Political and Movie Reviews: Homer and a movie

June 6, 2010

We held an evening at our home with a small group of friends and co-teachers who were invited to meet our county's school board chair candidate, Homer Hartage, and to watch the movie, Casino Jack and the United States of Money.

Angelo Villagomez is Mr. Hartage's campaign manager, and an excellent one at that!

In March 2010, Mr. Hartage, a former Orange County Commissioner, joined teachers and others to urge Governor Crist to veto SB 6, which would have denied teacher tenure and based teacher pay on student performance. The bill was vetoed. That was our first introduction to Mr. Hartage as a candidate.

Mr. Hartage spent a short time explaining his platform and discussing education issues. Then he held a conversation with the teachers who asked questions and shared opinions on the district's policies and the direction that they would like to see for our public schools. Everyone agreed Homer Hartage is our candidate and we thank Angelo for arranging the intimate meeting with him. How many candidates take the time to meet with a small gathering of voters?

After some food and a few songs by Boboy, we had the private screening of Alex Gibney's film, Casino Jack and the United States of Money. Angelo and I gave an introduction and some background on the CNMI guest worker program and the Jack Abramoff connection. I briefly discussed PL 17-1 and handed out a paper with suggestions on how the participants could help to advocate for the foreign contract workers and nonresidents. Angelo brought a roll of CNMI quarters to illustrate that the CNMI was part of the United States.

I think the film was even better than Taxi to the Dark Side, which earned Mr. Ginbey an Oscar. I'll just focus on the CNMI portion, but the entire film was excellent. The segment on the CNMI was cut from over 1 hour to about fifteen minutes. Still the heavily edited segment was tight and impactful.

The movie featured many familiar villains. There was the ever-cocky former governor, Froilan Tenorio, who was the lead obstructionist in ending the abuses and instituting reform. He was responsible for hiring Jack Abramoff, and came across like a political punk in the film, smirking as he bragged that Abramoff did was he was paid to do. Abramoff was paid $11 million to trash the advocates and their congressional allies; to cover up the truth; to get right wing think tanks and media outlets to back the lie that there were no abuses of the foreign contract workers; to defeat reform legislation in the U.S. Congress; and to sponsor costly trips to the CNMI for members of the U.S. Congress and their staffers so they could take sanitized tours of the garment factories.

Abramoff's corrupt co-conspirators like former Rep. Tom Delay (R-TX), Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), former Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA), Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), and former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-CO) would promote the lie in exchange for campaign contributions, dinners at Signatures, seats in sky boxes for sporting events, and more. I loved seeing their faces on the slot machines - very artful.

Clips of Schaffer windsurfing and Delay partying made the cut. Streets scenes showing the abandoned garment factories and neon-lit clubs made the cut. There were archival clips of garment factories showing the Chinese workers hunched over sewing machines, the "Made in the U.S.A." labels, and loading the shipping containers full of garments on to a ship.

Also speaking on camera were former CNMI Representatives Norman Palacios and Alejo Mendiola who forged a pact with Abramoff lobbyists to elect Fitial as Speaker in order for Abramoff to have his contract reactivated. Palacios and Mendiola were candid about the fact that they exchanged their vote for promises of federal funding of infrastructure projects on the islands of Tinian and Rota. Palacios said, "I think it was legal. I hope it was legal." Fitial looked like a liar when he denied knowing about the incident on camera.

The U.S. Department of Justice really dropped the ball on this incident. Fitial should have been arrested along with Abramoff lobbyists Mike Scanlon and the others who were in on this illegal scheme.

Former Governor Juan Babauta spoke candidly about the abuses, the hiring of Abramoff and the cost to the islands.

Some of the "good guys" were also featured. Rep. George Miller (D-CA) spoke on camera, as did Federal Labor Ombudsman Pam Brown. They related a story about a meeting that the congressman had with some of the foreign workers. A translator got all teary eyed and Pam asked her to tell them what the foreign worker had said. He wanted to know if Congressman Miller could buy his kidney so he could have money to pay back his recruiter. He was afraid to return home without the money to pay the fees because he could be jailed or worse. Former Labor Ombudsman Jim Benedetto also made a brief appearance.

Author Thomas Frank who wrote the must read book, The Wrecking Crew, appeared on camera throughout the documentary peppering it with clarifying, sometimes humorous or caustic comments. Melanie Sloan from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, and Susan Schmidt from the Washington Post also appeared throughout the film adding historical tidbits and facts about how they uncovered pieces of the scandal.

The film also includes footage by Saipan filmmaker, Curt Klemstein. There are beautiful shots of the islands from the air and stunning shots of the ironwood trees along Beach Road with a sunset dripping into the ocean. That footage would be fantastic in a tourism ad campaign. (The vacant garment factory buildings would not.)

