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Much Ado About Nothing

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May 28, 2009

The media feeding frenzy over President Obama’s nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court provides us with yet another reason why so many newspapers and news magazines are going broke:  They beat stories to death.  There has been quite a bit of hype in the run-up to Obama’s announcement of his choice.  News outlets have been salivating in anticipation of a protracted, partisan brawl with visions of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, dancing in their heads.  A visit to the RealClearPolitics website for May 27 provides the reader with an assaultive profusion of articles concerning the Sotomayor nomination.

There are a couple of simple dynamics at work here.  With his nomination of Judge Sotomayor, President Obama has set out a trap for partisan Republicans, hell-bent on opposing any nominee selected by the Democrat for the high court.  Once these “attack dogs” pounce on Sotomayor, they reinforce the public perception of the GOP as the Party of White Men.  They would not only alienate female voters but they would also antagonize Hispanic voters.  This is exactly why you won’t really see that much of a fight over her nomination.  On the other hand, a political “has been” such as Newt Gingrich, sees the Sotomayor nomination as the perfect opportunity to keep his fat face in front of the cameras, without any apparent regard as to whether his remarks could exacerbate the GOP’s image problem.  The “hard right” media outlets and other authoritarian activist groups have instinctively responded by filling in the blanks on their pre-written scripts to include Sotomayor’s name as well as the necessary touch-ups to relate their  remarks to this particular target.  One smear fits all.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet  . . .  It’s all a waste of your time.  You need only read one story about the Sotomayor nomination and it was written by Mike Allen of Politico.  Relying on confidential Republican sources, Mr. Allen reports that “the GOP plans no scorched-earth opposition to her confirmation”.  At this point, I should advise you that the hissing sound you are hearing is all the air coming out of the tires for those pundits, hoping to expand this story into an epic drama and an eventual book deal.  It’s not happening.  As Mike Allen reported:

“The sentiment is overwhelming that the Senate should do due diligence but should not make a mountain out of a molehill,” said a top Senate Republican aide.  “If there’s no ‘there’ there, we shouldn’t try to create one.”

The news media shouldn’t try to create one, either  . . .   but they will anyway.  What else are they going to discuss?  You’re already sick of the American Idol stories.  So what they’re left with is the economy.  They hate that subject because the public and their own reporters are too dumb to understand it.  Besides … it’s boring and it involves math!  Never mind the fact that you’re going broke.  Just smoke your “green shoots” and believe in a “hope rally” for the stock market.

It’s always refreshing when someone such as Mike Allen undermines the mainstream media hype machine by sticking to the simple truth of a story.  In this case the simple truth is that the story itself is quite simple.

Joining The Supremes

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May 4, 2009

On April 30, Supreme Court Justice David Souter announced his intention to retire after the current court term recess in June.  Many were surprised by this announcement.  Since Justice John Paul Stevens is 89 and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 76, most Supreme Court watchers expected one of those two jurists to be the first to retire after the election of President Obama.  Those who know Justice Souter all concur that he hates living in Washington, D.C. where he is a reluctant member of the capitol’s “elite”.

Watching Friday’s news programs, I was amused by the mad scramble by those on the “hard right” to organize their opposition to the confirmation of Preisdent Obama’s nominee to the high court.  Obama has not yet even announced whom he intends to nominate, yet these reactionaries are already against that person.  So, the fun begins  . . .

Once the President makes the nomination, the Senate Judiciary Committee begins the confirmation hearings, wherein the candidate will become incessantly badgered about his or her views on abortion, gay weddings, gun control and whether the court should “intervene” by overturning patently unconstitutional laws enacted by a bought-off (Oops!  — I mean “lobbied”) Congress.  The Judiciary Committee then issues its report and the full Senate votes to either confirm or reject the nomination with 51 votes.

This process became a spectator sport back in 1987, when Ronald Reagan nominated the Amish-looking, Robert Bork.  The Democrats immediately launched a full-on battle against the nomination, considered by many as a bit over-the-top, since it involved scrutiny of Bork’s video rentals.  This particular judicial confirmation resulted in the use of the word “Bork” as a verb.  Since that time, getting “Borked” described any situation wherein a political appointee became the target of a partisan attack during the confirmation process.  Nevertheless, Bork’s view that the Constitution provides no guarantee of an individual’s right to privacy, justified much of the ire against him.  During the confirmation hearings, he criticized the decision in Roe v. Wade.  Dumb idea.  Since that time, Republican nominees to any Federal Court do all they can to avoid providing straight answers to questions dealing with a woman’s right to determine whether she will carry a fetus to term.

The most entertaining confirmation hearings came along when George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991.  By that time, Bush appointee David Souter had already begun to disappoint the “hard right”.  The administration wanted to be sure they had a hard-line conservative this time and in Thomas they found the prefect candidate to replace the court’s first African-American Justice, Thurgood Marshall, who retired.  The excitement began when the committee heard testimony from Anita Hill, who had worked for Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  Ms. Hill testified that while working at the EEOC, she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas on several occasions.  The most memorable portion of her testimony concerned a remark by Thomas that his favorite porn video was a feature entitled:  Long Dong Silver.  Although Hill’s testimony ultimately did not block the confirmation of Thomas, people began lining up at adult book stores to purchase copies of the overnight classic.  I always wondered whether a certain chain of seafood restaurants also might have benefited from that aspect of the proceedings.

