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Court Blocks Deportations Of Several Central American Families

By Franco Ordonez, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The nation’s highest immigration court has delayed the deportations of four families out of hundreds of Central American migrant adults and children rounded up in raids over the New Year’s weekend as part of a nationwide effort to combat illegal immigration, according to the families’ lawyers. They expected to win a fifth stay Wednesday.

The Board of Immigration Appeals’ decision, made late Tuesday, is a small yet potentially significant breakthrough for lawyers fighting the raids, as it raises questions about Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s assurances to the public earlier this week that those being deported had exhausted all their legal options.

The families’ lawyers said the stays of deportation had been granted to allow time to appeal their cases to the Board of Immigration Appeals — a step none of them had yet taken. The families had been scheduled to be deported from the United States on Wednesday morning back to their home countries of El Salvador and Honduras.

“What does it mean when we get five out of six cases stayed? That means something is wrong here,” said one of the lawyers, Laura Lichter, general counsel for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “If there was no case, nothing here, we wouldn’t have gotten the stay.”

Johnson said this week that 121 people had been taken into custody, mainly in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas. The Obama administration operation focused on adults and their children who’d been apprehended as of last spring after crossing the southern border illegally, had been issued orders of removal by an immigration court and, Johnson said, “have exhausted appropriate legal remedies.”

“As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration; if you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values,” Johnson said in a statement Monday.

The holiday raids were the first in a large-scale effort focused on Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence, and they drew swift criticism from activists. Lawyers advised the migrants to simply not open the door if approached by immigration agents.

Lichter and other lawyers, organized through the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, charged the Obama administration with rushing to deport the families without properly screening whether they had exhausted their due process rights. The attorneys filed requests to stop the deportations for five out of a half-dozen cases they’d reviewed. The declarations to the Board of Immigration Appeals included the families’ affidavits explaining why they feared returning to their home countries.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest reminded critics of President Barack Obama’s November 2014 immigration priorities, which placed more emphasis on recent arrivals of individuals who’d crossed the border without proper legal documentation.

“This is consistent with the kinds of priorities that the president himself has talked about; that our enforcement efforts need to be focused on deporting felons, not families, and with a particular focus on individuals who have only recently crossed the border,” Earnest said.

©2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson talks to the media about holiday travel at Union Station in Washington, November 25, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas 

 

North Carolina Mom Takes Fight Against Climate Change To Washington

By Franco Ordonez, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — It was warm out, and the new mom just wanted to take her baby girl for a walk around the pond in her East Charlotte, N.C., neighborhood. A friend suggested she check the air first.

Code orange: unhealthy for sensitive groups such as children and the elderly.

That was the warning when Danielle Hilton checked the air quality index for Mecklenburg County. She decided she and her daughter, Makena, would do afternoons inside.

That was the summer of 2008. It was a bad time for the Charlotte region in terms of air quality. Some local schools and government offices hoisted color-coded warning flags about breath-stifling ozone levels. The Charlotte metro region had violated federal standards for ozone on at least 24 days by the end of the summer. Twenty-one days were deemed “code orange,” and three days were “code red” — unhealthy for everyone.

It changed Hilton’s outlook on life. She began devouring anything she could find on the environment, power plants and fossil fuels. She attended activism meetings about local power plants and coal ash ponds. She studied the potential impacts of the oil drilling technique known as fracking. She cried watching the struggles of polar bears living on melting ice caps in the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. She worried about Makena’s future.

On Tuesday, Hilton, 40, joined hundreds of mothers from across the country on Capitol Hill calling on members of Congress to address climate change. Hilton planned to meet with Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and the staff of Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C.

She planned to share her thoughts not only as a mother, but also as an African-American woman concerned about her community.

Hilton recruited her friend Nakisa Glover to join her in Washington. The two moms, who brought along Glover’s 3-year-old son, Zion, had a secondary goal to infuse some color into an environmentalist movement that historically has been dominated by white people.

They planned to share statistics that show how minority communities suffer more from excessive pollution. They will push members of Congress to increase federal regulations for power plants, which are often located closer to poorer neighborhoods. A 2012 report from the NAACP found that in areas around the 12 most polluting coal-fired power plants in the United States, minorities were about 76 percent of the population.

