The other side of house flipping: pushing out the homeowners

Ironically, the Director of the Prince George’s County Department of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement (DPIE) acquired his own residential property in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 mortgage derivatives debacle.

The real property on Willes Vision Drive in Bowie, Maryland, owned by DPIE Director Haitham Hijazi, sold in October 2004 for $600,728. Real estate near Bowie and Upper Marlboro was looking up back then. Sadly, Maryland public records show that the couple who owned the house sold it to a family member of Hijazi’s in October 2009 for about half what they had paid–$332,000. The purchaser, Fawaz Hijazi, then sold the house to Haitham Hijazi in July 2012 for $480,000–an apparent profit of $148,000, which might not be enough to retire on but was not a bad sale for the still-difficult market of 2012. Hijazi also got a reasonably good buying price on a house now valued by Zillow at an estimated half-million dollars. Hijazi’s office has not yet returned a call with questions.

Members of Hijazi’s family live in the house. The residential address is also listed in Maryland’s state Department of Assessments and Taxation as the office address of Integrity Professional Contracting, one of the Hijazi family members’ real estate businesses.

Yet more ironically, following up on the previous post on this topic, one can further track the family’s house-flipping business generated from this address. As found in state database real estate transaction listings and Washington Post home sales, typical examples are listed below. The list looks like the previous one. All properties are located in Prince George’s County:

  1. In October 2012, Integrity Professional Contracting bought the house at 9805 Walnut Avenue in Lanham, Maryland, for $109,000 (foreclosure). In April 2013, the company sold the house for $240,000.
  2. In August 2012, Integrity Professional Contracting bought the residence at 8516 Potomac Avenue, in College Park, for $148,000 (foreclosure). The company sold the house in April 2013, for $280,000.
  3. In April 2013, the company bought 5701 44th Avenue, in Hyattsville, for $207,000. Sold that July for $340,000–an affordable price considering its current valuation.
  4. In August 2013, Integrity Professional Contracting bought another immigrant-owned house, at 2305 Belleview Avenue in Cheverly, for $136,000. The seller of record was William M. Savage, who has acted as a ‘substitute trustee’ in a number of foreclosures. The Hijazis’ company has also bought other properties from, or through, Savage. The company sold the Belleview house in April 2014 for $250,000.
  5. In October 2013, Integrity Professional Contracting purchased 4814 Snowflower Boulevard, in Oxon Hill, Maryland, from another immigrant householder for $105,500. The homeowner had bought the house in July 2006 for $376,295. The company currently owns this property, according to the state real property database; the owner mailing address is the Hijazis’ residence and company office in Bowie.
  6. In April 2013, the company bought the property at 4815 Heath, in Capitol Heights, for $41,000 (foreclosure). The company sold the house in December 2013 for $190,000.

Further examples follow the same pattern, visible to anyone who checks. Even without delving deep, the effect on neighborhood property values is obvious. A house that the lender could resell within a few months–apparently, since that’s what the flippers are doing–is instead sold to a house flipper at a loss for the lender and at a terrible loss, sometimes, for the unwilling homeowner. Since the house flipper is dignified by terms like “foreclosure attorney” and “substitute trustee,” all this is nominally at the behest of the bank/lender, even when to the lender’s loss. And the next buyer gets a cut-price house, often without knowing much about the previous foreclosure sale, including the fact that the nominal ‘seller’–the flipper–was actually one of the parties in the foreclosure.

The Hijazi family also owns another real estate entity, this one registered in the SDAT database by the name of Secured Improvements, LLC (a limited liability company). Like Integrity Professional Contracting, Secured Improvements LLC has a mailing address at the Bowie property owned by Haitham Hijazi. According to the LexisNexis business database, Secured Improvements LLC was established in April 2004, as was Integrity Professional Contracting. Its Maryland state filings date from 2011. Those for Integrity Professional Contracting date from 2004.

House sold by Secured Improvments LLC

As with Integrity Professional Contracting, the company designation for Secured Improvements in WaPo house sales is “Corp.” rather than the technically accurate LLC.

Again as with Integrity Professional Contracting, Secured Improvements LLC has established a track record as a house-flipping company. Again, its business pace picked up in the years after the elder Hijazi began working in supervisory positions for Prince George’s County. A quick check of WaPo home sales shows seven home sales for the company from 2006 through 2009. For 2011, eight deals. For 2012, nine. For 2013, thirteen. Then seven, six, and seven respectively for the years 2014-2016.

Like Integrity Professional Contracting, the Secured Improvements company has obtained some houses through ‘substitute trustees’ including Mark H. and Gerard W. M. Wittstadt.

Sad to say, there are more ways to game the system even than the intermingled interests sketched above.

More to come.

 

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Wasn’t Hillary Clinton going to fire Comey?

This is the kind of observation that makes some people flap their hands and dismiss ‘What-ifs’, but if Hillary Clinton had been elected to the White House, wasn’t she going to fire the FBI’s James B. Comey?

Comey’s July 5, 2016, press conference was criticized across the political spectrum. Comey announced that Clinton would not be prosecuted for her private email server–but he also castigated her “extremely careless” handling of classified information, informed the public that there were indeed some top secret emails on the server, and said that none of them should have been kept on an unclassified system.

Comey, Clinton in 2016

Valid points, as far as they went, but criticism has continued from then to now.

No reason Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein should be special, or left out. The July 5 presentation forms part of Rosenstein’s reason for recommending that Comey be fired. Read the Rosenstein memo here, helpfully published in full by the British Independent.

Ironies abound. Comey’s head was on the chopping block if Clinton got into the White House. That might or might not be a good thing, depending on your judgment of Comey’s over-all track record. The point here is that there has been little comment on this in reaction to Comey’s firing. In fact, there was little comment on it amidst all the media motive-hunting about Comey’s remarks eleven days before the 2016 election. The question was not raised with then-candidate Clinton then: if elected, do you plan to keep Comey on? At the time, most pundits were too busy vilifying Comey even to urge that she fire him. The gap is a little odder when you recall that they were all convinced that Clinton was indeed going to be in the White House. Did they deliberately not raise a question because they thought it might cost her voters? Or did it genuinely not occur to them?

