Saturday, November 18, 2017

Russian oligarch docks yacht in Palm Beach ahead of Trump visit (The Hill)

What do you reckon?

Russian oligarch docks yacht in Palm Beach ahead of Trump visit

Russian oligarch docks yacht in Palm Beach ahead of Trump visit
© Getty Images
A prominent Russian oligarch with ties to President Vladimir Putin has docked his 500-foot yacht in the Port of Palm Beach just days before President Trump makes his way to Mar-a-Lago. 
Roman Abramovich docked his yacht, which is estimated to be worth between $400 and $500 million, at the port on Friday afternoon, and is expected to stay until Dec. 5, according to The Palm Beach Post.
Abramovich's arrival comes days before Trump is set to arrive at his Florida resort, dubbed the Winter White House, for the Thanksgiving holiday. There have not been reports or signs that the two are meeting. 
Abramovich owns London’s Chelsea Football Club and is the largest shareholder of Russia's second largest steel company. He is reportedly close with the Russian president.
First daughter Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have met with Abramovich and his wife before. 
Bloomberg reported that the Kushners disclosed his past meetings with Abramovich on his security clearance paperwork. The two have met multiple times at social events, and Ivanka Trump has been friends with Abramovich's wife for a decade.
A source told the publication that Kushner and Abramovich have never met individually with each other, or alone with their wives. 
The news comes as multiple congressional panels and Special Counsel Robert Mueller continue to probe alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russian election meddling. 
Kushner has been thrust back into the spotlight of the probe, with the Senate Judiciary Committee claiming that he did not hand over all of the relevant documents needed as part of the investigation. 
Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman and ranking member on the Judiciary Committee said in a letter this week that "other parties have produced September 2016 email communications to Mr. Kushner concerning WikiLeaks, which Kushner then forwarded to another campaign official.”

Watch Beautiful 1995 Barack Obama Speech at Cambridge, Mass. Public Library

40:00 "Black folks are the most forgiving people because they have the most experience."

Florida wipes inspections of troubled nursing homes from its website (Miami Herald)

Florida Governor RICHARD LYNN SCOTT's penchant for secrecy permeates Tallahassee, covering Dixie like the dew.

Florida wipes inspections of troubled nursing homes from its website
NOVEMBER 17, 2017 12:03 PM
UPDATED NOVEMBER 17, 2017 02:39 PM

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On a good day, Olga Vasquez would dress up in the morning, apply makeup and stand in the hallway at her Hialeah Gardens nursing home, helping other residents get in and out of wheelchairs or offering unsolicited advice. On a bad day, her depression got the best of her and she would remain in bed in her nightgown.
May 31, 2012, was a very bad day.
Vasquez — who hadn’t seen a psychiatrist in weeks despite instructions to the contrary — hoisted herself out of the window of Room 310, and hurled herself to the concrete courtyard 39.4 feet below. 
This is the type of thing you might want to know about before your mom, dad or spouse moves into a nursing home. And such documented events were readily available on the website of state health regulators.

