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Shernoff, Bidart, and Echeverria– Wide-Ranging Lawyers for the People

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 07:59
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By Ralph Nader
February 14, 2018

I first heard about William M. Shernoff in the mid-nineteen seventies when he was pioneering a field of law known as insurance bad faith litigation. That ‘bad faith’ occurs is when insurance companies deny legitimate claims or try to use deceptive fine print clauses to escape policy coverage. He was starting to collect both compensation for his clients and large punitive damages when the evidence showed insurance companies were imposing these abuses on many thousands of their customers.

One day I called Attorney Shernoff and said that if he would match my $25,000 donation, we could start the National Insurance Consumer Organization (NICO) headed by the former Federal Insurance Commissioner, J. Robert Hunter, the pro-consumer actuary who served under both Presidents Ford and Carter.

NICO’s Bob Hunter thereafter became the single greatest advocate for consumers against the insurance giants that they have ever encountered. He knew their fraudulent complexities, translated those complexities into plain English, and brought his expertise and pleasing personality to legislatures, courtrooms, and agencies in all fifty states. During the mid-eighties he visited all the states in a little over one year, rebutting the savage industry attack on wrongfully injured persons’ right to have their day in court.  The insurance lobbyists have never seen such a whirlwind for justice who defeated them time and time again.

Bill Shernoff was instrumental in putting Bob Hunter, a force of nature, in motion. But this low-key attorney from Claremont, California was just getting underway. He blazed the trail for rejected insurance consumers and became a feared private regulator of insurers denying claims by winning cases before judges and juries.  He won multimillion dollar verdicts for a roofer whose disability payments were cut off, for a Samoan government involving hurricane damage, and for a paraplegic Marine whose insurance company rejected his physician on the medical necessity of his 109-day hospital stay. He secured a bad faith settlement on behalf of Northridge, California earthquake victims and even a $50 million settlement in 1981 for Southern California Physicians over a malpractice insurance policy that overcharged on premiums.

Not wanting to be a lone ranger, Shernoff went around the country conducting seminars training attorneys to bring insurance bad faith lawsuits. It became a movement of sort, filling in for the notoriously weak state regulation of insurance.

But, Shernoff was interested in more than representing specific aggrieved clients. He was an educational leader who furthered consumer education by writing, lecturing, and appearing in mass media. Besides co-authoring a legal textbook on his specialty, he wrote books like, How to Make Insurance Companies Pay Your Claim: And What to Do If They Don’t , Payment Refused, and Fight Back and Win: How to Get HMOs and Health Insurance to Pay Up.

One day he called me up and said he wanted to start a Consumer Law Clinic at his alma mater—the University of Wisconsin Law School. The Clinic is in its twenty-seventh year and has trained scores of students in consumer advocacy law. Its students represent real clients fighting unfair debt collection, repossession, home improvement fraud, credit fraud, and other unscrupulous business practices. There are also William Shernoff Health and Consumer Law Fellowships to work for health care reform.

This small law firm of Shernoff, Bidart, and Echeverria welcome their responsibilities as “officers of the court” as well as their broader duties to build institutions of justice that provide powerless people ever more access to justice. They are major contributors to Consumer Watchdog, a leading California advocacy association, and to Public Justice, a large public-interest, non-profit law firm. They are also major contributors to the American Museum of Tort Law, which as a volunteer, I established as an educational institution dedicated to informing the public about the law of wrongful injuries.

Whenever there are insurance industry-indentured legislators—state or federal— pressing for cruel laws to stifle wronged Americans from their day in court or before regulatory agencies, chances are this firm is there either in person or with donations to fight them or over-rule them with statewide referendums. One victory was Prop. 103 in California that regulated the property/casualty insurance companies thirty years ago, which saved California consumers over $100 billion since that voter revolt.

Of course, there are still many obstacles to the exercise of consumer rights and remedies, such as the Federal ERISA pension law’s massive preemption of tort claims. But if there were more firms doing what Shernoff’s firm does, millions of people would be receiving judicial or regulatory justice for their costly injuries or illnesses.

My best guess is that not more than 25 plaintiff personal injury firms are sharing, training and helping to build consumer protection institutions either in their state or nationally. However, proportionate to their relative size, few of them have packed the continual wallop of Shernoff’s law firm.

How does Shernoff, Bidart, and Echeverria do it? For starters, they have the right sensitive and generous values that are necessary for the work. Moreover, they recognize that they have to be both attorneys for clients and lawyers for the broader institutional advances of justice so that more people can use the laws meant for them.

How do they get underway? They make calls and above all return calls—a practice over ninety percent of their peers have not deigned to do when citizen groups want to initiate ways and means for a more just rule of law, as if people matter first.