The follow-up question for Clinton: with Comey gone, whom would she choose for FBI director? I can’t remember the speculation or even remember the question being discussed. (Admittedly, MSNBC was so insufferable–We’ve got the whip hand now!–that I had tuned out by then.) Speaking of motive-hunting, I can’t remember whether Rosenstein was considered a candidate.

But that kind of speculation is counter-productive right now. Amidst a media snowstorm blanketing Comey’s firing with the ‘Russia investigation’, what I’m noticing is that Rosenstein’s memo is surprisingly well written:

The Director was wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution. It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement. At most, the Director should have said the FBI had completed its investigation and presented its findings to federal prosecutors.

The explanation of FBI protocol, i.e. U. S. law, here does not sound like just smokescreen, pretext for firing Comey over ‘Russia’:

The Director now defends his decision by asserting that he believed Attorney General Loretta had a conflict. But the FBI Director is never empowered to supplant federal prosecutors and assume command of the Justice Department. There is a well-established process for other officials to step in when a conflict requires the recusal of the Attorney General. On July 5, however, the Director announced his own conclusions about the nation’s most sensitive criminal investigation, without the authorization of duly appointed Justice Department leaders.

Not to pile on Jim Comey at the moment, but I never thought the Attorney General had a conflict, or at least not one that necessitated Comey’s taking the pulpit. Every U.S. Attorney General is a political appointee. All of them, going back to Edmund Randolph, have landed in situations of political delicacy at least equivalent to Loretta Lynch’s.

And as Rosenstein’s memo points out, when an official has to recuse himself/herself, someone can fill in. Often that would be the next in command, a deputy–not Rosenstein, who was appointed to his current position in January–but Sally Yates.

I have no idea whether Yates would have made the kind of announcement Comey made in July 2016. If she had announced that the email investigation was ended, presumably she would have worded the message differently. When Comey took the pulpit on July 5, the effect was to pre-empt Yates at least as much as Lynch.

The memo seems to raise a question whether the email investigation would have ended then, had Comey chosen differently:

The current FBI Director is an articulate and persuasive speaker about leadership and the immutable principles of the Department of Justice. He deserves our appreciation for his public service. As you and I have discussed, however, I cannot defend the Director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken. Almost everyone agrees that the Director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives.

This point has not gone entirely unnoticed. Almost, but not quite.

 

 

 

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House flippers help pressure homeowners into foreclosure

Reducing foreclosure ‘backlogs’ is not the same as reducing foreclosures. To reduce foreclosures, best we keep people in their homes. Unfortunately, a different strategy is too often pursued, at least in Prince George’s County–speeding up the foreclosures. The backlog of foreclosures still in the hopper in the county can thus be reduced, on the books. It’s a strategy that benefits real estate investors. House flippers with the capital and connections to snap up a bunch of houses can then turn around and sell the houses at a profit, sometimes quickly.

Take for example the real estate company called Integrity Professional Contracting, in Prince George’s County, Maryland. On September 12, 2013, Integrity Professional Contracting purchased a pleasant home at 7800 Suiter Way, in Landover, for the bargain price of $73,000. Four bedrooms, four baths, nice yard if somewhat bland landscaping. The Washington Post’s real estate report listed Mark H. and Gerard W. Wittstadt as the seller. However, Maryland public records show that the actual homeowner was Olusegun A. Bright. Bright had bought his house in 2005 for $215,000. Forced into foreclosure after the collapse of the real estate market, he sold at enormous loss.

The Wittstadts were what is known as ‘substitute trustees’. In Maryland, these companies help push along the process of foreclosure. When a homeowner falls behind on  mortgage payments, the bank holding the mortgage note can contract with a foreclosure firm–which acts as ‘substitute trustees’, standing in for the lender–rather than dealing directly with the homeowner. Sometimes this arrangement works out well for the bank, which has fewer tearful borrowers to deal with and fewer individual cases to decide justly on the merits. Sometimes the arrangement fails to benefit the bank. 

Signs of the times

Signs of the times

The process can benefit well-financed house flippers, as mentioned. Integrity Professional Contracting sold the 7800 Suiter Way property on October 10, 2013, for $193,000–still a reasonable price for a good-sized condo in good shape, nonetheless a $120K gain in less than a month.

The company has not yet returned a telephone call for inquiry. Its members may or may not be Flip or Flop fans. What is known is that its top executive is Abdullah Haitham Hijazi, son as previously written of P. G. County’s Director of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement. Mr. Hijazi has gotten sweet press from the Washington Post, partly in support of cutting red tape, partly in sympathy for immigrant families in America.

Speaking of immigrant families–

Mr. Hijazi’s company bought another house on Suiter Way on January 30, 2014, paying Tito T. Ladipo $114,500 (foreclosure). The company sold the house on May 8 for $199,000, according to public record. The company bought 3911 Elkhorn Circle from Olushola Adetunji on September 19, 2013, for $162,000 (foreclosure). Sold on December 12 of that year for $270,000.

There seems to be little regulation of ‘substitute trustees’ in Maryland. Or–if you really can’t stand the word “regulation”–there seems to be little public oversight. With the enormous supply of homes in foreclosure in Prince George’s County, there is tremendous market pressure to ease up restraints that would keep properties from coming on the market. ‘Reducing the backlog’, again. (And “reducing regulation” and “cutting the red tape.”) Add to that a large county that includes historically excluded minorities, immigrant families, and first-time home buyers, and you have the ideal population for taking advantage of, historically under-served, with apparently little or no scrutiny from the state Attorney General. (Lack of scrutiny from the courts as an issue will have to wait for another day.)

Add further the recent down and up in real estate–the crash in 2007-2009, and the recovering housing market today. There is interest in buying houses, and there is frustration in waiting for a house to come on the market. Also, sellers leaving their homes voluntarily may choose to hold out for a decent price. And if they’re in a good position to sell, they may also have access to legal protection.