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They aren’t anymore — part of the latest erosion in what is supposed to be ready access to public records in Florida. 
A little under three months ago, the state scrubbed its website. No longer can you go online and view the 83-page report that found Vasquez’s death to be the result of misconduct and that determined other residents of Signature Healthcare of Waterford were in “immediate jeopardy.”
The document can still be obtained from the state Agency for Health Care Aministration, although you have to know what to ask for and whom to ask — and you may be required to pay and wait. Online, AHCA now refers consumers to a separate website managed by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, though that site does not include as much material as the state previously provided. AHCA does maintain spreadsheets online that rate homes on a host of criteria, and allow consumers to compare.
For many years, AHCA’s website included links to inspections of nursing homes, retirement homes and hospitals. They were available with a few keystrokes with very few redactions. The agency then began to heavily redact the reports — eliminating words such as “room” and “CPR” and “bruises” and “pain” — and rendering the inspections difficult to interpret for families trying to gauge whether a facility is suitable for a loved one. AHCA says the redactions were necessary to protect medical privacy, though patients were identified only by number. Vasquez was “Resident 239.” 
In the past year, the state spent $22,000 for redaction software that automatically blacks out words the agency says must be shielded from the public. Those same words were available on a federal website unredacted. Elder and open-government advocates said the newly censored detail did more to protect the homes than patients.
In September, 13 frail elders died miserable deaths at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills in the sweltering aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which knocked out the home’s cooling system. The Miami Herald and other media wrote extensively about Hollywood Hills’ troubling regulatory history. And the Herald also reported on AHCA’s decision to heavily redact reports.
Soon after, with no announcement or notice, AHCA wiped its website clean of all nursing home inspections, shielding the industry to the detriment of consumers.
“I’m just stunned,” said Barbara A. Petersen, who is the president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, an open-government group. “Government serves the people. They are doing a disservice, and one with potentially grave consequences.”
Barbara Petersen
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee-based group that promotes open government, said the removal of online nursing home records makes it difficult for consumers to make informed choices.
Miami Herald file photo 
In recent weeks, Petersen needed to find a nursing home for her 96-year-old father in Colorado. The assisted living facility where he lived had become inappropriate, and Petersen had only 48 hours to move him.
“If I was in that situation here, and I had to do that without the information that used to be online, I’d have to submit a public records request for it. And, as we know, it takes a long time for them to produce public records. Meanwhile, I’d be stuck with the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life without any information.”
“We put a tremendous amount of trust in these homes, and we need to make the best decisions for our families. Honestly, this makes no sense,” Petersen added.
A spokeswoman for the healthcare agency said both AHCA’s website and the federal site at allow consumers to compare homes along a range of indicators, including quality of life, nutrition, dignity and abuse.
“AHCA goes above and beyond Florida law in the amount of information we make available online,” said spokeswoman Mallory McManus. “AHCA’s website allows consumers to compare nursing homes by their inspection rating. Consumers can search by county, Zip code and even by services offered at every nursing home in Florida. This gives families more information to make informed healthcare decisions for their loved ones.”
“In fact,” McManus added, “in 2016 won a Digital Government Achievement Award from the Center for Digital Government in the “Government-to-citizen State and Federal government” category, showing that Florida is a leader in getting information about healthcare facilities to consumers. is an excellent tool for consumers, and a national leader in transparency.”
The award was given before the state removed nursing home inspections from AHCA’s site. 
The Herald was unable to speak with administrators at the Hialeah Gardens home. Representatives from the corporate Signature HealthCARE did not return requests for comment. McManus said health regulators removed the “immediate jeopardy” label from the nursing home days after Vasquez’s death after administrators demonstrated they had improved the home’s safety. “Our Agency expected quick action to remove the potential risk to others. During a revisit on July 5 [2012], it was determined that the facility had implemented measures that removed the threat of serious risk to patients,” McManus said.
“Our Agency held this facility accountable, and all deficiencies were corrected,” McManus said. 
