Saturday, October 20, 2012

Voter Fraud

There’s been a lot of discussion this election year about voter fraud. The discussions range from a belief that the existence of the republic is endangered by all these fraudulent voters, to the belief that voter fraud is negligible and the pursuit of it is racism.

I can think of three basic kinds of voter fraud:

  • Improperly credentialed voters
  • Malevolent tabulation
  • Buying votes

The first, improperly credentialed voters, is the target of the voter ID legislation that has been passed in a number of states in recent years.  Where I live (Texas), you can vote with only your voter registration card for identification.  If you forget your voter registration card, you can vote with a photo ID.  The intent of the legislation is to require both.  Recently, in Dallas County, there was a conviction of somebody who voted in a local election who was ineligible. They lied about where they lived in order to register and vote for a family member who was running in the Democratic primary.  The DA who prosecuted was also a Democrat. I can’t imagine how they caught this individual, unless an opponent knew for a fact that she lived someplace else. 

That’s the thing about this type of voter fraud:  it’s hard to find examples of it, because it’s really hard to detect.  If this person had been required to show her driver’s license, with her real address, she wouldn’t have bothered to try filing a fraudulent vote.

One example of this type of thing made history. Lyndon B. Johnson won a Democratic primary for senator from Texas in 1948, when he won by 87 votes out of a million cast. The difference came from a ballot box in Alice, Texas, where a significant number of ballots were cast in alphabetical order and in the same handwriting, and all of the voters involved were dead.  When the loser filed suit, the ballot box disappeared, never to be found again.  Imagine the latter half of 20th Century American history with no Lyndon Johnson. 

Malevolent tabulation is suspected most notably in the Presidential election of 1960.  This was an unbearably close election, and the decision came down to a couple of states, Illinois and Texas.  Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago held back the tally for Cook County until he knew how many votes John F. Kennedy would need to carry Illinois. Texas had all manner of shenanigans. There were investigations afterwards, and some convictions in Illinois, but only one state flipped sides after the election (Hawaii).  Nixon believed the election had been stolen, and who knows if his paranoid behavior after he was elected President himself were in part caused by that belief.

Finally, buying votes goes on all the time.  I had the privilege of living for a time in both New York and Chicago, and I would have to say vote buying was endemic. Of course, it’s not called vote buying – it’s called “walking around money” or money given to help people get to the polls, and maybe buy some coffee and donuts on the way home. It happened in 2008, but for some strange reason the Attorney General was not interested in prosecuting it.

It’ll be interesting to see what types of voter fraud are found next month.  Maybe they’ll come up with some new ones.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Me and my Harley

This story begins a long time ago, and while I hope it has ended, I could be wrong.  I did not keep any of the documents underlying this story; this is all from memory. I damn well should have kept some of the documents, as will be clear.

My mother worked for a while for Chase Manhattan Bank. Initially she worked in an office downtown in the financial district, where the bank interacted with traders on the New York Stock Exchange. At the time, before the banks were deregulated, there was not that much that the banks did with regards to buying and selling stocks, but there was some.  Mom was not a trader, but worked with some of the traders. We got some interesting freebies from the traders, such as New York Rangers tickets, Knicks tickets, tickets to Mets games, and even tickets to a BC vs. Army game at West Point, where we sat surrounded by generals. We were on the wrong side of the field, unfortunately.

After a while, my mother took a job, with Chase, at a branch in Bedford Hills, NY, in Westchester.  My parents had purchased a home in Ridgefield, CT, just an easy 20 or 30 minute drive away from Bedford Hills (or 120 if it was snowing). My mother liked working there, until one day the police came and took away the bank manager in handcuffs.  The story, as best I can recall, is that he was being blackmailed by his (male) lover, and he wanted to keep matters secret from his wife and kids, and used some of Chase’s money to help pay the blackmail. My mother was pretty shook up. 

