How Third-Party Auditors Make Oil Industry Fraud Possible

DeSmog

How Third-Party Auditors Make Oil Industry Fraud Possible

The accounting companies hired by oil companies to evaluate their inflated financial claims are on the hook from investors frustrated by the lack of accountability.
By Justin Milulka                                    
 

An offshore drilling platform in the distance at sunset with mountains behind.Oil or gas platform in Cook Inlet, Alaska Range Credit: sf-dvs <ahref=”https: creativecommons.org=”” licenses=”” by=”” 2.0=”” “=””>(CC BY 2.0)</ahref=”https:>

Major accounting firm KPMG is under fire from investors who filed a class action lawsuit against the firm for overstating the asset values of now-defunct oil exploration company Miller Energy Resources. And last month, a judge dismissed KPMG’s attempt to have the case thrown out.

At issue in the lawsuit, filed in 2016, is a $4.55 million purchase by Miller Energy in 2009 for land and offshore oil assets in Alaska which included existing oil production infrastructure. Miller Energy then claimed those same assets were worth approximately half a billion dollars, a claim which would require approval by third-party auditors.

But according to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the property and old oil infrastructure in Alaska was worth only a fraction of those claims; inflating its value beyond its worth amounted to fraud, according to the SEC. The SEC stated that “Miller Energy overvalued the Alaska assets by more than $400 million.” But the oil company wasn’t the only one at fault, said the SEC. In January 2016, the SEC sent a cease and desist order for Miller Energy detailing the major fraud case and focusing in part on the role that third-party auditors such as KPMG played in making it possible.

The onshore and offshore Alaskan oil assets purchased by Miller Energy had been abandoned by the previous owner because the asset retirement obligations (AROs) — the amount of money required to properly decommission the existing assets — were likely greater than the value of the remaining oil in the ground. The property was essentially worthless once the cost of the AROs was considered. But Miller Energy then told the SEC in 2010 that property was worth half a billion dollars and KPMG signed off on that estimate for several years, starting in 2011.

In an August 2017 cease and desist order for KPMG, the SEC summarized the extent of KPMG’s failure to perform a valid audit of Miller Energy:

“[T]he KPMG engagement team performed an inadequate assessment of the risks associated with the Miller Energy engagement. Among other things, KPMG’s initial evaluation, which was completed by Riordan and approved by KPMG management, failed to adequately consider Miller Energy’s bargain purchase, its recent history as a penny-stock company, its lack of experienced executives and qualified accounting staff, its existing material weaknesses in internal control over financial reporting, its long history of reported financial losses, and its pressing need to obtain financing to operate the newly acquired Alaska Assets.”

The Miller Energy executive who signed off on the overvaluation ultimately paid an SEC fine of $125,000, while KPMG was fined $1 million.

Oil reserves fraud — in which companies overestimate the amount of oil that can be produced from their assets — has been recognized as a growing problem in the oil and gas industry, as DeSmog has previously reported. But in order for companies to succeed in convincing investors of their incredible claims, it is critical to have independent third-party auditors — like KPMG — to support these claims.

A Seal of Approval on Fraud

Having third-party professionals sign off on corporate financial reporting is a standard part of doing business. The idea is to have independent parties verify that the reports are accurate. When companies are engaged in fraud, getting an apparently reputable third party to put its name on the financial reporting is one way to hide the fraudulent dealings, while also offering plausible deniability to those committing the fraud.

Much like the role of Enron’s auditor, the major accounting firm Arthur Andersen, whose “audits were meant to, and did, act as a seal of approval, a willingness to put a stamp of good practice on Enron transactions,” as Slate described in 2002, Miller Energy found a third party to sign off on its questionable financials: the small firm Sherb & Co.

And just like that seal of approval by a supposedly independent auditor ended up being the downfall of Arthur Andersen — then part of The Big Five accounting firms in the U.S. — and saw Enron’s top executives go to prison, so too are Miller Energy and its auditors’ activities now under scrutiny.

Sherb & Co. completed audits for Miller Energy in 2009 and 2010. Then, in 2013, the SEC found “that Sherb & Co. LLP and its auditors falsely represented in audit reports that they had conducted the audits in accordance with U.S. auditing standards when in fact they were riddled with failures and improper professional conduct.”

But by that time Miller Energy had switched, in 2011, to a new auditing firm to validate the claim that the land and oil infrastructure the company purchased in Alaska was worth one hundred times what it paid for it: Big Four accounting firm KPMG.

SEC and Miller Energy

In August 2017, the SEC charged KPMG with “audit failures” in its work with Miller Energy.

“Auditing firms must fully comprehend the industries of their clients. KPMG retained a new client and failed to grasp how it valued oil and gas properties, resulting in investors being misinformed that properties purchased for less than $5 million were worth a half-billion dollars,” Walter E. Jospin, Director of the SEC’s Atlanta Regional Office, said in a statement at the time.

The SEC’s 2016 order against Miller Energy recounted the details of a 2010 call in which the management discussed how to validate the oil company’s inflated asset valuations. On that call, the Miller Energy CFO reportedly told the other participants that “a professional had to sign off on it, not us, some third party…”

"Upon hearing the news that a new report might take two to three weeks, Alaska personnel, including the Alaska CEO, called the CFO. According to one participant on this call, the CFO said he could not wait weeks for a new report. He “needed it quickly and he needed to base it on something . . . a professional had to sign off on it, not us, some third party. . . .” During the call, the CFO and the Alaska CEO decided to rely on numbers in the insurance report as replacement costs, despite the Alaska CEO having been told by the broker that it could not provide Miller Energy with replacement costs."
Source: SEC Cease and Desist Order to Miller Energy, January 12, 2016

Financial reporting at the heart of the matter in 2010 showed an increase in asset value of over $490 million for Miller Energy, compared to 2009 when the company had assets of less than $10 million. Essentially, the company’s entire value in 2010 was attributable to the Alaskan assets.

Miller Energy 2010 Financial Statement. Source: SEC filing

Both Sherb & Co, and later KPMG, audited and approved that valuation.

Then, in April 2011 the SEC sent a letter to Miller Energy with some questions about its annual 10-K filing from the previous year, first asking the oil company to explain its valuation of the Alaskan property.

Starting with its response to this question, Miller Energy went all-in on its fraudulent claims and shielded itself with the veneer of credibility from a Big Four accounting firm.

“The Management is Incompetent” 

According to SEC documents, KPMG was retained as Miller Energy’s independent auditor on February 1, 2011. Two months later, on April 13, executives for the oil exploration firm rang the opening bell on the stock market floor as the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. It was a big moment for a company with no history of profits and that had been trading as a penny stock before the Alaska purchase.

That day, Miller Energy CEO Scott Boruff gave an interview on the trading floor, mentioning his company’s “explosive growth” and its bright future prospects. Boruff was paid $7.6 million in 2011.

Boruff was joined that day by company founder Delroy Miller, who also happened to be his father-in-law. While this arrangement apparently didn’t raise any questions with auditors, in 2014 their relationship was flagged in more SEC correspondence from “Concerned Miller Shareholders (CMS)”:

“In the absence of proper qualifications, CMS has raised reasonable questions surrounding Mr. Boruff’s appointment as Miller’s CEO and specifically, whether it was motivated by his close familial ties to the Company’s founder.”

