This 16-Year-Old Made an App That Exposes Sellout Politicians
With US politics swimming in so much corporate money that it’s pretty much an oligarchy, it can be hard to keep track of which particular set of lobbyists is trying to milk more cash out of healthcare, fossil fuels and other very important issues from one week to the next.
But thanks to 16-year-old Nick Rubin, keeping track of just how much politicians have sold out has become a lot easier. He created Greenhouse, a new browser plugin which operates under the motto, “Some are red. Some are blue. All are green.” The plugin aims “to shine light on a social and industrial disease of today: the undue influence of money in our Congress.” It sounds like a bit of a lofty aim for an app, but it’s actually pretty simple and effective—it provides a break down of a politician’s campaign contributions when that politician’s name comes up in an article. It is currently available for Chrome, Firefox and Safari and is completely free. As you can imagine, reading about how your Member of Congress voted in a recent health bill becomes all the more enlightening if you know how much money the health industry showered him in at the last election.
I spoke to Nick Rubin about the plugin, politics and what he calls the “money stories” behind what you read in the news.
VICE: Hi Nick. So how did you come up with the idea for Greenhouse?
Nick Rubin: Back in seventh grade, I gave a presentation on corporate personhood and ever since then I’ve been really interested in that issue. I think the one problem is that the sources of income for members of congress haven’t been simple and easily accessible when people have needed it. More recently, I’ve been teaching myself how to code and I thought that something like Greenhouse that puts the data at people’s fingertips would be a perfect solution. It really is the intersection of these two passions of mine—coding and politics. I made it after school and on weekends on my computer.
Why the name?
Well, green is the color of money in the US, and house refers to the two houses of Congress [the Senate and House of Representatives]. The name also implies transparency; greenhouses are see through and they are built to help things thrive.
Where did you get the information on the politician’s donations?
It uses the data from the last full election cycle which was 2012. This is simply because it’s just the most complete set of data that we have. But, the browser does provide access to the most up to date 2014 information by just clicking the name of the politician on the top of the window or theOpenSecrets.org link in the popup. So the 2014 data is just one click away.
I’m intending to update the data as a whole later in the election cycle as the 2014 contributions are more complete. These are updates I’m currently working on, as well as thinking of other ways I can expand the tool.
Is NSA Surveillance Mastermind Keith Alexander Selling US Secrets to Wall Street?
Perhaps you already assume that there’s some kind of twisted marriage between Wall Street megabanks and the US global surveillance regime. Why wouldn’t there be? But not even a total cynic could have anticipated spymaster Keith Alexander cashing in this hard, this fast.
As Bloomberg recently reported, the former National Security Agency chief, who resigned in March at the age of 62, quickly offered his cyber-security expertise at the eye-popping price of $1 million per month to an assortment of shady business lobbies. And now at least one member of Congress is probing this most delightfully dystopian of arrangements, raising the possibility that Alexander will be shamed out of the practice, if nothing else.
“Disclosing or misusing classified information for profit is, as Mr. Alexander well knows, a felony. I question how Mr. Alexander can provide any of the services he is offering unless he discloses or misuses classified information, including extremely sensitive sources and methods,” Florida Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson wrote one of the business groups, the Security Industries and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), which holds it down for Wall Street in Washington. “Without the classified information that he acquired in his former position, he literally would have nothing to offer to you.”
In an interview Monday, Grayson was even more strident in his criticism.
"Frankly, what the general is doing is beginning to resemble an extortion racket," he told me. "This is a man who basically lied for a living, and he continues to do that."
A Respected Law Firm Alllegedly Risked Breaking the Law by Representing a Rogue Banker
A former Securities and Exchange Commission official and his law firm sought millions of dollars in new legal business in 2006 from financier R. Allen Stanford—during the same period of time the law firm had agreed to defend Stanford before the SEC, despite warnings from the SEC’s ethics counsel that any such representation would be illegal.