Later, my parents moved closer to the city, and my Mom transferred to a branch in New Rochelle, NY. At that branch, the assistant manager was fired, because he was funneling money to his girlfriend. But he got a good reference when he applied at another bank, probably because his affair was not same-sex, or because the girl was a minority, or because Chase didn’t want the publicity.  At any rate, without working at a bank, I was getting a look at the dark underside of the banking business.

I had a job at an insurance company in New York, making next to nothing, but I needed a checking account.  At this point, a typical retail checking account had a fee per check, or else you had to maintain a sizable minimum balance, which was out of my reach.  My mother helped me get a Chase checking account, affiliated somehow with her employment, that didn’t cost me anything.  With that account came a Visa card, which I threw in a drawer and never used.

Later, I became enamored with the services at Citibank, which was the first company to do ATM’s right. I started banking there, and even after I took a job with a Chemical Bank subsidiary with a free employee account, I would just write a check and move it to Citi.  And I closed my Chase account, or so I thought. Unbeknownst to me, I still had a Chase Visa card.

Mom left Chase when my Dad accepted a transfer to Tulsa, OK. I eventually accepted a position with a company in Texas, and moved there.  Some years later, I am guessing 1992 or so, I got a phone call from someone at Chase. They asked if I was James McDonough, and asked if I lived at (my former address in Dallas). I replied yes to both. I could tell, they were excited – they had me.  They started asking questions about my Chase Visa card. I didn’t have a Chase Visa card.  (Actually, at this point I had completely forgotten that I ever had a Chase Visa card, but I found it in a storage box years later.) They asked again about my former address, and I said I used to live there but I didn’t have a Chase Visa card – at that time the only thing I used was American Express. 

They called over and over and over again. Always Chase Bank, always asking about the debt on the Chase Visa card.

What I think happened is that a renewal card was mailed to an address where I no longer lived, probably not the Dallas address, and instead of the card being returned undeliverable, someone opened it and started using it.

One time the person who called from Chase (her name was Victoria) was actually sympathetic. She told me that whoever had this card had purchased a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with it, and had spent over $400 at a Red Lobster in New York.  And this had occurred in 1984. So, 6 or 8 years later, they were after me.  I said I was not responsible for the debt and would not pay it.  Every time I said that to someone from Chase, the same response would come back: “But didn’t you live at (my former Dallas address)?”  I would say yes, but I did not ever use a Chase Visa card in New York or anywhere else. I had been a victim of identity theft.  Then they would ask had I filed a police report. Well, you have to understand, the event occurred six or eight years before I ever knew about it – the term ‘identity theft’ had not even been invented. And why would I file a police report – I was not out any money.

The calls went on, and finally Chase turned it over to a collection agency. I wrote the agency, telling them it was not my debt and I was not responsible. They sent it back to Chase, and then Chase got really ugly, wanting to know why I had made the collection agency send it back.  Then the guy said I had to write them a letter, and sign it six times, saying it was not my debt.  I decided to try something different.  By now there was an Internet – so I looked up the names of the senior executives of Chase.  I picked out the name of Arthur Ryan, then President of Chase, and wrote him a letter, explaining how Chase was harassing a son of a Chase retiree and asked them to stop.

So they wrote back, apologized, and the harassment stopped.

About five years later, a couple of months after I had trashed all the correspondence, I started getting calls from the more sophisticated collection agencies.  Chase had written the debt off, and sold it to some bottom-feeders for pennies or less on the dollar. I was back to square one.

I went through half a dozen of these companies, telling them one by one that I did not acknowledge responsibility for the debt, that I could pay the debt any time I cared to, but that I would not because it wasn’t mine.  Usually they would call a couple of times and figure it out.  But then I ran into Portfolio Recovery Associates.  These guys called a couple of times a week for five years. I finally wrote them a letter, and they stopped for a couple of years, then started up again. At least their caller ID identifies who they are so my wife and I know to ignore them.

It has been a few years since they’ve called.  The ‘debt’ is almost 30 years old, beyond the statute of limitations, but there’s no limit on attempting to collect a debt.  I expect to hear from them again.

I’m not paying.

