Mt. Etna, Catania, and Taormina!

 

Mt. Etna and the  City of Catania at its Base

Dear Commons Community,

We spent the day touring Catania and Taormina in Sicily. They are both in the shadow of Mt. Etna, the largest active volcano in Southern Europe.

Catania has a history of being completely destroyed and rebuilt. Wars, earthquakes and Mt. Etna have leveled Catania seven times. In 1669 a lava flow destroyed the western part of the city; and, in 1693 a heavy earthquake destroyed the rest of Catania. During World War II, it was bombed by both the Allied and Axis powers. Catania is the major port city for Sicily on the Ionian Sea Coast.

Taormina is a beautiful quaint town just opposite Mt. Etna. It is easy to get lost in its small streets and alley ways but as our tour guide said there is a photograph to be taken on every corner.

Tony

On the Mediterranean – Stromboli!

Dear Commons Community,

Elaine and I are on board our ship, the Start Pride.  We have been on the Mediterranean for about a day now.  It is a small ship and carries a maximum of 200 passengers.  So far everything is going well.  We will reach our first port in Sicily early tomorrow morning.  Here is our complete itinerary.

  • Catania, Sicily
  • Valetta, Malta
  • Xlendi, Gozo, Malta
  • Porto Empedocie, Sicily
  • Trapani, Sicily
  • Lipari, Italy
  • Sorrento, Italy
  • Amalfi, Italy

As part of our day tours, we will visit Pompeii, Agrigento, and Mt. Vesuvius.

Below are photos of us leaving port in Civitavecchia, sunset on the Mediterranean, and the Stromboli volcano, one of the most active volcanoes on Earth that has been erupting almost continuously since 1932. Because it has been active for much of the last 2,000 years and its eruptions are visible for long distances at night, it is known as the “Lighthouse of the Mediterranean”.  You can see a plume of smoke coming from its crater in the photo.

Tony

Elaine on the top deck of the ship with Stromboli in the background.

Civitavecchia!

  Hotel San Giorgio

Dear Commons Community,

We arrived at our hotel last night in Civitavecchia.  The Hotel San Giorgio is an old-style European hotel that is right on the Mediterranean Sea.  We will be embarking on our cruise late tonight. Below are views across the street from the hotel.

Tony

Traveling to Rome/Civitavecchia Today!

 

 

Image result for civitavecchia

Dear Commons Community,

Elaine and are traveling to Rome today on our way to Civitavecchia where we will catch a small ship to cruise the West Coast of Italy and the Mediterranean.

Assuming I have a good Internet connection, I will post photos of our trip in the days ahead.

Tony

Rudy Giuliani Blows Up Trump’s Lies about Stormy Daniels’ Payoff!

Dear Commons Community,

In a one-hour interview on Sean Hannity’s show last night, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said President Donald Trump had repaid his lawyer Michael Cohen for a $130,000 payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels prior to the 2016 presidential election.

“It’s going to turn out to be perfectly legal; that money was not campaign money,” Giuliani, Trump’s new lead attorney regarding issues related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, told Fox News’ Sean Hannity.

“Sorry, I’m giving you a fact now that you don’t know,” Giuliani continued, before saying that the payment was “funneled through a law firm, and then the president repaid it.”

Giuliani’s comments  directly contradict Trump’s statements last month that he had no knowledge that Cohen had paid Daniels. Reporters aboard Air Force One had asked whether Trump knew about the payment, to which the president  replied: “No.”

“You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen,” Trump said when pressed on the issue. “Michael is my attorney. You’ll have to ask Michael.”

The White House declined to comment.

Hogan Gidley, the deputy White House press secretary, told Fox later on Wednesday that he had “no idea of the topics of the show” before Giuliani’s interview, but then directed all questions to Trump’s outside lawyers.

Cohen is currently under criminal investigation by the Justice Department and FBI agents raided his office, home and hotel room last month, seizing business records and documents, including those related to the payout to Daniels. Trump has moved to distance himself from the attorney, saying last week Cohen only handled a “tiny, tiny little fraction” of his legal work.

During Wednesday’s interview, Giuliani said Trump paid Cohen a retainer of $35,000 “when he was doing no work for the president” and claimed the fund was used for reimbursements. Giuliani later clarified to The New York Times that the payments to the retainer were made monthly from Trump’s personal family account and that Cohen was paid between $460,000 and $470,000 in total, including money for “incidental expenses.”

When Hannity asked if Trump knew about the details of the payments, Giuliani backtracked slightly, saying that the president “didn’t know about the specifics of it, as far as I know.”