Around the country plaintiff lawyers vary in their resolve to push back the corporate predators who want to repeal the American Revolution and its subsequent Bill of Rights for the people, especially the Constitution’s Seventh Amendment securing the right of trial by jury. For instance, the repeated failure of the major Texas trial lawyers to ward off the tort “deformers” contrasts with efforts by their counterparts in New York to hold the fort in Albany.

Years ago Dr. Sidney Wolfe of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group published the popular, widely used book, “Worst Pills, Best Pills.” All these drugs were licensed by the Food and Drug Administration, but some had bad side effects and others were much safer. Maybe it is time to have a list of the “Worst Lawyers, Best Lawyers.” All of these lawyers would be licensed to practice, but widely differ in their commitment to defend, preserve, and expand the civil justice system, under relentless attack by the corporate lobbies, that they and their forebears built.

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What is Stalling Wrongful Injury Lawyers?

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 09:54
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By Ralph Nader

February 7, 2018

Up against four decades of megacorporate erosion of wrongfully injured Americans’ access to our courts, trial lawyers are wondering what use is left of the Seventh Amendment, our constitutional right to trial by jury?

Indentured lawmakers pass laws blocking or obstructing harmed individuals who are simply seeking fair compensation for their medical expenses, wage loss and suffering as a result of actions committed by their wrongdoers. Corporations, with their fine print consumer contracts, are eluding justice for some serious crimes by employing compulsory arbitration clauses, which preemptively force victims into closed, private arbitration (in lieu of trial by jury) and block the wrongfully injured from getting their day in open court.

It’s unavoidable. Chances are you sign such clauses regularly without ever knowing it. Everywhere, lawsuits, jury trials and verdicts are diminishing in the midst of population growth and ever more invasive technologies, drugs, chemicals, and many other products—all with the very real potential to suffer from dangerous defects, and all bearing built-in immunities for the guilty parties, should these defects come to light. Indeed, the vast majority of fatalities and serious injuries from preventable causes in the health care industry, factories, mines, drillers and hurtful products never even see an attorney.

Still the corporate lobbies, led by the insurance industry, keep pressing to block the courtroom door and avoid accepting responsibility for their injurious deeds.

They built this system of justice, but collectively, they have not been up to defending and preserving it from the mounting counterattacks.

The trial lawyers cannot match their adversaries in political contributions. However, there is one simple thing they could do. Should they deign to return the calls of consumer, environmental and labor groups wishing to forge alliances at the grass roots, such a union of minds could turn the tide for the trial lawyers who have long been on the defensive. Bear in mind, the law of wrongful injury (tort law) defends all the people regardless of political persuasion, race, gender or economic background. An unbeatable coalition could be assembled.

For over fifty years, I’ve been fighting, as a volunteer, for more appropriate utilization of our civil justice system to further its goals of compensation for the wrongfully injured, public disclosure of hazards, consequences for crimes against innocent victims and the environment, and deterrence against culpable actors. This effort is part and parcel of consumer, environmental and worker safety movements. In fact, the dangers that prompted safety legislation and regulations were often first disclosed by personal injury lawsuits.

Yet, with luminous exceptions, most major plaintiff law firms are not responding to the mobilization of these constituencies. They tend to their selected clients as attorneys but do not flex their muscles and resources as proactive lawyers by addressing the overall crisis that is the slow-motion destruction of civil justice.

Their adversaries have established so-called “lawsuit abuse” groups in numerous states and activated their dealers, agents and professional societies to keep the siege on our Seventh Amendment rights proliferating with wildly inaccurate assertions and hyperbolic anecdotes.

Inexplicably, these successful law firms will not protect the dwindling forest for the few trees they are nurturing. You call them for collaborative projects and their secretaries keep saying they are “in deposition” or are “on conference calls” that seem to occur perpetually.

I suspect that they are just not interested enough, no matter their enormous wealth from contingent fees in such areas as the great tobacco, asbestos, drug, oil spill or motor vehicle class actions. They have not built collateral civic institutions to begin to match their opponents even though these civic groups would be speaking for tens of millions of families.

In an open letter to plaintiff attorneys circulated in 2012, I described how the great law of torts is under assault and demands a multidimensional mobilization of the public. It was overwhelmingly ignored.

On September 29, 2016, we organized the first ever national celebration of this pillar of private justice at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Some of the region’s leading trial lawyers promised to bring people out and help with the expenses. They struck out.

There was a time twenty-five to fifty years ago when trial lawyers recognized the necessity of community education. They offered seminars in property, consumer, personal injury, civil rights and contract law in a program called The People’s Law School. Others joined with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health to share little known product and environmental hazards discovered in their litigation which they hoped would foster broader protections. They started, at my suggestion, a marvelous non-profit litigation group called Public Justice in 1982 that brings fundamental court cases unlikely to be brought by commercial attorneys.