So what’s a sharp house flipper to do? One thing he can do is get in on the ‘substitute trustee’ end of the business. That way, he’s in touch with banks/lenders, with information on houses heading into foreclosure. In fact, he’s put directly in touch with the homeowners struggling with foreclosure. Another thing he can do is keep a sharp eye out for the most recent updates/information on permitting.

Integrity Professional Contracting, for example, the firm mentioned above, became active (registered) in Maryland in April 2011. The company purchased two houses in Prince George’s County in the next two years, and sold two others. Mr. Hijazi became Acting Director of DPIE on June 11, 2013, transferring from his previous county position as Director of the Department of Public Works and Transportation. A quick look at WaPo home sales for P. G. shows that from that date through the end of the year, the Hijazi firm bought six houses, selling the two in foreclosure mentioned above.

The pace picked up further. In 2014, the company bought and/or sold nine houses, including this home at 2715 Judith Avenue bought for $74,000 in October 2013 and sold for $230,000 in July 2014.  In 2015, the company bought or sold ten houses, including 804 Nalley Rd., purchased September 3 for  $100,000 (foreclosure) and sold November 26 for $210,000. In 2016, the company bought/sold eleven houses in Prince George’s County, including 116 Swiss Gap Rd., No. 14-4, sold on February 4 for $159,000 and purchased the previous September for $77,000 (foreclosure).

One cannot assume that all foreclosures are undeserved. Not all homeowners are deserving. But I know for a certainty that some foreclosures are undeserved. The homeowner, or relatives, can offer to make up the payments missed–and the foreclosure will still proceed. In other words, if the substitute trustee wants the house, once a homeowner falls behind on payments–even if because of medical bills or other legitimate issues–the trustee can still push the foreclosure forward.

Legal notice

Legal notice

From the standpoint of public policy, this is not the best strategy for reducing backlogs. The effect in Prince George’s County has been to reduce–directly and drastically–the chief source of wealth for historically excluded groups.

More to come.

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“Important Notice about Eviction”

Imagine coming home and finding a notice posted on your front door:

A person who claims the right to possess this property believes that this property is abandoned.

You just got home–from work, errands, visits. You’ve lived in the house for years; it’s your home. You and your relatives know the house well; so do your near neighbors. “Abandoned?” Potted plants on the front porch, porch furniture in place, house furnishings visible through the windows–this is abandoned?

Sad to say, some people who find such a notice on their front doors just leave. They don’t fight it. They just go, taking with them whatever belongings they can carry. They think it’s a done deal: they’ve been evicted. It’s over. Silent as it is, the printed word speaks.

But it’s not over. A neighbor of mine had this experience, some while back. Her particular posting, titled “IMPORTANT NOTICE ABOUT EVICTION,” told the homeowner,

If you are currently residing in the property, you must immediately contact:

Abdulla H. Hijazi, Esq., Hijazi Law Group LLC, 3231 Superior Lane Suite A-26, Bowie, Maryland 20715

with contact information via phone, fax and email.

Well, that’s one option: you could get in touch with the company that posted a notice telling you your home was abandoned. My neighbor took the wiser action of writing the judge who had jurisdiction. That took care of the abandonment claim, at least.

A call to Hijazi’s office, asking for information, has not yet been returned.

I asked the mayor of my own incorporated community what the homeowner should do. He had a quicker measure: “Call the police.” If you feel yourself to be intimidated, if you feel threatened, then put in a call to the police. The town administrator seconded: “That’s what 911 is for.” Regrettably there is no requirement that someone posting an eviction notice is supposed to let the town know first. No one checks in at the town office beforehand. You could theoretically xerox some notices, post them on doors, and nothing would happen.

My neighbor is someone I have been acquainted with for years. I know for certain that she lives in the house, did live in it at the time of the ‘abandoned’ eviction notice, and lived in it well before.

I am convinced, furthermore, that the company posting the notice knew that the house was not abandoned. I’ve had detailed conversations with the neighbor, and she is fortunately someone who keeps documents, answers correspondence, and makes copies. I’ve leafed through one of her three-inch-plus binders. She has made every effort to do everything right.

So what is the punishment for posting something you know is not true? Well, apparently–nothing. But isn’t it against the law? Well, apparently, if the homeowner is non-white–no. Or not effectively. I mean, is the poster even required to send a letter of apology to the victim? Or is an officer of the court required to apologize to the courts for what one might consider abuse of process? Again–seems not.

Giving up is humanly understandable. I have no respect for victim-blaming. But any house lost–by someone who wanted to stay in it–is a loss for everyone. This is not just metaphysics, as in We’re-all-part-of-the-great-web. It is survival in the most practical terms: if a real-estate investor can get away with this tactic against one of your neighbors, then he can use it against you. We all need to be paying attention.

With reportedly some six thousand home foreclosures still in the hopper in Prince George’s County, it is easy to understand how homes can slip through the cracks. But the effects are horrendous.

More to come.

 

 

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Why is a P. G. County official (or his family) buying up foreclosed homes?

On October 14, 2016, my neighbor received a two-page letter from the bank holding her mortgage note, M&T Bank.

Baltimore's own M&T Bank

Baltimore’s own M&T Bank

As foreclosure letters go, it could have been worse, on paper. M&T told her that it was “reviewing” her “workout package.” “It is possible,” the bankers informed her, that “we may determine that additional information is needed.” “If we determine that additional information is needed,” they assured her, “you will receive a letter identifying any additional documents that you need to provide.” Footnoted at bottom in faint and fine print was an address–a P. O. Box in Baltimore–and an 800 number for “Mortgage account information.”

The decision would be reached within 30 days after the bank received all the required information. That would be–spelling this out–the decision as to whether my neighbor was being kicked out of her house, the home she has lived in for eighteen years.

The bank said that she would receive one of five possible replies. 1) Her mortgage eligible for repayment or forbearance. 2) Mortgage eligible for trial-period modification. 3) Mortgage approved for permanent modification. 4) Mortgage not eligible for modification. Or 5) “More information is needed to make our decision. You will be contacted either by phone or letter to request the additional information.”

In proof of its bona fides, M&T signed off with one of those truly personal touches that make you wonder how a bank with heart like this stays in business:

Sincerely,

Single Point of Contact Team

Homeowner Assistance Center

The bank auctioned her house five days later. No further communication in the interim, from any person, through any medium. The letter was dated October 6; perhaps the bank docked eight days from the thirty, jumping the gun by a mere seventeen days.

