Inside the Bizarre, Unregulated World of Debt Collection
One evening a few years ago, a wealthy former Wall Street banker and a convicted armed robber walked into a fancy club in Buffalo, New York—the fading industrial city that, oddly enough, has become America's debt-collection capital. The banker, Aaron Siegel, and the ex-con, Brandon Wilson, were there to meet with Jake Halpern, a hometown boy turned New Yorker writer. Halpern wanted to know what was up with these strange bedfellows, and how they managed to recover a huge bundle of consumer debt—an Excel spreadsheet packed with debtor data that they'd dubbed "the package"—they believed had been stolen from them.
Halpern turned the tale into a book titled, Bad Paper: Chasing Debt From Wall Street to the Underworld. In the book, which published earlier this month, he follows how credit card balances, payday loans, even plastic-surgery debts, move down the food chain from the big banks to ever-smaller, ever-sketchier collection firms that scrap and claw to wring every last penny out of those in hock. I caught up with Halpern to talk about his adventures in this lawless realm. (I also asked him to provide some tips for people who are worried about debt collectors.)
Mother Jones: How did you get interested in this story?
Jake Halpern: My mother was being hounded by a debt collector over a debt that she didn't owe, and she eventually just paid it because she wanted the calls to stop. I was very surprised. It sounded so strange. I started poking around on the internet and found this was extremely common. There was this world where these debts were sold off by the banks for pennies on the dollar and bought and sold.
I was really interested in the idea that these debts were out there in the form of Excel spreadsheets. I wrote up a brief pitch for the New Yorker and sent it over to my editor, Daniel Zalewski, and he wrote back and said "Remnick greenlighted it. When can you get us 5,000 words?" I had really puffed up my chest and said I was a Buffalo boy and could get all of these people to talk to me, and now I was on the hook. So I went back to Buffalo and no one would talk to me! Then I sent Facebook messages to everyone I knew in high school and everyone my brother knew in high school, asking who would let me in the door.
At the time, Brad Pitt's production company wanted to turn this idea into an HBO show. So I set up all these interviews and there were all these people who didn't want to speak with me for the magazine but were happy to talk for the TV show. Among them were Aaron Siegel and Brandon Wilson. As I heard them start to tell their story my eyes lit up. I spent the next year and a half trying to get those guys to cooperate. And that's the genesis.
I hope [readers] just enjoy a rollicking good tale about a banker and an armed robber who become friends and go into business to track down this debt that's stolen from them and takes them into the underworld of the buying and selling of debt. There's an element of this story that felt like a Quentin Tarantino film, and that's what drew me in. That was my concept from the beginning—a crazy caper that's a parable for what happens in the absence of regulation.
MJ: It seems as though you really liked your main characters.
JH: The very first time I saw those guys interact, I knew that was a book. I was interested in this relationship between the armed robber and the banker who were from different worlds but had similar goals. It was kind of a metaphor for this larger marriage of the banks selling off their debt and these street guys scrapping over it.
They needed each other. Aaron needed Brandon for someone who could get good deals on paper and Brandon needed Aaron because he needed someone to be the respectable face of the operation. But they didn't fully trust each other. Then there's the personal dynamic. Aaron thinks it's cool to be friends with an armed robber, and Brandon feels good that he's being invited to Clinton fundraisers.
MJ: Your sources really opened up to you. I loved the scene in which Jimmy, an ex-con-turned-debt-collector, talks about his drug-dealing days and how, when he saw his heroin-addicted father for the last time, his gold chain dangled down and blocked his view of his passed-out father's face. How did you get people to talk to you like that?
JH: There were a number of people who were just extremely candid. I don't know. Sometimes I found myself mystified that they were so open. I think part of it was that no one ever asked them—there was no one there to witness their pain and their struggles, and it just kind of gushed out. I would just leave the recorder on and [Jimmy] would just talk. It's almost easier to tell someone who's so different from you.
MJ: I also enjoyed the scene in which a judge told you that you couldn't use a court hearing in your book, and a lawyer for a creditor threatened to have you prosecuted for "practicing law without a license." What was your reaction to that?
JH: I was genuinely spooked—even though I'm the son of a law professor and a journalist. Looking back, it seems so comical, or absurd. It wasn't until two weeks later that I realized that that was probably one of the more important moments in the book.
MJ: I also loved the part about Tony Scott, who runs a buy-here-pay-here car lot in Georgia: You write, "Tony's business model, I realized, existed at the rock bottom of the credit market. It was what existed in the complete absence of trust: a marketplace where creditors had lost faith in debtors and debtors had lost any sense of obligation—or ability—to pay..... With him, it was back to basics. There was a guy named Tony. He was your last resort. He charged you 24 percent interest, and, if you wanted a car, you paid it. If you didn't pay, Tony took the car. And if you caused trouble, Tony made it known that he was only too happy to whip out his Ruger LCP .380 compact pistol and add some ventilation to your shirt." Did you just trick me into reading a book about poverty?
