Tidbits
News you may have missed...

web posted December 13, 1999

Federal judge blocks public access to judges' financial disclosure forms

A federal judge in Florida has cut off public access nationwide to the financial disclosure reports all federal judges are required to file each year, an unprecedented move that is drawing strong rebukes from open-records advocates.

U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch ordered the moratorium out of concern that posting the reports on the Internet would mean "universal and anonymous access, raising security issues," said federal courts spokeswoman Karen Redmond.

Since 1979, federal judges and other high-ranking federal officials have been required by federal law to report all stock holdings and other family assets within broad ranges of estimated worth. They also must list gifts and other reimbursements.

Home addresses, telephone numbers and other information raising obvious privacy issues need not be listed.

The Administrative Office of U.S. Courts routinely has made copies of reports available, for a fee, to anyone who requests them after requesters identify themselves and disclose their occupation.

The action by Zloch, in an order issued the week before in Fort Lauderdale, came after a news organization, APBnews.com, requested the 1998 financial disclosure reports of some 1,600 active and semiretired federal judges and magistrates as part of a project that would make all of them available on the Internet.

Zloch's order blocking public release of all reports is temporary -- designed to give a committee of judges time to discuss the ramifications of an Internet posting, Redmond said, and could end soon.

But that did not appease some critics.

"It's appalling. It's basically the courts saying, 'We favor access as long as it's not meaningful,"' said Gregg Leslie, acting executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "This judge apparently does not appreciate the interests behind access, the importance of public accountability," he said.

Paul McMasters of the Freedom Forum said: "The security of judges is no minor matter but neither is full and free access to information about public officials. I hope the federal judiciary will quickly reconsider this hold on the flow of information."

Mike Casey of the Environmental Working Group, which monitors potential conflicts of interest by judges, also was critical.

"After all the revelations about stock conflicts and anti-environmental junkets, you'd think the judiciary would clean up its act instead of trying to bully reporters into not informing the public," Casey said.

Rep. Howard Coble, R-North Carolina, a House Judiciary Committee member, voiced little sympathy for the judges.

"Any public official who draws a salary from taxpayers' money should have complete and open financial disclosure, and that includes posting on the Internet," he said.

The Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group, posts on the Internet financial disclosure forms of all members of Congress.

Zloch is on the 26-judge U.S. Judicial Conference, which is chaired by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and makes federal court policy. Zloch heads its 15-member financial disclosure committee.

The Ethics in Government Act of 1978, as amended last year, gives federal courts the right to withhold any report temporarily for security reasons. The amendment allows a report to be "redacted," or censored, "only to the extent necessary to protect the individual who filed the report" and only "for as long as the danger to such individual exists."

Redmond did not offer examples of how Internet release of a judge's financial disclosure statement might lead to security risks. But she said some judges now require round-the-clock protection by U.S. marshals.

"Judges have very unique jobs," she said. "They sentence murderers, terrorists and other criminals. Some judges' lives have been threatened."

Plan could make CPP biggest investor

Canada's finance ministers unanimously agreed on December 9 the Canada Pension Plan should be allowed to invest more aggressively in stocks and bonds, creating the groundwork for the CPP to eventually become the biggest player in the country's equity markets.

The new investment policy -- it is estimated the retirement fund will have about $5-billion to invest in 2000 -- will allow the CPP to become a giant in the financial industry, eventually outstripping other large pension plans such as the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, the Caisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec and the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System. The CPP could be investing $60-billion to $90-billion on behalf of Canadians by 2007, according to actuarial estimates.

"We wanted the CPP to be able to take a more aggressive stance in terms of equity investing," Paul Martin, the federal Finance Minister, said in announcing the decision after a day-long meeting with his provincial counterparts. The federal government and the provinces jointly set policy for the CPP.

The new policy will allow CPP managers to invest 50 per cent of the plan's assets directly in stocks and bonds.

It will come into effect when Parliament changes pension legislation early next year.

Currently, CPP investments are restricted to index funds that mirror the general performance of Canadian equity markets. When Ottawa and the provinces revamped the CPP two years ago, they set it on a course in which equity investments in capital markets would become its main feature. The ministers believed the returns from investing would help sustain the plan and ensure it continued to be a source of retirement income for Canadians.

CPP critics, however, warn that equity markets are too volatile as a source of revenue for a pension plan. Recently, Alan Greenspan, the U.S. Federal Reserve Board chairman, warned American legislators, who were contemplating allowing U.S. Social Security to invest in stocks, that such investments are high-risk and are therefore inappropriate for a public pension fund.

Some provincial finance ministers, concerned about the structure of the CPP, have been urging even more far-reaching changes to allow the fund to get a better return.

