Saturday, July 07, 2012

Will Drones End Buck McKeon's Disgraceful Political Career?


I don't want to give people the wrong impression of Buck McKeon, the foul old Republican congressman from Santa Clarita in northeast L.A. County. Yesterday we spent a lot of time talking about his corruption case in regards to the mortgage meltdown and the bribes Darrell Issa discovered he had taken from Angelo Mozilo in return for voting for Mozilo's predatory agenda. As serious as that is for McKeon from a legal perspective, it barely touches the eye-popping corruption McKeon is involved with when it comes to the Military Industrial Complex.

There is no Member of Congress-- neither in the House nor in the Senate-- who has taken the amounts of bribes McKeon has from weapons manufacturers and war contractors. He's the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and he seems to see his primary function as one of shoving expensive, unwanted, unneeded weapons systems down the Pentagon's throat. The corporations making these over-priced and ineffective systems pay McKeon well for his trouble. The 30,000 spying domestic drones flying over American skies starting in 2014 will be McKeon's lasting legacy for our nation.

Recently I spoke with one of McKeon's major donors off the record. He told me that he's not only expected to give McKeon maximum allowable contributions but that McKeon directs him to other congressmen all over the country that he's supposed to contribute to. The donor is on the verge of going to the authorities with a story that will send McKeon right to the federal penitentiary next to his old comrade Duke Cunningham-- the Duke and Buck, reunited again... as they should be. But he's afraid. He told me McKeon is very vindictive and very connected, far more embedded in the Romney money-raising machine than anyone knows and far more involved with Sheldon Adelson's organized crime activities than anyone suspects. Let's hope the man does the right thing for his country.

Meanwhile, though, we have a regular flow of reports showing how McKeon wheels and deals with weapons companies for partisan gain. This week the latest report comes from KBS-- and it's all about McKeon's pet caucus, the Drone Caucus he founded and chairs... and gets gigantic bribes from. Notice the name on the top of he chart on he left. The first three are three of Congress' all-time corrupt members-- all buds of Duke Cunningham's, you may recall. They were all in business with Cunningham before he was sent to prison and his crimes were neatly sanitized to protect other Members of Congress, especially these three gonifs. Oh, but there are Democrats on the list so it's bipartisan. Well, it is-- all Republicans and a tiny handful of sleazy ConservaDems and Blue Dogs who would sell their mothers for a campaign contribution. I'm very happy to reiterate that the top recipient Democrat, corrupt conservative Silvestre Reyes, was just defeated in his primary bid and will be replaced by a progressive reformer, Beto O'Rourke.

McKeon's Drone Caucus-- officially the Unmanned Systems Caucus we've been reporting on all year-- just passed a sweet deal for the companies that have been supplying all this cash. McCain included a provision in the National Defense Act that will allow 30,000 spy drones to fly around American skies-- so not the drones in Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan... these are drones that will spy on Americans in Florida and Texas and California and Ohio and Virginia.
The drone caucus-- like the technology it promotes-- is becoming increasingly important in the nation’s capitol as the government looks to unmanned vehicles to help save money on defense, better patrol the country’s borders and provide a new tool to U.S. law enforcement agencies and civilians.

“It’s definitely a powerful caucus,” said Alex Bronstein-Moffly, an analyst with First Street Research Group, a D.C.-based company that analyzes lobbying data.

“It’s probably up there in the more powerful caucuses that sort of is not talked about.” And, he says, caucus members are well placed to influence government spending and regulations.

“You have members that are tapped into sort of key places," he said. “You also have members who have been around for a long time."

The caucus is co-chaired by 10-term Congressman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, a Republican from Southern California who also chairs the House Armed Services Committee. He shares the drone caucus chair with Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar [Blue Dog] of Texas.

The caucus includes eight members who also sit on the House Committee on Appropriations, which largely controls the government’s purse strings.

Many of the drone caucus members are well supported by the industry they endorse. According to Bronstein-Moffly’s data, the 58 drone caucus members received a total of $2.3 million in contributions from political action committees affiliated with drone manufacturers since 2011.

Twenty-one members of the drone caucus are from border states. These members collected around $1 million in campaign contributions from top drone manufacturers during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, according to campaign finance data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics and analyzed by Fronteras Desk and Investigative Newsource.

Some of those companies are among the biggest contributors to drone caucus members. The political action committee of San Diego-based General Atomics is among the top three all-time campaign contributors to California Congressmen Brian Bilbray, Ken Calvert, Jerry Lewis and McKeon.

These two charts show McKeon's biggest campaign contributors so far this cycle and so far in his entire miserable political career. A scandal in his district is also brewing about how he hit up this companies to illegally finance his batty wife's spectacularly unsuccessful state Assembly run this year. He illegally damnded and got thousands of dollars in campaign funds from weapons makers for a state legislative race-- her big issue was plastic shopping bags-- the first time any of these corporations had ever spent money in a state legislative race. Quid pro quo? McKeon just fired Bob Haeuter, his district director and deputy chief of staff (whose salary is paid by the taxpayers), because he didn't deliver a victory for the batty wife.

For its part, the drone caucus helps convince the government that unmanned vehicles are a smart investment. The Obama administration has said drones, and other advanced technology, are key to creating a cheaper, more effective military, with fewer troops on the ground.

In February, President Barack Obama signed a law making it possible for police and fire departments to operate surveillance drones over U.S. skies. Under the same law, the likes of real estate agents and news organizations will soon be able to fly their own drones.

As the Federal Aviation Administration drafts the rules for domestic drone use, members of the drone caucus can throw around some weight.

“They can hold hearings, generate publicity and put public pressure on the FAA,” Bronstein-Moffly said.

But where they really hold sway is in appropriations.

Since 2005, the federal government has awarded at least $12 billion in contracts for drones and drone supplies and maintenance. That includes at least $270 million for U.S. Customs and Border Protection's drone program.

Of course, not everyone is excited about the rise of drones. In the U.S., there are privacy concerns. With their use abroad, there are moral ones.

Speaking in February at a conference sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International-- the main drone industry group-- Congressman McKeon was interrupted by anti-war activist Medea Benjamin. Conference organizers promptly cut the sound system.

Benjamin was escorted outside, where she joined a group of protesters denouncing the killing of suspected foreign insurgents by U.S. military drones, and the use of taxpayer money to fund drones to patrol the U.S. border.

“This is another example of a big business trying to create a niche for itself,” Benjamin said. The activist published a book earlier this year called Drone Warfare.

“It’s overspending the taxpayer’s dollars and I think we’re going to see everybody, the border patrol, the police department, everybody wants to get in on these fancy toys,” she said.

Even among the industry’s biggest customers, like the CBP, there are now some questions being raised.

A report from the agency’s Inspector General released in late May found its drone program was poorly organized and wasn’t completing its mission.

Perhaps it is his entanglements with the drone industry that has turned southern California Tea Party activists against McKeon. The Republican Party in his district is split right down the middle, with the Tea Party picketing his events and vowing to defeat him in November. Not only do they despise his wasteful and corrupt military spending and his dronemania, but they opposed his TARP vote and the fake fiscal conservatism that has always been a hallmark of his self-serving political career. The local Tea Party has handed McKeon several resounding defeats in the past few months. One of his closest allies, the mayor of Santa Clarita, was voted out of office and the new Mayor Pro Tem, who McCain campaigned against, has been vocally opposing his Washington antics and his refusal to assist the district grapple with its most pressing concerns. McKeon's allies have lost control of the Republican Central Committee, replaced by Tea Party members who despise him. And even more embarrassing, the Tea Party handed McKeon's wife a resounding defeat for state Assembly.

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