Will Madoff Sentence Deter Future Hustlers?

As the world watches cheap hustlers trying to pimp off the name, likeness, and legacy of Michael Jackson, it’s time to take a look at what happened to the world’s biggest hustler.

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He would be Bernard Madoff, and he’s been sentenced to 150 years in prison for running a multi billion dollar Ponzi scheme. Such was his betrayal of people like former baseball great Sandy Koufax, Larry King, John Malkovich, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and literally hundreds of other just plain folks that he received not one letter of support prior to sentencing, not even from his family.

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What did Madoff’s victims have in common? They trusted him. Any hustler worth their salt will tell you trust is essential. In this case, they all wanted to make money, and lots of it. There were reports that Madoff promised some investors they’d make 35% on their money. That led one friend of mine to opine that he had no sympathy for the victims, none at all. “Who in their right mind would trust they’d get that kind of return? They were just plain greedy, straight up,” he sneered.

I don’t know if I’d go that far. However, it’s interesting to hear some of Madoff’s investors, people who lost their life savings so he could live large, take the government to task for not keeping a closer eye on what he was doing. Some of them, not all but some, don’t want the government involved in the financial markets in any way, shape, or form. Not, that is, unless they get burned by Bernie. Some victims said they didn’t even care about the money. They wanted a trial so the truth would come out.

While we don’t actually know the exact amount of money Madoff ripped off during the course of his lucrative hustle, we do know he’s been ordered to forfeit $171 billion dollars.

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His wife Ruth, who originally tried to protect $80 million dollars she said was hers alone, is now down to about $2.5 million. Worse yet for him, a growing number of prison experts think Bernie will do his time not in a country club style minimum security prison, but in a medium to high security facility.

Maybe it’s a sign of the times that as the world mourned Michael Jackson, the second most asked question of the weekend was “How much time ya think Madoff will get?” So now we know. Yet aside from any pity one might feel for those who lost their life savings, there’s a nagging feeling that the Madoff example won’t act as the strong deterrent US District Judge Denny Chin thought it might be.

Hustlers will always be among us, preying on some very basic human emotions. People will still get swindled, no matter how much time Bernie Madoff got.

Trust me on that one.

So, did Madoff get the right sentence, or was it too harsh? You tell me.

Guns. Would You Pack Heat to Church?

I know the short answer to the above question for me. It’s no, not ever, no way. Yet in Louisville, Kentucky, an alleged man of the cloth, Pastor Ken Pagano of the New Bethel Church, invited parishoners to bring guns to a special service this past weekend. It was billed as an “open carry celebration”, and it’s tough to figure out if this guy is simply publicity hungry or something much worse. How a God-fearing Christian can seriously advocate  such foolishness is beyond me.

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Ken Pagano has, of course, become a media sensation since word of his “bring your gun to church” celebration spread. To be fair, he didn’t allow loaded guns into New Bethel. It was, according to this theologian, a means to promote responsible gun ownership and firearms safety. Gee, I thought that’s what the NRA was supposed to be about. I guess I’m wrong on both counts. I also thought church was supposed to be about a lof of things other than packing heat to show you support the Second Amendment.

Pagano, for his part, has a ready explanation for this. “As a Christian, I believe, and as an American this country was founded on the deep-seated belief in God and firearms — without which we wouldn’t be here today.”

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This he said to (who else?) Fox News. At least 200 people agreed with him. That’s how many showed up to his “open carry celebration”. One would think the recent murder of Dr. George Tiller in a church might have given Pagano pause. Apparently not.

Now maybe New Bethel Church does some of the things I have come to believe are actions responsible Christians take. That would include feeding the hungry, looking after teen mothers, helping immigrants learn English, promoting racial and religious tolerance among all people, things like that. I know my church, imperfect though it may be, works at doing these things, and not just on Sunday. It just seems like promoting gun ownership would be pretty far down the list of priorities for most Christian institutions.

