Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

Romney’s tax audit, Aurora and risk, inside the IRS

Steven Brill
Jul 30, 2012 19:20 UTC

1. What happened with Romney’s audit?

On Sunday, Mitt Romney – while promising ABC he would “go back and check” to see if he had ever paid less than the 13.9 percent in income taxes he reported paying in the only return he has released so far – volunteered that he had been audited in the past by the IRS. So, the next question needs to be, “Governor, when you were audited, did the IRS then require you to pay additional taxes, and, if so, would you specify the discrepancy between what you claimed and what the IRS determined was the appropriate tax? And was more than one year of returns audited? If so, what were the results of those other audits?”

2. Aurora and risk:

When I saw reports in the wake of the Aurora massacre that theater chains are thinking about how they might implement new security measures to restrict who can bring what into a theater, I was reminded of a story I read recently about what happened in the aftermath of a horrific air crash 16 years ago.

Most of us have only a dim memory of TWA Flight 800, the Boeing 747 that exploded over the Atlantic shortly after leaving Kennedy Airport for Paris on the night of July 26, 1996.

An investigation found that the oxygen had ignited in the jet’s fuel tank, and that this was probably caused by excessive heat because the plane had been sitting for hours on a hot summer runway before taking off. But despite all the headlines and speculation in the days immediately following the crash, attention faded, and not much was done until July 16, 2008 – 12 years after the accident. Only then did the Federal Aviation Administration get around to issuing an order that airlines had to retrofit thousands of potentially vulnerable planes with a safety feature designed to prevent the kind of explosion that downed Flight 800.

However, according to this report in the trade e-newsletter Aviationpros.com published two weeks ago on the 12th anniversary of the crash, it turns out that the airlines still haven’t installed the required flammable suppression systems on most of their planes. In fact, they may not meet the FAA’s 2014 deadline for retrofitting just half of their jets and a 2017 deadline to retrofit all of them. That’s right: The FAA set the deadline for 2017, 21 years after the explosion. And the airlines aren’t going to make the changes even by then.

Pinning Romney down on taxes

Steven Brill
Jul 19, 2012 21:23 UTC

The press is missing a trick in continuing to ask Governor Romney only whether he’s going to release more than his most recent tax returns. That allows him to say either yes or no (for now, it’s no), which produces no information. So no news gets made. But there are lots of other ways to get at the Romney tax issue by asking him a variety of different questions, for which even a refusal to comment would be news.

All these questions should begin with something like this: “Governor, we know you feel that releasing additional tax returns will invade your privacy and that of your family and, as you have asserted, allow the Obama campaign to pick through thousands of pages and come up with more distortions and half-truths. So if you are not going to release the returns, could you just tell us this:

Reporters could then choose from among these follow-on questions:

1. In the last 10 years have you ever paid less than 10 percent of your adjusted gross income in federal income taxes? If you don’t know offhand, could you ask your accountant to tell us? (On different days reporters could substitute 7 percent, 5 percent or 2 percent as the benchmark.)

Soaring college costs and the Penn State private plane

Steven Brill
Jul 17, 2012 12:41 UTC
1. How high are universities flying?

I was amazed to see this sentence in the piece the New York Times’s ever-amazing Jo Becker wrote last week about all the goodies outgoing Penn State football coach Joe Paterno negotiated in a new contract even as the Jerry Sandusky scandal was imploding around him: “He would also have the use of the university’s private plane…”

Penn State has a private plane? Sure, the school probably charters a jet when the team travels. But do the university executives have their own jet? How many other universities have perks like this?

As this article from Bloomberg.com documents, the relentless rise in higher education tuition and other costs has trapped students in debt from readily available student loans backed by us taxpayers. It is fast becoming a national scandal akin to the mortgage crisis. Which means we need some tough, fresh reporting finally holding university leaders accountable for spending and management efficiency.

Digging deeper on the effects of Obamacare

Steven Brill
Jul 10, 2012 12:54 UTC

Just because President Obama and his team have been pathetic when it comes to letting Americans know what’s in his healthcare reform law doesn’t mean the press shouldn’t be zeroing in on this huge, multifaceted story. The law is packed with changes – some of which have already taken effect but have barely been written about – whose ramifications range from likely upheavals in the advertising and marketing industries to an apparent lifeline for all Americans who are mystified or even tormented when dealing with their health insurers.