JH: It's difficult to write about poverty in a way that doesn't feel clichéd. In one version of this book I started the book out with Joanna and Teresa, [two debtors listed in the stolen "package"], and my editor suggested I not do that, because as important as their stories were, they felt really familiar. I had to find a way to put the stories about poverty in there in a way that slipped them in—if it's expected, you just kind of gloss over it.
When we were selling the proposal, we got a response back from a very reputable publishing house saying, "Basically this is a book about poor people, and poor people don't buy books, so 'No.'" The trick then becomes: How do you tell this story in a way that doesn't turn people off before they're really into it?
MJ: What policy changes could help improve debt collection in America?
JH: I think the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is on the right track. There are issues I point out in the book—they're policing the largest companies, but there are something like 9,000 debt-collection companies in the US. I think that you need more policing on the state attorney general level. The CFPB's budget is just 2 percent of what JPMorganChase set aside for litigation and fees for 2014.
One other huge problem is there's no system in place for tracking who owns these debts. Imagine a system where there's no chain of titles for cars, no VIN numbers, and no DMV. There'd be total chaos! But that's basically the system for debt. There are signs it will continue to improve but it's not fixed.
MJ: Anything else you think our readers should know?
JH: The guy that ended up with the stolen debt, I identify him simply as Bill. He didn't want to talk to me at first, and then just before I finished writing the book, he talked to me at length, a three-hour taped interview. At the end of it, I asked him the same question you just asked me. And he said, "I just want to make it clear in no uncertain terms that when Brandon came down and visited my shop, he didn't punk me off. I didn't back down." His main thing was he wanted to make sure that his tough-guy credentials were intact. I guess it made sense, but it just goes to show that you never know why someone will talk.
There's an International Soccer Tournament Where All the Players Are Homeless
"A homeless soccer team? What?"
That's what Shane Bullock, 26, recalls thinking when a coach came by his San Francisco shelter last fall to recruit players. Now, a year later, he's in Santiago, Chile, representing the United States against teams from 49 countries at the 12th-annual Homeless World Cup.
The Homeless World Cup—which is actually just what it sounds like—draws a total of 100,000 spectators to cheer on teams of homeless (or, like Bullock, recently homeless) men and women in highly competitive four-on-four soccer matches, which are played on a basketball-sized court with walls and mini-goals.
When he first heard of Street Soccer USA (the Homeless World Cup's US affiliate), Bullock had recently fallen into homelessness. He had moved out of his brother's Sacramento apartment to be closer to another brother in San Francisco, but he found himself on the street and then in a shelter. When he was first approached about joining the team, "I told them I'd take a rain check."
"Finally I decided to go out," he says, although he initially didn't realize that it was a part of a league. "I thought we were just going to play pickup soccer in the alley around the corner. That caught me off guard, but it's been pretty fun."
Bullock was announced as a member of the World Cup men's squad in August at the closing ceremony of the Homeless National Cup, which brought Street Soccer USA (SSUSA) teams from 16 cities to compete in San Francisco. Eight men and eight women were selected, based on off-field achievements, soccer ability, and leadership.
Shane Bullock (in sunglasses) and other members of the San Francisco SSUSA team Street Soccer USA
Regional partners like SSUSA fields (and funds) each team. At practice, SSUSA coaches help players set goals—such as creating a résumé, obtaining identification, earning a GED, or securing housing—and refer them to preexisting social-services agencies. Says SSUSA national director Rob Cann, "They know that when they come to the next practice, we're going to say, 'Hey, you said you were going to go to the DMV this weekend. Did you go?'"
Street Soccer USA meets some of its costs by operating coed, recreational soccer leagues, filled primarily with teams of young professionals. San Francisco's league, I Play for SF, has 85 teams, including the one with homeless players. "It's kind of cool to see our homeless folks assimilate with people from different strains of society," says Bullock's coach, Benjamin Anderson. SSUSA estimates 2,700 homeless participants have played on its teams since 2009.
Bullock says the World Cup trip isn't the first time soccer has helped him off the field. "I'm not very outgoing, so it's allowed me to open up a little," he says. "And just getting out and moving. That has done wonders just for clearing my mind alone."
Since joining the team, he's been hired by I Play for SF to help set up for games twice a week, allowing him to move from the shelter to a single-room occupancy apartment.
"That's the nice thing—to see it go full circle," Anderson says. "A guy who was kind of lost and confused and lonely, not only became a part of a community that he contributes to, but has a job and has his own place."
Cann says the goal of helping homeless people gain structure and meaningful relationships doesn't necessarily have to be achieved via soccer. Although some aspects of the sport do work particularly well—it's cheap to play and can be set up anywhere—what's important is that "it's a platform and a humanizing activity."
