The Slingshot Mid-Term Wrap: with a gooey satisfying filling of possible criminal prosecution

November 22, 2006 - 10:52 am

It would seem that America has had just about enough of rampant corporate corruption with little or no accountability. From Halliburton to Tom Delay, from sugar beets to Bob Ney, this sort of ridiculous, corporate-funded megalomania hasn’t been seen since the cocaine-fueled  1980s. Yet that did not stop so many Legislators from dipping their fingers into that sweet pot o’ honey.

It’s probably no surprise that the American people threw the bums out, as they say. But let’s take a look at a few of the more diabolical of characters in this farce we called the 109th Congress, and see why exactly some of them may have been forced to exit: stage extreme right.

John E. Sweeney (1998-2006)

This ex-congressman’s record is so pork-filled, he should have a Denny’s platter named after him. He was the seventh largest recipient of lobbyist contributions out of all 435 House Reps, and has voted as a stalwart against such basic, common-sense legislation as increasing fuel-efficiency standards. This was all in addition to his ties with sweatshops, domestic abuse, public indecency, DUI accusations and questionable use of public funds. An upstanding citizen, to say the least.

Conrad Burns (1988-2006)

A three-term senator, who brought home incredible pork projects to his district, Ex-Senator Conrad Burns has not only been labeled as one of the most powerful men in Washington, but he’s also been plagued by gaffe after gaffe.

Most notable of his naughtier moments were the kickbacks he received from Jack Abramoff and his clients. Between 2001 and 2005, Burns received over $192k from Native American tribes, looking for exemptions on gambling restrictions.  One glaring example was the Saginaw Chippewa case (more…)

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No more vague promises, please.

November 1, 2006 - 1:08 pm

There’s been a lot of talk recently about “reversing the pendulum” of corporate accountability by CEOs and the always on-queue VP Cheney. After all, where maligned businesses are ever held to task for their price gouging or general malfeasance, he is the defender of their right to escape unscathed.

Anyway, how exactly has this so-called pendulum been swinging in favor of corporate accountability and “overregulation” over the past 6 loooong years of an entirely GOP-ruled government? While we’ve been subjected to widespread bad faith insurance practices, a crumbling infrastructure and tax cuts for the trust fund brats, they’re telling us that this has been an overly regulation-friendly regime? Really? Well, they probably have a bridge to sell us in Brooklyn too.

It’s been clear now for months that there will soon be a full frontal assault on the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, an admittedly flawed piece of legislation (as is any), but which does serve to hold corporations accountable to their shareholders. After Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, UnitedHealth, et al., it seems only appropriate that some real action was started to protect small-time investors from megalomaniacal CEOs in their marbled executive washrooms. (more…)

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A hose by any other name…

October 27, 2006 - 11:44 am

Bait-and-switch is such a stale enticement that you’d think companies would have replaced it by now with some sort of improved, high-tech scam. But – surprise – some miserable outfits are still using the age-old con job, with a lot of help from the federal government, and individuals who trust their employers to treat them fairly are still falling for it.

How many times have you heard a friend say (s)he could make more money elsewhere but the pension was so good (s)he was going to stick it out, regardless of how many years it takes? You might have said it yourself, forfeiting today’s comfort for tomorrow’s security. Well guess what, you’re probably going to wind up uncomfortable and broke. 

One of the great underreported stories regards corporations cheating employees out of their pensions. Refusing to make the appropriate investments into employee investment funds – collectively underfunded to the tune of $450 billion in the private sector alone – some companies are essentially abandoning them, leaving employees and retirees who invested their own money without so much as a kiss good-bye.

In most advanced cultures this would be known as highway robbery. In the United States it’s known as business.

Here’s how this rip-off works. (more…)

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Continuing Katrina’s Disaster

February 10, 2006 - 3:27 pm

When all the various media raise a din over something, it’s worth looking around to see what’s happening quietly in background.  The recent remarks of Rev. Joseph Lowrey and former president Jimmy Carter at the funeral of Coretta Scott King catalyzed a storm of commentary, most of which emphasized the alleged affront to the current president. Yet both men also mentioned the twin disasters of hurricane Katrina — the storm itself, and the relief disaster — in their remarks, to little notice. Katrina survivors took to the streets this week, demanding more aid, also to little notice.