Presently, personal injury lawyers, except for the few rich ones, are not making big money. They are discouraged. Their own state trial lawyer associations report dwindling membership, smaller budgets and less engagement. Whole areas of practice are nearly disappearing, as in California with its draconian statutory caps and other restrictions on litigating serious medical malpractice injuries, which limit compensation to $250,000—regardless of the severity of the injury—for a lifetime of pain and suffering. (See my letter to Governor Jerry Brown.)

But there is one smallish firm in California that shows their colleagues just what can be accomplished for the American people by combining logical vision with enabling resources for the common good.

I’ll describe what this firm has done for America in next week’s column, and ask the question, what are many larger personal injury firms waiting for?

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The Paradox of Equal Justice

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 14:08
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By Ralph Nader

February 1, 2018

Almost every day, entertainment, sports, media, political and even some business organizations are jettisoning their top officials and incumbents after reported accusations of sexual harassment and sexual assaults of their subordinates. They’re not waiting for prosecutors, courts or regulators to take action. “Get out now” is the first punishing order. Then the work product of these asserted offenders—whether music, comedy shows, etc.—are often scrubbed, and recipients of political contributions are under pressure to give these sums to charity. In addition a wider arc of resignations by the heads and Boards of Directors, accused of lax monitoring is emerging.

The speed of punishment is unprecedented. One day millions of people watched Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer and others. The next day they were vanished. Although this is only the tip of the iceberg—and there is more to come—the velocity of expulsions coming from these accusations—even when they are denied—is unprecedented. (A major exception, however, are the escapades of Donald Trump over the years.)

What do the expellers know that spurs them to make these instant decisions often to the detriment of their own economic interest, such as Fox, PBS, NBC or NPR evicting their four, lucrative star performers?

Could it be that the media was quick to report these abuses and that more was coming to produce even more damaging publicity to their brand? Could it be that they wanted to avoid their companies being stigmatized as a perilous or toxic workplace for future talent considering careers there? Were they trying to avoid potential lawsuits? Could it be that some of these executives wanted to get rid of the spotlight that might reach their own transgressions, even though they think they were of lesser seriousness?

To all of these the answer is probably, “partly.” But it is also important for the media outlets, political parties, and Hollywood studios to react in the most responsible manner: that is, when abuses come to light, they may not need to wait for due process; they should react in order to protect their employees, who could become victims, as well as their reputation and their sizeable audience/constituency. While many of these organizations waited far too long to remove abusers, as in the case of Michigan State University and the United States Olympic Committee, the act of removing serial predators from their powerful positions signals a degree of belated resolve and compassion, and is in line with their responsibility to protect their workplace.

So why is it that when corporations and financial institutions commit broad-scale crimes that endanger or take the lives of millions of people, they receive absolute impunity? Indeed, their executives are rewarded for their own chronic, dangerous lawlessness. When their numerous crimes or criminogenic actions come to light, why are these bosses not immediately removed from their positions, in the manner of the many powerful men who have fallen as the #MeToo movement gains momentum?

Who knows? Time will tell perhaps. What is known is that corporations get away with very serious crimes—deaths, lifetime injuries, massive assaults on the economic necessities of millions of innocent people, the sickening of children and loss of their lives, the poisoning of water, air, land, food, perilous workplaces—all while paying off the political system that would have exacted punishment—and without appropriate sanctions.

None of the bailed-out Wall Street bosses who crashed the economy in 2008-2009 were prosecuted. These repeat-offenders took 8 million jobs away from the American people with their crimes, deceptions, cover-ups and rampant speculation with the very pensions and mutual funds that had been entrusted to them by their clients. Some Wall Street predators retired with huge severance packages—worth many millions of dollars—while others stayed put and resumed their roles as people of influential status and approbation.

Look at George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who together initiated a criminal war of aggression that sent tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers to death, illness and permanent disability while destroying the lives of over a million Iraqis and leaving the country and its impoverished survivors devastated. They left public office in January 2009, above the laws they broke, and the Constitution they violated, to the accolades of Republicans and some Democrats. Lucrative speeches, book advances and other goodies flooded into their “retirements.”

People like Bill Clinton helped rehabilitate Mr. Bush with collaborative projects and joint appearances. The Bush Presidential library is thriving without mention of his and Mr. Cheney’s war crimes.

Over and over again, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CBS’s Sixty Minutes, corporate crime, violence and fraud do not result in punishment. All too often the rewards and luxuries accorded to these powerful executives continue unabated.

Even when the Justice Department occasionally nails a big drug company for crimes costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars, “deferred prosecution agreements” let the bosses off and allow the companies themselves to get away with fines that appear large but are far less than the ill-gotten gains that finally caught the attention of the underfunded Department’s prosecutors.