At this point, many Republicans likely assume that President Obama will nominate an ultra-liberal judge to counter-balance the far-right members of the court:  Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia.  News outlets are already abuzz with speculation concerning the most likely nominee.  The betting is heavy that Obama will nominate a woman for this vacancy because a man (Samuel Alito) was appointed by George W. Bush to replace Sandra Day O’Connor, one of only two females on the court when Bush took office.  Some pundits expect Obama to nominate someone from a minority group to add a little more diversity to the court.  As a result, many of these people expect Judge Sonia Sotomayor from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to get the nod.  My prediction is that the President will select Judge Diane Wood from the Seventh Circuit.  She shares Obama’s experience as an instructor at the University of Chicago Law School and she has a solid background.

Nevertheless, we can expect quite a bit of showboating once the confirmation process begins.  It might not be as much fun as the Clarence Thomas hearings  .  .  .  but who knows?

Let the games begin!

In Pursuit Of The TARP Thieves

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February 12, 2009

On Wednesday, February 11, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a subject of concern to many taxpayers: “The Need for Increased Fraud Enforcement in the Wake of the Economic Downturn”.  With trillions of dollars being expended in bailouts while the corporate beneficiaries of this government largesse allow their executives to line their pockets with those very dollars, the outrage felt by the working (or unemployed) public has found its way to Capitol Hill.  What we learned from this hearing is that there is plenty of fraud taking place while the FBI and other branches of law enforcement are understaffed to cope with the immense rise in reported fraud cases.

The Committee heard testimony from John Pistole, Deputy Director of the FBI.  Pistole explained how the current economic crisis resulted in numerous areas of FBI scrutiny, only one of which is the overwhelming subject of mortgage fraud:

For example, current market conditions have helped reveal numerous mortgage fraud, Ponzi schemes and investment frauds, such as the Bernard Madoff alleged scam. These schemes highlight the need for law enforcement and regulatory agencies to be ever vigilant of White Collar Crime both in boom and bust years.

The FBI has experienced and continues to experience an exponential rise in mortgage fraud investigations. The number of open FBI mortgage fraud investigations has risen from 881 in fiscal year 2006 to more than 1,600 in fiscal year 2008. In addition, the FBI has more than 530 open corporate fraud investigations, including 38 corporate fraud and financial institution matters directly related to the current financial crisis. These corporate and financial institution failure investigations involve financial statement manipulation, accounting fraud and insider trading. The increasing mortgage, corporate fraud, and financial institution failure case inventory is straining the FBI’s limited White Collar Crime resources.

The most disgusting activity covered during this hearing concerned fraud related to the ongoing $700 billion TARP bailout.  Neil Barofsky, Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) provided testimony concerning his plans to establish a mechanism for bringing TARP thieves to justice:

The SIGTARP Hotline is operational and can be accessed through the SIGTARP website at www.SIGTARP.gov by telephone at (877) SIG-2009, as well as through email. Plans are being formulated to develop a “fraud awareness program” with the objective of informing potential whistleblowers of the many ways available to them to provide key information to SIGTARP on fraud, waste and abuse involving TARP operations and funds, and explaining how they will be protected.

Mr. Barofsky’s testimony was largely a plea for passage of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) as well as the SAFE Markets Act, sponsored by Senators Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Richard Shelby (R., Ala.).  The latter bill would authorize hiring of the following personnel to investigate and prosecute “fraud relating to the financial markets”:  500 FBI agents, 50 Assistant United States Attorneys and 100 additional Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement staff members.  Mr. Barofsky’s explanation of the need for this legislation was an illustration of using “experience as our guide”:

Now, with $700 billion going out the door under TARP, additional hundreds of billions (if not trillions) of credit being provided through the Federal Reserve, and additional hundreds of billions through the proposed stimulus bill, we stand on the precipice of the largest infusion of Government funds over the shortest period of time in our Nation’s history.  Unfortunately, history teaches us that an outlay of so much money in such a short period of time will inevitably draw those seeking to profit criminally.  One need not look further than the recent outlay for Hurricane relief, Iraq reconstruction, or the not-so-distant efforts of the RTC as important lessons.

The Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (S 386) addresses TARP fraud, fraud related to economic stimulus funds, mortgage fraud and fraudulent activities in the commodities markets.  The measure will:

  • Amend the definition of “financial institution” to extend federal fraud laws to mortgage lending business not directly regulated or insured by the Federal government.
  • Amend the major fraud statute to protect funds expended under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the economic stimulus package.
  • Authorize funding to hire fraud prosecutors and investigators at the Department of Justice, the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies, and authorize funding for U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to help staff FBI mortgage fraud task forces.
  • Amend the federal securities statute to cover fraud schemes involving commodities futures and options.
  • Amend the criminal money laundering statute to make clear that the proceeds of specified unlawful activity include the gross receipts of the illegal activity, and not just the profits of the activity.
  • Improve the False Claims Act to clarify that the Act was intended to extend to any false or fraudulent claim for government money or property, whether or not the claim is presented to a government official or employee, whether or not the government has physical custody of the money, and whether or not the defendant specifically intended to defraud the government.

Once these new measures are implemented, I would love to see the Feds bust those miscreants whom I (and others) suspect were manipulating the equities markets with TARP money in the month after Thanksgiving.  During that time, we saw an almost-daily spate of “late day rallies” when stock prices would be run up during the last fifteen minutes of the trading day, before those numbers could have a chance to settle back down to the level where the market would normally have them. The inflated “closing prices” for the day were then perceived as the market value of the stocks.  This process was taking place despite the constant flow of dire news reports, which would normally have sent stock prices tumbling.  News services covering the action on Wall Street were using the same three words to start each day’s headline:  “Stocks rally despite …”  This pattern ceased as legislators and commentators demanded to know what was being done with the first $360 billion of TARP money.  Hmmm . . .

At this point, we can only speculate as to who has been pilfering TARP money and what could have been done with a few billion here and a few billion there.  Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, we will be watching movies about the sleazoids who stole money intended to save the world economic system from ruin.