Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday Reading

The Close Friend of David Rivera — The first-term GOP Congressman from Miami is facing increased scrutiny for his personal and campaign finances.

Before launching his bid for Congress last year, David Rivera embarked on a record-breaking campaign for the state Senate, amassing more than $1 million in donations some eight months before Election Day.

Rivera paid $250,000 of that money to his fundraiser and longtime ally, Esther Nuhfer — including $150,000 in “bonus” money, records show — all for a political campaign that Rivera never finished.

Rivera dropped that state Senate campaign early to run for Congress. With Nuhfer’s help, Rivera went on to easily win the congressional race, defeating Republican opponents in the primary and Democrat Joe Garcia in November.

But Rivera’s nascent Washington career is in jeopardy, as criminal investigators in Miami and Tallahassee comb through his personal finances and campaign accounts — including the Senate account that fattened Nuhfer’s pocketbook. Investigators also are focusing on Rivera’s tight relationship with Nuhfer.

Rivera has denied any wrongdoing. Nuhfer did not return messages seeking comment.

Since 2006, Nuhfer’s consulting firm has received at least $817,000 in fees from Rivera’s political campaigns, or from political committees tied to the Republican congressman and former state lawmaker, state and federal campaign records show.

How some of this money was spent remains unclear. Nuhfer’s firm received $150,000 from the Miami-Dade Republican Party last fall for radio advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts, but the party does not have a contract or detailed records verifying the expenses. Rivera was the party chairman at the time of the payments, though he did not sign the checks.

When asked about Nuhfer’s work for him, Rivera would only communicate with The Miami Herald through written questions sent to an e-mail account in the name of his campaign. Rivera described Nuhfer only as his “fundraising consultant.” In 2010, his last year in the Legislature, Rivera described Nuhfer differently to a Miami Herald reporter.

“She’s a close friend,” Rivera said at the time.

Nuhfer was more than that. She also was a lobbyist in Tallahassee, where her connections to Rivera often sparked whispers and criticism from fellow lobbyists, political consultants and lawmakers in the gossipy state Capitol, where Rivera held the powerful post of budget chief in the state House of Representatives in 2009 and 2010.

During the legislative session, Nuhfer was a constant presence in Rivera’s office: She often could be found sitting at or near his desk, using the telephone or typing on her laptop next to Rivera’s legislative aide, Alina Garcia, who was Nuhfer’s roommate in Tallahassee.

Rivera and Nuhfer also traveled together outside the state, according to sources close to the criminal investigation. Through his campaign, Rivera said any trips with Nuhfer were for “fundraising activities and events.” In December, Rivera accompanied Nuhfer to a black-tie gala for Miami Dade College.

More below the fold.

Talking to the Taliban — Steve Coll of The New Yorker reports that the U.S. has been on contact with the Taliban.

On August 22, 1998, Mullah Omar, the emir of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, made a cold call to the State Department. The United States had just lobbed cruise missiles at Al Qaeda camps in his nation. Omar got a mid-level diplomat on the line and spoke calmly. He suggested that Congress force President Bill Clinton to resign. He said that American military strikes “would be counter-productive,” and would “spark more, not less, terrorist attacks,” according to a declassified record of the call. “Omar emphasized that this was his best advice,” the record adds.

That was the first and last time that Omar spoke to an American government official, as far as is known. Before September 11th, some of his deputies had occasionally spoken with U.S. diplomats, but afterward the United States rejected direct talks with Taliban leaders, on the ground that they were as much to blame for terrorism as Al Qaeda was. Last year, however, as the U.S.-led Afghan ground war passed its ninth anniversary, and Mullah Omar remained in hiding, presumably in Pakistan, a small number of officials in the Obama Administration—among them the late Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan—argued that it was time to try talking to the Taliban again.