Stockwell Day, the Alberta Treasurer, said there is a commitment by the group to study proposals aimed at strengthening the CPP.

"We will put together a working group to aggressively pursue ... advantages that could be achieved by all Canadians [through the CPP]," Day said.

Martin said the revamped CPP should move beyond its initial low-key investment policy, particularly as the money in the plan starts to accumulate.

The pension plan currently has about $33-billion in assets, primarily provincial government bonds that are generally at low rates of interest. Only $1-billion in CPP funds is invested in the stock market, but in index funds rather than individual stocks.

Next year, with $5-billion to invest, the CPP's investment profile could see $1-billion in foreign equities, $2-billion in index funds and $2-billion directly in stocks.

Canada set to pledge $150 million to subsidize magazines

A federal assistance package for Canada's magazine industry will offer publishers $150 million in grants over three years for the production of Canadian content.

Heritage Minister Sheila Copps will announce the program this week.

After three years, the subsidy program will be reviewed to see if the annual amount needs to be increased to help the publishing industry cope with new competition from American split-run magazines.

Copps promised the subsidies back in May, after Canada and the U.S. struck a compromise deal on magazines in order to avert a trade war.

The agreement provides greater access to the Canadian market for U.S. split-runs - editions of American magazines with small amounts of added Canadian content and bargain ad rates to Canadian advertisers.

U.S. officials had threatened to launch a trade war if the federal government went ahead with legislation that would have effectively kept split-runs out of Canada.

Disappointed Canadian publishers warned an influx of split-runs could spell the loss of advertising worth as much as $300 million a year - roughly half the total magazine ad revenue in Canada.

A number of American publications, including Sports Illustrated and People, are already making plans to create split-runs for the Canadian market.

John Thomson, publisher of Canadian Geographic and spokesperson for the Canadian Magazine Publishers Association, said the industry on this side of the border is bracing for the impact.
Thomson said publishers will be monitoring whether the money is enough to keep Canadian magazines alive.

"It's certainly not in proportion to the potential for foreign activity," he said.

"We will be raising the alarm very quickly if the degree of unfair competition outweighs the degree of support that's announced."

Copps had said in May she hoped plans for a subsidy fund would come together within weeks.

But work on the assistance package was bogged down by a dispute between finance department and Canadian Heritage officials over the program's design and price tag.

The two departments were tens of millions of dollars apart on the size of the fund.

One source said earlier this fall that Heritage originally wanted $98 million a year, while the finance department's initial position was in the $50 million range.

The two departments were also at odds over whether the help for magazines should be delivered in the form of tax credits, which are not part of the final package.

Republican insults Rosie O'Donnell: She's a "fool"

A Republican city councilman fired another round in the fight between talk show host Rosie O'Donnell and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Thomas V. Ognibene called O'Donnell a "pompous, fatuous fool" who knows nothing about the city's homeless policies.

A Giuliani-backed policy requires homeless people to work for shelter. Parents who refuse risk having their children placed in foster care. The policy has been suspended pending a court hearing.

On her show last week, O'Donnell called Giuliani "out of control" in dealing with the homeless and urged viewers to complain.

Ognibene said O'Donnell is using her talk show to "shill" for first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Republican mayor's likely opponent in a race for the U.S. Senate next year.

Australian government has right to change data on home PCs

If you're in Australia, the government has the ability to modify your files. Its cyber spooks have been given legal power not only to monitor private computers around the country, but to change the data they contain.

The new powers are contained in a bill passed by Australia's parliament in late November (the Australian Security Intelligence Organization Legislation Amendment 1999). They now await only the largely ceremonial assent of Australia's governor general before becoming law.

"These are really untested waters," says Chris Connolly, a vocal Australian privacy advocate. "I don't think there's any example anywhere else in the world that's comparable."

Under the new law, Australia's attorney general can authorize legal hacking into private computer systems, as well as copying or altering data, as long as he has reasonable cause to believe it's relevant to a "security matter."

The keyboard spies will come from the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), Australia's equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency. Catherine Fitzpatrick, spokeswoman for Attorney General Daryl Williams, said the law merely "modernizes" an existing 1979 statute that previously governed ASIO, and sorely needed updating.

"This just brings ASIO's powers in line with new technologies," she said. "It doesn't give them increased powers at all."

For example, the new law bars sleuths from introducing viruses or interfering with data used for lawful purposes on targeted computers, she said. In addition, the bill limits the power to alter data on a computer to concealing surveillance, she said.

While all this is true, the bill also specifically authorizes -- among other things -- anything that's "reasonably incidental." And it's broad wording like this -- as well as the weak oversight of the nation's cyber spies -- that have opponents aghast.

"I hate to use the word 'Orwellian,' but I can't think of anything better to describe this," said Greg Taylor, vice chairman of Electronic Frontiers Australia.

