Tag Archives: state

Once lauded as a peacemaker, Obama’s tenure fraught with war

Seven years ago this week, when a young American president learned he’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize barely nine months into his first term — arguably before he’d made any peace — a somewhat embarrassed Barack Obama asked his aides to write an acceptance speech that addressed the awkwardness of the award.

But by the time his speechwriters delivered a draft, Obama’s focus had shifted to another source of tension in his upcoming moment in Oslo: He would deliver this speech about peace just days after he planned to order 30,000 more American troops into battle in Afghanistan.

The president all but scrapped the draft and wrote his own version.

The speech Obama delivered — a Nobel Peace Prize lecture about the necessity of waging war — now looks like an early sign that the American president would not be the sort of peacemaker the European intellectuals of the Nobel committee had anticipated.

On matters of war and peace, Obama has proven to be a confounding and contradictory figure, one who stands to leave behind both devastating and pressing failures, as well as a set of fresh accomplishments whose impact could resonate for decades.

He is the erstwhile anti-war candidate, now engaged in more theaters of war than his predecessor. He is the commander-in-chief who pulled more than a hundred thousand U.S. troops out of harm’s way in Iraq, but also began a slow trickle back in. He recoiled against full-scale, conventional war, while embracing the brave new world of drone attacks and proxy battles. He has championed diplomacy on climate change and nuclear proliferation and has torn down walls to Cuba and Myanmar, but also has failed repeatedly to broker a lasting pause to more than six years of slaughter in Syria.

If there was consensus Obama had not yet earned his Nobel Peace Prize when he received it in 2009, there’s little such agreement on whether he deserves it today.

“I don’t think he would have been in the speculation of the Nobel committee now, in 2016, even if he had not already won,” said Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, and a close watcher of the Nobel committee. Harpviken said he views Obama’s foreign policy as more conventional and limited than he expected, particularly when it comes to using multilateral cooperation and institutions.

When it comes to finding new instruments for peace, he said, “Obama has been stuck in the old paradigm.”

In many respects, Obama’s tenure has been a seven-year debate over whether the president has used the tools of war to try to make peace too much or little.

Obama has been sharply criticized for his refusal to use force to depose Syrian President Bashar Assad, cripple his air force or more aggressively engage in diplomatic efforts to end the fighting. Many view Obama’s policies as an unfortunate overcorrection from the George W. Bush-era Iraq war.

“The president correctly wanted to move away from the maximalist approach of the previous administration, but in doing so he went to a minimalist, gradualist and proxy approach that is prolonging the war. Where is the justice in that?” said Ret. Lt. Gen. Jim Dubik, a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and the author of the book, “Just War Reconsider.” Obama should have worked harder to rally a coalition around a shared vision of a stable Middle East, he said.

“Part of the requirement of leadership,” Dubik said, “is to operate in that space between where the world is and where the world ought to go.”

The president’s advisers dismiss such critiques as a misguided presumption that more force yields more peace. Cold-eyed assessments of the options in Syria show no certainty of outcomes.

“In Syria, there is no international basis to go to war against the Assad regime. Similarly, there’s no clearly articulable objective as to how it would play out. What is the end that we’re seeking militarily? “ said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. “The president doesn’t believe you can impose order through military force alone.”

But Obama has in many other cases been willing to use limited force to achieve limited objectives, even risking unintended consequences.

He has ordered drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Syria, actions that that have killed civilians and sparked tension in those countries and across the international community. What began as a secret program has become more transparent and Obama has aimed to leave legal limits for his predecessor on the use of unmanned warplanes.

But he has left unanswered the question of how or when those actions will lead to peace, some argued.

Looking back on his Nobel speech, that dilemma was already there, said Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert and former State Department official.

“What’s strikes me most is how different our concept of war was seven years ago,” he said. “We are engaged in a whole series of infinitely sustainable, low-level actions that have no logical endpoint. When do we stop doing drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan? What level of terrorism is acceptable? … We’re engaged in battles with a whole range of groups that are never going to surrender, so how do you decide to stop it? How do you decide what winning looks like?”

