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Introduction

Published: Sep 02 2014 09:16:19 PM EDT   Updated On: Sep 03 2014 10:18:14 AM EDT

The Think Tank is dedicated exclusively to thoughtful, civil discourse about the issues of our day. It is a forum for the genuine exchange of ideas. We encourage you to contribute or simply to read on for your own edification.

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President Obama: It's in our national interest in return to Iraq

Published: Sep 12 2014 11:33:22 PM EDT

Dr. Arthur Garrison, Assistant Professor, Criminal Justice at Kutztown University By Dr. Arthur Garrison, Assistant Professor, Criminal Justice at Kutztown University

One of the first lessons in studying policy making is that a single event can change everything. Vice-president Cheney and others in the Bush Administration wanted regime change in Iraq before they came to power but did not have the political means (opportunity) to implement that policy. September 11, 2001 created those means.

Thirteen years later, with the single event of two American journalists suffering a violent, senseless and publicized beheading at the hand of ISIL, an army of Islamists who want to form a caliphate reminiscent of a time shortly after the fall of Rome, President Obama now has the public and political support to authorize a wholesale air bombardment in Iraq and Syria to constrain and defeat them that he did not have three weeks before. Like the second Gulf War, serious debate on whether the U.S. should use force is not open for serious discussion. Fox, MSNBC, CNN and the national media are now on script supporting the need to attack ISIL. The debate now is about whether the plan described by President Obama on Wednesday night will be supported by the Washington politicians and the national news media.

But that aside, I find it interesting how easy it is for Americans today to decide that war is necessary. In the 1967 episode of Star Trek, A Taste of Armageddon, Captain Kirk has to deal with two planets, that have been at war for 500 years and have been able to do so because they fight with computers. To the two planets and this was the point of the episode, the realities of war had been removed from conflict. The war had no practical consequences that would require the end of the war. Kirk said of war, “death, destruction, disease, horror, that’s what war is all about. . . . That’s what makes it a thing to be avoided.”

Recent polls have shifted and now they show that more than 60% of Americans support bombing ISIL in Iraq and Syria and close to 35% supports the use of air and ground forces to address ISIL. But less than 0.5% of the total population of America serves in the military. America as a whole has no real contact or personal connection with those who bear the weight of actually carrying out the realities of war. It’s easy to say America is under threat and “lets” do what is necessary to fight ISIL when the great majority of Americans have no financial, social or personal connection to the realities and harshness of war.

When Americans as a whole, and on an individual level, have no connection to the “death, destruction, disease, horror” of war, empty slogans and partisan politics are mistaken for leadership, courage and conviction. Vice-President Cheney, who drove the U.S. into the second Iraq War on intelligence that was wrong and supported the Wilsonian idea that a democracy can be established in Iraq with nothing more than American say so, is now held up by many as a foreign policy expert. This can happen when the 4,400 servicemen and women killed and the more than 32,000 injured in the Iraq War are a tiny minority of the total U.S. population.

It doesn’t take leadership, courage and conviction to say it’s time to send the less than 0.5% to war when the nation has been convinced to be afraid and horrified by murder and violence in a religious and sectarian civil war in the Middle East by sides that hate each other only slightly more than their unified hate for America and the West. Leadership would require a different approach.

In the 1985 movie, The American President, a staffer argues with the President that his opponents are casting him as unpatriotic and that saying nothing only allows the public to follow the opposition. He decried, “People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. There’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”

The President, amazed and resigned to a political truth, looks at his impassioned staffer and replies, “we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.”

Recent Cases of Officer Impersonation Show Need for Legislation

By Rep. Doyle Heffley (R-Carbon)

Published: Sep 10 2014 08:18:40 PM EDT   Updated On: Sep 12 2014 06:29:05 PM EDT

I recently authored House Bill 1357 which would define the impersonation of a law enforcement officer, while also outline the illegal use of sirens and lights by a person not authorized to do so. The bill was passed by the House, but at this time it remains with the Senate Judiciary Committee.

