Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Grading the new Chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee

[C.I. note added Feb. 10th morning of, I wrongly referred to Stephanie Mudick as "Susan" in the notes I took on yesterday's hearing. As a result of my mistake, so did Kat, Ava and Wally in their posts last night. It was my error. My apologies.]

Today we attended the first oversight hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee of this Congressional session. The 2010 mid-term elections flipped the balance of power and Republicans now control the House. So former-Chair Bob Filner is now Ranking Member while Republican Jeff Miller is now Chair.

I'm going to focus on Jeff Miller.

First, I'll give him a grade for today: B.

And that may be generous to some. I don't dispute that I'm grading in part on the fact that this was his first time chairing this hearing and that the same approach a month or two from now would earn a lower grade.

His biggest problem is likely going to be appearing dispassionate and unconnected to the struggles the veterans face. Steve Buyer did not run for re-election in 2010. Had he run and won and ended up Chair, he would have had no problem expressing outrage. (He was often my favorite member in hearings of the last two years just because he didn't have the stomach for long winded excuses and didn't try to pretty up his reactions.)

Jeff Miller came off as laidback.

Is he an apologist for Big Business. As a Democrat, I suspect he could be. Many non-Democrats (and non-Democrats and non-Republicans) feel all members of Congress are pretty much an apologist for Big Business. And they may be right.

But let's assume for this entry that he's not. He needed to demonstrate that and one of the easiest ways was in making clear where he stood.

The Committee heard about the unlawful mortgage practices of JP Morgan Chase and, specifically, heard from one couple (Captain Jonathan and Julia Rowles) about the way they were harassed and their lives harmed and they heard from Susan Mudick who is a JP Morgan VP.

Miller seemed sincerely interested in the Rowles testimony. But he really didn't confront Mudick. He may not see that as his role. If that's the case, I will be increasingly less impressed with him as the months go by. The American people are suffering. The banks are swimming in profits. When a bank has broken the law, you need to show the American people that you are disturbed by that and I do not feel that Miller adequately conveyed that.

I do feel that he conveyed that he was sincerely interested in what had happened to the Rowles.

At one point, during Bob Filner's questioning on the first panel, Miller interrupted. I don't remember Filner doing that as a Chair. Miller didn't interrupt rudely, he was perfectly polite, and his question was an important one (was JP Morgan Chase the bank that the Rowles had taken their loan out at -- no, it wasn't) and established an important detail in the testimony. (The banks are reselling these mortgages.)

I tend to recoil at a Congressional hearing when I hear "Mrs." No one's there as a "Mrs." in my opinion.

I prefer "Ms."

Julia Rowles was billed as "Mrs." And that was her choice (I did check).

While it may be her choice to be billed that way and while it may be respectful to include that, it's also true that she has a first name and I never learned it from Chair Miller. Not in his opening statement, not in his remarks or questions.

"Mrs. Jonathan Rowles" or "Mrs. Captain Jonathan Rowles" or "Mrs. Rowles" really isn't acceptable. She's Mrs. Julia Rowles and she was there to provide testimony (and did an amazing job of that) and I think all witnesses should have their first name registered and stated.

I might have upped Miller's grade to an A- if that had taken place.

Closing with C.I.'s "Iraq snapshot:"

