Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Roundhouse Roundup: Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 24, 2010

I’m kicking myself for already using in this column, just a couple of weeks ago, Mark Twain’s quote about “lies, damned lies and statistics” in connection with the governor’s race.

But questionable use of statistics seems to be part of what we’re getting in the contest between Democrat Diane Denish and Republican Susana Martinez, along with all the television ads about child molesters.

The latest statistical scuffle comes after an article this week in the venerable, nonpartisan with the headline “Denish Distorts DA’s Record.” (Martinez is district attorney in Doña Ana County, which is why there’s been so much talk about crime from both sides in this campaign.)

FactCheck writer Melissa Siegel looked at Denish’s first television ad, which said Martinez had the worst conviction record in the state for homicides and that she had plea-bargained more than 800 felony drunken-driving cases in the past six years.

Siegel quoted Artie Pepin, director of the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts, who said the number of murder cases in Martinez’s district might have been high — thus making a lower conviction rate — because most cases start out in Magistrate Court before being transferred to District Court. So, Pepin told FactCheck, many of them could have been counted twice.

As for the DWIs, FactCheck said records show all but 46 of the plea deals in the felony cases resulted in guilty pleas to felony DWI. The “bargain” in the plea bargain was that some lesser charges were dropped.

Of the 46 cases that were pleaded down to misdemeanors: “The Martinez campaign claimed that those plea agreements were necessary,” Siegel wrote. “In order to charge someone with a felony DWI, prosecutors need proof of prior convictions, and they sometimes run into problems obtaining the information on out-of-state DWI convictions.”

The Dems respond: James Hallinan, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, said in a written statement Wednesday: “It is disconcerting when, a site the public relies on to provide fair, unbiased information, produces an article with so many factual inaccuracies.”

Hallinan said that in calculating the murder-conviction rate, “The Denish campaign calculated only District Court numbers” and not the cases from Magistrate Court.

In the claim about DWIs, Hallinan said, “The Denish campaign never claimed that Martinez pled felony drunk drivers down to misdemeanors. Martinez’s statement (in the Las Cruces Sun News in 2004) is ‘We will not plea bargain a DWI case.’ ”

The facts on FactCheck: The Web site is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The “About Us” page says the site does not seek or accept funds from corporations, unions, partisan organizations or advocacy groups.

“We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit ‘consumer advocate’ for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics,” the site says.

Good luck with that.

Save the Porcupine: Former Gov. Gary Johnson — who looks more and more like a 2012 presidential candidate with every news release — is going back to New Hampshire.

This time he’s the keynote speaker at something called the Annual Porcupine Freedom Festival. I don’t think this is an event to honor the little prickly critters. It’s organized by a “Liberty Movement” group called the Free State Project.

Besides giving the closing speech, Johnson is scheduled to moderate a debate on “ending marijuana prohibition” between “civil disobedience marijuana activist” Rich Paul, and “working within the system” Matt Simon of the Coalition for Common Sense Drug Policy.

UPDATE: today published a "correction" on the Denish/Martinez article. But as you see, it doesn't actually change much:

Correction, June 23: This article has been corrected to reflect that the Denish campaign used district court cases when calculating the homicide conviction rate for the 3rd Judicial District Court, not both district and magistrate court cases. However, that does not change the fact AOC figures cannot be used to calculate conviction rates, because double counting can occur. We contacted Pepin again and he confirmed that a case may be dismissed from district court, but the same or related conduct results in the same person being charged in a new case. The AOC would open a new case and therefore count the case twice in its figures.