Schwarzenegger commutes sentence of former Assembly Speaker’s son

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In one of his last official acts as the governor of California, actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger granted a commutation to the son of political ally and former California Assembly Speaker, Fabian Nuñez.

The son, Estaban Nuñez, was serving 16 years on a murder conviction, an already reduced sentence as part of a plea bargain. Nuñez pleaded guilty to charges including voluntary manslaughter in connection with the fatal stabbing of 22 year-old college student, Luis Dos Santos, and being part of a conspiracy to cover up the crime.

Nuñez and some friends fought with others near a San Diego fraternity house in 2008 in which Santos was killed. Nuñez was cleared of stabbing the student who died in the attack, although he admitted to stabbing another man, who survived.

Schwarzenegger claimed the sentence of 16 years was excessive and reduced it to 7 years, saying that it was unfair that Nuñez, who had no prior record, received the same sentence as the stabber who actually killed Santos.

The victim’s family was not told in advance of the decision to reduce the sentence, which was sent to the press via email. “I guess if you’re the son of somebody important, you can kill someone and get all sort of breaks,” said Fred Santos, father of the victim.

Schwarzenegger also reduced the sentence of a Sara Kruzan, a former prostitute who killed her pimp in 1994 when she was 16 years old. Her sentence was reduced from life in prison without parole, to 25 years to life with the possibility of parole.

Schwarzenegger also granted unconditional pardons to nine people convicted of relatively minor offenses.

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Incoming House oversight head pledges to cut $200 billion in waste and bureaucracy

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In a series of television appearances on Sunday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the incoming head of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said that the Obama administration has “played fast and loose with the money Congress gave them,” and pledged to use his subpoena power to investigate a number of alleged financial scandals.

Although Issa commented last fall to radio host Rush Limbaugh that the Obama White House was “one of the most corrupt in modern history”, he stopped short of accusing the administration of misconduct.

When asked on Sunday about reports that the administration was staffing up on lawyers in advance of oversight hearings he said, “They’re going to need more accountants. It’s more about the inspector generals than it is about lawyers in the White House. And the sooner the administration figures out that the enemy is the bureaucracy and the wasteful spending, the better off we’ll be.”

Issa’s committee will focus on issues of waste, fraud and abuse. He was critical of the cost of the national health care initiative and called the Troubled Asset Relief Program “$800 billion worth of walking-around money.”

One of the areas that Issa intends to investigate is Medicare fraud. “We can save $125 billion in simply not giving out money to Medicare recipients that don’t exist for procedures that didn’t happen,” Issa told CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “These are real dollars. Ten percent of the deficit goes out in wasted money – money that doesn’t get one person health care in Medicare.”

Issa also took aim at Attorney General Eric Holder, saying the country’s chief prosecutor didn’t properly handle the investigation into the WikiLeaks scandal that resulted in the release of thousands of classified diplomatic cables. Issa said that Holder should prosecute WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange as a criminal.

On Fox News Issa said, “He isn’t doing enough. He’s hurting the administration. If you’re hurting the administration, either stop hurting the administration or leave. I think [Holder] needs to realize that, for example, WikiLeaks, if the President says ‘I can’t deal with this guy as a terrorist,’ then he needs to be able to deal with him as a criminal. Otherwise the world is laughing at this paper tiger we’ve become.”

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New Georgia agriculture commissioner orders slavery murals off walls

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Murals of slaves harvesting sugar cane on a Georgia plantation and picking and ginning cotton are coming off the walls of a state building on the order of a new agriculture commissioner.

The murals are part of a collection of eight works painted by George Beattie in 1956 depicting an idealized version of Georgia farming, from the corn grown by prehistoric American Indians to a 20th-century veterinary lab. In the Deep South, the history in between includes the forced use of slave labor.

“I don’t like those pictures,” said Republican Gary Black, the newly elected agriculture commissioner. “There are a lot of other people who don’t like them.”

Slavery was indisputably part of 19th-century farming in Georgia. By 1840, more than 280,000 slaves were living in the state, many as field hands. Just before the Civil War, slaves made up about 40 percent of the state’s population.