The home’s plan of correction included a long list of actions administrators took to improve safety, including a comprehensive review of all residents’ medical records, new policies to ensure doctors’ orders are carried out, better monitoring of the symptoms of psychiatric patients, and an audit of records for all patients on mental health drugs to “ensure that they were seen by the psychiatrist as ordered.”
Though reports on Vasquez’s death are no longer available on AHCA’s website — or that of the federal Medicare program — a copy of the inspection obtained by the Herald is heavily redacted. The words “neglect” and “abuse,” for example, are removed from one of the report’s findings — and the definition of abuse from the Florida statutes is redacted.
A separate 50-page AHCA report on the same incident recites a portion of Florida law: “[Redacted] means any willful act or [redacted] act by a caregiver that causes or is likely to cause significant [redacted] to a [redacted] adult’s physical, [redacted] or emotional health. [Redacted] includes acts and omissions.” The portion is drawn directly from the state’s elder abuse law, a public record, and is the definition of abuse.
nursing home
A resident is transported from the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills after a loss of air conditioning due to Hurricane Irma caused mass casualties. Sweltering conditions were blamed for 13 deaths.
Amy Beth Bennett AP 
AHCA’s move is far from the only restriction in what records the public can see. The Herald wrote about an emergency management plan from the Hollywood Hills rehab center that was filed with — and approved by — Broward County, which included portions that were copied and pasted from a prior year, and failed to say how residents would be kept cool during a power outage. Broward and Palm Beach counties then refused to release any plans, though both had originally said they were public record. Miami-Dade released 54 plans, all heavily redacted.
Vasquez, who migrated to Florida from Cuba, first began to suffer from depression about a decade before her death, when her husband died, relatives told the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office. “Due to her depression, she was placed in” the nursing home, the report said. In addition to depression, Vasquez also was diagnosed with anxiety, chronic insomnia, heart disease and hypertension.
AHCA’s report on Vasquez’s death, dated June 14, 2012, said the 82-year-old former factory worker last saw her primary psychiatrist on March 1, 2012, for treatment of clinical depression. Staff at Signature never told him, the report said, that Vasquez’s condition had worsened. 
Vasquez, the report said, “was very depressed at times.”
Vasquez’s primary doctor had ordered a psychiatric consultation around April 30, 2012. But a constellation of lapses led to the home’s failure to ensure Vasquez actually was treated. The psychiatrist Vasquez was to see left the nursing home, a report said, and the nurse who was trying to help Vasquez never was told who would fill in. Meanwhile, a psychiatrist who regularly saw patients on Vasquez’s floor reported “he never saw [her] and [she] was not on his caseload.”
Complicating matters: there was a 15-day gap in nursing notes in Vasquez’s chart, the report said, and the home’s administrator told an AHCA inspector he “had no idea” why no notes were made during those two weeks.
AHCA concluded: “There was no documentation to demonstrate the [psychiatric] consultation was completed, as ordered.”
Three days before Vasquez died, the report said, she “was observed to be sitting in the hallway or lying in bed; she was not wearing any makeup, and the resident told [a nurse] she did not feel like doing anything.” Vasquez needed help to fill out her menus.
A short report from the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner said that, on May 31, 2012, a maintenance worker noticed that the window in Vasquez’s room was open. The widow was found in the courtyard underneath her bedroom window, 14 feet from the building. The medical examiner’s office ruled Vasquez’s death a suicide.
Six months before Vasquez plunged from her window, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development faulted the home for failing to maintain the windows safely. Windows, HUD said, were secured only with screws, and a corrective action plan required Signature to install window locks within all residents’ rooms.
The AHCA report is unclear as to whether the windows in Vasquez’s room were fixed, though an unspecified relative told AHCA she had noticed the day before Vasquez died that “the window clamp was not in place.”
A Hialeah Gardens police report confirms some of AHCA’s account, noting Vasquez wasn’t breathing by the time she arrived at Palmetto General Hospital. A doctor pronounced her dead at 4 p.m. 
Vasquez’s niece, Maria Salgado, who handled Vasquez’s affairs, told police she had been taking 10 medications for her depression, some of which are listed in the AHCA report, though the names and dosages are largely redacted.
Staff at the nursing home told Salgado that something happened to her aunt while she was walking in the garden — exactly what Salgado was told is redacted — according to the AHCA report. 
Salgado, 53, called her aunt’s death and the ordeal that followed painful to talk about. 
She felt very close to her aunt, she said. 
“It was such a horrible time,” she said. With a long breath, she added, “I don’t want to relive it.”

