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November 24, 2008

Shocked But Silent?

Posted: 02:01 PM ET

 

This is a story that makes me stop and wonder if there’s someone out there who knows more.

abbie

 

Since we started reporting on electrocutions occurring on U.S. bases in Baghdad, we’ve heard from people all over the country.

 Some people e-mailed us to express their anger and sadness at the senselessness of 18 servicemen being electrocuted.  Pentagon officials tell CNN those deaths are mostly attributed to faulty wiring and the improper grounding of electrical devices.

But we’ve also received e-mails from members of the military, and even from contractors who have performed electrical work in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Those are the e-mails that particularly interest for me.  My producer and I have contacted many of these people.  They seem to either have information about KBR (the Houston-based contractor in charge of maintenance, logistics and services for most U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan), or they know about other incidents involving electrical shocks on U.S. bases.

As a reporter, I would love for them to share their story.  But most of the people we talk to say although they would like to help expose the problems, they cannot say more.  Many of the current military members say they fear getting in trouble for speaking up.

Why do these people feel the need to uphold some sort of unspoken code of silence?  Why not speak up and tell the world what you know, especially if it could prevent another death?  I wonder what would happen if more of our troops started talking – I guarantee people would listen.  I know I would.

Filed under: Abbie Boudreau


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November 21, 2008

Teaching old school politics to freshmen

Posted: 05:01 PM ET
And it doesn't get more old school than this. I was standing outside the democratic national headquarters Wednesday morning, watching a parade of lobbyists heading in to 'meet and greet' the newly elected freshman democrats. But this wasn't about just meeting and greeting. The purpose was to introduce the new legislators on Capitol Hill to the old money from K street.congress-invite0013

The lobbying crowd was being encouraged to come and "retire the debt" of the new democrats who had spent a fortune campaigning their way to this day. sponsored by old boy veterans, John Dingell of Michigan and Nick Rahall of West Virginia, it was a back slapping, check writing affair. Dingell and Rahall actually advised in their invitation just how friendly the lobbyists and political action committees should be: anywhere from $2500 to be a friend, up to $20,000 to be a "host".

Somebody slipped us the rather blatant cash plea invitation and you can see for yourself the "dance card" that helps lobbyist keep track of the money they were passing out.

What really was surprising is just how open and honest the pols and the lobbyists are about this. When asked if this just the same old pay to play politics in action, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia asked if I had a better idea. And Steny Hoyer, the house majority leader for the democrats said, of course the lobbyists are getting access, but then said its the same kind of access anyone could get if they helped on campaigns or turned out at town hall meetings.

So who did get access? Ric Fenton is a lobbyist for the mining industry. He told me he is really an educator serving a vital function on the hill. Then he admitted his vital function on this chilly morning in DC was to hand out cold, hard cash.

"How much are you giving today?" I asked.

"I think we're giving $5,000."

"To one or a bunch?"

"To several. We go through that fairly thoroughly."

I guess when you are an educator on Capitol Hill, like Mr. Fenton, you really need to make sure the students learn their lesson. $5,000 a pop sounds like a good start for the study of old boy politics 101.

congress-invite0023

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Politics • Special Investigations Unit


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November 16, 2008

The FBI and Flash Bang Grenades

Posted: 09:32 PM ET

“We cannot confirm or deny.”

abbie

That is the phrase reporters are used to hearing from the typically tight-lipped FBI public information officer.  Not this time.

In this case, three active FBI agents were given special clearance to speak publicly about the day in 2004 that a flash bang grenade went off while they were on assignment during a hostage stakeout. They say it could easily have killed one of them.

The three agents say they were sitting in their car, when the grenade went off without warning.  All three agents say they suffer hearing loss, and the agent closest sustained other injuries, due to the unexpected explosion.

A flash bang grenade is considered a non-lethal weapon.  When one is deployed, it emits a bright flash and a deafening bang, often used to shock and disorient the enemy.  Flash bangs are widely used in the military, as well as by FBI. agents, and local law enforcement officers.

Pyrotechnic Specialties Inc. or P.S.I, of Byron, Georgia,  is the company that manufactured the flash bangs in question.  Earlier this year, a federal indictment against PSI alleged the company knew its flash bangs were defective, and even knew how to fix the problem, which would cost the company just $3.72 per grenade. But federal investigators say the company chose not to fix problem, and instead relabeled the faulty devices, and then sold them to local law enforcement agencies and to the FBI.  One of them ended up in the hands of the three FBI agents I interviewed.

The criminal trial against the company is set for January 2009, and there are several civil cases still in the discovery phase.  P.S.I, its CEO and other defendants in this case all pleaded not guilty, saying the charges against them are vague and/or confusing.

The one thing the agents expressed to me time and again was the shock and disappointment they felt that an American company could knowingly sell a defective product to its own servicemen and women.

