10 Most Popular News Stories of 2014 from AllGov.com

Friday, January 02, 2015
DynCorp police trainer Rich Garner in Qalat, Afghanistan (photo: Drew Brown, Stars and Stripes)

1. More than Two-Thirds of Afghanistan Reconstruction Money has Gone to One Company: DynCorp International

If not for the federal government, contractor DynCorp International wouldn’t be in business. Virtually all of its revenue (96%) comes from government contracts. That includes the vast majority of the taxpayer dollars that the State Department has awarded to companies to help rebuild Afghanistan.


The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) says that of the $4 billion allotted by the State Department from 2002 to 2013, 69.3% went to DynCorp. In terms of actual dollars, DynCorp took in $2.8 billion.


Giving so much to one company might not have been a good idea, given DynCorp’s record.


The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) notes the contractor’s “colorful history” includes “instances of labor smuggling, weak performance and overpayments on a base support services contract, botched construction work on an Afghan Army garrison, and lawsuits filed by disgruntled subcontractors.”


Most of DynCorp’s contracts have been to train and equip the Afghan National Police and counternarcotics forces, SIGAR reports. It was during this work that the company was accused by a top Afghan official of hiring “dancing boys” in 2009 to entertain DynCorp trainers.


A diplomatic cable revealed by Wikileaks quoted Interior Minister Hanif Atmar as having “deep concerns that lives could be in danger if news leaked that foreign police trainers working for U.S. commercial contractor DynCorp hired ‘dancing boys’ to perform for them.”


Both the company and State Department officials denied the accusation. And yet, it was “serious enough to prompt worried emails from an Afghan politician asking that the story be kept secret,” Jacob Siegel wrote at The Daily Beast.


The second largest recipient of contracts for work in Afghanistan has been PAE Government Services, which received $598 million (or 15% of all State Department reconstruction funds). PAE has also had its troubles, according to POGO.


The former subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, one of the biggest defense contractors in the U.S., saw a former program manager, Keith Johnson, and his wife, Angela Johnson, go to prison for conspiring to defraud the military over purchases of vehicle parts.


In addition to jail time, the Johnsons were fined $2 million for funneling taxpayer money to a shell company they controlled and to subcontractors in exchange for kickbacks.


2. 72% of Americans Disapprove of Republican Party…but it’s Set to Take Control of Both Houses of Congress Anyway

The Republican Party is on its way to a successful midterm election in spite of some truly awful approval ratings.


Aaron Blake of The Washington Post reports that the GOP is “primed to win six seats and take back the Senate,” which is pretty remarkable considering how many Americans think that party is anything but grand these days.


According to a Washington Post-ABC poll, nearly half of all Americans “strongly” disapprove of GOP members in Congress, and their total negative rating is 72%.


So how is it Republicans are sitting pretty for November?


For starters—according to the Washington Post-ABC News poll—only 25% of Americans think it would be a “bad thing” for the GOP to take over the Senate. Another 32% say the switch would be a “good thing,” and more than half (51%) pretty much just shrug it off. Heck, less than half of Democrats (48%) look down on the idea of a GOP-controlled Senate.


“The GOP certainly has its problems, but in a lot of ways, disgust with the GOP is like disgust with Congress,” Blake wrote. “While people hate Congress, they are much more likely to hold a favorable view of their own member of it. And if a Republican candidate can run a good campaign and avoid being too closely associated with the less-savory elements of his or her national party, that ‘R’ next to his or her name isn't really much of a burden.”


FiveThirtyEight calculates that the Republicans have a 58% probability of regaining control of the Senate, with the battle most likely hinging on races in Iowa, Kansas, North Carolina, Colorado, Alaska, Arkansas and Georgia.


As for the House of Representatives, in 2012 Republicans achieved the rare feat of losing the popular vote, but winning a majority of the seats. Despite the fact that 1.4 million more voters chose Democratic candidates over Republican ones, redistricting and gerrymandering gave the Republican Party a 33-seat advantage. There is no reason to believe that the 2014 results will be any different.


3. For the First Time, Half of Members of Congress are Millionaires…Democrats Worth more than Republicans

Members of Congress continued to get richer last year, resulting in more than 50% of lawmakers possessing a net worth of $1 million or more—something that’s never happened before in congressional history.


Of 534 current members of Congress, at least 268 were millionaires, according the Center for Responsive Politics’ review of financial disclosure reports filed last year.