Beattie’s murals tell part of the story. In one painting, two well-dressed white gentlemen in top hats and dress coats leisurely inspect processed cotton. They’re framed on either side by black slaves doing the backbreaking work of cotton farming.

On the left, a slave hunches over to pick cotton bolls by hand. Two other slaves are using the infamous Whitney gin – invented near Savannah – to separate cotton fiber from seeds as a white overseer weighs cotton bags behind them.

“I think we can depict a better picture of agriculture,” Black said.

There are no signs of the whippings, beatings, shackles or brutality used to subjugate the slaves, who appear healthy, muscular, even robust.

Black said less controversial murals, a scene at a state farmers market, for example, may find a new home in a conference room or elsewhere in the building.

Few openly have protested the murals, maybe because the agriculture department is not heavily visited. Black’s election marks a generational shift. He will succeed Democrat Tommy Irvin, who was appointed to the post by a segregationist governor in 1969 and won re-election ever since.

Black’s plans after the inauguration next month include painting rooms, cleaning offices, patching walls – and taking down those murals.

A full century after the Civil War, Southerners still argue over how to handle potent symbols of slavery and segregation in public places. It’s nothing new. The same year Beattie finished the murals, state lawmakers put the Confederate battle flag back into Georgia’s state flag to protest integration. Only in 2001 did Gov. Roy Barnes replace it, and some say it cost him the election the following year.

Those conflicts spill into art. In 2007, a black lawmaker lashed out at white colleagues for refusing to support putting a portrait of Coretta Scott King in the Statehouse beside that of her husband, slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The sponsor suggested her white colleagues were bigoted. The opposing lawmakers argued that portraits in the capitol should be reserved for Georgia legislators.

In 1995, two years before he died, Beattie defended his murals in a department-sponsored article that mentioned the art had spurred debate and concern among visitors and employees.

“As a human being, I am vehemently opposed to slavery, as anyone should be,” Beattie said, “but it was a significant epoch in our history; it would have been inaccurate not to include this period.”

His paintings showing slavery could be interpreted as an indictment. They hang in a lower lobby opposite a painting of colonial founder James Oglethorpe, a utopian who dreamed of making Georgia a classless society free of slavery.

One of Beattie’s friends, the sculptor George Beasley, said Black should commission new artwork if he has a new vision, not remove the originals.

Beasley, a professor emeritus at Georgia State University, admits that Beattie stretched reality to build his scenes. His friend was an optimist with an artistic tendency to gloss over life’s roughness.

“It kind of reflects George Beattie’s personality,” Beasley said. “He always looked on the bright side of life. … He liked to portray the history and the beauty of things. I would have rather had seen the scene maybe not so sunny, and muddy, and maybe the slaves under more duress, as they would have been.”

The Associated Press

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Details surface on ex-Florida GOP chairman’s corruption charges

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The former executive director of the Florida Republican Party, Delmar Johnson, was president, secretary and treasurer of a phony company called Victory Strategies that was used to skim hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations, and funnel them to himself and former state GOP chairman Jim Greer, according to newly-released documents.

The Miami Herald reported Saturday that Victory Strategies collected nearly $240,000 in nine months during 2009, before GOP finance officials began questioning Greer about the company in December 2009. During the same period, the company paid eleven checks to Greer totaling $164,101 and paid Johnson $65,093. At Jan. 31, 2010, the company’s bank account had a balance of about $10,000.

Greer, 47, was arrested in June for running a scam to steal money from the Florida GOP. He was charged with six counts of organized scheme to defraud, four counts of felony grand theft and one count of money laundering.

Greer owned 60 percent of Victory and Johnson owned the other 40 percent of the company. Authorities said that the company had no other business than to take a commission from political contributions to the Florida GOP and pay the amounts to Greer and Johnson.

Donors and major party activists had been critical of Greer after reports surfaced of lavish spending on parties, expensive dinners, luxury hotels and private jets.

