Category Archives: Uncategorized

Who’s behind unpaid prison labor in Texas?

Several of the officials charged with regulating Texas’s prison labor program, wherein thousands of workers behind bars are compelled to produce goods and provide services for free, are connected to some of the richest and most powerful institutions and people in the state.

The Texas Board of Criminal Justice, which oversees Texas Correctional Industries (TCI), the prison industry division within the state’s Department of Criminal Justice, has authority over how much compensation inmates working for the state receive for their labor. Currently, inmates working for TCI are not paid for the work done while serving their time; the only inmates who are paid anything are the small fraction who are employed by TCI’s private sector prison industries program.

Continue reading Who’s behind unpaid prison labor in Texas?

The real estate developer behind Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan

Since announcing his $41 billion affordable housing plan in 2014, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has encountered fierce resistance from grassroots housing advocates, who have pointed out that the plan would displace thousands of low-income families and spur gentrification in neighborhoods targeted for rezoning.

Until very recently, that opposition was also matched by the city’s 59 community boards and five borough presidents, which near unanimously struck down rezoning proposals that composed the wider housing plan. But last week the City Council’s land use committee, satisfied with amendments to the plan that partially expand the number of affordable units, voted 15-2 for its approval. Some advocates have celebrated the changes; others noted that thousands of low-income New Yorkers would still be left out of the deal. The full City Council body is expected to vote on the mayor’s plan this week.

Rarely mentioned amid the political jostling are the names of the developers pushing the plan forward. Here’s one: Ron Moelis of L+M Development. In terms of financial and personal ties to the de Blasio administration, Moelis stands out among his peers as the affordable housing developer behind de Blasio’s plan.

Continue reading The real estate developer behind Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing plan

The payday loan family behind Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s deregulatory zeal

The payday loan industry has a new friend in Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee. Wasserman Schultz is co-sponsoring a piece of legislation – ironically titled the “Consumer Protection and Choice Act” – which would delay and eventually block new regulations sought by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Why is Rep. Wasserman Schultz going to bat for an industry that is bleeding her constituency dry to the tune of $280 million per year? One possibility: Florida’s leading family of payday loan profiteers is a major donor to Wasserman Schultz, and shelled out a series of large contributions to her campaign last June. Perhaps she is repaying the favor.

For Florida-based Amscot Financial, predatory lending is a family business. CEO Ian MacKechnie – who is worth millions – has said that he “sympathizes with his hard-luck customers” and that he wants to “feel like we’re offering valuable services at reasonable prices.”

MacKechnie does not exactly bring a strong ethical record to this work, however. In the 1990s, Amscot Financial pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and agreed to end its insurance business after regulators found that it was tricking customers into buying unnecessary financial products.

MacKechnie runs the business with his wife and two sons, but this is hardly a mom and pop operation. Amscot currently has 235 payday lending locations across Florida, and MacKechnie said he wanted to be the “Walmart of financial service” in a 2009 interview.

To that end, Amscot consistently spends $320,000 per year on lobbying, a total of nearly $3 million over the last 10 years. Their lobbyists include Holland and Knight’s Jim Davis, a former member of the Florida House of Representatives and once included former FL Governor Charlie Crist’s Chief of Staff, Eric Eikenberg.

When it comes to politicians, Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a MacKechnie family favorite. Since 2010, Ian MacKechnie and his family have donated $9,600 to her and $38,850 to her PAC, Democrats Win Seats, placing the family among her top all-time donors.

In two days last June, not long before she co-sponsored the payday lending bill, they cut a series of checks totaling $10,200 to her and her PAC.

The MacKechnies are also fans of Dennis Ross, the lead sponsor of the bill. He has brought in $19,600 from AmScot Financial.

Click through the map below for details on these contributions.

Hedge funds may need to find another astroturf group to help them attack Puerto Rico

A hedge-fund backed front group opposing bankruptcy in Puerto Rico is in disarray. Board members of the group, the 60 Plus Association, are suing the group’s president, Amy Frederick, for secretly funneling payments to companies controlled by her husband.

Hedge funds recruited 60 Plus to form a group, Main Street Bondholders, that pretends to represent retirees opposing bankruptcy for the island. The hedge funds have been trying to prevent bankruptcy and promote austerity on the island in order to ensure higher payouts on their debt holdings. They’ve been using a range of legal and advocacy strategies to promote their agenda, which comes at a great cost to Puerto Ricans.

Continue reading Hedge funds may need to find another astroturf group to help them attack Puerto Rico

New investigation reveals corporate capture of air regulator in L.A. County gas leak

Following a long delay, things are moving quickly with the environmentally catastrophic methane leak at the Aliso Canyon gas facility in Los Angeles, first noticed in October 2015. After leaking about 94,000 metric tons of methane into the air—far and away the state’s biggest single contributor to global warming at the moment—11 different local, state, and federal agencies are now suing or investigating criminal charges for the company responsible, Southern California Gas (SoCalGas), including misdemeanor charges filed by L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. The California Senate also passed a moratorium that, if signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, would prevent SoCalGas from injecting gas into the leaking well as well as 18 gas storage wells at Aliso Canyon that are as old and potentially just as decrepit (there are 115 wells in total).