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St. Augustine official says concerns about horse industry are misinformed (SAR)

I agree with the City's measured, fact-based response to PETA's concerns.  Horses have been part of our ancient city's way of life since 1565.

Posted November 18, 2017 05:36 am
St. Augustine official says concerns about horse industry are misinformed
St. Augustine Record

After two horses fell to the pavement on Avenida Menendez in October, photos of the incident caused concern on social media.

The post led to renewed calls for changes in St. Augustine’s horse and carriage industry, and it led the city of St. Augustine to recently address misunderstandings about the photo and concerns about the industry.

Activists say the horse-and-carriage industry poses dangers to horses and humans. Others say horses are treated well by their caretakers.

The fall happened the evening of Oct. 15 when a driver for Country Carriages was ending a shift, according to Assistant City Manager Tim Burchfield. The driver tried to turn the two horses that were pulling a tandem carriage on Avenida Menendez, but one lost its footing and both went down because they were tethered.

They were immediately taken to a stable for inspection by Veterinarian Herb Loeman, of Atlantic Veterinary Hospital in Jacksonville, according to Burchfield. He has performed many horse inspections for city carriage franchises.

He reported that the horses were fine aside from minor scratches and could return to work after they healed. But some people who saw the pictures, which went viral, thought the horses collapsed from exhaustion or mistreatment, according to Burchfield. Some people even thought the horses had died.

“Since the incident the city has been contacted about the treatment of the horses and accusations have been made that the working and stabling conditions are poor,” according to Burchfield. “From the city’s perspective the accusations being made are based on inaccurate information.”

Country Carriages owner Jennifer Cushion said horse-falls are not uncommon, but social media turned things into a “circus.”

She said she’s been working with the horses since she was a child and is now 44, and the horses have better benefits than people.

The horse’s work schedules vary, but they typically work five days a week. During summertime, they don’t begin work until 4 or 5 p.m. and work for about five hours. If horses get sick, they’re not forced to work.

Among other care for the horses, such as chiropractor visits, she brings in an Amish farrier every eight months.

“These guys are our livelihood, and I pay a lot of money for these horses, so why would I ever take a chance with hurting them?” Cushion asked.

Emily Roberts was one of only a couple of drivers offering horse-drawn carriage rides on a recent afternoon. She and horse Brock had stopped along St. Augustine’s bayfront for a rest.

Brock, who carried a stuffed version of the “Frozen” character Olaf on his back, neighed a few times while Roberts spoke and nudged his bucket of water and alfalfa — Roberts said that he wanted a treat that was heavier on the alfalfa.

If Brock is sick, he doesn’t work, she said. He gets cookies regularly, and Roberts calls him “extra special.”

“I’ve grown up around horses. … I love this job,” said Roberts, who works for Country Carriages.

The city has franchise agreements with several carriage companies, which delivers a percentage of profits to the city and brought in more than $23,600 in fiscal year 2016, according to Burchfield.

City Code regulates animal-drawn vehicles.

Among other rules, horses have to be inspected by a veterinarian at least twice a year. Horses can’t work when the temperature is 95 degrees or hotter or when the heat index is at 105 above, and there are limits to how many days and hours a horse can work consecutively.

“In my 28 years with the City I do not recall any issue with the health of horses or the living conditions of the horses that needed to be corrected,” Burchfield wrote in an email to The Record.

People who don’t break the laws can be fined $100 per violation and can have their franchise agreement with the city suspended. Police haven’t issued any citations in the past year for horse-safety violations, said Anthony Cuthbert, assistant police chief of the St. Augustine Police Department.

Still, there aren’t enough regulations to make the horse-and-carriage industry safe and humane, said Ashley Byrne, associate director of campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Horses can get scared and run into traffic, she said. Among other concerns, horses working in cities have to inhale exhaust fumes and walk on pavement, which is “very bad” for their hooves, she said.

They’re also denied a natural existence of roaming in herds and traveling grassy areas for grazing, she said. St. Augustine City Code says horses have to get “pasture turn-out time” of least two non-consecutive weeks every four months.

PETA is also concerned about horses being sold and ultimately slaughtered outside of the country when they’re too old to work, Byrne said.

City Code says horses can be sold or disposed of in a “humane manner” that aligns with American Association of Equine Practitioners’ guidelines — it wasn’t clear from the association’s website what guidelines would apply, and no one from the organization was immediately available for comment.

