Whitecaps

Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Name:
Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Report: School Districts' Emergency Planning

There are no federal laws requiring school districts to have emergency management plans. However, 32 states have laws or policies requiring school districts to have them. It will come as no surprise to residents of northern Idaho that our state is not among them.

It isn't as if there is no funding available. The Departments of Education and Homeland Security provide funding for emergency management planning in schools.

To get some idea of the nationwide status of school districts' emergency planning and preparedness, read the Government Accountability Office (GAO) study released May 17, 2007, and titled Emergency Management - Status of School Districts' Planning and Preparedness.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Freedom of Speech and Press - Exceptions

Recently a Coeur d'Alene community activist was talking with a woman who is also a member of the school board, a member of our community college's board of trustees, and a police sergeant. During the conversation the woman advocated an action which would violate Idaho law. When the activist pointed out how the woman's objective could be achieved without violating state law, the woman reportedly said, "That's ludicrous." Subsequently in a weblog post, the community activist referred to the woman as a "snake" for her willingness to violate state law when lawful but less convenient and less expedient methods were available. Was his characterization of her an exercise of his free speech or defamation?

There are exceptions to free speech and press. To provide Congress with an overview of some of the exceptions, the Library of Congress's Congressional Research Service published a 43-page report for Congress titled Freedom of Speech and Press: Exceptions to the First Amendment.

Issues covered in the report include:
  • Obscenity
  • Child pornography
  • Content-based restrictions
  • Non-content based restrictions
  • Prior restraint
  • Commercial speech
  • Defamation
  • Speech harmful to children
  • Children's First Amendment rights
  • Time, place, and manner restrictions
  • Incidental restrictions
  • Symbolic speech
  • Compelled speech
  • Radio and television
  • Freedom of speech and government funding
  • Free speech rights of government employees and government contractors

Monday, May 21, 2007

Mortgage Fraud - It Isn't Going Away

Suppose a politicial jurisdiction, maybe a city or a county, has an obligation to inspect and certify that land has been properly prepared for residential or commercial construction. That jurisdiction's certification becomes an assurance to lenders that foundations and porches won't crumble and that sewer and water lines were installed according to applicable codes so they won't leak. And what if that same jurisdiction has an obligation to make similar certification inspections of structures to assure compliance with other applicable codes?

Lenders, their appraisers, and property buyers alike rely on those certifying inspections by the jurisdiction's inspectors, because once the dirt has been compacted or thrown in the trench, it's may be months or years before the consequences of substandard workmanship certified by deficient inspections ooze to the surface.

The same lenders, appraisers, and buyers rely on the jurisdiction's building inspections to ensure there really is a vapor seal under that siding, that structural, plumbing, and electrical work is safe and code-compliant, and that an array of other hidden work has been done as promised.

What if the jurisdiction didn't have enough inspectors to handle the additional inspections associated with the area's construction boom? Instead of aggravating developers and builders by insisting on conducting diligent compliance inspections, what if the jurisdiction's officials told its inspectors to only do a few occasional field inspections and then just sign off on the rest as if inspections had really been done? Wouldn't that be misleading?

It would not only be misleading, it would quite likely be criminal. Misrepresenting to lenders, appraisers, and buyers that property meets a promised standard of safety and quality when it does not results in the property being valued higher than justified. The property with the artificially inflated valuation receives a mortgage loan higher than it should, and that puts the lender and property owner at risk. That is mortgage fraud.

Whether the housing and commercial market is hot or cold, mortgage fraud still exists.

Today's New York Times has an article about it. The article by Julie Creswell is titled Mortgage fraud is up, but not in their back yards. The story talks about Atlanta's "All-Broad Fraud Squad", ladies who endured the put-downs from law enforcement and mortgage lenders alike to expose and educate about mortgage fraud in Atlanta.

Just after the first of the year, Whitecaps did a series of posts relating to mortgage fraud. Here's links to them:

As the residential and commercial construction market begins to cool, there will be less news coverage about mortgage fraud. The absence of news coverage doesn't mean mortgage fraud is going away. It isn't. Honest lenders, appraisers, and buyers need to be as vigilant as ever. And they need to be as persistent as Atlanta's All-Broad Fraud Squad.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Vishing

The availability and growing popularity of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has spawned "vishing", a variation of phishing. Vishing couples the anonymity available on the Internet with the communications technology and social engineering needed to exploit victims.

The vishing scheme and scam is described in these webpages by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Maybe There Is Hope After All

If the accounts in today's New York Times and Washington Post are accurate and reasonably complete, our country came very close to seeing a reprise of Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre.

It is reassuring to know that then Attorney General John Ashcroft, his chief of staff David Ayres, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and then Acting AG James Comey were willing to resign in principle over the attempt by President Bush, his former chief of staff Andrew Card, and the current Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to circumvent the Constitutional rule of law in March 2004.

It takes courage and character to jeopardize one's own future by defending principles at any level of government. It takes a strong will for citizens and officials to stand tall knowing they will be viciously and repeatedly attacked by those who lust for power and abuse it willingly once they have it.