A marketing explosion

Let’s start with the business angles. As this article from Advertising Age points out, once various provisions of Obamacare take effect, key sectors of the healthcare industry, particularly hospitals and insurance companies, are going to have to become heavily engaged in consumer marketing and communications. In the last few years we’ve seen some hospitals use advertising to establish their brand, and, as I mentioned in this column in February, United HealthCare has been aggressively advertising to consumers.

All of these early efforts are about to be taken to a whole new level because of Obamacare – which requires that by 2014 everyone must buy health insurance and every state must have an exchange where consumers can go online and compare insurers’ offerings. This means not only that the market for health insurance is going to expand but also that much of it is likely to be sold directly to individual consumers rather than through an employer. Meantime, hospitals and doctors’ networks will want to advertise to have more leverage in negotiating with insurers to include them in the insurers’ networks.

A new narrative for Fast and Furious, ICANN’s domain name jackpot

Steven Brill
Jul 3, 2012 14:23 UTC

1. Fast and Furious zeroing in on Fortune’s different take:

Last week Fortune magazine published this surprising story that convincingly debunks the premise of the so-called Fast and Furious “gun walking” scandal that has enveloped the Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and Attorney General Eric Holder. Last week the controversy resulted in a contempt of Congress citation against Holder for not turning over documents about the case to a congressional committee chaired by Darrell Issa, the California Republican.

According to a ton of reporting done by Fortune’s Katherine Eban, including on-the-record interviews with many of the ATF agents involved and what Fortune says were more than 2,000 pages of explosive internal government emails and other documents, ATF agents did not deliberately allow American gun buyers working for Mexican drug cartels to “walk” assault rifles across the border to the drug gangs. Rather, the agents were carefully tracking the gun buyers and wanted to intercept and arrest them. They were stopped because prosecutors said that loopholes in gun record-keeping laws – loopholes that have long been protected by the gun rights advocates who are now leading the attack against ATF and Holder – and other constraints on ATF pushed by the gun lobby were such that prosecutors said the agents did not have enough probable cause to make the arrests.

In fact, according to Eban’s reporting, the one ATF agent who has been the key whistleblower and protagonist for Representative Issa’s charges that ATF deliberately let the drug cartels get the guns turns out to be the only agent who actually suggested that ATF do so in a separate case.

The tax man who could change the 2012 campaign

Steven Brill
Jun 26, 2012 13:00 UTC

1. The IRS bureaucrat who could upend the campaign finance money flow:

Here’s an idea for a story about an obscure government bureaucrat whose decisions could have a major impact on the 2012 elections and on the entire issue of campaign finance reform going forward.

As this article in Roll Call, the Washington weekly, reports, there is increasing controversy surrounding super PAC-like groups that fashion themselves as coming under the Internal Revenue Service’s 501(c)(4) classification as a “social welfare organization.” Under IRS rules, 501(c)(4)’s are not only tax-exempt but also don’t have to disclose their donors. This means that they can spend unlimited sums on political advertising – including corporate contributions, following the Citizens United decision – but unlike super PACs, they can do so while keeping the sources of the money completely secret.

That’s why many of the big super PACS, such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads – which are simply non-profits that engage fully and unabashedly in political activity but must disclose donors – operate companion 501(c)(4)’s that can take undisclosed donations. In the case of Rove’s super PAC,  the companion 501(c)(4) is called Crossroads GPS.

Votes and dollar signs, cancer cure-rate claims, present at the euro’s creation

Steven Brill
Jun 19, 2012 12:57 UTC

1. Pinning the $ on the politicians:

Much of the press covering the testimony of Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan’s CEO, before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs last week about his bank’s $3 billion trading loss said Dimon got off easy. Some accounts, like this one in Politico cited a money connection: Dimon, Politico reported, “fielded mostly softball questions from a panel of senators who’ve taken thousands of dollars in contributions from his firm.”

Pointing out the money connection makes sense, but I wish the press would take the trouble to give us more. Why not put a parenthetical next to any senator who is mentioned in an article like this, detailing how much money he or she got from Dimon or JPMorgan-associated PACs in the last five years?

As in “said Tennessee Republican Bob Corker ($64,000)”?