Byrne said U.S. and international cities have ended their horse-and-carriage trades.

In 2014 the City Council in Salt Lake City, Utah, banned the carriage industry after a horse collapsed and died in high temperatures, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. But they allowed them to be used during special events.

“It’s high time that the remaining cities in the U.S. that are allowing horse-drawn carriages to operate in their city centers follow suit,” Byrne said.

A Great Migration From Puerto Rico Is Set to Transform Orlando (NY Times)

Florida will be a better place as a result of this massive migration to Orlando of tens of thousands of Americans devastated by Herr Trump's inept, insouciant, insensitive response to hurricanes in Puerto Rico.   Puerto Rican voters will help make our Florida government officials more compassionate.

From left, Yaxandra Flores, Lizbeth Rosado and Rita Garcia played in their bedroom at Sahria Garcia’s apartment in Orlando, Fla. Ms. Garcia bought the bunk beds when she learned that her brothers and their families would be coming from Puerto Rico. CreditEve Edelheit for The New York Times 

ORLANDO, Fla. — Ten intolerable days after Hurricane Maria trounced Puerto Rico, Sahria Garcia finally got a call from her brother on the island. The call lasted three minutes and the news shook her: Her family had lost everything — jobs, houses, possessions, cars — and had spent days foraging for food, ice and water.
Ms. Garcia, who lives in a small Orlando apartment with her three children, did not hesitate: “Don’t even ask,” Ms. Garcia said she told her brother during their conversation. “This is your house.”
Last week, they arrived — two brothers, their wives and their four children — and plopped onto newly bought bunk beds. The family is one small part of a sudden exodus of tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans racing to Florida after Hurricane Maria, a migration so large it rivals those from New Orleans to Houston after Hurricane Katrina and from Cuba to Miami during the Mariel boatlift.
The scale is larger than any previous movement of Puerto Ricans to the mainland, including the wave that arrived after World War II, said Jorge Duany, the director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University and an expert on Puerto Rican migration. “It’s a stampede.”
More than 168,000 people have flown or sailed out of Puerto Rico to Florida since the hurricane, landing at airports in Orlando, Miami and Tampa, and the port in Fort Lauderdale. Nearly half are arriving in Orlando, where they are tapping their networks of family and friends. An additional 100,000 are booked on flights to Orlando through Dec. 31, county officials said. Large numbers are also settling in the Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach areas.
Continue reading the main story
With so many arriving so abruptly, the migration is expected to transform Orlando, a city that has already become a stronghold of Puerto Ricans, many of them fleeing the island’s economic crisis in recent years. The Puerto Rican population of Orlando has exploded from 479,000 in 2000 to well over one million this year, according to the Pew Research Center. The impact of this latest wave is likely to stretch from schools and housing to the work force and even politics. Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens and tilt Democratic, could sway the electoral results of one of the country’s most pivotal swing states.
Local officials and nonprofit groups are already concerned about a scarcity of affordable rental housing in the area, a longtime problem with no quick fix.
They are also worried about the eventual strain on schools, which will need more bilingual teachers to handle a large number of mostly Spanish-speaking students. The area’s two county school districts — Orange and Osceola — have taken in 3,280 new Puerto Rican students since the hurricane, 70 percent of the Florida total, according to district officials.
So far, the Orange County Public Schools district has hired 20 teachers from Puerto Rico, and 10 more are close to being hired, said Barbara Jenkins, the superintendent.

