02/21/21

Operation Choke Point 2.0 is Emerging

By: Denise Simon | Founders Code

I was just thinking about this old Obama administration program this week as it was a web tag it used years ago. Additionally, there was a time that Congressman Darryl Issa came to Clearwater to speak at an event I attended and he spoke on this disgusting program among other topics.

Well, Kelsy Bolar is on the case and a big hat tip to her for the alarm she is sounding. Let’s keep in mind the moves that Bank of America made in partnership with the FBI to report their own customers’ banking records that they asserted went to Washington, DC to begin a revolution at the Capitol on January 6. You can imagine that this program is quite the talk in the halls of Congress by progressives.

Operation Choke Point: The Government's Covert War on ...

Here goes:

Amongst the record-breaking number of executive actions taken by President Joe Biden was one related to a little-known, frightening Obama-era program called Operation Choke Point. The program, dubbed so under former Attorney General Eric Holder, uses the power of the federal government to target legal yet leftist-disfavored businesses. These include gun sellers, pawnshops, and short-term money lenders.

The Trump administration did its best to end this blatantly unconstitutional program that sought to discriminate against legal industries. In 2017, the Justice Department declared the program “formally over.” At the end of Trump’s term, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency established the Fair Access rule to solidify its culmination.

Operation Choke Point... DOJ Cuts Businesses From Banks

But on Jan. 28, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency under President Biden announced it would pause the Trump-era rule intended to prevent another Operation Choke Point from happening again.

The Backstory of Operation Choke Point

The Trump administration rule appeared innocuous enough, instructing banks to “conduct risk assessments of individual customers, rather than make broad-based decisions affecting whole categories or classes of customers when providing access to services, capital, and credit.”

Under Operation Choke Point, federal regulators instructed banks to do the opposite — to openly discriminate against entire industries the Obama administration found objectionable. Weaponizing the power of banking regulators at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Office of Comptroller of the Currency, the Obama administration realized it could block entire industries from the banking system that it didn’t like. This made it difficult — if not impossible — for politically disfavored businesses such as gun sellers and short-term lenders to operate.

Essentially, by using the power of federal banking regulators to intimidate banks from providing their services to these industries, the administration choked off their access to the financial system, leaving them paying more for essential banking services, or unable to use a bank at all.

The Obama administration claimed the program was intended to root out fraud by cutting off “high risk” industries from the banking system. But the administration didn’t make any differentiation between legal and illegal “high risk” industries, intentionally grouping lawful industries such as firearms sellers with patently illegal activities like Ponzi and credit-card schemes.

Different agencies within the Obama administration denied wrongdoing in various ways. At least one bank, however, admitted to choking off three legal enterprises at the government’s behest. Dozens of business owners — many of them gun sellers and short-term lenders — said their bank accounts and access to credit card processing platforms were suddenly stymied or shut down with no explanation and no opportunity for recourse.

Given its stained reputation, we shouldn’t expect the Biden administration to bring back Operation Choke Point under the same shameless name. But the return of the larger strategy behind Operation Choke Point appears here to stay.

Whereas seven years ago the idea of using the powers of the federal government to choke certain Americans from public life was controversial enough for the Obama administration to deny wrongdoing, in today’s era of social justice and cancel culture, it’s applauded.

Build Your Own Banks

Within corporate America, an employee was run out of Boeing over an article he published 33 years beforehand arguing women shouldn’t serve in combat (a position many Americans hold today). In the media, a Jewish, pro-Israel, pro-choice, bisexual writer was choked from The New York Times for not being leftist enough.

In Hollywood, a conservative actress was choked from Disney for expressing politically incorrect views on her private social media account. In the beauty blogging world, a conservative blogger was ousted from her role as a Sephora representative.

For all intents and purposes, Operation Choke Point is happening every day on a massive scale. Yet instead of “just” choking off access to capital and banking services, we’re witnessing a stranglehold on information, speech, and the broader marketplace of ideas. Concerningly, the government is now playing an active role.

As exemplified by Parler and the recent Twitter purge, Big Tech is choking conservatives off their social media platforms while Democrats cheer it on. In an attempt to choke conservatives out of entire industries of employment, critical race theory training and pledges are being forced on schools, government workplaces, and the armed forces.

This Dynamic Is Now Worse

Signs of Operation Choke Point’s formal resurrection are symbolic of the larger attempt by government actors to choke politically disfavored industries and individuals from the mainstream. While cancel culture has led to a politicized economy, the federal government’s arbitrarily targeting of individuals, groups, and entire companies will increase the politicization of the country, where the only acceptable views are from those in power.

Operating in the dark corners of the federal bureaucracy, Operation Choke Point bypasses public input and the legislative process, leaving politically unpopular individuals and businesses to fend for themselves. If the Biden administration’s rule reversal is any sign, the next four years won’t be about unifying the country to “Build Back Better.”

After being choked from essential services in the economy, conservatives and right-of-center businesses will have no choice but to Build Your Own — if that’s even still tolerated or allowed. Build your own banks, build your own credit card processing companies, build your own web hosting platforms, build your own social media platforms, build your own companies, build your own media, build your own schools, and build your own country — because you’re choked from “ours.”

Of course, all this will do nothing to further the causes of bipartisanship, unity, and healing President Biden claims to desire. Capitalizing on the trend of cancel culture, a return of Operation Choke Point would devastate an already damaged country. By abusing the powers of federal regulators, Operation Choke Point 2.0 would solidify what most right-of-center Americans already know: Instead of unity, Democrats want you choked from everyday life.

Three years ago, former President Obama infamously claimed his administration “didn’t have a scandal that embarrassed us.” While it’s tempting to point to Operation Choke Point to refute this, perhaps Obama was right. With Biden sitting by Obama’s side, the Obama administration wasn’t the least bit embarrassed about using its powers to choke legal businesses from existence. Indeed, it was the entire goal and they appear poised to do it again.

02/21/21

WHO Reports other Possible Diseased Animals and Covid

By: Denise Simon | Founders Code

Per the WSJ in part: World Health Organization investigators are honing their search for animals that could have spread the new coronavirus to humans, identifying two—ferret badgers and rabbits—that can carry the virus and were sold at a Chinese market where many early cases emerged.

Members of a WHO team probing the pandemic’s origins say further investigation is needed into suppliers of those and other animals at the market, some of which came from a region of China near its Southeast Asian borders where the closest known relatives of the virus have been found in bats.

Team members say they have yet to establish all the creatures sold, legally or illegally, alive or dead, at the market in the Chinese city of Wuhan that was tied to the first known cluster of cases in December 2019.

China’s National Health Commission and foreign ministry declined to comment.

The WHO team is juggling multiple competing hypotheses and still isn’t sure if the virus first jumped from animals to humans at the market or if it was circulating elsewhere first.

Has anyone asked what wildlife China exports to the United States? Hello investigative journalists, where are you? What would Customs and Border Patrol have to report on this matter? They do the inspections or should when not chasing illegal migrants coming across our Southern border or working with ICE to track down criminal aliens.

Looking a little deeper:

Wild products are regarded as superior to farm-raised, and the legal market simply makes it easier to launder poached animal products.

During a recent EIA investigation in China, undercover agents spoke with three different ivory traders who all said that at least 90 percent of what they trade legally is poached, said Thornton. A common method of feeding illegal products into the market is reusing and counterfeiting government-issued permits. Meanwhile, about 96 African elephants are killed each day for their ivory, a rate that could wipe them out within a decade.

China is the largest market for illegal wildlife products – and the market continues to grow. “Wildlife species that are bred in captivity for commercial purposes make some products widely available, which drives up consumer demand and increases poaching in the wild,” said Sharon Guynup, an environmental journalist and Wilson Center public policy fellow.

Reducing Demand, Stopping Trade

To reduce consumer demand in China, the non-profit International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has run several innovative outreach campaigns, said Grace Ge Gabriel, the regional director of IFAW’s Asia chapter.

In one campaign, Chinese pop stars, athletes, TV celebrities, and CEOs denounced buying wildlife products in a series of public service announcements and ads that were posted on billboards, buses, in airports, and other public places. Another initiative targeted the belief that ivory comes from elephant teeth and the extraction didn’t kill them. An IFAW survey found that in 2007, 70 percent of Chinese people didn’t know that elephants died for the ivory trade. Three years into a campaign to change this misconception, they found that of the 44 percent of people who had bought ivory in the past year, only seven percent said they would do so again.

More detail here.

Humm, it is quite the business it seems.  China Animal Exports to the United States in 2018 were more than $2 million.

In 2018, the top partner countries to which China Exports Animal include Hong Kong, ChinaJapan, the United States, and Korea, among others. Details here.

One must also ask what other countries trade animals with China that also partner with the United States that put the health of humans at risk?

Last April, Fox News at least touched on the matter:

Pangolin

China is offering tax incentives to wild animal exports despite banning their sale and consumption within the country amid fears that the practice was responsible for the global COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Sunday report.

