whether the EPA complied with applicable oversight controls. When asked about his unprecedented 24/7 security detail in a congressional hearing, Pruitt read aloud threats made against him from a document he falsely claimed was from the OIG. However, new reporting shows that Pruitt sought round-the-clock security from day one, casting doubt on whether he had actually faced serious threats before expanding his security detail.
4. EPA inspector general investigation of Pruitt’s use of EPA security on personal travel
In addition to the previously mentioned OIG review of Pruitt’s security spending, an entirely separate investigation was launched after it was revealed that Pruitt was using official EPA security for family outings. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse sent a letter to the OIG noting that Pruitt was using his taxpayer-funded security detail on personal trips to Disneyland, the Rose Bowl and college basketball games. The OIG responded that it would open a new inquiry.
Representative Don Beyer on Scott Pruitt’s security scandal.
5. EPA inspector general audit of proper payroll recording
This OIG audit will examine the EPA Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training’s law enforcement availability pay reporting. Based on concerns identified in the audit of Pruitt’s security expenditures, the OIG decided to take a closer look at whether employees were properly recording their hours in compliance with federal requirements and EPA policies and procedures.
6. EPA inspector general review of secure, soundproof phone booth
In December 2017, the OIG agreed to review Pruitt’s construction of a “secure, soundproof communications booth.” Even though two other secure spaces already existed in EPA offices, Pruitt testified to Congress that he did not find them satisfactory because the spaces were “not that close” to his office. When Rep. Peter Welch questioned the purchase during a hearing, Pruitt blamed “career EPA officials” for making expenditures that he did not approve. After the Government Accountability Office also began to review the installation of the booth, the OIG ended its redundant investigation.
7. Government Accountability Office decision on installation of soundproof phone booth
The GAO concluded that the installation of the soundproof phone booth was illegal. The $43,238.68 booth violated two federal laws — (1) Section 710 of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, 2017, which requires that agencies notify Congress for expenditures of more than $5,000, and (2) the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits agencies from spending more than Congress permits in appropriations.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on Pruitt’s phone booth.
8. Office of Management and Budget review of soundproof phone booth
In an April 2018 House Appropriations Committee hearing, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney stated that OMB would also review Pruitt’s installation of the soundproof phone booth, and that he was “not interested in covering for anybody else.”
9. Government Accountability Office review of the independence of EPA advisory committees
The GAO is investigating the independence of EPA advisory committees under Scott Pruitt. These statutorily-mandated committees are dedicated to advising the agency on how to best protect the environment and are an essential part of the executive branch decision-making process. The Federal Advisory Committee Act requires that these committees “be fairly balanced and protected from inappropriate influence by the appointing authority.”
However, in an obvious attempt to undermine the scientific integrity of the EPA, Pruitt has dismissed credible scientific advisers, forced out others with underhanded changes to membership criteria and aimed to fill these important advisory committees with industry representatives. He has also implemented a devious new policy banning scientists that have received EPA grants from advisory positions. Considering the agency is one of the top funders of environmental science in the country, this action would keep the most qualified researchers from sharing their expertise with policymakers.
10. EPA inspector general review of Pruitt’s housing arrangements
In 2017, Pruitt leased a Washington, D.C. condominium for $50 a night from the wife of the head of the lobbying firm Williams & Jensen. While he was renting the condo, the EPA issued a letter explaining that it had no serious environmental objections to an oil pipeline expansion for Enbridge, Inc., a client of Williams & Jensen. Enbridge was previously required to pay the second-largest fine in the history of the Clean Water Act for a spill that sent hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into Michigan waterways.
Since Pruitt paid below-market rent, his questionable housing arrangement could be considered an illegal gift that came from interested sources. The situation also likely violated the Impartiality Rule because of the appearance of a conflict of interest. Additionally, the acting director of the Office of Government Ethics raised concerns over possible violations of the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch. The matter eventually made its way to the OIG for review.
Friends of the Earth drove a digital billboard to the White House highlighting Pruitt’s condo scandal, April 2018.
11. White House internal investigation into Pruitt’s conduct
A White House official disclosed that the White House is conducting a review of Pruitt’s activities following the scandal around his below-market rental. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later confirmed the existence of the internal investigation.
12. EPA inspector general management alert about pay raises under the Safe Drinking Water Act
Pruitt is reported to have used the Safe Drinking Water Act to bypass the White House’s rejection of his request to give substantial raises to two of his favorite aides, Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp, who came with him from Oklahoma. Pruitt also used the Act to sidestep Trump’s ethics pledge (prohibiting federal officials from working on issues on which they had lobbied in the previous two years) in order to hire long-time chemical industry lobbyist Nancy Beck as deputy head of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. The OIG released a management alert, or official notice, in April 2018 to provide information on salary increases for Pruitt’s staff while it continues to examine how the agency has used (or abused) its authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
13. Government Accountability Office legal opinion regarding Pruitt’s appearance in a National Cattlemen’s Beef Association video
Pruitt appeared in an August 2017 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association video opposing the Waters of the United States rule, which was “designed to clarify federal agencies’ authority and give them the power to regulate small waterways…for pollution prevention.” The video urges farmers and ranchers to support a repeal of the WOTUS rule due to “regulatory overreach.” Pruitt’s participation in the video is blatantly problematic. The EPA is “prohibited by appropriations legislation from using its resources to… fund propaganda.” The GAO is therefore examining whether Pruitt violated appropriations laws and the Antideficiency Act.
Friends of the Earth called out Pruitt’s corruption at a Congressional hearing, April 2018.
14. EPA inspector general review of the meeting between Pruitt and the National Mining Association
Both the OIG and GAO are investigating an April 2017 meeting between Scott Pruitt and the National Mining Association. The day after Pruitt met with the industry group’s leadership to discuss his objections to the Paris Climate Accord, the group’s board of directors voted to encourage Trump to withdraw the United States from the international agreement. The OIG explained it would “develop a comprehensive factual record where possible legal violations may have occurred.”
15. Government Accountability Office review of the meeting between Pruitt and the National Mining Association
After coordinating with the OIG, the GAO stated that “it could and would use that factual record regarding that meeting to conduct its analysis.” As with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association video, the investigation will determine whether Pruitt violated appropriations laws, specifically those that prohibit lobbying by executive branch officials, and the Antideficiency Act.
The White House is discussing replacements for homeland security chief Kirstjen Nielsen
May 16, 2018
The White House is discussing possible replacements for Department of Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, because Donald Trump is unhappy with how she is running the massive agency tasked with keeping the US safe, according to two people briefed on the situation.
Names being discussed inside the White House include Tom Cotton, the senator from Arkansas, energy secretary Rick Perry, and Thomas Homan, the retiring head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, one of these people said. Cotton and Perry were also considered for the position previously.
Spokesmen for the three men and DHS had no comment.
Nielsen, 46, is a former lawyer and George W. Bush homeland security appointee who has been in the job since just December 2017, and her departure would add to the Trump administration’s unusually high turnover. Her nomination last October was questioned in DC’s security community, because some felt she didn’t have the experience for the job. She had the support of former boss and White House chief of staff John Kelly, however, as well as DC lobbyists.
In several negotiations since Trump was elected, Congress refused to give DHS the billions the agency requested to build his promised wall on the US’s southern border. Nielsen is being blamed in the White House for the omission, one of the people briefed said. Far-right pundits have been mocking the administration this week for failing to get it done, angering Trump, this person said.
Trump was also furious when he found out that the omnibus spending bill that funded the federal government this March barely contained any funding for the wall.
Last week, Nielsen drafted a resignation letter but did not send it, the New York Times reported, after Trump erupted in a meeting over what he sees as loopholes allowing illegal immigration. Nielsen denied that she “threatened to resign,” at a Senate hearing this week. During a meeting at the White House today attended by reporters, Trump praised Nielsen, saying she was doing “a good job, and it’s not an easy job.” (About Homan, Trump said, “There’s no such thing as retirement for Tom.”)
Under Nielsen, the DHS has pushed many of the Trump administration’s hardline immigration priorities, which have been referred to as a “mild form of ethnic cleansing.” The agency ended “Temporary Permanent Status” for hundreds of thousands of US residents, many with children who are American citizens. It has relied on misleading statistics to raise concerns about immigrant crime and Trump officials say it plans to separate immigrant children from their parents even if the families are seeking asylum.
In January, Nielsen barred all but a few close DHS allies from speaking to Congress on immigration, angering some top officials there.
Critics say the DHS’s anti-immigration focus has come at the expense of the nation’s security, and of fighting home-grown extremism and threats to US cybersecurity.
The feds lost – yes, lost – 1,475 migrant children
EJ Montini, opinion columnist
May 22, 2018
Before announcing a plan to separate more children from families, shouldn’t there be a plan to adequately protect the children?
Central American migrants camped out after being turned away
The Trump administration recently announced a new, get-tough policy that will separate parents from their children if the family is caught crossing the border illegally.
It was a big news story. So big it overshadowed the fact that the federal government has lost – yes, lost – 1,475 migrant children.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told Congress that within 48 hours of being taken into custody the children are transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services, which finds places for them to stay.
“They will be separated from their parent,” said Democratic Sen Kamala Harris.
“Just like we do in the United States every day,” Nielsen replied.
Just like in the states, only … not
Except that the states, unlike the federal government, have systems in place to better screen the people who become guardians of the children and much better ways to keep track of those children.
And not lose them.
That is what happened to 1,475 minors swept up at the border and taken into custody by the federal government.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement reported at the end of 2017 that of the 7,000-plus children placed with sponsored individuals, the agency did not know where 1,475 of them were.
Republican Sen. Rob Portman said, “It’s just a system that has so many gaps, so many opportunities for these children to fall between the cracks, that we just don’t know what’s going on — how much trafficking or abuse or simply immigration law violations are occurring.”
Before announcing a plan to separate more families apprehended at the border, shouldn’t there first be a plan to ensure we don’t lose the kids? EJ Montini, opinion columnist
A documentary from the PBS program “Frontline” said that the federal government has actually released some of the minors to human traffickers.
And now we want to dramatically ramp up the number of children who are removed from their parents?
When pressed about safety concerns Secretary Nielsen said, “I just want to say, I couldn’t agree with your concerns more, period. We owe more to these children to protect them. So I’m saying I agree, we’ve taken steps and we will continue to strengthen what our partners do to protect these children.”
Trust the feds to keep kids safe?
There are 1,475 reasons not to be reassured by the secretary’s promise.
If anything, it would have been better to have a policy in place, with protections, and safe places to stay, and safe people to stay with, and personnel on the government payroll to check-up on them before the administration’s new policy was implemented.
Secretary Nielsen said, “My decision has been that anyone who breaks the law will be prosecuted. If you are parent, or you’re a single person or if you happen to have a family, if you cross between the ports of entry we will refer you for prosecution. You have broken U.S. law.”
MONTINI: Feds now say lost kids aren’t lost, but they don’t know where they are
We all get that. And we all want a secure border. But we don’t want to trade in our humanity in the process.
As Sen. Portman told Frontline, “We’ve got these kids. They’re here. They’re living on our soil. And for us to just, you know, assume someone else is going to take care of them and throw them to the wolves, which is what HHS was doing, is flat-out wrong. I don’t care what you think about immigration policy, it’s wrong.”