Wednesday, February 9, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, Kirkuk sees multiple bombings, protests continue in Iraq, the House Veterans Affairs Comittee hears about JP Morgan Chase's latest scandal and House Rep Bob Filner points out, "You broke the law. Your bank broke the law. Shouldn't someone go to jail for that?," Senator Patty Murray declares, "I'm not going to let the VA minimize the impact of the bill that we passed" and more.
This morning, House Veterans Affairs Committee US House Rep Jeff Miller Chaired the first oversight hearing of the Committee for the new Congressional session exploring violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act by JP Morgan Chase Bank. Chair Miller explained in his opening statement, "The Servicemember Civil Relief Act has existed in various forms since the war of 1812 and each version has shared a singular goal: to protect those who protect us. The 2003 version, which I co-sponsored, and the amendments we have made since continue that tradition." He also provided a goal for the hearing: whether or not the SCRA was meeting the needs of service members and their families.
US House Rep Bob Filner was the Chair in the previous session. The 2010 mid-term elections gave control of the House to the Republian Party. Bob Filner is now the Ranking Member on the Committee. In his opening statement, he noted:
Today's hearing seeks to examine why banks such as JP Morgan Chase have overcharged our military familes who are actively engaged in defending our country. While we want to know how these overcharges havppened, I also want to know what they are doing to prevent them from occurring again. As foreclosure filing continue to rise, the effect on Americans has been acute, with my state of California having one of the most affected populations. According to RealityTrac -- I'm sorry, RealtyTrac, California metro areas such as San Diego have been seriously affected by the foreclosures. Like most Americans, many of our nation's heroes see home ownership as an integral part of the American dream. Unfortunately for a number of military families, that part of the American dream became a nightmare when JP Morgan foreclosed on their homes. It is my sincerest hope that JP Morgan Chase will be taking immediate corrective steps to restore these families to their homes as soon as possible.
For context, last Friday's snapshot included this: " Gregg Zoroya (USA Today) reports that many veterans who mistakenly put their trust in 'special government-backed mortgages,' such as DoD's Homeowner's Assistance Program, have seen their homes taken away from them in foreclosures. In related news, Rick Maze (Army Times) reports that the US Labor Department released unemployment figures today and the unemployment 'rate for veterans climbed to 9.9 percent, up from 8.3 percent the previous month. For Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans, the unemployment rate for January was 15.2 percent. This is a sharp increase from 9.4 percent in November and 11.7 percent in December, a clear trend of worsening job market for younger veterans, many of them combat veterans'." Last Friday, Senator Patty Murray (Chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee) released a statement on the sharp rise in unemployment for veterans which included, "This is very disappointing report that demonstrates clearly the need for us to move quickly to help ournation's veterans find jobs. We all know that veterans going from the battlefield to the working world face a unique set of challenges. And as we see with today's numbers, far too many of our veterans coming home from overseas are having trouble finding work in this tough economic climate." Murray promised in her statement to continue fighting for veterans and to continue her work on job legislation for veterans.
The House Veterans Affairs Committee heard from three panels today. The first panel was made up of Julia and Capt Jonathan Rowles and their attorneys Richard Harpootian and William Harvey. Panel two was JP Morgan Chase's executive vice president from the Office of Consumer Practices Stephanie B. Mudick. The third panel was Col Shawn Shumake (DoD) and Hollister Petraeus (US Treasury Dept).
Richard Harpootian noted Chase's opening statement in his opening remarks and referred to it as "Woops! I made a mistake." He declared, "I was a state prosecutor for 12 years in South Carolina. Every person we ever caught breaking the law, taking something that wasn't theirs, was more than willing to give it back, give a mea culpa and go the other way, be on their way." He stated he wanted to ensure that they were deterred from similar activity in the future and that included upgrading the actions from misdemeanor to felony.