“But he did know about the general arrangement that Michael would take care of things like this. I take care of things like this for my clients,” Giuliani said. “I don’t burden them with every single thing that comes along. These are busy people.”

Late Wednesday, Fox News’ John Roberts said Giuliani backtracked even further and claimed that the president didn’t know what the money was for, but was simply told by Cohen to pay for hundreds of thousands of dollars in unnamed “expenses.”

Giuliani’s revelation appeared to take Hannity aback.

Stormy Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti, said “every American, regardless of their politics, should be outraged” by this news.

“Mr. Trump stood on AF1 and blatantly lied,” he wrote on Twitter. “This followed the lies told by others close to him, including Mr. Cohen. This should never be acceptable in our America.”

Thank you Mr. Giuliani for all the good legal work you are doing for Mr. Trump.  Keep it up!

Tony

Cambridge Analytica to File for Bankruptcy over Facebook Scandal!

Dear Commons Community,

Cambridge Analytica announced yesterday that it would cease most of its operations and file for bankruptcy amid growing legal and political scrutiny of its business practices and work for Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign.  As reported by the BBC, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times:

“The decision [to file for bankruptcy] was made less than two months after Cambridge Analytica and Facebook became embroiled in a data-harvesting scandal that compromised the personal information of up to 87 million people. Revelations about the misuse of data, published in March by The New York Times and The Observer of London, plunged Facebook into crisis and prompted regulators and lawmakers to open investigations into Cambridge Analytica.

In a statement posted to its website, Cambridge Analytica said the controversy had driven away virtually all of the company’s customers, forcing it to file for bankruptcy in both the United States and Britain. The elections division of Cambridge’s British affiliate, SCL Group, will also shut down, the company said.

But the company’s announcement left several questions unanswered, including who would retain the company’s intellectual property — the so-called psychographic voter profiles built in part with data from Facebook — and whether Cambridge Analytica’s data-mining business would return under new auspices.

“Over the past several months, Cambridge Analytica has been the subject of numerous unfounded accusations and, despite the company’s efforts to correct the record, has been vilified for activities that are not only legal, but also widely accepted as a standard component of online advertising in both the political and commercial arenas,” the company’s statement said.

Cambridge Analytica also said the results of an independent investigation it had commissioned, which it released on Wednesday, contradicted assertions made by former employees and contractors about its acquisition of Facebook data. The report played down the role of a contractor turned whistle-blower, Christopher Wylie

 …

The company, bankrolled by Robert Mercer, a wealthy Republican donor who invested at least $15 million, offered tools that it claimed could identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior. Those modeling techniques underpinned Cambridge Analytica’s work for the Trump campaign and for other candidates in 2014 and 2016.

But Cambridge Analytica came under scrutiny over the past year, first for its purported methods of profiling voters and then over allegations that it improperly harvested private data from Facebook users. Last year, the company was drawn into the special counsel investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

 

The company was also forced to suspend its chief executive, Alexander Nix, after a British television channel released an undercover video. In it, Mr. Nix suggested that the company had used seduction and bribery to entrap politicians and influence foreign elections.

The controversy dealt a major blow to Cambridge Analytica’s ambitions of expanding its commercial business in the United States, while also bringing unwanted attention to the American government contracts sought by SCL Group, an intelligence contractor.

Besides working for the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica was previously hired by a political action committee founded by John R. Bolton, the national security adviser. It had also worked for the 2016 presidential campaigns of Ben Carson and Senator Ted Cruz.”

In recent months, executives at Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group, along with the Mercer family, have moved to create a new firm, Emerdata, based in Britain, according to British records. The new company’s directors include Johnson Ko Chun Shun, a Hong Kong financier and business partner of Erik Prince. Mr. Prince founded the private security firm Blackwater, which was renamed Xe Services after Blackwater contractors were convicted of killing Iraqi civilians.

Good riddance to this sleazy operation.

Tony

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein:  “The Department of Justice is not going to be extorted.”

Dear Commons Community,

In response to the Congressional House Freedom Caucus supposed preparation of articles of impeachment against him, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein fired back:

“They can’t even resist leaking their own drafts,” Rosenstein said yesterday in response to a question from CNN reporter Laura Jarrett.

He added: “The Department of Justice is not going to be extorted.”

Rosenstein is responsible for overseeing the special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Rosenstein appointed Mueller to the position. His authority over the investigation has drawn the ire both publicly and privately of President Donald Trump and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill.

The ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus who ally themselves with Trump have drafted articles of impeachment against Rosenstein as a last resort, according to The Washington Post. The move comes in contrast to the approach of GOP congressional leaders, who believe that Rosenstein and Mueller should be allowed to complete the investigation.

