Saturday, February 18, 2006

School Board Association Backs Greed, Corruption

If the Tennessee State School Board Association is teaching by example, then the lessons for our children and our 100-plus state education boards to learn are that Greed is Good, that taxpayers are endless supplies of money and personal benefits.

I've posted here before about Dan Tollett, the former head of the TSBA, whose actions led to an investigative state audit in which nearly 2 dozen findings detail hundreds of thousands of dollars he received which may violate the law and the TSBA's own policies. More on that here.

But as noted this week by blogger Bob Krumm in several posts, the problem continues to simply expand and grow and feed the good ol' boy corruption like hogs feeding at the trough. Krumm notes:

For example, the leaders of the Tennessee School Board Association would have seen that, in the midst of statewide political scandals, and right after an audit found that a million dollars in public money had allegedly been used for personal purposes, it wasn't a smart time to just do more of the same.

But no, they couldn't help themselves. In an apparent mix of arrogance and political tone-deafness, the TSBA's Board of Directors appointed as replacement for the man who allegedly stole a half million dollars, that same man's personal lawyer: former Senator Bob Rochelle.

We've covered all this before. But there's more to the story of arrogance and tone-deafness at the TSBA.

There's the issue of TSBA (read that to mean "taxpayer") funds being used to pay for former Executive Director Dan Tollett's personal attorneys. One of those attorneys is no less than John Lyell, who in 1998 was named by the Tennessean as "the number one lobbyist in Tennessee."

Then there's the conflicts of interest. Simultaneously Dan Tollett was receiving a pension from TSBA, even while he was employed full time by the newly created, and wholly-TSBA-owned subsidiary "Center for Educational Leadership." Tollett was also the administrator of two of TSBA's divisions, the Risk Management Trust, and the Unemployment Compensation Trust at the same time. Quadruple-dipping. Because of his interconnected and overlapping (not to mention, probably illegal) areas of responsibility, "he was in a unique position to oversee, initiate, and control transactions between all the entities."

All of this was brought out in the State Comptroller's audit released in January. That report precipitated Monday's hearing before both the House and Senate Education Committees. And that's when stupid got even stupider. "
"Which brings me back to my original point about self-awareness. Tennessee's ruling political class is afflicted with a severe self-awareness problem. They hire connected cronies perilously close to the corruption they're supposed to fix. They keep corrupted officials on to manage their affairs. They hire the most insider of political insiders to fix a problem created by political insiders. And then they're dumbfounded when people question those actions. Heck, they should have at least had sense enough to know that you don't hire a crony legislator, in the midst of a state-wide legislative scandal that's all about corruption, connections, and cronyism."

Well said and Krumm's posts are well worth reading.

The same TSBA board recently praised Hamblen County's Board of Education as the best in the state. I suppose birds of a feather flock together. Let the taxpayer beware.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Camera Obscura - Loch Ness Meets Herzog

Do people have a true physical or psychological need to invent, to create realities that might or even might never exist? And if so, why? Now let's add some more to that mysterious question - what if the act of faking realities were to become a multi-national business? These are just some of the questions raised in a very odd and very, very funny Mock-umentary from the enigmatic filmmaker Werner Herzog called "Incident at Loch Ness."

Herzog has been working in the fields of deciphering realities through his long film career as writer, director and producer. He almost always presents stunning images and compelling stories and also has become something of a myth himself for all his mythmaking. "Fitzcarraldo", based on a true story, is an astounding study of the urge to create Art at any cost, and likewise "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" details the madness of exploration.

But the topic here today is the utterly hilarious fake documentary of his quest to make a film about the fabled Nessie. If you liked "This Is Spinal Tap" or were intrigued by "The Blair Witch Project", you'll truly enjoy Herzog's wild and mad quest. I'd bet cash money that the makers of "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" took much inspiration from Herzog's crazy adventure.

