Staff File Photo / One of Chattanooga's many past sewer overflows. Now our wastewater is being tested for COVID-19 pervalence.

Justices let Vance follow Trump money

With Donald Trump, it's all about him and all about money. His money.

So when the Supreme Court last week rejected the president's attempt to avoid all legal scrutiny of his financial records, the justices reaffirmed that no one, not even the president, is above the law.

The court said the president — the only one in modern times to refuse to make his tax returns public — will eventually have to provide them to a New York prosecutor who opened a criminal investigation into the role that the president and his family business played in hush-money payments — and campaign finance violations — made in the run-up to the election.

That Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., is the attorney who helped put Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen, in prison for three years after Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to breaking federal campaign finance laws, tax evasion and lying to Congress about the timing of discussions around a plan to build a Trump Tower in Russia. In ongoing investigations, Vance has sought a range of federal and state tax documents from the accounting firm, Mazars USA, including Trump's personal returns and those of his business, the Trump Organization dating back to 2011.

In essence, Vance is sifting through the universal tell-all: He's following the money.

But in Donald Trump's case, one can follow the scandals, as well.

* This president's campaign chairman was sent to prison. So was his deputy campaign chairman.

* This president's self-named charity, The Donald J. Trump Foundation, was shut-down over what The New York attorney general called "a shocking pattern of illegality." Trump's children are now forbidden by law from even being associated with charities.

* The Trump University was shut down as a scam, and Trump was ordered to pay a $25 million settlement for fraud claims.

* This president personally intervened to stop the planned FBI headquarters move in Washington, D.C., because stopping it could have financial benefits for his nearby hotel — one owned by our very government and leased to Trump.

* Trump's sister was forced to resign her federal judgeship to end a court ethics inquiry into her role with her brother in the Trump family tax dodges.

Trump had claimed "presidential immunity" to Vance's investigation. But even his hand-picked justices — Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — joined with the majority of the court to rule that is not the case.

No one is above the law.


Then there's local money and campaigns

Speaking of money, our own Hamilton County commissioners just can't seem to let go of their discretionary money. This week they are expected to consider a resolution to once again set aside $900,000 out of the county's general fund that they can personally hand out to causes as they see fit.

We call that money — $100,000 in our tax money for each of the nine commissioners — their campaign slush funds.

They don't like it when we call it that, but it is, effectively, how they have traditionally used the money.

Commissioner A, for example, gives several thousand dollars to a school booster club. The club puts out a newsletter to parents — maybe with a grip and grin, thank-you photo of the club president and the commissioner, or maybe the club uses a roadside electric sign near the school to associate the commissioner with the gift. Either way, every parent gets that name implanted in their heads.

Do you think that might curry any special favor for some upcoming election day?

Here's the thing: If that money comes out of the county budget — regardless of whether it comes from the general fund or reserves or whatever, it means the county doesn't or won't have that nearly $1 million for something else — like COVID-19 expenses or road salt in winter or legal costs for yet another lawsuit our deputies engender, or our classrooms — for which we never seem to have enough money.


And the next big thing? Following the flushes

Who knew our flushes could tell so much about us. Well, actually lots of people knew. That's why we have flushes instead of chamber pots. And it's why we have sewage treatment plants and water quality regulations that prohibit raw sewage from making our society more ill than it already is on most given days.

Now it's helping COVID-19 researchers try to get ahead of virus outbreaks, and it's one of the ways we know Chattanooga is increasingly likely to be, if it isn't already, a virus "hotspot." Our wastewater is showing a virus prevalence of thousands more cases in the community than what is being reported through confirmed tests.

The city of Chattanooga in May was one of about 350 cities that participated in a study with the Massachusetts-based company Biobot to determine the prevalence of COVID-19 in local wastewater. You may recall U.S. infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci recently talking about "pool testing" for the novel coronavirus. This was the sort of thing he was talking about.

Wastewater has been used before as a pubic health surveillance tool to detect opioids and help communities track developing drug use. It also has been used to track the spread of antibiotic resistance.

It's another important piece of data to add to what we already know: We have more infections than we think, and we need to take this virus seriously. Please follow the new mask mandate and social distance.