Episode 840: Fixing Chicken

Chicken for sale at a grocery store.

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Arty Schronce was the director of Georgia’s Poultry Marketing News. As part of his job, he’d call up chicken companies and ask them how much they were charging for chicken. He’d publish the numbers in something called The Georgia Dock.

A couple of years ago, things started to get weird. Today on the show, we follow the story of how some shadowy Wall Street investors became convinced that chicken companies were conspiring to charge Americans too much for their chicken. They try to expose the sham and Arty Schronce gets caught in the middle.

Music: “So Lonely,” “Groovy Bassline” and “Waiting For You.”

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Court Examines Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens' Cell Phone In Criminal Case

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens faces a felony charge for invasion of privacy for allegedly taking a semi-nude photo of a woman without her consent. On Tuesday, his cell phone and email were examined as part of the trial.

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Jeff Roberson/AP

Behind locked courtroom doors, a forensic expert took data from Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ cellphone and email on Tuesday, trying to determine whether he took a partially nude photo of a woman without her consent.

Greitens denies it, and prosecutors are looking for the alleged image.

The governor, a former Navy SEAL and a rising Republican star, stands accused of taking the photo and then threatening to release it if the woman spoke of their affair. Greitens has admitted they had an extramarital relationship.

The data from his phone and email were extracted for the felony invasion of privacy trial, which begins Thursday with jury selection. According to Missouri law, invasion of privacy includes creating an semi-nude or fully nude image without a person’s consent, while he or she is expecting privacy.

“The examiner taped yellow paper over the windows in the doors to a courtroom before sitting down at a desk and beginning to extract data from the governor’s cellphone,” reported The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Greitens’ defense lawyers had tried to stop both examinations.

On May 6, attorneys at law firm Dowd Bennett filed a motion to block the search warrant for Greitens’ personal email address. The document, which was uploaded by the Post-Dispatch, stated that an investigator found an “uptick in activity” in Greitens’ Gmail account after the announcement of an investigation, and that “there may have been efforts to access or delete the photo in question.” The investigator alleged that “most, if not all” of the activity was coming from Dowd Bennett itself.

That was “an absurd and unsupportable allegation,” the defense stated in the document. “[The prosecution investigator] describes what would indisputably be normal activity … that is, the law firm begins to investigate.”

On May 4, Greitens’ lawyers unsuccessfully argued that an examination of his phone would be an “abuse” of Missouri court rules which would also violate the governor’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Previously, the attorneys had said that the case should be thrown out because of misconduct – they alleged that prosecutors withheld evidence and that a private investigator hired by the prosecution had lied under oath.

Greitens’ team has made a practice of aggressively filing motions to challenge each turn of the case, reported St. Louis Public Radio. And sometimes that tactic has worked. In April, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Rex Burlison granted the defense’s request to do a second deposition of two key prosecution witnesses and the state’s private investigator.

The third-party investigator will determine if Greitens’ cell phone and email data is relevant to the trial, reported KMOV. It added that it is not clear whether Greitens was using the same cell phone that would have been in use during his extramarital affair with the woman.

The governor has come under mounting pressure in the past few months. Greitens was charged in April with a felony — illegally obtaining a donor list from a veteran’s charity to raise money for his 2016 political campaign.

A St. Louis County attorney also sued him for using an app called “Confide,” which automatically deletes messages, stating that the app violates Missouri’s open records laws. It subpoenaed Attorney General Josh Hawley to turn over all documents after he found in March “no evidence of wrongdoing” by Greitens, the Associated Press reported.

Missouri lawmakers announced last week that they scheduled a special session to consider impeaching Greitens. It is set for May 18.

Through it all, Greitens has rejected calls to resign.

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Group Of House Republicans Trying To Force Vote On Immigration Legislation

U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., holds a news conference on immigration reform at the Capitol on May 9, 2018. Curbelo is seeking to circumvent Republican leaders to bring an immigration bill to the House floor.

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A small group of House Republicans began gathering support Wednesday for a plan to force votes on immigration legislation as early as this summer, despite protests from party leaders.

The long-shot legislative maneuver, known as a discharge petition, requires that they convince at least 218 House members to sign a petition to overrule House Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders and compel votes on at least four immigration bills. The effort is a rare act of defiance of party leaders who are eager to avoid an ugly showdown over immigration ahead of the election in November.

Supporters of the petition say they are tired of waiting for leaders to act on immigration and they are willing to resort to unusual steps to get their way. Florida Republican Carlos Curbelo told reporters Wednesday that he’s been clear with leaders along the way that he wants to empower lawmakers.