Ms. Garcia comforted her sister-in-law, Yasmeli Santiago. “My mom stayed alone with my brothers,” Ms. Santiago said. “They lost everything, too.” CreditEve Edelheit for The New York Times 

The local governments will also have to help a steady flow of elderly Puerto Ricans and special needs children whose care and predictable routines were upended.
“We’re one of the fastest-growing regions in the country,” Mayor Teresa Jacobs of Orange County, where Orlando is, said at a recent meeting of state, local and nonprofit officials. “We’ve been handling growth. We just can’t handle it in a matter of weeks.”
From the start, the welcome extended to the evacuees by state and local governments has been generous. In early October, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency to help the state provide services, obtain federal money and streamline rules for things like school enrollment.
The governor, a Republican and a likely candidate in 2018 for the United States Senate, also established disaster relief centers at the airports in Orlando and Miami so that Puerto Ricans could quickly obtain information about benefits, transportation, jobs, schools and medical care.
The transition has been eased in other ways. Most islanders have moved in with relatives, and many have no plans to return home, Puerto Rican leaders said.
“If I have to start from zero from somewhere, then I would rather do it here than in Puerto Rico,” said Yasmeli Santiago, 28, one of the sisters-in-law who moved in with Ms. Garcia last week.
But as days and weeks of living with relatives slide into months, frustration over privacy and food costs could easily escalate. Ms. Garcia, who works nights as a cashier at a hotel and moved here three months ago from Boston, will have eight relatives, including a baby, living with her and her three children in a two-bedroom apartment.
Before her relatives arrived, Ms. Garcia, who bought their plane tickets, figured out the living arrangements. She gave up her bed so the two couples could trade off sleeping in her room. The children all pile onto a foldout bed and two bunk beds. The rest, including her, sleep on air mattresses in the living room.
The women will share cooking duties, and while food stamps have been slow in coming, the family has picked up groceries at food pantries. Finding jobs is a priority. Fortunately, the job market is relatively healthy in the Orlando area, where the unemployment rate is 3.2 percent, compared with 4.1 percent in the country over all.

Rita Garcia gathered supplies from the Puerto Rico Family Response Center at Latino Leadership’s headquarters in Orlando. CreditEve Edelheit for The New York Times 

“I am ready for this,” Ms. Garcia said of the jumble of people in her home. “I think we are O.K.”
Others are not as fortunate as Ms. Garcia’s relatives. More than 1,100 Puerto Ricans were staying in Florida hotels as of Nov. 14. But with peak tourist season fast approaching — Orlando gets 68 million visitors a year — rates are climbing, and the new arrivals will soon have to find more permanent places to stay.
“If they are not finding a house, or hotel, or need to find some independent living, we need to make sure we don’t have a crisis situation,” said Ms. Jacobs, the Orange County mayor. “The situation could deteriorate quickly.”
But so far, no plan has emerged.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will not bring in mobile trailers, said Daniel Llargues, a spokesman, something it did on a small scale in Florida after Hurricane Irma. The agency also provides rental assistance. Beyond that, long-term housing is a local issue. The situation is so dire that at a recent round table there was talk of buying an abandoned motel to house people.
Representative Darren Soto, an Orlando congressman of Puerto Rican descent, said new apartment rental units are being built at a brisk pace. But there are not enough, and only some will offer low rents. Until more units are ready, he said, “we will have to be vigilant to make sure no one falls off their housing.”
Some Puerto Rican community leaders are encouraging the newcomers to head north to New York or Philadelphia, where state benefits are more robust and there are fewer new arrivals.
“The reality is these families are here, and we put out the welcome mat, so now it is our responsibility that their transitions are seamless,” said Marucci Guzm├ín, the executive director of Latino Leadership, a grass-roots group in Orlando that has helped hundreds of newly arrived Puerto Ricans. “This is not the land of Mickey Mouse, and the streets aren’t paved with gold.”
Even for those who have found a safe place to land, the heartbreak of leaving the island remains.
As her three children played in the living room of her sister-in-law’s apartment, Ms. Santiago said the last two months had been excruciating. Her rental house in Humacao, a badly hit municipality near where the hurricane made landfall, was inundated with thigh-high water. A house she was building was also wrecked, taking her investment along with it. She lost her job at a hotel that still has not reopened and her husband, who worked at a luxury hotel, El Conquistador, could not wait the months that it would take to reopen.
“Outside the house,” she said, “the water was to my neck.
“We lost everything.”
But now there are new losses to endure, she said. Her mother and her two teenage brothers had to stay behind.
“My mom stayed alone with my brothers,” Ms. Santiago said. “They lost their roof, their doors. They lost everything, too. I am filled with worry now about the fact they stayed, and so it’s very difficult.”