The auction did not succeed. But that’s the end of the good news.

My neighbor’s house is still in the toils of the court system. In fact, it is still embroiled in two courts–only one of them legitimately involved under Maryland law.

Unfortunately, someone with connections in P. G. County had an interest in acquiring the property. Pshaw on the facts. The homeowner had cared for her mother, who died of cancer in her nineties. She had cared for her father, who died of Alzheimer’s, also in his nineties. The homeowner had lost her County job, quite possibly because of internal politics; fell behind three months on her mortgage; and has been working since 2014 to get her life back. Her house is not even underwater. No matter. The prospective buyer has all the cards–which happen in his case to include a top-tier County job as well as four adult sons and a former wife, mother of the latter, who invest in real estate via the foreclosure stream. Adiebi Hijazi, the former wife, is seen Tuesdays and Thursdays in front of the courthouse at Upper Marlboro, purchasing properties. The family has acquired quite a few houses in P. G.–all of them, as it happens, through the court of Judge Toni Clarke. “No one meets her”: the Honorable Ms. Clarke issues decisions without a hearing, from chambers, homeowner not present. The observation that “no one” meets her is not literal, be it noted. The prospective buyer of the house is present. “He goes in ex parte.”

Why is a P. G. County official pushing through foreclosures on properties he wants to buy as an investor?

The buyer is a son of Mr. Haitham Hijazi, Director of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement for Prince George’s County, Maryland. Hijazi has gotten favorable ink in The Washington Post for his interest in cutting red tape in permits. The Department (DPIE) itself touts Mr. Hijazi’s activities in its newsletter, published at taxpayer expense. Hijazi is one of County Executive Rushern Baker’s few holdovers from the previous County administration. DPIE’s responsibilities include identifying properties that are vacant, abandoned, foreclosed or blighted. His son, Abdullah Haitham Hijazi, Esq., is the person who appears in court to represent the family interests.

Haitham Hijazi, Director of Permitting for P. G. County

Haitham Hijazi, Director of Permitting for P. G. County

Unstated in the department newsletter is the fact that Hijazi and his family themselves invest in buying up foreclosed properties. Worse yet, he and his family members actively push the foreclosures. And worst of all, they are canny enough to push them through the District Court in Hyattsville rather than through the legally mandated route through Circuit Court.

Here’s where a brutal process, grim at best, not to say heartless to the point of becoming morally repugnant, gets odd. As another Maryland judge states with laudable clearness,

” . . . all of the Judges of the District Court are aware that foreclosure matters fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Circuit Court.”

Question from Ms. Average Citizen: If foreclosure is exclusively the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court, then why do homeowners have to go into the District Court in Hyattsville to try to keep from losing their homes?

My neighbor has been represented by an attorney, a couple of times in the process; has received informal assistance from attorneys; and has been in touch with other homeowners in related cases. She and others in danger of losing their houses–and some who have already lost their homes–have had to show up in courtrooms in Hyattsville.

What she/they do is bounce back and forth between the District Court in Hyattsville–which, as mentioned, is not the venue for foreclosure–and the Circuit Court system in Upper Marlboro and Annapolis–which sometimes blesses the District Court foreclosures. It’s an agonizing process or game of shuttlecock, as our British cousins would say, or ping pong, where the hapless homeowner gets batted back and forth between parties with a more moneyed interest in the real property, though none of the sweat equity. First, the courtroom of Judge Crystal Mittlesteadt (Circuit Court), who denies without a hearing the homeowner’s request for a stay of proceedings. Then, the courtroom of Judge Brian Denton (Hyattsville, District Court), who at least listens to the homeowner, in appearance pro se. (In this particular matter, Judge Denton granted a continuance. That gave the prospective buyer more time but arguably gave the homeowner same. More to the point, the Hyattsville court did not have jurisdiction in the first place.) Then, another Hyattsville courtroom, where the homeowner’s continuance is denied. (“People get a continuance for missing a bus.” Again, shouldn’t have been there anyway.) In this case, denying the continuance requesnt meant that the Hyattsville judge “gave him my property.” Again, fortunately, it didn’t stick.

Imagine being in your house, living in your home, where you have lived for years, and facing the constant threat of losing the house any month. Any week. Any day. From a public policy perspective, what is the upside here?

Back to the court system, if ‘system’ is the term–

On a briefly happier note, the homeowner asked the (last) judge to reconsider, and the judge granted the request. The case then went to Hyattsville Judge Clayton Aarons, who ruled that the homeowner had to put up $7,500. A previous employer of the homeowner stepped in and put up the money. One for the good guys.

The case is now back in Circuit Court. The homeowner could not afford the constant legal help necessary to shepherd the matter through five or six courtrooms. Aside from the bank or the eager investor, who can afford such legal help? Pro bono legal work is not available for foreclosures, according to my neighbor. The University of Maryland legal clinic had a good guy available to help, and help he did. But he died in December 2016.

The interested real-estate-investor buyers in these cases have more options. They always have more cash and more financing than a homeowner in arrears, and more ability to hire legal talent.

They also have more legal talent on the bench–their bench–according to the accounts I’m hearing. In Prince George’s County, they have Judge Clarke. She “never decides for the homeowner.”

Questions emailed to County Executive Baker and DPIE Director Hijazi have not been returned.

More to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Good faith is an element in every contract

[Update May 2. Here is the reply to my question to the Maryland Attorney General’s office:]

Your email to Attorney General Brian Frosh has been referred to me for response. You have inquired into whether the Maryland Attorney General could assist with the enforcement of contracts between authors and publishers. Under a valid contract between and author and a publisher, the parties are legally required to perform certain agreed upon terms. If one party fails to perform, the other can sue to enforce the agreement.  Under Maryland law, there is no authority for the Attorney General to get involved in such a contract dispute.  The dispute is between the two parties to the contract and the remedy is for one party to file an action against the other.
Please let me know if you have further questions.  Jenny Baker

Contracts between authors and publishers don’t get treated as real contracts. In the judicial system, the author is generally treated as “a very, very small business.” So I was told several years ago as a member of the National Writers Union. While in the NWU I chaired the DC chapter for a couple of years; I also served as a Grievance Counselor, trying if possible to help members who had a problem with their publishers. Most often the problem was that they did not get paid.