Boruff had no oil industry experience before being appointed in 2008 as CEO by his father-in-law. However, Boruff did have experience with companies involved in financial fraud, as lawyers for CMS noted.

According to CMS correspondence with the SEC, in a section titled “The Management is Incompetent,” Boruff had previously worked at the firm GunnAllen Financial, leaving in October 2006, and that “GunnAllen has since been closed by regulators [in 2010] and entered bankruptcy in the wake of investor lawsuits and allegations of a major Ponzi scheme involving Provident Asset Management.”

Provident was a good old-fashioned Ponzi scheme, promising investors eye-popping 18 percent returns from oil and gas royalties. In reality, however, the company paid those returns with money coming from new investors. The scam involved almost a half-billion dollars.

But Boruff, who worked as a broker at GunnAllen, was not charged in that Ponzi scheme. Instead of distancing himself from it, however, as the new head of Miller Energy, he hired Darren Gibson in 2009, who according to documents sent to the SEC, “was Provident’s former National Sales Director during the alleged Ponzi scheme.”

Announcing the new hire in a press release, Boruff said “[Gibson]’s proven track record in raising capital will allow Miller to aggressively pursue our acquisition and drilling program goals.”

But Boruff and Gibson’s proven track record should have raised red flags to auditors evaluating the company’s financial records, especially given the pair’s lack of oil and gas industry experience.

Despite all this, KPMG continued rubber-stamping Miller’s financial statements even after the concerned shareholders had been communicating with the SEC.

Reserves Fraud and Asset Retirement Obligations

As DeSmog has reported, oil and gas companies inflating the values or volumes of their reserves estimates lies at the heart of much of the fraud now surfacing in the industry. Miller Energy is just one example of many.

Another major factor is how oil companies get around financial obligations to clean up their old wells and surrounding lands after they are done extracting oil and gas — known in the industry as asset retirement obligations (AROs). These obligations are increasingly becoming an issue as oil and gas companies try to sell old assets because the cleanup liabilities are likely greater than the value of the oil and gas. This was the case with Miller Energy.

The asset retirement obligations for the Alaskan property Miller acquired were the reason why no one else wanted to buy it.

In July 2010, the SEC asked questions about Miller’s AROs and noted that in 2009, “a third party report had indicated that the AROs for these assets were $41 million.”

Miller Energy’s finances were rife with red flags. Enough even to get one engineering firm, with prior experience with the Alaskan property Miller purchased, to walk away. According to the SEC, this was because the firm “refused to assign any value to a property known as the Redoubt Shoal field [a major part of the Alaskan assets Miller acquired, which was then valued at $291 million by Miller], because it was uneconomical … and the prior firm had explained that it would not put its ‘name on a report that implies value exists where it likely does not.’”

After its Alaska deal, Miller Energy not only needed an auditor to give its seal of approval to claims that its property and oil infrastructure in Alaska had some value, it would require an auditor to agree it was worth half a billion dollars. KPMG was willing to do this.

Third-Party Auditors and KPMG

In 2017, the SEC laid out the many failures of KPMG in the Miller Energy case, including that the evidence that something was wrong should have been obvious to anyone who knew to look for it: “All of these facts were readily ascertainable from the publicly available bankruptcy records of the prior owner of the Alaska Assets. If they had reviewed those records, KPMG would have learned that their understanding of the facts leading to the acquisition was inaccurate.”

The SEC also noted that, like the CEO of Miller Energy, the partner whom KPMG put in charge of the audit, John Riordan, lacked relevant oil and gas industry experience, “resulting in departures from professional standards.”

But the issue was not just one partner at KPMG, according to the SEC, which noted that company management and national personnel “became aware of the unusual and highly material prior-year transaction,” yet “the firm did not take sufficient action.”

KPMG 2015 Audit Quality Report 

 

As the SEC also noted in this case, due diligence requires an auditor to exercise professional skepticism — something the Miller valuation should have raised. Yet in 2011, when the financial website Street Sweeper published research challenging Miller Energy’s financial claims, KPMG chose to overlook those red flags as well, says the SEC. Now defunct, Street Sweeper was known for reporting on “over-valued, over-hyped stocks on Wall Street.”

The SEC noted that KPMG’s Department of Professional Practices (DPP), which was responsible for developing the firm’s internal auditing standards and guidance, failed to step in despite its knowledge of the Miller Energy case.

The SEC concluded that “DPP’s decision not to inquire further about the valuation of the Alaska Assets was unreasonable in light of the circumstances.” It also added that once KPMG learned of the 2011 Street Sweeper report, the department should have provided oversight of both Miller’s assessment and its own company procedures for the valuation.

In August 2017, the SEC found KPMG guilty of a long list of violations with regard to its audits of Miller Energy, including “lack of competence” and “highly unreasonable conduct.”

While not specifically implicated in the Miller Energy audit, David Middendorf, the former head of KPMG’s DPP where he was responsible for “audit quality and professional practice,” was sentenced to prison in 2019 for his part in trying to cover up KPMG’s dismal auditing results from 2013 and 2014.

After being misled about the oil company’s financial realities, many investors in Miller Energy lost their entire investments, which is why they are now suing KPMG.

Investors Lose, Fraudsters Walk Away 

In the end, the SEC settled the charges against KPMG and John Riordan, its partner overseeing the case. KPMG agreed to give back the money it earned from working for Miller Energy, which was a little over $5 million when interest was included. Additionally, KPMG paid a civil penalty of $1 million while Riordan was fined $25,000. Riordan remained a partner at KPMG until he retired in 2020.

KPMG did not respond to a request for comment on whether anyone at KPMG was held accountable for their role in the Miller Energy audit.

Miller Energy was also fined $5 million, but due to its 2015 bankruptcy, it is not clear if that amount was ever paid in full during the three years it had to make the payments. In 2016, the company was reorganized into new entities controlled by Apollo Investment Corporation.

The SEC did not respond to a request for information on the status of that payment.

For their roles in the fraud, Miller’s CFO Paul Boyd and COO David Hall were both personally fined $125,000.

Scott Boruff, the CEO who oversaw all of the fraudulent activity, was not fined. After leaving Miller Energy in March 2016 when the bankruptcy was finalized, Boruff was sued by his father-in-law for failure to repay a $6 million personal loan.

Meanwhile, defrauded investors have turned to a lawsuit against KPMG to try to recoup their losses. That lawsuit is now expected to proceed next year.

Jeffrey Skilling, CEO of Enron, spent 14 years in jail for misleading investors. Arthur Andersen ceased to exist as one of the Big Five accounting firms due to its role in the Enron fraud. Meanwhile, Miller Energy executives and KPMG have essentially walked away with fines irrelevant to the scale of the fraud.

The oil company executives who oversaw the company during this fraud kept the money they were paid.

As this case and many others make clear, there is little incentive for oil industry executives to play by the rules when a company can engage in blatant fraud, get caught, and suffer almost no consequences. However, these frauds require the help of a third-party auditor willing to look the other way.

And while there are clearly auditors and engineering firms who will not put their “name on a report that implies value exists where it likely does not,” as the SEC wrote, there are plenty of others who will — including some of the biggest names in the business.