Stanford lavished lucrative legal business on former SEC enforcement officer Spencer C. Barasch and the Houston law firm of Andrews Kurth, where Barasch is a partner, to persuade them to defend him before the SEC. Initially, in 2005, Barasch and Andrews Kurth turned Stanford down when he asked them to represent him before the SEC, telling him that to do so would violate federal conflict-of-interest laws. In 2006, however, Barasch ignored the legal prohibition and agreed to do so anyway.
Confidential Andrews Kurth billing records show that in 2006, while Stanford was pressing Barasch and Andrews Kurth to defend him before the SEC, Stanford hired the law firm to represent him on seven other legal matters, adding an eighth in 2007. In addition, according to a former Andrews Kurth employee, Barasch told his fellow partners that they stood to earn as much as $2 million a year for defending Stanford before the SEC. Previously, Stanford had been only a relatively modest client for the law firm. Barasch and Andrews Kurth declined to comment for this story.
The Derailment of the SEC – Part II: An SEC Official Works Both Sides of the Street, and Betrays the Public Trust
A senior Securities and Exchange Commission official, Spencer C. Barasch, quashed an investigation in early 2005 of a $7 billion Ponzi scheme masterminded by Houston financier R. Allen Stanford—after securing a lucrative partnership with a law firm of which Stanford was a client.
Barasch, the top enforcement officer of the SEC’s Fort Worth regional office at the time, overruled SEC examiners who had warned him that Stanford was likely running “a massive Ponzi scheme” and had sought permission from him to open a formal investigation of Stanford and his bank. For several months prior to that decision, Barasch had been negotiating to become a partner with the Houston law firm of Andrews Kurth, which had had Stanford as a client, according to confidential Andrews Kurth emails obtained for this story. Andrews Kurth’s work for Stanford is detailed in the law firm’s confidential billing records.
Federal conflict-of-interest law prohibits a government employee from participating “personally and substantially” in an official capacity in any “particular matter” that would have a direct and predictable effect on the employee’s financial interests or on the financial interests of a “person or organization with whom he is negotiating or has any arrangement concerning prospective employment.”
The Dark Continent
This is the second chapter of Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia’s sprawling 35,000-plus word epic exploration of the crisis in South Sudan. We will release a new chapter daily, but you can skip ahead read the full text here or watch the documentary.
A Sexual Abuse Lawsuit Is Rattling Christian Homeschoolers
Last fall, Douglas Phillips, a fundamentalist Christian homeschooling guru and leading proponent of the “Biblical Patriarchy” movement, shocked his followers by publicly admitting that he had a relationship with a woman other than his wife, and subsequently shuttered his popular—and lucrative—Vision Forum ministries. Given that philandering religious leaders are a dime a dozen, the story seemed pretty unremarkable at the time. Sure, it was sad news for Phillips and his fundamentalist friends, an illustrious circle that included Kirk Cameron, Creationist talking head Ken Ham, and the Duggar vagina militia. But mostly, it just looked like another minister getting a taste of forbidden fruit.
“There has been serious sin in my life for which God has graciously brought me to repentance,” Phillips said in a statement posted to Vision Forum’s website. “I engaged in a lengthy, inappropriate relationship with a woman. While we did not ‘know’ each other in a Biblical sense, it was nevertheless inappropriately romantic and affectionate.”
Then, last week, the bomb dropped. The woman with whom Phillips was involved, 29-year-old Lourdes Torres, slapped both him and Vision Forum with a lawsuit that indicates Phillips dramatically understated the nature of their “inappropriate relationship”—not least by implying that it was consensual. In the suit, Torres accuses him of sexual battery, exploitation, assault, and fraud, among other charges, and claims he used her as a “personal sex object” over the course of several years, including while she was working as a nanny in Phillips’s home. Torres is also suing Phillips’s now-defunct Vision Forum Ministries, and its for-profit arm, for negligent supervision and retention—in other words, for knowing about the abuse and not doing anything to stop it or remove Phillips from his leadership roles.
According to the lawsuit, Phillips met Torres and her family at a homeschooling conference in 1999, when Torres was just 15. It claims that Phillips then proceeded to “methodically groom” the teenage girl, inviting Torres on family vacations, taking her on as a nanny for his kids, and showering her with compliments, money, and spiritual advice, until eventually she moved into the Phillips’s home as a nanny in 2007.