“We believe this institution needs to act, immigration has paralyzed the institution for too long,” Curbello said. “We don’t view this as anyway undermining House leaders.”

Republicans and Democrats say they have grown tired of waiting to pass an immigration bill. Members on both sides say they are frustrated by negotiations with the White House over border security and protection immigrants who are in the country illegally after being brought to the country illegally.

The Senate attempted to take up immigration in February but failed to advance any bills after a week of debate.

Trump announced last year that he planned to revoke protections for roughly 700,000 of those immigrants who filed for protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Courts have so far blocked him from following through but lawmakers say they want to step in and give immigrants certainty as soon as possible.

Curbello said the plan is to allow votes on up to four bills. The first would be a moderate proposal that would include DACA protections and some bipartisan border security measures. The second bill would be a conservative measure drafted by Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte to crack down on illegal immigration and place new limits on legal immigration. The other two options are still poorly defined but at least one would be a bill crafted by GOP leaders and sponsored by Ryan.

It is rare for leaders to back a process that evades their control of the House floor. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters Wednesday that he “doesn’t like discharge petitions” but declined to answer when asked if he was formally working to convince members not to sign the immigration petition.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wisc., hasn’t formally weighed in but he has for months called on House members to work on crafting immigration legislation through normal committee channels— a position reiterated Wednesday by Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong.

“We continue to work with our members to find a solution that can both pass the House and get the president’s signature,” Strong said in a statement

The measure is gaining steam despite leadership objections.

The discharge petition was filed Wednesday morning with seven signatures. The number more than doubled to 17 by mid-afternoon. Sponsors said they expect all 193 Democrats will eventually join them—meaning the effort could be less than 10 votes short of success.

“Every member should be for this discharge petition and this process,” Curbello said.

It isn’t rare for members to file discharge petitions, what’s rare is when the petitions succeed. Members have only successfully forced votes twice in the past 20 years on major legislation: the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill in 2001 and a 2015 measure to reinstate the Export-Import bank.

The unconventional plan has been in the works for several months but it rapidly gained support in April after Ryan announced that he plans to retire at the end of the year. Ryan had been pushing members to focus on crafting an immigration bill that Trump could support.

Forcing votes on immigration could be politically risky for Republicans who have struggled to find a unified message on immigration. A vote this summer could re-expose fissures within the party over protecting DACA recipients and and deep disagreements with Trump over his demands for a wall along the border with Mexico.

Trump has said he won’t sign new immigration protections without funding for the wall and greater border security. So far Congress has failed to come up with any legislation that would satisfy those demands while still getting the necessary votes from moderates in the House and Democrats in the Senate, where bipartisan support is needed to avoid a filibuster.

But supporting immigration is also good politics for some Republicans.

Utah Republican Mia Love, one of dozens of House Republicans facing a serious challenge in November, said she backs the petition precisely because it would give every a member of Congress to go on record on immigration.

“We want the White House to come up with their plans and the senate to come up with their plans,” Love said. “Our job is to make sure all of the bills that all of us have worked really hard on have a voice on the floor.”

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Worries That A Federal Student Loan Watchdog Will Be Defanged

Mick Mulvaney, acting director of the CFPB, testifies at a House hearing.

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Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

It’s a single line in an email:

“The office of ‘Students & Young Consumers’ … will be folded into the office of ‘Financial Education.’ “

Words sent Wednesday morning by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s acting director, Mick Mulvaney, announcing various staffing changes at the bureau.

Why did this bureaucratic-sounding announcement trigger a sheaf of critiques from consumer groups, California’s attorney general and at least two U.S. senators?

Because student loans just crossed the $1.5 trillion mark. They are the biggest category of borrowing after mortgages. And since 2012, when college students are mistreated or misled, the CFPB’s Student and Young Consumer division has been there to help:

Students and Young Consumers, until recently, was a parallel program office to the office of Financial Education, so this reorganization looks an awful lot like a demotion. Staffers at the bureau, who declined to use their names for fear of losing their jobs, tell NPR they believe this is a move to weaken their ability to protect student loan borrowers and other young people.

A former senior CFPB attorney agrees. “This is an appalling step,” says Christopher Peterson, a law professor at the University of Utah and a former enforcement lawyer and special advisor at the CFPB. “This has been an office that’s been out there protecting consumers when student loan debt collectors, predatory schools, and other companies have been violating the law.”

The CFPB did not immediately return NPR’s request for comment.

Here’s a recap of the context. President Trump named Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, to this post at CFPB last fall. The only problem was, Obama appointee Richard Cordray had already named his deputy, Leandra English, to be his successor. In fact just last month the two were in court fighting about it. As a U.S. Representative, Mulvaney criticized the agency and voted both to muzzle it and to get rid of it entirely. Also last month, he faced off against Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in a banking committee hearing; she blasted him for his lack of regulatory verve since assuming the post, saying, “You are hurting real people to score cheap political points.”

Meanwhile, it’s getting lonely out there for those trying to hold shady lenders, servicers and colleges accountable.

“Now, I’m less convinced that there’s going to be somebody in Washington who is paying attention to whether or not these businesses are doing what they’re supposed to,” says Peterson.

The Department of Education stopped cooperating with CFPB on student loan enforcement last fall, and in March, they issued guidance telling states to back off too.

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'Holy Cow, The Waves Are Glowing!'

Bioluminescent waves crash against rocks at Torrey Pines State Beach in San Diego on Monday night.

Stephen Bay

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Stephen Bay

It took four attempts for Stephen Bay to see the neon blue waves crashing against the rocks at Torrey Pines State Beach in Calif., but when he did, just one thought went through his mind: “Holy cow, the waves are glowing!” he told NPR.

“They were just lit up in this incredible light that no photo can really do it justice,” Bay, a professional photographer, said.

A #RedTide has brought #bioluminescence to San Diego beaches. Learn more about the phenomenon here: https://t.co/tB60nDSkHD. Photo by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego pic.twitter.com/JiKg28Gz42

— Scripps Oceanography (@Scripps_Ocean) May 9, 2018

A red tide off the San Diego coast is behind the brilliant display of bioluminescence that is lighting up the water and drawing huge crowds to marvel at the rare phenomenon.

According to Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of San Diego, the red tide is due to a cluster of dinoflagellates — microscopic organisms — that live in phytoplankton and light up when there is movement or are disrupted.

A red tide offshore San Diego is bringing a spectacular display of #bioluminescence to beaches at night, as captured in this photo by John H. Moore. Scripps scientist Michael Latz said the red tide is due to massive numbers of dinoflagellates including Lingulodinium polyedra. 🌊 pic.twitter.com/JnSlXGBuEs

— Scripps Oceanography (@Scripps_Ocean) May 8, 2018

The water-and-light show started on Monday and remained visible Tuesday night, “still beautiful,” according to Bay, “but much less vibrant.”

Bioluminescence expert Michael Latz said that local red tides like the one visible this week from Encitas to La Jolla — about a 20 mile stretch — “have been known since the early 1900s due to observations by Scripps scientists.”

Bioluminescent waves crash against rocks at Torrey Pines State Beach in San Diego, Calif. on Monday night.

Stephen Bay

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Stephen Bay

Several Scripps scientists are collecting samples of the current red tide for future research on “the genetic and metabolic characteristics of the organisms.”

It’s not clear how long the current red tide will last; in some instances they’ve lasted from a week to a month or more. The last red tide in San Diego took place in September 2013 and lasted a full week. A similar event in October 2011 lasted a month.

Bay’s advice: “Hurry up and get out there.”

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California Moves Forward With Plan To Require Solar Panels On New Homes

Luminalt solar installers Pam Quan (right) and Walter Morales (left) install solar panels on a roof in San Francisco on Wednesday. The California Energy Commission approved a regulation that would require all new homes in the state to have solar panels.

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A state board in California has approved a proposal to require solar panels on all new homes beginning in 2020, a measure that would increase the cost of new construction but provide savings on utilities — and help the state meet ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

California, which is routinely a leader in environmental regulatory efforts, would be the first state in the country with such a requirement. Several cities, including San Francisco and South Miami, Fla., have residential solar panel requirements.

The new rule in California would cover all low-rise residential buildings, although houses that are frequently in the shade are exempt. It applies only to new construction.

The California Energy Commission approved the new regulation on Wednesday; the Building Standards Commission still needs to approve it, The Associated Press reports.

“Representatives from construction groups, public utilities and solar manufacturers all spoke in support of the plan, which they’ve helped the commission develop for years,” the AP reports. “No industry groups spoke in opposition.”

“But Republican legislative leaders argue Californians can’t afford to pay any more for housing in the state’s already extremely expensive market,” the AP writes.

A report commissioned by the state found that the requirement will have an average upfront cost of $9,365. Utility savings will balance out that cost over the long term, but the higher sales point will still hurt developers, real estate agents and some homebuyers.

California has some of the highest housing costs in the country and has a widespread housing shortage.

Also, because of the way California calculates electric bills, increasing the number of solar panels in the state might hurt other ratepayers by causing their bills to go up.