In 2011 I filled a book titled Getting Steamed to Overcome Corporatism with dozens of documented corporate crimes that ultimately resulted in a little bad publicity, some fines and infrequent enforcement actions, but no real justice. But in all of the many egregious accounts detailed in Getting Steamed, did the business bosses lose their jobs, their retirement, even the esteem of their colleagues, as a result of their chronic predation? Very rarely.

With over 450,000 Americans dying every year from tobacco-related diseases and with documentation piling up on how these tobacco titans deliberately marketed cigarettes to youngsters to hook them for life, none of these company officials went to jail or were even personally fined. Remember the celebrated Congressional hearings when about a dozen tobacco executives, under oath, said they didn’t believe there was a connection between their heavily promoted products and disease? There was no prosecution for perjury then or later when it became abundantly clear these executives knew all about the health impacts from evidence inside the companies.

The same impunity and immunity attached to the asbestos and lead manufacturers whose bosses knew for decades of the lethal impacts on millions of their long suffering victims.

So why the difference? The sexual harassment reactions came because the perpetrators had done demonstrable damage—to their victims, to the cultures of their workplaces, to productivity, and, of course, to the public relations of the organizations writ large. Weren’t the companies that brought about the recession or criminally destroyed lives also afraid of losing sales and talent if they didn’t rid themselves of the culpable perpetrators?

One difference may be that the evicted sexual assaulters did their deeds personally and directly, unlike the more remote corporate bosses or even middle management, their crimes more abstract within the enormity of the bureaucratic machines that they’ve rigged to avoid accountability. The other difference is that the public outrage was more personal and intense over the high-profile victims in the Hollywood episodes, which set the level of high media visibility. But what are the other factors at work?

Tell us your thoughts at nader.org/contact. The stakes are nothing less than equal protections of the law and equal justice under the law.

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Look for Rate Cuts in Your Auto/Homeowner’s Insurance Coming Soon

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 10:46
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By Ralph Nader

January 25, 2018

In falsely bragging about the alleged benefits to the middle class from the tax law enacted by the Republicans last month, the Trumpsters neglected to give high visibility to the state regulators who must require utility and insurance companies to pass savings from the tax cuts on to their consumers.

While some regulated utility companies (gas, electric and telephone) did announce that they would be reducing rates for consumers, others seem to be waiting for state regulators to push them. The insurance companies in particular seem to be in need of a nudge.

The indefatigable actuary and consumer advocate for the Consumer Federation of America, J. Robert Hunter is pleased to provide the necessary push. In his usual tightly argued style, he has sent letters to every state insurance commissioner, as well as those officials representing the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Hunter calculates that insurance rates that you, the consumer, are paying, should be reduced by about 5%, “without including the impact of investment income due to lower taxes on that income. So it could be more than 5%.”

Hunter continues: “On a property-casualty industry wide basis, the windfall to insurers from the tax changes are massive. 5% of the $ 539 billion in premiums collected is over $25 billion. For longer-tailed lines, like medical professional liability, the increase in investment income on reserves and surplus will be much greater than average because of the reduction in tax rates.”

Taking no chances, Hunter asks the mostly passive state insurance regulators two questions that resolve any possible ambiguities about what you the policyholder-consumers are owed:

  1. “What is your evaluation of the recent changes in tax laws on insurer profitability by line and what is the basis for your conclusions? “
  2. “What actions are you taking in the next month to cause insurers to reduce rates to reflect the windfall from tax changes and to ensure rates return to not excessive levels?”

Over $25 billion in savings coming back to consumers’ proverbial pocketbooks is not chump change. You can surely use it, and it belongs to you under existing law.

If you call or email your state insurance commissioner and ask “where’s my money?”, you’ll get a pretty good idea of how fast and decisive your commissioner is likely to be. California’s elected Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones has already acted to assure these reductions in rates.

Further questions may be directed to Mr. Hunter’s organization here. He’ll want to hear about any responses, or lack of responses, from your commissioner’s office. These commissioners, and every insurance company, know Bob Hunter very well. This consumer champion has been a leading consumer watchdog for over forty years. He has saved consumers billions of dollars in auto, homeowner and other property-casualty policies with his testimony before legislatures, especially defending the civil justice system from erosion, his expert witness role in successful litigation, and his many public reports revealing insurance industry abuses.

In the pantheon of ‘one person making a difference,’ J. Robert Hunter deserves top billing. He exposes the intricacies of this often needlessly complex business and the maneuvers that the companies use, to evade, avoid and obscure their shenanigans. Bob has also successfully challenged insurance industry legislative proposals, greased by campaign contributions.

