WEEK IN REVIEW 3 November 2011

by by Ashton Strait, Amy LaCount & Avery Houser

illustration by by Becca Levinson

Security Violated

According to its website, the Transportation Security Administration’s primary role in the airline industry is to “electronically screen millions of bags for explosives and other dangerous items.”  Nowhere on their site do they mention taking a personal interest in the non-explosive contents of passengers’ luggage. But when feminist blogger Jill Filipovic opened her suitcase after a trip on October 24, she found a note from an inspector telling her to “GET YOUR FREAK ON GIRL.”  The inspector had apparently spotted Filipovic’s vibrator.

Whether this incident strikes you as an appalling violation of privacy or a hilarious anecdote, it comes on the heels of what has been a very embarrassing year for the TSA.  In January, two TSA agents were arrested for grand larceny after stealing $40,000 in cash from someone’s luggage (why someone was traveling with that amount of money might be a story for a different government institution).  In April the administration came under fire for the pat-down of a six-year-old girl in New Orleans, and in May a controversial photo of a TSA agent patting down an eight-month-old baby circulated around the internet, reigniting the debate over the fine line between private rights and public safety.

The TSA might have more respect as an enforcer of public safety if not for incidents like what occurred at LAX last Sunday when a loaded gun almost made it onto a flight from Los Angeles to Portland. The gun passed through all security screenings in a checked bag and was only noticed when it fell out of the bag as handlers were loading it onto the plane. TSA spokeswomen Lorie Dankers told the LA Times that the TSA screens for firearms in carry-on bags, but that it is not its responsibility to do so with checked luggage.  Don’t tell your friends who are afraid of flying.

The TSA reported that the agent who left the note in Filipovic’s bag has been suspended.  And as for Filipovic’s take on the situation?  On Wednesday she wrote on the blog that “the problem with the note is that it’s representative of the bigger privacy intrusions that the U.S. government… levels every day… invasion is inherent to the TSA’s mission, regardless of whether a funny note is left behind—the note only serves to highlight the absurdity of all this security theater.”



Paper Trail

On October 23, the American health care system was further besieged by scandal. A New York Times story revealed that pads of prescription forms had been stolen from several prominent public New York City hospitals. As of yet, the numbers announced by the State Department of Health are still unclear, but some officials estimate that up to 1.4 million prescription forms have disappeared.

The thefts were first noticed in 2008 and initially thought to be individual incidents. However, health officials have since concluded that the thefts were connected in a larger conglomerate. Prescription pads sell for $100 to $300 each, resulting in multi-million dollar losses at hospitals. How is it possible that so much paper is getting lost in hospital security? “Many times facility staff is unaware of the theft or loss of the prescription forms,” a July 11 memo from the DOH reads, frighteningly enough.

Investigators from the Health Department’s Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement ascertain that organized gangs must be involved, while sources identified the gang to Newsday as the Latin Kings, the largest Hispanic gang in the country, which first emerged in the ‘40s in Chicago. According to sources, The Kings sell the prescription pads in underground trafficking rings to forge prescriptions for intense painkillers, especially oxycodone. Yet besides the illegal distribution of acutely addictive drugs and alarming theft from public hospitals, the most chilling factmight be the Health Department felt no need to inform its citizens of this growing issue for three years. Although nine out of 21 New York City Health and Hospitals Corps facilities reported incidents of theft since 2008, and a memo written by the State Department of Health divulged the investigation of missing pads back in July of 2011, no public announcement was made. Finally, on October 23, the memo from the DOH was released after the situation became too dire to keep under wraps.

Director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Jeff Reynolds deplores, "That much paper getting out into the community, it makes our job harder, but at the end of the day it's taking lives—in record numbers. It's akin to letting the most virulent virus you can find loose in New York State and not telling anyone.”



Penis Pump Justice

Last Tuesday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court permanently stripped former Judge Donald D. Thompson of his pension eligibility, which would have netted him $8,000 annually. Thompson was caught using a penis pump, a device for sexual stimulation, and shaving his genitals during a trial back in 2004. H had appealed for a reinstatement of his pension—after it was originally cut off in 2006—two yearsafter he was convicted of four counts of indecent exposure in violation of cannons 1,2, and 3 of the Code of Judicial Ethics. As the petition for his removal notes, “Judge Thompson violated these Canons by his repeated use of a device known as a penis pump during non-jury and jury trials in his courtroom and in the presence of court employees.”

The petition goes on to state that Lisa K. Foster, who served as Thompson’s court reporter for 15 years,“saw Judge Thompson holding his penis and shaving underneath it with a disposable razor while on the bench.” Other witnesses heard a “ch-ch” sound or saw the pump. And Thompson’s secretary discovered semen in the trashcan underneath the bench. During Thompson’s trial it came to light that he had used the penis pump in the midst of the testimony of a sobbing man whose grandchild had been murdered.

After spending close to 20 months in prison, Thompson requested reinstatement of his judicial retirement benefits upon his release. But his appeal was denied by the Oklahoma County District Court,and now, the Oklahoma Supreme Court as well.

Thompson’s attorneys argued that he should only lose the retirement benefits earned in his last term of office. But the Supreme Court ruled that such an arrangement would be unlawful, as it would unfairly benefit officials elected to multiple terms of office—a state employee who works on a non-term basis, for example, loses his entire pension if he violates his oath of office. Given this logic, the court ruled that an elected official should lose his entire pension for a similar violation.

In the scales of Great Lady Justice, it appears, the gavel weighs heavier than the penis pump.