Net metering allows consumers with solar panels to get credit for the electricity they produce, lowering their utility bills. But they’re still connected to the grid — and the costs of maintaining that grid don’t go down. How much this hurts other users is disputed, and varies by location, but California’s energy commission says it could conceivably cost other ratepayers money. One back-of-the-envelope calculation estimates an increased cost of $65 per customer per year.

But overall, making solar panels mandatory will be cost-effective, the report found, and is the only currently feasible way for the state to fulfill its goal of making new homes produce as much power as they consume.

On the same day that the California Energy Commission approved the new regulation, the state EPA released a new report into the consequences of climate change in California.

The report found retreating glaciers, dying trees, warming waters and devastating droughts and wildfires are tied to global warming.

But the researchers noted a bright spot — the state’s greenhouse gas emissions are declining, despite a growing population. The report credits California’s “pioneering policies” designed to cut emissions.

When it comes to mandatory solar panels, the state energy commission says that California has been preparing for this kind of transition for years, as member station KQED reports:

” ‘We update energy codes every three years and in 2013 we required that all new homes be solar-ready,’ says spokeswoman April Beck. ‘Homes had to have a certain amount of space on the roof so a homeowner could add a solar panel later on if he chooses.’

“Making California homes more energy-efficient is part of a broader initiative to shrink the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

“Electricity consumed by residential and commercial buildings is responsible for 14 percent of the state’s greenhouse pollutants, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.”

As member station KPCC reports, the costs and benefits of the new requirement are somewhat disputed. One homebuilder estimated the cost of adding solar panels at up to $30,000, three times the commission’s estimate. And how much it will truly help fight climate change is also subject to debate:

“Alex Steffen, who writes about sustainability and urban planning, said the state’s biggest climate challenge is the fact that Californians drive so much. Transportation emissions are 40% of the total — twice as much as electricity generation.

“He worries that the requirement to put solar panels on every new house could make it harder to increase housing density in cities and near public transit, which he says would have a much bigger effect on emissions reductions.

” ‘Because of the lack of density, people are forced to drive everywhere. You need a car. Until we tackle that problem, doing things like requiring solar panels on new construction is a band aid,’ he said.”

Meanwhile, utility companies tend to advocate for large-scale solar operations instead of rooftop power, arguing that “solar farms” allow customers to get solar power while advantages of scale reduce the cost.

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Puerto Rico To FEMA: Let The Power Crews Stay

View of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, on April 18, 2018, after a major failure knocked out the electricity leaving the entire island without power, again. The electricity was eventually restored, but 1.5 percent of customers have had no power in the eight months since Hurricane Maria destroyed the electrical grid.

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Jose Jimenez/Getty Images

The last of the federal government’s power restoration crews are scheduled to leave Puerto Rico when their contract expires next week, leaving the island’s power utility with the task of energizing the last 1.5 percent of customers still waiting eight months after Hurricane Maria.

But on Wednesday, the island’s representative in Congress asked the federal government not to send its crews home.

In an urgent letter to the heads of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez requested that the agencies extend their restoration contracts on the island for up to 90 days.

“Out of an abundance of caution in the face of the upcoming hurricane season,” wrote Gonzalez, “I must urge that there be an extension of the mission that allows agency and contract crews to remain in place to see that the system is 100 percent restored.”

The island’s power utility – PREPA — and the Army Corps have said they expect full power restoration on the island to be complete by May 31, one day before the official start of the Atlantic hurricane season.

But Gonzalez expressed concern that PREPA does not have the resources to finish the job quickly on its own.

Finishing, she wrote, requires enough resources “so that all areas still requiring restoration may be worked on, full-time and simultaneously.”

FEMA, which would have to authorize the extension, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A spokeswoman for the Army Corps, which issues the contracts, said, “We work for FEMA. We’ll do whatever FEMA wants us to do.”

Con antorchas en manos, vecinos de Humacao denuncian llevan mas de 8 meses sin luz @TelenoticiasPRpic.twitter.com/OIXL0ra4kG

— MaribelMeléndezFontán (@MaribelFontan) May 7, 2018

The Army Corps began withdrawing its crews from Puerto Rico in March, to the anger of many of the island’s officials and residents. But on April 7, the agency also added $140 million to its $370 million contract with Power Secure, the last of its major contractors doing power restoration work. The extension allowed the firm to keep its workers on the island until May 18.

As of this week the Army Corps had 1,059 contractors on the island, including nearly 700 people working on power lines. Of the island’s 1.5 million power customers, officials say about 23,000 — or roughly 70,000 people — are still in the dark.

Nearly all of them live in remote, mountainous areas, in communities where fury and desperation have set in as the start of hurricane season looms. This week residents of one neighborhood in the city of Humacao marched on the streets with torches, demanding an immediate restoration of their electricity.

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