The median net worth for the 530 lawmakers who were in Congress as of the May 2013 filing deadline was $1,008,767—up from $966,000 during the previous year.


The center also found that Democrats overall were a little wealthier than Republicans in Congress, $1.04 million versus $1 million.  Both groups saw their collective net worth go up, from $990,000 for Democrats and $907,000 for Republicans in the previous year.


Democrats in the House were richer than their GOP counterparts, $929,000 versus $884,000. House Republicans, however, could boast having the richest member: Darrell Issa of California, who has had this distinction in other years. The Viper car-alarm magnate has a net worth of $464 million.


In the Senate, the GOP caucus was noticeably wealthier than the Democratic caucus, $2.9 million versus $1.7 million.


Senate Democrats experienced a steep drop in their median net worth from $2.4 million in 2011, due in part to the loss of two multimillionaires: John Kerry of Massachusetts (net worth $248 million) and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey ($87.5 million). Nonetheless, the four richest senators are still Democrats: Mark Warner of Virginia ($257 million), Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut ($104 million), Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia ($101 million) and Diane Feinstein of California ($68 million).


The center noted: “Members of Congress have long been far wealthier than the typical American, but the fact that now a majority of members—albeit just a hair over 50 percent—are millionaires represents a watershed moment at a time when lawmakers are debating issues like unemployment benefits, food stamps and the minimum wage, which affect people with far fewer resources, as well as considering an overhaul of the tax code.”


4. 10 States with Highest Uninsured Rates are all Run by Republicans

The rollout of the Affordable Care Act has had its hiccups to be sure. But the biggest question in finding out whether those who need it get health insurance coverage may be which political party runs the state.


The 10 states with the highest uninsured rates in the country, all run by Republican governors or legislatures or both, have all refused to accept the expansion of Medicaid and have declined to participate in the state exchanges. Those states are Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Montana, Arizona, Oklahoma, Alaska, and New Mexico.


However, the states with the largest drop in uninsured residents, Kentucky and Arkansas, have embraced the ACA reforms, even though those states are also led by Republicans, according to a new Gallup poll. Arkansas, which accepted the Medicaid expansion but uses the money to purchase private insurance, saw its uninsured drop from 22.5% of state residents to 12.4%. Kentucky’s uninsured rate fell from 20.4% to 11.9% of its population.


Last year, 14 states had more than 20% of their population uninsured. This year, there are only three such states: Texas, Georgia and Mississippi, with Florida and Louisiana next on the list. Texas, which has refused to cooperate with the implementation of the ACA, saw its uninsured rate fall only 3%, to 24%, leaving it as the state with the highest percentage of uninsured.


The nationwide rate of uninsured Americans has fallen from 18% in 2013 to 13.4% now. States that accepted the Medicaid expansion and created their own exchanges saw their uninsured rates fall by 4%, while states that fought the ACA had only a 2.2% decrease in uninsured.


5. Saudi Arabia Remains on U.N. Human Rights Council despite 19 Beheadings, including One for “Sorcery”

Ask any human rights organization where they stand on chopping off people’s heads and they’ll probably say such actions constitute a violation of human rights.


And yet, one nation that does a lot of beheadings is on the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. Lately, in fact, Saudi Arabia can’t seem to get enough beheadings. Its government has executed at least 19 people using this method since August 4, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).


Of the 19, eight were found guilty of non-violent offenses; seven for drug smuggling and one for committing sorcery.


“Any execution is appalling, but executions for crimes such as drug smuggling or sorcery that result in no loss of life are particularly egregious,” Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s executive director of Middle East and North Africa division, told the International Business Times. “There is simply no excuse for Saudi Arabia’s continued use of the death penalty, especially for these types of crimes.”


The Saudi government executed more than 2,000 people between 1985 and 2013, about half of them foreign nationals. By comparison, the state of Texas executed 504 prisoners, none via beheading, over the same period.


Amnesty International reports that many people are executed after “confessing” to crimes during interrogations involving torture and no legal representation. “That people are tortured into confessing to crimes, convicted in shameful trials without adequate legal support and then executed is a sickening indictment of the Kingdom’s state-sanctioned brutality,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program.


The Saudi government is scheduled to keep a spot on the Human Rights Council for two more years.


6. How Many People are Killed by Police in U.S.? Who Knows?

Here’s a pitch for a procedural: Cops track down the number of police shootings in the United States in a given year. Why should that require any detective work? It’s that there are currently no national statistics on how many people are shot by police each year.