It must have stunned President Bush when Ashcroft, Ayres, Mueller, Comey and the others demonstrated their moral and professional courage and reminded him that the law of the land is based on the Constitution, not on the political expedience of a President, his slimeball chief of staff, and a scumbag attorney.

Maybe there is hope after all.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Official Ignorance

On April 20, 2007, I submitted a request for public information to the Lake City Development Corporation (LCDC), Coeur d'Alene, Idaho's urban renewal agency. Idaho's Open Records Law does not prescribe that records requests must follow a specific format, however the LCDC does conveniently provide its own REQUEST FOR PUBLIC INFORMATION and/or RECORDS form on its website. If the LCDC's website is down, a copy of the form I used is available here. My request was sent via Certified Mail from the same post office in which the LCDC's mailbox is located.

Note that at the bottom of LCDC's own form is the mailing address LCDC specifically instructs requestors to use when submitting requests pursuant to the Idaho Open Records law. That address, PO Box 3450, Coeur d'Alene, ID 83816, is the same official mailing address listed by LCDC elsewhere on its website.

On May 7, 2007, the United States Postal Service (USPS) returned my Certified Mail request. The Certified Mail letter had been unclaimed by LCDC. Here is a scan of the returned envelope. The markings applied by the USPS provide useful information.

First, I mailed the letter on April 20, 2007, from the post office with ZIP code 83814. If an agency has a post office box at that post office, that agency's ZIP code is 83816. My Certified Mail letter never left that post office. Official handling was minimized.

As the USPS-applied imprint on the returned envelope shows, the "1st NOTICE" was placed in the LCDC's mailbox on "4-20-2007." That notice included only the article number (the 20-digit number on the "Certified Mail" sticker applied by USPS) and the date and time delivery was attempted. It included no information about the sender. The intended recipient would have to take the USPS notice to the counter to collect or refuse the mailing.

Second, a "2nd NOTICE" was placed in the LCDC's mailbox on "4/26." That notice contained the same information as the first.

Third, after the addressee failed to take either of the two notices to the counter, the USPS stamped the envelope "UNCLAIMED" and noted the "RETURNED" date as "5/5." Since "5/5" was a Saturday, the unclaimed Certified Mail envelope and contents were returned to me personally (I signed for it from the letter carrier) on Monday, May 7, 2007.

The designation "UNCLAIMED" has a specific meaning for the USPS. When a Certified Mail letter or parcel is "UNCLAIMED", it means the addressee has made no attempt to collect the item or identify the sender. The addressee, the LCDC Executive Director, could have taken either of the two notices from his mail box to the post office's counter and then refused the letter. If that had happened, the Certified Mail envelope would have been stamped "REFUSED", not "UNCLAIMED."

Certified Mail provides the sender with not only proof of delivery but also with proof of attempted delivery. In other words, a Certified Mail letter or parcel prevents the addressee from ignoring it, then saying, "It must have been lost in the mail."

One might suggest that perhaps the LCDC Executive Director was out of town or on vacation or otherwise indisposed and was unable to pick up his mail. That excuse, if offered, would be refuted on two counts.

First, the LCDC Executive Director was seen in Coeur d'Alene by several persons between April 20 and May 5.

Second, on Friday, April 27, 2007, I handcarried a sealed envelope to the Coeur d'Alene City Hall. The envelope contained a scanned copy of the completed LCDC form and a brief cover letter telling the addressee about the Certified Mail in his post office mailbox. The letter's inside address and envelope were the same: Tony Berns, LCDC Executive Director, City Hall, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. There was no return address on the envelope. The City Hall receptionist accepted the envelope without any hesitation or question, arose from her chair, and said, "Sure, I'll put it right in his mailbox." The following Monday, April 30, I received a telephone call from LCDC Executive Director Tony Berns telling me he had received my letter and "...will get to work on it." On May 2, 2007, I received a first-class mailing on LCDC letterhead. The mailing was in response to the item I had left at City Hall. The response was on LCDC letterhead and had been dated April 30, 2007.

What this episode tells me is that in addition to its "public" address, the LCDC uses one or more accommodation addresses. One of LCDC's accommodation addresses is the Coeur d'Alene City Hall. There may be others such as one or more private mail boxes (PMB).

It's certainly not illegal for a public entity such as LCDC to use accommodation addresses. In fact, it sometimes makes sense. It should ensure that important and time sensitive items such as checks, bills, applications, and Idaho Open Records Law requests receive prompt attention. PMBs have the benefit of being willing to distribute not only US mail deliveries but also parcels from outside couriers such as UPS or FedEx.

So why would the LCDC, a public agency, engage in the extremely unusual business practice of specifying only one US mail delivery address and then failing to collect Certified Mail sent to that address? Wouldn't a conscientious administrator of a public agency be concerned that he might miss something important if its mail wasn't diligently collected? Of course he would. The answer is that the LCDC has provided "insiders," its friends and business associates, with an address to which they can send material and be assured it will receive prompt attention. Conversely, LCDC can be reasonably sure that anything sent to the PO Box 3450 has been sent by an "outsider" and can safely be delayed or ignored.