Wisconsin ethics commission votes to allow members to contribute to state campaigns

By Jay Heck, Common Cause in Wisconsin

This week, the newly-constituted partisan Wisconsin Ethics Commission voted 4-2 to allow its members to make political contributions to state candidates for election.

This is insanity.

As Ethics Commission member Robert Kinney, a former Oneida County circuit judge, argued, “it’s a matter of perception and public confidence.”

“We have, right now, people claiming that elections are rigged,” Kinney said. “We don’t want to create a situation where there’s less confidence in government, less confidence in fairness, less confidence in nonpartisanship.”

Kinney and Republican Pat Strachota, the former Assembly majority leader, effectively voted against allowing contributions according to an AP article about the vote.

But much shame on Peg Lautenschlager, the former Democratic Attorney General, for voting against the ban on contributions from the partisan commissioners.

As well as to Democratic, hyper-partisan attorney, David Halbrooks, Republican Party partisan Katie McCallum and former Republican state Senator and Waukesha County Judge Mac Davis for their support of allowing commission members to make contributions.

Just how stupid do they think Wisconsinites are?

The nonpartisan retired judges, who comprised the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board prior to June 30 did not make political contributions to candidates for state office. But these commissioners, by a 4-2 vote, decided “it’s fine.”

No, it isn’t.

How far we have fallen, so quickly.

Wisconsinites already have very little confidence in the newly-constituted, hyper-partisan GAB to effectively oversee elections, campaign finance law, ethics and lobbying in Wisconsin, which was formed by Republican legislators and Gov. Scott Walker after they destroyed the nonpartisan GAB late last year.

This latest decision destroys what little confidence there may have been.

Common Cause in Wisconsin is a non-partisan, nonprofit citizen’s lobby that focuses on campaign finance, election and lobby reform, open meetings law and other issues concerning the promotion and maintenance of “clean,” open, responsive and accountable government.

Feds won’t reclassify marijuana, say it has no accepted medical use

The Obama administration will keep marijuana on the list of the most dangerous drugs, despite growing popular support for legalization, but will allow more research into its possible medical benefits, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced this week.

The DEA said the agency opted not to reclassify marijuana after a lengthy review and consultation with the Health and Human Services Department, which said marijuana “has a high potential for abuse” and “no accepted medical use.”

“We are tethered to science and bound by statute,” DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said Thursday.

The decision to keep marijuana in the same class of drugs as heroin and peyote comes amid growing national support for the legalization of pot. More than half the states have legalized the drug for either medicinal or recreational use.

The DEA said it plans to make it easier for researchers to study possible medical benefits by expanding the number of entities that can legally grow marijuana for research purposes.

Currently only researchers at the University of Mississippi are allowed to grow pot, as part of a contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Allowing for further research is the latest step forward in the federal government’s evolving position on the drug, although legalization advocates claim it doesn’t go far enough.

The DEA’s latest review was prompted by requests from the former governors of Rhode Island and Washington. They requested that marijuana be considered a Schedule II drug, along with cocaine, morphine and opium.

The decision was announced in a lengthy notice in the Federal Register.

Federal appeals court puts hold on voter ID ruling

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put on hold the ruling by a federal judge in Milwaukee saying voters who have trouble obtaining the photo ID required by state law could still cast ballots by signing affidavits affirming their identity.

The panel of three appeals court judges based in Chicago said U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman’s decision was likely to be reversed on appeal. The judges added that the “disruption of the state’s electoral system in the interim will cause irreparable injury.”

The three judges who wrote the opinion — Frank Easterbrook, Diane Sykes and Michael Kanne — were all appointed by Republican presidents. President Bill Clinton nominated Adelman.

With the appeals court decision, Wisconsin’s law requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls remains in effect for the Nov. 8 presidential election, as it was for the Aug. 9 primary elections.

