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Fox Guards the Coop; No Comment; Hot Shot Uranium; Affirmative Inaction?; Jorge Varela

Fox Guards the Coop

Since January, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been quietly shopping a proposal on Capitol Hill that would open the door for network giants to own more local TV stations than current Federal Communications Commission regulations allow. The plan would immediately benefit Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox network is alone in having hit the current ownership ceiling.

The proposal’s pro-industry bias has raised eyebrows on the Hill, particularly because it comes from McCain, who has clashed with Murdoch and other network owners over several important issues.

But in this case the chief architect of McCain’s plan, Lauren “Pete” Belvin, a powerful woman on the commerce committee, has close ties with Fox. Mother Jones has obtained documents showing that Belvin is business partners in an antique store with Maureen O’ConnellÑa Fox lobbyist who has worked feverishly to lift the ownership cap.

At a minimum, the business relationship violates the spirit of Senate ethics rules, which state that no member of Congress or staffer “shall engage in any outside business or professional activity or employment for compensation which is inconsistent or in conflict with the conscientious performance of official duties.” The rules also state that any outside business activity must be reported to the staffer’s supervisor, who is to “take such action as he considers necessary for the avoidance of conflict of interest or interference with duties to the Senate.”

Mark Buse, staff director for the commerce committee and Belvin’s supervisor, said he saw no problem in the partnership, and that the women maintained their portions of the business separately. “There’s no commingling of funds,” he said. Furthermore, he said it’s Peggy Binzel, not O’Connell, who lobbies the committee for Fox, “so there’s no conflict of interest.”

Belvin also denies that her friendship with O’Connell gives Fox any special access to the committee. But unlike Buse, she indicated that O’Connell does lobby Fox’s interests. “When Maureen represents her company’s interests and I agree with them, I share her position,” she said, “and when I disagree with her I don’t.”

O’Connell did not return calls.

Even in today’s “anything goes” political culture in Washington, the partnership between Belvin and O’Connell has troubled insiders and outsiders alike. “It’s unconscionable that a high-level staffer on a committee would be a business partner with a person who lobbies for a company with business before that committee,” says Bill Hogan of the Center for Public Integrity. “How can [Belvin] possibly have an arms-length relationship with that person?” One telecom lobbyist was equally astonished, saying the partnership “shows an incredible lack of judgment.”

McCain, a contender for the GOP presidential nomination, is perhaps best known for a campaign finance reform measure, the so-called McCain-Feingold bill. But his sponsorship of the bill has not hindered his own fundraising. McCain took in $4.4 million for his 1998 Senate re-election, almost 15 times as much as his opponent. Murdoch’s company PAC and employees were the senator’s seventh- biggest contributor, providing $16,550, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But the O’Connell-Belvin friendship provides Murdoch more direct access to McCain. The two women first met during the early 1990s, when they were both at the FCC. Belvin worked directly for then-Commissioner James Quello, who was known as Murdoch’s most powerful ally in Washington. In 1993 O’Connell went to work for Quello, with Belvin as her boss. Two years later, when both women still worked for Quello, the commissioner rode to Murdoch’s rescue after the FCC’s staff issued a draft proposal to classify Murdoch’s Australia-based News Corporation as a foreign company. That would have forced Murdoch to reduce his equity in his American TV properties to 25 percent. Led by Quello–who argued that News Corp. had served the public interest by forming a fourth network, Fox–the FCC rejected the proposal, allowing Murdoch to keep full control of his properties.

The following June, O’Connell left the FCC and joined News Corp.’s Washington lobby shop. Her daily planner for 1996, obtained by Mother Jones, shows that she busied herself during the transition from public to private sector by performing the essential task for a new News Corp. employee–“Buy book on Ruppert [sic] M”–and by compiling lists of “people to stay in touch with” and “Key FCC people.”

One of those people, naturally, was Belvin, considered during her years at the FCC an effective advocate for Quello’s pet causes, including protecting Murdoch’s interests. Belvin left to work for McCain in late 1996, shortly before Quello retired from the FCC, and she’s now seen as one of the two most powerful telecom staffers in the Senate.

Critics say Belvin’s clout is magnified by the fact that McCain lacks a strong command of telecom issues. “He’s much more dependent on his staff than were some of his predecessors,” says Andrew Jay Schwartzman of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm that monitors the industry. “Pete’s style and agenda are so well known that people often comment about her clear influence on McCain.”

