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CA17: Unpacking the Honda e-mails story

Congressional candidate Ro Khanna’s supporters are abuzz over today’s San Jose Inside story that says Rep. Mike Honda’s staffers violated House rules against mixing campaign activity with official business.

Sourced from emails provided by a former Honda aide who says he quit after being pressured to help out on the campaign, the story’s most biting claim is that Honda’s chief of staff, Jennifer Van der Heide, early last year coordinated with Lamar Heystek, then the Honda campaign’s political director, on whom to invite to a State Department roundtable.

Heystek wrote that he had compiled “a list of South Asian tech/investment folks who’ve donated to candidates in the past” but not to Honda. Van der Heide replied, “Great lists — how are we doing outreach to them for $? Can we at least collect emails and send newsletters or something if we can’t do straight asks electronically now? Also do you have the list of the South Asians now endorsing/supporting MH? I want to make sure we are including all of them. Invites going out first thing Monday morning.”

This constitutes a mixing of official and campaign events that’s verboten under House ethics rules (House Ethics Manual, page 150), even though Van der Heide’s e-mails came from her personal account and not during work hours, the story says. Heystek left Honda’s campaign in March 2014.

Honda office spokesman Ken Scudder issued a statement Wednesday evening saying “it is the policy of the Congressman, and under the rules of House Ethics, for the office to keep separate official work and campaign activities.

“While it is commonplace for office staff to choose to volunteer their time on campaigns, all of our staff who volunteer do so on their own time and volition, and without the use of official resources,” the statement said. “In this instance, while not a violation of House Rules, we should have taken more care to prevent the appearance of coordination.”

Honda’s campaign declined to comment Wednesday, as did Khanna’s.

It’s not entirely clear what sort of influence Honda or his staff would’ve been peddling here; whether those who attended were eventually hit up for campaign donations; and if they were, whether and how much they gave.

Honda’s staff told San Jose Inside that the event in question was a Feb. 21, 2013 roundtable at Santa Clara University with Mitul Desai, who at the time was senior advisor for strategic partnership in the State Department’s South and Central Asian Bureau. (The event appears in San Jose City Councilman Ash Kalra’s archived calendar for February 2013.)

Yet when Desai’s boss, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake Jr., joined Honda a month later to host a roundtable at Microsoft’s Sunnyvale campus on the U.S.-India relationship, Honda sent his constituents an e-newsletter basically inviting anyone who wanted to attend:

2013 roundtable invitation

Nor is there evidence that Honda himself knew of the emails anytime before today. Still, there’s at least an appearance of impropriety if not an out-and-out ethical violation in official staffers and campaign staffers conferring about whom to invite to official events. Your thoughts, readers?

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Tauscher to speak at Cal on U.S.-Russia relations

Ellen Tauscher started the summer optimistic that the improving U.S.-Russia relationship would provide fertile ground for new arms-control agreements – but it’s been a tough couple of months since then.

“This is like batting-cage practice when the machine goes wild and is throwing balls at you left and right,” she said in a telephone interview Monday. “Events can overtake you.”

negotiating aloneTauscher, a former East Bay congresswoman who served for three years as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, will be back in the Bay Area on Oct. 30 to deliver a speech entitled “Negotiating Alone? The United States, Russia and the Prospect of Arms Control.”

Sponsored by the Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service at UC-Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, Tauscher’s address will assess the prospects for future arms control agreements between two nations that still retain vast nuclear arsenals.

Tauscher in June had co-authored an article in Foreign Policy magazine with Igor Ivanov – a president of the Russian International Affairs Council and former Russian Federation foreign minister – in which they wrote the U.S.-Russian political dialogue was finally gaining momentum toward mutually assured stability.

But things turned sour this summer. Russia in June enacted new laws limiting civil liberties for gays and lesbians; in August gave asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden; and throughout maintained its support for its longtime ally Syrian President Bashar Assad during that nation’s brutal civil war. President Obama cancelled a September summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Can this marriage be saved?” Tauscher quipped Monday, before adding that it must be.