There seems to be a disturbing trend in our area with reports appearing in news media about motorists being pulled over and harassed by people impersonating law enforcement officers.

In July a woman was pulled over near Palmerton by someone who was impersonating an officer.  A 62 year-old man from Weatherly was arrested for impersonating a sheriff and received ARD treatment.  In Penn Forest Township a man who identified himself as a state trooper approached two girls walking alone.  He had charges of impersonating an office dropped in a plea agreement.

In 2011, a woman told police that she was sitting in her vehicle when she was approached by a man who identified himself as an officer.  The woman left the parking lot while the man followed her in a truck that had flashing blue lights on the roof.  The man was not apprehended.

My legislation specifically addresses impersonating a law enforcement officer and increases the grading of the offense to a third degree felony, with a maximum penalty of seven years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

This bill would amend the current law to require the seller of an emergency vehicle to remove any flashing lights or audible warning systems prior to selling the vehicle.  A person who sells a vehicle with visual or audible warning systems to a person who is not authorized to possess such systems commits a summary offense and upon conviction will be sentenced to pay a fine of $500 to $1000.

A person who sells a vehicle with visual or audible warning systems to a person who is not authorized to possess such systems and who knows or should have known of the person's intent to use the vehicle to impersonate a law enforcement office commits a misdemeanor of the third degree with a maximum penalty of one year imprisonment and a $2500 fine.

For many of us it is never a positive experience to be pulled over by the police, but motorists across Carbon County and the Commonwealth should have the peace of mind that the person pulling them over is actually a police officer.

I am hopeful that the Senate will soon take action on this very important legislation, addressing a rising, and disturbing trend across the region and Commonwealth.

If you have a question about this legislation or any other state issue, please call one of my district offices, either in Lehighton at (610)377-6363 or Albrightsville at (570)722-8700.

Ferguson, MO: The Mixture of Race, Crime, Police Use of Force and the Utility of Riots

Published: Aug 20 2014 11:29:00 AM EDT   Updated On: Aug 20 2014 11:29:00 AM EDT

Dr. Arthur Garrison, Assistant Professor, Criminal Justice at Kutztown University By Dr. Arthur Garrison, Assistant Professor, Criminal Justice at Kutztown University

On August 9th, Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. As soon as the killing was made public, every politician, platitude, accusation, argument, justification, rationalization and defense that exists in these types of situations was heard on T.V. and radio. Nothing was new. Then, two nights later, fully armed in riot and militarized SWAT gear, the police moved onto the protestors with tear gas, flash grenades and armed vehicles. There was nothing new in the police using force on what they perceived as African American rioters and looters. What was new was the equipment the police used to suppress them. On that night, the public was introduced to the fact that the U.S. military, since 9/11, has been providing local police departments with surplus military grade equipment.

After the police use of militarized force, the Governor of Missouri removed the Ferguson police as lead agency to deal with security and appointed the state police as the new agency in charge. The officer in command, Captain Ronald S. Johnson, was able to bring a sense of calm and control that reduced the tension on the street. Two days later, the Chief of the Ferguson police released a video showing Brown committing a strong robbery in a local grocery shortly before his confrontation with Wilson. The release of the video occurred during the same press conference in which the Chief identified Wilson as the officer who killed Brown. A few hours later, the Chief stated that Wilson did not know Brown was suspected of the robbery when the confrontation occurred. That night the police were met with a riot and wholesale resentment by the press.

From this point on, the case has been met with calls for special prosecutors and condemnation of President Obama for saying too little and saying too much about the whole incident. Attorney General Eric Holder has been praised and vilified for sending in the Justice Department Civil Rights Division and the FBI. Commentary has proved, again, that there is a significant difference between how African Americans and Caucasians see this entire case. African Americans assume racial bias on the part of the officer and intentional cover-up or mishandling of the case because the loss of Brown's life is of no consequence to the police. Caucasians assume that race has little or nothing to do with the case because police don't shoot African Americans for no reason. Further, conservatives asked, if black life is so important to the protestors and politicians, why don't they decry the death of African American youth that were killed in Chicago during the same period as the unrest in Ferguson?

