Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

Sealing deadly court files, and Obama and his Cabinet

Steven Brill
Apr 15, 2014 04:44 UTC

1. Sealing deadly court files:

In the wake of continuing disclosures about General Motors’ failure to acknowledge critical safety issues related to faulty ignition switches, there’s a looming issue that has not been addressed: How litigation settlements negotiated by private parties can result in court-sanctioned cover-ups that endanger the public.

We now know that there were several cases in which the families of people who died in crashes after ignition switches failed quietly received cash settlements from GM.

In return for the cash, the plaintiffs not only promised to withhold the settlement details but also agreed with GM that the court files would be sealed. In some cases, those sealed records included documents and transcripts of pre-trial deposition testimony that contained evidence gathered about the dangers of the faulty switches.

As this editorial in USA Today points out, “Outrageous as it sounds, such secrecy is routine. Powerful companies and institutions regularly suppress information about public risks, ranging from incompetent doctors to abusive priests to defective products.”

One reason the secrecy is “routine” is that both parties involved benefit. The plaintiff — and the plaintiffs’ lawyers — get a quick cash payout. The defendant gets the case killed without the bad publicity and the wave of suits that could come from a public trial, let alone an adverse jury verdict.

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?

Spotlight on Bain, Obama’s billion, and immigration madness

Steven Brill
Jan 3, 2012 13:20 UTC

1. Bain in the spotlight:

Private equity firms like to be, uh, private. With the exception of mega-firms like Blackstone, Carlyle and KKR, we rarely read about them, and even in those cases the ink is typically confined to the business pages. However, as it become increasingly likely that the founder of Bain Capital is going to be the Republican presidential nominee, a bright spotlight is likely to turn on Bain.

A smart story about Bain — which is one of the most successful, hardest driving firms in the industry — would start with the culture and business strategies Romney tried to instill as its founder. What kind of reputation did the firm have (and does it now have) for how it behaves at the deal table? Is its handshake good? Does it push too hard, or not hard enough? Are there certain types of businesses that it has avoided for strategic or civic reasons, such as tobacco companies? Did it and does it have any distinctive characteristics when it comes to minority hiring, treatment of women, and  charitable, civic or public service activities? (I’m thinking about that because of Romney’s own record, he says, of tithing 10% of his annual income.)

Does Bain have any especially aggressive policies with regard to tax avoidance or labor relations when it comes to the companies it controls? Are there any issues related to the sources of its funds, such as taking money from sovereign funds of rogue countries? Have any limited partner investors ever sued? If so, for what? (I doubt this is a sore spot, because from what I’ve heard its results have been good and its investors happy.)

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