Until 1996, the FCC’s ownership rule stated that no network could own local stations that together reached more than 25 percent of the nation’s homes. Thanks to fierce lobbying by Murdoch and other industry titans, that year’s Telecommunications Act included a measure that raised the limit to 35 percent. That provision’s chief sponsor was then-Rep. Jack Fields (R-Texas). Throughout the debate he worked closely with his former aide, Peggy Binzel, who had gone on to head Murdoch’s Washington lobby shop.

Not satisfied with the 35 percent ownership cap, Murdoch has been leading other broadcasters in trying to push the limit to 50 percent. Disclosure forms filed with Congress show that last year, O’Connell, Binzel, and Steven Vest (another Fox employee and a former congressional aide) all lobbied the Hill and the FCC to review the cap.

Since FCC Chairman William Kennard has consistently opposed lifting the cap, Murdoch’s hopes lie with Congress. The proposal that McCain is now floating would achieve Murdoch’s fondest desire by legislative fiat.

Industry watchdogs say Belvin is the mastermind behind the proposal so favored by Fox. Indeed, Belvin spoke in detail about McCain’s proposal in an interview last January with Electronic Media, a trade publication, while conceding that her boss “hasn’t even seen [the draft].”

Given the money and media power at stake, the relationship between Belvin and O’Connell is cause for alarm. Last August, the pair opened Spinsters, a cozy antique store in Kensington, Md. The two sometimes spend weekends together on antique-buying trips to upper Maryland and Pennsylvania, according to a source with direct knowledge of the excursions. And on one trip last year they were accompanied by Binzel and a Fox lawyer.

Informed by Mother Jones about the O’Connell-Belvin antique store, Gary Ruskin, head of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Congressional Accountability Project, said flatly, “Pete Belvin should not be in business with a Fox lobbyist, period. It’s a clear conflict of interest, and she should immediately extract herself from that business.” —Ken Silverstein

No Comment

“No one from the NRA has anything to say to Mother Jones–on background, or on the record–ever.
–Bill Powers, Director of Public Affairs, National Rifle Association

Powers was responding to an inquiry as to what NRA president Charlton Heston was referring when he addressed Harvard law students on the right to bear arms: “Right now at more than one major university, Second Amendment scholars … are being told to shut up about their findings or they’ll lose their jobs.” In that February speech, Heston called universities “incubators” of a “rampant epidemic of new McCarthyism,” and encouraged the crowd to follow him in the civil disobedience he’d learned “from Dr. King, who learned it from Gandhi, and Thoreau, and Jesus, and every other great man who led those in the right against those with the might.” —Tim Dickinson

Hot Shot Uranium

It’s easy to see why NATO is using depleted uranium (DU) antitank shells against Serbian ground forces: DU is extremely dense, which allows it to rip “through tanks like a hot knife through butter,” as one Pentagon spokesman puts it. But veterans’ groups, public health experts, and even the United Nations Commission on Human Rights condemn the use of DU as a weapon. The DU shell may be among the armed forces’ most effective munitions, they say, but it is also one of the most toxic.

According to Pentagon reports, DU shells release a fine uranium dust on impact. This dust, says epidemiologist and radiation expert Rosalie Bertell, can be inhaled at the time of battle–and long afterward. DU particles (60 percent as radioactive as bomb-grade uranium) “can be stored in liver, kidney, bone or other tissues for years, irradiating delicate tissues,” says Bertell. “It can initiate or promote cancers.”

U.S. forces fired 320 tons of DU shells at Iraqi targets during the Gulf War. But the Pentagon insists that DU didn’t–and doesn’t–harm anyone other than its intended targets. “The radiation anyone could get from a DU shell is so small that there is no effect,” says Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Dian Lawhon. The Defense Department concedes, however, that it failed to teach its personnel how to avoid radiation exposure when entering a DU-exposed area. “In handling even mildly radioactive material, there are simple things you can do to protect yourself,” says spokesman Austin Camacho. “We didn’t do a good job of telling people about these precautions.” Nonetheless, the Pentagon insists that DU is not a cause of Gulf War illnesses, a variety of mysterious afflictions reported by nearly 20,000 U.S. vets.

The Pentagon’s colleagues in Veterans’ Affairs, however, “definitively disagree” with the Pentagon’s dismissal of DU’s role in Gulf War illnesses. “Depleted uranium has not been ruled out,” says VA spokesman Terry Jemison. Indeed, a recent study by a VA doctor found traces of DU in urine and semen samples from exposed Gulf War vets. And a report by watchdog groups the Military Toxics Project, the National Gulf War Resource Center (NGWRC), and Swords to Plowshares alleges that the Pentagon knew exposure to DU could cause severe health problems, yet did not warn soldiers of the risks. “The Pentagon is either grossly misinformed or intentionally misleading veterans,” says Paul Sullivan of NGWRC. “DU is definitely one of several causes of Gulf War illnesses.”