In 1988 during our regulatory victory over the resistant property-casualty insurance industry, with the enactment of Prop 103 by California voters, we received regular pro-bono advice from Bob Hunter. Since then, California has moved from being one of the highest auto insurance priced states to one of the lowest ones. Actuary Hunter estimates savings to California Motorists of over $100 billion.

He’s done all this work with a marvelous sense of humor, a pleasant personality in acrimonious venues, and he manages, as a vocation, to be a peace mediator of African tribal conflicts.

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Twitter Rock Star Obama’s Silence Must Delight Trump

Tue, 01/16/2018 - 16:52
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By Ralph Nader

January 16, 2018

Former President Barack Obama continues to mystify his supporters. He is watching his successor tear down what they see as his administration’s hard-earned initiatives to protect the people’s health, safety and economic well-being, while twisting Washington toward more coddled, tax-subsidized corporatism. Yet our former president mostly remains quiet on matters of substance, providing no powerful voice for Americans to rally around.

Mr. Obama is the most popular politician in America. He can command the mass media like no other citizen, should he choose to strengthen the opposition to the corrupt Donald Trump. Even more, he has reportedly the third largest twitter following—a staggering 98 million followers—in the U.S. Of the top ten, all the rest are well known entertainers. With only Katy Perry (at 108 million) and Justin Bieber (at 105 million) exceeding his numbers, Obama’s twitter followers are almost triple those who follow Trump’s daily hard-edged rages that make mass media news.

It is said that to keep such a large fan base, one must tweet daily and frequently. Not so with Mr. Obama. His tweets in December numbered less than a dozen. You’ll remember the last two months of 2017 as a time when Trump and his wrecking crew cabinet accelerated their rollbacks and suspensions of federal programs and rules designed to save American lives, prevent injuries and diseases and defend people’s economic well-being. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture—all of these are weakened, imperiled, understaffed, or directed to work against their Congressionally mandated missions. If their fangs aren’t now out for consumers and workers, they’ve been put on sleeping pills.

So does Obama care? Does he galvanize his huge following with a reach into the media? Not at all. He is urging people generally to make the world better in 2018. He is praising various persons by name who have helped homeless people in Chicago or have funded scholarships in Charlottesville, Virginia. While Trump is rampaging against Obama’s achievements, our ex-president is tweeting: “Michelle and I are delighted to congratulate Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their engagement.”

Mr. Obama does urge people to vote, praises voters who came out for races that brought Democratic victories in Virginia and New Jersey, mentions a town hall in New Delhi hosted by the Obama Foundation, and vigorously urges consumers to sign up for Obamacare, without even mentioning Trump’s unending drive to destroy it.

Meanwhile, the Trump bulldozer is barreling through the positions Obama stood for—such as protecting civil rights and maintaining long-held diplomatic bonds, preserving the public lands and prohibiting offshore drilling in the arctic, modestly protecting financial consumers and keeping the better remnants of a porous tax code. Amidst all of this, Obama still doesn’t want to publicly speak truth to Trump’s power abuses and fabrications.

Defenders of the civil Obama’s self-imposed censorship may say he is avoiding a distracting pissing match with the foul-mouthed Trump. Do they mean that he cannot rise above such a tangle by the way he expresses himself to dismantle the Trump temper, by the citizen action groups he can start or expand to keep the Trump regime more on the defensive? Can’t he reach retired high officials in his administration, many of whom are also keeping quiet, and urge them to speak out, stand up and rebut the unrebutted bile oozing from the White House?

Granted he has joined with former Attorney General Eric Holder, who is back at his lucrative partnership in the corporate law firm of Covington and Burling, to oppose voter suppression and diminish the scourge of electoral gerrymandering wherein the politicians pick the voters. But there is little rising public agitation evident behind these efforts attributed to their pro forma energies.

Let’s put it simply. Obama’s America and his domestic vision of America are under relentless attack by Trump, his mass media of talk show hosts and the forces of extreme reaction. Obama can use the mass media and rally the opposition to Trump like no other Democrat in the public arena. Instead, he is behaving like a rock star, as if posing for Parade Magazine with all the pomp and celebrity imagery which, by the way, keeps his Twitter audience ahead of Rihanna, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.

Trump couldn’t be more delighted. His bullying politics of intimidation works, especially for visible public figures without the tough fortitude behind their very general compassionate pronouncements.

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Twitter Rock Star Obama’s Silence Must Delight Trump

Tue, 01/16/2018 - 13:28
By Ralph Nader January 16, 2018 Former President Barack Obama continues to mystify his supporters. He is watching his successor tear down what they see as his administration’s hard-earned initiatives to protect the people’s health, safety and economic well-being, while … Continue reading →

An Open Letter to President Trump

Tue, 01/09/2018 - 10:53
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President Donald J. Trump
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

January 9, 2018

Dear President Trump,

Let us all wish and work for a peaceful and just New Year.