Trump has publicly and privately considered firing Rosenstein for not limiting the scope of Mueller’s authority in the probe. Rosenstein has clashed with House Freedom Caucus members over requests for documents regarding the Russia investigation.

Congratulations to Mr. Rosenstein for not backing off from the Freedom Caucus bullies.  When this entire episode of the Mueller investigation of Donald Trump ends, Rosenstein will likely emerge as a “John Dean” figure for those of us who remember Richard Nixon’s impeachment.

Tony

Koch Foundation Influence “Falls Short of Standards of Academic Independence” at George Mason University!

Dear Commons Community,

There have been concerns for years that the Charles Koch Foundation was overly involved in the selection of faculty related to donations it had made to George Mason University.  In response to an open-records request, George Mason released a series of agreements between the institution and donors to fund the appointments of economics professors between 2003 and 2011. The agreements show that the Koch Foundation and other donors had room to influence the selection and work of the professors whose positions they spent millions to support.  Last Friday, Ángel Cabrera, the university’s president, sent an email to faculty members saying that the agreements, which were signed before he took over at George Mason, “fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.”  As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“On Monday (yesterday) night, Cabrera announced in an email to faculty members that he had requested a review of “all active donor agreements supporting faculty positions throughout the university to ensure that they do not grant donors undue influence in academic matters.” He also ordered a review of the university’s gift-acceptance policies and said that one gift agreement that is still active would be voided and the remaining $67,935 would be transferred to the university for “general support.”

As the Koch Foundation has nurtured relationships with colleges and universities across the country, it has found an especially close partner in George Mason. From 2011 to 2014, the foundation gave nearly $48 million to the university, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. The money aided George Mason’s ascent as an influential voice for conservative, free-market principles in law and economics.

But it has also left faculty and students speculating about the extent to which the foundation has used its gifts to dictate the direction of the law and economics programs. Samantha Parsons, a George Mason alumna, developed concerns in 2012, when she was a freshman at the university. She said in an interview that Cabrera’s email was validating. She’d spent years trying to shed light on the relationship between her university and the Koch Foundation and had been rebuffed, she said.

“They painted a lot of the faculty and students asking about this as conspiracy theorists,” Parsons said. “As they kept refusing our questions, saying, ‘There’s nothing to see here,’ my curiosity got best of me.”

Parsons, who graduated in 2016, now works full-time at a campaign she helped create, called UnKoch My Campus, which seeks to reveal the details of the Koch Foundation’s agreements with various universities that have received its funds.

Parsons filed her first open-records request in 2013, but it was one she filed in March that prompted the university to send her the gift agreements that she received on Friday. (The institution also sent the agreements to The Washington Post, which first reported on their contents and Cabrera’s email.) Parsons also helped found a group called Transparent GMU while she was a student. The group is currently involved in a lawsuit meant to pressure the George Mason University Foundation to release gift agreements, the Post reported.

Among the agreements released on Friday were some that outline a relationship between the university, the Koch Foundation or other donors, and the Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank that is based at George Mason, employs many of its economics professors, and supports some of the department’s graduate students, but that operates independently of the university.

Some of the agreements contained stipulations allowing the donors to appoint members of a committee that oversees the professorships. Donors were also involved in the creation of advisory boards that would assess the professors’ performance.

An agreement from 2003, for example, outlines the terms for a faculty-chair position at the Mercatus Center. The chair, supported by a pledge from the trust of the St. Louis businessman Menlo F. Smith, was created “to increase understanding of economics based on the principles of free markets, private property, limited constitutional government, rule of law, and individual freedom with responsibility and to expand public support of these principles,” according to the document.

The agreement stipulated that five people would serve on the selection committee to name a chairholder: the president of Mercatus, the chair of the economics department, two people chosen by George Mason officials, and one “member designated by Menlo F. Smith or his descendants.”

Cabrera’s email on Friday said that the agreements “raise questions concerning donor influence in academic matters.” He noted that they did not give donors control over academic decisions and said that all but one of the agreements had expired — the agreement that on Monday he declared void.

“Since I arrived at Mason in 2012, I have made it a priority to have all gift agreements clearly uphold our commitment to academic independence,” the email said. “Gifts may be earmarked for programs, scholarships, or faculty support, but donors may not determine what is taught, what student is funded, or what professor is hired. If these terms are not acceptable to donors, the gifts are kindly declined.”

John Hardin, director of university relations at the Charles Koch Foundation, said in a statement that the agreements are old and were not unusual for the time in which they were written. He noted that the foundation has removed clauses that gave it a say in proposing candidates from its more recent grant agreements with universities.

