Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

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.

Of course, last week was buried in coverage of the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision, but it’s still surprising that the Fortune story has not received the broad follow-up it deserves.

First, if true, it makes Issa’s attack on ATF and Holder one big “never mind.”

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.

Drachma redux, Hoffa’s killers, besting JPMorgan

Steven Brill
May 22, 2012 12:47 UTC

1. Printing drachmas?

What actually will happen if Greece leaves the euro zone and goes back to its own currency? How would that work? Is there a printing press somewhere busily churning out drachmas just in case? Or did they keep the old ones in storage? How will Greeks get new drachmas? Will they exchange their euros for them? How will the exchange rates be determined? How will all the software for cash registers and credit card and e-commerce transactions be reprogrammed?

2. Searching for Jimmy Hoffa’s assassins:

We’re approaching, in two months, the 37th anniversary of the disappearance of Teamsters Union leader Jimmy Hoffa. I wrote a book about the union three years after his disappearance that pinpointed how he was murdered and who did it. Although the FBI spelled out in an internal memo and in various affidavits seeking search warrants pretty much the same scenario and suspects that I reported, the feds were never able to make a case because no one would talk and Hoffa’s body was never found. (It was probably incinerated in a mob-connected sanitation plant near Detroit.)

However, the case is still officially open. In fact, I’m told there is at least one FBI agent still assigned to it. With almost all of the people involved in taking out Hoffa now dead, what does that agent do all day? A great story commemorating the anniversary would not only spend a few days with that agent but also check in on Hoffa’s son, James, who is now the Teamsters president. Portrayed in my book as a completely clean lawyer who did some union-related legal work, James took over his father’s old job in 1999. When I spent time with him in the years just after his father’s murder he was seethingly bitter about how the mob element that controlled the union in partnership with his father had turned on the elder Hoffa. But he was also understandably afraid to say much about it publicly. What’s he got to say all these years later?

Press-dinner proceeds, cat-and-mouse China reporting, testing the testers

Steven Brill
May 15, 2012 12:24 UTC

1. The White House Correspondents Dinner: How much for charity?

Two Sundays ago, Tom Brokaw used an appearance on Meet the Press to attack the increasingly over-the-top annual gathering of press, politicians and Hollywood stars and hangers-on known as the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Brokaw called it “an event that separates the press from the people that they’re supposed to serve. It is time to re-think it.” Incoming correspondents’ association president Ed Henry of Fox News quickly tweeted back that the dinner, which featured among other celebs Kim Kardashian, “raises TON of $ for needy kids who might not get into journalism w/out help.”

Really? The association’s website lists just $78,000 for 15 scholarships in 2012, plus one scholarship whose amount is not listed. Assuming it’s about $6,000 (a bit above the average for the other 15 scholarships), that would be $84,000 in scholarships. Plus, there’s a $30,000 grant listed for a high school mentoring program. Yet this year’s dinner, according to an association board member, sold “nearly” 2,700 seats at $250 each to various media companies. That would raise over $650,000 for the dinner, compared with what, again, looks like $84,000 for scholarships and $30,000 for mentoring. That’s a total of $114,000.

Moreover, on the page where the website lists the scholarships, the correspondents’ association names 18 donors who are thanked for their “generosity.” The donors include Bloomberg, Time Inc and Thomson Reuters, and they seem to have given to the scholarship fund apart from buying dinner tables, or at least the website makes it appear that way. If so, wouldn’t these deep pockets have already come up with some or all of that $114,000 “TON of $” before the dinner was even held? That’s only a donation of about $6,000 each. Which would mean that the revenue from the dinner had little or nothing to do with the scholarships.

Homeland loses focus, ditching the filibuster, unions that own big business

Steven Brill
May 8, 2012 13:59 UTC

1. Protecting the Homeland….in New Zealand

Is Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano completely on the sidelines? And has she not gotten the memo about limiting government travel? How else to explain that on May 2 she began a trip to New Zealand and Australia? May 2 was the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, when we were supposedly on high alert for possible al Qaeda attacks; and it was also when the prostitution scandal involving the Secret Service – which is part of Napolitano’s department – was raging. A Department of Homeland Security press release described the trip this way:

In Wellington [New Zealand], Secretary Napolitano will meet with Prime Minister John Key, and participate in bilateral meetings with New Zealand counterparts to discuss a variety of issues including information sharing, combating transnational crime and human trafficking.

In Australia, Secretary Napolitano will lead the Presidential delegation to the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Battle of the Coral Sea, the World War II battle that marked the start of the U.S.-Australia security partnership. While in Canberra and Brisbane, Secretary Napolitano will deliver remarks on security, privacy, and strong international partnerships at the Australian National University, and meet with Australian counterparts to discuss the ongoing partnerships to combat transnational crime, counter violent extremism, enhance information sharing, and work to ensure a more safe, secure, and resilient global supply chain.

Military movers, insuring a pitcher’s arm, and lobbyists against federal travel caps

Steven Brill
May 1, 2012 13:07 UTC

1. The $5 billion moving bill:

Reports last week that the U.S. had agreed with Japan to transfer 9,000 of its 19,000 troops out of Okinawa stated matter-of-factly that the move will cost $8.6 billion – that’s billion, or $955,000 per service member. Even with Japan paying $3.1 billion of the bill, that leaves the U.S. with $5.5 billion of the tab.

Someone please explain to us taxpayers how moving even that many troops can cost us $5.5 billion, which is more than the entire appropriation for President Obama’s much-celebrated four-year Race to the Top education reform program? (It’s also close to the cost being argued over this week for cutting all student loan interest rates in half.) And what are the profit margins of the defense contractors that are going to get the work involved?

2. Can you insure against a bad arm?

When the New York Yankees traded in the off-season for Michael Pineda, Seattle’s rookie fireballing pitcher, it seemed like a good deal even though they had to give up their most promising minor league hitting prospect, Jesus Montero. Now, one month into the season, the deal has become a disaster: Pineda, who showed up for spring training mysteriously bereft of his fastball, has had to undergo shoulder surgery and will be out for the season if not forever.

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