In some areas, such as Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia and Massachusetts, police shootings have increased, according to a report in Salon. Whether those numbers can be extrapolated to a national trend is not known though. Police departments are not required to release data on how many civilians are shot by officers each year and many don’t.


Some observers believe that there are more police shootings than there had been five or 10 years ago. Those who want to hold police accountable are stymied by the lack of nationwide statistics on the issue.


So, we’re left to try to find the information on our own. Jim Fisher tried in 2012. According to his True Crime blog, in 2011, 1,146 people were shot by police, with 607 killed. To come up with those numbers, Fisher scoured the Internet for data about every shooting that year. But that system is not comprehensive.


What statistics there are do show that police shootings often involve racial minorities, those with mental illnesses and sometimes victims who fall into both categories.  For instance, there were 57 police shootings in Chicago in 2012, according to the city. Fifty of those shot were African-American. A review of police shootings in Maine by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram showed that between 2000 and 2012, 57 people were shot by police in Maine. Of those, at least 24 of the shootings involved victims with mental health issues.


Police shootings may be on the rise because of state laws that empower more firearm use by citizens. Indiana passed a law in 2012 that allowed people to use deadly force against public servants, including law enforcement officers, who illegally enter their homes. Of course, police have no way of knowing whether the occupant of a home thinks the authorities are there legally, so some officers are nervous. “It’s just a recipe for disaster,” Indiana State Fraternal Order of Police president Tim Downs told Bloomberg News. “It just puts a bounty on our heads.”


7. Americans Overwhelmingly Prefer Treatment to Prosecution for Illegal Drug Users; Alcohol Viewed as more Harmful than Marijuana

The United States is becoming a kinder, gentler nation when it comes to drug abuse, with more people these days preferring to help users instead of punishing them, according to a new study.


The same study also shows that Americans don’t fear marijuana and its effects on individuals or society like they do with alcohol and its consequences.


Sixty-seven percent of respondents to a national survey by the Pew Research Center said the government should focus less on prosecuting people who use illegal drugs (such as cocaine and heroin) and focus more on getting them into treatment.


Only a quarter of Americans still hold the belief that prison time is the best thing for abusers of hard drugs.


When it comes to possession of small amounts of marijuana, 76% of the public believe jail time should not be imposed.


Support for treatment over punishment is strong among most demographic groups, Pew researchers reported. But perhaps the most startling development is that just over half of Republicans—who have historically preferred the lock-’em-up approach—now favor drug treatment over punishment.


Given this softer attitude toward drug users, it is not surprising that Americans, by a wide margin, also support the growing movement at the state level for reforming drug sentencing laws for non-violent offenders. The survey showed that 63% said moving away from mandatory sentences for non-violent drug crimes was a positive step, not a negative one. Fewer than half of Americans felt this way back in 2001.


Pew researchers also discovered that Americans consider alcohol more dangerous than marijuana. When asked which is more harmful to a person’s health, 69% chose alcohol, while only 15% selected marijuana. In terms of impact on society, 63% said alcohol had a more detrimental effect. Only 23% said marijuana had a more negative effect.


8. Ambassador to Norway: Who Is George Tsunis?

President Barack Obama has chosen a strong supporter of his 2008 campaign rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) to be the next ambassador to Norway. Nominated September 10, George Tsunis contributed $50,000 to McCain’s 2008 presidential run before switching parties in 2009 and becoming a major donor to Obama’s 2012 re-election run. Tsunis is the chairman and CEO of Chartwell Hotels, which owns, develops and manages Hilton, Marriott and Intercontinental hotels in Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, and manages his family’s portfolio of real estate holdings.


Because of his business’s presence in northern Pennsylvania, Tsunis told the National Herald that he  has taken advantage of the growth of natural gas fracking by “providing a lot of the picks and shovels for the Marcellus Shale.”


If confirmed by the Senate, Tsunis would succeed Barry B. White, who left Oslo in September after a four-year stint as ambassador. 


Tsunis’ father, James Tsunis, along with his cousin Charles, owned coffee shops and then developed the Bonwit Inn on Long Island in 1971, eventually investing in hotels and real estate.


Born in 1968, George James Tsunis earned a BA at New York University in 1989 and a JD at St. John’s University School of Law in 1992.


First bitten by the political bug in the 1980s, Tsunis’s first political work was as an aide to Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-New York), who served in the U.S. Senate from 1981 to 1999. In 1993, Tsunis ran a losing campaign as a GOP candidate for the Suffolk County Legislature, and in 1999 he was finance coordinator for Suffolk County Executive Robert Gaffney's re-election campaign.


