It all began in Lafayette. When a Louisiana diocese was rocked years ago by a pedophiliac priest, a bishop came in to “heal” the community. The bishop later led the U.S. church’s response to the national scandal. “His background gave the Catholic Church tremendous credibility at a moment of crisis. There was just one problem. The story wasn’t true.” — Minnesota Public Radio via @callmeKi
That time the U.S. shot down a passenger plane — and tried to cover it up. Iran Air Flight 655 veered into a naval skirmish July 3,1988, when it was shot down by a U.S. Navy captain, killing all 290 people aboard. “Not until eight years later did the U.S. government compensate the victims’ families, and even then expressed ‘deep regret,’ not an apology.” — Slate via @ericuman
The hidden cost of North Dakota‘s oil and gas boom. The state’s former tourism director summed it up this way: “We’ve been so poor for so long, then all of a sudden, we won the goddamn lottery. You know what happens to lottery winners who aren’t prepared to spend a lot of money. You read about them three years later. They’re in court, or they’re in bankruptcy, or they’re divorced, or their kids committed murder or took drugs. That’s the way we are.” — Center for Public Integrity via @mjbeckel
The next subprime bubble: used car loans. Auto loans to consumers with bad credit rose 130 percent in five years, fueled by Wall Street investors and some of the same bundling of toxic deals seen in the subprime housing crisis. — New York Times via @amzam
Thank you for your service: how one company sues U.S. soldiers worldwide. With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands. — ProPublica via @paulkiel
“It‘s my commission. I can‘t ‘interfere‘ with it, because it‘s mine. It is controlled by me.” ICYMI: The NYT’s deep dive into the demise of an ethics commission created — then halted —by Gov. Andrew Cuomo after it began looking into groups tied to his administration. Cuomo’s office responded: “A commission appointed by and staffed by the executive cannot investigate the executive.” — New York Times via @laura_nelson
Gov. Cuomo also gets featured in this week‘s podcast. ProPublica’s Justin Elliot explains the apparent conflicts he found from Cuomo’s term as attorney general, when he relied on mortgage industry lobbyist Howard Glaser to advise his office during its investigation into (yep) the mortgage industry.
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<!– real people should not fill this in and …read more
Image description: A geologist dips a rock hammer into an active lava pool at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. After scooping out the lava it is placed in the water to quench it. HVO routinely collects lava samples for chemical analysis, which can give insight into changes in the magmatic system.
Photo from the U.S. Geologic Survey
by Paul Kiel
The law is clear: When far-flung members of the U.S. military are sued in civil court, judges must at least appoint lawyers for them.
But that basic layer of protection hasn’t provided much help to the hundreds of service members sued in Virginia courts each year by high-cost lender USA Discounters.
The state routinely allows plaintiffs like USA Discounters to suggest which lawyers should be appointed. Moreover, the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) doesn’t detail what those attorneys must do or how much they’ll be paid for doing it.
Practically speaking, military legal experts say, that means the attorneys often don’t do much at all.
An examination of recent USA Discounters’ cases shows the company typically chooses local attorney Tariq Louka to represent service members, many of whom are on active duty and unable to get to court. For his $35 fee, Louka sends each of these clients an identical letter advising them of their rights under the SCRA to have their case delayed if they can’t appear. But that’s it.
A fee that “absurdly low” shows that the attorney “does not plan on doing anything more than generating a form letter,” said John Odom, a retired judge advocate who has testified before Congress about the SCRA.
Louka’s fee is charged to the defendants if the company wins a judgment – and the company almost always does.
ProPublica reviewed 11 USA Discounters cases in which Louka had a role. If the service member didn’t respond to Louka’s letter, as occurred in 10 cases, he informed the court that his work was done and the case should proceed. He doesn’t typically try to call clients, Louka wrote in an email in response to questions from ProPublica.
Even service members who respond to the letter get little or no representation beyond that. Army Staff Sgt. David Ray was sued by USA Discounters in 2013 while stationed in Germany. Court records show he wrote to Louka to say he’d followed the company’s “instructions to the letter,” and the suit was unnecessary. Ray also wrote that he didn’t think he’d ever be able to attend a hearing. Louka did not respond, according to Ray and the case file. Instead, he recommended that the suit proceed because Ray had “stated that he is not disputing this debt.” Louka told ProPublica that he could not discuss any client’s case without a written waiver. Ray, who remains on active duty, could not subsequently be reached to provide one.