At one point during the heat of the arguments with Chase, I was in a Harley-Davidson shop in Del Mar, CA.  I thought about having my picture taken atop a motorcycle, but thought maybe that wouldn’t be a good idea.  I bought a Harley-Davidson coffee mug, instead. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cultural Differences (2)

One evening (May 2003), Jody and I were at Monoprix, a supermarket with a discount store attached.  It's a chain, and this one was on Rue Saint-Antoine in Paris.  We love going into grocery stores in other countries, to see what kinds of things we can find and wonder how in the world you could eat that.  Our objective, believe it or not, was to bring home some French cat food.  Our alpha male cat had some French cat food a few years earlier from our first trip to France, and we knew he would enjoy some more, and by then we had another cat to help out with the project.

We were poking around in the food section.  They had a wine cellar, so I went down there.  After looking around for a minute, I headed up the stairs, only to encounter a small boy pushing one of those little kid size carts.  He was not paying attention and had pushed the cart down the stairs and was toppling down himself.  The cart was full of stuff, including a couple of bottles of wine. The stuff in the cart was now flying everywhere, broken glass was everywhere, potatoes rolling around.  

I caught the cart, with boy attached (he was maybe 4 or 5) and kept him from landing on his head, and slicing himself up on the broken glass.  My wife came running to help, and then a woman too old to be his mother showed up in a panic.  It was quite a scene. 

Naturally, every word of French that we knew was gone from our heads at this point and all we could say was 'are you OK' to the boy.  Then Grand-mere (or babysitter) smacked him. I said 'he’s not OK any more'.  It was just a tap, but it made him cry. At any rate, the woman was very thankful once she realized the boy could have been hurt pretty badly.  I got wine all over my shoes, but it was worth it.

We did find some French cat food.  It made a hit. But subsequently Customs has confiscated any cat food we’ve tried to bring home. C'est triste!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


I listened to a show about migraines today.  It was a podcast of the Diane Rehm show. I thought I would write about the topic.

Imagine having a migraine and not even knowing the word ‘migraine’, so you have no earthly idea what it is. I first remember having these awful headaches when I was in high school – it would start with a dot of light, similar to what you see from a camera flash. This dot didn’t fade away, but instead it grew, and flickered, and got to where it looked like what you see when you rub your eyes. Eventually, my field of vision was completely blocked, except for a little bit of peripheral vision on the sides. Sometimes the patterns were geometric; other times like lightning or aurora borealis. This would go on for a while, maybe twenty or thirty minutes, before subsiding. I would then have an excruciating headache, and nausea. After I threw up, I would start to feel a little better.

Of course, in a class at a Jesuit high school in Manhattan was not an ideal place for all of this to be happening. I did not know what it was, and I did not have the vocabulary to describe it accurately to anyone else, including my parents.

Once I felt one coming on while I was sitting in the gym at school watching a lunchtime intramural basketball game. I had figured out that, sometimes, I could fight it off, if I could just get away from any light. All I could do at this point was to sit there with my hands blocking my eyes and my eyes closed.  I felt a tap on my shoulder, and looked up to see the headmaster, Father McDonald, looking at me, very concerned. He didn’t ask me if I was all right. He just said, “Son, go see the nurse”. I went to the nurse and described as best I could what was going on. She decided to send me home (thanks a lot – 45 minute commute) but called home first to let my mother know I was coming. Those were the days when moms were home to be called.

Well, having been sent to the nurse by Father McDonald and having been sent home from school changed the situation. This could no longer be ignored as some whining from a malingering kid. But it didn’t matter – we still didn’t know what this was.  I was taken to see an eye doctor, an ophthalmologist, thinking something might be wrong with my eyes. The exam revealed I had 20/10 vision. I really did, and it stayed that way for years. When I was in the Coast Guard, I often could make out objects that others could only see with binoculars. But, that meant I didn’t need glasses, and there was nothing wrong with my eyes. So, no treatment options presented themselves.  One time I recall I was driving (with a learner’s permit) on Dune Road on Long Island, which I loved to do, and I stopped the car and said I was getting one of my eye things and couldn’t drive any more. That was pretty drastic.