There is also footage that I shot in 1998 where I am speaking off camera interviewing Nousher Jahedi, a victim of human trafficking, and some foreign workers who were cheated by Benevante Security Corp. They made it clear that they were scammed and not paid for their work. Theirs is a story that was repeated tens of thousands of times.

The credits ran over a segment of creepy former House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Abramoff) as a contestant on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" dancing poorly to the song, Wild Thing. My name was in the credits twice: in the "Thank You To" section for helping with documentation and information on the CNMI issue, and in the "Archival Footage From" section. Also in the credits were some other friends: Curt Klemstein, Dennis Greenia, and The Marianas Variety.

I thought the cinematography and editing was excellent and was impressed with how the film transitioned in artful ways from one scene to the next. Gibney also used humor to tell a very dark story. The selection of songs and the scene titles was clever.

Some of our guests were shocked and outraged by the audacity and arrogance of the lobbyists - writing about their illegal acts in email exchanges, calling the Indian tribes derogatory names and hiring a lifeguard to head a non-profit think tank that was used to launder money. Our friend, Lisa was hysterically laughing by the end of the movie with disbelief and disgust.

What the movie did not have was the happy ending. The Abramoff scandal revealed outrageous abuses of power, the outright theft of democracy, illegal acts by members of the U.S. Congress and their staffers, many of whom were never indicted. It highlighted that these were not victimless crimes by focusing briefly on the plight of the foreign workers and the scammed American Indian tribes who Abramoff and his congressional co-conspirators exploited to fill their pockets.

The recent Supreme Court ruling that allows for unchecked spending by corporations and unions further threatens our democracy. The voice of the individual American is being extinguished as lobbyists, Wall Street, and large corporations determine elections and write our laws. The movie is a wake up call to every American to take back our government and end corruption in Washington, D.C.

Watch Casino Jack and the United States of Money more than once to catch every delicious tidbit. Alex Gibney deserves a second Oscar.


the teacher said...

Is there a copy on Saipan or where/how could I get it before schools out June 18, as I would show it ASAP.

Anonymous said...

We'll find out tonight if former Representative Richard Pombo can take a step toward reviving his political career.

Here is a very brief excerpt from "A Viewer's Guide to Tonight's House Primaries," CQ Politics, by Josh Kurtz, CQ-Roll Call Mon Jun 7, 9:57 pm ET [bracketed comments added as commentary, not part of online story].


11th district Republican primary [Pombo's old district, includes western San Joaquin County to central Alameda county (Danville, San Ramon, Dublin, Pleasanton) and parts of Santa Clara county skirting San Jose (down to Morgan Hill)]

Republicans would like to think that sophomore Rep. Jerry McNerney (D) is vulnerable, but the district is changing, and it isn't clear yet how strong the GOP nominee will be. The contenders are former U.S. marshal Tony Amador, autism public health advocate Elizabeth Emken, winegrape farmer Brad Goehring and attorney David Harmer, the son of a former lieutenant governor who was the Republican nominee in a special election in an adjoining district last year.

19th district Republican primary

With Rep. George Radanovich (R) retiring, the primary to replace him has become a knock-down, drag-out fight -- and several Republican Members could wind up with egg on their faces.

Initially the primary was seen as a battle between state Sen. Jeff Denham, who is Radanovich's choice, and ex-Rep. Richard Pombo, who represented the 11th district until 2006 and has been endorsed by many of his ex-colleagues.

But as Denham and Pombo and their allies have fired away at each other, an opening has been created for former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson, who looks like he may win. Fresno City Councilman Larry Westerlund is also in the mix.

[Note that under the U.S. Constitution, a Representative needs to reside in the state of election, not the district -- unlike the CNMI legislature. With most California districts gerrymandered to strong Democrat or Republican seats, candidates tend to follow those demographics.]


Wendy said...

Hi Teacher

The movie is still in theaters, but the DVD should be out in September.

Wendy said...

Anonymous 9:26

Oh my, thanks for the reminder. I have been so busy that I forgot about this.

Pombo is another member of the Abramoff army. I hope he gets squashed. Must watch!

Anonymous said...

California: Denham Wins In 19th; Pombo Distant Third

California state Sen. Jeff Denham's victory in the Republican primary in the Central Valley-based 19th district makes him a shoo-in to succeed retiring Rep. George Radanovich (R).

With nearly 90 percent of the vote counted, Denham had 36 percent and former Fresno mayor Jim Patterson had 31 percent. Former Rep. Richard W. Pombo, angling for a comeback four years after losing a re-election bid in an adjacent district, was a distant third, with 20 percent.

Fresno councilman Larry Westerlund rounded out the GOP voting with 13 percent.


Anonymous said...

I remember when Pombo was trying to sell National Park sponsorships...as in if he'd been successful we might have the BP Everglades National Park or the Enron Yellowstone National Park.

Anonymous said...

Or how bout the Neo Gold Wing Marine Monument or Dynasty Fish Reserve??????????