“We champion academic freedom and do not seek to influence the hiring practices of university departments nor have input on curricular or research decisions,” the statement said.

On Monday, UnKoch My Campus also published more than 700 pages of largely redacted documents that were sent in response to an open-records request made by a 2004 graduate of the university’s law school, Allison Pienta. Pienta was seeking information on the source of an anonymous $20-million gift that was made to George Mason’s law school as part of a decision in 2016 to rename it the Antonin Scalia Law School. (The Koch Foundation gave an additional $10 million.) The documents show that the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, a conservative membership organization, was involved in the donation, Pienta said.

The new disclosures may rekindle a debate over donations that had ignited after the plan to rename the law school was announced. (At the time, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution protesting what it saw as the administration’s lack of transparency about its donor agreements.) Bethany Letiecq, an associate professor of human development and family science, said the gift agreements are “textbook violations of academic freedom.”

When she asked about the university’s relationship with the Koch Foundation, Letiecq, who serves as president of George Mason’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, she said she heard the same line as Parsons.

“President Cabrera has been reassuring us for years, ‘Saying trust us,’” Letiecq said. “It’s getting harder and harder to believe that we should be trusting him.”

There is no shame among the Koch Brothers and other vulture philanthropists who smirked at the way they can buy influence with college presidents.

Tony

Special Counsel Mueller Has Dozens of Questions for President Trump – See List!

Dear Commons Community,

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has made available a list of questions that he has requested to be answered by President Trump to learn more about his ties to Russia and determine whether he obstructed the inquiry itself.   As reported by the New York Times:  

“The open-ended queries appear to be an attempt to penetrate the president’s thinking, to get at the motivation behind some of his most combative Twitter posts and to examine his relationships with his family and his closest advisers. They deal chiefly with the president’s high-profile firings of the F.B.I. director and his first national security adviser, his treatment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a 2016 Trump Tower meeting between campaign officials and Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.

But they also touch on the president’s businesses; any discussions with his longtime personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, about a Moscow real estate deal; whether the president knew of any attempt by Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to set up a back channel to Russia during the transition; any contacts he had with Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime adviser who claimed to have inside information about Democratic email hackings; and what happened during Mr. Trump’s 2013 trip to Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant.

The questions provide the most detailed look yet inside Mr. Mueller’s investigation, which has been shrouded in secrecy since he was appointed nearly a year ago. The majority relate to possible obstruction of justice, demonstrating how an investigation into Russia’s election meddling grew to include an examination of the president’s conduct in office. Among them are queries on any discussions Mr. Trump had about his attempts to fire Mr. Mueller himself and what the president knew about possible pardon offers to Mr. Flynn.”

These questions will be the fodder for the news cycle for the next several days as political pundits, legal experts, and others try to decipher their importance to Mueller’s investigation.

Tony

 

Senator Marco Rubio:  Workers Get Little Benefit from Tax-Reform Bill Passed Last Year!

Dear Commons Community,

Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio told the Economist magazine there is “no evidence whatsoever” that the massive tax reform law significantly helped American workers.  As reported by Reuters:

“There is still a lot of thinking on the right that if big corporations are happy, they’re going to take the money they’re saving and reinvest it in American workers,” Rubio said in the interview published Thursday.

“In fact they bought back shares, a few gave out bonuses; there’s no evidence whatsoever that the money’s been massively poured back into the American worker.”

The tax overhaul, which sailed through the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress in December without Democratic support, permanently cut the top corporate rate to 21 percent from 35 percent. Tax cuts for individuals, however, are temporary and expire after 2025.

Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have said their tax overhaul will lead to more take-home pay for workers and have touted the bonuses some workers received from their employers as evidence the law is working. Rubio voted for the proposal even though he had lobbied party leaders for a larger child tax credit.Companies that have given bonuses, increased pay

Rubio’s staff did not deny he made the statement.

“Senator Rubio pushed for a better balance in the tax law between tax cuts for big businesses and families, as he’s done for years. As he said when the tax law passed, cutting the corporate tax rate will make America a more competitive place to do business, but he tried to balance that with an even larger child tax credit for working Americans,” Rubio spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas said in an email.

The tax law is Republicans’ only significant legislative achievement since Trump took office as they head into the midterms, when all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and about a third of the 100-member Senate’s seats are being contested.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said earlier this month that the tax bill, as written, is projected to add $1.9 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.”

Senator Rubio is the only prominent Republican so far to admit the truth about the Republican tax bill.  It remains to be seen if other Republicans do the same. I doubt it.

Tony