Well, if that's so, why didn't the LCDC Executive Director simply ignore my request left at City Hall? My guess is that if he had decided he didn't want to answer it, my request would have been administratively lost and ignored. But as it happens, someone other than I had already asked the same question and received an answer from the Mayor. That allowed Berns to conveniently use the same answer he and the Mayor had given to the earlier inquiry. Thus, he felt he could safely respond to my request with the identical answer.

That the Executive Director of the LCDC who makes more than $100,000 per year intentionally ignores Certified Mail sent to the LCDC's one public mail address ought to concern not only Coeur d'Alene's honest citizens but also its Mayor and City Council.

The Mayor and City Council are supposed to be overseeing the LCDC's Executive Director and Board of Commissioners, supervising them, to ensure that LCDC is responsive to the public's interests. Clearly, supervision in the public interest by the Mayor and City Council isn't happening.

Idaho's legislators have begun to recognize that Idaho's urban renewal laws need to be revised to preserve their benevolent potential while curbing the kinds of abuses that are occurring in Coeur d'Alene. The urban renewal task force expected to be formed by the Legislature in mid-May is a step in the right direction. Legislation reining in the abuses by the LCDC is badly needed, because Coeur d'Alene's Mayor and City Council are failing to fulfill their supervisory duties and obligations to the public. Those abuses don't just affect Coeur d'Alene's citizens. They affect all Kootenai County taxpayers.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Public Officials Accepting Bribes

Public officials who accept bribes or gratuities sometimes think because the dollar amounts are low or because the officials are from some remote geographic area, their illegal conduct will escape notice.

It doesn't work that way. Take a look at two news stories.

The first is a newspaper article from the December 8, 2006, Seattle Times. It was an Associated Press wire story headlined Indicted Alaska lawmaker accused of soliciting bribes in exchange for cooperation. The article reveals how an Alaska state legislator and a lobbyist were recruited by a consultant to act on behalf of the consultant's company in the state legislature. The alleged bribe was for "only" $26,000.

The article goes on to describe how the legislator and the lobbyist allegedly created a sham corporation to conceal routing the bribe to the legislator.

The article notes, "The seven-count indictment alleges that from July 2004 to March 2005, Anderson and the lobbyist received $26,000 from the consultant in exchange for Anderson's agreement to act on his behalf in the Legislature." By the way, the seven-count indictment was issued by a federal grand jury.

The second news story comes from CNNMoney.com, dated May 4, 2007, and headlined UPDATE:Alaska Officials Plead Guilty In VECO Oil Bribe Case.

That story recounts how the FBI investigated allegations against three Alaska lawmakers. The allegations ultimately led to federal grand jury indictments for charges including extortion, attempted extortion, bribery, conspiracy, mail fraud, and wire fraud.

What is especially noteworthy, however, is that the dollar amounts of the alleged bribes were comparatively low: $8,993, $2,750, $2,600, and $3,000. The $3,000 was to be paid to one representative's relative for accepting a job with VECO.

The lesson to be learned in this is clear: The corruption of public officials anywhere is on the federal prosecution radar. Even if the cost of investigating and prosecuting far exceeds the dollar value of the bribes or gratuities involved, the public wants prosecution of corrupt public officials.

Friday, May 04, 2007

It's Not Just About Pay

Today's Coeur d'Alene Press reports the Kootenai County Sheriff's Department (KCSD) is asking the Kootenai County Board of County Commissioners for $2.1 million in next year's budget for pay raises. In his Press article titled KCSD asks for $2.1 million, reporter Marc Stewart notes, "Money would be used for pay raises in hopes of halting departure of employees." The operative word there is "hopes."

Whitecaps "hopes" the Board of County Commissioners will examine the KCSD's strategic plan (if it has one) to determine exactly what other measures Sheriff Rocky Watson and his command staff have in place to increase retention and morale. Absent a comprehensive hiring and retention plan with valid means of measuring success or failure, giving Watson $2.1 million for higher pay is like putting window screen over a sucking chest wound.

A person's career choice is rarely completely dependent on pay. Pay is important, and people will not apply or remain if the pay is too low. However even in departments with adequate pay, retention becomes an issue when other factors are significant. Other significant factors include poor leadership and supervision, lack of respect for subordinates by superiors, inadequate pre-service and in-service training, poor employee selection practices, few opportunities for specialization and advancement, and few opportunities for advanced education.

For some insight into the problems faced by small departments (KCSD is not a small department), see the International Association of Chiefs of Police's Best Practices Guide - Recruitment and Retention of Qualified Police Personnel. The Guide offers some solutions that could be upscaled and applied in KCSD.

For a more academic yet still practical analysis about law enforcement hiring and retention, see the Urban Institute's studey titled Hiring and Retention Issues in Police Agencies: Readings on the Determinants of Police Strength, Hiring, and Retention of Officers, and the Federal COPS Program. This study was published in October 2001.