The first question was ‘Do you have a contract or [something, anything, in writing]?’ If yes, the next question was ‘Can you send it to me?’ One of the services offered by the NWU was contract advice. I was not a Contract Advisor, but the CAs were also there to help; they tried to see to it that the author stuck out for a decent contract, bringing another pair of eyes to rights and royalties.

The trouble was that even a writer with a clear-as-glass contract had little way to enforce it.

I cannot go into detail on individual examples/cases. But I can say that my premise that a contract is a contract, even where one party is a small-time ham-and-egger, started to feel a bit naive. An author’s contract would generally be written by the publisher. It could have an unequivocally clear schedule for reporting sales and paying royalties–obligations of the publisher. But if the calendar date rolled around and there was no royalty check from the publishing company–then what?

Well, in the State of New York, when Andrew Cuomo was state Attorney General– nothing. Too bad I can’t go into details. Suffice it to say that a state AG, or the office of a state’s attorney, does not come banging on the door of a deadbeat publisher, demanding that he cough up or else. There’s no SWAT team for scofflaws in publishing. The contract might as well not have existed. Mutual agreement, mutual consideration, formal written expression all in place–the basis for contract law itself. And they might as well have been the Rock of Gibraltar recreated as whipped cream, sliding into the ocean.

NY AG Andrew Cuomo

NY AG Andrew Cuomo

Many journalists and other writers know something about the above picture, enough so that they don’t choose to freelance. Theoretically, being on the staff of a recognized periodical offers protections that an isolated freelancer does not get.

All this brings me to what sounds like an interesting book from Barbara Feinman Todd, fittingly titled Pretend I’m Not Here. Feinman Todd was a freelancer with more position than most. Among other professional activities she was a ghostwriter for the Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein, Benjamin Bradlee, and Bob Woodward. She also ghosted Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village (1996).

According to an interesting article by Clark Hoyt, the book–which I have not read yet–recounts that Feinman Todd got burned by Woodward. The story is that the author confided to Woodward that Hillary Clinton bolstered herself psychically by having imaginary conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt among others. Instead of keeping this item secret as promised, Woodward used it–prominently–in his own book on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. He also passed along copies of two transcripts Feinman Todd allegedly gave him to other WaPo writers, for their work on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Woodward denies Feinman Todd’s account, according to Hoyt. As a supporter of authors I think Mr. Hoyt’s article makes a point of bigger interest than the personalities involved:

Woodward’s efforts to report the story could explain why Feinman Todd suddenly found herself on the outs with the Clinton White House, which ordered the publisher of “It Takes a Village” to withhold her final payment. 

Bill Clinton’s White House “ordered the publisher” to withhold the author’s last payment on a book she ghosted for first lady Hillary Clinton?

1996, Simon & Schuster

1996, Simon & Schuster

Why, absent a national security concern, does a White House get to tell a publisher what to do? And of all things to command, why does it get to tell a publisher not to pay an author? Admittedly, that particular command might go down easy; see above on how publishers pay. But however willing the publisher might be to entertain the order, as represented it is still an order to violate a contract. They used to call it breach.

That wasn’t the only one, according to Feinman Todd:

And, when the book came out, Feinman Todd was given no credit, despite a requirement in her contract that she be included in the acknowledgments.

Ghosters can get shafted. The ghostwriter is usually supposed to be invisible, or at least not too conspicuous. Just the same, if the publisher failed to honor a contract requirement, the author had grounds to take the publisher to court. And she would have had more position than most to do so. The controversy actually drew some attention at the time. Simon & Schuster exposed its lack of self-respect when it caved under a directive from the Clinton White House. (Despite my concern with the larger issues, I admit it would be interesting to hear how the order was worded. And who delivered it, and to whom. And when. And where. Reading this stuff is like reading that the CIA could direct a university to hire one of its own as a full professor.)

For the record, my own view is that an author shouldn’t have to sue for redress. Breach of contract harms the public. It should be handled by a public entity, as in the state’s attorney’s office. Reading about the actions of a major publisher in 1996 raises the issue again.

 

 

 

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How the Democrats keep losing. 2017, part 3. No, don’t make elections a ‘referendum on Trump’

This post will be short. The results of the special election in Georgia’s 6th congressional district will remain unknown until after the voting. (Yes, I know; it’s heterodox.) No predictions here.

But a few facts are available now. For one–in heavy early voting, Republicans have caught up with Democrats. Today is the last day to vote early in the special; the GOP is projected to move ahead by close of day. (So much for bigfooting the locals with an avalanche of cash.) For another–according to hometown paper Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the makeup of GA-6 has not changed much since the 2016 election.

As Kristina Torres and Jennifer Peebles rightly point out,

The key takeaway . . . is that little has changed among the makeup of voters in the district. The 6th has long been a Republican stronghold. It’s more a question whether the national debate has changed any minds.

So–how are Democrats working to change hearts and minds, in GA-6? Well, for one thing, they’re sending an enormous influx of money from outside the state. For another, they’re boosting one Democratic candidate and starving out, silencing, ignoring or neglecting the others. For another, the party is getting expansive, and expensive, reinforcement on these tactics from out-of-state entities like Daily Kos, MoveOn.org, and even the usually good ActBlue; and from media outlets prominently including cable programs.

What’s more, all of the above–but especially some media outlets–seem to be confident that these provably flawed tactics will work. One yesterday so far as to say that Democratic frontrunner Jon Ossoff has an “absolute lock” on a spot in the runoff election. There is no lack of tub-thumping for Ossoff’s chances. Read here and here for examples.

And on top of all that, far too many analysts are calling the special election a ‘referendum on Trump’–who, if you recall, won in 2016.

And on top of that again, you have this choice specimen of motive from one of the out-of-state donors:

Levinson lives in Brooklyn, New York, but he read about Ossoff on Facebook. He’s donated about $60 to Ossoff’s campaign so far and plans to keep giving right up to the election.