With so many moving parts, it could be easy to overlook the role of the Southern Coast Air Quality Management District board, the regional regulator in Southern California that has broad authority to enforce air quality standards mandated by federal and state law. However, the SCAQMD is the only government agency with direct authority to abate the air nuisance in the area surrounding the leak, which has forced thousands to leave their homes in recent months.

Continue reading New investigation reveals corporate capture of air regulator in L.A. County gas leak

Behind the scenes: The push to repeal the ban on oil exports

Since the oil exports ban was repealed on December 18th, 2015, there has been a slow trickle of news detailing the oil industry’s behind-the-scenes campaign to shape this critical policy decision. The most recent piece, from Paul Blumenthal, detailed large, direct corporate donations from oil and gas companies to the Senate Leadership Fund in the last half of 2015 when debate around the repeal was heating up.

The Senate Leadership Fund is a PAC with the mission of maintaining a Republican majority in the Senate and has ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell through its founder, Steven Law. Law is a long-time ally of McConnells and previously served as his Chief of Staff.

The newly minted Senate Majority Leader became a powerful ally in the industry campaign, calling the export ban a “relic of the 70s.”

Blumenthal’s exposé is the latest to reveal the oil industry’s multi-pronged effort to secure massive profits with the export ban repeal.

The below map (click through for a larger version) illustrates aspects of this effort:

Continue reading Behind the scenes: The push to repeal the ban on oil exports

Power networks behind the Department of Homeland Security’s expanding biometrics division

2016 is a big year for the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to collect, store, analyze, and share biometric information from non-citizens (and “citizens of interest”) at border crossings and airports. We took a look at the power networks behind the companies unrolling iris and facial scanning technology on the California-Mexico border and JFK airport in New York City, and discovered some interesting connections. With $282 million allotted for biometrics expansion, this is an issue we’ll continue watching as the year progresses.

Click “next” on the story map below to cycle through a closer look at these networks.

Continue reading Power networks behind the Department of Homeland Security’s expanding biometrics division

Ed Rendell again fails to disclose oil and gas ties, this time in boosting Philly Energy Hub

Media outlets should use extra caution when publishing op-eds by former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell.

On at least two occasions in the past three years, Rendell has failed to disclose oil and gas industry ties in op-eds that advocated for oil and gas interests. In both cases, newspapers later had to append disclosures noting the conflicts of interest – a relatively rare step for a publication to take.

Continue reading Ed Rendell again fails to disclose oil and gas ties, this time in boosting Philly Energy Hub

How the defense and security industry is tied to police biosurveillance in California

Top national security officials in the United States are leveraging recent terror attacks in the West to advocate for greater surveillance at home and militarism abroad. On December 6, days after ISIS-inspired murders in San Bernardino, President Obama announced that he would “urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice.” A month earlier, following the massacres in Paris, the Vice Chair of the Homeland Security Advisory Counsel and Commissioner of the New York Police Department, William Bratton, called the attacks a “game-changer” and advocated for an intelligence-gathering offensive.

The call for beefed up security among law enforcement coincides with a rising war effort in Syria, with the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Russia increasing airstrikes over the last month and, in some cases, putting boots on the ground. These have been boom times for the defense industry; the stock values of war and security technology makers have generally risen since the Paris attacks. This includes well known arms manufacturers like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, but also communication-focused firms like L-3 Communications and Booz Allen Hamilton.

A growing segment of both the defense and security industries is biometrics: The software (facial identification algorithms, mobile networking, databases of irises and fingerprints) and hardware (eye, fingerprint, and palm scanners, license plate readers, and many, many cameras) that will further integrate police and soldiers into one militarized backbone. Some of the smaller companies that are now supplying biometric technology to local police were started by veterans of the defense industry. Others have even more direct ties to the military-surveillance complex.

Continue reading How the defense and security industry is tied to police biosurveillance in California

A special holiday treat for analysts!

Our lead developer and co-founder Matthew Skomarovsky gave us all a special holiday gift from our wish list. Our relationship categories have expanded to include… [drum roll] …hierarchies!

Yes, you can now add hierarchical relationships between organizations, a critical tool for mapping out winding and convoluted corporate structures. To add a hierarchy to an organization’s profile just add a relationship as normal and select ‘hierarchy’ from the menu of choices.

All existing child/parent hierarchy data was converted to this new relationship format and these relationships will now load when using Oligrapher, our power mapping tool.

Happy hierarch-ing analysts!

Current analysts: Be sure to re-bookmark the LittleSis bookmarklet in order to have this relationship category show up when editing.