Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

More questions for Bloomberg and Angelina Jolie

Steven Brill
Jun 4, 2013 20:58 UTC

Actor Brad Pitt and his fiance Angelina Jolie arrive for the premiere of his film World War Z in Berlin June 4, 2013. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

Paging Bloomberg’s Winkler and Pearlstine

This story that ran in Saturday’s New York Times is the best one yet on the abuse of Bloomberg’s customers’ private information by Bloomberg, the financial information powerhouse founded by New York City’s mayor. As first reported in the New York Post last month, reporters at the Bloomberg news service made a practice of checking the customer service files of bankers and others subscribing to Bloomberg’s ubiquitous and extremely expensive – about $20,000 a year each – financial data information services.

For example, they reportedly figured out that the “London Whale,” who was involved in losing billions for JPMorgan Chase, had been fired by seeing that he had not been logging on to his Bloomberg account. (Bloomberg is a competitor of Thomson Reuters, which owns Reuters – where this column appears.)

Saturday’s Times story fills in the narrative of how various Bloomberg customers, led by Goldman Sachs, pooled their suspicions (mostly arising from Bloomberg reporters unabashedly citing log-on information when asking the banks’ spokespeople questions, such as the one about the Whale). They then realized that this was a regular practice and complained to Bloomberg Chief Executive Officer Dan Doctoroff. (New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg officially left the company when he took public office and has not been running his business day-to-day while he serves at City Hall.)

Doctoroff has apologized, saying the practice was a mistake. Some of the company’s major customers, like Goldman and JP Morgan, have at least publicly said they accept the apology. But this should hardly be the end of the story.

Justice Department overreach, and a rudderless IRS

Steven Brill
May 28, 2013 16:05 UTC

1.    Who called Fox News reporter a “co-conspirator”?

On the Sunday before last, the Washington Post broke a story providing details of the Obama Justice Department’s investigation into how Fox News reporter James Rosen obtained classified information about American intelligence gathering in North Korea. Coming on the heels of the news that the Justice Department had secretly conducted a massive sweep of the phone records of the Associated Press as part of another leak investigation, the Post’s scoop was big news and ignited complaints from the press and others that the Obama administration was engaged in an unprecedented dragnet that would chill basic reporting.

For many, including me, the most disturbing aspect of the Post’s story was that in an affidavit filed seeking a search warrant for the Fox reporter Rosen’s email records, the Justice Department told a federal judge that “there is probable cause to believe that the reporter has committed or is committing a violation of section 793(d) as an aider or abettor and/or co-conspirator.” In other words, the government was saying that Rosen’s act of seeking the classified information the way journalists do every day (there are no allegations that he bribed someone for it or stole it) made him guilty of a crime because he was aiding or abetting or conspiring in the leak.

That characterization, which presumably would generate multiple life sentences for Bob Woodward, was unprecedented and seemed, even to many Obama supporters, over the top.

The commencement speech market, Obamacare job bonanza, and recess appointment gridlock

Steven Brill
May 14, 2013 11:36 UTC

1.  The commencement speech market:

It’s my guess that the most sought-after commencement speaker this season is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. How many invites did she get, and how does that compare with other top names? And did she accept any? Is she getting paid? Especially now that Benghazi has come back into the news, has she set any ground rules related to the appearance, such as whether she will be available to the press before or after the talk?

Who else is a top drawer graduation speaker this year? And who, in terms of gravitas or lack thereof, is this year’s most unlikely pontificator?

What’s the market like generally this season? At a time when students face mounting tuition debt, have any schools, mindful that graduates are rarely rocked by any commencement speaker, made it a policy not to spend big bucks to put a star at the podium?

The compensation racket, Al Jazeera’s plans, and Boston health costs

Steven Brill
May 7, 2013 11:17 UTC

1.     Looking at ‘Ratchet, Ratchet and Bingo’:

In his 2006 annual report to shareholders , Warren Buffett had this to say about compensation consultants:

Too often, executive compensation in the U.S. is ridiculously out of line with performance. That won’t change, moreover, because the deck is stacked against investors when it comes to the CEO’s pay. The upshot is that a mediocre-or-worse CEO – aided by his handpicked VP of human relations and a consultant from the ever-accommodating firm of Ratchet, Ratchet and Bingo – all too often receives gobs of money from an ill-designed compensation arrangement.

Buffett went on to explain how these consultants simply make outsized pay in any industry the norm by ratcheting up the average, so that all executives in a given “peer group” have to get what everyone else gets:

Lawsuits from tragedy, ubiquitous security cameras, and IRS torpor

Steven Brill
Apr 23, 2013 10:28 UTC

1. Does awful luck always have to mean a lawsuit?

As Alison Frankel reported in her Thomson Reuters litigation column, last week a federal judge in Colorado refused to dismiss a suit brought by victims of the movie massacre in Aurora, Colorado against Cinemark, the theater chain that owned the Aurora venue.

The judge, as Frankel reports, wrote in his decision that “his first reaction to suits against Cinemark was, ‘How could a theater be expected to prevent something like this.’” But he went on to rule, according to Frankel, that:

[V]ictims should be allowed to probe exactly what Cinemark knew about past criminal activities at the Aurora theater (which had been the site of occasional gang-related violence), what it should have known about the risk of shootings, and what informed its decisions about safety and security for moviegoers. Holmes [the alleged shooter], after all, apparently made more than one trip from the theater to his car, where he had stored weapons and ammunition, and each time returned to the theater via a door he had propped open. “This took an extended period of time, but he was not monitored, deterred or contacted by theater personnel,” the judge said. [Judge] Jackson also noted that the theater didn’t bring in security guards for the midnight Batman premiere, even though it often hired security on the weekends.