After registering as a Democrat in November 2009, Tsunis raised at least $500,000 for Obama’s 2012 campaign, and donated $300,000 to Democratic super PACs and $75,800 to the Obama Victory Fund, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. According to state records, Tsunis and his wife, Olga, have given $115,000 to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s 2014 re-election campaign.


As a practicing attorney, Tsunis was a partner at the law firm of Rivkin Radler LLP, which is Long Island’s largest law firm, practicing land use and zoning, real estate, corporate, municipal law and commercial litigation.


Tsunis has engaged in public service over the years, including as a legislative attorney for the New York City Council, special counsel to the Town of Huntington Environmental Open Space Committee, and as counsel to the Dix Hills Water District. He also made a $1.25 million gift to Stony Brook University for the creation of the George and Olga Tsunis Center in Hellenic Studies and The James and Eleni Tsunis Chair in Hellenic Studies, the latter in honor of Tsunis’ parents.


A member of the Archdiocesan Council of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Tsunis is an archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (Order of Saint Andrew)—the highest ecclesiastical honor that can be bestowed upon a layman—and serves on its National Council.


Tsunis’ only foreign policy experience consists of memberships on the Brookings Institution Foreign Policy Leadership Committee and its Metropolitan Leadership Council, as well as on Business Executives for National Security.


George Tsunis has been married to his wife Olga (Antzoulis) since November 2004. They live in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, with their three children.


9. 185 Countries Guarantee Paid Family Leave; The 3 that don’t: Papua New Guinea, Oman and U.S.

It is a very small, and arguably unpopular club to which the United States belongs: Nations that do not provide workers with paid time off to start a family.


Of the 188 countries in the world, only three have no paid family leave—Papua New Guinea, Oman and the U.S., according to a new report from the International Labour Organization (ILO). The other 185 governments have adopted laws authorizing mothers, and in 78 cases even fathers, to take time off and still receive paychecks while caring for newborns or other relatives.


The ILO has three main standards for family leave. It should be at least 14 weeks, pay should be at least two-thirds of regular earnings and the funding should come from social insurance or public funds, rather than from employers’ pockets.


Current federal law (the 1993 Federal Medical Leave Act) gives Americans the right to take family leave as long as the company for which they work has at least 50 employees. But nothing in the statute requires employees to be paid during the leave. Only three states (California, New Jersey and Rhode Island) require paid leave, which is financed through payroll taxes.


Democrats in Congress are trying to expand federal law with legislation (the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act), which would provide new parents and caretakers with up to 12 paid weeks off each year. The bill has stalled in the House, where Republicans oppose the idea, claiming it will hurt small business.


A poll conducted for the National Partnership for Women and Families two years ago revealed that 86% of Americans support paid family leave, including 73% of Republicans.


10. Violent Crime Down Since Colorado Legalized Marijuana

When Colorado legalized recreational marijuana, critics of the idea warned it would lead to more crime throughout the state. But the impact has been just the opposite so far in the state’s largest city, which has seen violent crime go down.


Crime data for Denver, the hub of legal pot sales in the state, shows murders, assaults, rapes, burglaries and other violent crimes declined during the first three months of the year, compared with the same period for 2013.


Homicides went down from 17 to 8 (a 53% drop), automobile break-ins from 2,317 to 1,477 (down 36%) and sexual assaults from 110 to 95 (down 14%). Overall, violent and property crimes dropped more than 10% from last year to this year during the first quarter.


Two types of property crime did go up—arson from 20 incidents to 47 (a 135% jump) and larceny from 2,133 to 2,287 (up 7%).


Meanwhile, marijuana sales across the state increased during the first three months of 2014, from $14 million to $19 million, according to Vox. “For all three months, Denver County made up about half that revenue,” German Lopez reported, noting the city is host to nearly 60% of Colorado’s licensed retail pot stores. Disappointed opponents of legal marijuana pointed out that there has been no connection shown between the drop in the crime rate and the increase in marijuana sales.


Some opponents say the criminal effect of decriminalizing marijuana won’t be felt for several years. “This is a great opportunity for us to find out what happens when you legalize a substance like marijuana,” Tom Gorman, director of Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, told Vox before the police statistics came out. “Just wait and watch what happens in these labs, and then you can make a decision based on data and facts and not rhetoric.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley, Matt Bewig and David Wallechinsky


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