That’s when the allegations get gross:
While Ms. Torres was living with Douglas Phillips and his family in October of 2007, Douglas Phillips entered Ms. Torres’s bedroom and without her consent began touching her breasts, stomach, back, neck, and waist. Phillips then began to masturbate and ejaculated on her. Ms. Torres asked Phillips to stop and broke down crying. Despite Ms. Torres’s repeated requests for Phillips to stop masturbating and ejaculating on her, Phillips proceeded to return and repeat this perverse and offensive conduct. Each night that Phillips returned, Ms. Torres requested that he stop. Defendant blatantly disregarded her requests but continued to masturbate and ejaculate on her each night.
The 30-page complaint goes on to sketch a devastating picture of Phillips and his ministry, offering a glimpse into the darker side of the Biblical Patriarchy movement that has taken root in some corners of Christian fundamentalism. In the belief system advocated by Phillips and Vision Forum, men have spiritual authority and dominion over church and family, while women are expected to submit absolutely to their fathers and husbands in all aspects of life.
How the ‘Ndrangheta Quietly Became the McDonald’s of Mafias
Last year the ‘Ndrangheta—a criminal organization from Calabria, a region that forms the toe of Italy’s boot—raked in more than $75.3 billion. That’s equivalent to revenue of McDonald’s and Deutsche Bank combined, or 3.5 per cent of Italy’s GDP in 2013. It did this through, among other things, extortion, usury, gambling, prostitution, and the trafficking of both drugs and humans.
"This place is just so inundated with corruption—it’s steeped in corruption like a teabag. There was a Roman emperor—Caligula—who appointed his horse to the senate. At this point, the system has gotten so bad that if the Koch brothers appointed their horse to the Senate, it wouldn’t even make a difference. That’s where we are."
—Florida Representative Alan Grayson talks to VICE about the Supreme Court’s latest decision to turn America into an oligarchy
Crude Journalism: Chevron Bought a Newspaper to Mask Its Bad Record on Safety Abuses
Richmond is tucked into California’s western tricep, a former wine town with a population just over 100,000. Under the administration of Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, the town is thelargest city in the United States with a Green Party mayor. It’s also an oil town—in 1901, Standard Oil set up a tank farm, choosing the location for its easy access to San Francisco Bay. Soon after, a western terminus of the Santa Fe Railroad was built in Richmond to handle the outflux of crude. Over the course of the 20th century, Standard Oil became the Standard Oil Company of California (SOCAL), and later, Chevron.
Throughout the 90s, the Richmond refinery was fined thousands of dollars for unsafe conditions, explosions, major fires, and chemical leaks, as the plant oozed chlorine and sulfur trioxide into Richmond’s atmosphere. In August of 2012, the Richmond refinery exploded after Chevron ignored the warning of corroding pipes from the local safety board. The disaster was linked to aging pipes, which were simply clamped instead of replaced altogether. Some 15,000 residents in the surrounding area were forced to seek medical treatment, and Chevron’s CEO, John Watson, got a $7.5 million dollar raise.
I Accidentally Got a Scammer Tortured by Police in Tanzania
It was when they manhandled him onto the table, tethered him to a water pipe coming out of the ceiling, and pulled his pants down to his ankles that I experienced a change of heart. For weeks I’d been consumed with hatred for the man on that table. But it’s funny how your perspective changes when someone is about to be tortured, especially when you’re the one that put him there.
It had begun, like many tales of misadventure, in that most anarchic staging post for travel: the Tanzanian bus station. Ever been to one? This is how it goes: The long-distance buses tend to leave at dusk or before; schedules are mind-bogglingly irregular; a tourist tax on the price of a ticket is all but inevitable. Like transport hubs the world over, they’re a magnet for the wretched, the transient, and the dispossessed. And you endure it all for the privilege of cramming yourself into a bus driven by some prepubescent boy-racer in a country with a traffic-accident rate six times worse than that of the UK.