If Ossoff wins, it will send a message to Republicans and Trump that Democrats are going to fight, Levinson said.

“They need a good trouncing. They need to be put back in their place. The cork needs to go back into the bottle,” he said.

Put them ‘back in their place’? Are you sure?

I love newspapers. I am an avid reader. I don’t want to be too hard on writers who are under considerable pressure to take the right line, often from their editors and peers.

But I do want to point out that the above are not winning tactics and do not add up to a winning strategy. The picture is undemocratic.

Reliable polling re GA-6 is hard to come by. (The absence of on-site polls is interesting itself, given the hype, and is probably cause and result of that same kind of pressure btw.) But as early as April 3, after the race started getting national attention, Politico reported that a GOP internal poll showed Ossoff’s unfavorables up:

“Polling conducted for a Republican super PAC claims Democrat Jon Ossoff’s special election momentum has frozen in Georgia’s 6th District, the GOP group told donors in a memo last week, even as Republican groups continue to pour more resources into stopping Ossoff this month. … The memo , from [Congressional Leadership Fund] executive director Corry Bliss and GOP pollster Greg Strimple of GS Strategy Group, says that polling conducted March 29-30 showed 38 percent of likely special election voters viewing Ossoff favorably and 47 percent viewing him unfavorably. The unfavorable numbers jumped sharply from previous polling conducted March 19-20, which had 43 percent of likely voters viewing Ossoff favorably compared to 26 percent who viewed him unfavorably. … The later poll also showed Ossoff getting 36 percent of the primary vote, virtually unchanged from 37 percent in the earlier one.”

Predictably, the dip–if real–has been blamed on attack advertising. Maybe. But I think the $8 million-plus in outside cash, the favoritism, the hysterical name-calling, the cynical co-opting World War II’s Resistance, the attempt to shove a candidate down everybody’s throats, the hype, the undisguised contempt for local voters, the bullying or ostracizing (other) writers, and the over-all projection and denial indulged among people who think themselves intellectuals may have played a part.

Project and denial are real. Freud wasn't wrong about everything.

Project and denial are real. Freud wasn’t wrong about everything.

 

 

 

 

 

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Press patting itself on back today . . .

. . . and every day, lately. Amid the self-glorification of U.S. media outlets comes today’s program at the Newseum, “The President and the Press: The First Hundred Days.”  In honor of the occasion, if not in the same spirit, re-posted below is the article I published in a small local community newspaper on January 21, 2002.

The topic: how the Washington Post Company benefited, to the tune of $billions, from the Bush ‘education reforms’, mainly standardized testing offered by Kaplan Learning–which the Post Co. had purchased during the last years of the Clinton administration.

Enjoy.

Washington Post Company to benefit from Bush education bill

By Margie Burns

January 21, 2002—Supporters of social programs may consider George W. Bush a grinch, but he’s been a Santa Claus for the Washington Post Company. With Bush’s “education reform” legislation, now signed into law, the company stands to reap a bonanza in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

As both critics and supporters have noted, this education bill chiefly promotes standardized testing in the schools, and certification programs beyond school, in every state and at virtually every level.

This is where the Post comes in. The company, most famous for its eponymous newspaper, has several subsidiaries in education and lists “provision of educational services” in public record filings among its “principal business activities.” One principal subsidiary is Kaplan, Inc, the tutoring and test-prep company, which “publishes course materials, books, software, and Web content to help prime students for standardized and licensing examinations.” Kaplan, Inc., in turn owns other education businesses, including Quest Education (acquired in May 2000), which provides post-secondary programs; Score! Prep, which provides tutoring programs; and (in Texas) Leonard’s Training Programs, Inc.

The numbers are impressive. In January 2000, operating revenues for the company’s education segment (Kaplan and the rest) were $240,075,000—third, behind revenues for advertising and circulation, but about 11 percent of total operating revenues of $2.2 billion. In December 2000, education segment revenues were $352,753,000—a 40 percent increase in the year, to about 13 percent of the total $2.4 billion. Operating revenues for 2001 are not yet filed, but sources including the Post have reported that its education segment is growing, while circulation and advertising have declined (a Business Wire in May, 2001, reported Kaplan as making “good progress,” with advertising businesses “weak”). Advertising has remained lower in the late-year recession and in the aftermath of the September attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Kaplan and its subsidiaries have been booming, comparatively speaking—perhaps with some help from the press; one Newsweek cover article touting the new era of standardized tests was titled “The Tutor Age.” As of December 2001, Hoover’s Company Capsule Database estimated Kaplan’s sales for the previous year at approximately $535.8 million. Press releases over the past two years have heralded acquisitions, publications, and additional software and training in states including Texas, Massachusetts, and New York. (Kaplan, which also has numerous part-time employees and no union, publishes books on the SAT, the PSAT, and ACT, as well as parents’ guides to proficiency tests including the Ohio test.)

Should the company’s education segment expand by a third, it will generate at least $110 million more in operating revenues, per year, for the company as a whole. However, the expansion will probably exceed 30 percent: with the acquisition of Quest Corporation in May 2000, Kaplan’s educational offerings are now eligible to participate in Title IV programs. According to a spokesman in the office of Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), who supports the education bill, current authorization for Title IV funding is “nearly doubled” by the bill, which will further increase it from $1.9 billion the first year to $2.1B, $2.4B, and $2.65B in the coming years.

No prediction is certain. But if the projected expansion in standardized testing continues for the next five years—accompanied by dizzying expansion in tutoring for the tests, software and publications for the students, teachers and parents preparing for the tests, and publishing and software for the tests themselves, etc.—then the Post stands to accrue the largest financial windfall for a single paper in the history of American newspapers, at least from legislation.

You can’t accuse the Post of bragging about it, though. The sole reference to the Post’s interest in the education bill occurred in two sentences about Kaplan on August 16, 2001, by reporters Michael Fletcher and Neil Irwin, who have yet to respond to phone and email queries. Media commentator Howard Kurtz has not mentioned the connection. Indeed, last May 7, Kurtz hosted a live online interview with Douglas Reeves, author of a book co-published by Kaplan that touts standardized tests, without mentioning the Post’s interest.

