Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

Presidential aloofness, a patent rush, and disclosing Washington corruption

Steven Brill
Mar 19, 2013 10:08 UTC

1.   A scorecard on presidential aloofness:

Mark Knoller is the award-winning, long time CBS News White House correspondent famous for keeping count of everything that goes on in the White House, such as presidential press conferences, speeches, visits to various states and even golf outings. Memo to Mark or anyone else who wants to put some meat on the bones of all the reports about how President Obama — whose charm offensive on Capitol Hill has dominated last two weeks’ headlines  — has until now been so unusually disengaged with Congress: Can you do a comparison of how many times before his recent flurry of congressional encounters President Obama has met with members of the House and Senate? It could include a sub-category of one-on-one sessions, and compare Obama’s record, if possible, with the stats for presidents going as far back as you can. (Maybe Bob Caro can help you even get the LBJ numbers.)

A tally of one-on-one phone calls would be great, too.

2.   Black Friday at the patent office?

Saturday morning at 12:01 marked a key deadline in the world of intellectual property. Under a change in patent law passed in September 2011 and scheduled to take effect on Saturday, March 16, 2013, rules governing new applications for seemingly the same inventions will shift from giving priority to whoever first invented a claimed invention to whoever first filed a patent application for it. It’s complicated, but this is a drastic change in patent law and means that anyone claiming a patent who is worried about competing claims would have a huge leg up by filing the application as soon as possible beginning on March 16.

Patent law has become a multi-billion dollar legal sweepstakes. So was the patent office flooded over the weekend? Was there a run up to March 16 equivalent for patent lawyers to the black Friday holiday rush for retailers?

3.   Dealing with D.C. corruption:

On Friday, the Washington Post  reported that a grand jury had been convened to hear federal prosecutors’ evidence against New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, who is under a cloud following reports that he interceded on behalf of an ophthalmologist friend who gave him plane rides to and lodging at the doctor’s vacation home in the Dominican Republic and contributed $700,000 to a campaign fund for senate Democrats that Menendez ran. Menendez is charged with interceding with State Department officials to protect a security contract a company owned by the doctor had with a Dominican port agency, and with prodding senior Department of Health and Human Services officials to cut off an investigation regarding hundreds of thousands of dollars the doctor allegedly overbilled Medicare.

Here’s what’s more disturbing about the article than the senator’s possible misconduct: The Post accurately reported that, “Federal bribery laws require proof that a politician received something of value with the express purpose and understanding that it was to influence his or her official action.” As Stewart Brand, a lawyer who specializes in defending politicians on corruption charges explained to the Post, “You must show an absolutely direct nexus between the thing of value and the intent and the official act….Unless you have a wiretap or direct evidence of an official saying, ‘I’ll do this for that,’ it’s too hard to show that.”

Congress’s friendly skies, and battle of the dumb lawyers

Steven Brill
Mar 12, 2013 12:42 UTC

1.   Air Congress:

As a snowstorm threatened Washington, D.C., last Wednesday night, there were TV news reports showing members of the House hustling down the Capitol steps so they could get to the airport to catch flights home. This reminded me of something I’ve been curious about for a while.

Several years ago, when I was doing reporting for a book on the aftermath of 9/11 about how the airlines lobbied Congress to block airport security initiatives that they thought would be too onerous, I was told that each airline has a travel agency-like staff in Washington that is an adjunct of its lobbying office. Its sole purpose, one airline lobbyist told me, is to assist members of the House and Senate with their weekly trips home and back. These staffers get the call if a legislator has to change flights because of a last-minute vote.

That sounds innocent enough, but does it mean that someone else gets bumped off a full flight? What kind of other special arrangements, if any, do these airline facilitators make for our legislators that help them avoid the hassles of modern air travel faced by their constituents? How “white glove” is this service?

Coming up with “A Bitter Pill”

Steven Brill
Mar 5, 2013 12:02 UTC

For the past 10 days I’ve been interviewed on various television and radio shows about the article I wrote for the March 4 issue of Time, called “A Bitter Pill.”  It’s all about how exorbitant prices and profits are at the core of the crisis America uniquely faces when it comes to financing healthcare, the cost of which now accounts for roughly a fifth of our gross domestic product. The article took a new approach to reporting on an overreported issue by avoiding “on the one hand, on the other hand” policy analysis. Instead, I took actual medical bills and dissected them line by line.