A New York Times home run, piggyback journalism, and hospital TV ads

Steven Brill
Apr 16, 2013 10:55 UTC

1.   The Times hits a home run in the Bronx:

This item comes under the category of stories I loved seeing. On Sunday the New York Times did a front pager (continued on two full pages inside) by veteran reporter William Glaberson on the collapse of the criminal courts in the Bronx that was about as close to perfection in execution and impact as journalism can get.

Glaberson’s chronicle of epic incompetence and sheer laziness among the judges, prosecutors and just about everyone else mixed mountains of impressive data (endless delays, startlingly low conviction rates) with the kind of personal stories that give the data indelible meaning: A murder defendant who was held in jail for nearly four years before being acquitted recounts how court officers, lawyers and prosecutors would be “laughing and giggling” while they scheduled postponement after postponement, ignoring him so completely that he “felt almost invisible inside the courtroom.” There’s a running narrative, artfully sprinkled in italics throughout the piece, of the agony of the family of a murdered bodega proprietor that is forced to wait five years for the accused killer to come to trial, only to have to face a new trial later this year because stale evidence and the witnesses’ foggy memories resulted in a hung jury.

When a reporter uncovers almost unbelievable data about a system failing, he’s doing a terrific job. When he then ties it this way to real people, he creates a reading experience that is unforgettable. Imagine igniting water cooler conversation about the Bronx criminal justice system rather than Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy. Glaberson did that.

The revealing Rutgers report, job number revisions, and Trayvon, Inc

Steven Brill
Apr 9, 2013 11:05 UTC

1. The Rutgers basketball coach scandal as a window on NCAA sports:

Some of the stories about the firing of Rutgers basketball coach Michael Rice after a video of him abusing his players in practice was aired on ESPN referred to a 50 page report the university commissioned from an outside lawyer after the videos were first brought to school administrators’ attention. It’s this report that provided the rationale for the school initially to suspend and fine Rice but not dismiss him.

For reporters and columnists (like the New York Times’ Joe Nocera) who have been highlighting how the NCAA has become a profit machine that abuses its unpaid players, the report is worth diving into. It presents an amazingly candid, and grim, view of college athletics, and it would be great to get university presidents far and wide on the record commenting about it.

The report — written by John P. Lacey, the outside lawyer whose firm conducted the investigation — describes the offensive scenes shown on the videos and declares that it is “not acceptable for any coach at any time in a university setting to refer to players using curse words accompanied by slang and derogatory references to homosexuals such as “fags” or “faggots,” etc.” So far, so good. But here’s how the report, whose recommendations the Rutgers administration fully accepted, rationalized not jettisoning Rice:

Steve Cohen’s frustrated PR machine; unlikely lobbyists; and the $600 million train station

Steven Brill
Apr 2, 2013 11:30 UTC

1. Inside Steven Cohen’s frustrated PR machine:

Steven Cohen, the billionaire who is widely reported to be the ultimate target of prosecutors investigating insider trading at his hedge fund, has to be either crazy-reckless or supremely confident of his innocence. Either way, the master-of-the-universe buying spree he went on last week must make him the ultimate nightmare for the savvy financial PR firm that represents him, Sard Verbinnen &Co.

On the heels of a proposed $616 million insider trading civil settlement with the SEC – which a federal judge last week said he was skeptical about approving because Cohen’s firm admitted no wrong-doing, and which prosecutors have taken pains to point out does not end their criminal investigation – Cohen made headlines last Monday by buying a Picasso for $155 million. The next day he got still more ink, this time for snagging a place in the Hamptons for $60 million down the road from an estate he already owns there.

That’s hardly the kind of keep-your-head-down behavior one might expect from someone trying to hold prosecutors at bay and soften public calls for his beheading. When a longtime top deputy was marched out of his Park Avenue coop early Friday morning after being arrested by the FBI, the bulls-eye on Cohen became that much more obvious and made his over-the-top buying spree that much more bizarre.

Obamacare and hospital costs; sourcing Leno stories; and firing civil servants

Steven Brill
Mar 26, 2013 10:50 UTC

1.  Obama administration malingers on hospital bill collecting abuses:

Here’s a compelling story for any reporter who wants to shine light on a failure of basic competence – or maybe it’s backbone – by the Obama administration on an issue that affects millions of middle class and poor Americans and that was supposed to be the president’s number one priority.

In the article about healthcare prices that I wrote last month for TIME, I reported that supposedly non-profit hospitals not only charge ridiculously inflated prices (from a price list called the chargemaster) to people who are uninsured or underinsured, but they also routinely sue and demand that those full prices be paid. It’s a prime reason medical bills are the cause of more than 60% of personal bankruptcies and even more demolished credit ratings across the country.

However, one of the little-noticed provisions of Obamacare, which was passed three years ago this week, requires that non-profit hospitals, as a condition of keeping their tax exempt status, must adhere to rules to be promulgated by the IRS that would, among other things, not allow them to send bill collectors or lawyers after patients except under certain conditions. Those conditions include that the patients first be informed through aggressive outreach efforts of the availability of financial aid for patients unable to afford the bills and, more important, that for patients whose incomes are below certain levels, hospitals can only dun them or sue them for the discounted amounts they usually charge insurance companies, rather than the far higher chargemaster prices.

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?

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