People having trouble getting IDs will have to go to the Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles for credentials to vote. They could not just show up at the polls and sign an affidavit, which would have been allowed under the ruling that was put on hold on Aug. 10.

Wisconsin Republican leaders who supported the photo ID law and fought against the lawsuits challenging it praised the appeals court ruling. Gov. Scott Walker called it a “step in the right direction.”

“Voters in Wisconsin support voter ID, and our administration will continue to work to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat,” Walker said in a statement.

Walker and Republican lawmakers put the voter ID mandate in place in 2011, contending it would combat voter fraud, even though nothing suggests that widespread voter fraud exists in the state. Democrats decried the requirement as an attempt to disenfranchise liberal-leaning voters such as minorities who are more likely to lack IDs.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty asked for the injunction in June. ACLU attorney Sean Young said the voter ID law “guarantees that vulnerable Wisconsin citizens are going to be disenfranchised in November.”

Young said the ACLU was evaluating its options.

Remaining in effect, for the moment at least, is a sweeping 119-page ruling on Wisconsin voting laws.  U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson declared unconstitutional parts of Wisconsin’s voter ID law, as well as a host of other Republican-backed laws limiting days and locations for early voting, reduced opportunity for in-person absentee voting, and longer residency requirements.

Peterson said legislators tailored the restrictions to “suppress the reliably Democratic vote of Milwaukee’s African-Americans.”


The GOP-driven changes to Wisconsin election laws are modeled after draft legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is backed by the Koch brothers and other influential and wealthy conservatives.

The proponents of the measures say they are needed to curtail voting fraud.

Critics of the measures say the intent is to make it more difficult for people who tend to vote Democratic — specifically people of color and students — to cast ballots. And Republicans have admitted as much in party memos.

Wisconsin has the authority to regulate elections and the responsibility to ensure election integrity, but Peterson dismissed the state’s assertion that the restrictive laws are intended to prevent fraud.

“The evidence in this case casts doubt on the notion that voter ID laws foster integrity and confidence,” the federal judge wrote. “The Wisconsin experience demonstrates that a preoccupation with mostly phantom election fraud leads to real incidents of disenfranchisement, which undermine rather than enhance confidence in elections, particularly in minority communities. To put it bluntly, Wisconsin’s strict version of voter ID law is a cure worse than the disease.”

Parts of the measures enacted since Walker took office fail to meet the constitutional guarantee of fair and open elections, the judge said. He called the system for providing IDs a “wretched failure” and ordered the state to act to ensure that anyone eligible to vote could cast a ballot.

Walker, in a statement, blasted Peterson as an “activist federal judge.”

At One Wisconsin Now, executive director Scot Ross hailed Peterson’s decision as a “huge victory” and pledged to see the case through the courts.

Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund joined One Wisconsin Now in the challenge to the GOP laws.

Judge: Wisconsin residents lacking photo IDs can vote in November

A federal district court judge says Wisconsin residents lacking photo identification can vote in the November general election.

The judge issued an order to that effect on July 19.

The preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman, based in Milwaukee, allows people who haven’t been able to obtain IDs to vote, provided they sign an affidavit stating why they couldn’t get identification.

However, Adelman says there isn’t enough time before state’s Aug. 9 primary to implement the option to sign an affidavit.

The judge’s order responds to a motion for an injunction filed in June by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty.

Sean Young, an attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, responded to the decision in a news release. “Wisconsin’s voter ID law has been a mistake from day one,” Young said. “This ruling is a strong rebuke of the state’s efforts to limit access to the ballot box. It means that a failsafe will be in place in November for voters who have had difficulty obtaining ID.”

The case is Ruthelle Frank et al v. Scott Walker.

On the Web

Read the ruling at the ACLU’s website.


Wisconsin DNR releases draft sand mining strategic analysis

Midwest Environmental Advocates began a review of a draft Industrial Sand Mining Strategic Analysis released by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources this week.

The DNR’s draft Strategic Analysis is the first glimpse into a long-awaited, comprehensive look into the impacts of frac sand mining on the health, environment, economies and way of life of many Wisconsin communities.