“They’re not putting these coal ash dumps in Ballyntyne,” Glover said of the upscale, majority-white Mecklenburg neighborhood. “They’re putting them in the under-served and minority, low-income communities.”

The Charlotte region continues to have air quality issues.

But it’s not all bad. The county got an “A” for levels of particle pollution, or soot.

County officials said the primary source of ozone-forming air pollution in Mecklenburg County is cars and trucks on the road.

Asthma is the No. 1 chronic disease among students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, according to the school system. More than 14,000 Charlotte-Mecklenburg students have been identified with asthma.

“We need action,” Hilton said. “We need it now.”

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Rose Peltason Arkush, 5, from Takoma Park, Md., holds a sign calling for climate change action as she and her mother (not pictured) attend a rally with Moms Clean Air Force on July 7, 2015 in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of mothers from across the country are calling on their members of Congress to address climate change for their children’s future. (Lexey Swall/McClatchy/TNS)

Why Only One Detention Center For Migrant Kids Might Survive Judge’s Opinion

By Franco Ordonez, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In a nondescript brick facility in rural Pennsylvania, several dozen migrant children and their mothers live inside, unable to leave, they say, while awaiting the outcome of their requests for asylum in the United States.

That facility, the Berks County Residential Center, could be a way for the Obama administration to maintain its practice of family detention — despite a tentative court ruling that questions the way the mothers and children are being held.

But immigration lawyers and advocates say state and federal officials are playing an underhanded game with the public — claiming that the 100-bed facility allows freedom of movement and therefore is fit to house families when, the advocates say, that’s far from the reality.

On April 24, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in California distributed a 22-page tentative ruling to a small group of attorneys, concluding that migrant children and their mothers cannot be held in unlicensed, secure facilities, according to attorney memos that outline the tentative ruling and were obtained by McClatchy.

The case has large implications on the Obama administration’s increasing use of family detention centers. The biggest: The two largest family detention centers, in the towns of Karnes City and Dilley, Texas, which house hundreds of mothers and children, may have to close.

Gee’s tentative ruling requires immigration lawyers and government officials to take 30 days to negotiate an agreement about the family detention centers, according to the memos obtained by McClatchy. The ruling has not been officially filed to await the negotiations.

Advocates say they have growing confidence that the two family detention centers in Texas might eventually shut their doors, because both of those centers appear to clearly run as secure operations.

But elsewhere in the country, the advocates question what might happen in Pennsylvania — where a third, smaller facility has a state license. And state officials, at least, say the property is unsecured, which means children and their mothers are not physically blocked from leaving.

Gee’s tentative ruling appears to require that if a child is going to be held, he or she almost always must be in a licensed, unsecure facility, according to the memos obtained by McClatchy.

Immigration lawyers say the Berks facility doesn’t meet that standard.

“It’s really a distinction in name only,” said Carol Anne Donohoe, a Pennsylvania attorney who represents several clients at the Berks County Residential Center.

“It’s really a license in name only. It’s unsecure in name only,” Donohoe said. “No matter what they (officials) say. There are so many things they’re not complying with.”

The disputes are part of a larger conversation within the immigration legal community in recent months about how to handle migrant children and their mothers. In the past year, overwhelmed by a surge of youngsters from Central America, the Obama administration has significantly increased its use of family detention. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say the facilities are safe and the best way to shelter families awaiting the adjudication of their cases.

But advocates and many of the mothers complain of poor conditions, that some migrant families have been put into isolation, and that they have no freedom of movement.

At this time last year, the Berks facility was the only center being operated to shelter migrant mothers and children. It was more of a transfer station, where migrants could stay for a few days or weeks while authorities found a relative with whom they could be placed. But that changed with the surge of thousands of both unaccompanied and accompanied minors who rushed to the United States last year fleeing violence and poverty.

Since July, more than 2,500 immigrants, mostly women and children, have been picked up and detained — sometimes for months — at four family detention centers. (One of those, in Artesia, N.M., was closed last year amid allegations of poor living conditions.)

Based on the most recent February state inspections report at the Berks facility, there were 43 children being detained, including ten with mental illness and one with a physical disability. Fifteen of the children were age five or younger.