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Mississippi governor favors state jet as fundraising tool

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Former lobbyist and now-governor of Mississippi Halley Barbour is not shy about his frequent use of the state’s 12-passenger Cessna Citation, in sharp contrast to other governors who use it sparingly in deference to the current state of the economy. Sarah Palin even bragged about how she sold Alaska’s state jet on eBay.

Critics say that Gov. Barbour is scheduling minor official business trips to coincide with fundraising expeditions.

Online news source, Politico, obtained manifests of the plane’s trips since 2007, and found a mix of those that were clearly for state business, and trips that appeared to be more along the lines of fundraising efforts for himself, and other Republican candidates and committees. Records also show trips to football games and at least one boxing match, all at taxpayer’s expense.

The total cost to taxpayers of maintaining the jet over the last three years amounted to over $500,000. Barbour has reimbursed the state for personal use of the plane on a number of occasions, but the flight logs seem to suggest the regular practice of scheduling minor official business trips alongside political conventions and fundraisers.

Among the many examples cited by Politico include:

In March 2010 the plane picked up Barbour in Las Vegas after inviting donors to his PAC to drive stock cars around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and have drinks with casino exec Steve Wynn- for $5,000 a head. The official purpose listed on the flight log was a “project meeting.”

A month later, the plane picked up Barbour in New Orleans from the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, where he attended a $10,000-a-plate fundraiser at the popular Brennan’s restaurant. Then the plane travelled on to a Canadian trade summit on the Gulf Coast.

In June 2009, the plane flew Barbour to Washington D.C. for a meeting with General Dynamics and both Mississippi senators. After the meeting, he spent three days campaigning with Bob McDonnell, who was running for governor of Virginia. His staff originally said that Barbour would reimburse taxpayers, but subsequently changed positions, saying the trip was for official business.

In December 2010, Barbour flew home on the plane after meeting in D.C. with the Mississippi delegation and officials about the Gulf Oil spill. However, he also held two fundraisers in D.C. for his PAC, which raised over $75,000.

Records also show that Barbour frequently uses the plane for interviews and media appearances, while other politicians around the country rely on satellite uplinks. Barbour has used the plane to appear on Meet the Press, Face the Nation and Fox news, all in Washington, D.C.

While there is no shortage of critics, not everyone in Mississippi is concerned about the governor’s use of the plane.

His traveling doesn’t bother me,” said state Rep. George Flaggs, a Democrat who has been critical of the governor’s recent budget proposals. “I know that the governor may or may not use the plane for political purposes. That’s what politicians do.”

Politico

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O’Donnell says spending allegations are “thug” tactics

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The Associated Press

Failed U.S. Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell said Thursday that accusations she misspent campaign funds are politically motivated and stoked by disgruntled former campaign workers, defending herself a day after the disclosure of a criminal investigation into her spending.

The Delaware Republican appeared on several network morning shows after it was revealed that federal authorities have launched the probe to determine whether she broke the law by using campaign money to pay personal expenses.

The GOP Senate hopeful from Delaware is under investigation for allegedly living off campaign donations from three failed Senate bids.

“There’s been no impermissible use of campaign funds whatsover,” O’Donnell told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

O’Donnell, the tea party favorite who scored a surprise primary victory before losing in the general election, suggested the accusations are driven by her political opponents on the right and left, including Vice President Joe Biden.

“You have to look at this whole thug-politic tactic for what it is,” she said Thursday.

She said that she found it suspicious that neither she, her campaign staff nor her lawyer have been informed of a federal investigation.

A person familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press on Wednesday that it had been launched, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect the identity of a client who has been questioned as part of the probe. The case, which has been assigned to two federal prosecutors and two FBI agents in Delaware, has not been brought before a grand jury.

O’Donnell, who set a state record by raising more than $7.3 million in a tea party-fueled campaign this year, has been dogged by questions about her personal and campaign finances.

At least two former campaign workers have alleged that O’Donnell routinely used political contributions to pay personal expenses including her rent as she ran for the Senate three consecutive times, starting in 2006. She acknowledged in a newspaper interview in March that she paid part of her rent with campaign money, arguing that her house doubled as a campaign headquarters.

On Thursday, O’Donnell told NBC’s “Today Show” that she paid the campaign to use the townhouse as her legal residence because her home was vandalized.