Upon initial review, however, the draft Industrial Sand Mining Strategic Analysis will need a deeper analysis, more data and more input from experts and the public in order to be a meaningful resource for local and state policy makers and agency staff for decision making.

The air quality section has the same fundamental flaw as the agency’s recent actions regarding fine particulate matter, or PM2.5. While the DNR asserts that mechanical processes, such as those at industrial sand mines, do not produce or emit PM2.5 (only larger particles), the agency does not have evidence to support this conclusion.

The Strategic Analysis also relies on studies based on voluntary monitoring and industry-funded studies at industrial sand facilities. The report also only makes passing reference to independent research such as that of UW Eau Claire’s Dr. Crispin Pierce’s PM2.5 study that shows that industrial sand facilities may be causing or contributing to unsafe levels of fine particulate matter around mining facilities. This reliance on industry-funded research shares the same limitations as the Health Impact Assessment of Industrial Sand Mining in Western Wisconsin published by the Institute for Wisconsin’s Health, Inc. earlier this year.

However, the Strategic Analysis does acknowledge the threat of acid mine drainage from industrial sand facilities and supports further study of the potential for frac sand mining to allow metals to leave bedrock and enter surface and groundwater. DNR has known for some time that some wastewater holding ponds at industrial sand mines have had high levels of metals, which present a risk to groundwater quality and the health of rural residents who rely on private wells for drinking water.

But in the meantime, DNR should require monitoring at industrial sand facilities to ensure that these discharges are not going unnoticed. DNR recently revised its industrial sand stormwater and wastewater general permit and should have, but did not, account for uncertainty about the potential for metals in these discharges.

Public comment welcomed

The DNR is accepting public comment between now and Aug. 22. The DNR will host a public informational meeting July 26 at 4:00 p.m. at the Chippewa Valley Technical College, Business Education Center, Casper Conference Center , Room 103A/B, at 620 W. Clairemont Avenue, Eau Claire.

Robust public comment will improve the final Strategic Analysis, if the DNR will hear the public’s concerns, accept more air quality studies, and address the legal and environmental concerns with fine particulate matter associated with frac sand mining.

The True Cost of Sand Petition

On October 29, 2014, petitioner Ken Schmitt presented the True Cost of Sand Petition to the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board and shared his experience as a grass-fed beef farmer in western Chippewa County whose community is increasingly dealing with the negative impacts of frac sand mining. The True Cost of Sand petition was a summary of concerns local citizens have voiced over the last few years.

These concerns about hazardous dust, polluted runoff into streams, truck and train traffic, shrinking natural habitats, and negative impacts on the quality of life in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area have been the root of many of the calls to Midwest Environmental Advocates’ law center’s legal helpline since the initial boom of frac sand mining in our state. Many people who signed the petition expressed shock that the DNR had never done any meaningful, big-picture study of the frac sand industry’s impacts on our water, air and land.

The petition, signed by over 1,100 Wisconsin residents asked for a simple request: The state Natural Resources Board should direct the Department of Natural Resources to conduct a strategic analysis of the impacts of frac sand mining and processing. Then NRB Chairman Preston Cole directed the DNR to review the petition and submit their recommendations for action, and the DNR issued an outline of what the analysis would include in March of 2015.

An unbiased, comprehensive look at the impacts of frac sand mining on the health, environment, economies and way of life of Wisconsin communities can be an invaluable resource for local and state policy makers and agency staff to use for making decisions on zoning, laws and rules, public health policy and land reclamation planning.

For more on the True Cost of Sand Petition and the DNR’s Industrial Sand Mining Strategic Analysis, visit midwestadvocates.org/truecostofsand.

Midwest Environmental Advocates is a public interest organization that uses the power of the law to support communities fighting for environmental accountability. Learn more about the Midwest Environmental Advocates on the web atmidwestadvocates.org, like MEA on Facebook or follow @MidwestAdvocate on Twitter.