I don’t recall exactly when, but at some point I read about someone who was afflicted with migraines, and from the description, determined that was what I was having.

I continued to have migraines while I was in college, but less frequently. After I got out of college, I stopped having migraines at all, until one day in April 1996, when I stumbled while jogging, fell, dislocated and broke my shoulder, smashed my face into the pavement, broke a front tooth, cracked some ribs, etc. A couple of hours later, I had a migraine in the emergency room while awaiting treatment. The dislocated shoulder was excruciating, and I assume there is a connection between that and the migraine, although it could have been the morphine they gave me. I’ve had them maybe once every couple of years since then. One time I woke up in the morning with one, which seems exceptionally unfair.

However, the migraines that I get now, thankfully not often, are different. There’s no headache, and no nausea; just the aura. I feel out of sorts for a while after the aura goes away, and still shy away from bright light, but I’m otherwise fine.

From listening to the Diane Rehm show, I learned that migraines are thought to be a brain disorder of some kind, not fully understood. In prior years it was thought to be a vascular disorder, and the treatment was a medication to constrict the blood vessels, which worked for some people but not for many. If I catch it in time, Excedrin Migraine seems to help. There are still relatively few treatment options, but there are at least a few doctors around who make migraines a specialty.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cultural differences

Our first trip to France was in 1998.  As international travelers, we were completely clueless. One of the things I did wrong was to bring my jogging stuff. Honestly, who goes to France for one week and wastes time jogging?  Well, I did. With those pastries and desserts, it probably helped, but not much.

We stayed at a condo in Port Cogolin, with my parents. Port Cogolin is a little harbor off the Gulf of St. Tropez, about halfway between St. Tropez and Sainte Maxime, on the Cote d'Azur. The furnishings were spartan, with the most noticeable problem being the absence of screens on the windows, in a somewhat marshy area. Mosquitoes were a problem, but they must have sprayed around there some because it wasn't as bad as it could have been. The condo was close to a park, with a trail that was excellent for jogging. I would run there in the mornings, while everyone else was cleaning up. One thing I noticed is that there were lots of people with dogs. And for the most part, the dogs were unleashed. As a jogger, just about nothing bothers me more than encountering unleashed dogs; I think I’d rather be caught in a downpour. But these dogs were all different. They ignored me. When has a dog ever ignored a person running? These did.

After a couple of days, I sort of got used to it. The dogs weren’t leashed, but they were trained not to chase people.  We also noticed that dogs were allowed in restaurants.  The dog would sit at the owner’s feet, and sometimes the restaurant would put out a water bowl for the dog. And it seemed like everybody had a dog, and the dogs were exceptionally well behaved. My Dad even came up with a business idea - 'Rent a Dog', for Americans who want to pass as French. A cigarette and a cell phone would seal the deal.

Near where we were staying was a ‘hypermart’, called GĂ©ant. It was a short walk from our condo. This store had everything imaginable except cars and boats, and called to mind De Gaulle’s complaint about trying to govern a country with 400 kinds of cheese. It seemed like they had a lot more than 400.  My wife and I were just looking for some stuff to bring home as gifts. This store was like a League of Nations, with so many different languages being spoken. A few Brits, but no other Americans. After we were done, we crossed the street, and came to a bus stop where there was a line of people waiting for the bus. In the line was a woman with a young boy, maybe nine or ten years old. The boy was being hateful and giving his mother a hard time. Evidently it had been going on for a while.

She hauled off and smacked him in the face.  We were shocked – if this happened in the States, someone would probably have called the police. Maybe everyone would have called the police. But there, nobody even looked at her. Well, the kid was asking for it, and he got it. It's what would have happened when I was a kid.

As we walked on towards our condo, I turned to my wife and said “I love this country. Their dogs behave and they beat their children.”

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Adventures in the Mayflower Hotel

Back in the 1980’s, I used to travel on business to New York. Often, I stayed at the Mayflower Hotel, on Central Park West. This hotel is no longer in existence.

