Tag Archives: ethics

A Note on the Jorjani Confirmation Hearing

The way Interior has acted under the Trump administration is the textbook definition of a political cartel, using state resources to help the special interests. And it sure looks to me like Mr. Jorjani has been a key member of the cartel.
-Senator Ron Wyden

Jorjani_ConfirmationWhen asked by Senator Manchin whether he could set aside political allegiances and provide “forthright legal analysis,” Daniel Jorjani offered assurances, but his confirmation hearing on Thursday kept circling back to the question.

Senator Cantwell said she was “trying to get an understanding of your commitment to what is the law and whether you will help follow the law. That’s the key thing I’m after.” Senator Wyden wanted the other nominee in the room, Mark Greenblatt, to give him written specifics about how as Inspector General at Interior he would maintain his independence, “and keep these political appointments”  — people “like Mr. Jorjani,” he added — “from interfering with protecting the public.”  Senator King wanted to know whether Jorjani has had any contact with people associated with Freedom Partners or the Koch Brothers since taking his post at Interior. Jorjani was not prepared to say he had not, and at the end of the hearing promised to go back and check.

When her turn came, Senator Hirono said it was “hard to believe” that Jorjani’s work for the Koch Brothers between 2009 and 2017 “does not influence [his] opinions.” She cited his M-Opinion on “incidental take,” according to which oil companies that inadvertently kill migratory birds (in a spill, for instance) will no longer face penalties or prosecution. Hirono wanted to know why Jorjani issued that opinion.

Hirono: A lot of these challenges under this law have come from, have been lawsuits involving the oil and gas industry. So who benefits most from your opinion that totally stopped prosecutions for incidental take under this law? What industry most benefits from your opinion?

Jorjani: I’m not aware of any particular industry that benefits from this. I’d like to think that he American people benefit from a restrained approach.

Hirono: Yeah, I’d like to think so too. But you cannot escape the conclusion that the people you used to work for before, the Koch Brothers, this is one of their biggest issues that they wanted to have done away with….. I would say the oil and gas industries are the biggest beneficiaries.

Senator Manchin summed up what appeared to be the skeptics’ view:

as Acting [Deputy Solicitor General] you came in and overturned 7 of the 8 [Tompkins] opinions….Those things were basically approved as the previous administration was outgoing. We found also these had been exhaustively studied and Ms. Tompkins was well regarded and following the rule of law. And in all honesty the observance I have is that basically that your political ideology overtook…the rule of law.

For his part, Jorjani made the striking claim that a directive from the president’s Chief of Staff authorized him “to review every regulation and every opinion,” including previous M-Opinions by his predecessor, Solicitor Hillary Tompkins.

The directive in question appears to be the Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies issued by Reince Priebus on January 20, 2017, which put in place a Regulatory Freeze, affording Trump’s political appointees “the opportunity to review any new or pending regulations” and specifically any “questions of fact, law, and policy they raise.”

This is the first time I have heard anyone at Interior publicly and directly connect the overturning of Tompkins’ M-Opinions with this directive. Jorjani seems to have read it expansively, virtually as carte blanche.  He called it the “catalyst” for his multiple reversals of Tompkins. It now has a place on the Twin Metals timeline.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

Cert Denied in MCRC v. EPA

Certdenied4March2019

18-555 among the denied petitions on this morning’s list of Supreme Court orders.

A public agency’s effort to cut a road through the Michigan wilderness for a Canadian mining company has suffered yet another legal setback.

This morning, the Supreme Court published the list of orders from its March 1 conference. The court has denied the petition for certiorari in Marquette County Road Commission v. EPA, the dispute over County Road 595 I’ve been following since 2015. This denial means, simply, that the Supreme Court declines to review the case, without further comment, and the decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals stands.

The Road Commission’s case turned on the question whether objections by the EPA to the proposal for CR 595 constituted “final agency action.” If so, they would be reviewable by a court. In arguments before the Sixth Circuit, the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Mark Miller insisted that EPA’s objections to the Road Commission’s proposal were tantamount to a “veto,” but his repeated use of that word ended up confusing the judges, and their questions about it exposed the weakness of his argument.. The Road Commission, they reminded him, could always have simply gone back to the Army Corps of Engineers with an amended proposal that took the EPA’s objections into account.

As I’ve written elsewhere, Miller made a lot of other arguments before the Sixth Circuit (and the in pages of the Wall Street Journal) that suggest this case was about more than building a haul road from Eagle Mine to Humboldt Mill. Like others advocating for CR 595, he tried to suggest that the Environmental Protection Agency was in cahoots with environmental groups, and part of an anti-mining conspiracy. These arguments were never intended to go anywhere legally. They were, instead, put forward to raise the profile of the dispute over Country Road 595. They brought in dark money and support from outside groups. They divided people. They helped advance a larger political project.

