Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

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?

3. Are gift cards the new currency?

Last month’s mammoth takedown in the New York Times of Wal-Mart’s alleged cover-up of allegations of corporate bribery in Mexico reported that one alleged method of spreading payments to local Mexican officials was by giving them Wal-Mart gift cards. That got me wondering how that kind of accounting was handled.

It’s one thing to disguise a bribe by recording it as a fee paid to a lawyer or other middleman, who passes it on to the corrupt official. But how would depleting the gift card inventory that way be explained? Or are controls on gift cards so lax that this can be done routinely? What about gift cards at other large retailers? Do they hand them out to “friends” this way? Again, this seems like an easier way to dispense illicit corporate funds than cutting a check or creating a cash stash.

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.

The rebuff to Citi’s board, boxing’s decline, and GSA follow-ups

Steven Brill
Apr 24, 2012 12:52 UTC

1. Where is Citi’s board?

In the wake of the shareholders’ stunning 55 percent vote against the 2011 compensation packages approved by the Citigroup Board of Directors for CEO Vikram Pandit ($14.9 million) and other top executives, why hasn’t anyone put a microphone in front of Citi’s blue-chip board members – who include former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, Rockefeller Foundation President and former University of Pennsylvania President Judith Rodin, and former Stanford business school dean Robert Joss – asking them to explain their decisions? Although the shareholder vote (which came because a provision in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law required it) is only advisory, it was meant to encourage exactly that kind of accountability for decisions made by board members, who in this case earned $225,000 to $612,500 last year, depending on their committee assignments. So far it seems that only outgoing Citigroup Chairman (and former Time Warner CEO) Richard Parsons has been put on the spot by the press.

2. What happened to boxing?

The New York Times has recently been doing a series of jaw-dropping enterprise stories related to sports (such as this one about horse racing) written by reporters from the paper’s sports and other departments (in this case the investigations unit, I think). I happened to read one of them the same night last week that I was watching a rerun of one of the old Rocky movies, and that’s when it hit me: Why doesn’t a team from the Times or from another major news outlet tackle an epic sports story that is obvious to anyone who remembers Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson, and then tries to name the current heavyweight champion. (Is it one of the Klitschko brothers or someone else I wouldn’t recognize if he passed me on the street?) Why haven’t we read the definitive tale of “The Decline of Boxing”?

Sure, Muhammad Ali was, and is, one of a kind. And some could argue that future Philippine presidential contender Manny Pacquiao, and maybe Floyd Mayweather, have star power in the lower weight classes that compares to that of Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler or Sugar Ray Leonard. But there’s no doubt that boxing occupies nowhere near the center ring in American or world sports that it once did. There’s no Norman Mailer or David Remnick writing about boxers, no large swath of the population awaiting the next big match.

Cheney’s heart, CVS and privacy, and Wal-Mart’s guns

Steven Brill
Apr 17, 2012 13:11 UTC

1. Who gives out hearts?

In exploring whether former Vice-President Cheney might have received preferential treatment when he got a heart transplant recently, many of the reporters covering the story referred to what the New York Times called “a national system that tracks donors and recipients by medical criteria.” Two doctors were then quoted as saying, as one put it: “It is not possible to game the system.”

Fair enough, but who runs the system? Who sets the criteria, and who signs off on who has met the criteria? Who decides close calls? Is there a form that gets signed by a majority of some committee, or is there one king of hearts? And are actual names attached to the patients, so that whoever was making the decision could have seen that Vice-President Cheney was an applicant for the heart in question?

Because transplants are done urgently once a donor becomes available – often after his or her sudden death in an accident, when apparently there are only hours to spare before the heart is no longer viable – is there some kind of operations center, where these decisions are signed off on and coordinated? Can’t some reporter take us there and have us meet the people playing God?

Hoop academics, judging the GSA, Latin healthcare

Steven Brill
Apr 10, 2012 13:15 UTC

1. Hoop academics:

What’s one year of classes at the University of Kentucky really like for basketball stars?

Maybe I’ve been brainwashed by Taylor Branch’s fabulous NCAA article in the Atlantic last fall entitled “The Shame of College Sports” and by Joe Nocera’s compelling Op-Ed columns in the New York Times arguing that the NCAA is all about money and nothing about education. And I admit I’m drafting this after watching the feel-good NCAA ads profiling the teams’ scholar-athletes during the March basketball tournament. But now that the Final Four have come and gone and we know that all five starters on the University of Kentucky’s winning team are quitting to join the NBA after just one or two years at school, I’m wondering what a reporter will find if he or she digs into the education these freshman and sophomores actually received.

What courses did they take? How rigorous were they? What do the players’ professors and fellow students have to say about their participation in class? Did the players do the work? Did they lag or excel?

Cable conflicts, BlackBerry’s demise and China’s millionaires

Steven Brill
Apr 3, 2012 12:49 UTC

1. Disclosure on cable news shows:

When talking heads come on the cable-TV news shows to support their causes and attack the opposition, are there any standards imposed by their host networks for disclosing conflicts of interest?