Justin Mikulka is a freelance investigative journalist. Justin has a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cornell University.

U.S. report concluded COVID-19 may have leaked from Wuhan lab – WSJ

U.S. report concluded COVID-19 may have leaked from Wuhan lab – WSJ

 

Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Wuhan

 

(Reuters) -A report on the origins of COVID-19 by a U.S. government national laboratory concluded that the hypothesis of a virus leak from a Chinese lab in Wuhan is plausible and deserves further investigation, the Wall Street Journal said on Monday, citing people familiar with the classified document.

The study was prepared in May 2020 by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and was referred to by the State Department when it conducted an inquiry into the pandemic’s origins during the final months of the Trump administration, the WSJ report https://on.wsj.com/3pw8T5F said.

Lawrence Livermore’s assessment drew on a genomic analysis of the COVID-19 virus, the Journal said. Lawrence Livermore declined to comment on the Wall Street Journal report.

President Joe Biden said last month he had ordered aides to find answers to the origin of the virus.

U.S. intelligence agencies are considering two likely scenarios – that the virus resulted from a laboratory accident or that it emerged from human contact with an infected animal – but they have not come to a conclusion, Biden said.

A still-classified U.S. intelligence report circulated during former President Donald Trump’s administration alleged that three researchers at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became so ill in November 2019 that they sought hospital care, U.S. government sources have said.

U.S. officials have accused China of not being transparent about the virus’ origins, a charge Beijing has denied.

Separately, Mike Ryan, a top World Health Organization official said on Monday the WHO cannot compel China to divulge more data on COVID-19’s origins, while adding it will propose studies needed to take understanding of where the virus emerged to the “next level”.

Earlier this month, U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci called on China to release the medical records of nine people whose ailments might provide vital clues into whether COVID-19 first emerged as the result of a lab leak.

(Reporting by Akriti Sharma and Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru and Eric Beech in Washington; Editing by Chris Reese, Leslie Adler and Edwina Gibbs)

American democracy is fighting for its life – and Republicans don’t care

American democracy is fighting for its life – and Republicans don’t care

<span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Getty Images

 

On Sunday, the West Virginia senator Joe Manchin announced in an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail that he opposes the For the People Act. He also opposes ending the filibuster.

An op-ed in the most prominent state newspaper is about as non-negotiable a position a senator can assert.

It was a direct thumb-in-your-eye response to President Biden’s thinly veiled criticism of Manchin last Tuesday in Tulsa, where Biden explained why he was having difficulty getting passage of what was supposed to be his highest priority – new voting rights legislation that would supersede a raft of new voter suppression laws in Republican-dominated states, using Trump’s baseless claim of voter fraud as pretext.

“I hear all the folks on TV saying, ‘Why doesn’t Biden get this done?’” Biden asked rhetorically in Tulsa. “Well, because Biden only has a majority of effectively four votes in the House, and a tie in the Senate, with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends. But we’re not giving up.”

Everyone knew he was referring to Manchin, as well as Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, another Democratic holdout.

Manchin’s very public repudiation of Biden on Sunday could mean the end of the For the People Act. That opens the way for Republican states to continue their shameless campaign of voter suppression – very possibly giving Republicans a victory in the 2022 midterm elections and entrenching Republican rule for a generation.

As it is, registered Republicans make up only about 25% of the American electorate, and that percentage appears to be shrinking in the wake of Trump’s malodorous exit.

But because rural Republican states like Wyoming (with 574,000 inhabitants) get two senators just as do urban ones like California (with nearly 40 million), and because Republican states have gerrymandered districts that elect House members to give them an estimated 19 extra seats over what they would have without gerrymandering, the scales were already tipped.

Then came the post-Trump deluge of state laws making it harder for likely Democrats to vote, and easier for Republican state legislatures to manipulate voting tallies.

Manchin says he supports extending the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to all 50 states. That’s small comfort.

The original 1965 Voting Rights Act was struck down by the supreme court in 2013, on the dubious logic that it was no longer needed because states with a history of suppressing Black votes no longer did so. (Note that within 24 hours of the ruling, Texas announced it would implement a strict photo ID law, and Mississippi and Alabama soon followed.)

The efficacy of a new national Voting Rights Act would depend on an activist justice department willing to block state changes in voting laws that suppress votes and on an activist supreme court willing to uphold such justice department decisions. Don’t bet on either. We know what happened to the justice department under Trump, and we know what’s happened to the supreme court.

Besides, a new Voting Rights Act wouldn’t be able to roll back the most recent round of voter suppression laws from Republican states.

Without Manchin, then, the For the People Act is probably dead, unless Biden can convince one Republican senator to join Senate Democrats in supporting it – like, say, Utah’s Mitt Romney, who has publicly rebuked Trump for lying about the 2020 election and has something of a reputation for being an institutionalist who cares about American democracy.

Yet given Trump’s continuing hold over the shrinking Republican party, any Republican senator who joined with the Democrats in supporting the For the People Act would probably be ending their political career. Profiles in courage make good copy for political obituaries and memorials.

I’m afraid history will show that, in this shameful era, Republican senators were more united in their opposition to voting rights than Democratic senators were in their support for them.

The future of American democracy needs better odds.

Amid mega-drought, rightwing militia stokes water rebellion in US west

Amid mega-drought, rightwing militia stokes water rebellion in US west

<span>Photograph: Dave Killen/AP</span>
Photograph: Dave Killen/AP

 

Fears of a confrontation between law enforcement and rightwing militia supporters over the control of water in the drought-stricken American west have been sparked by protests at Klamath Falls in Oregon.

Protesters affiliated with rightwing anti-government activist Ammon Bundy’s People’s Rights Network are threatening to break a deadlock over water management in the area by unilaterally opening the headgates of a reservoir.

The protest has reawakened memories not only of recent standoffs with federal agencies – including the one led by Bundy in eastern Oregon in 2016 – but a longer history of anti-government agitation in southern Oregon and northern California, stretching back to 2000 and beyond.

Related: Climate crisis is suffocating the world’s lakes, study finds

The area is a hotbed of militia and anti-government activity and also hit by the mega-drought that has struck the American west and caused turmoil in the agricultural community as conflicts over water become more intense. Among the current protesters at Klamath Falls are individuals who have themselves been involved in similar actions over two decades, including an illegal release of water at the same reservoir in 2001.

In May, the federal Bureau of Reclamation announced that there would be no further release of water from the reserves in the Klamath Basin for irrigators downstream, who rely on the Klamath Project water infrastructure along the Oregon-California border.

Later in the month, two Oregon irrigators, Grant Knoll and Dan Neilsen, began occupying a piece of land adjacent to the headgates of the main canal which pipes water to downstream farmers and Native American tribal groups, like the Yurok, who depend on the water “flushing” the river for the benefit of salmon hatchlings.

Knoll and Nielsen, along with members of the People’s Rights Network, which has engaged in militant anti-mask protests in neighboring Idaho, began staffing a tent on the property which they dubbed a “water crisis info center”.