While the state of Pennsylvania said there are no fences or locks blocking detainees from leaving, Donohoe said detainees cannot roam freely. There are guards stationed at all of the doors, and when guards are not present, the doors are locked, she said. Attorneys must be let into the building after going through security. Detainees are escorted to and from their living areas.

In response to the allegations that the facility is secured, Matthew Jones, the Pennsylvania director of human services licensing, said he had his staff visit the Berks County facility this week to confirm the facility was in compliance. The state regulations for a secure facility, he said, is one that has locks or perimeter fencing that prevents residents from leaving.

There is no fence, he said, and while there may be locks on the door, they’re locked from the inside and not the outside. A key or code is needed to get in, but not to leave, he said. Asked whether detainees could leave, Jones said he could not give a simple answer.

“What I can say is that there are no locks and no fences that prevent them from leaving the facility,” Jones said. “And therefore it’s not a secure facility.”

Michelle Brane, director of the Migrant Rights & Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, a New York-based nonprofit advocacy organization, described the state’s response as a bunch of “legal mumbo-jumbo.” The point, she said, is the women can’t leave and would be considered fugitives if they did.

“I would sort of equate it with minimum security prisons,” Brane said. “There are minimum security prisons where there are no barbed-wire fences and you could, in theory, walk past the front desk and leave. But if you did so you would be in violation and be an escapee. And they would go after you.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said the agency could not discuss pending litigation. ICE has contended that family residential centers are an effective and humane alternative by keeping families together as they await immigration hearings or are deported. Federal officials say the centers are critical to deterring more illegal immigration.

Bryan Johnson, a New York-based attorney who has demanded that the Pennsylvania attorney general and governor close the Berks County Residential Center, said there is no question that Berks is a secure facility.

Berks County describes the residential center on its website as a facility for families “mandatorily detained” during removal proceedings. It also specifies the facility is operated under ICE standards, which provide procedures to prevent detainees from escaping.

“It’s clearly in reality the same type of facility as Karnes and as Dilley,” Johnson said.

Photo: BBC World Service via Flickr

Conservatives Tell GOP: Look Past Obama Order On Immigration

By Franco Ordoñez, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — As Capitol Hill prepares for political warfare over President Barack Obama’s planned executive order on immigration, a coalition of business executives and prominent conservatives is warning Republican leaders not to get further mired in the rhetorical battle that already has spiraled into threats of lawsuits, impeachment and a government shutdown.

At least one former GOP presidential candidate, along with business leaders and Republican donors who have raised millions on behalf of party candidates, will come together today as part of a new push to convince lawmakers that, regardless of what Obama does, they should continue to work on a congressional solution to the nation’s immigration woes.

Among the efforts today will be organized commentary in conservative the conservative press, local news conferences around the country and events such as one in D.C. featuring Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, and national business leaders.

Jeremy Robbins, executive director of the Partnership for a New American Economy, said the demographics of the country are rapidly changing. Leaders can’t ignore the speed with which the Latino and Asian voting bloc is growing if the party wants to remain competitive in 2016 and beyond, he said.

“I think there will be a negative reaction to what Obama does among some circles in the Republican party, but at the end of the day congressional action is such an important economic thing to do, but it’s also such an important political thing to do,” said Robbins, who heads the business coalition established by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The group supports an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.

Obama is expected to issue an executive order as soon as this week that would shield as many as five million undocumented immigrants from deportation. The leaked plans have set off a wave of discontent among Republicans who see the move as an unconstitutional power grab. Republicans leaders including incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) say the move would poison future cooperative efforts with the White House.

Robbins cites his group’s own findings that there are more than 13.2 million unregistered Hispanic and Asian eligible voters in the United States, with high numbers in swing states such as Texas (2.4 million), Florida (814,000), Colorado (272,000), and Nevada (154,000). By 2020, another 4.2 million Hispanic and Asian residents are expected to become naturalized citizens and therefore eligible to vote, the partnership found.

It was only two years ago that many Republican leaders, like Boehner, appeared to be harnessing their political futures to passing an immigration overhaul. Obama’s re-election in 2012, with overwhelming support from Latinos, plunged the GOP into an identity crisis as members wrestled with an image problem.