And next week the Senate is poised to continue the disaster quietly into its next phase, when it takes up the bill to create an asbestos trust fund. What does asbestos have to do with Katrina? According to the EPA, it’s likely there’s asbestos all over the place in the disaster area, which means returning evacuees risk exposure that could mean illness down the line. There’s already a “Katrina cough.” But the asbestos “reform” bill, backed by the White House, shuts out Katrina survivors if their cough develops into serious asbestos-related illness.

(more…)

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Categories: Civil Justice | Government | Corporate | Corruption

Between the Lines on “Law Suit Abuse”

January 31, 2006 - 3:50 pm

I can’t help but give the Senate Republicans credit for astounding message discipline, which was most recently on display at the press conference held by Senate Republican Leadership after their two-day planning retreat. Senator Mitch McConnel was particularly “on message” with his remarks about asbestos and “law suit abuse.” 

We are genuinely concerned about the lawsuit abuse in this country. Last session, as you know, we addressed that through class action reform, through bankruptcy reform, through gun manufacturers liability reform.

This year, as the leader has indicated, we plan to address the malpractice issue, which is a genuine problem confronting our country, not to mention the asbestos crisis, which has which produced a system under which many legitimately sick individuals are not being compensated, people who aren’t sick are being compensated, and the winners under the current system have clearly been the plaintiffs’ lawyers. So we intend to tackle that issue and hopefully bring about a

reform system that will allow those who are genuinely in need to be compensated and those who aren’t not to be able to enrich themselves at the expense of someone else.

McConnell was pretty much in lockstep with President Bush’s remarks on the subject earlier this month, during a trip to Michigan.

(more…)

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Categories: Civil Justice

“Drug Company Protection Act”

December 20, 2005 - 6:35 pm

The Alliance for Justice, Center for Justice and Democracy, Consumer Federation of America, Public Citizen, and US PIRG have sent a letter to the Hill opposing Frist’s scheme, calling it the “Drug Company Protection Act.”

The letter, quoted below the fold, clearly addresses another major policy objection to the legislation. It’s too broad. In fact, it’s a joke to think that this scheme was honestly intended as nothing more than an incentive for private sector vaccine development. It covers just about any conceivable medicine, at the unreviewable discretion of the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

When I say unreviewable, I’m not kidding: “No court of the United States, or of any State, shall have subject matter jurisdiction to review, whether by mandamus or otherwise, any action by the Secretary under this subsection.” [conference report 432]

As the NYT reports:

The provision would provide immunity from lawsuits to any company that made “countermeasures” - broadly defined as drugs, vaccines or medical devices - to protect Americans against pandemics, epidemics or biological attacks. It would give the secretary of health and human services authority to determine what constituted a pandemic or an epidemic.

Alliance for Justice et al. point out that this “reaches far beyond new pandemic drugs and vaccines, to include commonly used drugs like Tylenol and Advil.” It’s hard to understand the realy breadth of this immunity grant without reading the legislation yourself. Unfortunately, it’s a huge pdf, it’s not in a format that can be cut-and-pasted, and the provisions don’t start until page 423.

(more…)

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Categories: Government | Corruption

The Worthlessness of Frist’s Scheme

- 4:10 pm

Before going any further, I think I should review the problems with Frist’s PhRMA scheme.

There are process objections. Frist attached it to a Defense Department appropriation, where it’s both irrelevant and unlikely to be considered on the merits. It was attached in conference, contrary to rules preventing consideration of new material. And it was snuck into the conference report overnight, after Democrats had already signed off, and over their protest.

There are the justice objections. It subjects veterans and first responders to absurd health risks, and if provisions in the Biodefense legislation are invoked, could force unsafe medical treatments on anyone in the country. Bill Frist has a huge conflict of interest, owning stock in a number of companies that will be directly helped by the legislation. Other Senators with PhRMA stock will enjoy similar benefits. It denies citizens access to important medical information collected with taxpayer money. And if someone is injured by a drug company’s negligence, they are just screwed — the “compensation fund” that is supposedly going to be established doesn’t have any money in it.

Finally, there are the simple policy objections. The scheme, which is allegedly designed to provide PhRMA an incentive to produce vaccines, is unnecessary. There are already plenty of financial incentives to develop vaccines, and pharmaceutical manufacturers are already acting on them. Indeed, one of the few companies directly demanding immunity is a French company that’s already signed a government contract to develop an avian flu vaccine.