O’Donnell said Thursday that people making the spending allegations include a fired former staff member and a former volunteer, both of whom she described as disgruntled. She says many other workers who spent longer with her campaigns have defended her.

The U.S. Attorney’s office in Delaware has confirmed it is reviewing a complaint about O’Donnell’s campaign spending made this year by a nonpartisan watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. But officials in the office and the FBI declined to say whether a criminal investigation was under way.

In a statement Wednesday, O’Donnell called the allegations politically motivated and singled out Biden, who represented Delaware in the Senate for decades.

“Given that the king of the Delaware political establishment just so happens to be the vice president of the most liberal presidential administration in U.S. history, it is no surprise that misuse and abuse of the FBI would not be off the table,” she said in the statement.

CREW alleged in a complaint last September that O’Donnell improperly used more than $20,000 in campaign funds to pay her rent and other personal expenses. The group also asked Delaware’s federal prosecutor to investigate.

Federal law prohibits candidates from spending campaign money for personal benefit. FEC rules state that this prohibition applies to the use of campaign money for a candidate’s mortgage or rent “even if part of the residence is being used by the campaign,” although O’Donnell’s campaign maintained that it was told otherwise by someone at the agency.

O’Donnell drew national attention in September when she upset U.S. Rep. Mike Castle for the GOP Senate nomination. She was handily defeated in November by Democrat Chris Coons following a campaign that focused largely on past controversial statements, including that she’d “dabbled into witchcraft” when she was young.

One former O’Donnell staffer, Kristin Murray, recorded an automated phone call for the Delaware Republican Party just before the primary, accusing O’Donnell of “living on campaign donations — using them for rent and personal expenses, while leaving her workers unpaid and piling up thousands in debt.”

O’Donnell told NBC that Murray was fired from her 2008 campaign after less than two weeks because of incompetency.

Another former aide, David Keegan, said he became concerned about O’Donnell’s 2008 campaign finances as she fell behind on bills and had no apparent source of income besides political contributions. He submitted an affidavit to CREW alleging that she used campaign money to cover meals, gas, a bowling outing, and rent to a landlord, Brent Vasher.

Vasher, a nephew of Keegan’s and a one-time boyfriend of O’Donnell, declined comment when asked by The AP if he had been contacted by authorities. Vasher bought O’Donnell’s house in 2008 after she was served with a foreclosure notice, then charged her rent to stay there, according to CREW’s complaint.

In a message sent last week to The AP, Keegan said he had not been questioned as part of a criminal investigation, and that he considers himself only a “catalyst” in a case in which several people must be questioned to scrutinize O’Donnell’s accounting practices and alleged misuse of campaign funds.

After losing two treasurers in 2009, O’Donnell named herself campaign treasurer until this past summer. Another short-term treasurer took over in August and resigned less than two months later, at which point campaign manager Matt Moran added the treasurer’s role to his responsibilities.

Democrat Charles Oberly III, the U.S. attorney for Delaware, and his predecessor, David Weiss, did not immediately return messages Wednesday seeking comment. Oberly was sworn in Tuesday as Weiss’ successor.

O’Donnell, who announced just after Election Day that she had signed a book deal, hasn’t held a full-time job in years and has struggled to explain how she makes a living.

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Feds investigate campaign spending by Christine O’Donnell

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The Associated Press

Federal authorities have opened a criminal investigation of Delaware Republican Christine O’Donnell to determine if the former Senate candidate broke the law by using campaign money to pay personal expenses, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation.

The GOP Senate hopeful from Delaware is under investigation for allegedly living off campaign donations from three failed Senate bids.

The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to protect the identity of a client who has been questioned as part of the probe. The case, which has been assigned to two federal prosecutors and two FBI agents in Delaware, has not been brought before a grand jury.

Matt Moran, O’Donnell’s former campaign manager, did not immediately respond Wednesday to questions from The AP. He said earlier this month that the campaign had not been contacted about any investigation and criticized what he called “lies and false-attack rumors.”