SMALL-TOOTHED FERRET-BADGER LIFE EXPECTANCY

Although no consensus has been reached on the virus’ origins, multiple studies have pointed to so-called “wet markets” in the southeastern Chinese city of Wuhan, where wild animals were bought and sold for consumption.

COVID-19 is one of a “family” of coronaviruses commonly found in bats. It is suspected to have passed through a mammal, perhaps pangolins – the most-trafficked animal on the planet – before jumping to humans.

At these wet markets, live, wild-caught animals, farm-raised wild species and livestock frequently intermingle in unsanitary conditions that are highly stressful for the animals – circumstances that are ripe for infection and spillover.

In February, China’s government banned the sale and consumption of wild animals, saying that its “potential risk to public health has aroused wide public concern.”

But within a few weeks, the country’s Ministry of Finance and tax authority announced it would offer tax incentives to the export of wild animal products, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing government records.

02/19/21

U.S. Investment Funds Fuel China’s Economy to Our Peril

By: Denise Simon | Founders Code

In part from the WSJ:

Shock waves rippled through the investment world when China halted the initial public offering of Ant, which would have been the world’s biggest. The decision was signed off by President Xi Jinping after controlling shareholder Jack Ma infuriated government leaders by criticizing government financial regulation in an October speech, The Wall Street Journal reported.

For the past several years, the retirement savings of America’s police, firefighters and teachers have increasingly found their way to private companies in China such as Ant. Anxious to meet ambitious return targets in a low-yield world, large North American pension funds have committed growing sums to both global private-equity managers active in China and managers local to China, according to pension officials and their advisers and investment reports.

This has contributed to a larger boom in Chinese deal making for U.S. institutional investors. Private-equity-backed deals of $300 million or more in China involving exclusively U.S.-based investment managers totaled nearly $13 billion between 2010 and 2019, according to Preqin data. Deal activity peaked in 2018 at $3.78 billion. For investors and investment managers world-wide in 2020, private-equity investment in internet and technology in China was $52 billion, according to consulting firm Bain & Co.

Outlook 2021: How to invest in China's equity market ...

To put a finer point on the matter:

China overtook the U.S. as the world’s top destination for new foreign direct investment last year, as the Covid-19 pandemic amplifies an eastward shift in the center of gravity of the global economy.

New investments by overseas businesses into the U.S., which for decades held the No. 1 spot, fell 49% in 2020, according to U.N. figures released Sunday, as the country struggled to curb the spread of the new coronavirus and economic output slumped.

China, long ranked No. 2, saw direct investments by foreign companies climb 4%, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development said. Beijing used strict lockdowns to largely contain Covid-19 after the disease first emerged in a central Chinese city, and China’s gross domestic product grew even as most other major economies contracted last year.

The 2020 investment numbers underline China’s move toward the center of a global economy long dominated by the U.S.—a shift accelerated during the pandemic as China has cemented its position as the world’s factory floor and expanded its share of global trade.

While China attracted more new inflows last year, the total stock of foreign investment in the U.S. remains much larger, reflecting the decades it has spent as the most attractive location for foreign businesses looking to expand outside their home markets.

Foreign investment in the U.S. peaked in 2016 at $472 billion, when foreign investment in China was $134 billion. Since then, investment in China has continued to rise, while in the U.S. it has fallen each year since 2017.

The Trump administration encouraged American companies to leave China and re-establish operations in the U.S. It also put Chinese investors on notice that acquisitions in the U.S. would face new scrutiny on national security grounds—cooling Chinese interest in American deal making.

In 2020, the Washington Post reported:

The federal retirement fund is about to invest in China. Some former U.S. military leaders object.

National security adviser Gen. James Jones watches as President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak hold a joint press availability in the Rose Garden at the White House in 2009.

National security adviser Gen. James Jones watches as President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak hold a joint press availability in the Rose Garden at the White House in 2009. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

By Eric Yoder

The retirement savings program for federal and military personnel is preparing to more than double the number of countries represented in its investment fund that tracks international stock markets.

One of the countries to be added is China — and that’s a problem for some people.

Eight former senior military leaders have issued an open letter seeking to prevent the change, which is set to take effect in the second half of this year. The letter has rekindled a controversy that has flared several times since the Thrift Savings Plan first committed to broadening its international stock fund, called the I Fund.

The result, the letter said, will be that a portion of money in the fund will be invested in Chinese companies including “weapons manufacturers, U.S.-sanctioned entities and other malevolent enterprises of the Chinese Communist Party.”

“It is especially intolerable to those of us who have proudly served the Nation in uniform that our retirement investments will help its enemies threaten our comrades-in-arms and the country we love,” said the letter, whose signers include two former White House national security advisers, retired Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones and retired Navy Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter.

The letter was released in coordination with the Committee on the Present Danger: China, which defines its mission as “to educate and inform American citizens and policymakers about the existential threats presented from the Peoples Republic of China under the misrule of the Chinese Communist Party.” The group, a successor to similarly named Cold War-era organizations, was reconstituted last year by Stephen K. Bannon, former chief strategist to President Trump, and others who hold hawkish views on China.

The letter was meant to draw the attention of current military leaders, Trump, Congress and TSP investors, said Frank Gaffney Jr., vice chairman of the group, in a phone interview.

02/19/21

Biden Ends ‘Remain in Mexico’, 25,000 Migrants Coming to U.S.

By: Denise Simon | Founders Code

The plan offers one of the fastest pathways to citizenship of any proposed measure in recent years, it does so without offering any enhanced border security, which past immigration negotiations have used as a way to win Republican votes. Without enhanced security, it faces tough odds in a closely divided Congress.

The migrants are first in line to receive the COVID vaccine and the Biden immigration plan has no real chance to pass except in a comprehensive form. The president’s Executive Orders on immigration are forcing other measures. ICE is not prepared and neither is the Border Patrol. Further, schools, the medical systems, housing, transportation, and general employment are not prepared either. So, big taxpayer money will go to refugee resettlement along with free legal assistance to the migrant population. The plan includes $4 billion spread over four years to try to boost economic development and tackle corruption in Latin American countries.

Joe Biden's immigration reform plans must address enforcement

While the number of 11 million illegals has been broadcasted for years, that is hardly the real number. No one really knows how many are here, but various estimates from studies and agency reviews report the real number is closer to 20 million and could be as high as 30 million.

Meanwhile, there are no foreign policy discussions or plans to solve the issues in the failing countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, or Guatemala to list a few. We are just throwing money at those countries.

Biden's work cut out for him in plan to undo Trump ...

The first real mission is to challenge the exact number of how many illegals are in the United States and what the cost will be to taxpayers before any immigration legislation can move through Congress.

Biden’s plan includes the following:

  • An 8-year pathway to citizenship.
  • Immediate green cards for agriculture workers.
  • Green cards for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
  • No additional money for Border Patrol.
  • $4 billion over 4 years to confront corruption and foster prosperity (whatever that is).
  • Three years to apply for citizenship.
  • Re-unify children separated from parents (about 400 and most entered with mules and not parents as proven by DNA).
  • Reduce the time for citizenship from 13 years to 8 years.
  • Domestic arrests of illegals for criminal activity will require a phone call to Washington to get approval before the arrest.
  • Green cards for family members, how far within the family unit is unclear.
  • Changing word use including no more applying ‘alien’.
  • No consideration for visa over-stays or for E-Verify.
  • Increase diversity visas.

The Biden White House has posted an Immigration Bill Fact sheet.

In part it includes:

  • Promote immigrant and refugee integration and citizenship. The bill provides new funding to state and local governments, private organizations, educational institutions, community-based organizations, and not-for-profit organizations to expand programs to promote integration and inclusion, increase English-language instruction, and provide assistance to individuals seeking to become citizens.
  • Grow our economy. This bill clears employment-based visa backlogs, recaptures unused visas, reduces lengthy wait times, and eliminates per-country visa caps. The bill makes it easier for graduates of U.S. universities with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the United States; improves access to green cards for workers in lower-wage sectors; and eliminates other unnecessary hurdles for employment-based green cards. The bill provides dependents of H-1B visa holders work authorization, and children are prevented from “aging out” of the system. The bill also creates a pilot program to stimulate regional economic development, gives DHS the authority to adjust green cards based on macroeconomic conditions, and incentivizes higher wages for non-immigrant, high-skilled visas to prevent unfair competition with American workers.

Grow the economy? Overload schools where many of them are not open?

  • Manage the border and protect border communities.  The bill provides funding for training and continuing education to promote agent and officer safety and professionalism. It also creates a Border Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee, provides more special agents at the DHS Office of Professional Responsibility to investigate criminal and administrative misconduct, and requires the issuance of department-wide policies governing the use of force. The bill directs the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the impact of DHS’s authority to waive environmental and state and federal laws to expedite the construction of barriers and roads near U.S. borders and provides for additional rescue beacons to prevent needless deaths along the border. The bill authorizes and provides funding for DHS, in coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and nongovernmental experts, to develop guidelines and protocols for standards of care for individuals, families, and children in CBP custody.