After a long and fruitless detour through the court system, the Road Commission has come to a legal dead end. But the Road Commission and its allies, within and without Marquette County, still have options. Lundin Mining’s development of Eagle East has extended the life of the mine to 2023 — “at least,” the company says. There is nothing to prevent the Road Commission from revising its proposal, and trying again. The question remains whether doing so would serve the broad public interest, or simply advance the short-term interests of the mining company.

Read other posts about MCRC v. EPA here

The Architect of the Boundary Waters Reversal

1989 files

“Extrinsic evidence” from the 1980s: one of the files from the Milwaukee District Office of the Bureau of Land Management appended to Waxman’s 2016 letter to Hilary Tompkins.

Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani signed the December 2017 Department of Interior memo that re-opened the door to sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters, but he probably should not be considered the legal architect of the Boundary Waters reversal. That dubious honor appears to belong to Seth P. Waxman. Or at least the key arguments in Jorjani’s memo seem to be largely derived from a letter Waxman wrote on behalf of Twin Metals to Department of Interior Solicitor Hilary Tompkins back in July of 2016.

Waxman’s name may ring a bell. He has had a distinguished legal and political career. Under President Clinton, he served as Solicitor General of the United States. In the last year of the Bush administration, he made oral arguments before the Supreme Court in Boumedienne v. Bush, to uphold habeas corpus rights for Guantanamo detainees. During the Obama years, his name was even floated as a Supreme Court nominee. Waxman is also a partner at WilmerHale, the powerful DC firm that has led both the lobbying and litigation efforts for Antofagasta, Plc in its bid to renew its mineral leases in Superior National Forest.

Waxman sent his 24 page letter to Hilary Tompkins on July 1, 2016. On the same day, he sent a letter to Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell. Those letters are included among Department of Interior documents obtained through FOIA. The letter to Tompkins appears to have been the most widely shared. It was attached to an April 27, 2017 email from Raya B. Treiser of WilmerHale to Cathy Gulac, secretary to James Cason, confirming a May 2nd meeting with Antofagasta CEO Ivan Arriagada at Interior. You can follow it from there as it gets attached to other email exchanges and forwarded around.

HaugrudLawkowski

A handoff from Interior’s Jack Haugrud to a political appointee: Gary Lawkowski, Counselor to the Solicitor. Attached is Seth P. Waxman’s 2016 letter to Solicitor Tompkins.

Waxman’s argument in the letter to Solicitor Tompkins is that Twin Metals has a non-discretionary right to renewal, as dictated by the terms of the leases negotiated by the International Nickel Company and the Bureau of Land Management back in 1966. This is also the conclusion at which Jorjani arrives, and he appears to do so by carefully following Waxman’s lead. Here, I’m going to highlight several places where Waxman’s influence on Jorjani seems undeniable. (To make it easier for others to follow along, I’ve posted the Waxman letter. Jorjani’s memo can be found here.)

To the layman — and I am one, so anything I say here should probably be read in light of that — the very idea of a non-discretionary right to renewal might seem paradoxical, or at least puzzling. Apparently the federal government, and specifically BLM, can “grant” and has twice granted (in 1989 and 2004) the renewal of these mineral leases, but it has no discretion to deny renewal (as long as the company complies with the law). Hobbled, BLM can say yes but not no. Waxman’s argument easily and cleverly explains why this is so. The terms of the 1966 lease, he says, are both “comprehensive” and “unique”, and those unique terms still “govern” (to use the phrase Jorjani prefers) or (in Waxman’s words) “control”:

One of those terms is a right to renew the lease (in fact, to successive renewals). This right is critical to the parties’ overall bargain: The investment required of the lessee under the leases is enormous. But because of recognized operational problems in the area, producing minerals in the short term would have been impossible. The leases thus would serve no rational purpose absent a non-discretionary right to renew; no company would undertake the necessary investment for exploration and development knowing that it could be unilaterally deprived of any ability to recoup that investment. (p. 1)

Of course, it’s possible to think of a rational purpose mineral leases could “thus” serve absent a non-discretionary right to renew. The leases might afford the company an opportunity to explore a mineral resource on public lands within a specified period of time and on certain terms, assess the feasibility of developing the resource, and provide a right to negotiate successive renewals. We can easily imagine circumstances in which the federal government might reserve discretion, and renewal might be contingent on all kinds of things, like changes in environmental conditions, advances in scientific knowledge, evidence of responsible stewardship, or commensurability with other rights. That all sounds perfectly reasonable. There’s no need to insist that a “non-discretionary right” is the only appropriate arrangement, or buy into the view that preserving discretion over renewal confers on government the power to “unilaterally [deprive]” the company of “any ability.”