Drug companies are already investing in vaccines. They don’t need Frist’s handout.

San Francisco Chronicle:

The acquisition would give Novartis entry into the vaccines business, a sector that is drawing increased interest from big pharmaceutical firms. Chiron received the merger offer Wednesday night, after Novartis’ inspection of its books. Novartis, with a market capitalization of $114 billion compared with Chiron’s $8 billion, sells pharmaceuticals ranging from cancer to cardiovascular treatments, over-the-counter consumer health products, and generic drugs through its Sandoz division.

Reuters/Bloomberg:

Vaccines have traditionally been viewed as a low-growth, low-price business compared with mainstream therapeutic pharmaceuticals.

But the arrival of new technologies and a shake-out in the sector, which has seen a number of vaccine makers quit the business, is changing that perspective, and many industry experts now expect vaccines to show accelerated growth in coming years.

NorthJersey.com:

Merck said it will prioritize its research-and-development operations, focusing on nine specific areas: Alzheimer’s disease, atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, novel vaccines, obesity, targeted cancer therapies, pain and sleep disorders.

Four new vaccines were highlighted on Thursday: Gardasil, a cervical cancer vaccine - the first of its kind - which was submitted earlier this month to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for fast-track approval; Zostavax, an anti-shingles vaccine which an FDA panel said on Thursday works on users 60 and over; ProQuad, a multi-use vaccine for children, which Merck expects to market in Europe; and RotaTeq, a children’s vaccine that targets serious gastrointestinal ailments.

Margaret McGlynn, president of Merck’s vaccines operations, said worldwide sales of vaccines are expected to grow from $8 billion in 2004 to $18 billion in 2008, a market Merck plans to tap into.

MedAdNews has an incredibly thorough story on vaccines currently in the pipeline or ready for marketing:

The primary players in the vaccine market are GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Wyeth, and Sanofi-Aventis, which together make up more than 60% of the market share.

GlaxoSmithKline is expanding its vaccine capabilities through acquisitions. The company acquired ID Biomedical for $1.4 billion in September, making ID Biomedical a wholly owned subsidiary of GlaxoSmithKline…GlaxoSmithKline’s acquisition of ID Biomedical followed the company’s acquisition of Corixa (corixa.com) in April.

Merck is not lagging very far behind GlaxoSmithKline in the development of a potential blockbuster vaccine.

Sanofi-Aventis had two vaccines approved by FDA in 2005, most notably, Menactra.

The best-selling vaccine in 2004 was Prevnar, Wyeth’s (wyeth.com) vaccine to prevent invasive pneumococcal disease in infants and young children. The vaccine achieved sales of $1.05 billion last year. Wood Mackenzie analysts project that sales could reach $1.86 billion in 2009.

Despite whining from the drug manufacturers, it’s far from clear that liability concerns are in any way inhibiting vaccine development. Profitability concerns are particularly weak when dealing with vaccines for a seasonal illness, like the flu, that is transmittable through environmental contact. The demand and the money are both there.

But Sanofi-Aventis, in particular, has been insistant on the liability protections. While they seem quite optimistic about vaccine markets in communications with their stockholders, they’re a bit more circumspect when laying out their case to the government:

“Full liability protection is a requirement for our participation in the development and production of a pandemic vaccine,” said Len Lavenda, spokesman for Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccine-making unit of Sanofi-Aventis Group.

You can’t really fault them for trying to get as much as they can from our government; after all, Sanofi Pasteur is French. I always suspected that Mr. Frist had a soft spot in his heart for Brie and Berets.

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Veterans At Risk from Frist’s Vaccine Scheme

- 1:44 pm

Aside from all the self-dealing, Senator Frist’s drug manufacturers immunity bill is just bad, immoral policy. A large percentage of the drugs covered by the new protections will be used by members of the military and first responders. These people need every assurance that the vaccines and drugs they rely on will be both safe and effective. Frist, though, is pulling out all the stops to remove any incentive PhRMA might have for producing safe drugs. As long as they don’t intentionally hurt people (maybe through some sort of al Qaeda infiltration?), we can’t hold them accountable for their shoddy products.