Bobby Baker, protege of Lyndon Johnson felled by influence-peddling scandal, dies at 89 (Washington Post)

Controversial LBJ apparatchik Bobby Baker retired here and lived in Marsh Creek Country Club, between St. Augustine and St. Augustine Beach.  Only a paid obit appeared in the St. Augustine Record.   Here's the Washington Post obit:

Bobby Baker, protege of Lyndon Johnson felled by influence-peddling scandal, dies at 89

Bobby Baker appears on the June 6, 1978, episode of ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America.” (AP)

Bobby Baker, a protege of future president Lyndon B. Johnson whose career of wealth and privilege came crashing down in an influence-peddling scandal, died Nov. 12 — his 89th birthday — in St. Augustine, Fla.
The death of Mr. Baker, once the most influential staffer in the U.S. Senate, was confirmed in an announcement by the Craig Funeral Home in St. Augustine. No cause was reported.
“Mr. Baker, I understand you know where the bodies are buried in the Senate. I’d appreciate it if you’d come to my office and talk with me,” the newly elected Sen. Johnson (D-Tex.) said in his first telephone conversation with Mr. Baker in late 1948.
Mr. Baker was just 20 at the time and a staffer for the Senate leadership, keeping track of legislation and when it would be coming up for a vote. His vast knowledge of the operations of the Senate and his facility in the art of accommodation — moving pet legislative projects ahead for some senators or helping fulfill the proclivities of others for drink, sex or cash — would make him an invaluable asset to Johnson.
He would come to be known as “Little Lyndon,” and he became the eyes and ears in the Senate for the man he would refer to simply as “Leader.” As majority leader, a post Johnson was elected to in 1955, the Texas senator never wanted to be on the wrong side of a vote, and Mr. Baker developed an uncanny knack of giving him a precise head count for any upcoming tally.
“He is the first person I talk to in the morning and the last one at night,” Johnson once said.
For his part, Mr. Baker made it fairly clear he would do anything to curry favor with Johnson. He copied his mentor’s clothes and mannerisms and named two of his children after the senator.
As Johnson’s power grew, so did Mr. Baker’s. President John F. Kennedy once referred to the young aide as the “101st senator.”
Using his guile, political skill and finesse in the art of the deal, Mr. Baker amassed a fortune of more than $2 million in his moonlighting activities with holdings in cattle, insurance, vending machines, real estate and gambling operations in the Caribbean. He lived in the Spring Valley section of Washington, close to the far wealthier Johnson. He achieved all of this on an official salary of $19,600 a year.
Years later, he justified his highflying ways in his memoir, which was aptly titled: “Wheeling and Dealing: Confessions of a Capitol Hill Operator.”
“Like my bosses and sponsors in the Senate, I was ambitious and eager to feather my personal nest,” Mr. Baker wrote in the book, a collaboration with author Larry L. King.
“As they presumed their high stations to entitle them to accept gratuities or hospitalities from patrons who had special axes to grind, so did I,” Mr. Baker added. “As they took advantage of privileged information to get in on the ground floor of attractive investments, so did I. As they used their powerful positions to gain loans or credit that otherwise might not have been granted, so did I.”
Mr. Baker’s world of privilege and political connections came crashing down in the fall of 1963. A former business associate, Ralph Hill, filed a lawsuit against him, charging that Mr. Baker had taken thousands of dollars in cash from Hill to use his influence with North American Aviation Corp. to steer a vending machine contract Hill’s way. And then, Hill charged, Mr. Baker double-crossed him.
The lawsuit piqued the interest of Senate Republicans, who pressed for an investigation. And Johnson, who was then the vice president and feared that his own questionable financial dealings would come under scrutiny, went to extraordinary lengths to deny his close relationship with Mr. Baker, the man he once declared was “like a son to me because I don’t have one of my own.”
He basically cut his protege off without a word.
The beginning of a downfall
