Matt Taibbi and the muniland mafia

Matt Taibbi, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, talks to radio personality Don Imus about municipal bid-rigging.

Cheers to Matt Taibbi for “The Scam Wall Street Learned from the Mafia,” his detailed Rolling Stone article about a municipal bid-rigging scandal that has already resulted in fines totaling nearly $700 million as well as 15 convictions for antitrust violations and wire fraud. A muniland bombshell that first became public over five years ago, the scheme reached its culmination in May when three former executives at GE Capital, General Electric’s finance arm, were convicted on charges of colluding to rig the public bids on muni bonds.

Taibbi laid out the larger picture of the scandal with his characteristic flair:

By conspiring to lower the interest rates that towns earn on these investments [guaranteed investment contracts], the banks systematically stole from schools, hospitals, libraries and nursing homes – from “virtually every state, district and territory in the United States,” according to one settlement. And they did it so cleverly that the victims never even knew they were being ­cheated. No thumbs were broken, and nobody ended up in a landfill in New Jersey, but money disappeared, lots and lots of it, and its manner of disappearance had a familiar name: organized crime.

Taibbi’s story has gone viral and has helped broaden public understanding of this sorry scheme, which has defrauded municipal entities. But are his assertions that there is organized crime and mafia-like activities in muniland anything other than hyperbole?

The cost of kleptocracy

Gary White, a former official of Jefferson County, Alabama, had his conviction on conspiracy and bribery charges affirmed by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals today. White, a former county commissioner, is already serving a ten-year term in a South Carolina federal prison for his involvement in the sewer scandal that ended in the largest municipal bankruptcy ever. He’s just another piece of detritus from one of the largest cases of municipal corruption in recent American history. The Birmingham News reported the courts decision:

The opinion issued by the court, however, begins with stinging criticism of a period of corruption that included White and other Jefferson County commissioners.

“‘Kleptocracy’ is a term used to describe “[a] government characterized by rampant greed and corruption,” the court’s opinion began, citing three dictionaries. ”To that definition dictionaries might add, as a helpful illustration: “See, for example, Alabama’s Jefferson County Commission in the period from 1998 to 2008.”

Jon Stewart dives into raterville

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Jon Stewart’s Daily Show interview with Columbia law professor John Coffee is great. To have credit rating agencies discussed on a popular national comedy show is fantastic. The more the public knows about these powerful agencies, the better.

I generally agree with Professor Coffee but disagree with his statement that raters were the primary culprits in the financial crisis. The investment banks that created the subprime dreck and pimped the agencies to assign AAA ratings — they are the main culprits. Raters were just well-paid handmaidens to the banks which packaged mortgages. Banks also made the most profit from creating the crisis. He does identify investment banks as bad actors later in the video. Overall, an impressive performance by Professor Coffee.

I’ll write more about Professor Coffee and his adoption of my proposal for “equilivant disclosure” for bond issuers. This is the real solution to our credit rating problems. The lack of equal information flow to the ten SEC recognized raters is the true reason that S&P, Moody’s and Fitch control the ratings business.

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