Manage Border Patrol? The real brain trust is already in the Border Patrol. Has President Joe even visited the border?

02/6/21

The Only Exhibit Trump Needs for the Senate Impeachment

By: Denise Simon | Founders Code

A big hat tip to Molly Ball for her work on this. This is a very long read. But you will cheat yourself if you don’t read the whole essay and take notes. If you really want to understand the players, the manual and the machine, the timelines and the money and most of all where the power was/is along with all that was mobilized, read on.

Image result for anita gupta biden

Anita Gupta has a long history beginning with Obama.

Warning: Anita Gupta now works for Biden at the Justice Department. It is remarkable how media and Democrat operatives are so aggressive in defending the election results. It actually comes down to exposure… have your pen and paper handy.

As Trump said, this can never happen again and there is little time left from now to the mid-term elections. When Mark Zuckerberg dishes out $400 million for election aid and when the federal government already has big money allocated for that, bigger questions surface. Did any of Zuckerburg’s money pay off judges?

Image result for 2020 election chaos

TIME: A weird thing happened right after the Nov. 3 election: nothing.

The nation was braced for chaos. Liberal groups had vowed to take to the streets, planning hundreds of protests across the country. Right-wing militias were girding for battle. In a poll before Election Day, 75% of Americans voiced concern about violence.

Instead, an eerie quiet descended. As President Trump refused to concede, the response was not mass action but crickets. When media organizations called the race for Joe Biden on Nov. 7, jubilation broke out instead, as people thronged cities across the U.S. to celebrate the democratic process that resulted in Trump’s ouster.

A second odd thing happened amid Trump’s attempts to reverse the result: corporate America turned on him. Hundreds of major business leaders, many of whom had backed Trump’s candidacy and supported his policies, called on him to concede. To the President, something felt amiss. “It was all very, very strange,” Trump said on Dec. 2. “Within days after the election, we witnessed an orchestrated effort to anoint the winner, even while many key states were still being counted.”

In a way, Trump was right.

Image result for us chamber of commerce

There was a conspiracy unfolding behind the scenes, one that both curtailed the protests and coordinated the resistance from CEOs. Both surprises were the result of an informal alliance between left-wing activists and business titans. The pact was formalized in a terse, little-noticed joint statement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO published on Election Day. Both sides would come to see it as a sort of implicit bargain–inspired by the summer’s massive, sometimes destructive racial-justice protests–in which the forces of labor came together with the forces of capital to keep the peace and oppose Trump’s assault on democracy.

The handshake between business and labor was just one component of a vast, cross-partisan campaign to protect the election–an extraordinary shadow effort dedicated not to winning the vote but to ensuring it would be free and fair, credible and uncorrupted. For more than a year, a loosely organized coalition of operatives scrambled to shore up America’s institutions as they came under simultaneous attack from a remorseless pandemic and an autocratically inclined President. Though much of this activity took place on the left, it was separate from the Biden campaign and crossed ideological lines, with crucial contributions by nonpartisan and conservative actors. The scenario the shadow campaigners were desperate to stop was not a Trump victory. It was an election so calamitous that no result could be discerned at all, a failure of the central act of democratic self-governance that has been a hallmark of America since its founding.

Their work touched every aspect of the election. They got states to change voting systems and laws and helped secure hundreds of millions in public and private funding. They fended off voter-suppression lawsuits, recruited armies of poll workers and got millions of people to vote by mail for the first time. They successfully pressured social media companies to take a harder line against disinformation and used data-driven strategies to fight viral smears. They executed national public-awareness campaigns that helped Americans understand how the vote count would unfold over days or weeks, preventing Trump’s conspiracy theories and false claims of victory from getting more traction. After Election Day, they monitored every pressure point to ensure that Trump could not overturn the result. “The untold story of the election is the thousands of people of both parties who accomplished the triumph of American democracy at its very foundation,” says Norm Eisen, a prominent lawyer and former Obama Administration official who recruited Republicans and Democrats to the board of the Voter Protection Program.

For Trump and his allies were running their own campaign to spoil the election. The President spent months insisting that mail ballots were a Democratic plot and the election would be “rigged.” His henchmen at the state level sought to block their use, while his lawyers brought dozens of spurious suits to make it more difficult to vote–an intensification of the GOP’s legacy of suppressive tactics. Before the election, Trump plotted to block a legitimate vote count. And he spent the months following Nov. 3 trying to steal the election he’d lost–with lawsuits and conspiracy theories, pressure on state and local officials, and finally summoning his army of supporters to the Jan. 6 rally that ended in deadly violence at the Capitol.

The democracy campaigners watched with alarm. “Every week, we felt like we were in a struggle to try to pull off this election without the country going through a real dangerous moment of unraveling,” says former GOP Representative Zach Wamp, a Trump supporter who helped coordinate a bipartisan election-protection council. “We can look back and say this thing went pretty well, but it was not at all clear in September and October that that was going to be the case.”

This is the inside story of the conspiracy to save the 2020 election, based on access to the group’s inner workings, never-before-seen documents and interviews with dozens of those involved from across the political spectrum. It is the story of an unprecedented, creative and determined campaign whose success also reveals how close the nation came to disaster. “Every attempt to interfere with the proper outcome of the election was defeated,” says Ian Bassin, co-founder of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan rule-of-law advocacy group. “But it’s massively important for the country to understand that it didn’t happen accidentally. The system didn’t work magically. Democracy is not self-executing.”

That’s why the participants want the secret history of the 2020 election told, even though it sounds like a paranoid fever dream–a well-funded cabal of powerful people, ranging across industries and ideologies, working together behind the scenes to influence perceptions, change rules and laws, steer media coverage and control the flow of information. They were not rigging the election; they were fortifying it. And they believe the public needs to understand the system’s fragility in order to ensure that democracy in America endures.

THE ARCHITECT

Sometime in the fall of 2019, Mike Podhorzer became convinced the election was headed for disaster–and determined to protect it.

This was not his usual purview. For nearly a quarter-century, Podhorzer, senior adviser to the president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest union federation, has marshaled the latest tactics and data to help its favored candidates win elections. Unassuming and professorial, he isn’t the sort of hair-gelled “political strategist” who shows up on cable news. Among Democratic insiders, he’s known as the wizard behind some of the biggest advances in political technology in recent decades. A group of liberal strategists he brought together in the early 2000s led to the creation of the Analyst Institute, a secretive firm that applies scientific methods to political campaigns. He was also involved in the founding of Catalist, the flagship progressive data company.

The endless chatter in Washington about “political strategy,” Podhorzer believes, has little to do with how change really gets made. “My basic take on politics is that it’s all pretty obvious if you don’t overthink it or swallow the prevailing frameworks whole,” he once wrote. “After that, just relentlessly identify your assumptions and challenge them.” Podhorzer applies that approach to everything: when he coached his now adult son’s Little League team in the D.C. suburbs, he trained the boys not to swing at most pitches–a tactic that infuriated both their and their opponents’ parents, but won the team a series of championships.

Trump’s election in 2016–credited in part to his unusual strength among the sort of blue collar white voters who once dominated the AFL-CIO–prompted Podhorzer to question his assumptions about voter behavior. He began circulating weekly number-crunching memos to a small circle of allies and hosting strategy sessions in D.C. But when he began to worry about the election itself, he didn’t want to seem paranoid. It was only after months of research that he introduced his concerns in his newsletter in October 2019. The usual tools of data, analytics and polling would not be sufficient in a situation where the President himself was trying to disrupt the election, he wrote. “Most of our planning takes us through Election Day,” he noted. “But, we are not prepared for the two most likely outcomes”–Trump losing and refusing to concede, and Trump winning the Electoral College (despite losing the popular vote) by corrupting the voting process in key states. “We desperately need to systematically ‘red-team’ this election so that we can anticipate and plan for the worst we know will be coming our way.”

It turned out Podhorzer wasn’t the only one thinking in these terms. He began to hear from others eager to join forces. The Fight Back Table, a coalition of “resistance” organizations, had begun scenario-planning around the potential for a contested election, gathering liberal activists at the local and national level into what they called the Democracy Defense Coalition. Voting-rights and civil rights organizations were raising alarms. A group of former elected officials was researching emergency powers they feared Trump might exploit. Protect Democracy was assembling a bipartisan election-crisis task force. “It turned out that once you said it out loud, people agreed,” Podhorzer says, “and it started building momentum.”

He spent months pondering scenarios and talking to experts. It wasn’t hard to find liberals who saw Trump as a dangerous dictator, but Podhorzer was careful to steer clear of hysteria. What he wanted to know was not how American democracy was dying but how it might be kept alive. The chief difference between the U.S. and countries that lost their grip on democracy, he concluded, was that America’s decentralized election system couldn’t be rigged in one fell swoop. That presented an opportunity to shore it up.