Wildlife group: Wisconsin environmental fines down sharply

Wisconsin collected dramatically less in fines for environmental violations last year, according to data released this month.

The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation obtained figures tracking forfeitures the state Justice Department has collected for infractions involving air and water pollution, farm animal waste from both small farms and factory operations and hazardous waste between 2006 and 2015.

The data shows the agency collected $306,834 last year, down 86 percent from the 10-year annual average of $2.2 million and down 78 percent from a year earlier, when the state collected almost $1.4 million.

The data shows that in 2015 the department collected no forfeitures for animal waste violations at factory farms, for hazardous waste violations or for public water violations. Air pollution penalties were down 79 percent from the 10-year average.

The DNR refers environmental cases to the Justice Department for prosecution. The group’s data didn’t show how many referrals DNR made to DOJ or how many cases DOJ may have settled without forfeitures. Federation executive director George Meyer wouldn’t give specifics on the source of the group’s data.

“The federation does not know whether the dramatic decrease in environmental penalty violations is the result of lack of inspections of regulated facilities by the Department of Natural Resources or follow-through on discovered violations by that agency or lack of vigor in prosecution … by the Department of Justice, but the general public deserves answers,” said Meyer, a former DNR secretary.

DNR spokesman Andrew Savagian said in an email that the DNR tries to resolve infractions first by educating violators. He noted the agency made 35 referrals to DOJ in 2013, 35 in 2014 and 39 in 2015.

Savagian added that the agency’s environmental enforcement positions are currently fully staffed and it has plans to hire another enforcement specialist and seven investigators to handle complex cases.

DOJ spokesman Johnny Koremenos said in an email that the total amount of penalties don’t tell “the full story” about how the department ensures environmental violations are resolved, noting that some cases end with violators agreeing to undertake environmentally beneficial projects. Asked how many cases end short of financial penalties, Koremenos said the agency doesn’t keep a running tally.

The federation is a group of hunters, anglers, trappers and others who work to sustain hunting, fishing and shooting sports for the future.

Wisconsin businessman who landed state loans indicted

A federal grand jury this week indicted a Wisconsin businessman on charges that he conspired to fraudulently obtain bank loans.

Ronald Van Den Heuvel, 62, of De Pere was indicted Tuesday along with his 52-year-old wife and a bank employee, U.S. Attorney for Eastern Wisconsin Gregory J. Haanstad said.

The indictment alleges Van Den Heuvel; his wife, Kelly, who had her own corporation; and Paul Piikkila, 53, of Appleton, a loan officer at Horicon Bank, conspired to defraud the bank through loans made in 2008 and 2009. Prosecutors allege the loans were used to pay Van Den Heuvel’s employees and other debts, and the bank’s losses totaled more than $700,000.

Van Den Heuvel, founder of Green Box, a green energy company in Green Bay, is a longtime contributor to state politicians. The alleged bank fraud is separate from business deals in which Wisconsin’s flagship jobs agency — the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. — gave his businesses $1.2 million in loans but was later criticized for not looking closely enough into the company. Search warrants showed Van Den Heuvel was suspected of misrepresenting his business in that case, something he has denied.

According to the indictment, Piikkila approved more than $1 million in loans to corporations and individuals that were fronts for the Van Den Heuvels, despite Horicon Bank telling Piikkila not to loan money to Van Den Heuvel. Court documents allege the loans were not used for their intended purpose and were not backed with enough collateral.

The three are due in court May 6, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

Van Den Heuvel and his attorney did not respond to messages from the newspaper seeking comment on the indictment. Piikkila’s attorney, Dan Sanders, said his client is cooperating with investigators.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mel Johnson said he was unable to comment on whether Van Den Heuvel’s conduct with WEDC also was the focus of an ongoing federal investigation.

Brown County sheriff’s deputies also raided the businessman’s offices last summer, according to the newspaper.

A spokesman for WEDC said the agency has improved its lending practices and continues to seek repayment of the Green Box loans for taxpayers.