This is lawyer’s hyperbole, affecting sobriety and marking out an extreme position: the only “rational” course appears to be one that protects the investment of the mining company, from exploration through development. Having entered into a lease agreement with a mining concern, the federal government is now bound to help the company realize a return on its investment. And that would require going way beyond providing incentives. Surrendering all discretion, the government defers entirely to private interests and agrees to relieve the mining company of business risk.

This Extractive Industry First approach is perfectly congruent with Trumpism and its doctrine of Energy Dominance. We see it reflected not just in the Jorjani memo but in some of the changes Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt brought to the Department of Interior. Perhaps Mr. Waxman is a man ahead of his time — by about a year, it seems. But let’s grant, for the moment, Waxman’s position that this non-discretionary right is indeed the “unique” arrangement the 1966 leases set out, and focus instead on the area where Jorjani’s memo relies most heavily on Waxman: in reaching the conclusion that the 1966 leases “govern.” Here is Jorjani’s brief restatement of Waxman’s argument:

Twin Metals is entitled to a third renewal. First, the renewal terms of the 2004 lease form do not govern. The form is ambiguous, and the intent of the parties to keep operative the terms of the 1966 leases becomes clear once the BLM’s decision files are examined. (p. 8)

Jorjani adds in a footnote (number 38) that Solicitor Tompkins’ memo did not examine this “extrinsic evidence” — 1980s decision files from the BLM’s Milwaukee office, which Waxman attached as exhibits to his letter to Hillary Tomkins — “because of its underlying premise that the 2004 lease forms were unambiguous.” This, too, echoes Waxman, and builds on an argument about ambiguity and how to resolve it that Waxman sets out repeatedly in his 2016 letter to Tompkins: “Because the renewal provision in the 2004 standard forms is ambiguous,” he writes, “extrinsic evidence [namely, the 1989 BLM decision files] must be considered” (pp. 22-3). Jorjani returns to the theme several times: “the meaning of the 2004 leases is ambiguous” (p. 11), but those Milwaukee files from the 1980s clear everything up.

Waxman discusses what should be done in such cases of ambiguity: “Where a provision in a contract is ambiguous, courts resort to extrinsic evidence to resolve the ambiguity by ‘determin[ing] the intent and meaning of the parties” (p. 23). Jorjani is on exactly the same page: “where contract terms are unclear or ambiguous, an examination of extrinsic evidence is appropriate to properly interpret the contract in accordance with the parties’ intent” (p. 10). Waxman maintains that “extrinsic evidence must be considered, and it confirms that the parties’ intent in executing the 2004 forms was to re-confirm that Twin Metals has a non-discretionary right to renew” (p. 3). Jorjani, too, discovers the “intent” of the 1966 parties in the 1989 files:

…the meaning of the 2004 leases is ambiguous. Given this ambiguity, extrinsic evidence beyond the ‘four corners’ of the document may be considered to ascertain the intent of the contracting parties. Examining the decision files of the BLM resolves the ambiguity. The record shows that the BLM renewed the leases in 1989 under the same terms as the 1966 leases, and did so again in 2004. (p. 11)

Though both Jorjani and Waxman seize on the same Milwaukee documents to prove intent, neither entertains the possibility that there might be other extrinsic evidence to consider in this case — to illuminate historical context, help clarify why the Milwaukee office took the actions it did in 1989, or throw into relief the different economic and environmental conditions, or different assumptions about public lands and private industry, that obtain in 1966, 1989, 2004, or for that matter now. This isn’t a historical inquiry, after all: it is, instead, a search for proof of intent that will shore up the mining company’s claim. It’s just a little unsettling to see the vast resources of the Department of Interior being marshaled to that purpose, following the lead of Antofagasta’s counsel.

Let’s go back, once more, to this issue of ambiguity. One of the main reasons why the 2004 leases are ambiguous — and why the 1966 leases control, and why the Milwaukee documents are necessary in the first place — is that the 2004 leases lack what is known as an integration clause. A written contract is “integrated” when the parties consider it to constitute their full and complete agreement. Or, as a Jorjani footnote (49) explains, “Integration clauses, also known as merger clauses, are contract provisions that generally state that the agreement as written constitutes the entire agreement between the parties and supersedes any prior representations.” Jorjani cites Corbin on Contracts for his authority; Waxman, Williston on Contracts: the standard lease forms used in 2004 do not “supersede or annul” the 1966 leases (Waxman, p. 11).

As Waxman states at the outset of his letter, this lack of an integration clause is a point Solicitor Tompkins does not “acknowledge” in her M-Opinion (p. 2). Both Waxman and Jorjanil will go to town on this point.

Waxman:

the Opinion asserts (p.6) that the 2004 standard forms are “complete, integrated documents,” and thus their renewal provision governs the analysis here. In making this assertion, the Opinion does not acknowledge the lack of any integration clause in the 2004 standard forms. (p. 7)

And again:

…the 1966 leases control. The Opinion’s contrary view depends on its assertion (p.6) that the 2004 forms are “integrated” contracts. But they are not; the 2004 forms lack any integration clause (a point the Opinion does not acknowledge), and there is no other basis on which to conclude that the 2004 forms— divorced from the 1966 leases that the parties attached—were integrated contracts. In light of this, the Opinion’s refusal to consider extrinsic evidence conflicts with established law. (p. 2)

Jorjani picks up on the same phrase (“complete, integrated documents”) in Tompkins’ Opinion, and appears to paraphrase Waxman:

Rather than being “complete, integrated documents,” the leases attach without full explanation the entirety of the 1966 leases and do not include an integration clause that states that the 2004 lease forms are the complete expression of the parties’ agreement. These facts alone warrant an examination of extrinsic evidence to determine the intent of the parties. (p. 10)

Here, in a footnote (number 50), Jorjani cites a 1999 Second Circuit case Waxman uses in his letter (p. 9): Starter Corp. v. Converse, Inc.. “When a contract lacks an express integration clause [courts] must ‘determine whether the parties intended their agreement to be an integrated contract by reading the writing in light of the surrounding circumstances.” That’s Waxman. Jorjani cites the exact same sentence, using brackets, as Waxman does, to substitute “courts” for “district court” in the original text, and putting the word “must” in italics for emphasis.

jorjaninote50

That two knowledgeable lawyers are appealing to the same legal precedents might not be all that surprising. But it seems pretty clear that this citation, too, is part of a disconcerting pattern.

None of this goes directly to the question of legal merits, or which reading of the Twin Metals leases should or eventually will prevail. Yet something here is seriously amiss. The blueprint followed by the Principal Deputy Solicitor at the Department of Interior to reverse protections for the Boundary Waters appears to have first been drawn by the attorney for a Chilean mining conglomerate. That should raise some questions about ethical conduct, about revolving door access and undue influence, and about whether the opinion Jorjani released in December of 2017 should be allowed to stand.

You can read other posts on the Boundary Waters Reversal here.

A New Set of Boundary Waters Documents

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request I made back in January of 2018, the Department of Interior has released over 5,000 pages related to the Trump administration’s rollback of federal protections for the Boundary Waters. These and other documents have allowed me to put together this timeline, which tells a pretty clear story. From the very first days of the new administration, Interior Department officials and mining company lobbyists worked closely together, and with blatant disregard for science and the environment, toward a predetermined outcome that served the business interests of a foreign mining company, and not the public interest.

The latest release arrived on Friday afternoon. It’s a collection of email correspondence and attachments from Briana Collier, an attorney in the Division of Mineral Resources. These documents are now published here.

An email from Collier included in an earlier release had tipped me off to a previously undisclosed meeting at the US embassy between the CEO of Antofagasta PLC and the Carol Z. Perez, the US ambassador to Chile. Any hopes that this latest release would shed more light on that meeting, or make other equally significant disclosures, were quickly dashed when I opened the PDF. About 400 of the 650 pages included here are redacted, many of them entirely, on the basis of attorney client privilege or deliberative process. Almost all date from December of 2017, when the Office of the Solicitor at Interior was finalizing the Jorjani memo — the memo that cleared the way for Antofagasta PLC to renew its mineral leases in Superior National Forest.

In these documents, we mainly see officials crossing ts and dotting is in the memo before its release. There are some emails exchanged at the last minute regarding the first footnote in the memo, on the Weeks Act, which establishes the Secretary of Interior’s statutory authority for the disposition of minerals. The footnotes for an important section of the memo (pp. 11-13), arguing that BLM previously renewed the leases on 1966 terms, are the subject of another last minute exchange. One footnote in particular, which is number 65 in the draft under discussion (but not necessarily in the final version, given all the last minute changes) “raises issues we do not want to address.” What issues are those?

Twin Metals continues to work closely with Interior. When Bob McFarlin, Government Affairs Advisor for Twin Metals, comes to DC with Anne Williamson, Twin Metals Vice President of Environment and Sustainability. for a “quick meeting” on December 15th with Tony Tooke, the new US Forest Service Chief, he writes to see whether he might arrange a “short visit” while he’s in town with Kathleen Benedetto. Benedetto and Williamson had met — when exactly, we don’t know — during the summer of 2017. McFarlin asks that Mitch Leverette, Eastern States Acting Director, Bureau of Land Management, join them.

There is ongoing concern over coordination with the Forest Service, from the drafting of a letter announcing that BLM will no longer consider the Forest Service’s non-consent to lease renewal valid, to the very minute the memo is released. Correspondence with the Forest Service’s Kathleen Atkinson is almost entirely redacted. And Interior’s efforts to coordinate with Forest Service only add to the confusion around plans for a news release. At what appears to be the direction of David Bernhardt’s office, work was done on a “relatively short” Minnesota-only press release. Even that is eventually cancelled, and it’s decided that Interior will deal with this only “if asked.”

Before that, however, and at the request of Interior Communications, Gary Lawkowski, Counselor to the Solicitor of the Interior and another Koch veteran, forwards a “one-pager of talking points on the Twin Metals opinion” to Daniel Jorjani and Jack Haugrud for review. He has put them together “given [or with an eye to] today’s focus on critical minerals.” (Recall that “strategic minerals” were a central theme of Ivan Arriagada’s April 17, 2017 letter to Secretary Zinke as well.) In a second email circulating the talking points to Deputy Director of Communications Russell Newell, Lawkowski elaborates: “One thing you all may want to note — the Forest Service has indicated that they believe there are potentially cobalt and platinum deposits underneath Superior National Forest….Cobalt and platinum are on the list of 23 critical minerals released by USGS earlier this week.” Eureka.

As I continue to comb through this latest release, I will add more details to the Twin Metals Timeline. If something here catches your eye, let me know in the comments below, or send me an email (my Twitter handle is also my gmail address). And if you have documents that can add color or contrast or depth to the timeline, please get in touch.

You can read all my posts about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

The Burgundy Ribbon Rule

BurgundyRibbonsCalPERS

Another rule, and for the time being, at least, I am happy* with the wording here: an abuse of asking almost always presents an abuse of power.

Take the case of burgundy affair at the public pension fund CalPERS, as documented by Yves Smith over at Naked Capitalism.

This past fall, documents obtained by Smith show, CalPERS CEO Marcie Frost “asked the CalPERS senior leadership team to wear burgundy to show their support for her” as she faced questions about representations she had made regarding her educational background before and after she was hired. Burgundy ribbons were set out in break rooms with messages urging the “Team” to wear one in a show of support. “No pressure and no problem if you do not want to do this,” the message reads, “it is completely voluntary.” Completely.

“This is obviously inappropriate,” writes Smith,

since a request made by a CEO is effectively an order. CalPERS executives and employees are civil servants, not Frost’s personal retainers. As an expert on managerial and political conduct reacted:

I don’t even know what category to put this in. A scandal-plagued boss orchestrating support by inventing gang colors and pressuring employees to wear them? What happens to the employees who don’t perform this ritual of fealty? Should they be polishing their resumés and practicing their swimming skills?

These incidents smack of underlying panic. Frost is working overtime to shore up her position as CEO in the face of fully deserved questions regarding her long history of misrepresentations about her background, which include committing perjury in Washington on a gubernatorial questionnaire. Not only is Frost pushing her subordinates far too hard to back her up, since they can only do so much for her and coercing them will diminish their good will, she is also showing a lack of a sense of professional boundaries….

Frost’s burgundy campaign may well have crossed the line into creating a hostile work environment. One senior staff member who came to the office and saw the “dress burgundy” request too late to comply issued a written apology. Similarly, when “asked” to wear burgundy to an offsite, one [employee] who wears only black and white felt compelled to buy a burgundy outfit to comply…

…word clearly got around quickly, including the notion that non-compliance was risky.

I am still fussing over the word “presents,” and I’ve considered “masks” and variations in that direction, as well as “declares,” “represents” or “signals.” That one abuse (presenting an order as a request) almost always carries the other with it — almost always, because I don’t want to get caught up right now in handling exceptions — is the essential thing.

You can read my other posts about asking here.

*Postscript: On reflection, I might prefer this much more straightforward and concrete formulation: when someone presents an order as a request, look for an abuse of power. That way, we don’t have to worry too much about motives, or figure out whether the person doing the asking is trying to get away with something. It falls to the person being asked to watch for abuse, and conduct herself accordingly. (Being asked for something, or to do something, turns the ethical spotlight on you, or at least requires you to share it with the person doing the asking. This is your moment.) In a case like the present one, and in most superior-subordinate relationships, calling out abuse may be impractical. Subordinates will bury grievances, reluctantly comply, or pretend not to have been aware of the request. The subordinate’s dilemma in this case registers a failure of governance; a failure of governance at the highest reaches makes itself manifest at even the lowest levels and in the most trivial matters (the wearing of a ribbon). More immediately, presenting orders as requests hijacks power, creates distrust (after all, we can’t help but wonder about motives), and makes people prone to dissemble. All this thwarts collaboration, or the power to do things (to act) together.

McCollum Questions Zinke on the Boundary Waters Reversal

This morning, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke appeared before the House Appropriations Committee at a hearing on the FY 2019 Budget.  The video below marks the moment when Minnesota Representative Betty McCollum questioned Secretary Zinke on the Boundary Waters reversal.

It begins with an exchange on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, in the course of which Zinke says reporting in the New York Times based on U.S. Department of Interior memos is not “credible.” Fake news.

McCollum then moves the discussion to the Boundary Waters reversal. Her main question, which she asks in a few different ways, is whether Deputy Solicitor Jorjani met with any stakeholders other than lobbyists for Twin Metals Minnesota before issuing his reversal memo.

Zinke’s response that this is all part of the public record is at best disingenuous, given that nearly all the information we have to date about the reversal is the result of FOIA requests; and it’s also Trumpian in its post-truthiness, since Zinke just declared a few moments earlier that reporting based on Department of Interior records is not to be trusted.

At any rate, here is the full exchange:

What Scott Pruitt’s Troubles Tell Us About Corruption in Kalorama

It’s tempting to draw parallels between the situation at 2449 Tracy Place NW, where Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump rent a mansion owned by Chilean mining billionaire Andronico Luksic Craig, and Scott Pruitt’s sweetheart deal to rent a bedroom in a Washington DC condo owned by the wife of powerful lobbyist Steven Hart, chairman of Williams & Jensen, for fifty dollars a night. But that will not get us very far, and it’s best not to conflate the two cases.

To begin with, Jared and Ivanka are reportedly paying market rate for their place: $15,000 / month. While no one, to my knowledge, has seen records of those monthly payments in the form of cancelled checks or electronic transfer receipts, it seems pretty safe to assume that rent is actually being collected. Doesn’t it? The corporation that owns the property, Tracy DC Real Estate, Inc., was formed by Luksic’s lawyers at Duane Morris LLP in Boston, and the deal was put together by one of the Washington DC’s “top-producing” real estate agents: Cynthia Howar, who is herself a member of the bar. The lawyers, one would like to think, took care of the details.

Not so in Scott Pruitt’s case. Despite the friendly terms, Pruitt fell behind on his rental payments, according to Politico, “forcing his lobbyist landlord to pester him for payment.” Pruitt’s landlord, Vicki Hart, did not have the appropriate business license to rent out a room in her Washington, DC condo, and now faces fines of up to $2000.

In Kalorama, Tracy DC Real Estate, Inc. had obtained the business license for a one family rental from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in the District of Columbia by March of 2017. That license is good for two years, until February 28, 2019. Who can say where the first family tenants will be by then?

Of course, there is one important parallel to draw between the Pruitt case and the situation at Tracy Place. It doesn’t have to do with licenses or rental agreements or payments. It has to do with ethics — or an apparent lack of concern with ethics.

Scott Pruitt rushed an ethics review of his bedroom rental only after news stories about the deal started to appear. The review was botched, or its conclusions were forced; it’s unclear which. The EPA’s top ethics official now says he needs to revisit the matter, because he was not in full possession of the facts when he retroactively approved the arrangement. This only serves to highlight that the right time for Scott Pruitt to ask whether the rental was permissible or appropriate was before entering into it.

Much the same could be said of Jared and Ivanka’s rental of the Kalorama mansion: the lawyers may have left nothing undone, but there is still the question whether this rental agreement ought to have been struck in the first place, given the fact that the mansion’s owner — or the mining conglomerate his family controls — was suing the U.S. government over the renewal of mining leases.

Twin Metals Minnesota had already sued the United States government back in September of 2016 over lack of action on the Superior National Forest leases. When the Obama administration did act in December of 2016, denying renewal of the leases, and launching a study of a 20-year ban on sulfide mining near the Boundary Waters, it was clear Twin Metals would sue again.

This second suit was filed by Antofagasta’s subsidiaries, Twin Metals Minnesota and Franconia Minerals, on February 21, 2017, just about a week before Tracy DC Real Estate obtained its license to rent the Kalorama mansion as a one family unit. A review of the rental agreement should obviously have been undertaken by the Office of the White House Counsel, with these and other facts in view, if only to preempt scandal-mongering and dispel any appearance of impropriety.

One of the earliest reports of the rental agreement in the Wall Street Journal quotes Rob Walker, a lawyer in private practice who specializes in election law and government ethics, to the effect that “there might not be an ethics problem” as long as the mansion is being rented at fair market value. Maybe not. But I’ve been unable to find any indication that a formal ethics review of the Kalorama rental agreement was ever requested or conducted.

Six Questions about Asking and Sophia AI

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The company that makes Sophia, Hanson Robotics, has become adept at linking different, highly-specific algorithms like image recognition and speech transcription in a way that mimics what humans might be doing when we hear a question and formulate a response.
qz.com

Sophia AI’s mimicry of “what humans might be doing when we hear a question and formulate a response” is mostly “theatrics,” Hanson Robotics CTO Ben Goertzel openly admits. That is probably why Sophia AI has so far found her most receptive audiences on TV talk shows and in corporate theater, where she won’t have to undergo too much scrutiny. But with the launch of singularityNET, which promises to put “Sophia’s entire mind…on the network,” Hanson says that “soon…the whole world will be able to talk to her.”