THE ALLIANCE

On March 3, Podhorzer drafted a three-page confidential memo titled “Threats to the 2020 Election.” “Trump has made it clear that this will not be a fair election, and that he will reject anything but his own re-election as ‘fake’ and rigged,” he wrote. “On Nov. 3, should the media report otherwise, he will use the right-wing information system to establish his narrative and incite his supporters to protest.” The memo laid out four categories of challenges: attacks on voters, attacks on election administration, attacks on Trump’s political opponents and “efforts to reverse the results of the election.”

Then COVID-19 erupted at the height of the primary-election season. Normal methods of voting were no longer safe for voters or the mostly elderly volunteers who normally staff polling places. But political disagreements, intensified by Trump’s crusade against mail voting, prevented some states from making it easier to vote absentee and for jurisdictions to count those votes in a timely manner. Chaos ensued. Ohio shut down in-person voting for its primary, leading to minuscule turnout. A poll-worker shortage in Milwaukee–where Wisconsin’s heavily Democratic Black population is concentrated–left just five open polling places, down from 182. In New York, vote counting took more than a month.

Suddenly, the potential for a November meltdown was obvious. In his apartment in the D.C. suburbs, Podhorzer began working from his laptop at his kitchen table, holding back-to-back Zoom meetings for hours a day with his network of contacts across the progressive universe: the labor movement; the institutional left, like Planned Parenthood and Greenpeace; resistance groups like Indivisible and MoveOn; progressive data geeks and strategists, representatives of donors and foundations, state-level grassroots organizers, racial-justice activists and others.

In April, Podhorzer began hosting a weekly 2½-hour Zoom. It was structured around a series of rapid-fire five-minute presentations on everything from which ads were working to messaging to legal strategy. The invitation-only gatherings soon attracted hundreds, creating a rare shared base of knowledge for the fractious progressive movement. “At the risk of talking trash about the left, there’s not a lot of good information sharing,” says Anat Shenker-Osorio, a close Podhorzer friend whose poll-tested messaging guidance shaped the group’s approach. “There’s a lot of not-invented-here syndrome, where people won’t consider a good idea if they didn’t come up with it.”

The meetings became the galactic center for a constellation of operatives across the left who shared overlapping goals but didn’t usually work in concert. The group had no name, no leaders and no hierarchy, but it kept the disparate actors in sync. “Pod played a critical behind-the-scenes role in keeping different pieces of the movement infrastructure in communication and aligned,” says Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party. “You have the litigation space, the organizing space, the political people just focused on the W, and their strategies aren’t always aligned. He allowed this ecosystem to work together.”

Protecting the election would require an effort of unprecedented scale. As 2020 progressed, it stretched to Congress, Silicon Valley and the nation’s statehouses. It drew energy from the summer’s racial-justice protests, many of whose leaders were a key part of the liberal alliance. And eventually it reached across the aisle, into the world of Trump-skeptical Republicans appalled by his attacks on democracy.

SECURING THE VOTE

The first task was overhauling America’s balky election infrastructure–in the middle of a pandemic. For the thousands of local, mostly nonpartisan officials who administer elections, the most urgent need was money. They needed protective equipment like masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. They needed to pay for postcards letting people know they could vote absentee–or, in some states, to mail ballots to every voter. They needed additional staff and scanners to process ballots.

In March, activists appealed to Congress to steer COVID relief money to election administration. Led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, more than 150 organizations signed a letter to every member of Congress seeking $2 billion in election funding. It was somewhat successful: the CARES Act, passed later that month, contained $400 million in grants to state election administrators. But the next tranche of relief funding didn’t add to that number. It wasn’t going to be enough.

Private philanthropy stepped into the breach. An assortment of foundations contributed tens of millions in election-administration funding. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative chipped in $300 million. “It was a failure at the federal level that 2,500 local election officials were forced to apply for philanthropic grants to fill their needs,” says Amber McReynolds, a former Denver election official who heads the nonpartisan National Vote at Home Institute.

McReynolds’ two-year-old organization became a clearinghouse for a nation struggling to adapt. The institute gave secretaries of state from both parties technical advice on everything from which vendors to use to how to locate drop boxes. Local officials are the most trusted sources of election information, but few can afford a press secretary, so the institute distributed communications tool kits. In a presentation to Podhorzer’s group, McReynolds detailed the importance of absentee ballots for shortening lines at polling places and preventing an election crisis.

The institute’s work helped 37 states and D.C. bolster mail voting. But it wouldn’t be worth much if people didn’t take advantage. Part of the challenge was logistical: each state has different rules for when and how ballots should be requested and returned. The Voter Participation Center, which in a normal year would have deployed canvassers door-to-door to get out the vote, instead conducted focus groups in April and May to find out what would get people to vote by mail. In August and September, it sent ballot applications to 15 million people in key states, 4.6 million of whom returned them. In mailings and digital ads, the group urged people not to wait for Election Day. “All the work we have done for 17 years was built for this moment of bringing democracy to people’s doorsteps,” says Tom Lopach, the center’s CEO.

The effort had to overcome heightened skepticism in some communities. Many Black voters preferred to exercise their franchise in person or didn’t trust the mail. National civil rights groups worked with local organizations to get the word out that this was the best way to ensure one’s vote was counted. In Philadelphia, for example, advocates distributed “voting safety kits” containing masks, hand sanitizer and informational brochures. “We had to get the message out that this is safe, reliable, and you can trust it,” says Hannah Fried of All Voting Is Local.

At the same time, Democratic lawyers battled a historic tide of pre-election litigation. The pandemic intensified the parties’ usual tangling in the courts. But the lawyers noticed something else as well. “The litigation brought by the Trump campaign, of a piece with the broader campaign to sow doubt about mail voting, was making novel claims and using theories no court has ever accepted,” says Wendy Weiser, a voting-rights expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU. “They read more like lawsuits designed to send a message rather than achieve a legal outcome.”

In the end, nearly half the electorate cast ballots by mail in 2020, practically a revolution in how people vote. About a quarter voted early in person. Only a quarter of voters cast their ballots the traditional way: in person on Election Day.

THE DISINFORMATION DEFENSE

Bad actors spreading false information is nothing new. For decades, campaigns have grappled with everything from anonymous calls claiming the election has been rescheduled to fliers spreading nasty smears about candidates’ families. But Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories, the viral force of social media and the involvement of foreign meddlers made disinformation a broader, deeper threat to the 2020 vote.

Laura Quinn, a veteran progressive operative who co-founded Catalist, began studying this problem a few years ago. She piloted a nameless, secret project, which she has never before publicly discussed, that tracked disinformation online and tried to figure out how to combat it. One component was tracking dangerous lies that might otherwise spread unnoticed. Researchers then provided information to campaigners or the media to track down the sources and expose them.

The most important takeaway from Quinn’s research, however, was that engaging with toxic content only made it worse. “When you get attacked, the instinct is to push back, call it out, say, ‘This isn’t true,’” Quinn says. “But the more engagement something gets, the more the platforms boost it. The algorithm reads that as, ‘Oh, this is popular; people want more of it.’”

The solution, she concluded, was to pressure platforms to enforce their rules, both by removing content or accounts that spread disinformation and by more aggressively policing it in the first place. “The platforms have policies against certain types of malign behavior, but they haven’t been enforcing them,” she says.

Quinn’s research gave ammunition to advocates pushing social media platforms to take a harder line. In November 2019, Mark Zuckerberg invited nine civil rights leaders to dinner at his home, where they warned him about the danger of the election-related falsehoods that were already spreading unchecked. “It took pushing, urging, conversations, brainstorming, all of that to get to a place where we ended up with more rigorous rules and enforcement,” says Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who attended the dinner and also met with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and others. (Gupta has been nominated for Associate Attorney General by President Biden.) “It was a struggle, but we got to the point where they understood the problem. Was it enough? Probably not. Was it later than we wanted? Yes. But it was really important, given the level of official disinformation, that they had those rules in place and were tagging things and taking them down.”

SPREADING THE WORD

Beyond battling bad information, there was a need to explain a rapidly changing election process. It was crucial for voters to understand that despite what Trump was saying, mail-in votes weren’t susceptible to fraud and that it would be normal if some states weren’t finished counting votes on election night.

Dick Gephardt, the Democratic former House leader turned high-powered lobbyist, spearheaded one coalition. “We wanted to get a really bipartisan group of former elected officials, Cabinet secretaries, military leaders and so on, aimed mainly at messaging to the public but also speaking to local officials–the secretaries of state, attorneys general, governors who would be in the eye of the storm–to let them know we wanted to help,” says Gephardt, who worked his contacts in the private sector to put $20 million behind the effort.

02/5/21

Sitting on Billions, the Catholic Church Got $3 Billion in PPP Taxpayer Money

By: Denise Simon | Founders Code

The irony and fraud here are unspeakable. Keep in mind, that many Catholic churches have private schools that are open. Will there be a clawback effort at all as you read on?

