Monday, May 28, 2018

Dealing with federal prosecutors

Michael Blutrich's book Scores describes how he acted as an FBI confidential informant against the Gambino mafia family and was then screwed over by the government, ending up with a long prison sentence and no witness protection.

Mr. Blutrich was under federal investigation in Florida for a bankrupt insurance company and in New York for mob influence in the strip club Scores which he was co-owner. Read the book to see all the details, a couple things hit me about dealing with the government after reading the book.

The first comes from the Florida insurance case. When Blutrich and others were indicted he says (In think in hindsight) that the prosecutors did it too early. If he had let himself be arrested and arraigned (starting the "speedy trial" clock) the prosecution would not have been able to have its case ready in time. He instead made a deal which ended up not starting the trial clock.

The second is from the overall result of the case -- the prosecutors didn't do anything they promised and the judge didn't accept the government's plea bargain, imposing a much longer sentence.

From this, a few rules when dealing with the government:

First, get it in writing. A verbal agreement is little better than no agreement at all. Recently published plea agreement relating to the Trump / Russia scandals shows that written agreements are possible, so any plea or cooperation agreement should be in writing. It's still possible that the agreement will be ignored, but less likely than a verbal agreement.

Second, everybody needs to sign the agreement. Much of Mr. Blutrich's problem was a Florida prosecutor who didn't like confidential informants and who was never really in agreement over the deals being done. A written agreement signed by all parties might make it harder to ignore the agreement.

Third, don't delay the trial. If Mr. Blutrich had started the trial clock and opposed all attempts at delay he might have left the government in a situation of having to prosecute an incomplete case (acquittal more likely), drop the indictment, or accept a light sentence in order to avoid losing the case. The government has a lot of power and influence over individuals, rushing the government might force it to accept better terms.

Government officials, whether police, prosecutors, or judges, often make mistakes. I've seen this many times from news stories or books. I've also seen it first hand when I was chosen for a jury, then the case was plea bargained, and the judge came in and basically told us (in polite terms) why the prosecutor was an idiot.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Government exempting itself from Obamacare rules

The government often exempts itself from rules the rest of us must follow, and it appears Obamacare is no exception. I recently discovered that Medicare Part A is considered to be qualifying coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Yet compare Medicare part A to Obamacare requirements:

Ambulatory patient services (outpatient care you get without being admitted to a hospital)
Emergency services
Hospitalization (like surgery and overnight stays)
Pregnancy, maternity, and newborn care (both before and after birth)
In hospital childbirth only
Mental health and substance use disorder services, including behavioral health treatment (this includes counseling and psychotherapy)
Only inpatient hospital
Prescription drugs
Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices (services and devices to help people with injuries, disabilities, or chronic conditions gain or recover mental and physical skills)
Inpatient care center only
Laboratory services
Only when in hospital
Preventive and wellness services and chronic disease management
Pediatric services, including oral and vision care (but adult dental and vision coverage aren’t essential health benefits)

So Medicare Part A fully covers one of the ten services listed and partially covers an additional four. Yet the government considers this to be "qualifying coverage". No private health plan can offer only inpatient care (as Medicare Part A does), but Medicare gets a pass form the government.

Your government at work.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Going overboard charging crimes

I just saw an example of (in my opinion) excessive criminal charges in a crime. A man was arrested for chasing cars with a nail gun and a knife. He had apparently stopped taking his psych meds. He was (rightly in my opinion) charged with felony menacing for chasing the cars. Hopefully the authorities will be able to help the man with his psychiatric problems and keep him from again chasing after cards.

However, they also charged him with child abuse, a much more serious felony. How was chasing after (random) cars turned into a child abuse charge? Apparently there was a young child in one of the cars he chased. Most of us think of child abuse as a direct assault on a child. In this case it was by chance that one of the cars the man chased had a child in it, resulting in the more serious charge.

This man should certainly get help, but charging him with child abuse because one of the cars he ran at had a child in it makes a mockery of the law. If any number of people are convicted of child abuse for reasons similar to this it makes the conviction meaningless -- did somebody really abuse a child or is it just there was a child nearby when some other crime was committed?

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

What should Net Neutrality mean?

Just as the FCC is ready to repeal "net neutrality" Google and Amazon provide us with a dispute which brings up the question of what net neutrality should mean and how far it should go.

The regulatory definition of net neutrality is currently making sure that an Internet Service Provider (ISP) treats all traffic on its network equally. High bandwidth video gets the same priority as low bandwidth email. The FCC has proposed repealing those regulations, meaning that ISPs could give preference to certain services, charge consumers more for certain services, or charge the service providers (e.g. Netflix, Google, Amazon) more to attach to the ISP's network.

There have been recent arguments that we don't truly have net neutrality under the current regulatory regime because big Internet powerhouses (Twitter, Facebook) have been censoring content to fit their own political agendas. However, these arguments haven't gotten too much traction since those censored tend to be considered right wing racist hatemongers by net neutrality proponents (who tend to be more liberal in their politics).