Like many other folks, Pagano cites a fear among his parishioners that President Obama will send the feds to their door, and confiscate their weapons. What shred of actual evidence they have of his intention to do that is between them and their Creator. So afraid are Pastor Pagano and his flock that he wants to see his “open carry celebration” become an annual national event.

Can I get a “God Forbid?” But seriously, would you every carry a weapon to your church, or mosque, or synagogue?

Ever Think of your own Death?

The tragic death of music icon Michael Jackson at age 50 is for me the culmination of almost a week’s worth of contemplating life, and death.

It comes as I reflect on what one of my mentors told me once when  I off-handedly asked how he was doing. He replied, “You know, I used to go to lots of weddings. Now all I do is attend funerals. My friends are leaving me, one by one”. Michael Jackson is metaphor for people passing away before their time.

Like my mentor, my friends have been leaving me, one by one. In most cases, they are dying way too young. This was brought home to me by the picture below. It was taken almost 26 years ago. It’s a picture of a drum and bugle corps, the New York Skyliners.

skyliners_1983Look closely, and those of you who know me will see my smiling face. There are people in that picture that were some of my closest friends outside of family. After all, we marched together, laughed together, and yes, sometimes even fought with each other.

What struck me looking at that picture is that more than a dozen of those people are dead. Only one or two made it to age 60. Some died of heart attacks, including one who passed away two weeks ago. Several died of various forms of cancer. Suffice to say they fought their illness to the very end, with the dignity and strength that made our organization what it was. Another group died of complications from HIV-AIDS.

It’s in this context that Michael Jackson’s passing makes me so sad. He was, like so many of the Skyliners in that picture, younger than I am. Maybe it’s me, but I wonder how I made it this far, when so many others haven’t. What I’m about to write next is something I ordinarily wouldn’t share with people, because it’s so personal. It’s about a dream I had the other night.

In that dream, I was with a lot of the people that are in that Skyliners photo. We  were all laughing, joking, goofing just as we did in 1983. I was as happy as I could be, thinking those dozen or so people weren’t really dead, not gone from my life. I won’t bother with names, since few of you would know them if I did. But they were a colorful, integrated, wonderful bunch of people. I said to one of them, “Geez, it’s great you guys aren’t really dead”!

He turned to me and said, “No, man, we are dead. I guess you don’t realize, you’re dead too”. At that point I awoke with a start. I’d never dreamt of being dead before. I was lucky to have an understanding wife to help me try and make sense of it all. Yet in the days since the dream, others have passed away, including one young man of 42, who we would run into periodically at family gatherings. He died Tuesday, his heart stopped beating on a basketball court.

I could write here about the need for people to look after their health, about diet and exercise and the like. It would all be true. Then I look at that picture, look at myself smiling and seemingly care-free. I look at others, some laughing, some stoic, too many gone.

And then, I think of Michael Jackson. Do you?

Did Hal Turner Cross the Free Speech Line?

It really was a toss up, whether to talk about now disgraced South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (I’m guessing he’ll soon be ex-Gov.) or a guy that’s much closer to home, Hal Turner.

Don’t know the name? Neither did I until recently. Hal Turner is a white supremacist blogger based in North Bergen, NJ. In addition to being arrested on charges he encouraged violence against two Connecticut lawmakers, he now stands charged with threatening three Chicago based federal judges.

One thing’s for sure. Hal Turner  gets around. He used to have an Internet radio program where he seemed to advocate violence against people he disagreed with.

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Yet it’s his blog that seems to arouse the interest of law enforcement. In the Connecticut case, for example, his targets were two lawmakers who introduced a bill that would have created a mechanism for monitoring how the Catholic Church handles its finances.

In his blog, Turner said he “advocates Catholics in Connecticut take up arms and put down this tyranny by force. It is our intention to foment direct action against these individuals personally. These beastly government officials should be made an example of as a warning to others in government: Obey the Constitution or die”. And that was just in Connecticut.