AP:

When the coronavirus forced churches to close their doors and give up Sunday collections, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte turned to the federal government’s signature small business relief program for more than $8 million.

The diocese’s headquarters, churches, and schools landed the help even though they had roughly $100 million of their own cash and short-term investments available last spring, financial records show. When the cash catastrophe church leaders feared didn’t materialize, those assets topped $110 million by the summer.

“I am gratified to report the overall good financial health of the diocese despite the many difficulties presented by the Covid-19 pandemic,” Bishop Peter Jugis wrote in the diocese’s audited financial report released last fall.

As the pandemic began to unfold, scores of Catholic dioceses across the U.S. received aid through the Paycheck Protection Program while sitting on well over $10 billion in cash, short-term investments, or other available funds, an Associated Press investigation has found. And despite the broad economic downturn, these assets have grown in many dioceses.

Yet even with that financial safety net, the 112 dioceses that shared their financial statements, along with the churches and schools they oversee, collected at least $1.5 billion in taxpayer-backed aid. A majority of these dioceses reported enough money on hand to cover at least six months of operating expenses, even without any new income.

The financial resources of several dioceses rivaled or exceeded those available to publicly traded companies like Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris Steak House, whose early participation in the program triggered outrage. Federal officials responded by emphasizing the money was intended for those who lacked the cushion that cash and other liquidity provide. Many corporations returned the funds.

Overall, the nation’s nearly 200 dioceses, where bishops and cardinals govern, and other Catholic institutions received at least $3 billion. That makes the Roman Catholic Church perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the paycheck program, according to AP’s analysis of data the U.S. Small Business Administration released following a public-records lawsuit by news organizations. The agency for months had shared only partial information, making a more precise analysis impossible.

Already one of the largest federal aid efforts ever, the SBA reopened the Paycheck Protection Program last month with a new infusion of nearly $300 billion. In making the announcement, the agency’s administrator at the time, Jovita Carranza, hailed the program for serving “as an economic lifeline to millions of small businesses.”

Church officials have said their employees were as worthy of help as workers at Main Street businesses, and that without it they would have had to slash jobs and curtail their charitable mission as demand for food pantries and social services spiked. They point out the program’s rules didn’t require them to exhaust their stores of cash and other funds before applying.

But new financial statements several dozen dioceses have posted for 2020 show that their available resources remained robust or improved during the pandemic’s hard, early months. The pattern held whether a diocese was big or small, urban or rural, East or West, North or South.

In Kentucky, funds available to the Archdiocese of Louisville, its parishes, and other organizations grew from at least $153 million to $157 million during the fiscal year that ended in June, AP found. Those same offices and organizations received at least $17 million in paycheck money. “The Archdiocese’s operations have not been significantly impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak,” according to its financial statement.

In Illinois, the Archdiocese of Chicago had more than $1 billion in cash and investments in its headquarters and cemetery division as of May, while the faithful continued to donate “more than expected,” according to a review by the independent ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service. Chicago’s parishes, schools, and ministries accumulated at least $77 million in paycheck protection funds.

Up the interstate from Charlotte in North Carolina, the Raleigh Diocese collected at least $11 million in aid. Yet during the fiscal year that ended in June, overall offerings were down just 5%, and the assets available to the diocese, its parishes, and schools increased by about $21 million to more than $170 million, AP found. In another measure of fiscal health, the diocese didn’t make an emergency draw on its $10 million line of credit.

Catholic leaders in dioceses including Charlotte, Chicago, Louisville, and Raleigh said their parishes and schools, like many other businesses and nonprofits, suffered financially when they closed to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Some dioceses reported that their hardest-hit churches saw income drop by 40% or more before donations began to rebound months later, and schools took hits when fundraisers were canceled and families had trouble paying tuition. As revenues fell, dioceses said, wage cuts and a few dozen layoffs were necessary in some offices.

Catholic researchers at Georgetown University who surveyed the nation’s bishops last summer found such measures weren’t frequent. In comparison, a survey by the investment bank Goldman Sachs found 42% of small business owners had cut staff or salaries, and that 33% had spent their personal savings to stay open.

Church leaders have questioned why AP focused on their faith following a story last July when New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote that reporters “invented a story when none existed and sought to bash the Church.”

By using a special exemption that the church lobbied to include in the paycheck program, Catholic entities amassed at least $3 billion — roughly the same as the combined total of recipients from the other faiths that rounded out the top five, AP found. Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, and Jewish faith-based recipients also totaled at least $3 billion. Catholics account for about a fifth of the U.S. religious population while members of Protestant and Jewish denominations are nearly half, according to the Pew Research Center.

Catholic institutions also received many times more than other major nonprofits with charitable missions and national reach, such as the United Way, Goodwill Industries, and Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Overall, Catholic recipients got roughly twice as much as 40 of the largest, most well-known charities in America combined, AP found.

The complete picture is certainly even more lopsided. So many Catholic entities received help that reporters could not identify them all, even after spending hundreds of hours hand-checking tens of thousands of records in federal data.

The Vatican referred questions about the paycheck program to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which said it does not speak on behalf of dioceses.

Presented with AP’s findings, bishops conference spokeswoman Chieko Noguchi responded with a broad statement that the Paycheck Protection Program was “designed to protect the jobs of Americans from all walks of life, regardless of whether they work for for-profit or nonprofit employers, faith-based or secular.”

___

INTERNAL SKEPTICISM

The AP’s assessment of church finances is among the most comprehensive to date. It draws largely from audited financial statements posted online by the central offices of 112 of the country’s nearly 200 dioceses.

The church isn’t required to share its financials. As a result, the analysis doesn’t include cash, short-term assets, and lines of credit held by some of the largest dioceses, including those serving New York City and other major metropolitan areas.

The analysis focused on available assets because federal officials cited those metrics when clarifying eligibility for the paycheck program. Therefore, the $10 billion AP identified doesn’t count important financial pillars of the U.S. church. Among those are its thousands of real estate properties and most of the funds that parishes and schools hold. Also excluded is the money — estimated at $9.5 billion in a 2019 study by the Delaware-based wealth management firm Wilmington Trust — held by charitable foundations created to help dioceses oversee donations.

In addition, dioceses can rely on a well-funded support system that includes help from wealthier dioceses, the bishops conference, and other Catholic organizations. Canon law, the legal code the Vatican uses to govern the global church, notes that richer dioceses may assist poorer ones, and the AP found instances where they did.

In their financial statements, the 112 dioceses acknowledged having at least $4.5 billion in liquid or otherwise available assets. To reach its $10 billion total, AP also included funding that dioceses had opted to designate for special projects instead of general expenses; excess cash that parishes and their affiliates deposit with their diocese’s savings and loan; and lines of credit dioceses typically have with outside banks.

Some church officials said AP was misreading their financial books and therefore overstating available assets. They insisted that money their bishop or his advisers had set aside for special projects couldn’t be repurposed during an emergency, although financial statements posted by multiple dioceses stated the opposite.

For its analysis, AP consulted experts in church finance and church law. One was the Rev. James Connell, an accountant for 15 years before joining the priesthood and becoming an administrator in the Milwaukee Archdiocese. Connell, also a canon lawyer who is now retired from his position with the archdiocese, said AP’s findings convinced him that Catholic entities did not need government aid — especially when thousands of small businesses were permanently closing.

“Was it want or need?” Connell asked. “Need must be present, not simply the want. Justice and love of neighbor must include the common good.”

Connell was not alone among the faithful concerned by the church’s pursuit of taxpayer money. Parishioners in several cities have questioned church leaders who received government money for Catholic schools they then closed.

Elsewhere, a pastor in a Western state told AP that he refused to apply even after diocesan officials repeatedly pressed him. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of his diocese’s policy against talking to reporters and concerns about possible retaliation.

The pastor had been saving, much like leaders of other parishes. When the pandemic hit, he used that money, trimmed expenses, and told his diocese’s central finance office that he had no plans to seek the aid. Administrators followed up several times, the pastor said, with one high-ranking official questioning why he was “leaving free money on the table.”

The pastor said he felt a “sound moral conviction” that the money was meant more for shops and restaurants that, without it, might close forever.

As the weeks passed last spring, the pastor said his church managed just fine. Parishioners were so happy with new online Masses and his other outreach initiatives, he said, they boosted their contributions beyond 2019 levels.

“We didn’t need it,” the pastor said, “and intentionally wanted to leave the money for those small business owners who did.”

WEATHERING A DOWNTURN

Months after the pandemic first walloped the economy, the 112 dioceses that release financial statements began sharing updates. Among the 47 dioceses that have thus far, the pandemic’s impact was far from crippling.

The 47 dioceses that have posted financials for the fiscal year that ended in June had a median 6% increase in the amount of cash, short-term investments, and other funds that they and their affiliates could use for unanticipated or general expenses, AP found. In all, 38 dioceses grew those resources, while nine reported declines.