Now we see a dispute which again calls into question the meaning of net neutrality. Amazon and Google have been fighting over Amazon's refusal to allow certain Google products to be sold on their website. So Google has announced it will not allow YouTube access from Amazon devices starting January 1. If this goes through, consumers who want to watch YouTube will need a non-Amazon device such as Google's Chromecast. And those who want to watch Amazon videos are out of luck if they own a Google Chromecast. So consumers who have been assured that their ISP won't block any network traffic discover that they're still out of luck because their devices can't use that traffic.

So where should net neutrality go? It's clear that just allowing equal access to Internet traffic won't provide equal access to the Internet. Internet providers and device makers are doing exactly the things net neutrality proponents are afraid of. So should we now regulate Internet device makers (e.g. Amazon Kindle, Fire TV, Chromecast, etc) to be sure they provide equal access to all content makers? Regulate social media since they have the power to silence some points of view (and who decides which viewpoints should be silenced)?

If the current net neutrality rules remain, will it really mean an open Internet? If they are repealed, will selective content from ISPs be any worse than selective content on either end of the network?

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Why did Michael Flynn Lie?

In the wake of the Michael Flynn indictment and plea bargain several experts have wondered why Mr. Flynn lied to the FBI. His contacts with Russian and other officials were apparently not illegal. They were also over a month after the election, so had nothing to do with Russian interference with the election. So why wasn't he honest about his Russian contacts during the presidential transition?

It seems like the experts are ignoring the obvious. President Obama announced sanctions against the Russians for interfering in the election. There were frequent stories in the press claiming or speculating about collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. In this environment, an admission that Mr. Flynn had talked to the Russians during the transition in December would be transformed by the press into an admission that he had colluded with the Russians during the campaign. With the inctment a few days ago ABC wrongly reported just this and there is media speculation that Flynn will now tell all about campaign collusion.

Mr. Flynn likely also thought his phone calls were private. He wouldn't know the government was listening in on his conversations (though given today's technology, we should probably all assume our conversations are not private). So he may have thought they couldn't prove he had made the calls.

Given the constant calls for Russia investigations from the media and congress, is it any wonder Michael Flynn didn't want to give anti-Trump forces ammunition for their campaign against he new president?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

HOT CARS saves lives

Senator Al Franken, further establishing his role as Giant of the Senate, is co-sponsoring a bill to protect children. Called the HOT CARS act, it requires that cars be equipped with a system to help prevent the driver from accidentally leaving a child in the back seat when leaving the car.

Bill Maher rightly mocked the proposal, arguing the democrats are hurting themselves by further over-regulating society. He is quite right that it shouldn't be the car companies' responsibility to be sure we don't check whether the kid is in the back seat.

Also consider this from the standpoint of cost. There are about 40 deaths per year due to children left in cars in the US. Of these about half are children accidentally left in a car, which the law would in principle prevent. Total US car sales in 2016 were 17.6 million. Assume the prevention system only adds $1.00 to the price of a car. At that small incremental cost consumers would be paying about $800,000 for every life saved. If the prevention is a more likely $10.00 to $50.00, it means consumers would pay $8 million to $80 million per death avoided. I bet if we spent money in additional driver training or fixing a few unsafe intersections in cities we can save far more than one life per $8 million.

And what is this system to protect children? The article about Bill Maher linked above says motion sensors (don't know where the author got that). But motion sensors make no sense, they'll go off when the dog is left in the car (as is also often done, with a window down) but will not go off for the motionless sleeping baby. However, the bill itself doesn't say the car needs to detect that a child is present, only remind the driver. It must be both a visual and auditory alert. So apparently in the future the car's display (not sure what low price cars without displays will do) will say "don't forget any children in the back seat" and a recorded voice will say "don't forget your children". Guess how annoyed consumers are going to get? Hopefully they'll know to blame Congress. Of course, given human nature, people will quickly tune out any reminder and end up forgetting the child anyway.

The bill also shows Congress's habit of drafting sloppy legislation. It is more apparent in the House version of the bill. The House version has the same visual and auditory alert requirement, but says the alert must come from "the rear seating positions". So apparently the rear seat itself must tell you to check for children, not just the car.

All in all, Bill Maher has it right. Every right wing claim about the nanny state and democrats is validated by this bill. If it doesn't die a quiet death in committee, or worse is passed, democrats have only themselves to blame for losing elections.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Lack of Health Coverage, Lack of Planning

I've just seen the same type of story as the "I am Obamacare" woman some years ago. In fact, it's quite similar as this person also has a tumor in her uterus. Unfortunately, I can't give any more details due to privacy.

It is interesting though to hear the complaints about our health care system when the woman found out she can't sign up for insurance (would need to wait a month for open enrollment and it wouldn't take effect until next year). Her local hospital also won't take her as a charity case so she's had to spend part of her savings to pay for doctors. I'm guessing she doesn't have enough savings to pay for her needed surgery.

I haven't gotten into the details of why this woman doesn't already have health coverage and don't intend to (I don't need to trigger a bunch of name calling on social media) but my guess is she doesn't have coverage available through any employer (not sure if she has a job or if her business is full time). Apparently she also didn't see any need to sign up through the Exchanges (Obamacare) and now she finds she doesn't have insurance.

She complains that Obamacare was supposed to get rid of pre-existing condition requirements. This is true, but ONLY if you sign up during open enrollment or some other defined time.

So we get more complaints about our health care system, and again it's somebody who didn't bother to plan ahead.