The American people are spending a significant amount of time observing and thinking about your presidency and its robust tweeting operation as President. Three areas of interest and concern comprise this letter’s purpose:

  1. With news of the forthcoming medical examination by your physicians there will be renewed interest in your medical records and medical condition. This is true of all Presidents, but more so with you, because you have not been as forthcoming or anywhere near as complete in your disclosures about the state of your health during the campaign and since you became President last January.

The other concern relates to your diets and habits. You have what some nutritionists colloquially call a “cardiac diet” – full of foods containing fat, salt and sugar. A recent report said you drink about 12 cans of artificially sweetened diet coke a day!  You have said you sleep less than normal people. You are overweight. Not a good combination, say physicians and health scientists, that is conductive to good health. And then there is the added stress of just being President and constantly being viscerally angry at critics here and abroad.  People just doing things with their constitutional freedom, to which you strenuously object, seems to aggravate you.

Please release your full medical records with the necessary technical details and explanations to give the public confidence in your health.

  1. There is much writing and litigation about how you are enriching yourself from many private and public sources. The emoluments clause of the Constitution is much in the news as recurrent reports bring to public attention all the spenders going to your properties and those of your family hoping to ingratiate themselves with your favors, including diplomatic officials of foreign countries in Washington, DC and New York City, and other public officials patronizing your properties abroad.

Since you have not fully divested from your properties, there is all the more reason for you to release several years of your tax returns, including the most recent return. Even your supporters have wondered, “Why not, what has he got to hide?” Or more benignly, “Why not, he’s got nothing to hide, everyone knows he is rich and has done lots of deals with lots of businesses and partnerships.”

Will you recognize that you are a public official and owe the people the full tax information, most importantly, your assets, debts and other business dealings and partnerships?

  1. There has been a vast conflict between your public statements assuring the people that “we want to protect our workers, their safety our health and we want to protect our air and our country’s natural beauty.” Moreover, last year you asserted that no one would go without healthcare.

By contrast, you have selected men and women to run your health and safety regulatory agencies and departments who were and are openly hostile to these agencies’ official statutory missions. Like you, those you have appointed are boastful about their intention to dismantle limits on lethal or injurious impacts and actions that have been saving the lives, health and safety of the American people and protecting consumer dollars. You are aware of their sworn oath of office to uphold the laws under their jurisdiction – an oath preceded by similar assurances in their sworn congressional testimony at their Senate confirmation hearings.

The destruction of these federal agencies’ missions, the degrading and marginalizing of their scientists, engineers, ecologists, economists and other professional public servants are without precedent. What is also unique is that your heads of EPA, the Departments of Interior, Agriculture, Education, Labor and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are contemptuous of the missions of their agencies. The neglect, reversals or replacements are letting more Americans, including children, die, get sick or be injured – on your Presidential watch! And the enablers of unprosecuted corporate crime and wrongdoing that are just getting underway –revoking or suspending rules and even brazenly pulling back on enforcement actions which are nearing settlements, sanctions or prohibitions. This abdication also creates a climate than can increase corporate abuses of workers and consumers.

Of course, there is prosecutorial or enforcement discretion, with priorities for action. That is not the situation here. This is a wholesale wrecking crew of non-enforcement of laws, taking the federal cops off the corporate crime, fraud and abuse beat. This is a demolition death dance cutting enforcement budgets, pushing conscientious enforcement officials out the door or leaving them with nothing to do, thereby wasting taxpayer money. Such zealotry keeps pushing the envelope until preventable disasters occur or serious scandals emerge. That’s when it reaches your desk.

Pay attention to what those you have appointed are undoing, if only because they will be doing in your congressional supporters in November. You should start with the Rogue’s gallery of Mick Mulvaney, grinding down the CFPB, Alex Acosta, the Secretary Against Labor, Scott Pruitt, Chief Toxifier at the EPA, Ryan Zinke, Oil-Driller-in-Chief on the federal lands and offshore, Sonny Perdue, the anti-nutritionist at USDA, Scott Gottlieb, the drug industry’s man at the FDA, and Betsy DeVos, the corporatist, jeopardizing students at the Department of Education.

It would help if you are seen working on your empathy for the tens of millions of deprived and innocent people, including children, exposed to various forms of risk and exploitation in their daily lives here and abroad whom you are adversely affecting.

Sincerely yours,

Ralph Nader

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Corporate Coercion and the Drive to Eliminate Buying with Cash

Wed, 01/03/2018 - 13:21
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By Ralph Nader

January 3, 2018

“Sorry we’re not taking cash or checks,” said the clerk at the Fed Ex counter over a decade ago to an intern. “Only credit cards.”

Since then, the relentless intensification of coercive commercialism has been moving toward a cashless economy, when all consumers are incarcerated within a prison of corporate payment systems from your credit/debit cards to your mobile phone and very soon facial recognition.