This is not to imply that the current federal legislation is the first time Bush education proposals have benefited the Post. Kaplan also offers publications and services for students preparing for the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), a previously experimental program beefed up to mixed reviews by then-Governor Bush into an annual make-or-break for students.

The results? A quick overview (WATN)–

  • The newspaper that ran the column, the Prince George’s Journal, is now long defunct. The Clinton administration gave big media a pass on anti-trust concerns, and few small newspapers could compete well enough to survive. (The Post Co. bought up and destroyed the DC-metro Gazette chain of small newspapers. Meanwhile, the Reverend Sun Moon’s then-empire was gobbling up many other small chains around the U.S., a pattern not reported in the Washington Post newspaper. The erstwhile community papers became part of the then-powerful right-wing GOP noise machine, now fractured.)
  • Shortly after my column ran, then-media commentator Kurtz ran a counter-argument of sorts on the Post’s op-ed page, though without mentioning my name or the title of my article (or the Prince George’s Journal). Same page, same day, the Post also ran a column by a NYTimes editor–an apologetic for corporate newspaper parents’ owning other interests. Quite the response–if they had had the decency to name my column, and me. (I spoke briefly by phone with Executive Editor Len Downie, who embarrassingly suggested that the Kaplan purchase represented a loss for the Post Co.) Nothing from the Post’s ombudsman.
  • Sure enough, the Post Co.’s education sector became by far its biggest earner. While its newspaper was losing money, the company pulled in so many $billions from its education sector that it ended up re-branding itself as an education and media company. SEC filings tell the story. And by now, of course, the paper itself has changed hands.
  • The Post newspaper has run quite a few good articles on the ills of excessive ‘standardized’ testing. But to this day, the Post has still not acknowledged its financial stake in Bush’s federal education ‘reforms’–or in the Bush brothers’ lucrative deals to Kaplan, supported through their governorships in Texas and Florida. The late David Broder prodded the Bush administration, in print, to follow through on the education promises–without mentioning that the Co. owned Kaplan.
  • No other journalist in the D.C. region followed up in 2002–no one on the left, no one on the right, no one in the middle. I thought that this purportedly liberal paper’s stake in GWBush was newsworthy. I still think so. But while the Post gave Bush a pass (on invading Iraq, for example), other media largely gave the Post a pass. Then they wonder why people don’t trust the news media.
One hand washes the other

One hand washes the other

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Democratic candidate Thompson ahead in first results from Kansas 4th

11:05. Sedgwick County now in; Thompson won it. But Estes ends with his biggest lead of the night. 53 percent to 45 percent. Thompson put up the best fight possible. Good race in a district like this, where Thompson actually led for much of the evening.

10:58. Estes 52 percent, Thompson 46 percent. Two counties still out, including Sedgwick, the largest (half million pop). Only 40 precincts left to report.

10:50. Cable commentators ignoring the Kansas race? With 519 of 620 precincts reporting, James Thompson only 881 votes behind Estes, statewide.

10:45. Estes now leading in Harvey County. Estes lead widest of night at 5 points. 468 of 620 precincts reporting. Six counties incomplete including Sedgwick, the largest. Estes leads by less than 5K votes out of 81K+.

10:40. Biggest counties not finished reporting.

10:30. Same counties still not finished reporting–small Greenwood and Chautauqua (Estes leading in latter), Butler and Sumner (Estes leading); larger Harvey (Thompson) and much larger Sedgwick (Thompson). With 443 precincts of 620 reporting, Estes leads Thompson by 3,000 votes of c. 80,000 cast. Outcome depends largely on Sedgwick and Harvey counties (D), partly on Sumner and Butler (R).

10:20. Two of the smallest GOP counties still out. Two largest Dem counties still out. Two middle-sized GOP counties still out. Close one.

10:15. Harper County now in, for Estes. His lead widens to 4 points with Greenwood County still out. Most of Sedgwick County still out, Thompson still leading. With more than two-thirds of Kansas precincts reporting, Estes lead is 41,695 to 37,955. Thompson also still leading in Harvey County, with some precincts still out.

10:10. Estes lead now 3 points, 51 percent to 48 percent. Two counties still not reporting; Estes leads in three others; but most of Sedgwick County still not reported.

10:05. Harper and Greenwood counties still not reporting; Estes has won most small counties (nine) and leads in three others. Reporting still not complete in the two Thompson counties. Estes still up by 2 points.

9:55. Stafford County heard from, goes for Estes. Estes lead widens to two points. A margin of 973 votes out of 62K+. Greenwood and Harper counties not yet reporting. Sedgwick and Harvey not called yet, but Thompson still leading in both.

9:50. Estes finally pulls ahead of Thompson. Slightly. With exactly half of precincts reporting, Estes has 31,743. Thompson 31,143. 600 votes out of 62,000. Precincts in three counties still not reporting. Estes leading in all counties reporting except Sedgwick and Harvey.

9:45 p.m. Regardless of final outcome, still positive. With over one-third of Kansas precincts reporting, James Thompson still leads. Much narrower: 50-49 percent. But Estes has now won Elk, Cowley and Kingman counties.

9:40. Precincts in five of seventeen Kansas counties not reporting yet. But with 199 precincts reporting, Thompson still leading 51-48 percent.

9:35. More than one-fifth of precincts reporting, Thompson’s lead narrows. 24,892 for Thompson. 23,239 for Estes. Still a lead of 51 percent to 48 percent at the moment. No precincts in the eastern counties reporting yet.

9:30. Estes has won Edwards and Kiowa counties. Western border of Kansas. Thompson still leads 53-45 percent. Only one-sixth of precincts reporting so far.

9:25 p.m. More than a hundred precincts reporting. Democrat Thompson still leads, 53 percent to 45 percent.

9:20 p.m. Thompson now ahead in Harvey County as well as in Sedgwick. Estes has now won Comanche County, ahead in six smaller counties besides Pawnee and Comanche. But with 76 precincts reporting, Thompson still leads by 22K+ to 18K+. Still 54 percent to 44 percent.