One agent said, “We expect risks to come from the bad guys – The people who we try to protect the American people from.  For those risks to come from an American company is just unconscionable for me.  It’s infuriating.”  Whether PSI is at fault is at the heart of each of these lawsuits.

But looking at the bigger picture, how common is it for American companies to cut corners on safety to save a few bucks? How thorough are regulations and oversight?   When you see the “made in the U.S.A.” label, what does that mean to you?

In addition, we are interested in knowing of other cases where people have been injured by a flash bang either here or abroad.

Filed under: Abbie Boudreau


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November 14, 2008

ACORN board fires members

Posted: 02:19 PM ET

The community organizing group ACORN, investigated this year for filing fraudulent voter registration forms, has fired two board members it had appointed to look into the possible embezzlement of nearly $1 million by the brother of one of the group's founders.

An internal document from the ACORN executive board, obtained by CNN, shows that members Karen Inman and Marcel Reid were "removed from any office or committee position you may have held." A separate document says that "the memberships of Karen Inman and Marcel Reid in ACORN is canceled, and they are removed from the Association Board." The documents, dated November 11, are signed by Maude Hurd, president of the ACORN Association Board. Hurd was not immediately available for comment Thursday afternoon, an ACORN receptionist said.

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But ACORN member Gloria Brown, speaking from the group's main office in New Orleans, Louisiana, said in response to a CNN request for comment that Inman and Reid were removed because "they've been saying from the beginning things that were not true."

Brown said she was the only person available from ACORN to speak with CNN at the moment. Inman, who is from Minnesota, contends that only her state branch can remove her and it has not done so. She said the ACORN board's actions will lead to a criminal investigation.

"Why would you want us not to clean up things?" she asked. "Why would you not want to do your own investigation instead of bringing in the sheriff?"

Asked if she thinks the sheriff is coming, she answered: "I think the sheriff's coming."

The possible embezzlement by Dale Rathke, brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke, allegedly occurred about eight years ago. But the ACORN board did not find out about it until this year. In July, the ACORN board selected an interim management committee to look at the possible embezzlement and its concealment. Inman and Reid were two of the members appointed to the committee.

When an ACORN affiliate that acts as the group's accounting firm denied the committee members access to the books, Inman said, she, Reid and several others filed a lawsuit to have the court order ACORN to preserve the books and give them access to all accounting matters. That suit became known as the ACORN 8 because, according to Inman, eight ACORN people signed onto it. She now says there are 25 members demanding the accountability.

ACORN said the interim management committee essentially had no authority
and countersued.

"They didn't have authority from that committee," ACORN member Brown said Thursday. "They filed this lawsuit that basically was not on behalf of the
board at all."

According to the documents obtained by CNN, the ACORN executive board met Sunday and decided to remove Inman and Reid and any other members participating in the lawsuit. The problems at ACORN already have cost it the financial support of one of its major donors. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development froze contributions to ACORN in June amid the embezzlement allegations. This week, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Baltimore, Maryland, the campaign's chairman said it was cutting all ties with the group.

"We simply had too many questions and concerns to permit further CCHD funding of ACORN groups," Roger Morin, the auxiliary bishop of New Orleans, told his colleagues in an earlier letter to the conference.

The CCHD has donated more than $7.3 million to ACORN-related projects over the past decade, including $40,000 to an ACORN chapter in Las Vegas, Nevada, that was raided before the election in an investigation into fraudulent voter registration forms. Morin said a church review completed earlier this month found ACORN no longer meets standards for further funding.

In a statement to CNN, ACORN Executive Director Steven Kest said his group is grateful for the church's funding.

"We look forward to continuing discussions with CCHD officials and the bishops in the months ahead in hopes that we can continue working together on projects which have been so important to so many in low-income neighborhoods across the country," Kest said.

But Ralph McCloud, the Human Development campaign's director, said the church has "severed ties" with ACORN and there are no plans for further discussion.

By Kathleen Johnston

– CNN's Arthur Brice and Marcus Hooper contributed to this report.

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Special Investigations Unit


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November 12, 2008

Catholic Church drops ACORN funding

Posted: 10:25 PM ET

ACORN, the community organizing group rocked by voter registration fraud allegations, is being rocked again by the loss of a major donor.

catholic letter to acorn

catholic letter to acorn

And the group's sloppy voter registration drive in the 2008 presidential election campaign is at least partly to blame.

Citing voter fraud allegations along with embezzlement and accounting issues at ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), the Catholic church announced it will sever all ties with the group. The announcement to stop all funding to various ACORN projects came at the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops in Baltimore.

Bishop Roger Morin, who chairs the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) told his fellow bishops, "We simply had too many questions and concerns to permit further CCHD funding of ACORN groups."

