Comparing Punishments for Fraud: Atlanta Teachers vs. 2008 Banksters

© Josh Sager – April 2015

Last week, eight Atlanta teachers and school administrators who were involved in test-fixing scandal were sentenced to significant prison time. This conclusion to the Atlanta test-fixing scandal is an unfortunate illustration of the inequities that have characterized our modern criminal justice system.

The state argued that these educators constituted an organized criminal organization that sought to artificially increase student test scores in order to gain personal bonuses. Put simply, teachers and administrators looked over high-stakes standardized testing sheets submitted by their students, erased some incorrect answers, and re-submitted them to be graded. These erasures boosted the average test score dramatically in some schools, creating the false perception that students were improving. As student scores were tied to incentive pay for educators, this resulted in thousands of dollars in bonuses for teachers.

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Georgia prosecutors invoked the RICO anti-racketeering law—which is usually reserved for organized crime and corrupt judges/politicians—to convict these educators. The three highest-ranking administrators were sentenced to 7 years in prison and 13 years on probation, while the other five were sentenced to between 1 and 2 years in prison. These sentences are dramatically higher than what the state actually asked for, as Judge Jerry Baxter decided to use his discretion to impose these draconian sentences.

Test-fixing is a serious problem because it can redirect resources away from students who need them and can result in poorly-educated students not getting the help they need to catch up. That said, it isn’t the equivalent to organized crime, nor is it a reason to send teachers to jail for years.

The true injustice of these sentences can only be seen when you compare them to other analogous situations. One of the most stark such comparisons can be made between this case and the treatment of the banksters after the 2008 economic crash:

In 2008, our economy crashed because a bunch of wealth bankers decided to defraud their investors and sabotage their own banks. They created worthless derivatives using fraudulently-signed mortgages, and then sold these products to their customers with the intent to bet against them. The purpose of these illegal actions was to create a short term boom in the economy that they could ride to personal wealth, as well as to generate increased short-term profits in their banks so that they could claim millions of dollars in bonuses.

When the entire house of cards these bankers created started to fall, they had already extracted billions in wealth from the banks and were insulated from the economic consequences of their fraud. The government had to step in to prevent the entire banking system from crashing and we ended up bailing out the banks. Despite the clear proof of the fraud that had caused the crash, no bankers were ever charged with their crimes and many of them not only kept their jobs, but also were allowed to give themselves even larger bonuses using some of the bailout money.

Teacher cheat

If we treated the Atlanta teachers like we did the bankers who crashed our economy, this court case would never have been brought—in fact, the teachers would have kept their jobs, been allowed to keep all of their bonuses (as well as give themselves new bonuses), and the failing schools that they teach at would have been “bailed out” with as much public money as is needed to stabilize them.

The inequalities illustrated in this disparity are multi-faceted:

First, we see how rich entities are held to a different standard than poor ones. The banks have billions in wealth, while these teachers and their schools are just scraping by. This means that the government can comfortably make an example out of the poor teachers, but is unwilling to do anything that may harm the bankers who contribute money to political campaigns. This is even true when the bankers decide to commit massive and system fraud that causes immeasurable damage to the world economy and throws millions into economic uncertainty or poverty.

Additionally, even if the government decides to go after the wealthy, banks and bankers have the resources to grind a court case into a war of attrition that the government just doesn’t’ want to touch—this leads the government to want to settle for fines rather than even think about taking such a powerful entity to court.

Second, we see how public social welfare institutions are often treated far worse than private, for-profit, ones. Schools exist to serve the public good, yet are ceaselessly attacked by the entire right wing, and even a segment of the left. Conversely, private institutions like banks are lionized by our entire mainstream political class, and are held to a different standard. This disparity is seen even in the realm of schools, as demonstrated by the fact that, while many “for-profit” schools have been fined or shut down for fraud, I cannot find a single case of an executive within such an institution being sentenced to jail for any significant amount of time.

Third, we are faced with the racial undertones that underlie these sentencing disparities. The Atlanta teachers who were sent to jail are African Americans who taught in predominantly low-income African American district. Conversely, the bankers who destroyed our economy were predominantly white, and universally very wealthy. Our nation has the unfortunate history (and present) of being very good at sending poor black people to jail for draconian amount of time. Statistically speaking, blacks are sent to jail more often and for longer than whites, particularly in southern states. It would be foolish not to take this into consideration when analyzing the extreme harshness of these sentences.

The general takeaway from this situation is depressing, but not unexpected. The poor and powerless are being crushed by our criminal justice system while the rich and powerful have become virtually untouchable under the law. Banks and other for-profit entities are bailed out while vital social institutions that serve the most vulnerable among us are left to run on fumes. In short, the two Americas—the America for the rich and the America for everybody else—are getting farther and farther apart with less overlap every year.

Executive Buys Badge from Tulsa PD, Accidentally Executes Citizen after Confusing his Gun and his Taser

© Josh Sager – April 2015

No, this title is not hyperbolic—it is EXACTLY as bad as it sounds.

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Last week, a Tulsa Police Department Reserve Deputy named Robert Bates accidentally shot and killed a suspect—Eric Harris, 44—when he confused his gun and his Taser. At the time, this shooting was tragic but it was largely overshadowed by the other police shootings that have enflamed the nation over recent weeks (primarily the Walter Scott murder).

However, yesterday, Raw Story published an article on this shooting that exposed an extremely serious concern with the shooting which should begin immediate calls for reform.

Robert Bates, the “officer” who shot Eric Harris, is in fact, not a real police officer. He is a 73-year old insurance executive who was made a deputy in exchange for his history of donating money and equipment to the local police department. He was, in effect, given a badge and a gun through the police-equivalent to a Kickstarter donation gift.

Awarding deputy positions to rich donors who give money to a police department is not only morally repugnant, but is also a recipe for disaster. Clearly, this plutocrat-deputy either received only minimal training (officially, they should get hundreds of hours of training, but this hasn’t been confirmed in his case, nor do we have specifics about the training program) or was shoehorned through tests of minimal competency in order to ensure his continued donations—after all, donors might get unhappy if they donate enough to become deputies but are rejected for being incompetent.

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While this is simple speculation, I believe that Bates got caught up in the situation and simply lacked the training to choose the proper weapon. He reached for the nearest gun-like object, pulled it, and fired without taking the time to establish whether it was a lethal gun or a non-lethal Taser. He is a 73 years old weekend warrior who shouldn’t have been given a can of pepper spray, never mind a lethal weapon.

If this were an isolated case of donor favoritism, it would be a simple scandal—the idiots who though that handing out a badge as a donation gift would have been fired, Bates and the police would settle the massive lawsuit that is likely on the horizon, and we could all focus on other issues of police abuse. Unfortunately, Bates isn’t alone and the Tulsa Police Department employs many “deputies” who have gotten their position through donating to the police.

Apparently, anybody who is willing to donate a significant amount of money to the Tulsa police and (maybe) sit through hours of instruction, may be able to buy an authentic police officer experience, complete with real weapons and authority to arrest people. While it would be presumptuous to claim knowledge about the motivations of any specific individual who buys their spot as a deputy, I would be confident arguing that this type of program would attract people who want to exercise power over their fellow citizens and have a chance at walking around with a gun, “like a tough guy” (in the same way that Wall Street and the legal profession tend to attract psychopaths who crave power).

These plutocrats masquerading as police officers could be one altercation away from another accident that robs an innocent American of his life…and let’s face it, the people who are most likely to be killed by a panicking, old, white, millionaire playing real-life cops and robbers, are going to be young, black, males (as Harris was).

At the end of the day, I hope that Bates and the Tulsa police department are sued into oblivion by Harris’s family and these losses force police departments to stop this disturbing practice. Police officers should be well-trained professionals, dedicated to preserving public safety, not rich weekend warriors in the midst of a mid-life crisis and an itchy trigger finger.

Bloggers Get Bad Rap in Trinidad & Tobago as Paid Political Trolls Do Online Damage

One of the headlines in Trinidad & Tobago’s leading national daily, this week was “Bloggers attack”. Blogging has become a dirty word in the twin island republic it seems, but informed netizens’ indignation over The Trinidad Express’ misuse of the term was apparent on various Facebook threads, with some commenters even suggesting that Trinidad and Tobago had managed to redefine what a “blogger” is. The newspaper article, which highlights alleged cyber bullying behaviour towards journalists, political bloggers and outspoken netizens by what are, according to the description, paid Facebook trolls and not bloggers, attracted quite a bit of attention in the local blogosphere.

Facebook user Rhoda Bharath, who also blogs about political issues at The Eternal Pantomime, said:

The country hot with the bloggers story this morning…

The hate and racism on those walls are but the tip of the iceberg.

Paying trolls to write status updates on Facebook and other social media sites is not a new trend. Back in 2011, soon after the current People’s Partnership coalition government was voted into office, a local daily broke the story that students at the University of the West Indies were on the payroll of a group claiming to work for the People’s Partnership.

With 2015 being an election year, however, the stakes are higher — and the online commentary is decidedly more vitriolic and heavily race-based. The Trinidad Express report stated that “even journalists themselves, some of whom are employed by the State […] have been spearheading the cyber assault on their colleagues.”

Journalist Lasana Liburd, who blogs at Wired 868, posted a public status update about the issue on Facebook in which he listed some of the important stories investigative journalists have exposed over the last few years and addressed the alleged threats towards reporters:

Is it worth fighting for the right of journalists to bring you stories like these? No matter what your party, race or media affiliation might be, isn’t Trinidad and Tobago a (slightly) better place because of such pieces?

If yes, then what have you done to defend their right to carry on providing such work?

PS: If you’re employed in the media and don’t think an attack on independent journalists is your business, you are in the wrong profession.

Bharath also stood solidly behind local journalists. In a follow-up status update, she posted:

Trinidad must surely be the capital of situational irony.

For the last 5 years female investigative journalists and female columnists have been under special attack by the media professionals of this regime.

Today I see Gender Studies, silent on every gendered atrocity committed by this government, organising a memorial for the fallen students in Kenya.

We see every other country’s ill but our own.

Spare me the invites to that event. I standing vigil by Asha Javeed [a female journalist in Trinidad & Tobago who was reportedly targeted in the online attacks] gate instead.

‪#‎ICyahMakeThisShitUp‬

‪#‎ForeignCausesAreBetter‬

‪#‎LocalFemaleLivesMatter‬

Instead of the government addressing the allegations made in the report — proof of which any avid Facebook user can find just by trawling their newsfeed — the Minister of Tourism, Gerald Hadeed, issued a statement claiming that the report is false and that it “show[ed] the true nature of the Express newspaper”.

Hadeed asserted that the newspaper is anti-government and said that the opposition People’s National Movement is the party that is actually paying people to “blog”.

Diaspora blogger Jumbie’s Watch was disturbed by the revelations:

Granted, politics is a dirty game, but this UNC [United National Congress, the main party in the coalition] government is sinking to new lows – or, maybe reaching as high as they can? They are paying bloggers $6000 per month (one in picture) to denigrate the Opposition in general and Keith Rowley in particular. These people have resorted to the nastiest language in promoting sedition and racism.

Now, I’m not above criticising where it is due, and this government has really raised my ire, and to those who blindly support the racist, nasty views of these paid bloggers, I hope that you know your government can lose the upcoming elections.

The Association of Caribbean Media Workers has condemned the “unlawful and defamatory social media attacks on women journalists in Trinidad and Tobago” and the International Press Institute has also voiced its concern about the situation.

Written by

Janine Mendes-Franco

@JanineMFranco

via Bloggers Get Bad Rap in Trinidad & Tobago as Paid Political Trolls Do Online Damage · Global Voices.