The U.S. Attorney’s office has confirmed it is reviewing a complaint about O’Donnell’s campaign spending filed by a watchdog group, but officials in the office and the FBI declined to say whether a criminal investigation was under way.

O’Donnell, who set a state record by raising more than $7.3 million in a tea party-fueled campaign this year, has long been dogged by questions about her finances.

At least two former campaign workers have alleged that she routinely used political contributions to pay her personal expenses in recent years as she ran for the Senate three consecutive times, starting in 2006. The Washington-based watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission making similar allegations and is the group that asked Delaware’s federal prosecutor to investigate.

O’Donnell’s campaign has denied wrongdoing, but acknowledged she had paid part of her rent at times with campaign money, arguing that her house doubled as a campaign headquarters.

Federal law prohibits candidates from spending campaign money for personal benefit. FEC rules say this prohibition applies to the use of campaign money for a candidate’s mortgage or rent “even if part of the residence is being used by the campaign,” although O’Donnell’s campaign maintained that it was told otherwise by someone at the agency.

O’Donnell drew national attention in September when she pulled off one of the primary election season’s biggest upsets by beating moderate Republican Rep. Mike Castle for the GOP Senate nomination. She was handily defeated in November by Democrat Chris Coons following a campaign that focused largely on past controversial statements, including that she’d “dabbled into witchcraft” when she was young.

One former O’Donnell staffer, Kristin Murray, recorded an automated phone call for the Delaware Republican Party just before the primary, accusing O’Donnell of “living on campaign donations — using them for rent and personal expenses, while leaving her workers unpaid and piling up thousands in debt.”

Another former aide, David Keegan, said he became concerned about O’Donnell’s 2008 campaign finances as she fell behind on bills and had no apparent source of income besides political contributions. He submitted an affidavit to CREW alleging that she used campaign money to cover meals, gas, a bowling outing, and rent to a landlord, Brent Vasher.

Vasher, a nephew of Keegan’s and a one-time boyfriend of O’Donnell, declined comment when asked by The AP if he had been contacted by authorities. Vasher bought O’Donnell’s house in 2008 after she was served with a foreclosure notice, then charged her rent to stay there, according to CREW’s complaint.

In a message sent last week to The AP, Keegan said he had not been questioned as part of a criminal investigation, and that he considers himself only a “catalyst” in a case in which several people must be questioned to scrutinize O’Donnell’s accounting practices and alleged misuse of campaign funds.

During her three failed Senate bids, O’Donnell had numerous campaign treasurers, many of who left after serving brief stints. After losing two treasurers in 2009, she named herself treasurer until this past summer. Another short-term treasurer took over in August and resigned less than two months later, at which point Moran added the treasurer’s role to his campaign manager responsibilities.

Democrat Charles Oberly III, the U.S. attorney for Delaware, and his predecessor, David Weiss, did not immediately return messages Wednesday seeking comment. Oberly was sworn in Tuesday as Weiss’ successor.

Kim Reeves, a spokeswoman for the office, reiterated Wednesday that the office was reviewing the CREW complaint. She would not confirm the existence of a criminal probe.

Rich Wolf, a spokesman for the Baltimore office of the FBI, said he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation.

Murray, the former aide who recorded the automated message, also said she had not been contacted about the investigation.

O’Donnell, who announced just after Election Day that she had signed a book deal, hasn’t held a full-time job in years and has struggled to explain how she makes a living.

She reported in July that she earned only $5,800 in income for the previous 18 months through freelance public relations work. She said she lived mostly on a savings account that she reported in an amended Senate disclosure report as being worth between $1,000 and $15,000.

Her financial past includes a tax lien from the IRS, a lawsuit from the university she attended over unpaid bills and a foreclosure action that she avoided by selling her house to Vasher just before a sheriff’s auction. Her campaign maintained the tax lien was an IRS mistake and she attributed some of her other financial problems to mix-ups.

Her campaign reported spending some $6.1 million in the 2010 campaign. Moran said earlier this month that campaign attorney Cleta Mitchell advised reserving several hundred thousand dollars for legal fees to defend against the campaign spending allegations.

Mitchell could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The Associated Press

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