Mr. Baker soon showed up on the cover of Time magazine, and Life ran an article detailing his highflying career and pointing to his relationships with certain “party girls.”
It was discovered that Mr. Baker owned a condominium where high-profile Washington figures were entertained by women who were not their wives. Time quoted one neighbor as saying: “A lot of people used to come through the back door. That struck us as strange. Most of our guests come through the front door.”
It was also disclosed that Mr. Baker was the co-founder of the Quorum Club, located in the Carroll Arms, a small hotel on Capitol Hill. It was a place where lawmakers, lobbyists and other interested parties would drink, play cards and dally with young women.
The club was outfitted with a buzzer that alerted senators when measures were coming up for a vote so they could scurry across the street for a roll call. One report from the time said that the club was just “an ice cube’s throw from the Capitol.”
Mr. Baker thought he could control the damage from the calls for an investigation by quietly resigning his Senate post in the fall of 1963, just before a Senate panel was starting a probe.
The Democratic-controlled Senate conducted a lukewarm inquiry and offered a whitewashed report. Kennedy’s assassination that November and the fact that Johnson was now president may also have dampened enthusiasm for a vigorous probe. It certainly dampened the news coverage of Mr. Baker’s relationship with the new president.
But Mr. Baker’s troubles were far from over.
His legal downfall came in 1967, when he was indicted on charges of tax evasion, theft and fraud. Mr. Baker had allegedly been asked by savings and loan industry officials in California to deliver a six-figure sum to Sen. Robert Kerr (D-Okla.), who died in 1963. According to Mr. Baker’s memoir, that money was to have been an inducement to derail a bill that would have been costly to the savings and loan industry. Mr. Baker’s transgression, according to the grand jury, was that he kept nearly $50,000 for himself.
Mr. Baker denied the charges, but he was convicted and by January 1971, all of his legal challenges had been rejected. He prepared himself for federal prison, where he served 16 months of a one- to three-year sentence.
The eldest of eight children, Robert Gene Baker was born in Easley, S.C., on Nov. 12, 1928. His father, Ernest, was a postal worker. Years later, during the Eisenhower administration, when his son was enjoying considerable influence in the Senate, Ernest Baker was appointed postmaster of Easley.
At an early age, Bobby Baker was working at a local Rexall drugstore. He wrote in his memoir that he developed an aptitude for sizing up the wants and desires of some of the town’s leading citizens: “As a delivery boy, I witnessed secret drinkers and occasionally found a strange man in another man’s house. Very early I concluded that things are not always what they seem.”
He was just 14 when he was offered the chance to go to Washington as a page in the Senate after the son of a local political boss turned the opportunity down. He earned a high school degree from the Capitol Page School and received a bachelor’s degree from American University in 1955.
His marriage, in 1949, to Dorothy Comstock, a clerk for the Senate internal security subcommittee, ended in divorce. Their son Lyndon died at 16 in an automobile accident. Survivors include four children; several siblings; 14 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.
After leaving prison, Mr. Baker lived in South Florida and worked for a time for a waste management firm.
A few months before Johnson’s death in January 1973, the former president asked Mr. Baker to visit him at his ranch in Texas, with the understanding that the visit would be kept private before and after it occurred.
According to Mr. Baker, Johnson explained his failure to speak out in his protege’s defense by saying: “Everything within me wanted to come to your aid. But they would have crucified me,” Mr. Baker recalled in his memoir.
At the end of the weekend visit, Mr. Baker wrote that he passed by the guest book that Johnson and his wife had kept on a table in the hallway of their sprawling ranch house. Although Mr. Baker had signed it numerous times in the past, on this last visit the invitation to do so again was not extended to him. Johnson was still taking no chances.