Milwaukee Bucks ink 30-year lease for arena

The Milwaukee Bucks have signed a 30-year lease with the public entity that will own the team’s new arena.

The Bucks will pay at least $1 million annually to rent the arena from the Wisconsin Center District. Those lease payments will total $45 million over the term of the lease. The district board approved the terms of the lease agreement Wednesday.

Construction can now begin on the $524 million arena that will be located just north of the Bucks’ current home, the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Groundbreaking is set for June 18, with the arena expected to ready for the start of the 2018-19 season.

The arena will also host Marquette University basketball games, concerts and other events.

A new ownership group bought the Bucks from former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl two years ago. The NBA had said that the team would need to build a new arena or run the risk of having the franchise moved.

“Personally I know we’re very proud to fulfill the commitments that we made to Sen. Kohl when we bought the team, to keep it in Milwaukee, to the people that are here,” co-owner Wesley Edens said before the Bucks’ season finale on Wednesday night against Indiana. “It’s an amazing day.”

The team will be responsible for operating, maintenance and capital repair expenses. The agreement called for the Bucks to deposit $60 million into a capital improvements fund for the arena during the term of the lease.

A public financing package approved last year covered $250 million toward arena construction, while current and former Bucks owners have already committed $250 million. The Bucks have agreed to pay for any cost overruns during construction.

The agreement also includes a non-relocation clause. Asked about a roughly $550 million penalty that the Bucks would pay if the team did move during the lease, Edens said, “I think it’s fair to say we’re not going anywhere … They built it with a financial penalty that is so punitive it would be not something you would consider, so it’s a firm commitment.”

Mazo Beach closed, state cites ‘illegal’ activity

Mazo Beach will be closed to the public beginning on March 8, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Mazo Beach, which has enjoyed a reputation as one of the nation’s most popular nude beaches, is in the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway about 6 miles southwest of Sauk City on the south side of the Wisconsin River.

The DNR, in a news release, said it would close 140 acres of the 46,000 acre Riverway property. Three years ago, the state announced it would close the beach on weekdays. Already the DRN closed the area at night and banned beach camping in the late 1990s.

The reason for the closure is “illegal behavior, such as drug use and public sexual activity.This illegal and illicit behavior that developed there over several decades has created a pattern that discourages broader use of the property,” according to DNR natural resources area supervisor Brian Hefty.

The announcement from the department said the area would be closed until further notice and “pending re-development.”

The state is updating a master plan for the riverway, which involves gathering public comments. The redevelopment would be to “provide a range of recreational opportunities to a broad group of citizens.”

“Despite an increase in incremental management efforts implemented over a long period of time to curb illegal and illicit behavior at Mazomanie Beach, including weekday and partial closures, this type of behavior has continued on the property,” Hefty said.

This activity, according to the DNR, “limited user diversity … and has had an adverse impact on people who are interested in pursuing other recreational opportunities in the area, but who would avoid the area because of discomfort and concern with current illegal activity.”

State changes would involve constructing a changing building and picnic shelter, providing toilet facilities and improving the parking lot to handle at least 50 vehicles.

The plan also calls for “a rustic day use area on the river shore at the north end of Conservation Drive that would provide picnic tables, water and grills and a picnic shelter; a new carry-in canoe landing; and 4 to 8 miles of primitive to lightly developed hiking trails.”

Hefty stated, “The expanded recreational facilities and re-development through master planning will provide for an overall enhanced experience for property users while reducing illegal and illicit activity.”

The DNR said law enforcement officers still would patrol the property and individuals in violation of the closure would be cited.

The DNR closed the beach under NR 45.04 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code, which the department “may close, by posted notice, any land, structure or property owned or administered by the state of Wisconsin and under the management, supervision and control of the department. No person may enter or be in any building installation or area that may be locked or closed to public use or contrary posted notice without a written permit from the property superintendent.”

Where in Wisconsin is Mazo Beach?

The beach on Google Maps.

Recommended reading …

Nature in the buff.