Holbrooke’s final diplomatic achievement, it turns out, was to see this advice accepted. The Obama Administration has entered into direct, secret talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders, several people briefed about the talks told me last week. The discussions are continuing; they are of an exploratory nature and do not yet amount to a peace negotiation. That may take some time: the first secret talks between the United States and representatives of North Vietnam took place in 1968; the Paris Peace Accords, intended to end direct U.S. military involvement in the war, were not agreed on until 1973.

When asked for comment on the talks, a White House spokesman said that the remarks that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made last Friday at the Asia Society offered a “thorough representation of the U.S. position.” Clinton had tough words for the Taliban, saying that they were confronted with a choice between political compromise and ostracism as “an enemy of the international community.” She added, “I know that reconciling with an adversary that can be as brutal as the Taliban sounds distasteful, even unimaginable. And diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends. But that is not how one makes peace. President Reagan understood that when he sat down with the Soviets. And Richard Holbrooke made this his life’s work. He negotiated face to face with Milosevic and ended a war.”

Mullah Omar is not a participant in the preliminary talks. He does not attend even secret meetings of underground Taliban leadership councils in Pakistani safe houses. When he does speak, he does so obliquely, via cassette tapes. One purpose of the talks initiated by the Obama Administration, therefore, is to assess which figures in the Taliban’s leadership, if any, might be willing to engage in formal Afghan peace negotiations, and under what conditions.

Frank Rich — After Tucson, the Republican talking heads have lost some steam.

SIX weeks after that horrific day in Tucson, America has half-forgotten its violent debate over the power of violent speech to incite violence. It’s Gabrielle Giffords’s own power of speech that rightly concerns us now. But all those arguments over political language did leave a discernible legacy. In the aftermath of President Obama’s Tucson sermon, civility has had a mini-restoration in Washington. And some of the most combative national figures in our politics have been losing altitude ever since, much as they did after Bill Clinton’s oratorical response to the inferno of Oklahoma City.

Glenn Beck’s ratings at Fox News continued their steady decline, falling to an all-time low last month. He has lost 39 percent of his viewers in a year and 48 percent of the prime 25-to-54 age demographic. His strenuous recent efforts to portray the Egyptian revolution as an apocalyptic leftist-jihadist conspiracy have inspired more laughs than adherents.

Sarah Palin’s tailspin is also pronounced. It can be seen in polls, certainly: the ABC News-Washington Post survey found that 30 percent of Americans approved of her response to the Tucson massacre and 46 percent did not. (Obama’s numbers in the same poll were 78 percent favorable, 12 percent negative.) But equally telling was the fate of a Palin speech scheduled for May at a so-called Patriots & Warriors Gala in Glendale, Colo.

Tickets to see Palin, announced at $185 on Jan. 16, eight days after Tucson, were slashed to half-price in early February. Then the speech was canceled altogether, with the organizers blaming “safety concerns resulting from an onslaught of negative feedback.” But when The Denver Post sought out the Glendale police chief, he reported there had been no threats or other causes for alarm. The real “negative feedback” may have been anemic ticket sales, particularly if they were to cover Palin’s standard $100,000 fee.

What may at long last be dawning on some Republican grandees is that a provocateur who puts her political adversaries in the cross hairs and then instructs her acolytes to “RELOAD” frightens most voters.

[…]

An opposition this adrift from reality — whether about Obama’s birth certificate, history unfolding in the Middle East or the consequences of a federal or state government shutdown — is a paper tiger. It’s a golden chance for the president to seize the moment. What we don’t know is if he sees it that way. As we’ve learned from his track record both in the 2008 campaign and in the White House, he sometimes coasts at these junctures or lapses into a pro forma bipartisanship that amounts, for all practical purposes, to inertia.

Obama’s outspokenness about the labor battle in Wisconsin offers a glimmer of hope that he might lead the fight for what many Americans, not just Democrats, care about — from job creation to an energy plan to an attack on the deficit that brackets the high-end Bush-era tax cuts with serious Medicare/Medicaid reform and further strengthening of the health care law. Will he do so? The answer to that question is at least as mysterious as the identity of whatever candidate the desperate G.O.P. finds to run against him.