The Republican National Committee conducted a months-long review that concluded that Hispanics thought Republicans “do not care” about them. Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called on the party to embrace changing the immigration law or risk shrinking to the GOP’s core constituency. But two years is an eternity in Washington.

Those leading the charge for change are some of the biggest names in business and conservative circles, including Norquist, Bloomberg, Bill Marriott, Jr. of the Marriott International hotel company, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They’re seeking, among other things, a labor pool with more high- and low-skilled immigrants.

To gain support, they likely will first focus on encouraging the original 14 Senate Republicans who helped pass the Senate immigration bill in 2012 to speak out. That legislation, which was never taken up by the House, would have boosted border security and put millions of undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship. But some of senators, such as Republican Marco Rubio of Florida, have disowned the bill.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) followed party talking points last week, telling McClatchy that Obama would be “poisoning the well” of cooperation if he enacts the executive order. He said Obama should at least give the new Congress a chance to find a resolution.

But McCain stopped short of saying that issuing an executive order would eliminate the possibility of Congress taking up the matter again before the 2016 elections.

Orrin Hatch (R-UT) went a little further. Obama should not act on an executive order, Hatch said, but he added that even if the president does go forward, it is important to find a congressional solution.

“I still think we have to take it back and do it right,” Hatch said in an interview. “I’m willing to work on this because it’s an important set of issues. And it’s something that needs to be done.”

The White House reiterated Tuesday that Obama plans to issue the executive order by the end of the year. But Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the president would back off on his executive order if House Republicans would take up and pass the Senate bill.

“Republicans can certainly prevent the president from taking this executive action,” Earnest said.

The president wants to cement an image that Republicans oppose the needs of immigrants, according to Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Nowrasteh said Republican leaders will not act on an immigration overhaul now because, he said, they would risk looking like they’re “kowtowing” to the president. He argued Republicans should override Obama’s actions by passing piecemeal immigration reform bills that nullify the executive orders, but also overhaul the system in way that appeals to conservatives, such as creating a larger guest worker program.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Could Latino Voters Decide Kansas’ Elections?

By Franco Ordonez, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Kansas may not be considered Latino country, but the small, albeit growing, Hispanic community across the state is emerging as a potential threat to shake up the political landscape.

The state’s approximately 121,000 Latino voters make up just 6 percent of the electorate, but experts say they could make a difference in the tight races for governor, U.S. Senate and secretary of state.

Armando Minjarez, a 28-year-old Wichita artist and activist, has been talking up the need to vote with his neighborhood bread maker and knocking on doors at the homes of Latino registered voters in the heavily Hispanic-populated communities across western Kansas.

“Races are being won by 300 votes,” said Minjarez, who works on voter turnout drives with Kansas People’s Action and Women for Kansas, left-leaning groups that say they’re pushing for change in Kansas’ leadership. “So if those two, three hundred people I have talked to, if half of those go out and vote … if a third of them go out and vote … that’s a huge impact.”

If turnout is low, as expected, and Latinos mobilize, even a small percentage of them — like any other group — could alter the election, said Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University in Kansas.

“A block of 10,000 votes by the Latino population could have a profound impact on the race,” Rackaway said.

Kansas is one of five states where the number of Latino voters exceeds the difference between the two leading Senate candidates in polling, according to an analysis by Latino Decisions, which conducts research and polls on Latino voting. And it’s one of nine states where Latino voters exceed the polling difference between leading gubernatorial candidates.

“Crazy, right?” said Gary Segura, a Stanford University political science professor who runs Latino Decisions. “Kansas is a state where Latinos could shape the outcome.”

After the 2010 election, no Democrat held an elected statewide office in Kansas. But Democrats now are within striking distance of the governor’s mansion. Gov. Sam Brownback, who has steered the state far to the right, has suffered in the polls.

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican who has made immigration a campaign issue, is suddenly in danger of losing to independent Greg Orman after the nominated Democrat in the race, Chad Taylor, dropped out.

On immigration, Roberts speaks almost exclusively about the need for stronger border patrol. Orman also speaks of the need for a stronger border, but he’s argued that 11 million immigrants who are already in the country illegally can’t be deported and, provided they pay a fine, he thinks they should be allowed to “get in line” for eventual U.S. citizenship.