I would offer that talking “to” Sophia AI — or using Sophia’s chatbot function — is still a long way from conversation in any meaningful sense of the word, because it does not involve talking with a second person. This inconvenient truth about Sophia AI has not prevented the Saudi government from naming Sophia the first “robot citizen” of the Kingdom (and the grim irony of “a robot simulation of a woman [enjoying] freedoms that flesh-and-blood women in Saudi Arabia do not” was not lost on the Washington Post); nor has it prevented tabloids from screeching about Sophia stating she would like to have a family.

If personhood is setting the bar too high, I’m content to consider merely how Sophia AI handles asking. This would involve some of the considerations I’ve been exploring in my posts on The Asking Project: what we “might be doing” (as the writer in Quartz puts it) when we ask or hear a question; what’s involved, and what’s at stake, when we address others with a request or demand; and how these and other interrogative activities might be involved in our (moral) status as persons.

For starters, here are half a dozen questions about asking and Sophia AI that occurred to me after watching her video performances. I suspect there is a clear answer to the first, and the remaining five require some extended discussion.

1. What syntactic, grammatical or other cues (e.g., intonation) does Sophia AI use to recognize a question, and distinguish it from a declarative statement?

2. Can Sophia AI distinguish a request from a demand? A demand from an order? If so, how is this done? If not, what does this shortcoming indicate?

3. Will Sophia AI ever refuse to comply with a request? Leave a demand unmet? Defy an order? If not, how should these incapacities limit the role of Sophia or any AI?

4. Could a demand ever create in Sophia AI a sense of obligation? If so, what might this “sense” entail? Can we speak coherently of AI rights, or even place limits on AI’s role, without first developing this sense?

5. Will Sophia AI ever be capable of deliberating with others and reaching consensus or agreement?

6. What would be required for Sophia AI to deliberate internally? To be capable of asking herself?

Acts and Sets of Acts

This passage in Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons (1984) deserves calling out, not least because it sets the stage for the arguments against climate change despair I reviewed in a previous post.

In small communities, it is a plausible claim that we cannot have harmed others if there is no one with an obvious complaint, or ground for resenting what we have done.

Until this century, most of mankind lived in small communities. What each did could affect only a few others. But conditions have now changed. Each of us can now, in countless ways, affect countless other people. We can have real though small effects on thousands or millions of people. When these effects are widely dispersed, they may be either trivial, or imperceptible. It now makes a great difference whether we continue to believe that we cannot have greatly harmed or benefited others unless there are people with obvious grounds for resentment or gratitude. While we continue to believe this, even if we care about effects on others, we may fail to solve many serious Prisoner’s Dilemmas. For the sake of small benefits to ourselves, or our families, each of us may deny others much greater total benefits, or impose on others much greater total harms. We may think this permissible because the effects on the others will either be trivial or imperceptible. If this is what we think, what we do will often be much worse for all of us.

If we cared sufficiently about effects on others, and changed our moral view, we would solve such problems. It is not enough to ask, ‘Will my act harm other people?’ Even if the answer is No, my act may still be wrong, because of its effects. The effects that it will have when it is considered on its own may not be its only relevant effects. I should ask, ‘Will my act be one of a set of acts that will together harm other people?’ The answer may be Yes. And the harm to others may be great. If this is so, I may be acting very wrongly…. We must accept this view if our concern for others is to yield solutions to most of the many Prisoner’s Dilemmas that we face: most of the many cases where, if each of us rather than none of us does what will be better for himself — or for his family, or those he loves — this will be worse, and often much worse, for everyone.

A Note on Stone’s “Should Trees Have Standing?”

A report in the New York Times the other day about the Federal District Court case naming the Colorado River as plaintiff led me to Christopher D. Stone’s 1972 Southern California Law Review article, “Should Trees Have Standing?” Justice Douglas drew on Stone’s arguments to formulate his dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton, and since that time the essay has been widely influential, a classic that helped define a field.

For Stone, a river or a lake, a mountain or a forest, a species or the biosphere can have roughly the same status as other “legal incompetents.” A human guardian or, as we might say nowadays, a protector brings a complaint for a natural entity that has suffered some injury. The case is brought “at the behest of” the river or mountain, without having first to prove injury to the guardian or some third party (e.g., a fishing guide whose business has suffered as the result of stream pollution); and the natural entity itself would be the beneficiary of an award or remedy ordered by the court. So, for instance, a judgment against those who have polluted a stream might direct them to undo the damage done to its waters, mitigate erosion of its banks and depletion of its plant life, restock its fish, and so on. The stream would have a “right” to be made whole again.

Stone recognizes that his proposal “is bound to sound odd or frightening of laughable,” but that, he notes, has been true of any movement to confer rights on rightless “things”:

There will be resistance to giving the thing “rights” until it can be seen and valued for itself; yet it is hard to see it and value it for itself until we can bring ourselves to give it “rights” — which is almost inevitably going to sound inconceivable to a large group of people.

Stone’s thinking can seem way ahead of its time — and ours (even if the writing here is sometimes redolent of Southern California in the early 1970s). This is especially true toward the end of the piece, where Stone moves from making strictly jural arguments for the standing of rivers, trees, and other natural entities to broader observations about the “shift from the view that nature exists for men”:

…the time is already upon us when we may have to consider subordinating some human claims to those of the environment per se. Consider, for example, the disputes over protecting wilderness areas from development that would make them accessible to greater numbers of people. I myself feel disingenuous rationalizing the environmental protectionist’s position in terms of a utilitarian calculus, even one that takes future generations into account, and plays fast and loose with its definition of “good.” Those who favor development have the stronger argument — they at least hold the protectionist to a standstill — from the point of advancing the greatest good of the greatest number of people. And the same is true regarding arguments to preserve useless species of animals, as in [the case of sea urchins endangered by a nuclear power plant.] One can say that we never know what is going to prove useful at some future time. In order to protect ourselves, therefore, we ought to be conservative now in our treatment of nature. I agree. But when conservationists argue this way to the exclusion of other arguments, or find themselves speaking in terms of “recreational interests” so continuously as to play up to, and reinforce, homocentrist perspectives, there is something sad about the spectacle. One feels that the arguments lack even their proponent’s convictions. I expect they want to say something less egotistic and more emphatic but the prevailing and sanctioned modes of explanation in our society are not quite ready for it. In this vein, there must have been abolitonists who put their case in terms of getting more work out of the Blacks. Holdsworth says of the early English Jew that while he was “regarded as a species of res nullius … [H]e was valuable for his acquisitive capacity; and for that reason the crown took him under its protection.” (Even today, businessmen are put in the position of insisting that their decent but probably profitless acts will “help our company’s reputation and be good for profits.”)

For my part, I would prefer a frank avowal that even making adjustments for esthetic improvements, what I am proposing is going to cost “us,” i.e., reduce our standard of living as measured in terms of our present values.

We may still not be “ready for it,” as Stone puts it; and, he goes on to say, there might be a more “fundamental problem” with asking human beings to put their own immediate self-interest aside and act on ethical principle, or to limit our rights in order to respect the rights of others:

Insofar as the proposal is not just an elaborate legal fiction, but really comes down in the last analysis to a compromise of our interests for theirs, why should we adopt it? “What is in it for ‘us’?”

This is a question I am prepared to answer, but only after permitting myself some observations about how odd the question is. It asks for me to justify my position in the very anthropocentric hedonist terms that I am proposing we modify. One is inclined to respond by a counter: “couldn’t you (as a white) raise the same questions about compromising your preferred rights status with Blacks?”; or “couldn’t you (as a man) raise the same question about compromising your preferred rights status with women?” Such counters, unfortunately, seem no more responsive than the question itself. (They have a nagging ring of “yours too” about them.) What the exchange actually points up is a fundamental problem regarding the nature of philosophical argument. Recall that Socrates, whom we remember as an opponent of hedonistic thought, confutes Thrasymachus by arguing that immorality makes one miserably unhappy! Kant, whose moral philosophy was based upon the categorical imperative (“Woe to him who creeps through the serpent windings of Utilitarianism”) finds himself justifying, e.g., promise keeping and truth telling, on the most prudential-one might almost say, commercial-grounds. This “philosophic irony” (as Professor [S. Morris] Engel calls it) may owe to there being something unique about ethical argument. “Ethics cannot be put into words”, Wittgenstein puts it; such matters “make themselves manifest.” On the other hand, perhaps the truth is that in any argument which aims at persuading a human being to action (on ethical or any other bases), “logic” is only an instrument for illuminating positions, at best, and in the last analysis it is psycho-logical [sic] appeals to the listener’s self-interest that hold sway, however ”principled” the rhetoric may be.

That logic may have its limits and ethical argument its attendant ironies should not deter us. “The strongest case can be made from the perspective of human advantage,” Stone writes; and after reviewing that case, he goes on to suggest that protecting the environment will actually raise our standard of living, if not in terms of our present values, then (this point deserves emphasis) in terms of new and more durable values.

Stone is even prepared to argue that “a radical new conception of man’s relationship to the rest of nature would not only be a step towards solving the material planetary problems” (and the problems Stone identifies here, in 1972, are still very much with us and more urgent than ever before: melting polar ice caps, dying oceans, serious threats to water). “There are strong reasons for such a changed consciousness [Stone admits that he is uncomfortable with the term] from the point of making us far better humans.” Recognizing the rights of those whose standing once seemed “unthinkable,” to borrow Stone’s phrase, surely has.