Of course, only a tiny fraction of the world's estimated 100-plus-million homeless population is competing this week in Chile, and critics may wonder whether flights across the globe are the best use of funds. (Cann says the trip is funded through designated donations, specifically for the HWC.) Still, the Homeless World Cup maintains one of its main goals is to "change people's attitudes to homelessness."
And even though Bullock's US men's team has struggled this week, starting out with a 2-4 record, there's much more to the event than what's happening on the pitch. During the trip, US players spend downtime in leadership training sessions, where Cann says participants like Bullock are encouraged to remain with the organization as mentors and role models for newer players.
"It's always been a thing of mine, helping people," says Bullock, who is considering staying on with Street Soccer USA. "Being with this program, it pushed me toward wanting to find ways that I can help people in whatever way I can."
You can watch a live stream of the action at the Homeless World Cup website.
An American Doctor in Sierra Leone Explains How to Fight Ebola
With Ebola's arrival in the United States, some health care workers are questioning how prepared their state-of-the-art hospitals are for the disease. Despite these problems, and some serious missteps in Dallas that led to the infection of two nurses, it's unlikely that there will be a widespread outbreak here.
But in the Ebola-ravaged countries of West Africa, where the disease has infected more than 9,900 people and killed more than 4,800, health workers are facing a much more daunting task. They aren't simply adapting an existing health care system to deal with the crisis—in many ways, they actually have to build one from the ground up.
Sierra Leone, which has a population of 6 million, only recently emerged from a 10-year civil war and has been rebuilding ever since. From 2009 to 2013, the country spent just $96 per person on health care, according to the World Bank. (The United States spent $8,895 per person during the same period.) So when the virus struck in March, a health system that hardly existed to begin with was stretched to the point of collapse.
Dan Kelly, an American doctor with the University of California, San Francisco, has been working in Sierra Leone for eight years at a health organization called Wellbody Alliance that he co-founded. And he's been fighting Ebola there since shortly after the start of the outbreak. In an interview with Indre Viskontas on this week's Inquiring Minds podcast, he said that the first order of business in fighting the disease has been the creation of a "pseudo health care system" with support from international aid groups and agencies like the World Health Organization.
But that new system has to be managed by skilled health care workers—often from developed countries—and Kelly says there simply isn't enough manpower to go around.
"The crux of this crisis is the human resource issue and staffing," Kelly explained from Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital. "We don't have enough people on the ground here to mentor Sierra Leoneans to show them leadership, to accompany them on the way forward, to even provide our own expertise to manage Ebola patients and staff these treatment units."
Kelly says that as the disease has overwhelmed efforts to control it, doctors and other health workers have been reluctant to come to West Africa to help out. As the outbreak gives way to panic, he says, some worry that border closings or other obstacles could leave them stranded. With so many cases in the region today, would-be volunteers are also fearful of being infected themselves. (On Thursday, several days after Kelly spoke to Inquiring Minds, Craig Spencer, an American doctor who had been working with Ebola patients in Guinea, was diagnosed with the disease after returning to New York.)
Kelly's organization is teaming up with Partners In Health, an NGO that provides health care to poor people around the world, to recruit medical professionals who are willing to accept the risks of treating Ebola patients in West Africa. Potential volunteers can sign up on the recruitment page of the Partners In Health website. After an interview and training with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they are sent to the Kono District of Sierra Leone or Grande Gedeh County in Liberia to help fight the disease.
"We've thought through, carefully, a lot of the challenges in getting staff," Kelly says. "It's not like I'm just sitting here saying, 'Oh, we need staff, we need boots on the ground, we need technical expertise, but I have no idea how you're going to get there.' We know, it's just that other people need to know as well."
You can listen to the full interview with Kelly below (starting at roughly 2:40).
Joni Ernst Wants to Make English the Official Language
Joni Ernst has latched onto pretty much every idea favored by the tea party. On Thursday afternoon, while campaigning in western Iowa, Ernst endorsed another concept favored by the grassroots right: officially declaring the United States an English language country. "I think it's great when we can all communicate together," Ernst said when a would-be voter at a meet and greet in Guthrie Center, Iowa, asked if she'd back a bill making English the official national language. "I think that's a good idea, is to make sure everybody has a common language and is able to communicate with each other."
Ernst spent the day campaigning with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the main architects of the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Democratic-run Senate, but not the GOP-run House, in 2013. Ernst has opposed Graham's bill to put some undocumented workers on a path to citizenship, and regularly attacks President Barack Obama's possible use of executive authority to allow immigrants to remain in the country as "amnesty."
Making English the official language is a longtime cause of Ernst's fellow Iowa Republican, Rep. Steve King (Guthrie Center is just outside King's congressional district). As a state senator in 2002, King pushed a law that made Iowa an English-only state. In 2007, King and Ernst, then a county auditor, sued Iowa's then-secretary of state, Democrat Mike Mauro, for offering voter forms in languages other than English.
William Gibson: The Future Will View Us "As a Joke"
Photoillustration: Mario Wagner; Photograph: Michael O'Shea
For evidence that the sci-fi future is encroaching on the present, look no further than William Gibson's latest book, The Peripheral, which opens a mere decade or so from now and includes a cameo for cronuts, those croissant-doughnut hybrids invented last year by a New York City chef. When Gibson's debut, Neuromancer, exploded onto the sci-fi scene way back in 1984, his vision of "cyberspace" felt dizzyingly distant. (Gibson, now 66, had coined the term in a short story a couple of years earlier.)
Now Neuromancer just seems prescient: a corporate dystopia whose denizens, increasingly engrossed with their technological distractions, live on opposite sides of a cavernous divide between the tech haves and have-nots, their lives circumscribed by conglomerates with insatiable appetites for data. The new book, meanwhile, stars a bunch of downtrodden trailer park residents who get caught up in the deadly games of some time-warping elites from 70 years hence. For this week's episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, I reached Gibson at home in suburban Vancouver—he has dual citizenship—to talk about everything from vintage feminist sci-fi to his speed date with Google Glass.
Here's a condensed version of the interview:
Mother Jones: What made you decide to set The Peripheral in an era so close to our own?
William Gibson: I had written three novels in the mid-to-late '80s, and they were all set—although the books never say—around 2035. Then I wrote three books in the '90s, which were set in the just-about-now, so they've become alternate history, in a way: Nothing they depict actually happened in 2014 although the real 2014 does feel kind of like those books. I decided that for the actual 21st century, I would write books set basically in the moment: There's a near future, maybe 10 or 15 years from now, that's pretty recognizable, but shabbier and less fortunate than ours. And then there's something in the 22nd century. So I've got a dual narrative.
MJ: I'm curious about how a cronut, of all things, made it in there.
WG: I've never actually seen one, but last year there were lots of internet stories about people in Manhattan standing in lines around the block to get one of these fabulous hybrid 21st century pastries. So to have it turn up in this near future in a very undistinguished small town somewhere, in the equivalent of Tim Hortons, to me indicates that the trendy hipster cronut has found its way into the mainstream and became this sort of boring, Starbucks pastry that everyone takes for granted.
MJ: Likewise some very powerful communications technology.
WG: One of the most difficult things, initially, about writing the book was how to depict the level of telephony that people of my 22nd century take for granted. I want the reader to be kind of, "Oh, wow!" But I don't want to the characters to notice it, so they can't ever overtly describe how they're making the call.
MJ: In an interview 20 years ago, in the early days of mass access to the internet, you said you suspected we were seeing a phenomenon as significant as the birth of cities. Do you still feel that way?
WG: Yeah, I do! Something really changed between then and now in the geography of existence, in the way in which we can have these startlingly intimate and nonhierarchical, unfiltered experiences of things at a distance. Following disturbances like Ferguson on Twitter would have been fantastically weird in 1994.
MJ: You were also optimistic that we would manage to keep the internet free from corporate control. Are you disappointed by recent developments?
WG: Well, it kind of makes me raise an eyebrow at the naivété of my younger self. Now, when I look at the NSA and what it's evidentially been up to, I can't see any way that wouldn't have happened. At the same time, I can't see any way that it wouldn't have been leaked to the public. This stuff is all kind of two-edged that way.
MJ: Have you tried Google Glass?
WG: For about 20 seconds [laughs] at an event at the New York Public Library last year. Which helped a lot, actually, because I hadn't been able to grasp it. And then I had lunch with one of the beta testers, and he had happily incorporated it into his life. But he described a couple of quite alarming episodes of public hostility. Total strangers came up to him and gave him a really hard time. Although that's just the prototype: When a technology like that goes to market, you can buy a pair of your grandfather's horn-rimmed spectacles that will do all that and no one will ever know. In The Peripheral, there are people who take it absolutely for granted that everybody they meet has all of that technology embedded in their body—and it's running all the time.
MJ: Yeah, your characters are kind of walking smartphones.
WG: The internalization of computing is something that has been taken for granted in futurism for a long time, and I just never wanted to go through the considerable amount of trouble to realize it in fiction. But when I did, I eventually forgot about it, which is interesting too.
MJ: There's a lot of talk in the book about what people are doing to the planet and the climate. What's your take on the notion that sci-fi exists, in part, to scare us into taking action while we still can?
WG: As long as its one of the things it does, I'm okay with that. But it does other things as well. For instance, I follow a lot about how we came to automatically think of the inhabitants of the past as having been rubes. One of the things I loved about the series Deadwood was that sense of just how deadly clever people in the 19th century probably really were. If those guys got out of the time machine now in downtown Los Angeles, they wouldn't be hopeless hicks. They'd be very dangerous characters, simply because they were. And the people in my 22nd century initially assume that anyone they're dealing with back in 2025 or whenever is just kind of a hick.
MJ: Speaking of which, I read somewhere that you resisted the internet for a long time, only to finally embrace it because of eBay.
WG: The World Wide Web, actually. For years, I had been resisting friends who were telling me to get email, but only because, prior to the web, there was a learning curve involved. I said, "When dogs and children can do it, I'll be there." And with the web, dogs and children can do it, and I was instantly there. EBay, in its early incarnation, was the first thing that I found that would get me back on it on a daily basis.
MJ: You collect things?
WG: I try not to, actually. I would go on exploratory campaigns and accumulate things in one category. But I have a horror of keeping them. I just want to see a bunch of them, and then give them away or sell them.
MJ: Why a horror?
WG: Collections give me the willies! I love the idea of a private museum, but there's something about having to complete a collection. It just gets to me like a fingernail on a blackboard. I don't want to be the person who has to get the last two Lincoln head pennies in the folder. There's something terribly sad about it. And then when you get them, what do you do?
MJ: In geek culture, everyone is talking about how badly women are portrayed, but your books have always had strong female characters.
WG: I usually wind up with a male lead and a female lead, but not necessarily in the Hollywood style. They'll interact; it may not be romantically. I think what happened, in the '70s I was sort of looking for a viable art form. I looked at science fiction, and I was really disappointed with most of it compared to the science fiction that had wowed me as a kid in the '60s. It felt kind of like Nashville country, like I had grown up on Texas swing and now I'm getting this awful synthetic.
But the one area that worked for me was the feminist science fiction of the '70s: Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Alice Sheldon, who wrote as James Tiptree. Everyone should read Octavia Butler—you get not only great feminist science fiction, but great black American science fiction. They're all very strong voices, and kind of unlikely voices, considering the extent to which science fiction had traditionally been a very male modality. Mary Shelley may well have invented science fiction. I think she did! [Laughs.] But after that it seemed to be a boys' game, and boys were assumed to be the demographic.
MJ: Sci-fi movie fans swear that without Neuromancer, there would have been no Matrix, no Tron, no Ghost in the Shell. Why haven't we ever seen a Neuromancer movie?
WG: Well, I'm open to the possibility. I suppose I'm also open to the possibility that Neuromancer will be one of those books that turns out to have been filmed piecemeal by dozens of different filmmakers over a period of 30 years. [Laughs.]
MJ: Are there any particular scenes from the book that you'd love to see onscreen?
WG: When I think of any scene from Neuromancer in terms of how it might be made into a movie, I mainly feel anxiety: What would it look like? Or what if they misunderstood, as seems almost invariably the case, one's intention? But there are other things I would be curious about. Like how, in the early 21st century, does one depict something like the cyberspace of Neuromancer?
MJ: If you could time-travel, which era would you most want to visit?
WG: If could have any information from our future, I would want to know not what they're doing but what they think about us. Because what we think about Victorians is nothing like what the Victorians thought about themselves. It would be a nightmare for them. Everything they thought they were, we think is a joke. And everything that we think was cool about them, they weren't even aware of. I'm sure that the future will view us in exactly that way.
Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas. This week's episode was guest-hosted by Tasneem Raja. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. We are also available on Stitcher. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" on iTunes—you can learn more here.
Former GOP Staffer: Senate Candidate Joni Ernst "Did and Said Nothing" to Stop Sexual Harassment
A lawsuit filed last week by a former GOP staffer in the Iowa state Senate claims that US Senate candidate Joni Ernst, a Republican, saw male colleagues sexually harass a female employee when Ernst served in the state Senate and "did and said" nothing to stop the abuse.
Kirsten Anderson, a former communications director for the Iowa Senate Republican Caucus, filed the lawsuit against the caucus on October 16. She claims that she was a victim of sexual harassment when she worked for the caucus and that when she complained to her superiors, she was fired. "By way of just one example, Sen. Joni Ernst of Red Oak and Sen. Sandra Greiner of Keota witnessed sexual innuendo and inappropriate behavior exhibited by their male colleagues and did and said nothing while female staffers stood by unable to say anything," the suit alleges.
The lawsuit mentions Ernst just once, and Anderson does not name Ernst, who is a member of the caucus, as a defendant. But Democrats in Iowa, where Ernst is in an extremely tight race against Democratic candidate Bruce Braley, have seized on the allegation in the final weeks of the campaign.
In a statement sent to reporters, Ernst denied that she had witnessed sexual harassment in the Legislature, adding, "As a former colleague, I hope [Anderson] is not being exploited ahead of the election." A spokeswoman for Ernst called Anderson's lawsuit "an obvious effort by Bruce Braley to smear Joni Ernst two weeks before the election."
Three prominent Iowa Democrats pounced on those remarks at a news conference organized by a consulting firm with ties to Braley's campaign.
"Rather than express concern for a young woman who worked under her, she immediately attempted to impugn the integrity and motivation of that young woman," Bonnie Campbell, the former attorney general of Iowa, said at the conference. "This is, in the world we inhabit, classic blaming the victim. I think the most offensive thing is the suggestion that this young woman, who has done something very courageous…was politically motivated by secret outsiders and that she didn't have either the intellect or the integrity to make her own decision about whether to file such a very serious lawsuit."
"I'm a supporter of Bruce Braley, but that wasn't my motivation," Campbell told Mother Jones, explaining her role in orchestrating the press conference. "I said what I said because Ernst's record is really bad on women's issues and I don't want her to win this election."
Michael J. Carroll, Anderson's attorney, denied that there are political motivations to the lawsuit or the timing. "We were on a deadline," Carroll tells Mother Jones. "We had to file the lawsuit by October 29 or we forever lost the right to do so…You could say, well why didn't we file it earlier? That only would have given the candidates and campaigns more time to make something out of it."
"While the lawsuit mentions state Sen. Ernst, it also mentions many other state senators, including Democratic senators," Carroll continues. "It had no political angle at all. It was a purely factual statement about who had seen or heard or experienced or did certain things in their ordinary jobs as state senators. That's it."
Her suit echoes claims that she made to the press and the Iowa Civil Rights Commission after she was fired in May 2013. At that time, Anderson said that she had overhead a GOP staffer make an explicit comment about the perceived sexual orientation of the Senate clerk and that a Republican state senator had made sexual comments to her.
Anderson said that she had complained to senior Republican staffers about a pattern of harassing behavior among GOP lawmakers and staff. She also said that she had sent a memo outlining her complaints to a senior Republican staffer and was dismissed later that day. Responding to those allegations, a Republican staffer said that the party had fired Anderson for substandard work. "[This] is not about public embarrassment," Anderson said back then. "My goal is to change the work environment at the Capitol."
A spokesman for the state Senate Republicans declined to comment to Mother Jones.
Braley and Ernst have gone back and forth on the subject of sexual harassment before as both vie for support from female voters. (A recent poll shows Braley winning women by double digits.) Ernst made headlines in August after she told Time that during her time in the military, "I had comments, passes, things like that." She added, "These were some things where I was able to say stop and it simply stopped but there are other circumstances both for women and for men where they don't stop and they may be afraid to report it." In another interview, Ernst promised to combat sexual assault in the military, if elected.
Shortly after those interviews, Democratic operatives privately circulated an account of how Ernst had investigated a 2004 sexual-assault allegation made by a soldier under her command when she was a captain in the Iowa National Guard—and alleged she had "covered up" the incident.
Military records obtained by the Register showed that the female soldier under Ernst's command had not been consistent in her account of the alleged assault and that several eyewitnesses contradicted her initial story. A psychiatrist treating the female soldier, however, concluded that she "exhibited common symptoms of someone who had experienced a rape." Ernst and other investigating officers concluded that the soldier's claims were unfounded. Ernst punished the male soldier accused of sexual assault for an alcohol violation he admitted during the investigation.
In response to Democrats' criticism about Ernst's role in this episode, her campaign asked a former judge advocate general at Patton Boggs, a white-shoe DC law firm, to review the case. Maj. General Mike Nardotti concluded that Ernst acted properly.
How American Indians Could Save the Democrats' Senate Majority
Earlier this year, Kevin Killer collected 1,193 signatures to put a referendum on the ballot to change the name of Shannon County, South Dakota. The county, which includes much of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, is named for former Dakota Territory Supreme Court Chief Justice Peter Shannon, who was instrumental in the passage of the Dawes Act, which separated American Indians from their land. The proposed new name: Oglala Lakota County, after the tribe that calls Pine Ridge home.
The initiative needs a two-thirds majority to pass. In a county where 93 percent of voters are American Indians, Killer, a Democratic state representative, believes the name change could be a boon for turnout. That would be good news for Democrats in Washington, DC, who see South Dakota as the place where they could save their Senate majority. Rick Weiland, a progressive Democrat, is locked in a tight three-way race against former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds and former Republican Sen. Larry Pressler (who is running as an independent). Weiland is banking on Native Americans—and a string of new reforms that make it easier to vote on reservations—to push him across the finish line.
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These Rules Can Protect Doctors and Nurses From Ebola?If They're Followed
More than 200 nurses rallied outside the National Nurses United headquarters in Oakland, California, on Tuesday, demanding more stringent protections from Ebola for health care workers. They carried signs reading "Stop Blaming Nurses. Stop Ebola." and wore red stickers declaring "I am Nina Pham" and "I am Amber Vinson"—the names of the two nurses who contracted Ebola from Thomas Eric Duncan, the only person to have died from Ebola on American soil. (A fourth patient, a New York City doctor, was diagnosed yesterday.)