Louka said he performs what he believes are his obligations under the law and the courts have broadly accepted his interpretation.
Other attorneys in the area have a similarly bare bones take on the law’s duties. Freedom Furniture and Electronics also sues a large number of service members in Virginia courts. In three Freedom suits examined by ProPublica, Virginia Beach attorney William Parkhurst was appointed. In a 2011 letter to a service member, Parkhurst, who …read more
The Sunshield on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is the largest part of the observatory—five layers of thin membrane that must unfurl reliably in space to precise tolerances. Last week, for the first time, engineers stacked and unfurled a full-sized test unit of the Sunshield and it worked perfectly.
The Sunshield is about the length of a tennis court, and will be folded up like an umbrella around the Webb telescope’s mirrors and instruments during launch. Once it reaches its orbit, the Webb telescope will receive a command from Earth to unfold, and separate the Sunshield’s five layers into their precisely stacked arrangement with its kite-like shape.
The Sunshield test unit was stacked and expanded at a cleanroom in the Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, California.
The Sunshield separates the observatory into a warm sun-facing side and a cold side where the sunshine is blocked from interfering with the sensitive infrared instruments. The infrared instruments need to be kept very cold (under 50 K or -370 degrees F) to operate. The Sunshield protects these sensitive instruments with an effective sun protection factor or SPF of 1,000,000 (suntan lotion generally has an SPF of 8-50).
In addition to providing a cold environment, the Sunshield provides a thermally stable environment. This stability is essential to maintaining proper alignment of the primary mirror segments as the telescope changes its orientation to the sun.
The James Webb Space Telescope is the successor to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. It will be the most powerful space telescope ever built. Webb is an international project led by NASA with its partners, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.
For more information about the Webb telescope, visit: www.jwst.nasa.gov or www.nasa.gov/webb
For more information on the Webb Sunshield, visit: http://jwst.nasa.gov/sunshield.html
Photo Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center …read more
by Paul Kiel
This article was co-published with The Washington Post.
Army Spc. Angel Aguirre needed a washer and dryer.
Money was tight, and neither Aguirre, 21, nor his wife had much credit history as they settled into life at Fort Carson in
Colorado in 2010.
That’s when he saw an ad for USA Discounters, guaranteeing loan approval for service members. In military newspapers and magazines,
on the radio, and on TV, the Virginia-based company’s ads shout, “NO CREDIT? NEED CREDIT? NO PROBLEM!” The store was only
a few miles from Fort Carson.
“We ended up getting a computer, a TV, a ring, and a washer and dryer,” Aguirre said. “The only thing I really wanted was
a washer and dryer.”
Aguirre later learned that USA Discounters’ easy lending has a flip side. Should customers fall behind, the company transforms
into an efficient collection operation. And this part of its business takes place not where customers bought their appliances,
but in two local courthouses just a short drive from the company’s Virginia Beach headquarters.
From there, USA Discounters files lawsuits against service members based anywhere in the world, no matter how much inconvenience
or expense they would incur to attend a Virginia court date. Since 2006, the company has filed more than 13,470 suits and
almost always wins, records show.
“They’re basically ruthless,” said Army Staff Sgt. David Ray, who was sued in Virginia while based in Germany over purchases
he made at a store in Georgia.
Timothy Dorsey, vice president of USA Discounters, said the company provides credit to service members who would not otherwise
qualify and sues only after other attempts to resolve debts have failed.
As for the company’s choice of court, he said it was “for the customer’s benefit.” In Virginia, the company isn’t required
to use a lawyer to file suit. USA Discounters’ savings on legal fees are passed on to the customer, he said.
“This company is committed to ensuring that the men and women who serve and sacrifice for our country are always treated with
the honor and respect they deserve,” Dorsey said.
The federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, or SCRA, was designed to give active-duty members of the armed forces every opportunity
to defend themselves against lawsuits. But the law has a loophole; it doesn’t address where plaintiffs can sue. That’s allowed
USA Discounters to sue out-of-state borrowers in Virginia, where companies can file suit as long as some aspect of the business
was transacted in the state.