Rackaway said Latinos also could be a factor in Democrats’ efforts to unseat Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is known nationwide in the immigrant rights community for his controversial role in helping to draft some of the strongest immigration enforcement policies in Arizona and Alabama, among other states.

Latino turnout is a big question. Nationwide groups have complained that Latino voters who would otherwise vote Democratic have become disillusioned with the party since President Barack Obama decided to delay an executive order that would allow more undocumented immigrants to remain in the country legally. He had promised to issue the order by the end of the summer.

A Latino Decisions poll in June found that 54 percent of Latinos said they would be less interested in voting in the midterm elections if Obama decided not to take action on the executive order.

Speaking at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala last week, Obama tried to curtail some of those hurt feelings and said he would act on the order by the end of the year.

Photo: J. Stephen Conn via Flickr

N.C. Republican Dinged For Defending Right To Fire Gays

By Franco Ordonez, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — As House Democrats made a Hail Mary attempt to force a vote on laws to protect gays in the workplace, Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC) continues to stand by comments he made earlier this month that businesses should be free to fire employees based on their sexual orientation.

Pittenger has been criticized for the remarks, but he said in a statement Wednesday that Americans are already well-protected. Current laws against discrimination should be enforced to the fullest, he emphasized. But he said Americans need more jobs and a stronger economy, not more regulations that stifle growth.

“It’s incredibly hard to operate or start a business already, and I don’t think America is begging for more obstacles to an economic recovery,” he said in the statement. “Where does it stop? Is the next regulation going to prohibit a layoff even during an economic downturn? Will the next law mandate full employment?”

Pittenger stirred up the gay rights debate when he told liberal political blog ThinkProgress this month that governments shouldn’t “impose on the freedoms we enjoy.” Asked his opinion about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act pending in Congress, Pittenger compared adding more laws to protect gays in the workplace to smoking bans — which he said are fine for public places, but he questioned the government role when it comes to private spaces.

The debate has pitted many Democrats and Republicans against each other. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has shown no interest in taking up legislation passed by the Democratic-led Senate last year that would prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

On Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) sought to force the hand of Pittenger, Boehner, and other Republican opponents. She joined other Democratic leaders in announcing a procedural push to force a vote on the bill.

“Unfortunately in South Carolina and 28 other states it is still legal to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation,” Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina said Wednesday during a news conference. “And that is, plain and simple, wrong.”

Asked at the news conference about Pittenger’s remarks to ThinkProgress, Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) said he did not have the context to comment on them.

Gay rights activists called Pittenger’s comments “absurd” and argued that discrimination in the workplace because of someone’s sexual orientation goes against American values.

“Representative Pittenger’s ill-informed opinion is also not consistent with the fair-minded opinion of most Americans,” said David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization. “The vast majority of Americans back commonsense workplace protections for LGBT Americans.”

Staffers for Pittenger said they’ve received no negative calls about his comments and that no constituents brought the issue up at any of Rep. Pittenger’s 13 town hall events over the last two months.

Pittenger, a Charlotte real estate investor, said he has an “open, non-discriminatory policy” and has hired members of the gay community. More than 96 percent of the top 50 Fortune 500 companies include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies, according to the Williams Institute. And, according to Pittenger, that’s the more appropriate place for these decisions to be made, in the free market. More government intervention is not the answer, he said.

“Where does the government’s role in dictating our daily lives end?” Pittenger asked in his statement. “That’s the debate we should be having.”

Samantha Ehlinger of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Photo: Robert Pittenger (R-NC) via YouTube

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Freshman Lawmaker Hosts Security Forum

By Franco Ordonez, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC), will host more than 60 members of parliaments from 24 European nations this week for a three-day intelligence security forum.

The closed-door forum, which kicks off Wednesday night with talks with intelligence experts and congressional leaders including House Speaker John Boehner, is part of efforts to hear European ongoing concerns of U.S. surveillance programs and work to restore confidence among allies as they face mounting threats from groups such as the Islamic State, also known by the acronym ISIS.

It’s also an opportunity for Pittenger, a freshman lawmaker who leads the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism, to flex some international muscle and establish himself in an area where he has obvious interest.

“The timing couldn’t be better than now,” said Andreas Karlsboeck, a member of the Austrian Parliament. “It’s not just the NSA thing. It’s really the threat in Europe from ISIS. It’s very necessary to talk about these issues frankly and openly.”

