Where East Meets West

If you’ve ever been out west — into the countryside, not the big cities like Denver or Phoenix — you know that people who live there tend to have a different sense of property, and physical space. 

Out west, things tend to get left where they are likely to be used again, rather than carefully returned to a garage or shed, stored, and locked up.  There’s plenty of space and room for everything, it never rains so what’s the big deal, and who’s going to come by and steal the stuff, anyway?  If you go out into the countryside, you’re likely to see things strewn about the property around many of the houses and trailers, whether it’s a car being worked on with parts left on a tarp, or a half-completed structure that looks like it hasn’t been worked on for a while.  Some people might think it looks junky, but others would say it is trusting, and relaxed, and practical, besides.  The owner bought all that wide-open space for a reason, so why not use it?

Maine has a bit of that devil-may-care quality that I usually associate with the west.  As you walk around, you’re likely to see things just left outside, right where they are going to be used again.  Boats, kayaks, canoes, oars, lobster traps, buoys, and boat trailers dot the landscape, and nobody seems to notice or care.  It’s a much more relaxed mindset.  Where city dwellers would have reflexive concern about potential theft, Mainers know from experience that it’s not likely that someone is going to steal a green kayak.  And they are right:  the police report section of the local paper really doesn’t report much in the theft department.

Getting used to this attitude requires Midwestern city dwellers like me to make a bit of a mental downshift, but once you get comfortable with it, it’s actually quite pleasant.

The Greatest Public Auction Ever

Usually, U.S. Marshals Service auctions are a pretty tepid affair.  The auctions are a way to dispose of property that has been forfeited and confiscated as the illegal proceeds of drug operations or other criminal enterprises.  The typical items being sold at such actions would include cars, houses, other real property, and assorted household goods. The same people undoubtedly show up for them, yawn a lot, and use the auctions to stock up on their inventory of, say, used cars.

I’m guessing that the U.S. Marshals Service public auction that will be held on August 1 at 9 a.m. at Skipco Auto Auction in Canal Fulton, Ohio — that’s a tiny town located near Canton — will be a little bit different.

1431629947-marty-deloreanThis particular auction will include three replica cars that have a storied role in American popular culture:  the DeLorean time machine from Back to the Future, the “Ecto 1” 1959 Cadillac station wagon from Ghostbusters, and the Chevy Caprice Classic customized as the Batmobile from Batman Returns.  The three cars are part of the property forfeited by an individual who pleaded guilty to 60 counts of criminal activity related to a health fraud scam that, according to the government, illegally charged Medicaid millions of dollars for drug and alcohol treatment that was either never provided or not medically necessary.

Only 120 people will be permitted at the live auction site, due to social distancing concerns, but people can register and bid remotely — either by submitting their maximum bid in advance, or by participating in the auction on-line or by phone.

The auction raises an interesting question:  which replica car will sell for the most money?  I’m pretty sure it won’t be the Batmobile, because there have been so many different versions of the Batmobile in the various Batman movies (and the classic ’60s TV show) over the years.  As between the DeLorean and Ecto 1, it’s a close call– but I’m guessing the ersatz Back To The Future DeLorean will fetch the higher price.  Who knows?  Maybe the buyer will be hoping that Dr. Brown’s flux capacitor actually works and they can use the car to get the heck away from 2020, once and for all.

Mascot Madness

In Philadelphia, police are investigating a complaint that “Gritty” — the mascot of the Flyers hockey team — punched a 13-year-old kid after a photo shoot last year.

hi-res-999ed1323129c7ca5ddd46c81d3a67c4_crop_northThe kid’s father claims that after the kid patted “Gritty” on top of his furry orange head, the bug-eyed creature took a running start and punched the kid in the back, leaving a bruise.  The Flyers say that they conducted an investigation and concluded that “Gritty” did nothing wrong and there was no evidence to support the assault claim.

I suppose one could argue that the combination of circumstances — the fact that the incident allegedly happened in Philadelphia, where sports fans are notorious, involved a goggle-eyed mascot named “Gritty” for a team playing a sport where dropping the gloves and taking a few swings is an accepted part of the game, and a franchise that recently unveiled a “rage room” to allow frustrated fans, and “Gritty,” blow off steam by wrecking various household items — should be factored into the investigation, but clearly we need to let normal police investigative techniques take their course.

The more important lesson here is that all anthropomorphic mascots should be given as wide a berth as possible, whether they are found at a hockey game, a ballpark, or an amusement park.  Unless you’re a “furrie” — that is, somebody who gets his or her jollies wearing a fuzzy or hairy costume depicting some kind of character — being a mascot would be one of the worst jobs imaginable.  You’re stuck in a hot, probably smelly costume with inadequate breathing capabilities, you’ve got the heavy burden of engaging in “zany” behavior at all times, and the fans around you undoubtedly aren’t respecting your personal space in any way.  Pats on the head, and for that matter kicks in the behind, are probably a regular occurrence.

I’m guessing that, in the professional mascot world, “Gritty” isn’t alone in wanting to use a “rage room” now and then.

2020 Fraud

Every year, it’s a struggle to get the subconscious mind to accept the notion of a new year.  If you write a check or date a document after the turn of the calendar, for example, you might reflexively write the old year for a few weeks until your brain finally assimilates the fact that it’s 2020 and no longer 2019.  Such dating foul-ups are just a standard part of the process of moving from one year to another.

writing-2020-checks-hand-860x462-1This year there’s another aspect of dating documents that’s been in the news:  potential fraud.  This story from CNN addresses the issue.  According to the article, consumer advocates, auditors, and police departments all are saying that you shouldn’t use the abbreviation/slash approach to writing the date — like, say, 1/5/20 — on documents because a fraudster could get the document and mess with the year by adding digits to the end, so that “1/5/20” becomes “1/5/2019” or “1/5/2021.”

I get the concept, but I’m not clear on how fiddling with the date could practically lead to fraud.  The CNN article gives two examples.  At some point in the future, you might have a check lying around, dated 1/4/20, that is more than six months old.  A crook could take the check, make the date 1/4/2021, so that the check is no longer more than six months old and difficult to cash.  Left unexplained is why in the world anyone would have an old, dated, but otherwise incomplete check lying around, and how a fraudster could find it and forge the rest of the writing to scam you.

Here’s the other example from the CNN article:

“Or, let’s say you sign a credit contract — an agreement between a borrower and a lender — and date it 1/4/20. Say you then miss a month or two of payments, and the lender goes to collect the debt that’s owed. Theoretically, they could add “19” to the end of that date and argue that you owe more than a year’s worth of payments.”

It seems like this example raises a more important concern — don’t borrow money from crooked entities that would consciously commit deliberate fraud.  I’m guessing that any entity that would be willing to engage in such conduct probably wouldn’t stop at fiddling with the date.  In fact, they might send some burly guys to your house ready to take a tire iron to your kneecaps unless you pay up, now.

The CNN article doesn’t give any more plausible examples of potential fraud, saying that it doesn’t want to give crooks any ideas.  I appreciate that, because fraudsters are a creative sort, and I appreciate the warning.  So when I’m writing the date this year, I’ll write it out in full, and enjoy the fact that by doing so I’m thwarting vaguely defined potential fraud.  Even unlikely fraud is better left avoided.

Living In Spytown

An interesting lawsuit is proceeding in Coral Gables, Florida.  Coral Gables has installed “license plate readers” at traffic intersections, and one of its citizens, Raul Mas Canosa is suing about the amount of data that the city has accumulated about him — and every other car owner in town.

Coral Gables has more than 30 license plate readers positioned at major intersections in the city.  The readers take a photo of the back of each vehicle and record the license plate number and the associated time, date and location.  Thanks to the license plate readers, the Coral Gables Police Department has captured tens of millions of data points representing individual vehicle movements around the city — more than any of the other 26 South Florida cities that use a similar system.  Privacy advocates say that the license plate readers are intrusive and the accumulated data effectively allows the city to track the daily movements of ordinary citizens who are not suspected of any crime.  The city argues that the system can be used to quickly find vehicles that may be involved in criminal activity and could be used to help solve cold cases, too.

The pending lawsuit argues that the license plate readers violate the Fourth Amendment and rights to privacy under Florida law.  Recently the judge presiding over the case denied Coral Gables’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which means the case will proceed into the discovery phase.  The discovery will likely focus on how the city uses the system, its usefulness in helping to solve crimes and apprehend criminals. and whether there is reasonable justification for keeping the data for years.

Should cities routinely track the movements of people going about their daily affairs through the use of cameras at traffic intersections?  After all, traffic intersections are public places where anyone can see who is driving by, and in most major cities there are likely to be security cameras that record movements past particular buildings.  For many of us, being on camera has become a part of our daily lives.  But the problem here is that the city keeps the data for years and presumably can combine it with other information it maintains — like whose car bears the license plate, and where they live — to get a pretty good picture of what people are doing and where they are going from day to day.  That seems pretty intrusive to me.

Police officials are always going to want more data and information that they can sift through in trying to solve crimes.  The question is one of line-drawing, and balancing effective crime fighting with the privacy rights of normal people.  The Coral Gables case is one that will help to start sketching out the boundaries and setting the balance.

Friday Night Hangover

 

When Betty and I took our morning lap around Schiller Park yesterday morning, circling the park, clockwise, on the perimeter sidewalk, we encountered the following, in order: (1) a disgusting pool of vomit that all joggers and walkers were steering clear of but that was of intense interest to Betty and other dogs; (2) an area of a flowerbed where the plants were crushed and uprooted; and (3) a car, which had lost part of a bumper and a hubcap, had white paint scrapes on the left front side, and was parked over the curb with a flat right front tire.

You didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that some irresponsible person got drunk Friday night, drove when they shouldn’t have, ran into something, “parked” their car at Schiller, toppled into the flowerbed, and then expelled the stomach poisons. I’m just surprised Betty and I didn’t see and smell a reeking figure passed out on the playground or under a tree.

What’s interesting is that, as of this morning when the photo above was taken, the car is still there. Perhaps the offender had a blackout and can’t remember where he/she left the car.  Or, perhaps the car was stolen by the offender, and the true owner doesn’t know where the car is.

So, I’m offering this post as a public service. If this is your car, it’s on the north side of Schiller Park. And if this post helps you retrieve it, how about making a decent contribution to the German Village Garten Club to compensate for the pretty flowerbed that got ruined as part of the entire escapade?

Puppy Fraud

The unfortunate reality is that there are a huge number of scam artists in the world.  There is no fraud too low for them to try, if they think there is money in it, and the internet just makes committing the fraud easier and more anonymous.

block-photos_available-pets_383968525-cropped-small.jpg__320x240_q90_crop_subsampling-2_upscaleThe latest evidence of this is reports of puppy scams that prey upon people, often kids, who’ve saved their money to buy a puppy.  The victims go on line looking for the puppy of their dreams, come across a website that promises to provide them with a cute, furry pet, make contact and wire money to arrange for the delivery of a dog — and then no dogs arrive.  Sometimes the fraudsters even double-down, successfully, on hapless victims by telling them that they need to pay even more money for a kennel crate, or insurance, or to correct a delivery mistake.  People are reporting losing hundreds and even thousands of dollars through such swindles.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would consciously target dog-lovers — especially kids — in criminal fraud schemes, but apparently there are no lines some crooks won’t cross.  If fraudsters don’t mind cheating senior citizens out of their life savings, or bilking new arrivals who’ve come to this country in search of a better life, why would they hesitate to take advantage of a child who has saved money from their summer job to buy a puppy?

The lesson, of course, is to not assume that every internet web page represents a legitimate business.  If you’re going to buy a puppy — or for that matter, anything else — on the internet, do your homework and pay attention to details.  In the story linked above, for example, the Better Business Bureau notes that scam websites often feature misspellings and grammatical errors that a legitimate business would fix.

But to be as safe as possible, why buy a puppy over the internet in the first place?  Your local dog shelter has real dogs, large and small, that are yearning for a home and that you can see, and touch, and pet before you add a new member to the family.

Anonymizing The Shooters

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, staked out a firm — and interesting — position after a terrorist attack by a white supremacist on two New Zealand mosques killed dozens of people last month.  “[Y]ou will never hear me mention his name,” said Ardern. “He is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”  She added: “He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.”

anongiftsPrime Minister Ardern is the latest figure to argue that the individuals who commit mass shootings should be anonymized, and that news reports of such crimes should not name the killers.

The anonymity effort traces its roots back to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, which produced massive coverage of the American teenagers who did the killing.  The Columbine shootings are believed to have motivated many other mass shootings, both in the United States and around the world, and some observers argue that giving the Columbine shooters publicity and celebrity-style coverage only encourages future attacks.  The New Zealand shooter, for example, was supposedly inspired by a 2015 mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

As one criminologist, Adam Lankford, has put it:  “A lot of these shooters want to be treated like celebrities. They want to be famous. So the key is to not give them that treatment.”  Detailed news coverage of shootings can also be used as a guide to would-be shooters who are planning their own mass attacks, and can motivate future killers to try to outdo the death tolls in prior shootings.  It’s apparently a sad, sick reality of our modern world that some people are so obsessed with becoming famous that they will commit heinous crimes against innocent strangers to obtain the publicity they crave.

Should the terrorists and criminals who commit mass shootings be named, or should the news media refrain from identifying shooters while otherwise providing the news about such killings?  There’s no doubt that the names of criminals are part of the news.  Every new reporter learns about the “5 Ws and an H” — who, what, where, when, why, and how — that should elements of any news story.  But members of the news media also are part of society and have always accepted some element of social responsibility in their news coverage — by not publishing ultra-bloody or violent images, for example.  Withholding the names of mass shooters who hope for notoriety is just one additional step down that same path.

I don’t know whether anonymizing mass shooters will help to discourage future tragedies, but I do know that what has been done to date hasn’t worked.  I applaud the stance of Prime Minister Ardern and hope that reporters and editors will start to recognize that providing publicity to such shooters simply makes the new media a pawn in their sick and twisted effort to become famous.

Thoughtless And Hopelessly Self-Absorbed

Sometimes I wonder about if people have changed, or whether there have always been a healthy percentage of seriously jerky people in the American population.  Did the “Greatest Generation” that survived the Great Depression and won World War II to usher in an era of great prosperity, for example, have a significant number of thoughtless and hopelessly self-absorbed members — or is the presence of such people an unfortunate modern phenomenon?

close-up-of-measles-rash-f7cd43Consider this article.  A 57-year-old Wisconsin man stayed in a hotel with people who have the measles — which is one of the most contagious diseases around.  The measles virus is communicated to different people by coughing and sneezing, and the virus is hardy enough to live for two hours in an airspace where an infected person coughed or sneezed.  In order words, you don’t need to be in the same room as someone who has measles at the same time for the disease to be transmitted.  The U.S. regularly deals with measles outbreaks when an infected person appears in a community, some members of the community aren’t vaccinated, and the disease quickly starts to spread.  With more and more people blithely deciding they don’t need to have their children vaccinated, the risks of an outbreak are multiplying.

Because the man had potentially been exposed to measles, officials decided it was prudent to keep him quarantined for 21 days and he was ordered to stay home.  Police officers were even posted outside his home to make sure he obeyed the quarantine order.  But because the man felt that he was “going crazy” inside his house, he enlisted his wife to help him escape.  He hid in her car and went to a gym so he could work out.  A gym, of course, would rank right up there as one of the best places for the measles virus to spread — an enclosed space where people are exercising in close quarters, and therefore breathing deeply of the shared air.

The man says he only stayed at the gym for a few minutes, because he started feeling guilty, and when he and his wife were later found outside by deputies, he apologized.  He’s now been charged with violating his quarantine order, and he points out that he never was officially diagnosed with measles and never thought he was symptomatic.  But, of course, that’s not a decision he gets to make, and now he and his wife are being prosecuted for their stupid and dangerous decision.

I think it would be tough to stay cooped up in your house for 21 days without getting cabin fever, but quarantine orders are for the public good.  You’d like to think that a mature adult would accept such an order and deal with it — but apparently that’s not the case.  I think anyone who would violate such an order and unilaterally decide to go to a public place like a gym, where they could potentially be exposing innocent people to one of the most contagious diseases around, should be prosecuted.  Maybe he’ll learn that the world doesn’t revolve around him, and there’s such a thing as a greater good.

Reining In Excessive Fines

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — which states that “[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” — imposes limits on the abilities of state and local governments to seize assets and property and impose financial penalties.  And the Court’s ruling applying the “excessive fines” clause of the amendment to state and local governments was a unanimous one, which is a welcome development in our era of increasingly divided politics.

gettyimages-1066751830The case involved an Indiana man who was arrested for selling several hundred dollars’ worth of heroin, had his $42,000 Range Rover seized as part of the process — even though the maximum fine for his crime was $10,000 — and sued to get his car back.  The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the “excessive fines” clause of the Eighth Amendment did not apply to the states, even though the “excessive bail” and “cruel and unusual punishment” clauses have long been applied to the states.  The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, disagreed.

The decision yesterday addresses a significant real world issue — namely, how far can states and local governments go in imposing monetary penalties and seizing property from people who violate the law . . . or, in some cases, are only accused of violating the law.  Because raising taxes isn’t popular with voters, state and local governments have increasingly looked to aggressive forfeiture practices to fund part of their operations.  Briefs filed in the Supreme Court noted that more than half of municipal and county agencies who participated in a survey said reliance on forfeiture profits was a “necessary” part of their budgets, and that, in 2017, 10 million people owed more than $50 billion in criminal fines, fees and forfeitures. And the aggressive penalties aren’t limited to drug offenses.  One brief in the Supreme Court, for example, described how a $100 ticket for a red-light violation in California results in another $390 in fees.

In holding that the excessive fines clause applies to the states and local governments, Justice Ginsberg noted that “[e]xorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” and added:  “Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. . . . Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”

Now that the states know that they can’t impose excessive fines, it will be up to the courts to determine whether the aggressive property forfeiture and fining practices, like the seizure of the Range Rover, are “excessive” or not.  We’ll have to see how that works out, but for now it’s nice to know that Americans have another constitutional protection against potentially overreaching governmental actions.

Realtors And Guns

The next time you go to an open house for a house for sale, bear this in mind:  that chatty, hyper-friendly realtor who encourages you to take an information sheet about the home might just be packing a sidearm under their blazer.

Woman Pulls A Gun From Her Swanky Purse. Conceal Carry Weapon FoA recent survey by the National Association of Realtors found that 1 in 6 realtors state that they carry a gun on the job.  Why?  Because being a realtor has become an increasingly dangerous job in our increasingly dangerous world.  Non-realtors like me don’t focus on the risks, but they’re pretty apparent when you think about what realtors do.  They typically work alone.  They make appointments and meet with potential clients who are total strangers that might potentially want to rob them or otherwise do them harm.  And they regularly go into darkened, empty houses where an unknown home invader might be lurking.  In short, being a realtor doesn’t just require a gift of gab and sales skills, it also requires a considerable bit of intestinal fortitude, too.  Not many of us have jobs that require us to regularly go alone into strange houses where we might encounter unknown people with unknown intentions.

The statistics bear out the risks that realtors face.  A 2018 NAR study found that 33 percent of the realtors surveyed had experienced a situation that made them fear for their safety, and five percent responded that they had been the victim of a crime a work.  And, as the article linked above shows, in some cases realtors have been the victims of assaults, armed robberies, and even abduction, kidnapping, and murder.  That’s one reason why the NAR has stepped up education and training efforts to try to help realtors deal with the risks.  And it’s why an increasing number of realtors have decided that, for their own safety, it makes sense to bring along a weapon when they are going on the job.

I think being a realtor would be a tough gig for a lot of reasons.  You’re going to be dealing with a lot of people who really aren’t serious buyers and ultimately are just wasting your time, and you’ve got to be enthusiastic and pleasant whenever you’re with a client, which must be exhausting.  The personal safety risk just makes the realtor role more difficult.  If I had a job where I thought I needed to cary a gun to be safe, I think I’d look for another job.  But I also think this:  I’ll never again wonder about whether realtors really earn that commission when a house is bought and sold.