"This is another stop down the path of legalized surveillance of all information by authorities," he said.

Taylor believes the new law could be especially damaging to people's faith in encrypted communications, because government hackers could potentially lift encryption keys from individual computers.

"This bill seems to get around the problems that strong cryptography presents law enforcement," Taylor said. "Now, they can attack the problem at the source -- the originating computer -- before the data even gets encrypted."

In addition, the new law could introduce tricky new issues into legal cases, he said. "It opens to question all computer evidence if there's been the potential for legalized tampering of it. Computer evidence already poses problems of validation, and that's before you even open up these legal avenues of tampering."

Connolly, as director of Australia's Financial Services Consumer Policy Center and national coordinator of the Campaign for Fair Privacy Laws, spoke out against the proposed legislation in a parliamentary submission earlier this year.

"Australia doesn't really need an intelligence agency with dictatorial powers," he said. "People here largely trust the federal police to deal with most matters, and the police are subject to more controls and supervision by judges than ASIO is."

He believes the government hastily pushed the bill through parliament using, among other things, national nervousness about the approaching Sydney Olympics to convince parliamentarians to go along. He thinks ASIO's expanded powers clearly go too far, and were sought by an agency seeking a new role after the Cold War.

To Brian Greig, a West Australian senator from the populist Democrats Party -- which voted against the bill -- the law now tilts the balance of power between the individual and government too far in favor of government.

"If we're going to expand ASIO's surveillance powers, we should have expanded equally the rights and liberties of individuals to be protected from that," he said. "My suspicion is that citizens of other countries wouldn't have been so apathetic about an issue like this."

As Australia's fourth largest political party, the Democrats could only voice concern about the proposed law. Both the ruling Liberal-National party coalition and the opposition Labor Party both voted to pass the measure.

Under the new system, a citizen's most likely recourse if he feels improperly snooped would be to complain to the attorney general -- who authorized the snooping in the first place, or to the inspector general of intelligence and security, a government watchdog that conducts periodic reviews of ASIO's activities, Connolly said. Neither of which is likely to pursue an aggressive, impartial investigation, Connolly believes. So, if the law's a done deal -- what now?

Connolly suggests it's up to individuals and companies in Australia to take additional measures to protect confidential information if they're worried about government hackers. He suggests seeking out better encryption, as well as software that can detect computer intrusions.

However, if government now has legal power to change computer data, it can legally tamper with intrusion detection software, erasing records of its visits, he said.

To Paul Budde, a Sydney-based independent telecommunications analyst, the new law sends the wrong message.

"If the government is allowed to be the biggest hacker in town, it really undermines computer security rather than enhances it," he said. "How can they now criticize 16-year-old kids who break into computer systems for fun if the government's doing it, too?"

Gore's father on company board which caused Love Canal: Newsmax

Vice President Al Gore sufffered a well deserved media thrashing recently after he falsely tried to claim credit for 1978's Love Canal clean-up. Now it turns out, Gore's family may have had more to do with creating that environmental nightmare than actually fixing it.

"I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. I had the first hearing on that issue," Gore told a New Hampshire high school audience earlier this month. "That was the one that started it all."

True enough, Gore did have the first Congressional hearing on Hooker Chemical Plant's toxic landfill, adjacent to the now infamous Love Canal residential area. But Gore didn't get into the act until two months after President Jimmy Carter declared Love Canal a disaster area, complete with a federal evacuation of the neighborhood's inhabitants.

Still, perhaps Gore deserves credit of another sort. At the time Love Canal was in the headlines daily, Hooker Chemical was actually owned by Occidental Chemical Corporation. Oxy Chem was forced to cough up nearly $130 million to cover the fed's clean-up of the acreage Hooker had turned into wasteland. Oxy Chem's parent company is, of course, Occidental Petroleum -- owned at the time by the late Armand Hammer.

After the mainstream press gets finished toasting Gore's entry onto the presidential field at exclusive soirees such as the one hosted by ABC's John Cochran a few weekends ago, a journalist or two might just recall that Hammer had a protege in the U.S. Senate. He was none other than the Vice President's father, Tennessee Senator Al Gore, Sr.

In fact, the VP's dad actually served for a time as chairman of the board for Hammer's company. It is said that much of the Gore family's wealth derived from its Hammer connection. The Gore-Hammer link was once so widely recognized that some even referred to Gore Sr. as "the distinguished senator from Occidental."

And so while the Vice President may not deserve credit for Love Canal's clean-up, he does have very real ties to the company responsible for that most notorious of all environmental disasters.

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7




Current Issue

Archive Main | 1999

Musings - ESR's blog

E-mail ESR


Loading

Send a link to this page!


Home

1996-2013, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.