Karlsboeck and other members of parliaments from Germany, the United Kingdom, Croatia, and other countries will attend at least a dozen intelligence sessions Thursday and Friday, including presentations from congressional leadership and intelligence experts.

Pittenger worked with leadership and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI), who was part of a similar, albeit smaller, forum with a delegation of the Austrian parliament in June.

The meetings come as Germany recently launched an investigation into allegations that the United States bought German secrets from a German official. The new allegations only seemed to further damage already frayed relations after last year’s leaks revealed Americans were spying on its allies.

Pittenger said trust needs to be regained.

“We have to look at every way of how we conduct our intelligence,” he said in an interview. “They need to understand that process. They need to understand the accountability structures that are in place to protect privacies at the same time to enable us to secure the data that is important for tracking the objectives of the terrorist.”

Photo: Robert Pittenger (R-NC) via YouTube

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Charlotte, Tampa Mishandled Grant Money For Political Conventions, IG Says

By Franco Ordonez, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The city of Charlotte, NC, misused more than $132,000 in federal money that city officials received to beef up security during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, according to a new federal investigation.

The city has agreed to pay back more than half that, saying $79,000 was wrongfully spent because of “clerical issues.” But city officials say the remaining funds were not misused, and they plan to contest attempts to recover the money.

In a 27-page report, the U.S. Department of Justice inspector general found that federal dollars had been used to give a deputy police chief a $12,200 lump payment and a retired police captain nearly $8,000 in retirement payments. The grant money also was used to pay more than $16,000 in salaries and overtime for 39 Charlotte Fire Department employees.

More than $53,000 was improperly used to pay for two SUVs that were supposed to be modified with running boards and grab bars so officers could be transported to convention events, according to the report. The modifications were never made, however, so the vehicles could have been rented for less money, the inspector general estimated.

“If Congress chooses to continue providing funds for presidential nominating convention security, future grant recipients need to place a greater emphasis on pursuing low cost alternatives to procuring grant-funded property whenever those options are available,” the report said.

The findings are part of a federal review of $100 million in security grants that the cities of Charlotte and Tampa, FL, received for the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions. The inspector general found $25,192 in questionable costs by the city of Tampa, including the mayor’s use of a grant-funded SUV for non-security purposes.

The conclusions may bolster criticism that taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for conventions that have evolved into largely scripted commercials for each political party. Host cites have also been accused of using the money to stock up on equipment and resources that are unnecessary for the events.

The city of Charlotte admitted it shouldn’t have used the money to offset the personnel costs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Major Mike Adams, one of the department’s chief planners for the convention, called it a clerical error that occurred as officials processed thousands of lines of data the department used to determine which work was reimbursed by the federal government. He said the amount represented a fraction of the money the city received.

In April, President Barack Obama signed a law that ended $18.2 million in public funding each for the Democratic and Republican conventions. But that money is separate from the $100 million that Charlotte and Tampa received to defray security costs.

Photo: Barack Obama via Flickr

Charlotte, Tampa Mishandled Grant Money For Political Conventions, IG Says

By Franco Ordonez, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The city of Charlotte, North Carolina, must pay back more than $132,000 in misused federal dollars that city officials received to beef up security during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, according to a new federal investigation.

The $50 million in grant money was supposed to be used exclusively to bring in more officers, to buy equipment and for other security measures to help protect the 35,000 dignitaries and guests that converged on the city to officially nominate President Barack Obama to represent the Democratic Party.

But in a 27-page report, the U.S. Department of Justice inspector general found that federal dollars had been used to give a deputy police chief a $12,200 lump payment and a retired police captain nearly $8,000 in retirement payments. The grant money also was used to pay more than $16,000 in salaries and overtime for 39 Charlotte Fire Department employees.

More than $53,000 was improperly used to pay for two SUVs that were supposed to be modified with running boards and grab bars so officers could be transported to convention events, according to the report. The modifications were never made, however, so the vehicles could have been rented for less money, the inspector general estimated.

“If Congress chooses to continue providing funds for presidential nominating convention security, future grant recipients need to place a greater emphasis on pursuing low cost alternatives to procuring grant-funded property whenever those options are available,” the report said.