“It is a fundamentally important relationship for many, many reasons, and we are not at our best right now – that is for sure – but I think that everybody who has been part of this for a long time knows that relationships ebb and wane,” she said, adding efforts are afoot to “try to get back to a better footing” and “find a way to remember that we do some of the best works in the world together.”

Ellen TauscherThe Syria situation – in which Russia for years has blocked U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Assad’s government, and then last month brokered a deal for destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons – has been particularly trying, Tauscher said.

“This is when it’s very difficult to keep a sense of equilibrium in the relationship because it’s not just the obvious bilateral and international roles that we play,” she said. “It’s very complicated when third, fourth and fifth parties are involved, and that’s part of the situation we find ourselves in now.”

She said she hopes the “Track II” nonofficial talks that she’s a part of will be fruitful as a “back channel way for conversations to keep going when the public face of the relationship is not the prettiest.”

Tauscher is now senior public policy adviser to the Baker Donelson law firm in Washington, D.C. Registration for her Matsui Lecture is available online.

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Update on ‘smart guns’ & 3D printing of firearms

A new “smart gun” prototype and a crackdown on sharing of designs for 3D-printable firearm components mean it’s time to update my gun-tech story of several weeks ago.

A Capitola-based company unveiled a new smart-gun prototype today at a trade show in Las Vegas – a firearm that lets owners remotely engage or disengage the trigger safety from anywhere in the world, using a smartphone.

yardarm-solution-final-chartYardarm Technologies says its Safety First system revolves around a sensor that can be installed on any firearm to enable wireless, real-time control of the trigger safety; it also serves as a motion detector and a geo-locating device. Gun owners are alerted via a mobile device applet if their firearm is picked up or handled by an unauthorized person, and the owner, using a mobile app or secure website, can instantly engage or disengage the trigger safety.

“Suppose you and your family are on vacation in Las Vegas, and your firearm is back at home. Wouldn’t you want to know in real time if an intruder, or worse, a child is handling your gun?” company CEO Bob Stewart asked in a news release. “With Yardarm, you could immediately disable the firearm, notify local law enforcement and maintain location awareness. We want the gun owner to stay connected to their firearm, no matter what the circumstance.”

The Yardarm sensor prototype was developed in partnership with New Jersey-based DataOnline, and was unveiled this morning at DataOnline’s booth at the 2013 CTIA Expo.

Meanwhile, the website at which Cody Wilson of Texas has been sharing his designs for gun components that can be made with a 3D printer now carries a message that reads:

DEFCAD files are being removed from public access at the request of the US Department of Defense Trade Controls. Until further notice, the United States government claims control of the information.

To clarify, that would be the U.S. State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, which controls the export and temporary import of defense articles and defense services covered by the United States Munitions List.

Wilson provided Betabeat.com with a copy of a May 8 letter he received, informing him that he may have released technical data controlled by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations without the required prior authorization from DDTC. The letter asks Wilson to file determination requests for the data files, and until those determinations are made, to “treat the above technical data as ITAR-controlled. This means that all such data should be removed from public access immediately.”

Wilson told Betabeat he thinks he’s immune because his company is a nonprofit and the blueprints are in the public domain, but he complied nonetheless. Even so, he said, his designs already have migrated to other places on the internet.

“I still think we win in the end,” he said. “To think this can be stopped in any meaningful way is to misunderstand what the future of distributive technologies is about.”

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Ellen Tauscher endorses Swalwell over Stark

Former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Alamo, has endorsed Dublin councilman and Alameda County prosecutor Eric Swalwell – her former intern – in his bid to unseat her longtime colleague, Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont.

Ellen Tauscher“Eric represents the best and brightest in the next generation of leadership needed in Congress,” Tauscher said in Swalwell’s news release. “Eric understands the importance of Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories to our national defense and energy security and the unique role they play in the research and development of cutting-edge technologies that are important to the local economy.”

Tauscher represented parts of what’s now the 15th Congressional District, including the Tri-Valley and Castro Valley, during her more than twelve years in Congress. She was unanimously confirmed as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security in 2009, where she served until February. She’s now a State Department special envoy on strategic stability and missile defense issues.

“I have known Eric since he interned in my Congressional office in 2001 and watched as he worked his way through college and embarked on a career in law,” she said. “Eric is an incredibly hard worker and I know he will be an effective and conscientious Representative for the constituents in the new 15th Congressional District.”

Swalwell said he’s honored by the endorsement and hopes to emulate Tauscher’s attentiveness to her constituents and hard work on their behalf.

Swalwell earlier this week announced his dual endorsement by Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, who earlier had endorsed Stark.

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House passes Eshoo’s bill on religious minorities

The House today overwhelmingly approved a bill by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, to create a special State Department envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia.

The bill, HR 440, was introduced in January in the wake of increasing violence, targeted attacks and heightened discrimination against Christians in Iraq and Egypt, and persistent concerns in Afghanistan and Pakistan, among other nations. The House voted 402-20 today to approve it and send it on to the Senate.

Wolf co-chairs Congress’ bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, named for the late congressman from San Mateo. Threats against religious minorities have been increasing in recent months, he said, and the United States has an obligation to speak out for the voiceless, to develop policies to protect and preserve these communities, and to prioritize these issues in broader U.S. foreign policy.

“The U.S. government needs an individual who can respond and focus on the critical situation of religious minorities in these countries whose basic human rights are increasingly under assault,” Wolf said in today’s news release. “If the international community fails to speak out, the prospects for religious pluralism and tolerance in the region are bleak.”

Eshoo, who co-founded and co-chairs the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus with Wolf, has long pressed the State Department to develop a comprehensive policy to address the unique needs of small, indigenous faith communities in Iraq that are being targeted for violence.

“In a time of partisanship and polarization, it’s gratifying when members from both parties can come together to address the humanitarian crisis that’s been unfolding in the Middle East, and has not been given the attention it deserves,” she said. “As the daughter of Assyrian and Armenian immigrants who fled the slaughter of Christians in the Middle East, it’s terrifying to see history repeating itself in today’s Iraq. I’m hopeful that the special envoy created by this legislation will elevate the crisis of the Middle East’s religious minorities, giving them the diplomatic attention they so badly need and deserve.”

Reps. Mike Honda, D-San Jose; Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose; and Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough – Lantos’ successor – are among the bill’s co-sponsors.

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Bay Area finalists in ‘Democracy is…’ contest

Two Bay Area residents – a third-grade teacher, tech-trainer and aspiring photographer/videographer from Pleasanton, and a video technology developer from San Jose – are among finalists in a State Department-sponsored international competition to build a global discussion on democracy.

The Democracy Video Challenge asks people around the world to complete the phrase “Democracy is…” through short online videos, submitted online. Since its launch two years ago, more than 1,600 people from 111 countries submitted entries and spurred the online engagement of at least 1.5 million people.

The challenge is part of a larger “Democracy is…” project, described as “a global conversation created by a unique public-private partnership that includes democracy and youth organizations, the film and entertainment industry, academia and the U.S. government. It leverages social networks and various creative tools to engage people around the world to share, consider, debate, and learn from diverse perspectives on democracy.”

There are 18 finalists; people around the world can now vote for their favorite videos until midnight GMT (that’s 5 p.m. PDT for us) next Tuesday, June 15. Six winners, one from each geographic region of the world, will be announced during the week of June 21 to receive all-expense-paid trips to Los Angeles, New York and Washington DC in September. Last year’s six winners are from the United Arab Emirates, Zambia, the Philippines, Poland, Nepal, and Brazil.

Here’s the entry by Nicole Dalesio of Pleasanton:

And here’s the entry by Franklin Pham of San Jose: