Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

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.

So, while the straight news stories about these purchases or about the ongoing investigation are fine, I’d like to read something about whether this guy is crazy, and about what his PR people at Sard Verbinnen – who’ve represented such villains-of-the-moment as Martha Stewart and former Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld – have been telling him about this kamikaze behavior.

Could Cohen be so deluded that he thought that the purchases – which were destined to become highly publicized because of their size and which Cohen’s PR people made no effort to hide – would provide “What-me-worry?” reassurance to his investors or be an intimidating display of strength to the prosecutors? I’d pay a lot for the video rights to whatever discussions Cohen had about all of this with the Sard Verbinnen team, but I’ll settle for a print story with some leaks of the conversations.

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.

Ad technolology that may threaten newspapers; winners and losers of the fiscal cliff

Steven Brill
Nov 20, 2012 12:51 UTC

1. Another threat to newspapers’ business models?

This article in the New York Times last Friday and this one in the National Journal pinpoint two important developments in the media business that could collide to pose yet another threat to the financial viability of journalism.

The Times article describes the rise of “programmatic advertising,” in which new online tracking technologies allow an advertiser to follow a consumer whose profile fits the advertiser’s targeted demographics wherever the consumer goes online rather than just make an educated guess about the websites that consumer is most likely to visit.

Before programmatic advertising, if an upscale restaurant chain decided that its best prospects were well-to-do men who live in major metropolitan areas and travel a lot, it might buy ads in the business sections of high-end newspapers or on business travel sites. Now the restaurant chain can follow those targeted people to any website they visit. It doesn’t have to buy ads on the sites where the target is most likely to be found but can instead simply bid on an electronic ad exchange to buy the cheapest ad that will reach someone with those demographics no matter where he or she goes (a gossip site, for example).

Questions for Ryan, working for welfare, updates on Olbermann and Facebook

Steven Brill
Aug 14, 2012 12:26 UTC

1.   Quick questions for Paul Ryan:

It’s too bad Bob Schieffer didn’t get to these questions for Paul Ryan on 60 Minutes last Sunday night:

Have you calculated how much the average American enrolled in Social Security would have lost in the 2008-2009 market collapse if he or she had been allowed to move those funds into private stock accounts, as your 2004 Social Security privatization plan would have encouraged? Does that change your view of whether we should move Social Security in that direction?

In his recent profile of you in the New Yorker Ryan Lizza says you were “embarrassed” by the Bush years and by the votes you cast in support of deficit-widening programs such as the extension of Medicare to cover prescription drugs. Which votes, including that one, would you take back? And, more important, would you now urge a President Romney to move to repeal prescription drug coverage if you are elected?

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.

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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