Bishop Morin froze all Catholic funds to ACORN in June when ACORN revealed the brother of the group's founders had embezzled nearly a million dollars from the group. The embezzlement took place years ago, but was only recently revealed to ACORN board members and donor groups.

In a letter to All Bishops, Bishop Morin said the Catholic Church would conduct its own review. That review was completed earlier this month and the church apparently was not convinced ACORN meets the standards of further funding.

"No funds were given this year, none for next year and now the stance at present is there will be no funding relationship with ACORN groups in the future," said Bishop Morin.

The Catholic Church has a long history of giving grant money to ACORN and its affiliates. Over the past decade, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development has given more than $7.3 million dollars to ACORN related projects.

The CCHD gave more than a million dollars to ACORN last year, including $40-thousand dollars to the ACORN chapter in Las Vegas. That chapter was recently raided by local authorities in a voter registration fraud investigation. Among other questionable registrations, the ACORN chapter submitted registrations for members of the Dallas Cowboys football team.

In a statement to CNN, ACORN's executive Director Steven Kest said his group is grateful the church's funding in the past and "We look forward to continuing discussions with CCHD officials and the bishops in the months ahead in hopes that we can continue working together on projects, which have been so important to so many in low income neighborhoods across the country."

An official with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development says there are no plans to continue any discussion with ACORN at this time. Ralph McCloud, the director of CCHD says the Catholic Church has "severed ties" with ACORN.

Marcus Hooper contributed to this report

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Special Investigations Unit


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The New Lobbyist?

Posted: 03:29 PM ET

"I don't take a dime from Washington lobbyists, and special interests. They do not run my campaign. They will not run my White House - and they will not drown out the voice of The American people." 
  - President-elect Barack Obama

President-elect Barack Obama made it very clear on the campaign trail that he wanted to lessen the power and influence that some lobbyists have in Washington D.C. 

Even many lobbyists will tell you that the Jack Abramoffs of the industry need to be curtailed, and there needs to be more transparency among both lobbyists and lawmakers.

But what is so wrong with being a lobbyist?  Why have they been vilified to the point where you simply hear the word “lobbyist,” and you think about secret, backdoor dealings, between large, powerful special interests and their smarmy, money-hungry lobbyists, and your so-called trusted member of Congress?

Maybe that really is how Washington works – it’s about whom you know, and a person’s access to powerful decision-makers.  But there are other lobbyists as well, not just your stereotypical corporate lobbyist that both Sen. John McCain and President-elect Obama seemed to zero in on during many of their campaign speeches. 

I interviewed Professor Chai Feldman from Georgetown University’s law school.  She teaches a course about becoming a lobbyist.  She told me that the new administration will never push powerful lobbyists out of D.C.  In fact, she reminded me that lobbyists are protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution – the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.  But she does feel there will be a shift in thinking, after the inauguration on January 20, 2009.  She says corporate lobbyists will soon share the stage with other, traditionally less influential, grassroots groups.

My question to you is do you feel that President-elect Obama really can change the way Washington has worked for so long?  Do you think implementing stricter rules and more regulations on lobbyists will make any real difference?  Do you think the voice of the people will be heard?

Filed under: Abbie Boudreau • Special Investigations Unit


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November 4, 2008

Covering ACORN With A Hatchet

Posted: 03:05 PM ET

So today I got a letter sent to all Catholic Bishops in the U.S. announcing that due to serious problems at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the Catholic Campaign for Human Development is suspending all funds to ACORN.

It’s significant because the Catholic Church in the U.S. has given $7.3 million dollars to ACORN projects over the past decade. Just last year, U.S. Catholics gave more than a million dollars to ACORN. And it appears some of that money filtered down to the ACORN office in Las Vegas that made headlines trying to register the Dallas Cowboys football team to vote in Nevada.

The problem for the Catholics is two fold:

The Catholic Church is concerned about its own tax exempt status being involved in a group that is now so deeply involved in political support of one candidate.
The Catholic Church says questions have arisen about ACORNS financial management, fiscal transparency and accountability.

So, of course, I immediately called ACORN’s spokesperson Scott Levenson, one of many public relations specialists brought on by ACORN to fight all this bad press. And here is Scott’s response to the question about the Catholic Bishop’s suspending ACORN funding:

"The facts are wrong and we will no longer participate in a Drew Griffin hatchet job against ACORN.”

Less than an hour later, after our editorial director made a call to ACORN asking if this really was their response, we got this from another public relations specialist ACORN brought on to fight the bad press:

“ACORN is grateful to have received CCHD funding for many years, and proud that CCHD has enabled us to help our low income constituency achieve the American Dream. We know that CCHD is reviewing their current funding, and we are in discussions with them about continuing their support.” – Steve Kest, ACORN Executive Director

The tension over at ACORN must be so thick you could cut it with a …well, I guess a hatchet.

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Election 2008 • Politics • Special Investigations Unit


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