Herzog plays the role of himself with such sincere and earnest character, it's almost easy to be fooled by what you see. Make no mistake, he loves playing his part and playing the joke on you. He and writer Zak Penn (whose screenwriting credits include "S.W.A.T." and "X-Men 2" and "Elektra") co-wrote this comedy and Penn nearly steals the movie as the bizarre producer of the Nessie movie who dares to hold a gun to Herzog's head to get the movie he wants (which is from Herzog's myth, that he allegedly pointed a gun at actor Klaus Kinski's head during a movie shoot). But in what could be a scary moment, Herzog just laughs at Penn: "It's not even a real gun, it's a flare gun and it's not loaded."

Penn and Herzog are supposed to make a movie about the myths and fantasies about the Loch Ness Monster, and fortunately, as this begins, another film crew is at Herzog's home to film a documentary about Herzog. The two fake projects eventually overlap into a maze of madness, a madness called Hollywood.

Penn gets the crew to Scotland, and wants everyone to wear special "expedition outfits" to give legitimacy to the Nessie project - though the word "expedition" is misspelled on the outfits. He also recruits a cryptozoologist to explain the Loch Ness mythos - a fake scientist, in other words. He also brings aboard the boat a drop-dead gorgeous former Playboy model as the Sonar Expert, but he is constantly trying to get shots of her in a g-string bikini, and we find out eventually he is dating her.

On the second day aboard the boat searching for Nessie, Penn hauls up a badly made paper mache Nessie floating head and throws it overboard demanding the crew film it. Herzog storms away and by day three, the cinematographer and the sound man go back to America. So that leaves Penn, Herzog, the fake scientist and the fake sonar expert to forge ahead with their movie.

And that's when something happens.

Somehow, their sonar equipment picks up a massive unknown object. Their boat is "attacked" and one by one, those on board the boat fall off into the icy waters of Loch Ness. Will anyone survive?

Herzog's fame for being eccentric and demanding become the joke here, and the madness of a Hollywood producer who constantly lies all add layers of fake realities and the movie is a marvel of comedy and oddity. It's not to be missed.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Whittington, Funeralgate and FEMA

I'm sure by later today some bloggers and some in the national press might bother to actually gather more background on super-rich attorney Harry Whittington who was shot by Vice President Cheney the other day. Whittington's history with Bush coincides with a grisly graveyard discovery which the Texas press dubbed "Funeralgate" and led to hundreds of millions in fines. Former FEMA director Joe Allbaugh was also a player in this scandal from Bush's days as governor.

"Funeralgate" was the name given the case involving the nation's largest funeral service company, SCI, and then Gov Bush was subpoenaed to testify in the case but refused, as was his then chief of staff Allbaugh. Luckily then governor Rick Perry called a halt to the case just in time for W. to begin his campaign for the White House. One story on this part of the case is here.

SCI was caught by then Texas funeral service regulator Eliza May after numerous complaints were made against SCI for all kinds of "grave" errors. The company paid $100 million in a class action lawsuit by families for moving bodies into the wrong locations and other "errors". However, the claims were so disturbing and May's actions so bothersome, she was fired from her job, which prompted her to file a suit which was eventually settled out of court.. More details about the cases here.

It was in May's case that she alleged Allbaugh and Bush hassled her to drop her claims, but she didn't. And it wasn't long before questions about lying began to emerge.

And it was about this time Whittington was appointed the take over SCI and help smother the complaints. SCI had been one of the biggest contributors to the Bush campaign for governor.

But, thanks to the help from Allbaugh and Perry, the case was quietly silenced.

However, just a few weeks after Whittington took over, it was found that another SCI operation in Florida (the irony is so thick here you can't cut it with a titanium chainsaw) had been playing hide-the-cadaver in Menorah Gardens and dumping the bodies into the woods.

... the plaintiff's attorney said that SCI secretly broke into and opened burial vaults and dumped remains in a wooded area where the remains may have been consumed by wild animals.

Additionally, SCI buried "remains in locations other than those purchased by plaintiffs; crushing burial vaults in order to make room for other vaults; burying remains on top of the other rather than side-by-side; secretly digging up and removing remains; secretly burying remains head-to-foot rather than side-by-side; secretly mixing body parts and remains from different individuals; secretly allowing plots owned by one part to be occupied by a different person; secretly selling plots in rows where there were more graves assigned than the rows could accommodate; secretly allowed graves to encroach on other plots; secretly sold plots so narrow that the plots could not accommodate standard burial vaults; secretly participated in the desecration of gravesites and markers and failed to exercise reasonable care in handling the plaintiff's loved ones remains."

But the story isn't over yet.

A subsidiary of SCI , Kenyon International, got handed a no-bid contract to operate a "mobile mortuary" to deal with the bodies left in the destructive wake of Hurricane Katrina. Yep. It pays and pays to be a friend of Bush.

Charged with desecrating corpses? Get a FEMA contract.

In addition (this story seems to have no end!) the same SCI was also the same owner of the crematory in Georgia a few years ago where bodies were never cremated but stacked up like cordwood and stuffed into sheds.

The company's web site proclaims they are dedicated to "compassionately supporting families at difficult times, celebrating the significance of lives that have been lived, and preserving memories that transcend generations, with dignity and honor."

(big thanks to Dr. R. Fleenor for bringing all this to my attention)

Monday, February 13, 2006

Your Implant Is Ready

Read this today about an Ohio surveillance company that is "testing" some RFID implants on a couple of employees (thanks Newscoma).

The most chilling part of the news story is how the FDA has already approved a single company to make and sell trackable implants which can be inserted into humans.

Fear Grows Like Kudzu

Some Americans got all twisted over the recent Cartoon Or Not To Cartoon madness of the last week or so, but the raging paranoia here at home is gaining strength with equal madness. In one case at a public Missouri High School, three e-mails from some church members successfully terrorized a high school drama class production of the musical "Grease" - even though those who complained never actually saw the production. Oh, the vile wickedness of a musical about the 1950s.

The drama teacher will likely lose her job and the school is so terrified now of offending anyone they have also decided not to attempt the planned production of the classic play "The Crucible" - even though the play itself is still required reading in the school. The school's superintendent Mark Enderle admits he was acting in a "McCarthy" fashion and the decision to cancel it was to prevent the school from being "mired in controversy" all through the Spring.

It appears that Miller's play - which shows how rampant and mindless fear makes a small community turn to murder in the name of "self-protection" - might give students and other audience members the thought that hysteria is a destructive force. Some fear the mindless murders of the Salem witch trials shows Christians in "a bad light." I suppose hysteria should never be questioned.

The new law of the land is - if it scares you, destroy it and destroy it quickly.

Another recent case (hat tip to Julie and Cherokee Sage Woman), cited in Editor and Publsiher, reports that a nurse at a VA hospital got investigated after she wrote a letter to the editor in Albuquerque expressing her unhappiness with the current Bush administration. Her office computer was confiscated, began investigating accusations she was causing "sedition" and she too fears her 15-year job status to be in jeopardy. Her congressman is looking into the case, but once letter writers are accused of a potential crime, how long before the Fear of expressing an opinion outweighs any other concerns?

Right here in good ol' Tennessee one mother in Williamson County has been waging a war to stop children in school from reading "To Kill A Mockingbird" by Harper Lee (HEY WILLIAMSON COUNTY KIDS - order your own copy at this link for only seventy-five cents!!)

The mother claimed she did not like "the profanity in the book, of how people talked in that time and in that society." Read more about this poor deluded case here.

All this reminds me of the old Robert Heinlein story called "If This Goes On" where in some future America, led by a theocracy, free thought is forbidden and fear is the key to controlling the population. Maybe it isn't science-fiction after all.