9:15 p.m. Now 54 percent Thompson (D) to 44 percent Estes (R). Two percent for Libertarian Rockhold.

9:10 p.m. With 49 precincts reporting, Thompson still up, but by less. 55 percent to 43 percent.

9:05 p.m. Thompson lead up again, with 19 precincts reporting. 65 percent to 34 percent.

9:00 p.m. Eastern time. Estes has won Pawnee County; no surprises there. Estes winning three other counties, Thompson winning Sedgwick County (Wichita), 12 other counties not reporting yet. Polls closed only an hour ago, or less.

17 precincts in. Now trending toward 60-40 for Thompson. 14,722 to 9,425.

With 12 precincts in, Thompson leads 60 percent to 38 percent for Estes, one percent for Rockhold.

Three precincts in, Thompson  now ahead 14,597 to 9,052.

Two precincts reporting, and Thompson still ahead 61 percent to 37 percent. (Unofficial results.) One percent for Libertarian Chris Rockhold.

Not even one percent in yet, but Thompson ahead 61 percent to 37 percent.

Unlikely to last long. But the vote for the moment is 14,226 for James A. Thompson. And 8,563 for Ron Estes.

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How the Democrats Keep Losing. 2017, Part 2. Kansas special, 4th District, April 11 (and Georgia 6th, April 18)

The next 2017 special election is taking place–as I write this–in Kansas.* Democratic candidate and Army vet James Thompson and Republican Ron Estes are running for the seat vacated when Rep. Mike Pompeo left to become CIA director.

James Thompson, Ron Estes

James Thompson, Ron Estes

Kansas House District 4 is traditionally Republican–like most of Kansas, dating from back when the state refused to enter the Union as a hotbed of proponents for enslaving fellow human beings. (See the repudiated ‘Lecompton Constitution’ for the history. It plays one part in Chapter 6 of my book, Firearms Regulation in the Bill of Rights, the chapter on the nineteenth century.) The GOP began as an anti-slavery movement.

The most recent history in Kansas’ 4th mainly displays the differences between how the Democratic Party and the GOP support their candidates–or don’t. Not to the advantage of the former. Thompson, a civil rights attorney who has experienced something like poverty, has not been supported by the state Democratic Party.

Nor has he been supported by the national party.

Meanwhile, the Repubs aren’t making the same mistake. Politico reported last week that “The NRCC spent $25,000 on digital advertising in the upcoming KS-04 special election – a dark-red district left open by CIA Director Mike Pompeo and not expected to be competitive.” At this point several news outlets are reporting efforts on behalf of Estes by the national GOP, as for example here and below.

Texas Sen. Cruz returns to Kansas to help GOP keep congressional seat

Meanwhile again, all hands are on deck–as I wrote last week–to help out candidate Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s 6th, running against a field that includes four other Democrats. Guess you have to be running against other Democrats to draw the needed attention. And draw it he did; boosted by Daily Kos and ActBlue along with other organizations, Ossoff pulled in a breathtaking $8.3 million in contributions, a record. (Kos has belatedly weighed in on behalf of Thompson in Kansas–very belatedly. Since my last post, in fact. Within the past week.)

If the Dems wanted to help a House candidate, why didn’t they help this guy? –His intra-party opponents were already eliminated. He had been  nominated in a democratic in-state process. No getting hands dirty. No hurting anyone’s feelings. Fewer suggestions of favoritism, arbitrariness, back-room deals or artificial pre-selection.

What is some Democrats’ problem with looking democratic?

Trick question.

Here is my hypothesis, and I have no problem with corrections, emendations or refutation. Feel free to refine, by all means. But here it is: in my view it is a problem when national and state Democrats neglect their own good candidates running against Republicans and instead pour resources into trying to pick a nominee against other Dems. It looks undemocratic, for one thing. For another, in Georgia 6th (picking a random example here), with four other Democratic candidates, outside support for Ossoff runs a substantial risk of alienating supporters of the other four. Also, that kind of big money pouring in–overwhelmingly from outside the state and largely because of large entities like MoveOn and Kos–can turn off voters. Voters cease to think their vote will make a difference. (This was one of the key factors behind non-voting in 2016, according to a Pew research survey).

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes, an influx of massive outside money can contribute to negative perceptions of the candidate. Not that any candidate wouldn’t be happy to get millions of dollars in contributions, from virtually anywhere. But the national party’s focus on one candidate running against fellow Democrats does not redeem its neglect of strong candidates facing opponents across party lines. This is the way to rebuild the Democratic brand after Clinton?

Predictions are vain. Thompson may win Kansas’ 4th despite the lack of intelligent, principled support from the state and national party. Ossoff may win more than 50 percent in Georgia’s 6th despite the massive unintelligent, unprincipled support from same–and from Daily Kos, which pre-selected him way ahead of time, and from MoveOn and the other out-of-state groups.

Right now, however, the available forecasting and results raise questions. They do not provide answers, as anyone who remembers 2016 would do well to remember. The money gap in Georgia cannot be disputed. The leading Democratic candidate, Ossoff, has received a nonpareil amount of money in one quarter for a House race–and more than all the Republican candidates combined. I am not denying the deep feeling of out-of-state ActBlue donors. But isn’t there a possibility that some potential GOP donors are waiting until after the primary to donate?

The early voting results also cannot be disputed. There is an extra-large turnout by Democrats in early voting. As the New York Times’ Nate Cohn tweeted a few days ago, early voting as of Saturday was 49 percent Democratic, 29 percent Republican. So does that mean the percentages will be the same on April 18?

More to the point, is all that Democratic turnout really going to one candidate?

That’s the line taken by the careerist-type Dems in the big media outlets. HuffPost headline: “Democrats Continue to Turn Out in Second Week of Voting for Jon Ossoff”. Brought to you by Andrea Mitchell at MSNBC, via HuffPost (and probably by others at MSNBC).

Okay, I’ll bite. How do they know the Dem turnout is for Ossoff? Is anyone doing exit polling? Are any exit polls available? Are any other Democrats receiving votes?

 

*This post was initially planned to go up on April 11.

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