Here’s an excerpt from a statement put out by the conservative Koch Industries the week before last complaining about MSNBC:

On March 23, while guest hosting the Martin Bashir program, Karen Finney accused Koch of a connection with the tragic circumstances surrounding the Trayvon Martin matter. ”Who was the Typhoid Mary for this horrible outbreak,” Finney asked. She then stated, ”It’s the usual suspects the Koch brothers … the same people who stymied gun regulation at every point who funded and ghost write these laws.” Because we saw this dishonest story line developing and were concerned other extremists would pick it up, we put out a public statement the day before Ms. Finney’s rant explaining that this story line was totally false and irresponsible. First, Koch has had no involvement in this legislation … You should also be aware that on March 26, Ms. Finney signed and sent a letter on behalf of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee soliciting political contributions. Yet, she is presented to viewers as a “political analyst” and not as a paid fundraising operative for the Democratic party, as would be accurate.

Hooked on drug ads, education collision in Hawaii, and the gas frenzy

Steven Brill
Mar 27, 2012 12:53 UTC

1. Are Diane Sawyer, Scott Pelley and Brian Williams hooked on Cymbalta?

Every time I suffer through the (simultaneously timed) commercial breaks on one of the network evening news shows I wish I could read a story about prescription drug advertising on television. I’ll bet these ads now account for two-thirds or more of revenues for the network news shows, whose viewer demographics are apparently perfect targets for drugs directed at older people with erectile dysfunction, withering bones, dry eyes, insomnia, lung malfunction (as illustrated by an elephant sitting on some guy’s chest), incontinence, and whatever it is that is cured by something called Cymbalta, whose ads I think I saw on all three shows the other night.

To what extent does the federal government’s decision to allow, beginning in the mid-1990s, such direct-to-consumer ads keep these once-revered nightly news shows afloat? (A sidebar should also cover how these ads boost the economics of struggling magazines, in large part because the rules require a page of small print detail about dosage and side effects following the glitzy image ad.) At a time when healthcare costs are a national crisis, does the American policy of allowing these ads, which most countries prohibit, create unnecessary demand and needless expense? Or do they give patients important information? Does telling me I might have a disease that I had never heard of help me address a malady before it gets worse, or does it make me a prescription-guzzling hypochondriac? How does the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates such advertising, evaluate all that, and what kind of lobbying do the networks and drug companies do to influence that debate? Or is there no longer a debate?

And what are the rules governing the hilarious recitations of possible side effects? How fast is the announcer allowed to breeze through describing the risk of suicide, hives, sleepwalking, backache, swelling of the tongue, depression, migraines, miscarriage or four-day (or is it four-hour?) erections?

Examining the insanity defense, MSNBC’s weekend sleaze, and suing OPEC

Steven Brill
Mar 20, 2012 12:48 UTC

1. The Afghan massacre and the insanity defense:

Beginning late last week we began to see the outlines of a possible defense for Robert Bales, the army sergeant who allegedly massacred 16 Afghan civilians earlier this month: insanity or diminished capacity. “When it all comes out, it will be a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues — he just snapped,” a “senior American official” told the New York Times. So, it’s time for a general review of the tough-to-pull-off insanity or diminished capacity defenses, along with a focus on the even higher hurdles involved in using either in a court-martial. (An insanity defense is a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity; diminished capacity means the defendant does not contest guilt but seeks to be convicted of a lesser offense or get a more lenient sentence.) That story should also tell us how much Bales’s defense lawyer might be able to turn the case into a trial over increasingly controversial Pentagon policies related to multiple redeployments, the treatment of traumatic head injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Good sidebars would tell us whether Afghanistan, whose Parliament is still demanding that Bales be tried in Afghan courts, even allows an insanity defense, and how open the trial is likely to be, including to cameras.

Years ago, I wrote a piece for Psychology Today about the insanity defense that was keyed to the case of John Hinckley, whose lawyers used it successfully after he tried to kill President Reagan. It presents a fascinating legal dilemma, which in its oversimplified version is: The more outrageous your crime, the better your argument that you had to be insane to do it, but the more likely it is that jurors will be so angry that they’ll want to hang you for it anyway.

2. The numbers behind MSNBC’s weekend sleaze-fests:

Can one of the media trade publications or a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Reuters media reporter please do a story explaining why it makes sense for MSNBC to do a series of sleazy shows — Lockup, Sex Slaves, Caught on Camera — during the evening and in prime time on weekends? Last Saturday night, while CNN was doing a riveting, important report entitled, 72 Hours Under Fire, about the massacre of dissidents in Syria as witnessed by its gutsy reporting team, MSNBC was broadcasting Lockup: Boston, one of its stable of Lockup shows depicting life inside prisons that has all the journalistic value of rubbernecking at a car accident.

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