My blood runs cold when I see this guy described in articles as a radio host. Still, I have to examine in my own mind whether Hal Turner’s speech, at least in the Connecticut case, is protected by the First Amendment. That’s because I tend to be absolute about the right of free speech.

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As my brother Clayton once told me, “You can’t be halfway for the First Amendment”. Yet somehow, encouraging people to go out and kill a state senator and assemblyman just sounds cowardly.

If Hal Turner’s blog postings in Connecticut don’t appear to be criminal on their face, his rant about the federal appeals court judges is beyond the pale. This time Turner allegedly wanted to retaliate for a recent ruling that upholds handgun bans in Chicago and a nearby suburb. Again, from Turner’s blog. “Let me be the first to say this plainly: These judges deserve to be killed“. Turner then posted photos of the judges, phone numbers , their work address and room numbers.

This could get him ten years in prison if convicted. Hal Turner may find the First Amendment doesn’t shield everything, least of all calling for the assassination of judges. Turner also posted a chilling reference to the 2005 killings of the mother and husband of Illinois federal judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow. Maybe he should have considered leaving America and settling in a country that applauds those who advocate hatred and death. Such places do exist.

So, after all these years, I finally found a case where free speech has been taken too far.

What do you think? Did Hal Turner cross the line of free speech?

Obama a US Citizen? Some in Congress Still Doubt

So you thought the right wing crazies who questioned President Obama’s citizenship during last year’s campaign folded their tents and went home? Guess again.

And to make matters worse, some of these people actually walk around Congress as elected officials!

Consider Rep. Bill Posey, Republican of Florida. He’s introduced a bill that would require candidates for president to supply their birth certificates to the Federal Elections Commission in order to be eligible to run.

At first, his bill had little support. Now, however, others have jumped on the bandwagon. Three members of the House from Texas, John Culberson, John Carter and Randy Neugebauer, along with Rep. Robert Goodlatte of Virginia have signed on as co-sponsors. Last week Georgia Congressman John Campbell joined the “I wanna see a birth certificate” movement. Sen. Tom Coburn says he’ll support the bill if it reaches the Senate.

What color is the sky in their world? Neugebauer told a Texas talk show host he’s “never seen him produce documents that would say one way or another”. Hello?

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Factcheck.org has done the research these dolts haven’t got the brains to do themselves. They found Obama’s birth announcement in a local paper, and a copy of the certificate with a raised seal and the stamp of the state registrar. That won’t deter these people, however. They’ll simply say they’re forgeries.

Then there’s World Net Daily. The conservative site has reportedly begun fundraising for billboards across the country questioning Obama’s citizenship. What this all boils down to is the simple fact that some people will never be satisfied that this president is in fact a US citizen. Like their friends who continue to trumpet his middle name as if it’s some call to jihad (like he had a choice in the matter), these mental midgets have a vested interest in portraying Barack Obama as the Other.

It is precisely the Other that has left a stain across the legacy of this great nation. In many cases, the Other was based on race or ethnicity. That component simply can’t process the notion of a black president. However, when politicians get involved, you’ve got to figure there’s another motive here, one of speaking to the worst in America for the sake of grabbing or maintaining powder.

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Those members of Congress who are dumb enough to sponsor or co-sponsor a bill requiring a birth certificate to run for president are frighteningly transparent. That’s why, unless I miss my guess, the bill will only be a topic of conversation on right wing radio and television. That, after all, is where the “Obama’s not a citizen” movement got its start.

Am I nuts here? Do you think this bill has any chance of passing? You tell me.

NB: Thanks to Think Progress for the info on this.

Who’s Afraid of the Voting Rights Act?

Monday’s Supreme Court Decision on a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act seems to have caught the civil rights community by surprise. The high court affirmed, for the time being, the validity of Section Five of the Act, which requires a pre-clearance before a municipality covered by it can bail out of it. The decision, however, seems to have raised as many questions as it answered.