The Awful Hatred Within

We now have to ask ourselves two more of those questions that can’t ever be adequately answered, not really.  Why would someone arm themselves with an arsenal of weapons and go into a synagogue to murder complete strangers during a bris?   Why would someone conclude that the best course of action under the circumstances was to create crude pipe bombs and send them to political and cultural figures?  Why?  Why?

181027-synagogue-shooting-al-1443_70ba0bef22a8f1ea38102491713be93c-fit-760wIf you read about Robert Bowers, the despicable anti-Semitic murderer who shot up the Tree of Life Congregation in a Pittsburgh suburb, and Cesar Sayoc, the lunatic who allegedly sent bombs to the likes of former President Barack Obama, you quickly realize that they had at least one hugely significant thing in common:  they were haters.  They hated their targets with a terrible, venomous passion, they expressed their hatred on social media and in their interactions with others, and finally they acted on their hatred in the most horrible ways imaginable.

What would it be like to live your life consumed with hatred for some target group, so filled with loathing and anger that you would reach the point where you would act out your hatred on complete strangers?  And more to the point, how many more Robert Bowers and Cesar Sayocs are out there, lurking in the shadows and on the fringes of society, simmering in their hatred and disturbed world views, on the verge of wreaking havoc?  How many more disturbed ranters might be ready to take action?   And, perhaps even more disturbing, how many people noticed the evil directions that Robert Bowers and Cesar Sayoc were taking, could have done something about it, but didn’t?

We all need to stand with the Tree of Life Congregation and the targets of the mad bombing scheme, and also recognize that this kind of ugly, violent hatred can be, and has been, directed at any group that can be defined by religious, political, or personal differences.  But more proactively, we need to keep an eye on those people who appear to be veering off into a place where they might do something so abominable.   We Americans, as a community, need to start doing a better job of watching out for each other and protecting our way of life from the depredations of the lunatic fringes.

Under Lock And Key

Do you ever leave your house unlocked, even for only a few minutes?  How about your car?

I never do.  In fact — and you can call me obsessive-compulsive if you want — I make sure I always lock our house with the deadbolt and not just the automatic lock, and I try the door handle after I’m done to be certain.  I also hit the locking button on our car key and hear the little chirp twice and then pull on the door handle to make absolutely sure the lock is engaged.  I have keys in hand before I do either of these things to make sure that I’m not locking myself out, too.  These are habits I’ve had for as long as I can remember.

187098I mention this because of this article I ran across about crime statistics in one upper middle class midwestern suburb in a recent month.  All of the 25 cases of automobile theft in that month involved unlocked cars, and half of the house thefts involved unlocked homes.  That’s mind-boggling to me.  And the house break-in data is skewed, because of some unique circumstances — typically, according to the article, an astonishing 80 percent of such thefts involve unlocked cars and houses.  Why would so many people leave their cars and houses unlocked?  Are they worried about locking themselves out?  Do they think they would be inconvenienced by the few seconds it takes to fish a key out of pants pockets or purses and unlocking their car or house?  Do they think they’re going to be gone for only a few minutes and there’s no risk?  Or are they just trusting souls who are convinced their neighborhoods are totally safe at all times?

According to the article, too, the identity of the criminals has shifted.  Before, teenagers looking for a little pocket money were often the perpetrators of such petty theft; now it’s inevitably adult opiate addicts who are looking for money that will allow them to get a quick fix.  Check out the chilling video surveillance footage accompanying the article, of the guy quickly checking the doors on cars.  According to the article, the thieves try to minimize their risk — in cars, they’ll look for an unlocked car and when they find one they’ll steal loose change and whatever appears to be valuable and be out in a few seconds, and in houses they’ll head directly to the bedroom, steal any visible small electronics they see, take any jewelry and money from the bedroom, and get out of the house in a few minutes — so being away from your unlocked house or car for only a few minutes isn’t going to provide any protection.  And the article notes that having a dog isn’t a sure-fire thief deterrent, either.

Why take a needless risk?  As the title of the article states:  Lock your damn doors!  (And make sure your kids do, too!)

Public/Private

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who had been a vocal proponent of the “Me too” movement and had been investigating the activities of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, resigned on Monday, hours after he was accused of physically assaulting four women.

7-schneiderman-w710-h473Two of the women who spoke on the record said Schneiderman hit them without their consent and that they had had to seek medical treatment for being slapped and choked.  One woman, who was born in Sri Lanka, said Schneiderman called her his “brown slave,” choked her, beat her, and spat at her.

In response to the allegations, Schneiderman said that “[i]n the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity.”  Schneiderman’s resignation statement, given several hours after the story broke, said:  “While these allegations are unrelated to my professional conduct or the operations of the office, they will effectively prevent me from leading the office’s work at this critical time.”  New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, who had called for Schneiderman’s resignation, stated:  “Given the damning pattern of facts and corroboration laid out in the article, I do not believe it is possible for Eric Schneiderman to continue to serve.”  Schneiderman is now being investigated by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

Schneiderman’s resignation statement raises an increasingly common question about where to draw the line between public and private when you are talking about public officials.  He claims that the allegations are “unrelated” to his “professional conduct” or the operations of the New York Attorney General’s office — but if the allegations of the four women are determined by investigators to be true and Schneiderman is prosecuted for the physical assaults, that’s obviously not accurate.  As a baseline, the “professional conduct” of an Attorney General should include not engaging in criminal activity.

But what if Schneiderman’s depiction of the circumstances are credited, and his violent interaction with the women was part of “role-playing and other consensual sexual activity”?  If, hypothetically, two consenting adults choose to engage in such conduct, and one of them is a high-ranking public official, does the public have a right to know about it?  It’s an exercise in line-drawing, and part of the evaluation has to consider whether public officials have a right to enjoy some kind of privacy in their personal lives — and, more broadly, whether imposing a rule that says every aspect of an individual’s personal and family life is fair game will discourage people from seeking office in the first place.

These are tough questions, but in my view there are some lines that can be drawn.  If a public official is engaging in conduct that indicates that they have an interest in acting out violent and demeaning fantasies, I want to know about it and factor it into my decision-making on whether they should be serving the public trust.

A Pepper Spray Present

Every year, the nominees for the Oscars get a lavish gift bag with all kinds of special items donated by companies that are looking for a little big of PR.  The bags are not officially sanctioned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but they’ve become a kind of tradition and are loaded with goodies like plane tickets, high-end cosmetics, and new, uber cool gizmos.

So, what’s in this year’s swag bag?

promo343614230Well, among other things there’s a 12-day trip to Tanzania, something called a “24 carat gold facial” — that sounds like it will fit right in with the Hollywood tradition of wretched excess — and a “conflict-free” diamond necklace.  Oh, and multiple kinds of pepper spray, now that the Harvey Weinstein horror story and the exposure of many other producers, directors, agents, and actors have revealed Hollywood to be a place of rampant sexual harassment, gross sexual imposition, and outright rape.

It’s therefore not surprising that this year’s Oscar swag bag has a decided personal safety and security element to it.  It includes at least three different pepper spray options — including a key ring-sized device — two personal body alarms, and a kit that allows you to determine whether your drink has been drugged that no doubt will immediately come in handy at one of those Oscars after-parties.

It tells you something about what it must be like to be a part of the oversexed, overprotected, underinvestigated, and underbrained world of the Hollywood glitterati.  Normally I would object to the idea of Oscar nominees getting thousands of dollars in freebies on “rich get richer” grounds, but this year maybe the swag bags offer some hope and some perspective on what a wretched place Hollywood really is.  Maybe at least one of the nominees will grab their pepper spray and spiked drink kit, don the personal body alarms, sell the “24-karat gold facial” and the “conflict-free” diamond necklace for a little ready cash, jet off to Tanzania for that 12-day holiday — and wisely decide to never come back to the lewd and lecherous land of Oscar.