The findings are part of a federal review of $100 million in security grants that the cities of Charlotte and Tampa, Florida, received for the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions. The inspector general found $25,192 in questionable costs by the city of Tampa, including the mayor’s use of a grant-funded SUV for non-security purposes.

The conclusions may bolster criticism that taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for conventions that have evolved into largely scripted commercials for each political party. Host cites have also been accused of using the money to stock up on equipment and resources that are unnecessary for the events.

The city of Charlotte admitted it shouldn’t have used the money to offset the personnel costs. Officials told the inspector general that the payments were inadvertent oversight and clerical errors.

In April, President Barack Obama signed a law that ended $18.2 million in public funding each for the Democratic and Republican conventions. But that money is separate from the $100 million that Charlotte and Tampa received to defray security costs.

Photo: Cliff1066 via Flickr
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Will Boehner’s Immigration Principles Help The GOP?

By Franco Ordonez, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, mindful of the changing face of the U.S. electorate, are expected to introduce their guidelines this week for legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants. And that’s reigniting another identity crisis over the future of the GOP.

Some on the right have begun to mobilize against House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) with hopes of quashing plans to introduce a series of immigration-related bills.

Immigration is expected to be a key part of Tuesday’s State of the Union address. President Barack Obama has pressed House members to join the Senate by introducing legislation that would provide the nation’s 11 million undocumented residents with an opportunity to live and work legally in the United States.

House leaders are expected to release the principles at their annual retreat later this week in Cambridge, Maryland. Those principles are likely to include tighter border security, an expanded guest-worker program, additional visas for high-tech workers and legalization for many of those people in the country illegally.

It’s the latest signal that the House leadership is taking immigration seriously. Boehner also hired a new aide last month, Rebecca Tallent, who’s considered a proponent of legalization. She was the director of immigration policy at the nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center and also worked for Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) one of the proponents of a comprehensive immigration proposal that included a path to citizenship.

Some supporters of an immigration overhaul have questioned Boehner’s strategy of introducing principles without a clear indication of when the bills would be released. It might backfire, as opponents surely will seek to use them as ammunition to pick apart the plan, said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the conservative Cato Institute who supports changes to immigration law.

Boehner has been among the Republican leaders who’ve argued — since Obama was re-elected in 2012 with more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote — that it’s necessary to solve the immigration issue. But some efforts to appeal to Hispanics, the fastest-growing voter bloc, would mean reversing course on immigration policies. That hasn’t gone over well with some conservatives.

Not surprisingly, Boehner is experiencing pushback.

A group of House aides met last week in the office of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to discuss how to prevent such a reversal.

Participants said Republicans had a choice: Give Obama a major legislative victory with changes to immigration law or start to regain the trust of struggling Americans who’ve become disenchanted with the party’s direction, by adhering to the base’s concern about the rule of law.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) warned earlier this month that immigration might be a pitfall that could hurt the party’s message. At the retreat, Republicans should focus on what helps working Americans, not hurts them, she said at a meeting with other conservatives.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) added at a meeting this month with those opposed to proposed immigration changes that there’s a need to have equal opportunity at the upcoming Republicans’ retreat to voice their opinions.

“There have been at least three times in this past legislative year that there had been an intense immigration discussion that has been presented in such a way that those who disagreed with those who presented it had to wait way in the back of the line to try and talk to an empty room,” King said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that it would be a “huge accomplishment” if the House followed the Senate and proceeded with legislation that the president could sign this year.

“We’ll absolutely be glad and the country will benefit if the House moves and follows the path the Senate laid by passing comprehensive immigration reform and the president signs it into law this year,” Carney said in his daily news briefing.

Boehner originally was supposed to introduce the principles before the State of the Union address. One reason was to show the American public that Republicans also were serious about fixing an immigration problem.

Now that his unveiling is delayed, supporters worry whether it’s still the right strategy. Nowrasteh, who’s advised Republican members on immigration, said Boehner should just introduce the bills without talking about the principles first.

Releasing the principles, he said, gives opponents something concrete to criticize, as well as something to use to mobilize supporters.

“I don’t get why we arm our opposition without giving ourselves enough ammunition to fight back,” Nowrasteh said.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr