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Dispatches The Buzz

The Buzz

(Scot Olson/Getty Images)

Roland's roil

The bizarre saga that is Illinois politics careened further down the path of the absurd when a federal judge unsealed a recorded conversation between Sen. Roland Burris and Robert Blagojevich, brother and chief campaign fundraiser to indicted former state governor Rod Blagojevich. In the recording, Burris is heard discussing whether he might contribute to the Blagojevich campaign and if such a contribution might merit consideration for appointment to President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat. One month after that November chat, Blagojevich appointed Burris to the Senate.

Despite the recording's smoking gun flavor, Burris and his aides say they believe it exonerates the 71-year-old Democrat of any wrong­doing. What's more, Burris denies all allegations that he misrepresented under oath his relationship and interaction with Blagojevich's staff.

But on-the-record statements from the embattled senator reveal gross inconsistencies. In a Jan. 5 affidavit, he claimed no contact with Blagojevich aides regarding his Senate appointment. Three days later in testimony before an Illinois House impeachment panel, he admitted having one conversation on the matter with a Blagojevich aide. And in a Feb. 4 affidavit following his appointment, he acknowledged five conversations with Blagojevich aides, including at least one fundraising request that he claimed to have rejected for the sake of avoiding any conflict of interest.

Pressed to reconcile such incongruent re-tellings in light of the newly released recording, Burris insisted he has told the truth all along: "Did I commit perjury? No." He claims that because he wanted the vacated Senate seat, he mentioned it to "everybody who would listen."

Many past supporters now believe the senator should resign. State Rep. Jim Durkin, the ranking Republican on the impeachment panel that questioned Burris earlier this year, and Democratic Rep. Jack Franks allege that Burris committed perjury and must relinquish his post.

City of brotherly hate?

After winning a case in April against three men accused of voter intimidation at a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day 2008, the Obama Justice Department dismissed the charges last month.

Prosecutors said three uniformed members of the New Black Panthers Party for Self-Defense stood outside the Pennsylvania polling place, hurling racial slurs at both white and black voters. They say one defendant-Samir Shabazz-pointed a nightstick at passersby.

Bartle Bull-once a civil-rights lawyer in the 1960s South-witnessed the incident and wrote in an affidavit that one defendant told a white poll observer: "You are about to be ruled by a black man."

Attorneys for the Bush administration filed a civil complaint, charging the men with violating voter rights by coercion, threats, and intimidation. Obama officials won the case but dropped the charges weeks later. Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Miyarl said the department won an injunction against Shabazz that prohibits him from brandishing a weapon at a polling place again. Miyarl said the department dropped the other charges "based on a careful assessment of the facts and law."

Two-headed monster

The St. Paul Saints are taking advantage of the seemingly never-ending U.S. Senate race in Minnesota. The first 2,500 fans at a recent game against the Sioux Falls Canaries received a bobblehead doll named Count von Re-Count, a parody of the Sesame Street character with the face of Republican candidate Norm Coleman on one side, and Democrat Al Franken on the other. Franken held a 312-vote victory after a recount but Coleman has appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, leaving the seat vacant over six months after the election. For the game the Saints, an independent minor league team, asked third-party candidate Dean Barkley to throw out the first pitch.

Sales down

American consumers continued to tighten their belts last month, as same-store retail sales fell 4.8 percent in May. The drop, which was reported on June 4, was larger than analysts had expected and followed a 2.7 percent drop in same-store sales for April. But one retailer, Wal-Mart, announced plans to hire 22,000 people in new or expanded stores in the United States this year. The retailing giant has fared better than other large chains during the economic downturn.

No verification

When a person registers to vote in Georgia, officials ask for two simple pieces of information: a Social Security number and driver's license data. The goal: Make sure the voter is an American citizen.

But that system is now out: The Department of Justice (DOJ) overruled the program this month, saying it's often inaccurate and has a "discriminatory effect" on minority voters. DOJ officials say the screening program often erroneously flags individuals as non-citizens.

But Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel says state officials invite flagged applicants to prove their citizenship, and she says throwing out the verification system will encourage groups like ACORN to register non-voters. Handel says she'll consider fighting the decision, noting: "It is important to underscore that not a single person has come forward to say he or she could not vote because of the verification process."

Mug shots for all

Instead of "Say cheese," Virginia DMV officials recently have been saying, "Don't smile." That's what you'll be told if you try to break into a grin during your driver's license photo shoot. Virginia's Department of Motor Vehicles now requires applicants to pose with a "neutral expression" on all identification photos.

The new anti-smile policy is part of a developing facial electronic system, which DMV says will allow them to instantly match photos to help prevent fraud and identity theft. The photos are matched more accurately with plain expressions, and the solemn computer will send an error message if an applicant is showing teeth or other expressions that signal too much happiness.

Nationwide, 37 motor vehicle agencies now use facial recognition technologies. Perhaps DMV could wipe away any smiles simply by making applicants look at some of the dull portraits already created under the new policy. "It makes everyone look like criminals," Arthur Freeman, 18, told The Washington Post.

Out of work

The unemployment rate in the United States now rivals those of European countries, according to a report released last month by the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research. The findings highlight a marked shift for the United States, which had formerly served as an economic model for other countries because of its relatively low unemployment rates. The current economic crisis, however, has left the United States tied with Portugal for the fourth-highest unemployment rate.

Prop blast

Just minutes after the California Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8 on May 26, same-sex marriage advocates were preparing for the next fight-not just in California but across the nation.

The decision was unsurprising-Jim Campbell, litigation counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said the court's ruling merely went with precedent-so same-sex marriage advocates were prepared to respond to defeat. Prominent attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies, who faced off in the Florida recount battle in 2000, united to challenge Proposition 8 on a federal scale. Gay advocacy groups chastened them for the decision, however, saying that it is too soon to win a federal battle and that a defeat may set back their cause. Instead, Equality California is mounting a 100-day grassroots effort to talk to 300,000 Californians in the areas where it lost in 2008 and is recruiting 1,000 pastors to help.

In New York City and across the country, same-sex marriage advocates gathered to protest the decision in Day of Decision rallies. In New York, protester Kelli Muddell said, "You expect California to be more progressive." Now she won't assume that a liberal state like New York will pass same-sex marriage without a fight, she said.

Recidivists

A new Pentagon report reveals that one out of every seven terrorism suspects formerly held at Guantanamo Bay is now confirmed or suspected of "re-engaging in terrorist activity." As of April, the Pentagon said it had acquired "a preponderance of evidence"-including fingerprints, DNA, and photos-to link 74 of approximately 540 former detainees to recent terror activity. Although the report affirms earlier Defense Department statements that cited similar findings, critics have long claimed that the data was only a scare tactic to generate fear among Americans about closing the infamous prison. Pentagon officials said the latest data illustrates that the number of recidivism cases has more than doubled since May 2007.

Reluctant spender

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford braced to do something that most state governors gladly did months ago: accept millions of dollars of stimulus funds from the federal government. After spending more than six months arguing that the United States is moving toward a "savior-based economy"-and that increased spending won't solve economic woes-Sanford acknowledged on June 1 that his battle to reject nearly $700 million in federal funds was likely ending.

A federal judge ruled that the S.C. Supreme Court should decide who controls the stimulus money-Sanford or the state law­makers who want the funds. Since the funds come from the federal government, Sanford wanted a federal court to decide. After hearing the state's Supreme Court would rule instead, the Republican governor predicted: "It looks like we will be bound to spend that money."

The state had already accepted some of the federal stimulus funds, but Sanford argued he would only apply for another $700 million if the state promised to use it to pay down debt.