Grant Knoll and Dan Nielsen have set up a large tent on land adjacent to the headgates of the main canal.
Grant Knoll and Dan Nielsen have set up a large tent on land adjacent to the headgates of the main canal. Photograph: Dave Killen/AP

 

They also told a number of media outlets that they were prepared to restore the flow of water, even at the price of a confrontation with the federal government, with Knoll telling Jefferson Public Radio last Monday: “We’re going to turn on the water and have a standoff.”

Also on the property is a large metal bucket, daubed with anti-government slogans, which is a memento of a 2001 confrontation at the same spot. That July, 100 farmers, including Knoll and Nielsen, used an 8in-wide irrigation line to bypass the headgate, sending water down the canal. That year, the action by the farmers was followed by other protest actions, such as an American flag-bedecked horse charge, similar to the one that took place on the Bundy ranch during that family’s standoff with federal authorities in 2014.

The confrontation was only defused after appeals were made to the farmers in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks on September 11.

Then as now, the reduced flows were partly with environmental issues in mind.

This year, amid the severe drought, the measure is being taken in accordance with the Endangered Species Act, to ensure the survival of two species of suckerfish whose last remaining habitats are in the reservoirs.

In order to keep enough water in the system to ensure their survival, water must be denied to those who rely on it downstream, including both farmers and tribes who depend on fishing.

Endangered Coho Salmon will likely suffer from the lack of water, along with migrating birds later in the season whose refuges have dried up. But previous court decisions have determined that the interests of those upstream should take precedence, including the Klamath Tribes, for whom the suckerfish have a spiritual significance.

While the protesters claim to represent the interests of farmers, they have been disavowed by agricultural leaders, including Ben DuVal, president of the Klamath Water Users Association, who told the Sacramento Bee that the protesters were “idiots who have no business being here”, who were using the crisis as “a soapbox to push their agenda”.

Whether or not DuVal speaks for the majority of farmers, there is no sign that the so far small protest is catching on like 2001’s anti-government surge, which saw protest crowds in the thousands in the lead up to the breaching of the headgates.

And while the protesters’ placards promise “Ammon Bundy coming soon”, their leader has so far not made the trip to the Klamath camp from neighboring Idaho, where he recently filed to run for governor.

The Superrich Bought Up This Idaho Town and Regular Folks Now May Have to Live in Tents

The Superrich Bought Up This Idaho Town and Regular Folks Now May Have to Live in Tents

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photo Courtesy Brad Womack
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photo Courtesy Brad Womack

Affordable housing in Ketchum—the Idaho resort community adjacent to billionaire and celebrity playground Sun Valley—has been a problem for decades.

But the situation is becoming so dire in the wake of COVID-19 that city officials are considering an unusual range of quick fixes—including building tent cities and RV parks for the common folk in the ultra-rich mountain town, where the average median home listing price is hovering above $900,000.

Residents and housing activists say their friends and neighbors, some whose families have lived in Ketchum for generations, are being priced out as landlords sell buildings to well-heeled buyers and out-of-town investors. The problem is exacerbated, they say, by property owners renting homes for a bigger profit on sites like Airbnb to short-term remote employees escaping Silicon Valley and big cities.

“There’s a joke going around: you either have three houses in Ketchum or three jobs,” said Kris Gilarowski, a hospitality worker and father of two who recently launched a Facebook group titled Occupy Ketchum Town Square to address the housing crisis.

And those losing homes and apartments aren’t just service industry workers, but teachers, nurses, and other professionals who are fast becoming the hidden homeless in the picturesque city of roughly 2,800 people.

“I think the people who have three jobs don’t have time to write a letter to the editor or go to a city council meeting,” Gilarowski told The Daily Beast. “It got me thinking that you need to get these people involved, because if they don’t come out, a solution won’t happen.”

As local TV station KTVB reported, some temporary housing solutions weighed by city officials include “a plan to allow Ketchum’s nurses, teachers, and service workers to sleep in tents in the city park as rent and housing costs continue to soar out of their grasp.”

The discussions come at a time when one developer is seeking approval for an affordable housing complex downtown called Bluebird Village but facing backlash from residents who claim the building will be an eyesore and absorb valuable parking spaces.

They also follow another developer’s $9 million sale of an affordable apartment building called KETCH, leaving residents unable to pay new rates imposed by the new landlord. (At a recent city council meeting, one KETCH resident said the new owner increased rents by 50 to 60 percent. “He wants me to be paying $1,700 for 425 square feet. It’s insane, it shouldn’t have happened,” the woman said.)

“One of the biggest oppositions to Bluebird and any affordable housing, really, was aesthetics,” Reid Stillman, a mayoral candidate who works in advertising and is scrambling to find rental housing himself, told The Daily Beast. “That is so embarrassing when we’re dealing with human lives.”

“We have this older generation worried about the look and color of the brick of the building,” Stillman added. “What they don’t understand is these are the people that serve them food, sell them clothes, bag their groceries… and you’re not allowing them to have affordable places to live because you’re worried about the color of brick in town.”

Meanwhile, Gilarowski said he’s heard from long-term residents who received notices of rent hikes anywhere from $600 to $1,500—and one well-paid hospital worker lived in his car for three weeks because he couldn’t find a place to live.

Gilarowski shared another horror story at a special city council meeting last month to address the crisis: A couple was living in a tent in Sawtooth National Forest for 94 days through January before they found affordable housing.

“I do support the city of Ketchum opening up some public spaces, so people could temporarily park an RV, pitch a tent, because then we can’t hide from these people,” Gilarowski said at the meeting. “These are the people that work at your school. These are the people that work at your local business. These are the people that serve you. I know some of you put up your $8 million houses … but you don’t have compassion for working class people. You say you’re for community housing but ‘not this project, not that project…’”

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Gilarowski alluded to the wealth infused in Ketchum and neighboring Sun Valley, including Allen & Co.’s annual media conference, sometimes referred to as a “summer camp for billionaires.” (This year, the guest list includes Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos.)

“There’s so much wealth here and it’s kind of embarrassing to hear that people, families, decide to live for 94 days in a national forest, hidden,” Gilarowski said.

Ketchum Mayor Neil Bradshaw raised a variety of possible solutions to the housing crisis at the council meeting: using city funds to rent hotel rooms this summer and encouraging local residents to rent out spare rooms. He also floated using public lands, including parks or parking lots, for temporary tent sites or RV parking.

Bradshaw said Ketchum’s Rotary Park could house a number of tents, has public restrooms and was across from a YMCA, which has showers. “It would require a certain level of qualification to stay there, so the people would have to show they are working for a local business and contributing to our economy in a certain way. It wouldn’t just be for roadtrippers passing through Ketchum,” Bradshaw told the crowd.

But Stillman blamed Bradshaw and city officials for not acting sooner and called the tent city for nurses and teachers “a joke.”

“We have homeless people,” Stillman countered at the meeting. “They may not be on the street and you may not see them, which is good for you and good for business. But they’re living on couches, they’re in our friends’ houses, they’re in tents up north, they’re camping down south, they’re doing anything they can to get to work here in town.

“We’re not just talking waitresses and waiters,” Stillman added. “We’re talking nurses, and medical supply people, teachers. My best friend works at Montessori school—he’s a teacher, he has nowhere to live.”

Stillman said his own landlord sold his apartment building and he must be out by September. “I make good money and I still can’t find a place,” Stillman said. “So it’s not just affecting one income level … To live in a tent in Rotary Park is a joke especially for people who need WiFi, have to work and have to make a living. That’s a joke.”

“Not only am I going to be homeless with a good job Sept. 1, but my friends who are in the service industry who don’t make a lot of money, they can’t pay $2,900 a month for a two bedroom in Ketchum. This isn’t San Francisco, Neil,” Stillman fumed.

In an interview on Monday, Stillman told us Ketchum suffers from a disconnect among the city’s classes, a situation that stymies action on workforce housing. He said there’s everyday permanent residents who have three to four jobs just to live in the city, second-homers who travel in for vacations, and extremely wealthy people who own a house in Ketchum which they visit only a week or so out of the year.

“Not everyone has a seat at the table,” Stillman said. “I feel our current leader caters to a certain population and there’s not an open line of communication with longterm residents.”

Bradshaw told The Daily Beast that the tent housing was only one idea suggested during a community workshop and bristled at The Daily Beast, and local mediaplaying up the specter of tent cities. He said Ketchum city planners are also looking into whether elderly homeowners could rent out rooms in their homes in exchange for tenants helping with yard work or other chores, and into altering city code to allow RVs on private property or using federal funds for rental assistance.

The mayor said newer, wealthier residents who fled cities for mountain ski towns during the coronavirus pandemic put pressure on Ketchum’s already limited housing market, driving up rental prices as much as 50 percent.

“We are a small town,” Bradshaw said. “We have seen over the last year, an influx of more people moving to our town due to COVID. COVID has taken what was probably going to happen in 15 years and accelerated it into 15 months.”

“COVID has been the catalyst to amplifying our housing situation,” added Bradshaw, who like others interviewed for this story, noted that for dozens and dozens of help-wanted ads in local press, there’s only a handful of rental advertisements.

“This is so complicated and so nuanced, and it’s happening around the country, it’s not just us,” the mayor continued. “Just like we were during COVID, because we had the highest density of COVID cases per capita at one point, we’re having our little moment of fame here with this idea of affordable housing. But we’re a microcosm of what’s happening around the country.”

The city’s hands are tied, Bradshaw said, because its taxing authority is limited—other hotspots for the uber-rich like Aspen, Colorado, for example, enjoy a real-estate transfer tax that Idaho lacks—and it’s unable to limit Airbnb, VRBO and other short-term rentals because of a 2017 state law.

“We have a very wealthy population and most of them are very supportive of affordable housing although, you know, always wanting something else that’s maybe not quite in their backyard,” Bradshaw said.

In recent months, a retired doctor named Gary Hoffman parked a trailer throughout Ketchum and covered it with a massive sign that declared, “What The One Percenters Ignore: Affordable housing has always been the lifeblood of a vibrant community. A town dies when its most productive people cannot afford to live in it.” Hoffman’s banner also demanded in all caps: “Worker housing now!”

The 79-year-old physician owns a pair of mobile home parks just outside Ketchum and a rental cabin on a 28-acre ranch about 24 miles south of the city.

After the tenant of the cabin announced she was moving out, Hoffman placed a rental ad in the local newspaper, for $650 a month, and received 85 phone calls in 48 hours. “It went to the second person who called. So I had 83 more calls to field,” he said.

The doc saw it as an opportunity to galvanize more residents into fighting for affordable housing. “Everybody I talked to after that, I said, ‘What the hell are you doing to get things changed around here? What are you doing besides bemoaning the fact that we don’t have housing? Are you going to meetings? Are you writing letters to the editor, are you protesting, are you picketing, are you going down to Boise and haranguing the legislators who said Airbnbs and VRBOs are wonderful in resort communities?’”

On Monday, Hoffman was busy doing his own roofing repairs at the mobile home park since he couldn’t find construction workers who were immediately available. “There’s a lot of construction already, everybody who’s got a contracting construction company is working to the max,” Hoffman said.

The mobile home parks are some of the area’s only workforce housing, where tenants pay an average of $550 a month. Many of Hoffman’s tenants work in construction, landscaping or basic clerical work, speak Spanish as a first language, and “do the work nobody else wants to do,” he said.

“People look at the parks I have and they say, ‘My God, you could double your rents.’ People are working, they live there,” Hoffman told us. “Why would I do that if I don’t need the money? And I don’t, so there you go.”

What the Ottoman Empire can teach us about the consequences of climate change

What the Ottoman Empire can teach us about the consequences of climate change – and how drought can uproot peoples and fuel warfare

<span class="caption">Drought's effects on the population slowed the Ottoman Empire's expansion in the 16th century.</span> <span class="attribution"><a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ottoman_army_at_Tiflis_in_1578_(Nusretname_miniature).jpg" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Lessing Archives">Lessing Archives</a></span>
Drought’s effects on the population slowed the Ottoman Empire’s expansion in the 16th century. Lessing Archives.

 

In the late 16th century, hundreds of bandits on horseback stormed through the countryside of Ottoman Anatolia raiding villages, inciting violence and destabilizing the sultan’s grip on power

Four hundred years later and a few hundred miles away in the former Ottoman territory of Syria, widespread protests escalated into a bloody civil war in 2011 that persists to this day.

These dark episodes in Mediterranean history share key features that offer a warning for the future: Both forced waves of people from their homes. Both were rooted in politics and had dramatic political consequences. And both were fueled by extreme weather associated with climate change.

As an environmental historian, I have researched and written extensively about conflict and environmental pressures in the Eastern Mediterranean region. While severe droughts, hurricanes, rising oceans and climate migration can seem new and unique to our time, past crises like these and others carry important lessons about how changing climates can destabilize human societies. Let’s take a closer look.

Three men and two boys stand on a dry landscape
Drought in the heartland of an empire

We live in an era of global warming largely due to unsustainable human practices. Generally known as the Anthropocene, this era is widely considered to have emerged in the 19th century on the heels of another period of major global climate change called the Little Ice Age.

The Little Ice Age brought cooler-than-average temperatures and extreme weather to many parts of the globe. Unlike current anthropogenic warming, it likely was triggered by natural factors such as volcanic activity, and it affected different regions at different times, to different degrees and in vastly different ways.

Its onset in the late 16th century was particularly noticeable in Anatolia, a largely rural region that once formed the heartland of the Ottoman Empire and is roughly coterminous with modern-day Turkey. Much of the land traditionally was used for cultivating grain or herding sheep and goats. It provided a critical food source for the rural population as well as residents of the bustling Ottoman capital, Istanbul (Constantinople).

<span class="caption">Lands of the Ottoman Empire.</span> <span class="attribution"><a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/19/Ottoman_empire.svg/2458px-Ottoman_empire.svg.png" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:André Koehne/The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923">André Koehne/The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923</a>, <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:CC BY-SA">CC BY-SA</a></span>

Lands of the Ottoman Empire. Andre Koehne/The Historical Atlas by William R. Sheperd, 1923, CC BY -SA.

 

The two decades surrounding 1600 were especially tough. Anatolia experienced some of its coldest and driest years in history, tree rings and other paleoclimatological data suggest. This period also had frequent droughts, frosts and floods. At the same time, the region’s inhabitants reeled under an animal plague and oppressive state policies, including the requisitioning of grain and meat for a costly war in Hungary.

Prolonged poor harvests, war and hardship exposed major shortcomings in the Ottoman provisioning system. While inclement weather stalled state efforts to distribute limited food supplies, famine spread across the countryside to Istanbul, accompanied by a deadly epidemic.

By 1596, a series of uprisings collectively known as the Celali Rebellion had erupted, becoming the longest-lasting internal challenge to state power in the Ottoman Empire’s six centuries of existence.

An old illustration of men fighting on horseback
An old illustration of men fighting on horseback

 

Peasants, semi-nomadic groups and provincial leaders alike contributed to this movement through a rash of violence, banditry and instability that lasted well into the 17th century. As drought, disease and bloodshed persisted, people abandoned farms and villages, fleeing Anatolia in search of more stable areas, while famine killed many who lacked the resources to leave.

Weakening of the Ottoman Empire

Before this point, the Ottoman Empire had been one of the most powerful regimes in the early modern world. It included large swaths of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and controlled the holiest sites of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Over the previous century, Ottoman troops had pushed into Central Asia, annexed most of Hungary, and advanced across the Hapsburg Empire to threaten Vienna in 1529.

The Celali Rebellion had major political consequences.

The Ottoman government succeeded in reestablishing relative calm in rural Anatolia by 1611, but at a cost. The sultan’s control over the provinces was irreversibly weakened, and this internal check on Ottoman authority helped curb the trend of Ottoman expansion.

The Celali Rebellion closed the door on the Ottoman “Golden Age,” sending this monumental empire into a spiral of decentralization, military setbacks and administrative weakness that would trouble the Ottoman state for its remaining three centuries of existence.

Climate change as a threat multiplier

Four hundred years later, environmental stress coincided with social unrest to launch Syria into an enduring and devastating civil war.

This conflict emerged in the context of political oppression and the Arab Spring movement, and on the tail end of one of Syria’s worst droughts in modern history.

The magnitude of the environment’s role in the Syrian civil war is difficult to gauge because, as in the Celali Rebellion, its impact was indelibly linked to social and political pressures. But the brutal combination of these forces can’t be ignored. It’s why military experts today talk about climate change as a “threat multiplier.”

Dry, empty landscape with a tractor
Farmers ride in a tractor in the drought-hit region of Hasaka, Syria, in 2010. Louai Beshara/AFP via Getty Images

 

Now entering its second decade, the Syrian war has driven over 13 million Syrians from their homes. About half are internally displaced, while the rest have sought refuge in surrounding states, Europe and beyond, greatly intensifying the global refugee crisis.

Lessons for today and the future

The Mediterranean region may be particularly prone to the negative effects of global warming, but these two stories are far from isolated cases.

As Earth’s temperatures rise, the climate will increasingly hamper human affairs, exacerbating conflict and driving migration. In recent years, low-lying countries such as Bangladesh have been devastated by flooding, while drought has upended lives in the Horn of Africa and Central America, sending large numbers of migrants into other countries.

Mediterranean history offers three important lessons for addressing current global environmental issues:

  • First, negative effects of climate change fall disproportionately on poor and marginalized individuals, those least able to respond and adapt.
  • Second, environmental challenges tend to hit hardest when combined with social forces, and the two are often indistinguishably connected.
  • Third, climate change has the potential to prompt migration and resettlement, spur violence, unseat regimes and dramatically transform human societies throughout the world.

Climate change ultimately will affect everyone – in dramatic, distressing and unforeseen ways. As we contemplate this future, there is much we can learn from our past.

Read more:

Andrea Duffy does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

After judge overturns California assault weapons ban, state officials vow to fight back

After judge overturns California assault weapons ban, state officials vow to fight back

June 5, 2021

 

Police photos of assault rifles and handguns are displayed during a news conference
Police display a photo of assault rifles and handguns at a news conference after the 2015 San Bernardino mass shooting.
(Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

 

Families of mass shooting victims, gun control advocates and California officials condemned a federal judge’s decision to overturn California’s 30-year-old ban on assault weapons, largely because of the manner in which he justified his ruling.

In declaring the ban unconstitutional late Friday, U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez compared the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to a Swiss Army knife, calling it “good for both home and battle.”

Benitez, who was nominated by former President George W. Bush and serves in the Southern District of California, issued a permanent injunction against the law’s enforcement but stayed it for 30 days to give the state a chance to appeal.

California is one of seven states, plus Washington, D.C., that ban assault weapons, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

In his 94-page ruling, Benitez wrote that it was unlawful for California to prohibit its citizens from possessing weapons permitted in most other states and allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Advocates for the right to bear arms hailed the ruling.

“This is by far the most fact-intensive, detailed judicial opinion on this issue ever,” said Dave Kopel, an adjunct professor of constitutional law at the University of Denver and adjunct scholar at libertarian think tank the Cato Institute.

State Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta called the decision “fundamentally flawed” and said he would appeal.

“There is no sound basis in law, fact, or common sense for equating assault rifles with Swiss Army knives — especially on Gun Violence Awareness Day and after the recent shootings in our own California communities,” Bonta said in a statement.

Last month, a gunman opened fire at a light rail yard in San Jose, killing nine co-workers and dying of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Emergency responders respond to a fire at the house of the suspect of a shooting, after nine people were reported dead including the shooter on May 26, 2021 at the San Jose Railyard in San Jose, California. - Multiple people were killed in a shooting Wednesday at a rail yard in California's Bay Area, police said, the latest instance of deadly gun violence in the United States. "I can't confirm the exact number of injuries and fatalities. But I will tell you that there are multiple injuries and multiple fatalities in this case," Russell Davis, a Santa Clara County Sheriff's deputy, told journalists, adding that the gunman was dead. (Photo by Amy Osborne / AFP) (Photo by AMY OSBORNE/AFP via Getty Images)

Officials said he was armed with three semiautomatic 9-millimeter handguns and 32 high-capacity magazines loaded with additional ammunition.

AR-15s have been used in some of the nation’s deadliest mass shootings, including the attack at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub that killed 49 people in 2016, and one in Las Vegas that killed 58 people in 2017.

“I can assure you — if a Swiss Army knife was used at Pulse, we would have had a birthday party for my best friend last week,” Brandon Wolf, who survived the Florida attack, wrote on Twitter. “Not a vigil.”

Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the ruling made her do a double-take.

“I have two daughters, and they read dystopian fiction, like the ‘Hunger Games,’ and it was kind of like that,” she said. “It can’t be real. Nobody, ever, who is a thinking human being with a heartbeat, could possibly liken a Swiss Army knife to an AR-15.”

In response to several mass shootings on his watch, President Biden announced in April that his administration would take steps toward greater gun regulation.

They include a proposal to require background checks for self-assembled firearms — so-called ghost guns — and a law that would allow family members or law enforcement agencies to request a court order to take guns away from a person who is a danger to themselves or others. Nineteen states, including California, have already passed such laws.

“Today’s decision is a direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians, period,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday in a statement. “The fact that this judge compared the AR-15 — a weapon of war that’s used on the battlefield — to a Swiss Army knife completely undermines the credibility of this decision and is a slap in the face to the families who’ve lost loved ones to this weapon.”

The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed in August 2019 by pro-gun groups, including the San Diego County Gun Owners Political Action Committee, California Gun Rights Foundation, Second Amendment Foundation and Firearms Policy Coalition.

The plaintiffs also included three San Diego County men who said they own legal rifles or pistols and want to use high-capacity magazines in them but can’t, because doing so would turn them into illegal assault weapons under California statutes.

In cases in which the government seeks to limit people’s constitutional rights, such as those guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment, the government has the burden of proving the limitation is helping to advance an important public interest, like reducing mass shootings, Kopel said.

“You’re essentially weighing how much of a burden you are inflicting on law-abiding people versus how much you are reducing whatever problem you’re trying to deal with,” he said. In this case, he said, the judge found that “we’re not getting any reduction in mass shootings, and it’s imposing quite a severe burden on innocent people, like people who want to have these types of firearms for protection in the home.”

Other legal experts found the judge’s reasoning less compelling.

“The judge in this case, in declaring the ban on assault weapons to be a failed policy experiment and therefore unconstitutional, was engaging in his own policy judgment,” said Susan Estrich, professor at the USC Gould School of Law. “His very reasoning undercuts his own conclusion.”

California became the first state to ban the sale of assault weapons in 1989 in response to a shooting at a Stockton elementary school that left five students dead. The ban, signed into law by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, has been updated multiple times since then to expand the definition of what is considered an assault weapon.

Each time, those who owned the firearms before they were prohibited were required to register them. There are an estimated 185,569 such weapons registered with the state, Benitez said.

In response to the ban soon after it was enacted, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found the 2nd Amendment applied only as a limitation on the federal government, not state governments, Kopel said.

But in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling saying the 2nd Amendment applies to cities and states, which helped pave the way for this decision, he said.

In the current case, the state attorney general’s office argued that assault weapons are more dangerous than other firearms and are disproportionately used in crimes and mass shootings. Similar restrictions have previously been upheld by six other federal district and appeals courts, the state argued.

But the judge said the firearms targeted by the ban are most commonly used for legal purposes.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA - MAY 27: A young mourner cries during a vigil for the nine victims of a shooting at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) light rail yard on May 27, 2021 in San Jose, California. Nine people were killed when a VTA employee opened fire at the VTA light rail yard during a shift change on Wednesday morning. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“This case is not about extraordinary weapons lying at the outer limits of 2nd Amendment protection,” he wrote. “The banned ‘assault weapons’ are not bazookas, howitzers, or machine guns.”

“In California, murder by knife occurs seven times more often than murder by rifle,” he added.

The state is also appealing two other rulings by Benitez: one from 2017 that overturns a ban on buying and selling magazines that hold more than 10 bullets, and another from April of last year that blocks a 2019 law requiring background checks to buy ammunition.

In the case of the assault weapons ban, the decision will almost certainly be stayed beyond 30 days, pending an appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and there’s an excellent chance the court will issue a reversal, given its liberal tendencies, Estrich said.

“Ultimately,” she said, “the question may be whether the United States Supreme Court, with its new conservative appointees, sees this as an opportunity to dig into assault weapons bans.”

That could imperil gun control laws that are on the books across the country, Brown said.

“The Supreme Court overturning these kinds of laws that are designed to promote public safety has huge negative implications, not only for assault weapons bans but for every public safety law that we have ever crafted to regulate guns, including the Brady law.” she said, referring to the 1994 requirement that firearm purchasers undergo federal background checks.

“So yes, I’m very concerned about it.”

Opinion: Republican senators managed to outdo themselves in cowardice

Washington Post

Opinion: Republican senators managed to outdo themselves in cowardice

Opinion by George T. Conway III, Contributing columnist   June 2, 2021

 

Image without a caption
Republican senators have managed to outdo themselves in cowardice — which is quite a feat.

Last week’s Senate vote blocking a national commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol was even more appalling than either of the Senate’s impeachment trial acquittals of former president Donald Trump.

With few exceptions, Senate Republicans shirked their duties at both trials, despite the oaths they took to defend the Constitution, and, in an impeachment trial, to “do impartial justice.” These derelictions were especially apparent in the first impeachment trial. Faced with overwhelming evidence that Trump had used his official powers to try to coerce a foreign nation into aiding his reelection campaign, all but one Republican (Utah’s Mitt Romney) voted to acquit him, even as the senators refused to call witnesses.
They betrayed their oaths again in February, when 43 of the 50 Republican senators voted to acquit Trump of inciting the insurrection, even though he had largely committed his high crime openly, on television and Twitter, and even though the senators themselves were among the victims.

They acquitted him even though they surely recognized, as their own leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), blisteringly said on the floor on Feb. 13 after voting to acquit, that Trump had engaged in a “disgraceful — disgraceful — dereliction of duty.” Rather than “do his job,” McConnell said, Trump “watched television happily — happily — as the chaos unfolded,” hoping “to either overturn the voters’ decision or else torch our institutions on the way out.”

Trump breached his duties in both cases, and Senate Republicans thus failed to carry out theirs. But at least then the senators had excuses, however feeble.

With the first impeachment, they faced the momentous decision of whether to remove a president from office — something that has never been done. You can’t blame anyone for feeling trepidation at such a prospect.

The second time around, most claimed they couldn’t convict a former president, even though he had been impeached while in office for acts committed while in office. Constitutional text and history refute that proposition, but you could at least understand one underlying motivation: The usual sanction for an impeachment conviction is removal. Trump was already gone, posed no further threat of committing official abuse, had just lost an election by 7 million votes and stood as unpopular as ever. So, at least the theory went, why bother convicting him just to formally disqualify him from ever holding federal offices to which he’d never be elected?

Those may not have been great excuses, but at least the Republicans had them.

There was no excuse — none — for what they did last week.

They weren’t being asked to remove anyone from office; they weren’t being asked to pass judgment of any sort. They were merely being asked to allow a bipartisan commission to look into what happened on, and led to, Jan. 6.

Even worse: They actually weren’t voting on whether to create a commission; they were voting on cloture — on whether even to allow a vote on the issue. Using the filibuster, a Republican minority refused to allow a majority (which would have included seven Republicans) to hold that vote.

And they did so out of raw political fear, this time without fig leaves. McConnell’s own leadership colleague, minority whip Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), actually admitted that Republicans feared that the commission’s findings “could be weaponized politically and drug into next year,” a midterm election year.

As for McConnell, he pulled out all the stops. Virtually echoing British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s notorious call to partisanship in the decisive 1940 parliamentary debate over his handling of Nazi aggression — “I have friends in the House” — McConnell shamelessly asked his colleagues to kill the commission bill as “a personal favor” to him.

With that, the Republicans’ policy of appeasing Trump prevailed once again. But if Republicans are worried about what would happen if the public learned more of the truth about Jan. 6, they have only themselves to blame.

After all, they were the ones who acquitted Trump in the first impeachment trial and let him remain in office. They were the ones who stood mute before Jan. 6 as Trump propagated the “big lie” after the election. They were the ones who left open the horrifying prospect of letting Trump hold office again. They are the ones who continue to wish his wrongs away.