There is no simple answer to any of this. But there is one thing that we all can agree on. Riots make society stop and ask why. Riots have utility. Riots are both cause and effect.

Martin Luther King said of riots,

"But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard."

Thomas Jefferson said of rebellion while reflecting on the proposed Constitution,

"God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion . . . .What country ever existed a century and a half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve it's liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it's natural manure."

It is interesting that it's King who teaches us that riots disrupt communities economically, socially and politically; while it's Jefferson who teaches us that riots are a toll of liberty, the remedy of the people and the creator of positive social and political change.

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Hobby Lobby, An Example of What Does Not Matter

Published: Jul 02 2014 01:10:00 PM EDT   Updated On: Jul 02 2014 01:10:00 PM EDT

Dr. Arthur Garrison, Assistant Professor, Criminal Justice at Kutztown University By Dr. Arthur Garrison, Assistant Professor, Criminal Justice at Kutztown University

In the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., Hobby Lobby asserted that from its religious perspective, anything that prevented the fertilized egg from growing into a baby -- by definition -- was in the same category as abortion. Under the Affordable Care Act, employers are required to provide a base level of care within the health care insurance that they provide to their employees. Birth control is included in that base level coverage. Under the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules, there are twenty different types of contraception methods. Hobby Lobby sued the Department of Health and Human Services (DHH) regulations that included four methods of contraceptives. The first two methods are "day after" or emergency contraceptives -- Plan B (levonorgestrel-LNG) and Ella (ulipristal acetate-UPA). The second two methods are intrauterine devices (IUDs) -- levonorgestrel releasing intrauterine system (LNG-IUS) and the copper Intrauterine Device (Cu-IUD). Hobby Lobby in its arguments to the Court asserted that it opposed the specific funding of these four methods of contraceptives because they are "abortifacients" and that "they have no objection to the other 16 FDA-approved methods of birth control."

Fair enough. What was completely missed by the Court and the reaction to the decision is that Hobby Lobby was factually wrong. These four methods are not "abortifacients." A brief submitted to the Court by a group of medical scientists explained that Plan B, "levonorgestrel (LNG), [is] a synthetic version of the naturally-occurring hormone progesterone [that] works by preventing or disrupting ovulation, but is not effective after ovulation has already occurred." The reason being, "LNG does not cause changes to the endometrium (uterine lining) that would hamper implantation." Ella "acts on human progesterone receptors." It "works later in the pre-ovulatory cycle, when [Plan B] is no longer effective."

Here is the point. The "claim that Plan B and Ella prevent implantation is not supported by current scientific data or by evidence in the record below. To the contrary, scientific research shows that Plan B and Ella both function by inhibiting or postponing ovulation; they do not prevent fertilization or implantation." As for the two types of IUDs, the "LNG-IUS works primarily by thickening the cervical mucus, thereby preventing sperm from reaching the egg." "The Cu-IUD affects the motility and viability of sperm and impairs their fertilizing capability." The brief goes on to explain that none of the methods can dislodge a fertilized egg, the scientific definition of abortifacients. A Google search confirms the assertions made in the brief.

The Court and both sides of the litigation bypassed the brief altogether. Rather than focusing on the science of these methods and the legal/factual issue of whether the four methods were in fact violative of religious convictions, the Court ruled that for-profit corporations were "persons" under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) and that that the RFRA protects for-profit organizations that "wish to run their businesses as for-profit corporations in the man¬ner required by their religious beliefs." The Court could have ruled that since the four methods did not violate Hobby Lobby's religious values because they were not abortifacients, Hobby Lobby was legally obligated to offer these four methods along with the other sixteen. This limited approach would have avoided the current result in which the Court provided a legal determination that left open more questions than it answered.

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Welfare Fraud in Pennsylvania

Published: Jul 01 2014 03:32:00 PM EDT   Updated On: Jul 01 2014 03:32:00 PM EDT

Stan Alekna by Stan Alekna

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, 2013 welfare expenditures were $28 billion -- 44 percent of the state budget -- and are projected to rise to $32 billion in 2015.

Welfare costs will grow for the foreseeable future in both dollars and as a percent of total expenditures. This trend must be reversed.

Former Auditor General, Jack Wagner, estimated that welfare fraud represents ten to fifteen percent of total state expenditures, or $2.8 billion to $4.2 billion of stolen taxpayer funds. $400 million to $675 million annually could be attributed to food stamps and cash assistance program fraud alone.

While there has been some progress over the last three years in reducing welfare fraud, more action is necessary.

The Secretary of DPW stated that $2 billion was eliminated from welfare fraud, waste and abuse since 2011. But that's only 2.5 percent of total welfare expenditures annually. Many serious problems remain:

  • 77% of the DPW's County Assistance Offices (CAO's) do not comply with established procedures when administering food stamp and cash assistance programs.
  • The Auditor General's reports documenting these underperforming CAO's have been ignored by DPW and the state legislature.
  • Auditor General DePasquale's June 24, 2014 interim report on the audit of DPW's administration of Electronic Benefit EBT/ACCESS cards found that more than $200,000 in benefits were provided to 138 deceased recipients. A complete audit of the DPW's EBT program is expected to be completed in 2015.
  • It can take as long as three years for an Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigator to examine a single suspected case of welfare fraud because they lack adequate police powers to gather evidence.
  • Punishment for welfare fraud is minor and the chance of being caught slim. There is little offset to the potential gain from fraud.
  • There is almost no oversight by the state legislature of DPW and the $28 billion of annual welfare funds.

The following recommendations, if implemented, would greatly reduce welfare fraud in the Commonwealth and save taxpayers hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars.

  • Three bills aimed at stiffening the penalties for those convicted of welfare crimes are pending. All require drug testing of welfare applicants. In the past, similar bills have died in committee or been defeated by full House or Senate votes. This should not happen again.
  • After the budget and pension reform, the legislature's highest priority should be to combine the strongest elements of the three bills into one, fast track it through the House and Senate and have the Governor sign it into law, sending a clear sign to the public that the legislature is finally serious about welfare fraud.
  • The leadership should ensure that a House and a Senate standing committee, all fully committed to welfare reform and oversight, is assigned to oversee DPW.
  • A joint hearing of the House and Senate oversight committees should be convened to determine the current magnitude and of welfare fraud in Pennsylvania, and the adequacy of the measures that are in place to control it. Testimony should be heard from persons in DPW, OIG and the Auditor General's office who have first-hand experience in dealing with welfare fraud. Legislative action should then be pursued in support of any welfare reform recommendations that are adopted by the joint hearing.
  • Recent budget reductions to the Auditor General's office should be reinstated so that the audits of DPW operations can be continued and expanded. Welfare fraud reductions would offset expenditures.
  • Require that DPW field management retrain, reassign to lessor roles or dismiss case workers who fail compliance audits more than once.
  • Provide police powers (search warrant and subpoena powers) to OIG welfare fraud investigators and permit them to be armed in the performance of their duties.
  • Empower OIG to prosecute welfare fraud cases in criminal court. Currently, only county District Attorneys can try such cases and more serious criminal cases take priority over welfare crime.

If you agree that serious welfare reform is long overdue, call, write or email your state representative and senator. Ask them what they are doing to address this egregious waste of taxpayer money. Greatly reducing welfare fraud will ensure that funds will be available for those who need temporary financial assistance due to circumstances beyond their control, which is all that welfare was ever intended to be.

_____________________________________________________________________

Stan Alekna is a retired business executive having held senior management positions with computer manufacturing, computer software and managed health care companies. He and his wife live in Cornwall, PA.