It’s not like there’s no risk that troops will get unsafe vaccines. The anthrax vaccine has been linked to a number of solider deaths and serious illnesses — from heart attacks, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and pneumonia to chronic joint pain and fatigue. The vaccine’s been linked to the hospitalization of over 20,000, according to the Hampton Roads Daily Press. Civilians would not buy that drug, but veterans have been forced, under threat of court martial, to take it. The government is trying to force it on them again.

With the Frist scheme’s secrecy provisions, we won’t even be able to hold Congress or the President accountable for their mistreatment of our troops. The Daily Press’ series on the anthrax vaccine would never have been written if Frist’s scheme had been law. There will be no way for the public, or for troops themselves — who are already given far too little information on vaccine risks — to monitor the health effects of the Pentagon’s medical regimes.

Injured troops have no recourse. They can’t sue, there’s no compensation fund. It’s “friendly” fire from PhRMA.

As the President maintains, we are at war. Ensuring that our troops are safe and healthy isn’t only the decent thing to do, it’s something that national security demands.

More from:

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Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights on Frist’s Scheme

- 12:51 pm

Jamie Court’s FTCR has studied this issue before, finding “that 42 senators — 27 Republicans and 15 Democrats — held pharmaceutical stock worth between $8.1 million and $16 million in 2004. Senators earned an additional $2.5 million to $7.2 million in capital gains and dividends, and two senators’ spouses also earned salaries, from pharmaceuticals.” [PDF report]

All of them have a serious conflict when it comes to voting on a handout to PhRMA as broad as Frist’s scheme. Every manufacturer of anti-virals or strong antibiotics would reap a windfall from the extensive immunity grants, not to mention the vaccine manufacturers that are the reputed benificiaries of the graft. Those grants would improve PhRMA’s bottom line and fatten almost half the Senate’s (and Don Rumsfeld’s) stock portfolios, all at the expense of the American public.

FTCR has more details on the sordid back-room dealing:

Senate Majority Leader Frist negotiated the provision’s addition to the defense conference report approved by the House of Representatives last night. Nine members of the Senate conference committee hold pharmaceutical stock.

Frist’s blind trust included stock in drug companies Abbott Laboratories and Johnson & Johnson through 2004, each worth $15,000 to $50,000 when the trust was created.

The pharmaceutical industry has given 64 percent - 74 percent of its federal contributions to Republicans every year for the last decade according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Congressional leaders tried to provide similar protection to the makers of the vaccine additive Thimerosal in 2002 with an amendment to a Homeland Security bill based on legislation Frist carried. Public backlash forced the Senate to remove the immunity provision.

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Dems Screwed in Conference Report

- 12:00 pm

Frist didn’t actually sneak his self-serving PhRMA immunity bill into the DoD conference report. He was caught by the Dems, but they didn’t have the votes to stop it. They did, however, protest when signing the report.

A taste:

Signature Crop

In case the scrawl is illegible, Feinstein wrote:

“Except ANWR + 1 % cut + AVIAN FLU VACCINE AND COMPENSATION PROVISIONS”

Mikulski wrote:

“Except ANWR + 1% ATB cut + AVIAN FLU VACCINE AND COMPENSATION PROVISIONS”

If you look at the entire signature page, many of the Democrats’ written objections are in the same handwriting. That’s because Frist inserted the provisions after they had signed the report, after 11:00pm. Robert Byrd was probably in bed already.

Update: A story in this morning’s Roll Call has more detail on the GOP’s deceptive conference tactics.

Shortly before midnight on Sunday, the leaders [Frist and Hastert] agreed — after House and Senate negotiators had already signed the report and announced its details to the public — to insert controversial language that protects vaccine manufacturers from product liability claims in the event of a viral pandemic, such as one caused by avian flu.

Observers familiar with the procedural history of conference reports said that they were unaware of any precedent for inserting language after conferees had signed off on the report. A review of several Congressional Research Service guides to conference proceedings make no reference to any prior example.

It turns out, though, that it was all just a simple misunderstanding:

“There appears to have been some administrative snafu … that led to much confusion,” a Senate Republican aide familiar with the situation said, adding that it took “several hours’ work to clear up that the avian package … were indeed physically included along the lines understood by the Leader and the Speaker.”

It was a simple accident, of course. Someone left the extra language on the photocopier. Or maybe a Bulldog ate it. All the conferees that had to go back after the fact and “amend” their signatures just got caught up in the confusion.

More at the Washington Monthly.

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