They quiver in fear of the man who cost them the presidency and both houses of Congress. As they continue to quake, the “big lie’s” cancer upon democracy grows, with spurious election audits in pursuit of fantasies of fraud, and with some insanely claiming — reportedly including Trump himself — that he’ll be “reinstated” in due course.

Four years of Trump have led to the Republican Party becoming a threat to democracy, a declining sect dominated by crackpots, charlatans and cowards. Of these, it’s the cowards, including the senators who killed last week’s legislation, who bear the most blame.

Drought saps California reservoirs as hot, dry summer looms

Drought saps California reservoirs as hot, dry summer looms

 

OROVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Each year Lake Oroville helps water a quarter of the nation’s crops, sustain endangered salmon beneath its massive earthen dam and anchor the tourism economy of a Northern California county that must rebuild seemingly every year after unrelenting wildfires.

But the mighty lake — a linchpin in a system of aqueducts and reservoirs in the arid U.S. West that makes California possible — is shrinking with surprising speed amid a severe drought, with state officials predicting it will reach a record low later this summer.

While droughts are common in California, this year’s is much hotter and drier than others, evaporating water more quickly from the reservoirs and the sparse Sierra Nevada snowpack that feeds them. The state’s more than 1,500 reservoirs are 50% lower than they should be this time of year, according to Jay Lund, co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California-Davis.

Over Memorial Day weekend, dozens of houseboats sat on cinderblocks at Lake Oroville because there wasn’t enough water to hold them. Blackened trees lined the reservoir’s steep, parched banks.

At nearby Folsom Lake, normally bustling boat docks rested on dry land, their buoys warning phantom boats to slow down. Campers occupied dusty riverbanks farther north at Shasta Lake.

But the impacts of dwindling reservoirs go beyond luxury yachts and weekend anglers. Salmon need cold water from the bottom of the reservoirs to spawn. The San Francisco Bay needs fresh water from the reservoirs to keep out the salt water that harms freshwater fish. Farmers need the water to irrigate their crops. Businesses need reservoirs full so people will come play in them and spend money.

And everyone needs the water to run hydroelectric power plants that supply much of the state’s energy.

If Lake Oroville falls below 640 feet (195 meters) — which it could do by late August — state officials would shut down a major power plant for just the second time ever because of low water levels, straining the electrical grid during the hottest part of the summer.

In Northern California’s Butte County, low water prompts another emotion: fear. The county suffered the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century in 2018 when 85 people died. Last year, another 16 people died in a wildfire.

Walking along the Bidwell Canyon trail last week, 63-year-old Lisa Larson was supposed to have a good view of the lake. Instead, she saw withered grass and trees.

“It makes me feel like our planet is literally drying up,” she said. “It makes me feel a little unsettled because the drier it gets, the more fires we are going to have.”

Droughts are a part of life in California, where a Mediterranean-style climate means the summers are always dry and the winters are not always wet. The state’s reservoirs act as a savings account, storing water in the wet years to help the state survive during the dry ones.

Last year was the third driest on record in terms of precipitation. Temperatures hit triple digits in much of California over the Memorial Day weekend, earlier than expected. State officials were surprised earlier this year when about 500,000 acre feet (61,674 hectare meters) of water they were expecting to flow into reservoirs never showed up. One acre-foot is enough water to supply up to two households for one year.

“In the previous drought, it took (the reservoirs) three years to get this low as they are in the second year of this drought,” Lund said.

The lake’s record low is 646 feet (197 meters), but the Department of Water Resources projects it will dip below that sometime in August or September. If that happens, the state will have to close the boat ramps for the first time ever because of low water levels, according to Aaron Wright, public safety chief for the Northern Buttes District of California State Parks. The only boat access to the lake would be an old dirt road that was built during the dam’s construction in the late 1960s.

“We have a reservoir up there that’s going to be not usable. And so now what?” said Eric Smith, an Oroville City Council member and president of its chamber of commerce.

The water level is so low at Lake Mendocino, along the Russian River in Northern California, that state officials last week reduced the amount of water heading to 930 farmers, businesses and other junior water-rights holders.

“Unless we immediately reduce diversions, there is a real risk of Lake Mendocino emptying by the end of this year,” said Erik Ekdahl, deputy director for the State Water Board’s Division of Water Rights.

Low water levels across California will severely limit how much power the state can generate from hydroelectric power plants. When Lake Oroville is full, the Edward Hyatt Power Plant and others nearby can generate up to 900 megawatts of power, according to Behzad Soltanzadeh, chief of utility operations for the Department of Water Resources. One megawatt is enough to power between 800 and 1,000 homes.

That has some local officials worrying about power outages, especially after the state ran out of energy last summer during an extreme heat wave that prompted California’s first rotating blackouts in 20 years. But energy officials say they are better prepared this summer, having obtained an additional 3,500 megawatts of capacity ahead of the scorching summer months.

The low levels are challenging for tourism officials. Bruce Spangler, president of the board of directors for Explore Butte County, grew up in Oroville and has fond memories of fishing with his grandfather and learning to launch and drive a boat before he could drive a car. But this summer, his organization has to be careful about how it markets the lake while managing visitors’ expectations, he said.

“We have to be sure we don’t promise something that can’t be,” he said.

Low lake levels haven’t stopped tourists from coming yet. With coronavirus restrictions lifting across the state, Wright — the state parks official for Northern California — said attendance at most parks in his area is double what it normally is this time of year.

“People are trying to recreate and use facilities even more so (because) they know they are going to lose them here in a few months,” he said.

Associated Press writer Brian Melley in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Surge in Early Retirements Exposes Inequalities Among U.S. Baby Boomers

Surge in Early Retirements Exposes Inequalities Among U.S. Baby Boomers

(Bloomberg) — The surge in early retirements spurred by the pandemic is increasing inequality among Baby Boomers in the U.S., with older Black workers without a college degree more likely to be forced to exit the labor market prematurely, a study showed.

At least 1.7 million older workers retired early because of the pandemic crisis, according to a report by the New School for Social Research’s Retirement Equity Lab.

The Covid-19 health crisis is creating two classes of early retirees. People who have investments are taking advantage of the unprecedented surge in shares and home values to enjoy their silver years.

Read More: Millennials at 40 Are Falling Behind Their Parents in Every Way

Meanwhile, many low-paid workers without much retirement savings found themselves forced out of their jobs with little prospect of finding employment again. Retiring before the full retirement age will result in a cut in their Social Security benefits, by as much as 30%.

The few years before 65 are crucial to prepare for retirement and unplanned exits can lead to downward mobility and even poverty for these workers, according to Teresa Ghilarducci, economist and director of the Retirement Equity Lab.

“The pandemic is revealing the main fault line in our broken retirement system — inequality,” said Ghilarducci, who’s also a Bloomberg Opinion contributor.

Workers age 55 to 64 without a college degree retired at a 5% faster pace during the pandemic, while retirement for that age group with a college education declined by 4%, according to the Retirement Equity Labreport. At older ages, over 65, college-degree holders were more likely to exit the labor market than pre-Covid, however.

Black workers without a college degree experienced the highest increase in retirement rate before 65, jumping from 16.4% to 17.9% between 2019 and 2021, the data show.

The researchers found that older workers without a college degree had median household retirement savings of only $9,000 in 2019, compared with $167,000 for those with a college degree.