The company routinely argues that it meets that requirement through contract clauses that state any lawsuit will take place
in Virginia. Judges have agreed.
“This looks like somebody who has really, really researched the best way to get around the entire intent of the SCRA,” said
John Odom, a retired …read more
by Paul Kiel
This story was co-published with The Tampa Bay Times.
When Florida lawmakers banned high-interest car title loans in 2000, then-Gov. Jeb Bush proclaimed that the new law would protect Floridians from lenders “who prey on the desperate.”
But in the past three years, the largest title lender in the country has swept into the state, offering a new version of the loans that effectively allow it to charge the sort of sky-high rates the law was supposed to stop.
Founder and CEO: Tracy Young
Based: Savannah, GA
Subsidiaries: TitleMax, TitleBucks and InstaLoan
Number of locations: The largest auto-title lender in the country, TMX operates more than 1,470 stores in 18 states. In neighboring Georgia, TMX has 373 stores; in Alabama, there are 127, according to company websites.
Number of locations in Florida: 26, including St. Petersburg, Tampa and Brandon.
Type of Loans: Typically, 30-day loans with a triple-digit interest rate. But products vary state to state, mostly to evade any restrictive laws. Almost all loans are secured by the borrower’s car.
History: The company’s recent rapid growth followed a bankruptcy in 2009
TMX Finance, which has opened 26 InstaLoan stores across Florida, skirts the ban on triple-digit interest rates by offering loans larded with costly and nearly useless insurance products.
TMX is clearly violating “the spirit of the law,” said Alice Vickers of the Florida Consumer Action Network, a Tampa-based nonprofit advocacy group. Florida regulators should be cracking down, she said, instead of “giving them a pass.”
TMX’s refashioned loans are yet another example of how the nation’s high-cost lenders have modified their offerings to circumvent city, state and federal laws designed to limit them. After Ohio prohibited excessive interest rates on short-term loans in 2008, payday and auto title lenders used a loophole to offer nearly identical loans under different state laws. In Texas, TMX subsidiary TitleMax has offered customers cash for free as part of a ploy to get around city ordinances.
From its Georgia base, the company now operates more than 1,470 stores in 18 states with plans to grow by more than 20 percent each year through 2017, according to a presentation made to a rating agency last year and obtained by ProPublica.
TMX officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Industry representatives often argue that high-cost lenders serve a vital function by providing credit to consumers who would not otherwise be able to obtain it.
In a basic 30-day title loan, consumers hand over the title to their cars for a loan ranging from $100 to several thousand dollars. At the due date, the borrower can pay just the interest and renew the loan for the principal. In Georgia, TMX’s TitleMax stores often charge about 150 percent annual interest, according to contracts reviewed by ProPublica. If the borrower defaults on the loan, the lender can auction off the car.
Lenders like TMX derive most of their profit from customers who can’t afford to pay …read more
From the series: Photographic File of the Paris Bureau of the New York Times, compiled ca. 1900 – ca. 1950. Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900 – 2003
According to the date, this photo was taken just 1 day after the pioneering aviatrix’s 32nd birthday (born July 24, 1897).
Well, it’s about time. The invisible problem of pesticide drift is on the policy radar in ways it’s never been before — with changes in the wings that could protect kids and communities in very real ways. But these changes won’t happen unless we keep the pressure on.
From California to the Midwest to our nation’s capital, drift is now a focus of public concern and policy conversation. And as the science linking pesticide exposure to children’s health harms continues to stack up, pressure to protect kids from pesticide drift is growing stronger as well.
FDR arriving at Cap-Haitian, Haiti. July 5, 1934.
FDR in Panama, July 1934.
FDR in Panama, July 1934.
FDR at a picnic on Cocos Island during his cruise to Hawaii, July 14, 1934.
FDR at a picnic on Cocos Island during his cruise to Hawaii, July 14, 1934.
Day 56: FDR’s Cruise to Hawaii
On July 1, 1934, FDR boarded the USS Houston to begin his three week journey to the Territory of Hawaii. During the cruise FDR and his party made stops in the Bahamas, Haiti, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Croix, Colombia, Panama, Cocos Island and Clipperton Island. These stops included visits with foreign leaders and dignitaries, sightseeing through various countries and lots of fishing. FDR landed in Hawaii on July 24th to begin his historic visit.