Adding to the controversy are Iraqi claims that DU contamination has led to dramatic increases in cancer rates and birth defects throughout Iraq. While the Pentagon shrugs off these claims as Iraqi propaganda, groups including the World Health Organization and Physicians for Social Responsibility insist that it is premature–and irresponsible–to unilaterally reject Iraqi claims.

“The medical community takes the line that DU may be a cause, and it may not be,” says Richard Garfield, an epidemiologist at Columbia University and a specialist in the public-health effects of war. “At this point, nobody really knows.” Given the ongoing use of DU shells in Kosovo, new data may soon be available to help resolve this dispute. —Elizabeth Hollander

Affirmative Inaction?

Henry Louis Gates Jr. has never been shy about speaking up for affirmative action. Indeed, the prominent Harvard professor insists that he wouldn’t be where he is today without it. Odd, then, that when it came to assembling a staff to compile an encyclopedia of black history, Gates hired a group that was almost exclusively white. Of the up to 40 full-time writers and editors who worked to produce Encarta Africana only three were black. What’s more, Gates and co-editor K. Anthony Appiah rejected several requests from white staffers to hire more black writers. Mother Jones turned to Gates for an explanation of this apparent inconsistency. —Julian Brookes>

Did the staff members who expressed concern that the Africana team was too white have a point?

It’s a disgusting notion that white people can’t write on black history–some of the best scholars of Africa are white. People should feel free to criticize the quality of the encyclopedia, but I will not yield 1 millimeter [to people who criticize the makeup of the staff]. It’s wrongheaded. Would I have liked there to be more African Americans in the pool? Sure. But we did the best we could given the time limits and budget.

Wouldn’t affirmative action have been appropriate for this project?

Look at the whole enterprise …. The board of editors is predominantly black. The chair is [Nigerian Nobel Laureate] Wole Soyinka, and you don’t get blacker than that. Taken overall, this is the blackest intellectual product in history.

My whole career has been devoted to de-ghettoizing Afro-American studies. [In my department] at Harvard, that means bringing in people who don’t look like the faculty, which is black. Affirmative action is about establishing a level playing field and not discriminating against people who apply. We advertised the positions–black people just didn’t show up in the pool.

Jorge Varela

For Honduran entrepreneurs circa 1985, camarones meant cash. Inspired by the success of Ecuadoran ventures into commercial aquaculture, they started taking out USAID loans to finance the conversion of coastal mangrove forests to large-scale shrimp farms.

Biologist Jorge Varela, then chief of renewable fishing resources for the Gulf of Fonseca (on Honduras’ Pacific Coast), knew well the environmental havoc these farms could cause. Yes, they yielded shrimp in extraordinary numbers–but they also left shrimp ponds poisoned by excess antibiotics and animal waste. Aquaculture had already destroyed vast tracts of Ecuadoran mangrove forests, and Varela could see the same future in store for his own country. So when he was ordered to transfer 50 acres of coastal mangroves to an industrial shrimping company, he refused–and was fired.

Fighting against wetlands destruction quickly became Varela’s life’s work: By 1988 he had assumed leadership of the Committee for the Defense and Development of Flora and Fauna of the Gulf of Fonseca, a group dedicated to preserving the wetland habitat that provides sustenance for thousands of Hondurans.

“In the press … they called us delinquents, reactionaries, Communists,” he recalls. The hostilities even turned violent: In the early ’90s, several members of the committee were murdered, and Varela received several death threats. But international recognition–and badly needed funds–from the United Nations, Rainforest Alliance, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) helped turn attitudes around.

In 1996 the Honduran government–noting the committee’s increasing international clout and impressive membership growth (from 2,000 in 1989 to 10,000 in 1996)–feared a boycott, and agreed to an eight-month moratorium on new shrimp farms. When the ban was not enforced, the committee took 3,000 protesters to the streets of the capital. The government responded by stepping up enforcement measures, and even extended the moratorium for another year.

Varela has since pressured shrimping interests to agree to a 188,000-acre national wetlands preserve. “[He got the industry] to sit down and realize that they actually have a lot of shared issues and concerns,” says Jason Clay, a senior fellow with the WWF.

Varela hopes Honduran aquaculture will prove a model of sustainability achieved through dialogue. But he is also a realist: “Right now, we’re in harmony with the shrimping interests. But if they turn on us, we will come back fighting harder and stronger still.” —Tim Dickinson


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