Invariably a question has come up in these interviews about how I thought of that approach. So, since this is supposed to be a column about good story ideas, I think I’ll use it to explain the genesis of “A Bitter Pill” in more detail than I’ve been able to on the talk show circuit.

I always tell the students in a journalism seminar I teach at Yale that the best stories come from what you’re most curious about. Because I’m interested in business (as well as legal and political issues), questions about business and money often are what make me most curious, sometimes to the point of idiosyncrasy. For example, when I read last week that Jeff Zeleny, a star political reporter for the New York Times, had been hired away by ABC News, one of my first thoughts was that I’d like to see a story detailing how much more money he’ll be making – I bet it’s as much as twice his Times salary – and perhaps analyzing whether for Zeleny and other journalists his move represented a wrenching market misallocation of talent, given that his work is likely to have more impact, not to mention space, in the Times than on network television.

America’s lobbying abroad, and following a wonder drug’s money trail

Steven Brill
Feb 26, 2013 12:34 UTC

1. Find the story here:

Let’s begin this column with a quiz, one designed to test your story-generating talents. If the answer comes to you within 10 seconds, you, too, could be an editor or TV news producer. If you are an editor or producer and don’t see it instantly, you need better radar.

First, read the opening two sentences from a story that appeared in the Financial Times a few weeks ago:

Europe’s  most senior justice official is adamant she will fight US attempts to water down a proposed EU data protection and privacy law that would force global technology companies to obey European standards across the world. Viviane Reding, EU commissioner for justice, said that the EU was determined to respond decisively to any attempts by US lobbyists – many working for large tech groups such as Google and Facebook – to curb the EU data protection law.

Hagel’s ignorance, Big Oil in the rain forest and a drone story

Steven Brill
Feb 11, 2013 23:37 UTC

The Hagel fiasco:

I can’t get Defense Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel’s awful Jan. 31 Senate confirmation testimony out of my head. I went back last week and watched most of it again. It was stunning, by far the worst performance by a high-level appointee I’ve ever seen or heard about. I’m not referring to Hagel’s gaffes, though there were some. I’m talking about pretty much everything he said after he read his opening statement. He seemed – is there a nice way to say this? – stupid.

Yet from what I’ve read, those who know him say he is far from stupid. I spent an hour interviewing him about 10 years ago and he seemed pretty sharp ‑ though it was for a profile of a friend of his, so the questions were hardly challenging.

Why did Hagel stumble so badly? Is he an empty suit who showed his real ability or lack thereof when he faced the senators’ tough grilling? Or was he ill? Does he have a health problem we should know about?

Lying to the SEC, A-Rod’s contract, and everybody gets hacked

Steven Brill
Feb 5, 2013 12:47 UTC

1.      Suppose a college applicant did this?

Here’s a story that seems so bizarre that it might be good material for a Tom Wolfe re-do of The Bonfire of the Vanities rather than worth the time of a serious non-fiction reporter – except that it’s apparently true. According to this New York Times report last month, Egan-Jones, an “upstart credit ratings firm,” has been:

barred for 18 months from issuing certain government-recognized ratings after the firm made misstatements on an application with the government. The S.E.C. said the firm had exaggerated its record when it applied for a government designation in July 2008. The firm said then that it had performed 150 ratings of asset-backed securities and 50 ratings of governments, when it actually had performed none at that time, according to the agency…. Under the terms of the penalty, Egan-Jones is barred [for 18 months] from rating asset-backed and government securities issuers as a so-called nationally recognized statistical rating organization….For other categories of ratings, Egan-Jones will still have the government designation.

Huh? “Exaggerated” its record? A firm applying for the SEC seal of approval as a provider of honest securities ratings seems to have completely fabricated its resume, saying it had done 200 ratings when it had done zero. And the SEC puts them in the penalty box for just 18 months for some ratings and lets them keep right on providing other ratings?