The building was pre-war, with very high ceilings and large rooms. Many rooms were suites, with non-frost-free refrigerators with the old style ice cube trays, and sometimes a kitchenette with a hot plate. Some people stayed for a long time – it was popular with people performing on Broadway, for example.

The thing I liked about it the best was that I could run in the park after work. I would not run in the park after dark, but during spring and summer and until the end of daylight savings time in the fall it was fine.

I had good experiences at the Mayflower for the most part, but once or twice some strange stuff happened.

One night I woke up after midnight. My room was in the front of the hotel, overlooking Central Park. The person in the room next door had the television on very loud, and was watching some kind of a Western, with lots of loud music and gunfire.  I could not go back to sleep with all that noise. I beat against the wall; I got dressed, went into the hall, pounded on the door.  No effect.  I called the front desk to complain, and they called – I could hear the phone ringing, but he didn’t answer.

Suddenly, it was quiet. He must have awoken, and turned off the television.  Finally!

But, the shooting continued.  The shooting was going on in the park, across the street. I put my lights out (!) and peeked out, and saw a police car down there, and evidently the police were shooting at someone, probably a drug dealer or something.  Okay, try to sleep through that!

The second strange thing that happened was while I was working on a system implementation that was seriously late and over budget.  I was the main guy on-site, but I knew there was no way I could accomplish all that needed to be done and had asked for more help. There were four of us on site, working on the project, and I was feeling pretty good, but one by one they fell away. One guy became simply physically exhausted and appeared to be at the end of his rope, so the boss sent him back home to Dallas. Another had to leave suddenly due to a death in his family, an accidental death that was completely unexpected. Finally, my boss had to leave because his wife was having suicidal panic attacks.

So I was back where I had started. The client company was sympathetic, and let me have pretty much unlimited use of the computer, but it was on ‘second shift’, or roughly from the time people would normally go home until midnight.  So I would work usually from about noon until two or three in the morning, go back to the hotel, try to sleep in late (not easy in a hotel, certainly not in New York), and come on back the next day.

One early morning I was totally wiped out. I walked back to the hotel, unkempt, my tie hanging loose, clothes a mess, raincoat hanging open, and when I pulled on the front door, it was locked. Now what?  I stood there for a moment, and then someone opened the door. I explained that I was staying there, and fumbled around for my room key to prove it.  He said he recognized me, and explained that they were locking the front door at this time of day to keep out, well, to keep out people who looked like me.  I pretty much resembled a homeless person, I guess. 

I went to my room and tried to sleep. Then the noise started.  Beep . . . beep . . . beep.  A slow but steady beeping noise. There was no way I could sleep with that. I couldn’t identify the source. I thought it might have something to do with the phone. There were two beds, so I took the phone and put it underneath a pillow on the other bed.  The sound continued unabated, so it wasn’t the phone.  I just looked around, and realized that the smoke alarm or CO2 detector on the ceiling was making the beep.  I pulled a chair underneath the alarm and climbed up.  With the ceiling being very high – prewar building – it was all I could do to get a hand on it, and I couldn’t turn it and I couldn’t get it loose. I stretched as high as I could . . . and got a charley horse in my hamstring.  Excruciating pain!  As I floundered around trying to get down from the chair so I could massage my leg, the thought passed through my brain: I’m going to fall off this chair, hit my head, and die in this hotel room, and no one will ever know why.

I managed to get down, and ease the pain in my leg, but the beeping continued. I got back on the chair, reached up, and before my leg could spasm again, ripped that damned thing right out of the ceiling.  I got back down and took the batteries out, but not before noticing an identical hole in the ceiling a foot or so away from the one I just made. Some other poor bastard had done the same thing. Now I have one more thing to observe when checking into a hotel – the location of the smoke alarm.  It’s happened again.

When I finally came home after that implementation, I had a hard time finding my house.  When I had left, there was a vacant lot across the street, but when I came home there was a house on it.