“Terrific!” say those consumers for whom convenience and velocity of transactions are irresistible.

“This is nuts!” say a shrinking number of free-thinking consumers who are unwilling to be dragooned down the road to corporate captivity and coercion.  These people treasure their privacy. They understand that it’s none of any conglomerate’s business – whether VISA, Facebook, Amazon or Google – what, where, when and how consumers purchase goods and services. Or where and when they travel, receive healthcare, or the most intimate relationships they maintain. Not to mention consumers’ personal information can be sent to or hacked around the globe.

Cash-consumers are not alone in their opposition to a cashless economy.  When they are in a cab and ask the driver how they prefer to be paid, the answer is near-unanimous. “Cash, cash, cash,” reply the cab drivers in cities around the country. They get paid immediately and without having to have a company deduct a commission.

Back some 25 years ago, Consumers Union considered backing consumer groups to sign up Main Street, USA merchants who agreed to discount their wares if people paid in cash. For the same reason – merchants get to keep all the money on sales made with cash or check. Unfortunately, the idea never materialized. It is, however, still a good idea. Today, payments systems are much more comprehensively coercive.

Once you’re in the credit card system, lack of privacy and access to your credit are just the tip of the iceberg. That is why companies can impose penalties, surcharges, overcharges and a myriad of other corporate raids on your private treasury. They get immediate payment. If you object, you could see a lowering of your credit score or your credit rating. Besides, you don’t even know you agreed to all of these dictates – banks have over 300 different special charges for their revered customers – in fine print agreements that you never saw, read or even possessed to sign or click on. What’s the likelihood that banks would continue to surcharge you if they had to bill you instead of debit you?

The sheer pace and brazenness of corporations when they have instant access to your credit is stunning. The recent crimes of banking giant Wells Fargo, including selling auto insurance and assigning new credit cards to millions of their customers who had no knowledge and gave no consent for these charges, which resulted in damage to these customers’ credit scores and ratings, can only be committed when consumers are turned into economic prisoners. There are still no criminal prosecutions of the bank or its bosses. Wells Fargo bank stock rose to a year high last month. To their credit, the CFPB imposed a $100 million dollar fine on Wells Fargo, which barred them from deducting the fine as a business expense.

Coercive fine print contracts rob you of your consumer rights by preventing you from going to court, imposing fines as high as $35 for  bounced checks (which typically cost the banks less than $2), and decreeing that you agreed in advance to all kinds of unconscionable abuses, so long as you are in a “customer” status with them. Some companies are even charging customers for quitting them.

The rapacity inflicted on cashless purchasers prevails across the economy – insurance, mortgages, telecommunications, healthcare, stock brokerage, online buying and, of course, requirements to use electronic payment systems.

The more consumers become incarcerated by the companies that purportedly serve them, the more lucrative commodity consumers become. This leads to, among other problems, massive computerized billing fraud in the US. In the healthcare industry alone, billing fraud amounts to ten percent of what is spent, according to Harvard applied mathematics professor Malcolm Sparrow, author of License to Steal. This year’s expenditure of ten percent of the $3.5 trillion expected to be spent amounts to $350 billion. A cashless economy further facilitates these larcenous practices.

A computerized economy is one where fraud can easily be committed on a massive scale, according to Frank Abagnale who, after serving his time in prison for identity theft, has become an impassioned educator (serving institutions ranging from the FBI to AARP) on how to detect and avoid such crimes, which he estimates to cost people about one trillion dollars each year.

What it comes down to is whether consumer freedom is worth more than consumer convenience or whether the points earned for future purchases (assuming the costs are not passed on in hidden ways) are worth minimizing impulse buying, avoiding big data profile manipulations, keeping personal matters personal and requiring your affirmative consent to transactions where you decide what you want to buy and how you can pay.

However, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pay by cash or check. Try renting a car or occupying a hotel room or buying a snack or drink on an airline without a credit or debit card.

In the latest example of such coercion, new boutique eateries like Two Forks, Dig Inn, Dos Toros or Pokee in New York City operate entirely through payment systems that reject all cash purchases. “But isn’t cash legal tender?” you might ask. How could they reject cash on the barrelhead? Simple, says the Federal Reserve, so long as they notify you in advance. It’s that fine print again.

The New York Times, reported these rejections and noted: “Not surprisingly, the credit card companies, who make a commission on every credit card purchase, applaud the trend. Visa recently offered select merchants a $10,000 reward for depriving customers of their right to pay by the method of their choice.” The nerve!

Cash consumers of America arise, band together and organize a National Association for the Preservation of Cash Purchases. You have nothing to save but your freedom, your desire to push back and your precious, affirmative and personal right to consent or not to consent, before you are forced into contract peonage.