The court allowed a Texas jurisdiction covered by the Voting Rights Act to opt out, largely because it had no past history of discrimination against black voters.

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At the same time, they punted on the constitutionality of the Act itself. Maybe that’s because Congress passed an extension back in 2006, and  an 8-1 majority decided they didn’t want to be the ones that struck it down. The ruling did allow for challenges in the future, and make no mistake, those will come, and come quickly.

There are those who would argue that the election of Barack Obama makes the Voting Rights Act obsolete (knock wood, the court wasn’t one of them).

What nonsense! One need only look at various attempts (mostly by Republicans) to pass voter ID laws to realize that attempts to disenfranchise people of color and the poor are alive and well.

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Chief Justice Roberts was right when he said “The South has changed”. That, however, would mandate an update of Section 5, not gutting the Act itself.

Isn’t it ironic that some of the same politicians who criticize President Obama for not being forceful enough in speaking out about elections in Iran want to gut a law that provided for free and fair elections here?

And what specific harm has the Voting Rights Act done to America?

Has it disenfranchised Americans, as was the practice of many jurisdictions prior to 1965? Has the Justice Dept. been accused of using Section Five (or any other section for that matter) in an arbitrary manner?

No, the effort here, and on the part of some conservatives in Congress, was to eviscerate the Act before the redistricting that will come with next year’s census. Some states, free of the Act and on the brink of passing voter ID laws, could draw legislative lines that could make it that much more difficult to elect people of color. Some of those places are not in the South. But then, the Voting Rights Act didn’t just cover the South.

I’ve posted my personal mea culpa on this blog in the past to those who sounded the alarm about the Act back before Congress extended it. It wasn’t that I thought it wasn’t needed, I just never thought Congress would let it lapse without renewal. I may have been right about that, but I was wrong about the need for continued vigilance. If the recent p;ast has taught us anything, it’s that taking rights for granted can sometimes lead to them vanishing before our eyes.

What do you think? Was Monday’s Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act a victory?

Iran Protests- A New Day For Social Media?

There is no doubt that social media (Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and the like) is playing a crucial role in the continuing protests surrounding the Iranian presidential election. There is no more definitive proof than the futile efforts of the government of that country to stop the flow of information such sites are providing. It’s like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube. The more the government cracks down, the more tweets, blogposts, and YouTube videos appear.

And that’s all good. This activity will show people around the world that one unintended by-product of the Internet age is the difficulty in using traditional means to censor opposition speech. In fact, one could argue that without the constant stream of worldwide coverage there might not have been a recount of some votes, nor the admission Monday that there were at least 3 million “irregularities”.

However, there are also a few caveats for this brave new world of social networking news coverage. While it’s true that US media have either had severe restrictions put on their coverage (and yes, some journalists have been detained) or have been banned outright, the reliance on social media by CNN, Fox News, MSNBC etc. comes with some risks. The news outlets say the tweets and footage they’ve aired has been fully verified. I would take them at their word on that (some might not).

Yet isn’t there something just a little off putting about gigantic news organizations being reliant on citizen journalists? If I worked for one of those outlets, I’d be nervous. Somewhere in the bowels of these big news groups is an accountant whose wondering whether this type of coverage can be used in other applications. And whether that outlet needs as much high priced talent as they now utilize if Twitter subscribers will do the work for them at little or no cost.

Think it can’t happen? Consider that back in the day, the big network news operations and major newspapers had bureaus around the world. Fast forward to now, and you see that few of them do. Oh, and those same big networks are taking a back seat in their Iranian coverage to the 24 hour cable networks. In other words, we are seeing a paradigm shift in news gathering and coverage. While it may not be a bad thing, we ought to ask if the quality of the news we’re consuming is up to snuff.

I’m not saying it isn’t, but these social networking sites can be manipulated on a number of different levels. Iran is an example where they’ve appeared to have done some good. We all ought to be aware that there could be another shoe, and one day that one may drop.

You tell me. Has social networking coverage of the Iranian protests been a good thing?