So what happened to the Rowles specifically? They were harassed and threatened. JP Morgan Chase repeatedly threatened to foreclose on their home and attempted to bully the Rowles into payment of more money than they owed on their home mortgage. They also invented little hoops for the Rowles to repeatedly jump through. For example, knowing that Capt Rowles was on active duty, they demanded a verification every 90 days with new threats accompanying them. The Rowles' attorneys are also representing Lt Col Sarah Letts-Smith and Lance Cpl Martin Hupfl who faced similar problems. Letts-Smith, for example. was being threatened with home foreclosure while she was stationed in Iraq.
Chair Jeff Miller: When did you first realize that Chase had violated SCRA? Did you notify the Marine Corps legal staff? And, if you did, what actions did they take on your behalf?
Capt Jonathan Rowles: Yes, sir, I first learned about SCRA while I was at OCS [Officer Candidates School] -- and my rights, thereof. Afterwards, in 2008, after lengthy letters and calls and what not, I did go to the legal staff at NAS Pensacola where I was a flight student at the time. They looked over the case but they were unsure of how to proceed and, due to the volume of other cases that they had at the time they just did not have the resources to pursue it. At which time, we were told, 'We are doing pretty much everything that we could, sir."
Chair Jeff Miller: And you say you were first educated about it at OSC?
Capt Jonathan Rowles: Yes, sir. We got a class while we were at OSC there in Quantico, Virginia, on our rights there to SCRA.
Chair Jeff Miller: Can you give us some idea of the reaction when you contacted JP Morgan Chase and how they handled the situation? And I'm sure you both had conversations with them, so feel free to elaborate.
Capt Jonatha Rowles: Yes, sir. I would characterize it as a delayed and confused. I was asked to fax my orders several times and, being in the field, you would have to -- You would fax your orders, you would go away for a week or two, you'd come back to find, they'd asked for it again. You get a statement that is not correct, so you call to recognize it, they see they need your orders again. Again. At that point, got a letter from my commander as well, just to emphasize the point that I was active duty and sent my orders along with that as well, sir.
Richard Harpootian: Mr. Chairman, I think if Mrs. Rowles could speak, she was pregnant with their second child, he's deployed, the child was born prematurely. She was having to deal with the birth of a child alone and Chase at the same time and she's a little more emotional about it than he is.
Julia Rowles: Yes, sir. Chase always had a problem with acknowledging any of our evidence or of our -- homework, I guess you would say in our SCRA benefits. We would instruct them that we were doing everything we could. We did make our payments every month, on time, in the full amount that they were supposed to be for; however, every month our statements were different. While Jonathan is away -- either in training, flight school or any of his Marine Corps duties, I was left at home to deal with Chase and their problems. We have two children. One of them was born prematurely and had to have a lengthy stay in the hospital but yet at the same time I'm dealing with Chase and getting their phone calls, getting their harassment around the clock. Jonathan missed two hours of our daughter's birthday party because Chase would simply not hang up the phone until he made a payment in which we had already paid our mortgage. This constant harass -- this constant ignorance for the SCRA benefits to service members is ridiculous and it's actually very -- It's very upsetting that for five years, we've had to educate Chase as to the benefits that we were privy to.
Chair Jeff Miller: Entitled to.
Julia Rowles: Entitled to, I'm sorry.
Chair Jeff Miller: Did they ever acknowledge -- I mean, obviously if they kept asking for orders, they must have known that there was something that they had to abide by.
Julia Rowles: We were -- Sir, we were sending them orders quarterly which we later found out we did not have to do. Once you send in orders and verify that you are active duty military, we were acknowledged. We were granted the persmission under the SCRA. That should have been it until his cotract expired and he continued military service. We had -- We have done that time and time again. And it's very -- We didn't have to do this. It's harassment. Even without collection calls, constantly sending them, I guess, his orders and all other paperwork was harassment.
Ranking Member Filner noted that he found what was going on illegal and that it was effecting all Americans and thanked the Rowles for sharing their experience. Filner agreed the actions being taken were illegal but wondered whether or not upgrading the punishment to felony level would just prevent the banks from making the loans? Richard Harpootian noted that the actions were not being taken by banks who had done the loans but by banks who bought the loans when they were resold. (JP Morgan Chase was not the bank the Rowles took their loan out with.) US Rep Michael Michaud wondered if the Rowles had been in contact with JP Morgan Chase management at any time during their ordeal?
Julia Rowles: Yes, there were numerous times when we tried to speak with anyone in management. There were times when we were told we were speaking with management and, to our surprise, management did not know how to fix our problem either. Jonathan and I traveled to Colorado from South Carolina briefly, right before he deployed in July, because we thought we found a mortgage branch manager that said he could help us. And after sitting with him for hours on two different dates, he threw his hands up into the air and said, "I have no clue how to fix your situation. There is nothing I can do. Sorry." And that was pretty much the consensus of every manager we spoke with. I would spend hours trying to find people that would actually talk to us and that would not just write down our name and number and say that they would call us back. We've spoken with managers in South Carolina, to Texas and California. Nobody knew how to fix our problem.
"But when you call your wife at two in the morning just to see how things are going," Capt Jonathan Rowles stated, "and you spend 20 minutes talking about how we can send another letter or how we can make another phone call instead of 'Honey, I love you. How was the day? How's the babies?' It's rough."
As Bob Filner noted during the first panel, "The fact that we have some publicity for what you're going through means we'll have some changes." After identifying herself on the second panel, JP Morgan Chase's Stephanie B. Mudick stated, "Before I go further, I'd like to express to the men and women serving our country and to the memebers of this Committee Chase's deepest regret over the mistakes we made in applying those protections. I commit to you that we will get this right." She acknowledged that Chase charged above the 6% capped interest rate and stated that Chase had identified over charges of $1.8 million and that they intended to repay that amoung along with "7.25% interest from the date of the overcharge." On the issue of forms, she noted that the SCRA requires that the service members is protected from foreclosure or sale while on active duty and for nine months after. (Which would mean that no one needs to supply repeat proof of status every 90 days.) She stated that they have discovered 18 service members who SCRA protections were violated (at least 18 times when Chase broke the law) and that, "In twelve of these cases, we have eitehr rescinded the sale or entered into a settlement with the borrower. We will attempt to make the remaining borrowers whole as quickly as possible."
We'll leap ahead to an exchange between Ranking Member Filner and Mudick.
Ranking Member Bob Filner: Uhm, how many executive vice presidents are there at Chase? Or, let me put it another way, how high are you up in the heirarchy there?
Susan Mudick: Uh, I am a member of Chase's Executive Committee which is fewer than a hundred employees at Chase -- at JP Morgan Chase.
Ranking Member Bob Filner: And what does the 100 people do? I mean, that's the highest policy making thing in Chase?
Susan Mudick: Uh, there is an Operating Committee which is a group of approximately 20 people.
Ranking Member Bob Filner: How many executive vice presidents are there?
Susan Mudick: I don't have the answer to that question, sir, I'm sorry.
Ranking Member Bob Filner: But you'll find out for me, right?
Susan Mudick: I will indeed.
Ranking Member Bob Filner: Could you fix things if we need to ask? I mean, you're here on behalf of Chase so I assume that means you can fix things. Can you fix things? I mean, you said you weren't aware of that hotline number [a JP Morgan Chase number to deal with SCRA problems which Julia Rowles testified was just an answering machine passed off as a hotline and one that has now been disconnected for months]. Can you find it out right away? Can you call someone and say, "What's going on there?"
Susan Mudick: Uh, together with-with my colleagues -- There is -- I would say --
Ranking Member Bob Filner: Okay, so you can't fix things.
Susan Mudick (Con't): -- there are many -- Excuse me, sir. I would say that we try and fix whatever --
Ranking Member Bob Filner: Okay, the Rowles testified that they didn't have any statements for a year, you hadn't cashed their last mortgage check. Can you fix that today?
Susan Mudick: Uh --
Raking Member Bob Filner: You said you were going to make them whole. They've brought up several questions. Can you fix that?
Susan Mudick: We are trying to fix --
Ranking Member Bob Filner: I don't want a "we." You? Can you fix that?
Susan Mudick: I can, together with my colleagues causes changes to be made in our organization. Uh -- and with respect to the Rowleses -- Uh, uhm, you know,,we are trying to figure out how we can come to an agreement --
Ranking Member Bob Filner: Come to an agreement because of a lawsuit. But you said you were going to make them whole. As I read your statement, your average payment to make people whole was seventy dollars. Does that make people whole who've gone through this stuff?
Susan Mudick: The-the median payment is $70 and-and let me explain to you how-how we get to that number.
Ranking Member Bob Filner: Because you're just dealing with the amount of interest you overpaid plus some fees, that's all you're dealing with. You're not dealing with any human costs or any emotional costs or any pain and suffering as they would say. You're just dealing with the amount of interest and fees that you overcharged. Right? I mean that's what it says here [holds up Mudick's prepared statement] anyway.
Susan Mudick: Congressman, most of the, uh, service members who were impacted by this, uh, are-are not even aware that they overpaid. And in part that's because the amount they overpaid was not-not material to them.
Ranking Member Bob Filner: I can't believe that there's nobody else going through what the Rowles did. But, you know, I mean, you can't make the changes, you're not making them whole. Why should -- You broke the law. Your bank broke the law. Shouldn't someone go to jail for that?
Susan Mudick: Uh --
Ranking Member Bob Filner: And who should? Who should? Who's responsible? Are you as the executive v.p. who was given us by the bank to answer for this? Should you go to jail?
Susan Mudick: Uh, we are doing a review internally in order to --
Ranking Member Bob Filner: I want to know --
Susan Mudick: -- figure out --
Ranking Member Bob Filner: -- who's responsible?
Susan Mudick: -- who's responsible for what happened.
Ranking Member Bob Filner: Are you going to tell us who? Are you going to give us a person? Or people? That are responsible?
Susan Mudick: Well we will certainly hold those folks who are resposible for this accountable.
Ranking Member Bob Filner: I want to know about you. You broke the law. How are we going to hold you accountable? Are we going to know who did what when?
Susan Mudick: Uh-uh, as a result of that -- our-our review -- we will be happy to share more information with the Committee.
Ranking Member Bob Filner: I'm sure you will. I think you'll have to probably do it in discovery [legal period in a lawsuit before trial in which the opposing sides are supposed to know what the other side knows and have access to paper work, etc.] before you're going to give it to us. It just seems to me that you all, you're not alone in this. You all have no responsibility. Everything you said was impersonal. Nobody is responsible. You said the SCRA coding 'fell off' the statement? I mean nobody took it off, nobody was responsible, it 'fell off.' Wow. Every -- You look at your testimony, everything is impersonal, everything is "we," "they." Nobody is ever responsible. And yet these people's lives have been turned upside down. Somebody or some group of people should be held responsible. And mabye then -- as the attorney said -- maybe then you'll take this seriously, if somebody went to jail, with a white collar. There's no more Mr. Morgan or Mr. Chase, I take it, but somebody should have responsibility for what's going on. You just cannot hide. As the Supreme Court tells us now, you're an individual. You're not just a corporation. Somebody has to come forward and take responsibility for this. You just cannot apologize and give back people 70 bucks and to think this is over. This is not over for them and they're still going through the thing. You heard what they're still going through. And now you can't fix it anyway. So when are they going to get their mortgage statements? Just to take one thing. You should be able to call somebody right now and say, "Get them their mortgage statements." But apparently you can't. You know, I appreciate your apology. But you've broken the law, you've ruined people's lives and people ought to take responsibility for that.
Back to her opening statement, of the Rowles, she stated she'd examined the files "and we clearly made mistakes. The customer service that we provided to him and to his wife was unacceptable. And the fact that this was a service member makes our mistakes all the more inexcusable." Actually, the fact that Rowles is a service member makes JP Morgan Chase's mistakes illegal. "We deeply regret any hardship we caused the Rowles family," she continued. I didn't buy it but it may be the most the Rowles get publicly from JP Morgan Chase so we'll note it.
What happens next for the Rowles will be determined either by the courts or via an out of court settlement. (The media attention today probably means JP Morgan Chase will work very hard to settle out of court. They have no defense at this point. That's what happens when you publicly admit you broke the law -- even when you call that law breaking "mistakes.")
From the House Veterans Affairs Comittee to the Senate Veterans Committee which released the following today:

(Washington, D.C.) -- Yesterday, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, sent a letter to Holly Petraeus, head of the Office of Servicemember Affairs in the Consumer Financial
Protection Bureau at the U.S. Treasury Department, in response to concerns that some financial institutions were not offering protections to servicemembers provided under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. Among the safeguards in the SCRA, which is under the jurisdiction of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, are a number intended to ease concerns over financial situations at home for servicemembers. Recently, however, it has come to light that some servicemembers have been improperly overcharged on their mortgages or even been foreclosed upon by lenders.

"I am concerned that numerous military members were improperly overcharged or foreclosed upon while deployed because lenders failed to follow the requirements of SCRA; this is unacceptable," Senator Murray wrote. "I would like your assessment of how well financial institutions are following SCRA, and what additional steps need to be taken to ensure compliance."

The full text of the letter is below:

February 8, 2011

Holly Petraeus, Team Lead
Office of Servicemember Affairs
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Implementation Team
U.S. Department of the Treasury
Washington, DC 20220

Dear Mrs. Petraeus:

Congratulations on your nomination to head the Office of Servicemember Affairs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The Bureau will provide consumers, including servicemembers and their families, with the information they need to make better informed financial choices. It will also promote a fair and transparent process for obtaining services like mortgages and credit cards, while enforcing consistency between the providers of these services. Your role in protecting the rights of our servicemembers is especially important as military families, including the Reserves, are experiencing more frequent deployments.

One of the strongest tools to protect servicemembers is the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA). SCRA's protections, such as the six percent cap on mortgage interest and foreclosure protections, enable our deployed military to stay focused on the mission instead of worrying about their financial situation at home.

I am concerned that numerous military members were improperly overcharged or foreclosed upon while deployed because lenders failed to follow the requirements of SCRA; this is unacceptable. I appreciate the action you took on February 1, 2011, to notify 25 mortgage lenders of their responsibilities under SCRA. This is an important step in making sure these lenders are following the law.

In response to the concerns raised about compliance with SCRA, some companies have already self-identified non-compliance in their home loan business and are working to make corrections. However, I am concerned there may be other lenders that have overcharged or foreclosed upon SCRA-protected servicemembers. It is critical that all lenders provide their employees adequate training and put systems in place to ensure compliance with SCRA.

As you know, SCRA applies to a variety of financial instruments, including consumer loans and credit card debt. It has come to my attention that some companies have identified non-compliance in other service sectors, such as student loans. Companies providing lending services should review their files in order to identify potential violations and move quickly to resolve any they find. As you continue your work on behalf of servicemembers, I hope the scope of your review of financial institutions' practices includes all of the protections covered by SCRA.

Based on your work to date, I would like your assessment of how well financial institutions are following SCRA, and what additional steps need to be taken to ensure compliance.

Thank you again for your work on behalf of servicemembers and veterans. I look forward to hearing from you and to working together in the future.


Patty Murray


We'll come back to service members and veterans later in the snapshot.
Today Kirkuk is in the spotlight with a series of bombings. Lu Hui (Xinhua) reports it was a triple car bombing with two aimed at "police patrols" and the third at a security base. AFP quotes the head of the health department, Sadiq Omar Rasul stating, "We have received eight dead bodies and 68 people have been wounded, they are being treated at Kirkuk General Hospital and Azadi hospital." Mohammed Tawfeeq (CNN) reports on the bombings and also notes two Baghdad roadside bombings today which have left at least eight people injured. Reuters adds a Tal Afar roadside bombing claimed the lives of 2 Iraqi soldiers with two more left injured. The Telegraph of London has video of one of the bombings. MSNBC offers two Reuters photos of the aftermath. Jamal Hashem (Xinhua) surmises, "The latest attacks are almost certainly going to increase pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who showed himself as the strongman persona during his re-election propaganda and promised to restore stability. But Maliki has not yet appointed anyone to the country's security ministries in his cabinet since late December last year." Hayder Najm (Niqash) observes:

It has been about six weeks since Iraq's new government was formed, but the top security posts are still vacant.
The different political parties cannot agree on the candidates for the defence, interior and national security ministries, and this vacuum has led to a new wave of violence in various parts of Iraq.
In the meantime, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is managing these ministries himself, including that of intelligence chief. And despite the worsening security situation, he seems in no hurry to fill the posts.
"I don't have to accept candidates if they don't convince me that they are the right ones", he said in an interview on the official Iraqiya TV station.

In other news, Alsumaria reports that Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister and puppet of Iraq, insists that "the electricity crisis in Iraq will be resolved by next winter." However, AFP reports, "The electricity ministry needs almost a tenth of Iraq's annual budget for debts and new projects to bring the limping power sector back on its feet, a senior official told AFP on Wednesday. Adel Mahdi, advisor to the electricity minister, also said that between 2012 and 2030 the ministry would need 3.85 billion dollars a year to rebuild the sector and keep up with growing demand." Nouri's become very wealthy as prime minister while Iraqis continue to go without basic services. He also has a pattern of offering pretty (and empty) words. Remember in the provincial elections of 2009? Remember the lack of potable water and his claims that he was fixing the problem immediately but in the meantime enjoy this ice. And then came the day after the elections and the lack of potable water didn't go away. So Nouri could put 10% of the government's budget into addressing the electricity problem; however, it seems very unlikely, based on pattern, that he's going to. Al Rafidayn notes that when making his promise or 'promise' he also stated that Iraqi citizens have a right to protest over the lack of basic services -- which puts him on the same page as the clerics who declared that last Friday (and one who did so Monday). More following from Nouri but very little leadership.

If anything's going to force Nouri's hand, it will be continued protests. Al Rafidayn reports that "dozens" protested in Najaf yesterday over the lack of services and the ration card items and notes the various protests which have taken place across the country and how Diwaniyah was the first last Thursday. One problem with the ration cards (we noted some problems in yesterday's snapshot, this is another one) is that Iraq's implementing a higher tarrif next month on imports. That's going to mean higher prices on some goods. Imported goods? Monday Tony C. Dreibus (Bloomberg News) reported on Iraq's purchase of 300,000 tons of wheat from the United States and Australia.

Yesterday Amnesty International released [PDF format warning] their report "Broken Bodies, Tortured Minds." Alsumaria TV reports that the Ministry of Justice has issued a statement stating "the formation of joint work committees with the Supreme Judicial Council to follow up the pending cases of detainees." Al Mada emphasizes the secret prisons aspect of the report and notes Nouri's denial of any secret prison to AFP on Saturday. Dar Addustour also notes the secret prisons mentioned in the report. (If you haven't read the report, it includes great detail on the torture of prisoners.)
The Iraq War has not ended. Lara Jakes (AP) reports on US soldiers who don't see the ongoing Iraq War as over. Lt Daniel McCord is aware of the continued bombings and shootings and characterizes Iraq as "better" but not "safe." And Rusty Dennen (Free Lance-Star) reports that US soldiers are still deploying to the ongoing war, specifically 850 from the Virginia National Guard who will do "final training in Indiana in June"and then head to Iraq.
In the US, Lindsay Wise (Houston Chronicle) reports on the increase in suicides in the Texas National Guard and Wise offers this comparative statistic: since 2001, the Texas Army National Guard has experienced 12 deaths "in action" while 18 members have taken their own lives with seven of those taking place in 2010. As last month wound down, John Donnelly (Congress.Org) reported, "For the second year in a row, the U.S. military has lost more troops to suicide than it has to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan." Last week Gretel C. Kovach (San Diego Union-Tribune) reported on military suicides and noted some specific examples:

When the body of an 18-year-old Marine, Pfc. Derek Capulong, was found hanging from a rifle range watch tower in July, the pain reverberated far beyond Camp Pendleton.
Months later, the young private's family in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., is still trying to make sense of his death.
Zenaida Capulong, who helped raise Pfc. Derek Capulong and spoke to him weekly, said she didn't learn that her grandson was upset until it was too late. He had broken up with his high school sweetheart and been rebuked by a Marine supervisor, "but he had all his dreams," she said.
Wilfredo Capulong still can't accept that his grandson took his own life. "He was really determined to finish his ambitions," he said.
In related news, Thomas E. Ricks (Foreign Policy) -- warning, he only manages to keep the smarmy in check for two paragraphs -- notes that it is estimated that 2,000 contractors have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Estimated. Thomas E. Ricks forgets that word and doesn't bother to explore. Reality, that number is far higher -- especially when you don't state "military contractor." And, no, the smarmy Tommy forgets to make that point.

Meanwhile Iraq War veteran Kevin Schrock has entered a plea agreement where he admits guilt and agrees to repay money he's stolen. Adam Ashton (News Tribune) reports the money was stolen from CERP funds (walking around money in Iraq used to bribe the locals which Congress has repeatedly noted is not accounted for rigorously enough). He raised the attention of authorities due to deposits in his bank accounts. He's admitted to stealing $47,000. Problem with the case? No problem for Schrock who appears to have received a sweet deal. But if prosecutors believed his claim that he stole the money to pay off loans, care to explain why the amount if $47,000? He put the money into his accounts in small increments over the years. A major in the US military should be aware of the risks of that. And certainly anyone stealing to pay off loans would most likely not be funneling the money through a bank. You'd make loan payments in cash, you'd do them via money orders from the local 7-11. You wouldn't put money in your checking account to then write a check for if it was stolen money and you were already cautious (cautious enough to take approximately 4 years to put your stolen $47,000 into the bank). Maybe Schrock struck them as extremely stupid. But, as Ashton presents the details, it would appear Schrock got a very sweet deal where he admitted to guilt only over what the prosecution would have had no difficulty proving in a court of law and to a sum that seems incredibly low when you examine the details.
Lastly, the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee is putting the VA on notice:

(Washington, D.C.) -- Today, Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Patty Murray issued the following statement after the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that, even after long delays, there is still no definitive date when veterans and caregivers will begin receiving the services required by the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act. VA also put forth criteria narrowing eligibility for the caregiver program. The VA, in a report submitted today to the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, unveiled criteria which would seriously limit access to the benefit further from the approximately 3,500 veterans who would be eligible under the plan passed by Congress and enacted into law on May 5, 2010.

The VA announcement comes just days after Senator Murray sent a
bi-partisan letter, cosigned by 17 additional Senators, calling on the Administration to end delays in moving forward with the law which provides the families of seriously injured Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with training to become caregivers for those veterans, and ongoing supportive services including respite, counseling, technical assistance, and a living stipend. The law directed VA to begin providing caregiver support by January 30, 2011. The Administration is only now preparing regulations - which will have to undergo a lengthy public comment and approval process - to implement the law.

"I appreciate the VA coming forward today with their plan to implement the Caregivers Act. I remain concerned by the delay in moving forward with providing this crucial benefit for those that are taking care of our wounded warriors.

"Unfortunately the plan they put forward today is simply not good enough. The VA outlined how they intended to limit this benefit to an even smaller group of caregivers than intended by Congress, which is unacceptable.

"This law was passed to help support the thousands of family members of veterans who have left behind careers, lives, and responsibilities to see that their loved one can recover from wounds they suffered defending our country. It's a cost of war that for too long has gone unaccounted for but it's one that last year Congress very clearly decided that our country must step up to meet. I'm not going to let the VA minimize the impact of the bill that we passed.

"I know that this Administration has made clear that they want to provide new support for our military families. This is a critical step to doing just that. Nowhere is providing support more important than in the homes of those severely wounded veterans who everyday need help from their families just to get through the day."
the associated press
lara jakes
the free lance-star
the houston chronicle
lindsay wise
john donnelly
the san diego union-tribune
gretel c. kovach
the news tribune
adam ashton