Interested? Let’s hear from you at info@csrl.org.

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For Year End Charitable Giving—Some Favorites

Tue, 12/26/2017 - 13:26
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Here are some of my favorite, frugal, effective non-profit citizen action organizations that you may wish to favor with your tax-deductible generosity.

1. Veterans For Peace (VFP): Composed of veterans from World War II to the present, VFP takes strong stands, including peaceful demonstrations and marches, for peace and against a militarized, aggressive foreign policy and wars of choice. Donate here:  (1404 North Broadway, St. Louis MO 63102 or https://www.veteransforpeace.org/take-action/donate/).

2. Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility (PEER): A group of U.S. Forest Service professionals started this remarkable group, which has since spread to civil servants in other federal agencies such as the EPA and the Department of the Interior. PEER’s staff is knowledgeable, organized and relentless in protecting federal employees’ right to bring their conscience to work and speak out against unlawful or reckless devastation of our environmental resources and health.  (962 Wayne Ave #610, Silver Spring, MD 20910; https://www.peer.org/give/)

3. Appalachia-Science in the Public Interest (ASPI): This lean, dedicated and productive group works tirelessly to find solutions in one of the poorest regions of America through the application of practical science. They teach how to preserve forests, protect drinking water sources, how to cook without electricity or gas, how to grow their own food and build a home without visiting a big box store. (50 Lair St, Mt Vernon, KY 40456; https://donorbox.org/aspi)

4. The Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OPEPA) opposes the nuclear arms race, seeks enforceable treaties abolishing nuclear weapons (the latter is agreeable to numerous retired cabinet secretaries in both Republican and Democratic administrations) and monitors government arms contracts, radiation hazards and facilities such as the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Their newsletter is a must-read.(P.O. Box 5743, Oak Ridge, TN 37831; http://orepa.org/)

5. The Pension Rights Center, the only national civic organization dedicated to reforming pension policies, unfair regulations and protecting and promoting retirement security. They help individual retirees and propose major retirement programs for all Americans. (1730 M Street, NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20036; www.pensionrights.org)

6. The North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO) works to start and expand consumer and housing cooperatives, especially for young people in colleges and universities. NASCO provides “on-the-ground training for over 79 cooperative organizations…. Living in a co-op means learning that cooperation is not only an alternative solution but also a way to empower our local leaders and communities.” NASCO will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. Their fortune is bright and promising. (1100 West Cermak Road, #514, Chicago, IL 60608; www.nasco.coop)

7. Organization for Competitive Markets Don’t let the name Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) mislead you. OCM is a ferocious, detail-oriented champion of small family farms in our country against giant agribusinesses squeezing farmers from both the supplying and buying their crops. OCM’s newsletter is unyielding in showing how preserving family farms is also good for consumers and the struggle against monopolization from industry giants like Monsanto. (P.O. Box 6486 Lincoln, NE 68506; www.competitivemarkets.com)

8. The Center for Auto Safety: Without this watchdog group holding accountable the auto industry and its federal regulators, tens of millions of cars would not have been recalled over the past four decades. It has been the guardian angel of American motorists and consumers in other respects as well. (1825 Connecticut Ave, NW, Suite 330, Washington, DC 20009; https://www.autosafety.org/make-donation/)

9. The Indian Law Resource Center, based in Montana generates justice and safety for Indigenous Peoples. Under its brilliant executive director, Robert T. Coulter, the Center seems to be everywhere, protecting American Indian and Alaska Native families, fending off the Trump Administration’s move to undermine long-standing trust relationships, keeping indigenous lands in community ownership and supporting sustainable development in Central and South America. (602 Ewing Street, Helena, MT 59601; www.indianlaw.org)

10. Whirlwind Wheelchair helps people in less developed countries construct sturdy, inexpensive wheelchairs from local materials, building self-reliance and addressing the critical needs of safe mobility. Founder Ralf Hotchkiss has invented many improvements in wheelchairs for free public application. (2703 7th Street, #134, Berkeley, CA 94710; https://whirlwindwheelchair.org/donate/)

11. The Salvation Army: And, of course, the old reliable Salvation Army – quick to the scene of natural disasters anywhere in the world with hands-on assistance, unbureaucratic and frugal. On a daily basis it helps the poor, the destitute and the hungry. Over 140 years old, with 15,409 congregations in 127 countries, 1,150,666 million members and many thrift stores, the Salvation Army is consistently rated near the top of the most popular charities/non-profits in America. As incorruptible as humans can possibly be. (615 Slaters Lane, Alexandria, VA 22313; www.salvationarmyusa.org)

I’ve given donations to all these organizations over the years. Consider their selfless work, in the age of Wall Street profit-glutted greed, and support their activities for the New Year.

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