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Veteran questions Toomey's voting record

Published: May 29 2014 11:25:00 AM EDT   Updated On: May 29 2014 11:25:00 AM EDT

I'm a Vietnam War veteran and a Past President of the PA State Council of VVA. I would like to respond to your report of Senator Pat Toomey's news conference in which he discussed new legislation called the VA Accountability Act. I understand that the bill would include several items to make people in the VA accountable by, for example, providing remedies for those veterans harmed as a result of willful VA misconduct.

While I think it's nice he wants to question VA practices, I question how substantially effective his action will be. I wonder if he, in fact, may be a bit politically opportunistic. His record of support for veterans is woefully inadequate. He has had many opportunities to demonstrate his support for veterans and has repeatedly failed to deliver.

For example, Toomey voted against every veterans' funding bill (13 of them) in the 10 years he has served as a Congressman from 2000-2005 and as a Senator from 2011 until now. He only voted for one in his career, in 1999. In addition to his votes against Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) appropriations bills, he voted against every other bill that would fund veteran programs, such as the Veterans Jobs Act and the recent Health and Benefits bill for our veterans.

Let me just point out what his votes against those bills mean to our veterans. When he filibustered the Health and Benefits bill for veterans, he voted against increasing assisted living services for veterans who have traumatic brain injuries. That bill also would have expanded care for women veterans through various programs such as occupational counseling and stress reduction therapy. When Toomey filibustered the bipartisan Veterans Jobs Act, he blocked efforts to help our Iraq and Afghanistan warriors get jobs in their communities after deployment -- even after he voted to send them to war.

While it's good Toomey is paying attention to the issues at the VA hospitals, I wish he would have stood with us veterans in the past -- when we really needed his votes.

Very respectfully,
Larry Holman, MS, MBA
Past President, PA State Council, Vietnam Veterans of America
Past President, PA War Veterans Council

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Corporate welfare still lives in the East Penn School District

Published: May 27 2014 09:42:00 AM EDT   Updated On: May 27 2014 09:42:00 AM EDT

The East Penn School Board, after a surprise motion to rescind, voted again to give corporate welfare to Hamilton Crossings developer thru the TIF (Tax Increment Financing) plan. I say surprise because the EPSB member and crusader for the TIF, Ken Bacher, brought up a motion to rescind his previous YEA vote on the TIF. Unfortunately, the public didn't find out about this motion until two days before it was to take place. Another interesting point, school board member, Lynn Donches, had made this same motion just weeks before and it didn't even get seconded for discussion. Bacher's motion seemed so scripted as to be a joke. The developer and bond agent were both present at the school board meeting and well-rehearsed to address the one issue that Bacher seemed ready to kill the TIF over. It seems over the next twenty years the school district would come up short ~ $350,000.00 because of changes to the TIF plan, seemingly driving Bacher to deny the developer the gift of $11,000,000.00 in EPSD student education funds. Of course Bacher rescinded his rescind motion as soon as the bond agent told him that the developer would make good on the ~$350,000.00. Seems like the developer and bond agent have a very expedient work arrangement? Couldn't be that this was all worked out ahead of time??? Fortunately the taxpayer and EPSD students have a friend on their side in Lynn Donches. She revived the motion and new board member Rev. Wally Vinovskis seconded it allowing ~1 hour of discussion and even with a questionable stacked deck the vote was close 5/4. Bacher was the swing vote. Unfortunately in East Penn School District, corporate welfare still lives.
For more info check out "stiffthetif.com".

John Donches

Editor's Note: The author is the husband of East Penn School Board member Lynn Donches.

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On this Day

  • Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, split blurb

    Public domain

    On this day: September 23

    Lewis and Clark return to St. Louis, the Nintendo Company is formed, Sigmund Freud dies, "The Jetsons" premieres, and Elton John's musical tribute to Princess Diana hits America, all on this day.