Newt’s new gigs, following the Sandy money, and hedge-fund matchmakers

Steven Brill
Jan 29, 2013 13:05 UTC

1.     Newt’s new gigs:

One of my favorite side stories of last year’s presidential campaign had to do with the details that emerged about all the money Newt Gingrich had been making in recent years from speeches, books and lobbying (which he insisted was merely consulting or “advocacy”). As I wrote at the time , Gingrich’s release of his tax returns (when he was taunting Mitt Romney to do the same) was so intriguing because most of his $3.1 million in 2011 income was derived from something called Gingrich Holdings Inc. This was the clearinghouse for his various activities, and it presented him ample opportunity to get tax breaks by routing all kinds of personal expenses through his private corporation. It was an only-in-Washington success story.

With his losing campaign having diminished whatever luster Gingrich might have had, it would be interesting to see whether and how he and his wife, Calista, have revived Newt Inc. Washington seems to be a place where even the politicians pushed furthest to the sidelines can make a good living off of who they once were, who they know and, in the case of books and speeches, their true believers. Gingrich post-2012 puts that theory to a new and interesting test.

What kind of gigs has the former speaker lined up? Where has he been making the rounds trying to land “consulting” retainers? Who’s turned him down and who’s signed him up?

The next terrorist attack, Obama’s Medicare cuts, and the gun lobby

Steven Brill
Jan 22, 2013 16:03 UTC

1. The next terrorist attack may turn your lights out for weeks:

Or it may cause a dozen planes to crash at once because the air traffic control system goes haywire. Or it could play havoc with our email, e-commerce, use of credit cards, and the stock markets. Or do all of the above.

Because I’m on the Department of Homeland Security’s press release list, I’m forever seeing announcements of one DHS official or another speaking at some conference on protecting our critical infrastructure. Last week, DHS’s “National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) Office of Emergency Communications Region IV Coordinator” spoke at one in Tampa, and two other officials will be speaking at conferences on Jan. 23. The problem is that while there are endless forums about the threats, little is being done to deal with them.

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, many news organizations went back and looked at the scant attention paid to a commission chaired by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman that delivered a report to the Bush Administration on Jan. 31, 2001, warning that if the country didn’t start shoring up its intelligence and defenses, “America will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on our homeland, and our military superiority will not help us.” Last fall, a series of measures to protect our critical infrastructure – everything from the power grid to electronic systems enabling air traffic control – failed to make it out of Congress despite warnings from Homeland Security and Pentagon officials that, as with the Hart-Rudman prediction, a devastating cyber-attack on our infrastructure was now a matter of when, not if.

A working legislature, post informant life and Wal-Mart’s guns

Steven Brill
Jan 15, 2013 04:30 UTC

A legislature that works:

Maybe it’s because I live in New York and have to read all the time about what may be the world’s two most dysfunctional legislative bodies – in Albany and Washington. But I wish a reporter for a national news organization would try to find the country’s best state legislature. A place where Democrats and Republicans actually work together. A place where money isn’t everything, and where everything isn’t done at the 11th hour, or later, followed by an orgy of self-congratulation.

We’ve got 50 states. They can’t all be governed by lawmakers who embarrass their constituents. Which ones function well, and why? What conflict-of-interest, campaign-spending or other rules do they have that help keep things in line? What makes them different, and how can we export their success to the rest of our capitals?

The afterlife of a Wall Street rat:

“Mr. Wang’s lawyer said his client is ‘isolated and broke’ following his cooperation.”

Medicare meddling, the guns of Westchester, and Al Gore’s payday

Steven Brill
Jan 8, 2013 13:09 UTC

1)   Fiscal cliff Medicare meddling:

According to this report in the New York Times, last-minute negotiations on the fiscal cliff included new congressionally imposed limits on what Medicare will pay for “nonemergency ambulance transportation of kidney dialysis patients” and “would reduce Medicare payments … for stereotactic radiosurgery, complete course of treatment of cranial lesion(s) consisting of one session that is multi-source Cobalt-60 based.’”

Yes, Congress really does get that far down in the weeds when it comes to dictating how Medicare doles out more than $500 billion a year. This includes, for example, overseeing the payments Medicare allows, by state, for designated categories of ambulance rides (“critical,” “emergency,” “air evacuation,” etc.).

There are two obvious stories here: What scandalous overpayments or abuses in those nonemergency kidney dialysis ambulance trips triggered this intervention, and who in Congress pushed for it? Similarly, what’s the story behind those Cobalt-60 treatments?

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