Finances in Raleigh and 10 other dioceses that took government assistance were stable enough that they did not have to dip into millions they had available through outside lines of credit.

“This crisis has tested us,” Russell Elmayan, Raleigh’s chief financial officer, told the diocese’s magazine website in July, “but we are hopeful that the business acumen of our staff and lay counselors, together with the strategic financial reserves built over time, will help our parishes and schools continue to weather this unprecedented event.” Raleigh officials did not answer direct questions from AP.

The 47 dioceses acknowledged a smaller amount of readily available assets than AP counted, though by their own accounting that grew as well.

The improving financial outlook is due primarily to parishioners who found ways to continue donating and U.S. stock markets that were rebounding to new highs. But when the markets were first plunging, officials in several dioceses said, they had to stretch available assets because few experts were forecasting a rapid recovery.

In Louisville, Charlotte, and other dioceses, church leaders said they offered loans or grants to needy parishes and schools, or offset the monthly charges they assess their parishes. In Raleigh, for example, the headquarters used $3 million it had set aside for liability insurance and also tapped its internal deposit and loan fund.

Church officials added that the pandemic’s full toll will probably be seen in a year or two because some key sources of revenue are calculated based on income that parishes and schools generate.

“We believe that we will not know all of the long-term negative impacts on parish, school, and archdiocesan finances for some time,” Louisville Archdiocese spokeswoman Cecelia Price wrote in response to questions.

At the nine dioceses that recorded declines in liquid or other short-term assets, the drops typically were less than 10%, and not always clearly tied to the pandemic.

The financial wherewithal of some larger dioceses is underscored by the fact that, like publicly traded companies, they can raise capital by selling bonds to investors.

One was Chicago, where analysts with the Moody’s ratings agency calculated that the $1 billion in cash and investments held by the archdiocese headquarters and cemeteries division could cover about 631 days of operating expenses.

Graphic shows excerpt from Moody’s Investors Service analysis of the Catholic Bishop of Chicago. (AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)

Graphic shows excerpt from Moody’s Investors Service analysis of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. (AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)

Church officials in Chicago asserted that those dollars were needed to cover substantial expenses while parishioner donations slumped. Without paycheck support, “parishes and schools would have been forced to cut many jobs, as the archdiocese, given its liabilities, could not have closed such a funding gap,” spokeswoman Paula Waters wrote.

Moody’s noted in its May report that while giving was down, federal aid had compensated for that and helped leave the archdiocese “well-positioned to weather this revenue loss over the next several months.” Among the reasons for the optimism: “a unique credit strength” that under church law allows the archbishop to tax parish revenue virtually at will.

In a separate Moody’s report on New Orleans, which filed for bankruptcy in May while facing multiple clergy abuse lawsuits, the ratings agency wrote in July that the archdiocese did so while having “significant financial reserves, with spendable cash and investments of over $160 million.”

Moody’s said the archdiocese’s “very good” liquid assets would let it operate 336 days without additional income. Those assets prompted clergy abuse victims to ask a federal judge to dismiss the bankruptcy filing, arguing the archdiocese’s primary reason for seeking the legal protection was to minimize payouts to them.

The archdiocese, along with its parishes and schools, collected more than $26 million in paycheck money. New Orleans Archdiocesan officials didn’t respond to written questions.

PURSUING AID

Without special treatment, the Catholic Church would not have received nearly so much under the Paycheck Protection Program.

After Congress let nonprofits and religious organizations participate in the first place, Catholic officials lobbied the Trump Administration for a second break. Religious organizations were freed from the so-called affiliation rule that typically disqualifies applicants with more than 500 workers.

Without that break, many dioceses would have missed out because — between their head offices, parishes, schools, and other affiliates — their employee count would exceed the limit.

Among those lobbying, federal records show, was the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Parishes, schools, and ministries there collected at least $80 million in paycheck aid, at a time when the headquarters reported $658 million in available funds heading into the fiscal year when the coronavirus arrived.

Catholic officials in the U.S. needed the special exception for at least two reasons.

Church law says dioceses, parishes, and schools are affiliated, something the Los Angeles Archdiocese acknowledged “proved to be an obstacle” to receiving funds because its parishes operate “under the authority of the diocesan bishop.” Dioceses, parishes, schools, and other Catholic entities also routinely assert to the Internal Revenue Service that they are affiliated so they can maintain their federal income tax exemption.

While some Catholic officials insisted their affiliates are separate and financially independent, AP found many instances of borrowing and spending among them when dioceses were faced with prior cash crunches. In Philadelphia, for example, the archdiocese received at least $18 million from three affiliates, including a seminary, to fund a compensation program for clergy sex abuse survivors, according to 2019 financial statements.

Cardinals and bishops have broad authority over parishes and the pastors who run them. Church law requires parishes to submit annual financial reports and bishops may require parishes to deposit surplus money with internal banks administered by the diocese.

“The parishioners cannot hire or fire the pastor; that is for the bishop to do,” said Connell, the priest, former accountant, and canon lawyer. “Each parish functions as a wholly-owned subsidiary or division of a larger corporation, the diocese.”

Bishops acknowledged a concerted effort to tap paycheck funds in a survey by Catholic researchers at Georgetown University. When asked what they had done to address the pandemic’s financial fallout, 95% said their central offices helped parishes apply for paycheck and other aid — the leading response. That topped encouraging parishioners to donate electronically.

After Congress approved the paycheck program, three high-ranking officials in New Hampshire’s Manchester Diocese sent an urgent memo to parishes, schools, and affiliated organizations urging them to refrain from layoffs or furloughs until completing their applications. “We are all in this together,” the memo read, adding that diocesan officials were working expeditiously to provide “step by step instructions.”

Paycheck Protection Program funds came through low-interest bank loans, worth up to $10 million each, that the federal government would forgive so long as recipients used the money to cover about two months of wages and operating expenses.

After an initial $659 billion last spring, Congress added another $284 billion in December. With the renewal came new requirements intended to ensure that funds go to businesses that lost money due to the pandemic. Lawmakers also downsized the headcount for applicants to 300 or fewer employees.

A QUESTION OF NEED

In other federal small business loan programs, government help is treated as a last resort.

Applicants must show they couldn’t get credit elsewhere. And those with enough available funds must pay more of their own way to reduce taxpayer subsidies.

Congress didn’t include these tests in the Paycheck Protection Program. To speed approvals, lenders weren’t required to do their usual screening and instead relied on applicants’ self-certifications of need.

The looser standards helped create a run on the first $349 billion in paycheck funding. Small business owners complained that they were shut out, yet dozens of companies healthy enough to be traded on stock exchanges scored quick approval.

As blowback built in April, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned at a news briefing that there would be “severe consequences” for applicants who improperly tapped the program.

“We want to make sure this money is available to small businesses that need it, people who have invested their entire life savings,” Mnuchin said. Program guidelines evolved to stress that participants with access to significant cash probably could not get the assistance “in good faith.”

Mnuchin’s Treasury Department said it would audit loans exceeding $2 million, although federal officials have not said whether they would hold religious organizations and other nonprofits to the same standard of need as businesses.

Graphic shows excerpt from a U.S. Department of the Treasury Paycheck Protection Program FAQ document. (AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)

The headquarters and major departments for more than 40 dioceses received more than $2 million. Every diocese that responded to questions said it would seek to have the government cover the loans, rather than repay the funds.

One diocese receiving a loan of over $2 million was Boston. According to the archdiocese’s website, its central ministries office received about $3 million, while its parishes and schools collected about $32 million more.

The archdiocese — along with its parishes, schools, and cemeteries — had roughly $200 million in available funds in June 2019, according to its audited financial report. When that fiscal year ended several months into the pandemic, available funds had increased to roughly $233 million.

Nevertheless, spokesman Terrence Donilon cited “ongoing economic pressure” in saying the archdiocese will seek forgiveness for last year’s loans and will apply for additional, new funds during the current round.

Beyond its growing available funds, the archdiocese and its affiliates benefit from other sources of funding. The archdiocese’s “Inspiring Hope” campaign, announced in January, has raised at least $150 million.

And one of its supporting charities — the Catholic Schools Foundation, where Cardinal Sean O’Malley is board chairman — counted more than $33 million in cash and other funds that could be “used for general operations” as of the beginning of the 2020 fiscal year, according to its financial statement.

Despite these resources, the archdiocese closed a half-dozen schools in May and June, often citing revenue losses due to the pandemic. Paycheck protection data show four of those schools collectively were approved for more than $700,000.

The shuttered schools included St. Francis of Assisi in Braintree, a middle-class enclave 10 miles south of Boston, which received $210,000. Parents said they felt blindsided by the closure, announced in June as classes ended.

“It’s like a punch to the gut because that was such a home for so many people for so long,” said Kate Nedelman Herbst, the mother of two children who attended the elementary school.

Along with more than 2,000 other school supporters, Herbst signed a written protest to O’Malley that noted the archdiocese’s robust finances. After O’Malley didn’t reply, parents appealed to the Vatican, this time underscoring the collection of Paycheck Protection Program money.

“It is very hard to reconcile the large sums of money raised by the archdiocese in recent years with this wholesale destruction of the church’s educational infrastructure,” parents wrote.

In December, the Vatican turned down their request to overrule O’Malley. Spokesman Donilon said the decision to close the school “is not being reconsidered.”

Today, the three children of Michael Waterman and his wife, Jeanine, are learning at home. And they still can’t understand why the archdiocese didn’t shift money to help save a school beloved by the faithful.

“What angers us,” Michael Waterman said, “is that we feel like, given the amount of money that the Catholic Church has, they absolutely could have remained open.”

02/5/21

Is Biden on the Path to Terminate Space Exploration and Space Force?

By: Denise Simon | Founders Code

White House spokesperson, Jen Psaki, gave a snarky reply when asked a question about the Space Force. Psaki responded she had no idea who the Space Force point of contact was and later added that Space Force had the full support of President Biden. Exactly how would she know? Jen Psaki later had to issue a circle back tweet:

In part: WASHINGTON In a new strategic vision, Gen. James Dickinson outlines the truths and tasks U.S. Space Command must adopt in order to maintain American space supremacy.

The breezy eight-page document reaffirms the incredible value space provides to the nation’s economy and military, but warns of the growing threat posed by anti-satellite weapons being developed by China and Russia. Throughout the Trump administration’s term, officials frequently cited the development and testing of anti-satellite weapons as a justification for the establishment of both Space Command and the U.S. Space Force, blaming China and Russia for bringing to space the potential for conflict and war.

  • Space is a vital interest that is integral to the American way of life and national security.
  • Space superiority enables the joint force to rapidly transition from competition to conflict and prevail in a global, all-domain fight.
  • Space war fighters generate the combat power to win in space.
  • Space provides the war fighter a combat advantage from the ultimate high ground to the last tactical mile.

President Joe Biden is making his space policy preferences increasingly clear: America will remain grounded for the time being.

On Jan. 28, SpaceX was set to put its Starship rocket through another test in the blue skies above Texas. The objective of the test was to get the massive rocket up to 12.5 kilometers — about seven miles — above the Earth and then spin the giant rocket around so that it could make a vertical landing.The First U.S. Space Force Launch Is This Afternoon ...

Sadly, the visionary goal of getting Americans to Mars first came crashing down when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which, under the Trump administration had allowed for SpaceX to conduct their important test flights, ordered Mr. Musk to cancel the Starship prototype test.

The FAA did not cite its reasoning behind ordering the cancellation of the launch. Many have speculated that the cancellation was brought about due to safety concerns. After all, in December 2020, SpaceX did a test of the experimental rocket. The Starship prototype made it to a height of 41,000 feet. Once it reoriented itself, in order to allow for the rocket to land vertically, the great silver spacecraft promptly did a bellyflop that ended in a massive explosion.

Despite this, SpaceX learned many valuable lessons from the December failure that were to be applied to the Starship launch in January. In science, the only lasting failure occurs when one does not test a new idea or hypothesis. This axiom is especially true in the context of the new space race between the United States and China.

It’s likely that the FAA’s decision to cancel the launch is part of a wider Biden administration effort undo the Trump administration’s vibrant space policy. Plus, former President Trump’s space vision was explicitly aimed at countering advances made by China in space. It is unlikely that the Biden administration seeks to continue that policy, as the Biden team attempts to stabilize deteriorating relations with Beijing over the next few years.

Concern over Mr. Musk’s Martian intentions is likely another factor for the FAA’s cancellation of the Starship launch. Last year, Mr. Musk indicated that any future SpaceX Martian colony would not be “ruled by Earth-based laws.” The problem for Mr. Musk is that SpaceX has been awarded lucrative contracts by the Earth-based U.S. government. If SpaceX were to create a colony on Mars, because of the company’s contractual relationship with the U.S. government, Washington very much expects that colony to be an American endeavor.

Lastly, Mr. Musk has been publicly supportive of the recent “GameStonk” controversy. A group of anonymous, individual investors on Reddit decided to engage in a little activism by inflating the stock price of Gamestop, a video game retailer. Melvin Capital, a storied Wall Street investment firm, was forced into bankruptcy by this move (they took the other side of the bet, attempting to short the Gamestop stock).

The “GameStonk” event was so significant that the Biden administration is vowing to prevent something similar from happening again. Congress is even getting involved. Because of Mr. Musk’s prestige and his vocal support for the Redditors who helped to take down Melvin Capital, it is possible that the Biden administration was punishing Mr. Musk by canceling the Starship launch at the last minute.

It is not only Mr. Musk who suffers from the FAA’s cancellation of the SpaceX test flight. We, the American people — and the entire effort to beat China to Mars — suffer. The Biden administration’s decision to increase regulations on the private space launch services sector and slow down their operations, as evidenced by the recent Starship launch cancellation, will only help China in its ongoing mission to defeat America in the new space race. More here.

.Earth calling: SpaceX capsule carrying NASA crew to land ...

Musk, 49, is widely heralded for disrupting the auto industry with high-performance electric cars and upending Big Aerospace with reusable rockets.

His companies are growing: Tesla is building new factories in Berlin and in Austin, Texas, while SpaceX — which has contracts with the Air Force and NASA — is rolling out Starlink, its high-speed Internet service, to rural and remote customers across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. There’s also Boring Co., his tunnel-construction business, and Neuralink, which is testing its brain-machine interface device on monkeys and pigs and hopes to begin human trials this year. More here.

02/4/21

US Seeks Forfeiture of the Oil from IRGC Tanker

By: Denise Simon | Founders Code

A civil forfeiture complaint is merely an allegation. The United States bears the burden of proving that the oil in question is subject to forfeiture in a civil forfeiture proceeding. Funds successfully forfeited with a connection to a state sponsor of terrorism may in whole or in part be directed to the United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund (http://www.usvsst.com/) after the conclusion of the case.

NEW YORK – The United States filed a forfeiture complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia alleging that all oil aboard a Liberian-flagged vessel, the M/T Achilleas (Achilleas), is subject to forfeiture based on U.S. terrorism forfeiture laws. This investigation was led by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) New York and the FBI’s Minneapolis office.

U.S. Looks to Courts to Seize 2 Million Barrels of Alleged ...

The complaint alleges a scheme involving multiple entities affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the IRGC-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to covertly ship Iranian oil to a customer abroad. Participants in the scheme attempted to disguise the origin of the oil using ship-to-ship transfers, falsified documents, and other means and provided a fraudulent bill of lading to deceive the owners of the Achilleas into loading the oil in question.

The complaint alleges in part that the oil constitutes the property of, or a “source of influence” over, the IRGC and the IRGC-QF, both of which have been designated by the United States as foreign terrorist organizations. The documents allege that profits from oil sales support the IRGC’s full range of nefarious activities, including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, support for terrorism, and a variety of human rights abuses, at home and abroad.

“This latest civil forfeiture action exemplifies the remarkable work of this multi-agency task force that works tirelessly toward furthering our shared goal of protecting the homeland from regimes that threaten our national security,” said Special Agent in Charge Peter C. Fitzhugh for HSI New York. “This investigation sends a message that the attempted circumvention of U.S. sanctions by the IRGC-QF will not be tolerated. HSI will continue to work with our partners and utilize the full scope of our authorities to disrupt the attempts of hostile countries and regimes to generate profits from oil sales used to support terrorism and the proliferation and delivery of weapons of mass destruction.”

“Iran uses profits from its petroleum sector to fund the malign activities of the IRGC-QF, a designated terrorist group,” said Special Agent in Charge Michael F. Paul of the FBI’s Minneapolis Field Office. “The FBI will continue to prioritize the enforcement of sanctions, and we applaud the efforts of our agents and partners on this investigation.”

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia will continue working with our law enforcement partners to stem the flow of illicit oil from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Qods Force,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Michael R. Sherwin. “We will use all available tools, including our jurisdiction to seize and forfeit assets located abroad, to combat funding for terrorists and those who would do harm to the United States.”

“The forfeiture complaint filed today serves as a reminder that the IRGC and IRGC-QF continue to exert significant control over the sale of Iranian oil,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers for the National Security Division. “As we have demonstrated in the past, the department will deploy all tools at its disposal to ensure that the IRGC and IRGC-QF cannot use profits from the sale of Iranian oil to fund terrorism and other activities that threaten the safety and security of all Americans.”

A civil forfeiture complaint is merely an allegation. The United States bears the burden of proving that the oil in question is subject to forfeiture in a civil forfeiture proceeding. Funds successfully forfeited with a connection to a state sponsor of terrorism may in whole or in part be directed to the United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund after the conclusion of the case.

HSI New York and the FBI’s Minneapolis Field Office are leading the investigation of Iranian petroleum shipments. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael P. Grady and Brian P. Hudak of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and Trial Attorney David Lim of the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section of the National Security Division are prosecuting the case, with support from Paralegal Specialist Brian Rickers and Legal Assistant Jessica McCormick of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. The Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section’s Program Operations Staff of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division has provided extensive assistance throughout the investigation.

02/3/21

SecDef Austin Fires all Advisory Board Members

By: Denise Simon | Founders Code

Dismissed were hundreds of members of 42 Pentagon advisory boards. 42 separate advisory boards. Really?

Current members being told to step down are only those appointed by the Pentagon and not those appointed by the White House or Congress. For example, four people appointed by the Pentagon to a congressionally mandated commission on stripping the names of Confederate generals from military bases will be removed but others on that panel appointed by Congress will remain.

A review of all the boards, and whether they are still needed, will now be the focus before new members are named.

The 42 advisory boards cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year and some of their work is believed to be potentially redundant, which added to the need for the review.

The action effectively removes, for now, several hundred people serving on boards who advise on everything from defense policy, science, innovation, health issues, coastal engineering, sexual misconduct, diversity, and inclusion.

WASHINGTONDefense Secretary Lloyd Austin dismissed every member of the Pentagon’s policy advisory boards Monday, ousting last-minute Trump administration nominees as well as officials appointed by previous administrations.

Lloyd Austin Confirmed As 1st Black Pentagon Chief In U.S. History :  President Biden Takes Office : NPR

By removing every member, Mr. Austin avoided selectively firing those appointed by the Trump administration. The defense chief will name new members to each of the least a dozen boards in the coming weeks.

The move was foreshadowed last week when Mr. Austin suspended the onboarding process for Trump administration nominees to Pentagon advisory boards, effectively preventing them from being seated.

Mr. Austin’s directive last week applied to Trump nominees who were still in the security clearance process. Among those who were affected then were Corey Lewandowski, former President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign manager, and David Bossie, a former Trump deputy campaign manager, both of whom had been named to the Defense Business Board, an unpaid group that advises the defense secretary and other leaders on business practices.

Because of their potential access to classified information, it can take months for someone to get through the security clearance process and formally join a board. Mr. Austin’s directive last week suspended that process.

In the last weeks of the Trump administration, then acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller named at least a dozen supporters of President Trump to various Pentagon advisory boards.

Those included retired Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, who weeks earlier had been rejected by the Senate for consideration as the Pentagon’s top policy official, even as he served in that position since June in an acting capacity. Senators and some retired generals expressed concern over inflammatory tweets he made years ago on Islam, President Barack Obama and Democratic lawmakers.

The advisory boards, some of which date back to at least the 1950s, were intended to be bipartisan and offer a diversity of opinion to Pentagon leaders on potential policies.

Among those removed from policy boards by Mr. Miller were former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger, former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) and former Rep. Jane Harman (D., Calif.), a onetime senior Democrat on the House Intelligence committee.

02/2/21

Child Pornography Raid Leaves 2 FBI Agents Dead

By: Denise Simon | Founders Code

According to emergency radio dispatches, the incident began to unfold as law enforcement gathered at the scene before dawn.

Sometime past 6 a.m., fire rescue personnel got a report of shots being fired with multiple victims. Two minutes later, someone at the scene got on a police radio to report five shooting victims, including an agent shot in the leg.

Two FBI agents were killed being in dutie in Sunrise and ...

SUNRISE, Florida—Two FBI agents were killed Tuesday morning while serving a warrant at the home of a South Florida man suspected of possessing child pornography.

The officers killed were Special Agent Daniel Alfin, 36, and Special Agent Laura Schwartzenberger, 43, the FBI said on Tuesday afternoon. They died while “executing a federal court-ordered search warrant in a crimes against children investigation in Sunrise, Florida,” the feds said.

Three other agents were wounded, including two who were transported to a hospital in stable condition. The third agent did not need hospitalization, FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement. The suspect also died.

It’s the FBI’s deadliest day since 1994, when two agents were killed by a gunman inside Washington, D.C. police headquarters, according to the FBI’s Wall of Honor.

Special Agent Laura Schwartzenberger

CBS12

“Every day, the FBI Special Agents put themselves in harm’s way to keep American people safe,” Wray said, adding that the two agents “exemplified heroism today in defense of their country,” and that the “FBI will always honor their ultimate sacrifice and will be forever grateful for their bravery.”

FBI Agents Association President Brian O’Hare said in a statement to The Daily Beast, “These Agents were working to protect the most vulnerable in our society.”

The incident began at the Water Terrace apartment complex at around 6 a.m., a Sunrise Police spokesperson told The Daily Beast. When agents arrived, the suspect barricaded himself inside a unit.

Tiffany Walters, a 37-year-old resident at the apartment complex, told The Daily Beast she woke up around that time to a “loud bang” she initially thought was a car accident.

“After I heard sirens and eventually helicopters,” Walters said, adding that when she looked outside her window, she saw a helicopter fly away with what she believes was the FBI agent who was taken to the hospital.

By 9:04 a.m., authorities said the scene was deemed safe, but residents were still being asked to stay in their homes. Walters said at 9:15 a.m. she heard another loud bang, which she believes was associated with the suspect’s death.

“We’re still getting more information on what happened and we’ll have more to say, at a later date. We express our condolences,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a press briefing.

A review of federal court records shows Schwartzenberger, who joined the FBI in 2005, had worked on several cases involving child exploitation, sextortion, and the internet. In 2013, she was a member of the FBI’s South Florida Violent Crimes Fugitive Task Force and appears to have worked on cases involving armored car heists and bank robberies, among others.

News clips show she was active in raising awareness about cybersecurity and the threat of online sex crimes. She commented to local news outlets about sextortion scams and last February gave a lecture on cyber crimes at Rockaway Middle School.

Special Agent Dan Alfin, who joined the FBI in 2009, was a member of the bureau’s Violent Crimes Against Children division.

He was involved in Operation Pacifier, which took down Playpen, one of the largest child pornography networks on the dark web. Site operators masked Playpen’s location, users, and ownership using the Tor anonymity network. FBI agents managed to unmask the site and its visitors with an unknown hacking technique, leading to 350 arrests in the U.S., 548 arrests abroad, and the rescue and identification of nearly 350 children exploited as part of the dark web ring.

Court documents show that Alfin was one of a few FBI agents responsible for monitoring Playpen after the bureau was able to sidestep the Tor anonymity network’s encryption and identify the IP addresses of individual Playpen users. Prosecutors used Alfin’s testimony about the FBI’s hack of Playpen in several cases linked to the investigation.

“It’s the same with any criminal violation: As they get smarter, we adapt, we find them,” Alfin said in a 2017 FBI news release announcing the sentencing of the site’s founder. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game, except it’s not a game. Kids are being abused, and it’s our job to stop that.”

Last year, Alfin authored the criminal affidavit against former Miami mayoral aide Rene Pedrosa, who allegedly groped a teenage boy at City Hall and exchanged lewd photos.

John Young, a 74-year-old who lived close to Schwartzenberger in Coral Springs, said he always said hello to Schwartzenberger’s husband, Jason, and their two kids in the mornings on their way to school.

Young, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 33 years, said two months ago Schwartzenberger organized a block party for a homeowner who moved away. She also showered the new neighbor who moved in with warm greetings.

“Laura was a sharp lady and very friendly,” Young told The Daily Beast as he stood outside his two-story gray-brick home, among six houses with American flags in the front. “The lady who just moved in told me Laura came over with a bottle of wine and welcomed her.”

He thought Schwartzenberger was having a get together when he saw several cars parked in her driveway on Tuesday—then he turned on the news.

“For her to be killed serving a search warrant is a shock. It’s sickening,” he said. “I don’t understand why people say ‘defund the police.’ Law enforcement is a tough job. Now, you have a mom who’s not coming home tonight to see her kids.”

Police cars blocked the family’s cul-de-sac on Tuesday and a Coral Springs cop said, “The street is closed. Given it just happened, her family wants privacy at this time.”

According to its website, the Water Terrace apartment complex is an upscale gated community that houses a fitness center, spa, tennis courts, and a pool.

Andrew Solomon, a 31-year-old who just moved into the Water Terrace apartment complex, told The Daily Beast he woke up early for work on Tuesday morning to see “a helicopter flying over” the building. When he tried to leave, two Sunrise police officers were stopping residents, asking them to open their trunks.

Solomon said he was asleep when the shooting happened on the northwest side of the complex. Property managers sent around a “stay at home order” for all residents and he planned to leave work early to comply with the police order, he said.

“It is a real nice neighborhood [and] well kept around a pretty lake,” he added. “So it is surprising to hear something [like this] happened.”

Walters said the neighborhood, where she has lived for four years, is quiet. At first, her family thought the police presence might have been related to “folks from January 6th,” referring to the U.S. Capitol riot.

“Once I heard it was a police raid I knew it would be handled,” she said.

The FBI’s Inspection Division said the shooting is under investigation by the FBI’s Inspection Division.