Or: “explained Democrat and committee chair Tim Johnson of South Dakota ($38,995).”

Spy vs. spy at NYU, troop suicides, NYSE-Nasdaq wars

Steven Brill
Jun 12, 2012 13:04 UTC

1. Chen spy-versus-spy game:

I’m guessing there must be a fun, streets-of-New-York story about Chinese spies (maybe people from the Chinese U.N. delegation) following New York University’s most famous student, Chen Guangcheng, as he makes his way around Manhattan – and about how American security personnel are not only guarding Chen but also keeping tabs on those spies. This could, after all, be a good way of flushing out Chinese operatives in the U.S. And I’m wondering what steps and countersteps have been taken having to do with the security of Chen’s computer, cell phone and any other digital devices he uses to communicate with friends and followers.

2. Troop suicide surge: What happens to the families?

AP’s disheartening report that suicides among U.S. troops this year came at the rate of nearly one a day and outpaced combat deaths in Afghanistan raises the question of what benefits the families of these fallen soldiers get. Standard life insurance usually doesn’t cover suicides. What about death benefits for members of the military? What exactly are the benefits given to military families whose loved one dies while on active duty, whether through suicide or in battle?

And while we’re on the subject, if suicides are typically the result of mental illness, what are the policy arguments around whether they should be covered, in or outside the military?

Old money, Yankee bunts, battling for veterans’ health insurance contracts

Steven Brill
Jun 5, 2012 13:31 UTC

1. Looking in on the old money:

This and other articles last week reporting that the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers are joining together to expand their wealth advisory and asset management enterprises reminds me of a story I’ve wanted to see for a long time: In an age when we’re entranced by the wealth of twentysomething dot-commers, someone should look at some of the old-name American fortunes and see how much wealth remains today for the dozens, or hundreds, of their descendants.

We know from this story and others that the Rockefellers still maintain an office that manages the family’s wealth (and, in fact, has expanded to manage other families’ fortunes). But how are they doing? What’s a teenage or twentysomething Rockefeller worth today? What about the Morgans, the Goulds, the Vanderbilts, the Astors, the Flaglers? Or the Kennedys? Who’s still doing well? Who’s down and out, and why?

2. Why no bunts?

Unless you’re a baseball fan, or maybe unless you’re a Yankee fan, you may not care about this, though you should, because it could be a story about ego overwhelming pragmatism. With baseball teams overshifting their defenses this year more than ever to snag hard grounders and line drives from lefty pull hitters, why aren’t any of the power lefties simply bunting down the third-base line for an almost sure single or maybe even a double? After all, the best hitters only succeed 3 times out of 10, while this is probably a 9-out-of-10 proposition.

The Kennedys and Caro, Facebook IPO suits, the Edwards trial judge

Steven Brill
May 29, 2012 12:57 UTC

1. The Kennedys’ take on the Caro book:

Robert Caro’s stunning new volume on Lyndon Johnson has received enormous coverage, but one angle I haven’t seen is what the reaction to it is of John F. Kennedy family members and loyalists. Caro’s depiction of how LBJ was treated by JFK and his team (especially Robert Kennedy) during his vice-presidency and how he basically resuscitated the Kennedy administration’s domestic agenda – which seemed doomed in Congress had Kennedy lived, because of how JFK and his aides fumbled the ball on Capitol Hill – presents a pretty damning picture of the Age of Camelot. Are there any Kennedy people out there willing to argue otherwise?

2. Facebook: Race to the courthouse

The three suits claiming class action status that have been filed against Facebook, its underwriters and  Nasdaq charging various misdeeds in the run-up to its IPO would be great material for a fresh look at class action securities suits. More often than not such suits are an exercise in plaintiffs’ lawyers racing to the courthouse to file dubious claims to force defendants into making settlements that typically pay the lawyers handsomely while leaving little for their supposed clients.

The suits – one in Maryland, one in New York and a third in California – were filed within hours of news reports pinpointing Nasdaq’s screwups and the fact that analysts apparently warned some big clients, but not the rest of the buyers, that Facebook’s supplemental filing with the SEC just before the launch of the IPO might be a significant negative development. The filing noted the increasing use of mobile devices to access Facebook and explained that Facebook has so far not done well generating ad revenue from mobile traffic.

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