The rally was one of many held around the country this week, organized by the NNU to press President Obama and lawmakers to mandate stronger protections for nurses and other health care workers treating Ebola patients. The NNU alleges that Pham and Vincent were exposed to the virus due to the lack of safety protocols at their hospital in Texas. In a survey conducted by the union, four out of five nurses reported they have not been instructed how to properly handle Ebola patients.
While there was plenty of talk at the rally about the need to implement the recently issued recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no one mentioned the federal rules concerning Ebola that are already on the books—and how they could be better publicized and enforced.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has long-standing regulations on protecting workers from infectious diseases, including Ebola. Introduced in 1986, OSHA's Bloodborne Pathogen Standard is intended to keep health care workers from contracting HIV as well as hepatitis C, malaria, syphilis, and viral hemorrhagic fevers (like Ebola). The standard requires hospitals to provide and require the use of protective equipment such as masks and face shields to ensure that "blood or other potentially infectious materials" do not touch workers' clothes, skin, face, or mucous membranes.
Juliann Sum, the acting chief of Cal/OSHA, California's occupational safety division, says these rules exceed the recommendations currently being demanded by the nurses' union. "What was in place and what is still in place now are regulations," Sum says. "The Bloodborne Pathogens Standard has been in place for over 30 years around the whole country."
OSHA also has specific requirements for respiratory protections from bioaerosols (airborne particles that could contain viruses) and a standard for personal protective equipment. These rules apply to anyone who might come into contact with an infectious disease on the job, including airline flight crews, lab workers, customs agents, and morticians. "All viruses are covered, including the flu," Sum says.
So why are nurses and health care workers saying they haven't been properly protected from Ebola? Part of the answer, explains Rena Steinzor, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who has written about workplace safety, is that OSHA has suffered from budget cuts and a lack of political support for decades. "You could reel it back to Reagan," Steinzor says. "There were cuts and a downward trend and eventually it got to the point where they never recouped it." Already underfunded, the agency was hit hard by sequestration. In the last four years, the agency's budget (in real dollars) fell by 10 percent, though it rose slightly in the last fiscal year.
OSHA is responsible for overseeing 8 million workplaces and 130 million workers. With a workforce of about 2,200 inspectors, that's about one inspector for every 59,000 workers. Federal and state OSHA inspectors inspected 0.5 percent of workplaces in the 2013 fiscal year, a rate that remained fairly constant over the previous seven years.
America's hospitals see around 250,000 work-related injuries and illnesses every year. Even though OSHA has identified hospitals as "one of the most hazardous place(s) to work," its health care inspections have declined significantly. Of the roughly 39,000 workplace inspections done last year, 254 were of hospitals. That's down from 374 the previous year and 559 where they peaked in 2009.
When hospitals are inspected, close to 75 percent of violations given cite the Bloodborne Pathogens Standard*. It is the most common citation received by employers in the health care industry. "When you don't inspect places, compliance becomes lax because nobody is concerned about it," Steinzor explains.
Those statistics provide some context for the nation's initial response to Ebola, particularly in Dallas, where Duncan was treated. A statement from the NNU details numerous alleged breaches of protocol during his stay at Texas Presbyterian Hospital. "Nurses had to interact with Mr. Duncan with whatever protective equipment was available, at a time when he had copious amounts of diarrhea and vomiting which produces a lot of contagious fluids," it states. If that's accurate, Texas Presbyterian was in violation of OSHA rules.
When it does uncover workplace safety violations, OSHA can't do much more than slap offenders on the wrist. More than 4,400 workers are killed on the job each year. Yet the maximum fine for serious violations is $7,000, and criminal penalties for negligence resulting in workers' deaths may not exceed misdemeanors with six-month prison terms. As David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, noted in a 2011 speech, there are harsher consequences for harassing burros on federal land or violating the South Pacific Tuna Act.
Considering this, perhaps hospitals and health care workers can't be blamed for not realizing that OSHA already has rules regarding Ebola in place. At NNU headquarters in Oakland, union copresident Debra Burger emphasized that her organization wants new rules for dealing with the virus. She said she has no faith in hospitals stepping up to the plate voluntarily. "The gaping hole in protection is that guidelines from the CDC are just that," she said. "They are suggestions. Employers get to pick and choose which parts of the CDC requirements are implemented, and so we have grave concerns." When asked about the OSHA standards already in place, she shrugged. "I can't speak to that," she responded.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the door, Cal/OSHA representatives were preparing to meet with nurses and other health agencies to plan a course of action. It's not yet clear if that means new regulations or simply a new push to enforce existing ones.
One healthy result of the Ebola scare, says Cal/OSHA head Sum, is the renewed attention on protections for health care workers. "I think the silver lining here," she says, "is that if this crisis can get everyone more prepared, then we will be prepared when there is another wave of possible threat of another kind of infection."
Correction: The original version of this article stated that 75 percent of hospitals violate the Bloodborne Pathogens Standard. It has been corrected to reflect that when cited, 75 percent of citations given are for breaking the standard.
Drugs, Doctors, and Death Threats: Inside the Battle Over California's Prop. 46
Politicians occasionally get death threats. Authors of state ballot measures usually don't. Yet that's what happened to Bob Pack, the coauthor of Proposition 46, a medical-regulation initiative on the California ballot this fall. Recently, Pack got a call at home from a menacing stranger who demanded he withdraw his support for Prop. 46 or else harm would come to Pack's eight-year-old daughter. Prop. 46 deals with doctor drug testing and lawsuit caps. So why is it making people so riled up?
Prop. 46, or the Medical Malpractice Lawsuits Cap and Drug Testing of Doctors Initiative, is marketed as a safeguard against medical malpractice. It would require mandatory drug tests of doctors, making California the first state to adopt such a system. But parts of the proposition make some people queasy—for instance, its provision to raise the cap on damages in malpractice suits to over $1 million. As signaled by Pack's threatening phone caller, Prop. 46 is quickly turning into the most controversial initiative on California's ballot this fall.
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Kevin Vickers, Canada's Badass National Hero, Is a Portrait of Humility
Kevin Vickers, Canada's sergeant at arms since 2006, is being heralded worldwide as a national hero after he reportedly shot and killed an armed assailant in the nation's Parliament building Wednesday morning. It was a highly emotional moment when Vickers returned to Parliament today—watch the video above—and was greeted with an extended standing ovation. Witnesses are convinced that Vickers, 58, prevented a large-scale massacre in Ottawa. And though he has not yet spoken publicly about his actions (he's notoriously modest), his record of public service is proof enough of his exceptional character.
Eight years ago, Vickers celebrated his election as the House of Commons' top cop by traveling in style from Ottawa to New Brunswick on a brand new Harley. "As a gift, his two daughters bought him a vanity licence plate with the letters SGTATRMS," wrote Bea Vongdouangchanh of The Hill Times. But his career began nearly three decades earlier as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the "Mounties"), who are responsible for policing provincial and criminal cases while monitoring Canadian internal security.
The Mounties were convened in 1873, in part to monitor and deal with Americans who were trading with Native Americans in Canada—cheap whiskey for buffalo hides. Today, the force focuses on issues like organized crime and national security, and has jurisdiction in eight provinces, three territories, 184 aboriginal communities, and three international airports. Vickers signed up almost 40 years ago, and spent 29 years on the force—a true-blue local boy from small town Miramichi who moved up in the ranks over time.
In 2000, he was put in charge of the Burnt Church Crisis, a heated battle in which Canadian fishermen destroyed hundreds of indigenous people's lobster traps. The Native lobstermen retaliated by trashing fish-processing plants. The Mounties were called in to deal with the tense standoff and resolved it peacefully thanks to Vickers' "thorough assessment" and "measured response," according to an account from a book on Canadian policing. In an interview with his hometown paper, Vickers credited his experience delivering milk in Burnt Church and Neguac during summer vacations as vital to his understanding the region's people—which helped him deal with both sides of the crisis respectfully.
Vickers was also involved in several high-profile investigations involving murders, drug crimes, and a tainted Red Cross blood supply. By the end of his term with the Mounties, he held the title of chief superintendent.
In 2005, he joined the House of Commons as director of security operations, and a year later was elected sergeant at arms. From the start, Vickers led the charge on the development of Canada's "bias-free policing strategy"—now a part of RCMP officer training—by reaching out to the Canadian Muslim community to discuss cultural sensitivity. He served a security guard for the Queen of Canada herself, and was awarded the Queen's Jubilee Medal to "honor contributions and achievements made by Canadians," according to an official fact sheet. He also received the Canada 125 Medal and the RCMP Long Service Medal. The United States has offered Vickers a commendation for his "Outstanding Contribution to Drug Enforcement."
Vickers has remained humble despite his many plaudits—he insists he's just doing his job. A 2011 feature on Vickers in The Globe and Mail describes how he defended the right of people to wear the kirpan—a ceremonial dagger carried by baptized Sikhs—in the National Assembly. In response, the World Sikh Organization hosted a dinner in his honor. He spoke with The Globe and Mail about why he stood up for the Sikhs:
"As we go forward, we should ask ourselves what Canada should be when it grows up…We have a long way to go before reaching adulthood. The seizure of the kirpans at the Quebec legislature last winter demonstrates the challenges that lay before us as we continue on this journey of sewing together the fabric of our nation with the thread of multiculturalism. Perhaps it would be beneficial for our country, as a nation, to define its core values. What are the core values of Canada, what makes up the soul and heart of our nation?…I told them [Canadian officials] that if they made me their sergeant-at-arms, there would be no walls built around Canada's Parliamentary buildings...and the fact that you may wear your kirpans within the House of Commons proves there are no walls around Parliament and I have kept my promise."